Amy Bowers TV Talk

If It Quacks Like a Dolphin

"It's so beautiful here, we're all in bliss," said David Snider, from the Platypus Workshop's new location on the Southern California coast.

The three best things about the digital video storytelling workshop for still photographers were: location, location, and location.

Dolphins played in the waves at Ventura Beach, surfers bobbed in the soup and a guy with a white poodle jogged by. At 7AM, surfboard maker Steve Walden carried his board across the sand. Platypus participant Bruce Strong videotaped a sequence with Walden, then went for a breakfast burrito with workshop partner Jake Ford.

If this sunny scene were the only benefit of holding the Platypus Workshop in California, it would have been enough. But there was also location and location.

The new Ventura campus of the Brooks Institute of Photography couldn't be better. The Plats were taught in a quiet classroom, worked in edit bays in a large room comfortable space, and relaxed in a courtyard graced with a fountain and lounge chairs. Across the parking lot they could check out the Sound Stage where the film "Erin Brokovich" was shot. Jim McNay, director of visual journalism at Brooks, provided "care and feeding" for 28 participants and 5 faculty. When he sent out for dinner, the Platypii dined on pizza with roasted sausage, shitake mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, broccoli, and tostada toppings (don't ask). The Pierpoint Inn & Racquet Club provided the digs, nice ones.

The location, just south of Santa Barbara, was rich in subjects for the video assignments. Unlike previous workshops in March in Norman Oklahoma, on a campus abandoned during spring break, the area was filled with art studios, acrobats and industrial areas that housed interesting characters and commerce.

One such business attracted the "Strong-Ford" team. Jake Ford, a student at BYU University, Hawaii, found the shop of Steve Walden, known to surfers for his custom boards. Ford and Strong wandered into the sun-splashed metal warehouse typical of businesses in Ventura Beach, and introduced themselves to Walden, an easy-going but hard-working wave-maven.

Applying techniques taught in presentations by Dirck Halstead and PF Bentley, Strong looked around Walden Surfboards before shooting anything. He asked Walden what he'd be doing that day and scouted the work areas. Satisfied that the story elements were there, Bruce looked for a quiet place to shoot an interview. He selected a small metal out-building that had nice available light and a background that was descriptive but not distracting. Concerned that Jake's familiarity with surfboards could lead to a jargon-filled conversation, Bruce decided to conduct the interview and let Jake shoot.

It was a good idea. Interviewing wasn't really that much of a stretch for Bruce, who connects with his subjects in his still work for the Orange County Register. Steve Walden talked about his surfboards, his customers, his personal history and his love of surfing.

Next, the video team shot sequences of Steve "shaping" a board. Bruce worked his shot selection: wide shot, close-up, different close-up, medium, reverse. He shot scrapbook photos of Walden, and arranged to meet Steve at the beach the next morning. Before the burritos plates were washed, Bruce and Jake were in the edit bay, learning to use the Final Cut Pro edit software. That evening, they cut their footage into a one-minute piece.

This year the workshop was streamlined by using simpler cameras requiring less training time. Although some had never picked up a video camera, the "shoot-and-edit" students quickly learned basic operation of the 3-chip mini DV (digital video) Canon GL1. Michael Cutler, of Canon USA in Irvine, California, provided tech support for the fifteen shooters and their "producer" teammates. Final Cut Pro edit software and G4 computers were available in the Brooks' Digital Video Editing Lab.

There are lots of classes that teach video production, but Bruce Strong chose Platypus because it's designed specifically for still photographers. "Bruce Strong had been asking for three years, to go," said Marcia Prouse, Director of Photography at the Orange County Register, circ. 325,000, a flagship paper in the Freedom newspaper group. Strong, a staff photographer at The Register for ten years, spent last year as a Michigan Journalism Fellow and has a book to his credit with his wife Claudia, "Armenia: The Story of a Place in Essays & Images."

Marcia Prouse isn't certain how and when video will be used at the Register, but predicts her staff will not shoot both stills and video at the same time. The Register, says Prouse, is known for its visual quality (staffers are seldom given more than two assignments a day) and management will need to allocate its resources to keep that quality in both stills and video without increasing the staff. For those photographers who want the opportunity to interview and report, "I believe in photographers being empowered," says Prouse. She hopes that Strong, a leader in his department, will be instrumental in training enough photographers to shoot video on breaking news plus features.

Ken Brusic, Head of Content for Freedom Orange County Information group, confirms Prouse's enthusiasm. Brusic says the Register was an early convert to digital imaging prompting a "near revolt in the newsroom." Today the paper is 95% digital and is building its business as an information company. It has a website and a portal. Daily news has a short shelf-life, but the research and databases behind the paper edition can be marketed, according to Brusic. Information already collected for the papers and magazines will be a commodity for Freedom Group.

"I've been to a lot of newspaper conventions," says Brusic. He acknowledges that industry is weathering tough times, but expects to "turn that around and look at the opportunities." The Orange County readership is a changing demographic. As it shifts from all white to significantly Hispanic and Asian, Freedom group will concentrate on identifying the needs of its readers. The Register will address those needs, in print and online, and in stand-alone information booklets, says Brusic. Revenue from partnerships will extend to "almost anything you can think of."

When that revenue starts streaming, says Dirck Halstead, and "that pipeline finally opens, the market for personal storytelling will take off." Halstead has made a career of training and nurturing established photographers like David and Peter Turnley, Don Doll SJ, PF Bentley, and David Snider, all of whom went on to produce programs for Nightline on ABC News.

Faculty member PF Bentley, known for his expressive insider photography on Capitol Hill, screened two cuts of the Tom Daschle story he produced for Nightline. The Nightline cut was reported by correspondent Chris Bury. PF's personal cut was told without narrator or reporter.

Not all Platypii produce for Big Time Television. Faculty member Roger Richards, graduate of the 1999 workshop and Washington Times veteran, is based in Newport News, Virginia. In an evening presentation at Brooks, he told workshop participants, "Think small, think forward." His Digital Filmmaker site showcases his beautiful videos "Seven Lilies" and "Sarajevo Roses" shot in the Balkans. Richards encourages photojournalists to make videos that are short enough to stream. If you stream them, they will come?

David Snider is a shooter and storyteller, a kid with a video camera, a photographer with a voice. First comes his vision, later comes television. Snider said his interest in people led to a handful of shows for Nightline and several works in progress. He screened a story about a baseball program for children in the Dominican Republic. In one scene, a coach explains that a group of girls asked if they could play. The coach says he told them he might develop a program the following year. The girls, says the coach, persisted: How about tomorrow? Cut to: an enormous group of girls, laughing, walking chatting across a field. Voice over, by coach, "The next day, 350 girls showed up." The coaches use Snider's baseball show as a fundraising video. David says he'll work on another cut and market it.

Snider's other work in progress is the story of a boxer named Beethavean Scottland. Using a digital video camera lent to him by Dirck Halstead, he shot tape of Bee in 1997. Four years later, the same boxer was knocked unconscious in the ring and died of his injuries. David contributed his extraordinary footage, including an interview with Bee predicting his own death in the ring, and helped produce a Nightline story reported by Dave Marash. Snider continues to work on his expanded version of the story.

After the 2002 workshop at Brooks, Snider wrote, "this workshop was the best we've ever done. The vibe was great and lots of hard work resulted in 15 shooters with finished pieces in Final Cut Pro. We were astonished at how good everything went. We also had demonstrations and discussions on video lighting for interviews, equipment choices, ethics, web compression, and making a living out of this."

Fifteen photojournalists and their partners were released into the world. As usual, no one knows where and how they'll apply their talent. As always, it will expand into the world, on the web, over the cable and through the woods. Stay tuned.

Amy Bowers
Contributing Writer

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