The Digital Journalist

A Platypus Reality Check
Part I

by William Campbell

Two years ago this month, I was among a bunch of cocky newspaper and magazine photographers who found ourselves in Norman, Oklahoma getting the "still" kicked out of our photojournalistic consciousness. We were at the first NPPA Platypus workshop, searching for new ways to tell stories. Maybe video was the answer.

It was an exciting two weeks. There were many long days fumbling with new digital video cameras and late nights trying to edit the mismatch of moving pictures we produced into a 2-minute story. It was a humbling experience. Retooling one's brain from still photography to videojouralism wasn't easy and we all had headaches to prove it.

But we were an enthusiastic group. There were stories to be told and we were assured there were all kinds of outlets in the TV world looking for our mix of stills, video, and thoughtful narratives.

We left Norman ready to kick ass. I returned to the Republic of Montana and depleted my bank account on new digital gear in order to add the videojournalism component to my long-term project of documenting the relationship between humans and wildlife in the northern Rockies.

I dove right into the TV world. In the process, rather than kicking ass, I got my platypus butt kicked from New York to Burbank and back again. How was I to know that as I was spending money on equipment, tape, and time in the field the networks and cable channels were slashing budgets and replacing thoughtful programming with inexpensive filler. I should have had one eye in the viewfinder and other on Wall Street.

Nevertheless I have had some success. Thanks to Rolf Behrens we co-produced a Nightline piece. Along with my magazine work for Time I've managed to produce a number of segments for CNN and a Dateline/Discovery story. This month I start working with the new National Geographic Channel news show "NG Today".

I'm glad I embraced the new technology. Video has kept my project alive. But it's a cruel world out there in TV land. Believe it or not, the budget cuts in TV news and factual programming makes the bleak magazine business look good in comparison.

After a couple of years in the trenches here are my personal Top 10 reality checks for working with DV in the real world:

1 - EMBRACING DV IS NOT A CAREER CHANGE - Buying a DV camera and learning how to use it can augment your photojournalism but it won't give you a new job as a documentary filmmaker. A newspaper photographer who can shoot video might get some longer assignments if the paper wants to run video on the web. Magazine photogs who shoot DV might be able to collaborate with various TV programs to help produce a show that corresponds to your still project.

Keep in mind that four years ago using DV was unique. Today there are thousands of budding filmmakers buying cameras and taking workshops. The networks discovered DV cameras a couple of years ago and have been turning them over to their own union shooters with great success.

2 - MORE PLACES TO WORK FOR LESS -The use of DV in TV production has enabled more to be shot for less. Some program budgets are based on the fact that they can get young shooters using DV cameras to work for as low as $300 per day including the DV camera package. They don't pay extra for quality. So the days and days you spend on your project getting a great narrative might not be financially rewarded when you license the program to a show that has a budget based on $300 a day for camera work.

3 - YOU WON'T WORK FOR THE NETWORKS - Forget the idea of selling yourself and your DV gear as a daily hire camera package to networks for big bucks. Consumer DV is not as good as Beta and they know it. Network camera packages require a high-end Beta camera and a lot of quality audio plus an experienced shooter. Daily hire for a shooter is governed by NABET union rules. If you have a professional DVCAM or DVPRO rig you might find yourself doing some network daily hire. Under union rules you can shoot 20 days before you have to join the union.

Don't think of yourself as a camera package. Shoot for your own project. But if you are working on something that has news or news magazine value get to know the network producer working on the same story. You might be able to "license" some tape to a network show. They may only be able to pay $300 for use of few seconds of tape but that gives you more bucks to pour down the videojournalism rat hole.

4 - YOU CAN'T DO IT YOURSELF - When I took the platypus workshop there was all this talk about personal vision and retaining one's own authorship no matter what the cost. I quickly found that nobody in the TV world cared about my personal vision. They liked the story ideas and they wanted to "collaborate" to produce segments that fit into their shows.

I found these collaborations to be quite pleasant and a good learning experience. When Behrens and I did the Nightline story on the Yellowstone bison they wanted us to work with a correspondent because the story needed a strong reporter's voice. Chris Bury and producer Dan Green flew out to Montana. They were great to work with and helped us tell a good story. Quite frankly I couldn't have done it without the help of Rolf both as a producer and a shooter. I didn't have the experience.

At CNN and Dateline/Discovery I work with a producer and an editor and we go back and forth on the script and the content. They know what they are doing and usually they make the story better.

When it comes to looking to produce a show for one of the cable channels like Discovery or National Geographic you will need to align yourself with a well established production company that has a good track record and the resources to produce a show for TV. This also goes for PBS and all the other networks.

There are a few cables channels out there that will take something offline right from Final Cut Pro but the more established channels require a final online production on an Avid Symphony or Media 100. Those setups cost about $450 an hour.

5 - BE A PRODUCER - As a one-man band you have to be the producer, reporter, and the shooter. As a producer you have to look at the whole project. What is the story? How much will it cost to shoot? You have to collect the reporting you need to back up the facts in your story. If you say in your script "250 people have died of AIDS in this village alone" then you better have documentation to prove it. For non-news shows you need release forms for everything - people and locations.

You need to remind yourself to get certain shots so you can build sequences. One trick I learned in producing my own shows is to get a three ring binder and put all you production material in it. It becomes your production manual. Make a chart of key shots you have and then shots that you need. If you did an interview in an old house make sure to note that you want an exterior of the house and maybe a motivated pan from the street to the house. Check off the shots as you do them.

Once or twice a day put your camera down, grab some coffee, and be a producer. Clip some news items from the local paper that will back up your facts, get the model releases, and go over your shot list.

When you try to pitch your project don't say you are a videojournalist. The sad fact is that although it is the great camera work that makes a show, the producers carry all the weight. If you are leaving a message, introduce yourself as a producer with the "John Doe" project. If that doesn't work try Executive Producer and if that doesn't work become the Senior Executive Producer!

6 - HARD NEWS STORIES DON'T WORK FOR CABLE - You might find yourself covering an extended hard news story. You shoot a lot of cool stuff and think that you have enough for a half hour TV show. Well, who is going to buy the show? Probably nobody. Cable channels don't want shows that are too issue related and dated. They say it depresses the viewers and scares away advertisers.

Look for the little story that tells the big story. A father, a doctor, a volunteer-someone that can take you on a journey through the event that is making news and stay with them after the satellite trucks leave. You might have a story about a person that triumphs over a major disaster that will make an interesting half hour show.

If you are working on a story and there are killer pets in the neighborhood, well, you know what to do. Call Fox and get a commission.

7 - YOU WON'T MAKE ANY MONEY - Not right away unless you know a lot of killer pets. Maybe in the long run you might make enough to pay for your camera and computer but by then they will be obsolete. A few platypi will score. They most likely will be working in Europe where there is more of an appetite for issue related programs, on foreign projects where regular news crews fear to tread or in out-of-the-way places like Montana where large animals with big teeth threaten yuppie families and their golden retrievers.

Look at your project, whatever it is, as a labor of love. It doesn't have to be on national TV to be a success. It could be for a not-for-profit or a community project. You might find the video work you produce within your own community, distributed on VHS and shown on a public access or local PBS, is worth more than any network or cable TV show. Not really but it will make you feel better.

8 - BROADBAND INTERNET - Hey Dirck- We are waiting, waiting, waiting! When it does come there will be so many videojournalists out there that all internet programming will be produced for free as a form of self expression.

9 - AUDIO - I can't begin to tell you how important good clean audio is to video. My biggest mistakes have been thinking the on-camera microphone would work just fine.

Go into every situation listening as well as looking. Put a wireless on your subject for good clean Sound-On-Tape (SOT). Stick a wireless somewhere in a room where there is good natural (NAT) sound.

The problem with the small DV cameras, even the XL-1, is it is hard to control and acquire really good audio. That's why the networks still use Betacams. I often find myself lugging around my big DSR-300 just because I want to use the audio features. You can get good audio with the consumer DV cameras but you will have to work at it. Audio can make or break a video project.

10 - OUR VIDEO SUCKS - Sorry, but it's true. It takes a long time to become a really good video shooter. Coming from a still background we have an excellent start with a feel for composition. Our journalism skills can help us be in the right place at the right time. But shooting great video takes a lot of practice and a lot of thought. Our video will have it's moments but at the end of the day it is what we didn't shoot that shows just how good we are.

I have the privilege of working with a great editor at CNN. He is a patient and pleasant guy. I get nice emails with questions like "Was there another tape with some wide shots?" Once I thought it would be really creative to shoot an important interview in a 60-Minutes style. Really tight on the face. It didn't occur to me that the title fonts for her name would end up looking like a piece of gaffer tape across her mouth. I got a not so nice email from the executive producer on that one.

If you watch someone like Darrell Barton or Rolf Behrens they are as one with their video cameras as we are with our Leicas. They motivate pans, they automatically get action-reaction and close-ups. Sometimes they do it on one 30-minute tape.

When it comes time to edit they have produced all the material an editor needs to put together a good story. Plapti, on the other hand, tend to produce tens of hours of exuberant cinema verite that drive editors crazy. Our shooting ratio is usually 10 to 1 rather than a professional's 3 to 1.

So we have to practice. Go into a simple situation at home with camera rolling. Happy wife or husband feeding the dog is a good practice session. The dog is excited. Why? CLOSE-UP of a $4 can of gourmet dog food. Cheerful husband /wife. SOT "Oh, you're such a good boy." Go to where it's not - an empty bowl. Food scooped out of can. Wide shot of wife/husband over dog bowl. SOT "Wait, wait. OK." MEDIUM-SHOT - waggling tail. Etc, etc. Practice this day after day until the dog is big and fat and your wife or husband is not so cheerful anymore. Get it down so you get 15 ten-second shots that you can sequence.

Remember the more we shoot the better we get and the better we get the more frustrated we get. It's a vicious circle. Just like working as a still photojournalist.

As a producer I now have to write a budget for a 6-minute TV segment. The first thing I'll do is screw the cameraman (me) and then nickel and dime the reporter/researcher (my wife) hoping that in the end there will be enough left to feed the president of our production company (our dog).

Videojournalism is wonderful but don't give up your day job.

- William Campbell

Read Chris Battey's follow-up, Part II


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