Throughout my time at the Wall Street Journal I edited a lot of videos that were shot by other reporters, often print reporters new to the joy of filmmaking.
This has taught me two things:
How to become a better shooter (knowing what and how to shoot)
How important editing is in storytelling
A lot of people concentrate on shooting when they take their first steps as video reporters. Rightly so. The footage you shoot is literally the stuff that videos are made of. But I do think that fewer people put the same amount of effort into improving their editing skills. And if there’s one thing I learned from editing a lot of footage from video beginners, it’s that editing can be crucial to making a story work.
Here are a few things I’ve learned from colleagues, friends and readings that I hope will help others improve their editing:
SEQUENCES AND ACTIONS — WHY B-ROLL SUCKS
Someone said to me once that I should forget about the concept of b-roll. And I really took it to heart.
In visual storytelling, we often rely on our radio track — meaning the voice over and interview sound bites — to tell our stories. A voice tells us all the facts of the story, as do soundbites from subjects. Often our first instinct is to throw related b-roll on top of what is being said. The idea is that the footage we see should correspond entirely to what we hear. It’s an approach that seems more natural to print journalists, who might find it easier to work with written words than with three hours of footage.
In its worst iteration it could end up being something like this:
But sometimes it’s worth thinking of an alternative way of using visual material. What my colleagues instilled in me was that a visual story arc was just as important. I would encourage budding filmmakers to start thinking of visual information in sequences that add up to actions — a visual narrative that runs parallel to the radio track narrative. These actions, in turn, tell the story of a place or person.
In this video I tried to use sequences (shot of hands, close-up of faces, medium shot of them in the kitchen, etc.) to visually show the process of making dim sum, serving it and guests eating it to tell the visual narrative of a restaurant visit.
(Of course, editing sequential footage also requires you to shoot in sequences. If you’re interested in what that entails, here’s a lecture that USC Annenberg’s Andrew Lih and I used when we instructed a workshop for print journalists at Hong Kong University.)
Something else I’ve learned to appreciate is pacing and rhythm. Articles and infographics allow for panning, scanning and skimming, but an audio-visual story is linear and has to be consumed in one go. Therefore, the editor dictates the pace at which a viewer consumes a story. Rhythm and pacing are essential to delivering information in a digestible way.
Pauses in your radio track can help let your video “breathe.” Don’t cut so tightly to the script. Shots with natural sound can be a nice, non-aural introduction, interlude or outro to an interview bite. You can also use pauses to emphasize moments: If your subject or narration has just presented the viewer with a complex idea or an emotional statement, it might help to give the viewer a second or two to digest what he or she just heard. It’s the short beat that the comedian waits for after the punchline; the moment you gasp right after you’ve been gripped by an emotional experience.
Another way in which rhythm is used is to express a certain atmosphere. Quick cuts can express anxiety, stress or excitement, while keeping a long shot can be very soothing.
Here’s a video that employs different styles of editing quite beautifully — first to show the fast-paced life in Hong Kong and then to show how bee-keeping brings serenity to the subject of the video:
THE GUYS IN HOLLYWOOD
Most of these thoughts were jump-started when I first read Walter Murch’s “In the Blink of an Eye.” He’s an Academy-Award-winning editor who’s cut Hollywood blockbusters such as The Godfather and The English Patient. He also is the only author I’ve read so far who’s written about his philosophical approach to editing, although there are a few other books I’m hoping to check out soon (On Film Editing, Towards a Theory of Montage).
It might also help to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary editors use. They can give you a concrete definition of cuts you might already be doing, but also provide a better understanding of why they work.
This is not to say that we should adopt Hollywood’s stylistic devices without thinking about how and why we use them. Using cinematic styles can be controversial in the world of journalism. But it’s still helpful to know what visual conventions are out there and when it’s good to employ them.
Getting better is, of course, always the result of hard work and practice. Cutting dozens and dozens of videos has not only made me a faster editor, but it also has helped me find different editing styles and methods that I can apply to different stories.
I would also highly recommend getting practice outside journalism. It’s healthy to break outside the mold to experiment with a project that doesn’t necessarily have to inform audiences. You could challenge yourself to make a video that employs no interviews and no voices — just visual information.
With that said I’d like to leave you with a short video I did for a film collective I’m part of. It’s a visual interpretation of William Carlos Williams’ poem “This Is Just to Say”:
This is a blog entry I did for the Online News Association. It's a series on issues that young journalists might find helpful.
When I was asked to teach a workshop at Hong Kong University a year ago, I consulted a friend and colleague about what he thought would be the most useful advice for print reporters venturing into the wild territory of multimedia journalism. I was to instruct print freelancers from across Asia in multimedia storytelling, a craft that’s still in its nascence on that continent.
My friend gave me very practical advice. He said that many classes he took in graduate school were very theoretical, and few gave explicit instructions and checklists to students and reporters. When you’re juggling photography, video, data research and good old-fashioned print reporting, there’s nothing that will save your overloaded mind better than a good checklist.
So, I decided to do a case study in the form of a checklist of a multimedia project that took me to Vietnam, China and India. Hopefully, this will be useful to those who are figuring out how to approach extensive multimedia packages.
FOOD PRICE INFLATION IN ASIA — A CASE STUDY
This project was an attempt to take a look at volatile food prices across Asia with a specific focus on what drives food prices across the region. We wanted to give viewers an understanding of the subject — both in a broader context and through individual stories in three countries.
1. Pre-Production: Know Your Story
a.) Identify your story/subject:
Multimedia projects often are broad in scope, and at newspapers often are tied to an ongoing series of stories or recurring issues. Production usually takes quite a bit of time and the end product should have a shelf life longer than just a few days to make it worth the effort. Identifying the right subject matter is vital. Make sure you do a thorough Factiva, Lexis-Nexis and web search for earlier coverage of the subject to see whether you can add anything new to the story.
For this project, we wanted to tackle an issue that had crept up in our stories over and over in the past few years: volatile and sometimes frighteningly high food prices. This is a recurring issue for a region where income and population are on the rise. Even though food prices had peaked earlier and are on a downward trend, the United Nations predicted that volatile prices would be an issue for the next 10 years, warranting a closer look.
b.) Break it down:
Multimedia offers a number of avenues for telling a story. You need to understand the main issues before you start figuring out what medium you use to explain it. Sometimes it helps to structure a multimedia project in subjects the way Mediastorm’s Crisis Guides for the Council on Foreign Relations does. Sometimes chronology works, as in the case of the New York Times story “Held by the Taliban.” And sometimes it’s collecting stories from many people, as reporters for the Wall Street Journal did in its piece about health care in the U.S.
With our project, we wanted to provide a multi-faceted understanding of a complex and international problem. So, we started with a big-picture primer that introduced the audience to the subject and helped them understand why it was important.
Then, we provided three specific stories that identified problems in the food production and distribution chain (production issues caused by pollution and global warming and supply-chain issues, such as the lack of industrialization and supply for growing food demand). This provided concrete examples of how people were dealing with food-price inflation.
Finally, we wanted to show the larger context of these stories: How many countries in Asia were affected by general inflation, how much of their income people spend on food and how many people in those countries were undernourished.
2. Conceptualizing: Decide What to Report Before You Go
a.) Identify a medium for each part of the story:
This means that you should, as much as possible, get an idea of how the end product should look. Once you’ve broken down your project, you can concentrate on casting the right medium for each part of the story (I’ve written a lengthy breakdown of what I think the different strengths of different mediums should be).
For this project, a narrated and animated infographic worked well as an introduction:
The planning of an animation — from storyboarding, to production, to finished product.
Three video features displayed “on-the-ground” stories:
And an interactive graphic provided numerical context:
b.) Make a list of what you need
Once you know the types of story elements you need, you should put together a scavenger-hunt list of content you want to gather. Multimedia is not like print journalism: You can’t just call a source and ask for information and materials you forgot to request earlier. If you didn’t capture the information on video or get a photograph of someone, it can be very difficult to get what you need, especially when you are on deadline.
This is why checklists are essential. You might need to ask your sources for addresses so that you can create a map or to pose for a picture if you need images for a series of interviews.
For this project, I wanted to use a small, decorative collage to capture the entire process of the food chain — from production in the countryside, to the transportation, to the markets and, finally, to the selling of food. Part of my checklist was capturing images from the journey that food makes from the farmers to the markets that were later used for a collage that illustrated the journey.
See a breakdown of the collage here:
Last, but not least, comes the task of production. If you’ve been organized about the entire reporting process, you can now start tackling the elements one by one. You might want to start with the individual elements (videos, infographics and animations) and then work your way toward curating these elements in a shell.
Here’s a breakdown as to how long it took to create and produce this project: