Crushing dreams for being realistic?

We all have dreams. A better life. Being thinner, richer. Sometimes material things. Sometimes something else. Hopefully though we all have a way to balance our dreams with the real world and not spend life wallowing in regrets.

When I look back at my life I see that many of my dreams never materialized through either my own poor judgement or circumstances, but I don’t let it bother me. Much more than a twinge…and then I move on. I’ve been lucky enough to have two careers that totally absorbed me. Three girls who have grown into women I could never have imagined…like me they forged their own paths. And a husband who is so much a part of me that I can’t imagine life without him.

Enough about me though…here’s the rub. How do you explain to the upcoming generation how to balance reality with dreams?

I’m a cheerleader for our young people. Volunteer with high school and college age students, nudging them to excel. Mentoring more young people via the Internet, again nudging them to think about their choices. And I like to think I’ve never told a young person that they can’t do something. All things are possible. If they prepare themselves.

Now in the case of the high school students my advice is primarily take the right courses and focus on passing with a good enough grade they can move on to college and a career. In some cases I’ve actually told students they can flunk. Harsh? If you take a student who has flunked English or math or science from middle school forward pep talks don’t work. Tutoring can help but not with every student, especially if their life and home situations place barriers to becoming better. So I give them permission to flunk with the following advice.

Sure – flunk English. But you want to be an auto mechanic (or warehouseman…or beautician)? Then learn how to write a solid resume, learn how to write a business letter. Pick up a good solid workplace vocabulary…know the language of the career path you have chosen.

Sure – flunk math. But learn how to add up services and products to write a receipt. Don’t forget to include tax (a percentage of the total). Know how to write an estimate for repairs. Understand how to read your paycheck…not just the total or amount after taxes. Have a handle on all those niggling little details like FICA and state and Medicare (how big a bite those deductions take out of your hard earned money).

And now. On to college.

There are students who you know just naturally are gonna make it. They may struggle with this course or that course but they are willing to give it their best shot. Take the core hard classes and go into class with the intent not just of passing but learning. I am very proud to be acquainted with a number of these golden youth.

And then there are … the others. Those with a dream, but unwilling to be realistic. Those who just know they are going to be great but are unwilling to put in the time and effort to pay their dues at the bottom in order to earn their way slowly up the ladder to success. (Success by the way, as defined by me, is not money…but happiness in both your career and life paths.)

I run into them both on campus and the Internet. Had a discussion with a young man from India (much) earlier this morning. He tried to join a professional site I moderate which doesn’t allow students…after explaining that to him, he told me he really wanted to learn how to be a travel journalist…and after more probing, a travel cameraman. One – he is studying to be an engineer. He has no background of any kind in any phase of journalism. Not insurmountable, but his dreams are not going to happen soon.

And then more…he desperately wants to get away from home (and possibly his down-to-earth parents), travel to a foreign county (Europe or the US) and go to journalism school. And become a glamorous travel journalist/cameraman.

The implication that all a cameraman does is point and shoot. Anyone can do it. I heard that so many times over the years from folks with a home handycam…”Hey, I’ve got a Sony too. Bet I can do your job. How to I apply?”

Not. Gonna. Happen.

So more guiding…and explaining the complexity of the job. Shooting, research, scheduling, logging, transcribing, writing, logging, editing…all with the intent to pop out a concise visual story. He is much subdued but listening to the advice to consider going into engineering and working on his passion weekends. A paying job and a dream to work towards.

Meanwhile the on-campus students. The students who don’t “do” tripods. Or want to know manual controls. Just pick up a camera and wave it. Or sit in front of said camera (maybe with a shaky friend holding it) and pretend to be a celebrity interviewer. Forget about light, audio, exposure, sequencing, framing, writing, editing. It’s all in the moment.

Unfortunately that moment isn’t even their fifteen minutes of stardom. It is a momentary flash seen only by themselves and a few friends.

Yeah…the terminal termagant is crabbing today. Again…I never tell students they can’t. But also never lie to them and say they can…

Dreams are flights of hope and passion…but making them real takes dedication and work.

Afterthoughts added later…
Getting into a job as a videojournalist takes time and talent and work and to some extent luck. My crabbiness comes from seeing and listening to young people who think “anyone can do it”. Truth be told, anyone CAN do it. But to do it professionally (for pay) and in a style that compells people to actually WANT to watch you work (meanings strangers, not just friends and those who love you) takes more than a shaky hand, a dream, and being clueless.
And the journalist part is just as challenging. Knowing and understanding your legal rights. Being able to write in clear, concise English (or whatever language you own). Knowing what facts are and not “expanding” or “enhancing” them to make the story better.
Sure, I was a dreamer once. But I sweated blood and tears some days to even get in the door (which btw was pretty much closed to women in 1972 when I forged out into the work world).
Just remember all you need to do is work until you can’t move, learn until your head hurts, and aim for perfection.
Now that’s not too hard, is it?


The Studio Assignment


With the studio really up and running, I want to expand the possibilities. Last spring I gave out an abbreviated form of this lesson – which didn’t quite work cause of technical issues in the control room. This year advanced students will produce a talk show as the major part of their second quarter grade.

I’ve posted the entire assignment on The VJ Classroom and will post the individual forms there soon.

The lesson is meant to teach students

Technology – how to use the control room lights, mikes, cameras, editing
Teamwork – they must collaborate and work together to achieve their goal/grad
Communication – pull all of the elements together to communicate with a targeted audience (which they must define)

And finally – not taught but highly encouraged – creativity. Don’t mimic, don’t go through the motions…have fun and make something new and real. Here are the basics.

• In a four person team, come up with a concept, set design, lighting, show open and close, and invite guests to appear on a (shot as live) talk show.
• Must have show open and close and an insert segment that contributes to the mood/theme of the show
• Possible themes could be sports, politics, teen issues, music, performing arts, academic subjects, community issues, or one suggested by your team.

The teams each have four students, each of whom has an assigned roll in each stage of production.

The show must run between five to ten minutes. I’m allowing about seven weeks to create this show…it has to fit into the schedule of daily taping of the Daily Bulletin, which will alternate this quarter between second and fourth periods. Additionally advanced students will have other assignments as they arise.

The rubic takes into account procrastination – there are a series of mini-deadlines that must be met so I know they are not putting off the inevitable. They are also (very) responsible for keeping a paper trail…a folder with all production paperwork including scripts, production forms, etc.

Let’s see how this plays out.

Stacking the studio show…

Audiences love both novelty and familiarity. They want consistency, but also look forward to change.

Here’s how to make these opposites work.

The consistency/familiarity are the format of the show. Have a recognizable format. Here’s mine:

One minute bars/ten second countdown (not part of the show/professional requirement)
Show open
Anchor intros
Pledge of Allegiance or Patriotic Moment
More announcements
Anchor farewells

The audience knows they will get a consistent product each day. They know when to watch (for sports, Patriotic Moment, credits) and when they can tune out (I hope not).

The variables include:

Show open – each week I change out an anchor. We shoot the new anchor and include them AND the entire crew in the show opening.
Each day we are required to either have the student body pledge the flag OR recognize a historical fact or current event that contributes to student knowledge/understanding of our country.
Pledge of Allegiance – run at least once a week. We broke the Pledge down in to separate phrases and had different students/groups of students each recite a phrase. I plan to keep changing out parts of the Pledge every month to include new students.
Patriotic Moment – produced by students. Students are required to use to find an interesting fact each day and then they must research it, write a short script, find (copyright free/open source) visuals and then produce a :30-1:00 narrated segment.
Sports – anchors read script while scrolling credits roll with duplicate information (sport/date/time/opponent).
Credits – this is where I hook my audience. We change this daily and tease it at the top of each day’s show. My goal is that every student on campus can say at least once a week, “I was in the credits” or “I know someone who was in the credits.” Credits run :30-1:00 and have included animations by my students, an English field trip to “West Side Story,” stills of the cross country team, video of finals in a French class (focus was on food of France and food was served), a male beauty pageant.

Staff tells me that students look forward to the daily announcements now and still (relatively) quietly while they are on.

So when you get your show up and running…remember to break it into manageable segments and remember also that your audience wants to be included. Personally I feel that one reason the news media may be in trouble today (and this is only one of the reasons) is that they have disconnected with their audience. Regional and national news do not serve local audiences…and unless the regional or national news impacts a local audience, they will tune out.

Basic studio setup…

I will admit I’m blessed with a pretty sweet setup at my high school. The TV studio was actually (somewhat) planned and built for a purpose – to be used to teach broadcasting/multimedia and to produce a daily program.

So the configuration works. There’s the studio floor and the control room. We have more gear than necessary for a basic show (ignore my occasional whining…).

But what if you’re just getting started and you have to work in a space not designed for studio production?

I’ve seen “studios” that were almost as low-end as you can get and still get a show out. Sheets hung from the wall in a long narrow room with one camera shooting directly to tape using the built-in camera mike. And yes, that works. Skills learned include teamwork, directing, script reading, eye contact. I would never scoff at those with less than me if they do the best with what they’ve got.

But let’s assume you want to move up in the world a little. Play with two cameras and real clip-on or desktop mikes. You can make this work without a switcher or audio board…I did for a few weeks when our switcher went down.

Just work with your camerafolk so they know who is shooting what at what point in the script. You could start with camera one on a two shot, then go to camera two on one anchor…while that anchor is reading, have camera one go in for a one-shot on the other anchor. Edit the two tapes together, add in titles, FX, etc.

Want to add more? Again, I am lucky to have a studio com (communications) system so that the director in the control room can communicate with the floor director and floor camerafolks.

A cheap alternative might be some two-way radios with headsets so that the “director” (who may just be in the back of the room with a script) can “talk” to the floor crew.

Moving up the scale again. Lights. (Thank you LUSD for my light grid.) Room lights are okay…but with a fairly low cash outlay you can add some light for a more professional look.

Here’s three ideas, in order of cost. Go to your local feed store or hardware store and find one of those cheap scoop tin lights – we use them in the shop or for heat for baby chicks. You can put up to a 100 watt bulb in them and they clamp on to anything. Around $9-$15.

Next up – shop lights on stands (or clamps)…probably around $35-45 or so. They’re nice for the younger set cause they come with a screen to keep hands away from the hot area…you can cut the screens out with wirecutters if you don’t want the pattern they make. Low and high level settings and pretty balanced light. Only problem is they can’t go much higher than three feet.

Finally…getting into pro lights. If I were to go buy a kit, I’d avoid the scoop light kits altogether (why not just buy from the feed store for a lot less) and go straight to lights with focus (spot to broad) and more light (250-1,000 watt).

Gotta run for now…but back later with the rest of how to get your studio set up…

Okay…went through the relatively simple stuff. Hopefully for the rest you have cameras that will work.
Audio – right up there with video as part of studio needs. Don’t make your audience struggle to hear information. So your cameras must have mike inputs OR you need a way to feed audio from the studio floor into your “control room” (or equivalent) mixer or switcher.

Mixer – takes two or more audio sources and allows you to set levels for each so that they are matched.
Switcher – generally refers to a video (or audio/video) switcher that allows you to choose from a variety of sources…cameras, tape decks, DVD players. When you switcher video, the matched audio follows.

At this point in the game you should start looking at what you’ve got and what you need for a very basic control room. This includes:

A switcher
Two (or more) cameras
Record/playback deck
Audio mixer
Necessary cables (XLR, RCA, S-VHS, coaxial, etc)

And now you need to be prepared to spend some money. If you get a box setup (like Tricaster) you’ll still need your cameras, mikes, playback decks. If you piece your control room together, you’ll need monitors to track each visual input and a preview/program monitor.

Preview shows you what you’re doing/about to do.
Program shows what you are actually recording.

Choosing a switcher can be a bear. There’s a relatively new toy in the gamebox called “Tricaster.” Broadcast studio in a box – you feed your audio and video cables in and it contains the monitors, switcher, mixer. Costs begin around $3,000 and up. These little boxes are gaining popularity in the broadcast industry too for their simplicity and ease of setup and use.

The other alternative is a separate switcher – my studio boasts a Focus Enhancement MX-4. Now that it’s working properly, it is a dream. We can preview all effects…got the greenscreen up and tested today. Audio feeds through a mixer (mixer takes in two wired mikes, a wireless, DVD player, tape playback) which feeds the audio into the switcher.

Switchers can run the gamut…from $1,000 to the sky.

If you’re new to this, find a reputable company to walk you through the gear, what does what, what connects to what, how they mesh. Ask for a barebones system and then ask for a list of upgrades to get you to your final goal. You don’t have to start with a complete system.

Even though I have most of the goodies I need, my students are currently working only with switching two cameras – for a reason. I’m still working on getting the bugs out. We have on again/off again impedance problems with one of the mike lines. We’re trying to standardize our scripts and instructions for the floor crew. Each week brings new anchors and new crew who need to be trained.

The goal is to start simple and add on challenges every week or month as students gain experience.

Next post: How to format a show that keeps the audience looking forward to more.

Rethinking my position…

We are now officially three weeks into the new school year and I’m looking over the changes I made in how I teach – and rethinking whether I should have done them.

Originally I always started students off with Basic Shots – got the cameras into their hands and them out in the field to shoot seven shots using video. Then they came back and edited using iMovie.

This year I had them shoot some basic composition using stills and then brought into the computer using iPhoto; then pulled into iMovie and edited.

What I’m seeing is that learning two (albeit very basic) programs at the same time has slowed things down immensely. Of course having two classes with forty students each may have something to do with that. Everyone finished the composition assignment – they’ve all moved on to Basic Shots and are having fun with their first real video assignment.

If they retain what they learned about iMovie, they should be able to speed through BS and on to Animation within the week…and then maybe things will be back on a normal schedule. I am seeing better shooting in the Basic Shots assignments…which was my intent when I shoveled composition in front of it.

My two big issues – not enough tripods and ALL of the Eluras now have stripped threads, so we can’t use them with the non-existant tripods. Actually, it balances out pretty well…about seven tripods and seven (older) video cameras. The seniors have the drill – work when there’s gear and kick back and work on other class assignments or chill out or talk with the teacher about video. The freshmen are somewhat confused…they aren’t used to sitting creatively. They’ll learn.

I love my little groupies who have formed teams and sit and encourage and help each other on every assignment…they are bonding and learning more than either of the other two types of teams.

Friday was mellow…once I got the gear checked out, I had time to set up the studio gear and run each class through a quick look-see and hands on session. Monday we start for real. I’ll have a script for the directors so they will know exactly what to say (Quiet on the set! Stand by to tape. In 10-9-8….) to the floor crew. We’ll have copies of the Bulletin for the “anchors” to rehearse with. Only two anchors to start with…will add in the third in a week or so.

Everyone will be REQUIRED to learn every role on the floor crew, control room, anchor desk…and once we start for real they will be required to rotate through every position with the exception of anchor. Yeah – I want the shows to look good and flow smoothly and nothing screws things up worse than a reluctant anchor.

And counting down to September 3 in 10-19-18-17…

Camera and gear management in the classroom…

This topic befuddled me when I first began teaching. I mean, the idea is to have gear for each kid – where did this sharing notion come from?

Well, I’m into my seventh year and I know the drill. Our most precious resource – our children – are in a perpetual state of getting the short end of the stick. I know my class is an elective and not the guts of what they need to know (although the organizational and critical thinking skills they learn are essential to life after high school). But as a newly departed English teacher, I know the essential classes are also feeling more than a pinch.

So – when the concept of shared gear was first presented to me, I faced the dilemna of what to do. Buy a few really good high end cameras so the kids could learn how to use good equipment and have professional results – OR get a bunch of low end cameras that still had the essentials and get gear into as many student hands as possible.

I believe in learning hands-on, so it was a hands-down decision. At my first school the principal had already purchased a beaut of a camera (Sony three chip 900) and he managed to pull together the money to get a series of Canon ZR camcorders.

At my current school after the requisite purchase of the impressive cameras (principals have a thing about impressing folks), I got ten Canon Elura 100s, which have manual controls and mike inputs/headset outputs. This was reduced to 8 with some sticky fingers and no lock on my office door within a year, but now with a security cage and an additional five cameras I picked up on the cheap and two purchased by our Digital Media Club, there are enough for the class.

So – we have cameras. The first year at McNair I got to tripods after getting some essentials to start up the program – and regretted the flimsy ones I got at the last minute. Not one survivor after the first two years.

Now I have five Velbons – four 607s and one older Videomate II.

Mikes – again, I went low-end. Ten dollar Sony stick mikes with mini-jacks to plug into the cameras. As I go along I plan to purchase lav mikes and better quality stick mikes/cables.

Five 20 inch reflectors for basic lighting lessons and later use in the field on stories.

Organizing the students is next. I’ve seen other schools without enough gear share a camera with ten or fifteen students. Lots of book work there and not enough hands-on. I’ve seen less of a stretch with five students to a camera. That means two students are watching most of the time. IF you can cobble together enough cameras (and don’t forget digital still cameras shoot pretty decent video, as do the Flip and Aiptek brands), the ideal seems to be two or three. I’m stuck with three, so that one student is the producer/reporter, one the editor/camera assistant, and one the cameraperson. They are supposed to rotate with assignments, so everyone has a chance to do each.

Regarding checking gear out – KISS. And I mean really simple. I have a composition notebook labeled “GEAR.” On each page is a day and date – when it’s time for students to head into the field, I open the cage and check out gear (or my TA does this) by writing down the name of the student assuming responsibility, the number assigned to the gear (E2 would be Elura 100 #2) or just USB for USB cable/FW for firewire cable, mike for microphone and trpd for tripod. When students return the gear, we just cross out their name and the gear.

At the beginning of the year on the front page of the notebook I make a list of all major gear and its condition, so this year I have Eluras 2-8 (numbers 1 and 9 went missing/presumed stolen) with notes about which ones need a bushing so they can work on tripods, which ones are having tape problems. No note means no problem.

About ten minutes before class ends, I call “TEN!” and ask for cameras to be returned. Five minutes before the bell I call for computer shutdown and for students to be seated. I do a camera count and make teams turn off and clean up around their workstations right before the bell rings – do this often enough and they will clean up automatically. They can’t leave if the station isn’t clean/computer turned off.

If a student’s camera is still downloading/capturing I’ll usually tell them I’ll take over and complete the download and put the gear away when it is done.

I’m always looking for ways to improve…and have heard of folks using index cards and more complex systems, but this seems to work for me right now. And if you’re just starting out, it’ simple enough for you too.

Diving deep for a while…

Obviously I haven’t posted in a while…and it’s gonna be a while longer before I can resurface to do much. The Basics of Videojournalism, my not-quite-an-epic is sucking up all my time. It is taking shape from a core workbook, pages and pages of notes and comments, onto something clearer and cleaner.

In organizing, we are adding more material…as Larry and I perused the posting on backpedding, we realized we needed a chapter on camera and personal safety. The material for the teacher’s edition is growing. We plan to shoot many of the illustrations in early November.

Hopefully I’ll be back by Christmas (please let it be sooner).

Split second training…

The studio is officially up and running at Ronald E. McNair High School. What a challenge. All of the gear was bought nearly four three years ago and it took this long to get the class started and enough interested students to open the control room doors and let them get hands-on with the good stuff.

I like to break my students into teams of three…two would be better, but not enough gear for that. Anything more than three results in one team member not doing much. Each team has a cameraman, interviewer/producer/reporter, and camera assistant/editor. They rotate in these roles.

To run the studio we need three of these teams – this time in the Control Room, working the Floor Crew, and on the Anchor desk.

Control Room crew works under the Director (one of the advanced students). One student runs the Audio Board, one is the Switcher/Assistant Director and the third is the Producer. The latter marks up the daily bulletin so that the Anchors know which segment each is reading. We have two main anchors and a sports anchor. Floor Crew is divided into two cameramen and a Floor Manager.

Nine (sometimes ten) teens all learning to work together. The first day was horrible. Got the Floor Crew on board (how to turn on camera, work safely with tripod on dolly, dressing cable, getting shots). Anchors ditto – the hard part was explaining scripting to the Producer. Control Room crew just played with buttons and switches and we found some errors in cabling from gear into the switcher.

Day Two – the teams who were rotated into training this day had been watching (and getting in the way) the day before. We got all the way up to a partial read-through of the scripts.

Day Three – again, teams observing the past two days training were observant and we actually taped a run-through of the show. Totally amazing.

Nine teens in synch with split second timing – what an accomplishment! And better yet – they knew where the problems were and gave feedback for improvements. Frankly I tried to keep the roles as simple as possible…and their suggestions mirrored the actual duties of production crews.

Let me state publicly that I am proud and honored to work with such a team. Freshmen to seniors; special ed to honors – and they took the stress and made it work for them. Now if I can only teach them to use the mute button on the Comrex.

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