Who Needs the Platypus Workshop?
September 2008

by Chip East

The questions hit me like a ton of bricks and, honestly, I wasn't ready to answer.

"Why do you want to become a video journalist? Why do you want to learn video journalism?"

I was being interviewed by classmate Bill Putnam on the night before we were going to shoot our final project at the Platypus Workshop.

PF Bentley teaches students at the Maine Platypus Workshop.
by Dirck Halstead

Three of my classmates and I were staying at the same motel, and we had set up all our gear to practice our technical and interview skills, to try everything out and make sure we were ready for the last, big day.

Flippantly, I replied to Bill: "I'm not sure that I do."

"Why are you unconvinced?" he shot back at me.

Really, all I could think was there is a brave new world of challenges and troubles out there for still photographers. Take layoffs, cutbacks, newspaper closings and a huge drop in advertising revenue, just for starters. Add to that fewer staff jobs, scarcer freelance jobs, day rates that haven't risen in years and every possible expense going up.

How prepared are you? Have you diversified, added new clients, expanded into new types of work? How about a little continuing education?

by Joan Gramatte

Waiting for a news conference to start this week, I was catching up with a video-shooting colleague I have known for years and I said, "I just got back from an amazing workshop, where I was cross-trained to shoot video."

My friend paused for a moment and said, "You've got a good eye. This sounds like a good thing for you to do. Once you learn the sequencing, you'll really do well."

Wow, a TV guy welcoming me?!? It's a brave new world indeed.

But back to Bill Putnam's questions.

"Do you see yourself doing projects that are solely video?"

That's scary, a concept I had not even considered, not given a moment's thought, even during the first half of the Platypus Workshop. I was too busy taking notes on the mechanics of the camera, microphones, lighting techniques, wide/medium/tight/POV, oh, and Final Cut Pro.

As a still photographer, you have trained yourself over the years to be able to pick up your camera, run out the door to cover breaking news and come back with the picture. There's a calm that comes over you when all hell's breaking loose, and you make great frames you didn't even know were on the card until you edit. It all becomes second nature. It had better be, or you won't be in this job for long.

I love hard news, but the thought of lugging a tripod, setting up the video camera, getting it level, setting a white balance, checking the audio, getting an establishing shot, a medium shot, a tight shot, maybe a point-of-view angle, all while keeping aware of the situation and looking for the next image, seemed foreign to me.

Why? Because I just haven't practiced enough in this medium.

Sure, I bought my first video camera 10 months ago. I lugged it to Thanksgiving and Christmas with the family. I even took it on vacation with my wife. (BIG mistake. Note to all you guys and gals out there: You know how long we spend making a photo on vacation, a sunset or nice feature, trying to make it just right? Video takes five times longer, and it doesn't take long before you glance over your shoulder to see your kind and loving wife with her hands on her hips giving you the glare.)

None of this casual use had remotely prepared me for what I was about to learn at Platypus.

With video, there are lots of rules. I know what makes a good still image, and I feel comfortable there. But video, did I mention there are LOTS of rules?

When I went out for one exercise assignment, I decided to push myself, make it harder, take it to a new level. Another big mistake. I sat in fear as everyone in the class presented their raw footage. If Dirck and PF thought we had all the necessary parts, we got to move on to the editing phase.

I showed mine, and Dirck's words were direct: "I'm going to do you a favor and make you go back out and do it again."

I failed?!? WTF? Ouch!

I tried to defend my idea, but when it came down to it, I hadn't followed all the rules. Yet it was okay. Half the class failed along with me and, according to the teaching assistants, we did better than the previous class!

All these rules made much more sense later in the week. Reinforcing them early was a way to make us more prepared for the final project. Having to re-shoot the final assignment is not an option.

So when the day came for the final workshop project to be shot, I took every bit of equipment I owned. Lights, still cameras, microphones, cables, chargers, adaptors, a tripod, the list goes on and on. I was careful to set up all the gear correctly and shoot what was needed to tell the story, but in the back of my mind, I was concerned. Was I making frames (oops, footage) that mattered? Would all of it be usable to splice this story together? More importantly, would I do justice to my subject and the time he was willing to put into this project?

I felt like such a newbie.

We've all seen these people, the kid at the press conference this week who had a monopod for his 70-200mm (you know who you are), the guy with the dorky photo vest with every gizmo falling out of the pockets as he bends over, the person who shows up with a camera bag the size of a small car for an assignment in a small space, bumping into everyone as he changes lenses a dozen times. You know the guy.

That was me.

But with VIDEO.

At the time he asked, I answered Bill Putnam's question by saying, "I think right now I find it difficult to see myself doing projects that are solely video because I'm a still photographer. As a photojournalist, I'm very much learning this video medium. It's intriguing, it's different, it's very challenging.

"It's going to take some time to learn how to do video, and I think once we feel more comfortable with it, I'd be more interested in taking this camera as a primary camera. Right now, I still don't have the faith in myself to do that, and so I've got to be able to learn it so that when I go running out the door for breaking news, I feel comfortable enough that I'm going to be able to tell the story successfully, instead of coming back with some jiggly thing (footage) all over the place."

I am growing more comfortable with it every day. Despite September being a hectic month of still assignments, I hope to work on at least two video projects as well. After looking at the final edit for my Platypus assignment, I see lots of things I would have done differently, but that's how we learn. Everyone I have shown it to is really impressed. Amazing, I can shoot video!

We really learned a lot, and the opportunity is there for you to do so as well. I pride myself as a still photographer, and I'll even admit to looking down my nose at the world of video in the past. But with the difficulties in today's economy, it seems more and more apparent how important cross-training is. Since taking the course, I've been analyzing video stories on television, now that I understand what it takes to produce a really good one. (Sorry honey, I know you're getting bored of me talking about A-roll vs. B-Roll.)

Maybe the best thing I learned is how valuable this moving-picture thing really is. I'm no purist snob who only shoots Tri-X in my Leica and refuses boring assignments. In fact, I love nothing more than telling stories. Maybe the Web presents a great place for photojournalists to tell stories in a way we never could in print. Maybe this diversification will not only provide readers with better content, but it might also keep me employed, doing what I love.

Here's how I answered Bill's question in the end:

"If the stories necessitate motion and good sound, then the video camera could tell the story in a way that hopefully readers will be more educated by the outcome. We might be able to tell stories in a better fashion.

"If we can learn how to tell better stories with it, then it means we will be carrying fewer still cameras and fewer lenses, and hopefully become better story-telling journalists all at the same time."

Eureka.... Platypus worked!

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© Chip East

Photojournalist Chip East has been focusing on news and documentary projects for more than 20 years. He has worked across the United States and overseas in the Middle East, Europe and Latin America for clients including Time, Newsweek and National Geographic. Based in New York City, much of his current work is for Reuters, concentrating on daily news.