Student and freelance photographers taking close-ups of the bands at Picnic in the Park in Oslo, Norway.
Learning the craft, speaking the language of video production
By Paul Glover
Henderson State University
- “Did you use a tripod?”
- “Did you use a microphone?”
- “What format is the video in?”
Do these questions sound familiar?
One older definition of convergence refers to a “combination of technologies, products, staffs and geography among the previously distinct provinces of print, television and online media” (Singer, 2004). The idea of newsroom convergence forces many university programs to combine resources in order to develop student reporters into backpack journalists, Multimedia-Skilled Journalists (MSJ) or simply Multimedia Journalists (MMJ).
Whether print or broadcast, students and recent graduates entering their college internship or first real-world job are very often assigned the task of writer, videographer, audio engineer and video editor. Competency in all these skills is required and expected. This article will focus on essential skills for student journalists who are asked to produce videos for television, websites and social media and how students can best develop these skills.
For news production and delivery, the boundaries between home, office, classroom, lab, plane, train and automobile have disappeared. The need for consistent, quality video and audio is always present. “It varies with each company and job listing,” says Lisa Lubin, Emmy-award winning TV producer, video consultant and published travel writer. “But most MSJs today have to know how to shoot, edit, write, do some on-camera work/reporting, producing, and now, social media,” says Lubin. “A lot of technical skills get left behind… no matter what the goals are or if the aspiring journalist just wants to be on-camera, they need to know how to shoot and edit. This includes how to get a good interview shot, how to get solid b-roll, how to shoot in sequences to result in a dynamic edit, and of course to not forget that without quality audio, there is no story.”
Alex Durham, Henderson State University graduate and current reporter for WLKY News in Louisville, Kentucky, agrees. “Yes, an MMJ flies solo,” she says. “We hunt our stories down, we shoot the b-roll and the interviews ourselves. We then write the story, track our voice, and edit the entire package.” Durham also notes the need for creativity and audio expertise in gathering natural (NAT) sound. She carries a lavaliere and a stick microphone in her gear bag. To create a better package about a segment on corn, she came up with an idea on the spot. “You can hear sounds of the corn kernels falling and then the corn stalks blowing in the wind. I literally held my lavaliere microphone up to the stalks of corn, pressed record on the camera, and moved the corn stalks with my other hand to get that sound.”
Another HSU mass media graduate, Sarah Williams, got her first reporting job in Denison, Texas, at NBC affiliate station KTEN, where the situation was the same. She defines working as a Multimedia Journalist as “hard a** work and doing everything by yourself. LOL, kidding, but not really. Well-rounded is the best way to describe it. You have to develop a knack for shooting, asking the right questions that will get people to say what you’re looking for, and always show and tell.”
Learning the Craft(s)
What is the best way to teach production skills? There may not be a better teacher than experience, no matter where you are located. On a recent trip to Hannover, Germany I wanted to see if teaching media production posed some of the same challenges to instructors there. I interviewed Jorg Dill, who has a Master’s degree in Communication and has worked in sports broadcasting, including interning at the World Cup. He says training students to multitask, especially in media production, would “require a lot of time because teaching at our school, you have students of a lot of different backgrounds so it’s very diverse…you would have to teach a lot of different skills.” He also says, “… We start teaching them the basics of computer knowledge. That is one aspect that’s very important…as the years progress they acquire additional skills so they learn how to research for information.” Dill also adds that a successful student has to bring three things to the table: “motivation, a certain amount of talent, and has to put in the workload.”
Larger programs with more faculty, more classes and more resources than smaller programs don’t face the same problems. They have enough resources to help students achieve a level of technological efficiency. Faculty must also continue to learn new skills and their schools must purchase new equipment to keep up with the always changing landscape of media production. As Dill puts it, “in Germany there is a saying that jurors from yesterday in buildings of ages ago are trying to teach the kids of today to prepare them for tomorrow,” he adds, which is basically impossible.
Taking a page from a colleague and fellow CMA adviser, Michael Ray Taylor, I relived my journalist days and hit the streets in full reporter mode when I visited Oslo, Norway to photograph a music festival. Cold calling on a local digital storytelling production company, XVision, I met Adrian Skar, lead XR developer. From a software point of view, he agreed that students should learn as many programs as they can while still in school. “Any Adobe software, Photoshop… Premiere…After Effects…at least learn what the studios and industry are doing,” says Skar. As far as production overall, Skar agrees that you should finish one project while starting another one. “Get students in the mindset [of working on] one project and another and another one… in the industry the turnaround is so quick.” It can be very helpful to students when faculty and universities support this idea with equipment, facilities and networking opportunities. As I immersed myself in the photographer’s circle at the Picnic in the Park (PiP) music festival held in June at Sofienbergparken in Oslo, I had a chance to ask several (much younger) photographers how they learned the skills they applied in their daily work. Festival photographer and freelancer, Lisa Wiik, mentions that she learned the foundations of production work in film school. “Then I started work in the industry and… you kind of learn by doing that.”
Speak the Language
It is absolutely possible to shoot good video, collect good audio, tell a good story with writing and editing and transcode the file into a variety of formats in a rushed environment. It happens every day. Many colleges with media programs have traditional and online media outlets. No one wants “shaky” video or poor audio or files that won’t play to be the first thing that viewers notice. Graduates need the ability to speak the language of pre-production, production and postproduction. It is discouraging for a producer or editor to receive video for the newscast and wonder why they couldn’t just use a tripod or better audio equipment; not many can tolerate shakiness or be patient enough to discern coherency from a bad recording. Learning on the job is ok in college (sometimes) but it is not something employers find appealing.
Student journalists that can perform all these technological tasks adequately as incoming freshmen can be rare. Most students must be taught over time. How quickly a student learns production skills varies from individual to individual. What they gain from lectures is beneficial but more importantly they need hands-on experience. It may be shortsighted to think a generation of digital natives who grew up with technology automatically understands how to use it efficiently in a media production environment.
Is it the responsibility of journalism and broadcast professors to teach everyone how to shoot and edit? Yes. It’s easy, right? Just filter everyone through the same class and “BAM!” it’s done. Not really. Cars, clocks, and even phonographs come with instruction manuals. In the classroom the teacher has to mediate this manual. Some students get video production technology instantly and some let it sink in through experience. Even though there are many details involved, below are four important areas to checklist as a starting point for any potential MSJ.
- White Balance Your Camera – The correct white balance will accurately represent your environment. When your white balance is off, the hue of every other color is off. First, choose your lighting environment whether natural or artificial before setting the white balance of your camera. If you are a novice, try automatic settings on the camera until you are familiar with the different looks with each setting and its numeric representation based on Kelvin (K). “Indoor” and “Outdoor” settings will vary in “cool” to “warm” colors respectively while “Tungsten” may appear blue. If subjects appear natural and you’re satisfied, go ahead and shoot. If you prefer manual settings, gather a white card (white poster board will do) and place it under the lighting conditions, preferably close to the subject’s face or emphasis point. Zoom in until the card fills the screen, focus, and press the white balance button until the camera sets itself. As fast-moving journalists, you may not have time, but try and white balance every time your lighting environment changes, especially under cloudy skies and moving between outdoor and indoor lighting.
- Tripods – The “shaky” action camera techniques used in the opening battle scene in “Saving Private Ryan” are amazing. They may not work so well for b-roll of the new Starbucks opening on your campus. You don’t need an expensive tripod to get a tripod look, but if you do have one, always use it and encourage students to do the same. Teach students how to use different types if possible. Some companies make mini-tripods or stabilization devices for shooting with phones or other alternative recording devices. If no tripod is available, make sure they can DIY by using a desk, a chair, a shelf, basically anything that can provide stabilization and give you a good composition. It is possible to go shoulder-cam or hand-held but make sure the camera is held near the center of body, not the head, for better balance.
- Get the Mic – Most camcorders or DSLRs have an on-board microphone that is incapable of reproducing a wide range of frequencies, rendering it fairly useless for interviews and ambience. It is simple to get a good, even cheap, microphone for your camera or phone. XLR (External Line Return) connections tend to perform better than the 3.5 mm connections, not to mention some video cameras come with both inputs. An XLR connection is more reliable for hand-held or wireless microphones and produces cleaner audio quality. Students must also take note whether or not the microphone requires phantom power. Many cameras supply this to the microphone but it needs to be assigned. Using batteries in conjunction with phantom power can produce audio that is “in the red” which is unusable and may even damage the electronics. If the camera or phone only has a 3.5-millimeter input, a shotgun, hand-held or wireless microphone can be purchased for that connection. Wireless lavalieres and hand-held microphones are best for a direct signal from a person talking while shotgun microphones have a larger pickup pattern. Whatever the options and price range are, any external connection is better than on-board microphones, though it is a good idea to check the owner’s manual for specifications. Capturing good audio will prevent headaches in the editing room.
- Codecs – CODEC is an acronym for compressor/decompressor that students need to be familiar with. It is necessary for files to be encoded (packaged) by one computer application and decoded (unpackaged) by another. Students need to know what codec the camera or smartphone uses to encode files as well as the files that the video editing software can read and un-package. The camera manual will always have information about the specific codec used for encoding video. Students need to be able to transcode file formats between hardware and software so that the workflow is not interrupted and videos arrive ready to play across different mediums.
Students must learn to converge with new technologies, different mediums and each other. Paying attention to these four steps of video production is merely a start in training media students to be more viable as “backpack” journalists and media producers. Point, shoot and upload sounds easy, and it can become routine but only through experience. Media teachers should foster the connection, the networking and the tools but it is also up to the student to get their hands dirty.
- Singer, Jane. 2004. “Strange Bedfellows? Diffusion of Convergence in Four News
- Organizations.” Journalism Studies 5 (1): 3-18.
- Lubin, Lisa. Personal interview. 11 Aug. 2016.
- Dill, Jorg. Personal interview. 8 June. 2019.
- Skar, Adrian. Personal interview. 12 June. 2019.
- Wiik, Lisa. Personal interview. 12 June. 2019.
- Author Bio
Paul Glover is a Professor of Communication at Henderson State University where he advises Henderson Television (HTV) and KSWH-LP 102.5 FM The Pulse. At the University of Alabama, he worked for the NPR affiliate, WUAL-FM. In 2004, he earned an M.A. in Communication Systems Management while managing the Radio/TV stations at Angelo State University. He earned an M.F.A. in Digital Filmmaking at the University of Central Arkansas in 2011.