March 4, 2010

Day 1: JAMA News Training


Coco, Felix, and Ntoya in Kasa-Vubu
Everyone from our local Congolese non-profit production partner JAMA was back in the office together for the first time in months on Wednesday. It has been a difficult past few weeks for everyone here as smallpower's productions have been scaled back until certain budgeting issues are resolved. While it was great to see everyone back, it was unfortunate that we did not have better news about when our full-scale operations will ramp back up again. That said, there was some good news as we unveiled to the staff the launch of JAMA Video Productions (see this earlier blog post for more information).

I was assigned five of JAMA's most experienced production personnel to begin training how to shoot for both domestic and international news broadcasts. This is a classic capacity-building exercise to develop JAMA into a fully sustainable multimedia production service that caters to Kinshasa's diplomatic, journalistic, and corporate communities. In all, we plan to train some 20 individuals for this project and hopefully more as the business develops in the coming weeks and months.

This first day of training was surprisingly easy. OK, so maybe it was easier for them than it was for me as I had to conduct the entire session in French and frankly, my technical broadcast television French is definitely in need of help (after all, the terms "cut away" and "audio mult box" are not standard fare in most pocket dictionaries). My French limitations aside, we held a very production 2.5 hour session on the basics of news shooting, as compared to the far more artistic dramatic television at which they are already expert.

So the challenge was to introduce the required simplicity and necessary speed that news production calls for. It's a whole different mindset than producing serialized dramatic television that allows days, even weeks for post production. In news, the shooter must think much more like a video editor while covering an event. Since every minute counts with deadlines looming, I emphasized over and over again how important it is to have a mental checklist of every shot required before an event even begins. The idea is to visualize the story before pressing the record button so as to best anticipate how it will look when the editing process begins soon after. As the event proceeds, the shooter is checking each shot they need from the checklist:

  • What is the opening shot?
  • Do I have cut-aways?
  • Do I have an establishing shot of the main subject?
  • Do I have a close-up shot of the main subject?
  • How much b-roll do I have for a two minute news report?
  • Do I have a great closing shot?

In addition to various pre-production and on-site checklists, we also spent a considerable amount of time discussing tripods. It's hard to imagine but the use of a tripod for news videographers can be a very touchy issue in many countries, particularly in the developing world. It is one of my major pet peeves to see a perfectly good press conference where the subjects are not moving and the video journalists are all standing there with cameras in hand or on their shoulders. The press conference is then seen on TV looking more like a home video than a professionally produced news piece.

Among Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos, with whom I have conducted countless similar trainings, there exists a certain machismo among camera operators. "I'm strong enough to carry this camera and not have it move!" they will declare. I don't care who you are or how strong you think you might be, there is no way to steady a hand-held shot of a largely stable subject. Period. For a standard press conference, I explained, 80-90% of the shooting should be done on "sticks." The use of a tripod to create stable shots is fundamental for international broadcasters. There are most definitely situations to go handheld but the use of this technique must be intentional rather than the default status, as is all too common among many Congolese videographers.

One of the most common mistakes that news videographers make is to shoot a few seconds here and a few seconds there with no consistency to the length of each shot. The problem comes when you get back to your computer to edit the footage and discover that too much of the video is shot in two-to-three second intervals. Suddenly, a rather slow paced news story is completely transformed by shots jumping erratically from one to the other. Moreover, the shooter mistakingly assumes that s/he will save time by taking quick shots of everything instead of methodically covering the event shot by shot and taking the time to make sure each image contributes to the story. Now, instead of saving time, hours are wasted as the editor searches fruitlessly for stable shots to fill the 1:30 duration of the package.

To address this, we spent considerable time discussing the "five second rule." This simple guideline will save hours in post. Simply count to five for each and every shot: 1-2-3-4-5, then pan, and count again: 1-2-3-4-5. Using this method, the shooter is delivering three distinct shots that can be used rather than just one—the first hold, the pan or zoom and the final hold. It's easy to shorten a five second shot down to two seconds if it is necessary but obviously there is nothing one can do with clips that are two seconds long.

So, on this first day of training, we reviewed some basic principals of news shooting and editing. Next Friday, we will actually put them to the test. The team is going to do time trials where they have to shoot a story using tripods and the five second rule. We will then sit down together to review each other's work. They will have 45 minutes to shoot the video and one hour to edit a one minute news package. We will post their initial projects for you to review this weekend.



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