The Digital Journalist
10 Days in Boot Camp
April 2007

by Larry C. Price

I can tell you precisely when the epiphany occurred. In early October of last year, I noticed an article in The Wall Street Journal that Google had agreed to buy video-hosting site and Gen-X darling for more than $1.5 billion.

"How could this be?" I thought, as I went deeper into the article and cruised some of my favorite blogs. Why anyone would pay that kind of money for a Web site that allowed anyone to post homemade videos for all to see was beyond me. Curious, I pointed my browser to the YouTube URL to try to make sense of all the fuss.

Then it happened: I soon found myself returning to YT over and over. As I explored the strange (to me) new world of serious-to-weird video clips on almost any subject imaginable, quickly became a permanent fixture on my Bookmarks Bar. Soon, I marked other media sites that featured content as far-ranging as Super 8mm film and Discovery Channel video. Along the way, I revisited dozens of sites from familiar turf—print journalism. Newspapers and magazines seemed to be developing video content at a furious pace in an effort to get in on the multimedia game and rack up "hits" on their sites. I was becoming a video junkie, and along the way, noticed a lot of advertising flowing freely on those video Web pages. Suddenly, my day job--a still-photography veteran photojournalist--seemed to come up quite a bit short in comparison to some of the new-wave storytelling techniques I was seeing on the Internet.

TA (teaching assistant) Genevieve Alvarez documented her impressions of the Spring 2007 Platypus Workshop on a blackboard at the Brooks Institute.
I was being seduced by the alchemy between visual narrative, music, and the spoken word that went far beyond the standard picture-on-a-page treatment I had been wedded to for so long. At that moment, I knew I'd stumbled on some solutions to some nagging problems that had plagued my own still photography for so long. By embracing new technology that can economically put the power of Hollywood within anyone's reach, it's possible to transport the viewer to an emotional crescendo few still images have the power to impart. Video storytelling, it seems to me, is a bit like three-dimensional chess. If the Web is the chessboard and videos are the pieces, then the producer can go many directions at once and dazzle the viewer with content. No longer must powerful stories be relegated to a two-dimensional printed page—they can literally speak their message for all the senses to absorb. "Like it or not," I thought, "get your mind around this or find another creative outlet." And so it was I decided then and there to enroll in the 10-day 2007 Platypus Workshop, held this year at the Brooks Institute's Ventura, Calif., campus.

My revelations aside, photojournalism icon Dirck Halstead had his epiphany years ago. As the new century approached, he began thinking about new ways to tell stories. To Dirck it was all very clear: Video journalism is here to stay. Move forward and get ahead of the curve or get out of the way. Web video and audio was already encouraging an amazing transformation in the newspaper industry and Dirck accurately predicted the future: The demand for content that catered to a younger, hip, techno-savvy demographic needed a new paradigm of storytelling and this demand will become insatiable as Internet bandwidth and publications emphasize their Web sites.

Dirck popularized the concept of the Platypus, whose namesake is a strange little egg-laying, duck-billed mammal indigenous to Australia. Its odd habits and adaptability have insured its survival so it was fitting, Dirck thought, to use the Platypus as a mascot and a moniker to describe a new breed of photojournalist that will survive industry change by adapting to new technologies and storytelling methods.

In the mid-'90s, Dirck made it his mission to encourage and preach to a few new converts and in 1999 taught the first Platypus Workshop to 32 freshly converted video disciples. He's still at it eight years and 17 workshops and 175 Platypus graduates later.

Students and faculty of the 17th Platypus Workshop pose for a 'family' photograph on the Mexican village set at Brooks Institute of Photography in Ventura, Calif. March 2007.
After a long day of travel, I arrived at the Brooks campus just in time for the 2007 Platypus Workshop opening reception--poolside buffet supper /meet-and-greet. Dirck introduced the two-dozen students to the other workshop faculty, PF Bentley, a former Time magazine political photographer and Roger Richards, multimedia editor for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.

Introductions around, I was amazed at the number of industry heavyweights in attendance, particularly from newspapers. Multimedia producers, Pulitzer winners, commercial and freelance photographers, and a corporate merchandising executive made for a diverse group. The orientation material made liberal use of military metaphors and words like "boot camp" were tossed about. That first night most of us admitted to being a little nervous about how much material there was to cover in such a short period of time.

Later that night, Dirck and PF reassured – no, guaranteed – us that we would all succeed as he introduced the evening's keynote speaker, David Leeson, executive producer and video guru at The Dallas Morning News. David rocked the group with a riveting presentation of his video work from the Iraq War that earned him a Pulitzer Prize. David ended his presentation with a counterpoint to his hard-core war report by showing a cutting-edge series of video self-portraits presented as frame-grab single images set to edgy, eerie music. Yes, David's pushing the envelope, we all agreed.

Overstimulated, tired, and anxious to begin our marathon adventure, we called it a night as PF urged us to get a good night's rest. The real work would begin in earnest the next morning at 9 a.m. sharp.

PF Bentley teaches the 17th Platypus Workshop at the Brooks Institute in Ventura, Calif.
Ten hours later, we realized why Dirck used the "boot camp" metaphor in his course description. PF, Dirck and Roger had a lot of material to present and made it clear they expected 100 percent from the class. No tardiness, no drinks, no coffee, no food. "Be here at 8:45. Doors shut at 9," PF barked. "You can have water, but keep it on the floor," he reminded us. I thought about old war movies where the volunteers are given one last chance to bail on some secret mission. Of course, in the movies, the hero never bails and the assembled Platypi were no exception. We were ready--let the instruction begin.

Fortunately, between Roger keeping the tech side running smoothly, and the constant banter between PF and Dirck, the atmosphere, though intense, was lighthearted and supportive. All three faculty are patient, gifted teachers and their personalities couldn't be more different. Dirck was the unquestioned father figure, all knowing, all wise. PF was the drill sergeant—gregarious, demanding but patient at the same time. Roger was the technical guru and had all the answers when the inevitable equipment gremlins popped up. And critical to our success as budding filmmakers were the Brooks teaching assistants. The kids were amazing and inspiring. As I watched in wonderment at their technical prowess and mastery of FCP, I admit I was more than a little jealous of their youthful advantage. How lucky these kids are to be on the cutting edge of this awesome technology.

The first morning set the tone for the week so we understood it was all business. Dirck began by having us, in turn, give brief oral bios and explain what we expected to garnish from the class. Overwhelmingly, students came to Platypus because they sensed deep changes on the horizon. Some seemed tentative toward the new technology that promised so much. Others seemed almost giddy with the possibilities. All understood Dirck and PF's prediction that the course would change our professional lives for the better.

Dirck ended his opening remarks with one final charge that restated the print journalist's conundrum. "Where do photojournalists find the platforms for publishing their work in a time when the traditional photo essay no longer can find a home on the printed page?" he asked. The answer: "There now exists an opportunity, as cable TV channels proliferate, the World Wide Web has turned into a broadband delivery system capable of displaying real time video and newspapers have realized that their very survival as a brand is going to depend on how well they can transition content to the Web."

Dirck's statements were strong motivators and now it was time to get to work. Everyone watched in awe as Roger started passing around brand new Canon HX A1 High-Definition camcorders to the 12 teams, by now grouped in pairs in the classroom. Canon's gear is impeccable and has supported the Platypus program since it began.

We were fortunate this year to be shooting in HD and it wasn't lost on us how fast video technology is unfolding. Discussions about the capability of the new breed of HD cameras quickly put to rest the old argument of photojournalists being forced to make decisions between shooting stills or shooting video as a story unfolded. As the week passed, we were in awe of the quality and resolution the Canon cameras were capable of delivering. This was driven home when similar images were projected on the 12-foot-wide screen. One image taken with a Canon 13-megapixel still camera, when compared with a 50-megabyte frame grab from the XH A1, was a revelation. Only after repeated inspection could one determine which was from the Canon still camera and which was from the HD camcorder. For all practical purposes, the argument about still vs. video has become moot.

Dirck has gone to great lengths to tailor the Platypus Workshop into a well-rounded experience. The curriculum was broken down into daily video exercises that, taken as a whole, provide the skills necessary to complete a short video documentary. The goal for the week was to research and execute a final project using Final Cut Pro 5 as an editing platform. Working in pairs with an assigned student TA for help, we completed the first assignment: VOX POPS. Here the jargon began. VOX POPS, we learned, is an interview. Our objective was to hit the streets, find a willing subject and conduct a one-question interview using our new gear and the shotgun microphone. After PF explained the process, off we went.

Two hours later we were back in the class, comparing successes and failures. "This is harder than it looks," one student mused. "Not as tough as the critiques will be," I thought as PF grinned, pulled up the "hot seat" at the front of the class and, in turn, randomly chose tapes to project. One by one, the camera operators took their place as their work was projected, dissected, discussed and flaws pointed out. That first day was ripe with anxiety but we were all relieved that Dirck, PF and Roger conducted the critiques with positive comments aimed at building our skills and not focusing on mistakes. The hot seat became a running joke. There were many sweaty brows but at least no one cried.

Day two focused on "B Roll"--the essential meat-and-potatoes story material. We learned how to shoot and vary our shots to produce cutable clips. Again we were turned out to shoot and this time we were expected to come back with enough material to tell a short, 30-second story.

Critiques got tougher as the week moved on but slowly, systematically, the exercises built upon one another and the process started to click. By week's end, we had all finalized our story selection, pitched our ideas to one another, the TAs and to the faculty. Once approved, we hit the streets early on the sixth day.

By the time the teams returned exhausted from their shooting day, we had been through almost a week of tech, theory, critique and feedback. We watched many memorable stories during the nightly presentations featuring work by the faculty and TA staff. Everyone was tired but the real fun was about to begin. It was time for "Post."

Surprisingly, most of the class was relaxed about this part of the workshop. PF had done a wonderful job of explaining Final Cut, or "Cut Pro," as he took to saying. PF's custom manual on the subject was a lifesaver and soon the initial anxiety of sitting in front of the unfamiliar FCP screen faded and the students settled into a rhythm. Cuts, dissolves, audio tracks, moves, pans, pulls eventually coalesced into a dozen short projects that would be critiqued as a final presentation. At the front of the lab, a large board reminded students of their time left before deadline. Yes, this was just like the real thing—let's get it done.

One by one, the stories were finished and fine stories they were for first attempts: An indoor climbing wall, an 83-year-old barber, a pizza maker, an outdoor clothing manufacturer, a junk-car parts yard and others were produced from the sum knowledge of a whirlwind10-day process of thought and execution.

As the student storytellers again took turns in the hot seat, proud smiles crept over the faculty faces. Students grinned, amazed at what they had accomplished.

And yes, there were a few tears this time around as we savored mutual applause and became ordained as fresh-faced Platypi by Dirck and the gang.

© Larry C. Price

Larry C. Price is a free-lance photographer and budding documentary filmmaker based in Denver, Colo. Larry writes and photographs for major publications and is an Olympus Visionary photographer. He is currently applying new skills obtained through the Platypus Workshop to a documentary project commencing in May.