Blurring Boundaries: What Print Journalists Can Learn from Video Editors
Expert editors of video and sound offer ideas to multimedia journalists about effective storytelling with new tools.
|By Regina McCombs (more by author)||E-mail this item|
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You hear it over and over again from multimedia journalists: "We're not TV and we don't want to be." I believe that deeply. On the other hand, as a recovering television photographer, I believe the skills I spent 13 years learning have a relevance to the work I do now as a multimedia photographer and producer. As I try to understand the overlap, I decided to ask for help: I contacted four television editors whose work I respect, asked them to look at audio slideshows produced by news organizations and tell me what principles of video editing might be applied to improve the storytelling.
There were two surprises at the beginning: Only one had seen audio slideshows before (on his local newspaper Web site), and all four adored the format. Ram Guzman, chief editor at KTVT in Dallas-Fort Worth and chair of the National Press Photographers Association television editing contest, said he really liked what he saw. "It seemed like the line between print and TV is changing, and people are bridging that gap."
As I talked to each of them, all four editors quickly brought up an issue that cuts across all forms of storytelling: finding the right pace for each story.
John Hyjek, NBC News editor and three-time winner of NPPA's editor of the year contest, felt many of the slideshows he watched were too slowly paced. He says he uses his 'Rule of Waldo.' Based on the comic character created by Martin Handford, Waldo is a figure hidden in each of his illustrations. "What happens when you find Waldo? You turn the page, of course. You move on to the next illustration. In the same vein in video editing, the moment you glean the important information, it's time to move on to the next shot."
Hyjek has been a television photojournalist for 30 years (and a co-worker of mine for a chunk of that time), and he says an editor has to fight the urge to linger on a shot because you love it, that you have to avoid saying: Look at my picture! Look at MY picture! "It's egotistical to be sitting on a shot instead of moving the emotion of a story forward with a succession of photos."
For Jonathan Menell, it's a question of "what's the next most interesting thing? What's the next cliff I can jump off of?" Menell, a former NPPA editor of the year and now a freelance editor in Hollywood, says he thinks it may be a slightly different process for still photographers. "Part of the power and intimacy of still image is the silence, choosing to spend time with it."
Some of the pieces Guzman watched engaged his attention so quickly that he didn't even think about the fact that they weren't video until it was over. For him, that was the important part -- being caught up in the story. "I want the viewer to walk away feeling like there's closure -- a beginning, middle and end."
Transitions, effects and movement
Many slideshow editors use transitions like dissolves, fades to black, and zooms in or out on images within a story. For the video editors, the idea is to use those things when you need them, and avoid them when you don't.
Jim Douglas, NPPA photographer of the year in 1985 (more disclosure: another former co-worker from my days at KARE-TV in Minneapolis), says it's an issue that comes up every time a new editing system comes out, and it's important not to get caught up in the technology. "I think it's easy for people who have new tools to overdo it. Because you can do it doesn't mean you have to do it."
A concept that has stuck with Menell is something he heard Hyjek say once: We dream in dissolves, we think in cuts. "It means that when you think during your day, thoughts come into your head instantly. You experience pow! -- this is happening -- pow! I feel like that. Dreams fade and come and go, and it's a gentler process. The way it applies in storytelling, the point of editing, is the juxtaposing of one idea to the next. A cut is the cleanest, most direct, most powerful juxtaposition possible. It takes out the hemming and hawing. Cuts make pieces feel more urgent, more powerful and more precise, too. And more experiential, because people watching it are in their awake mind."
A dissolve, on the other hand, does something else entirely, taking you a step back from the story. "You're leaving the world of the immediate and entering a more thoughtful place, a more contemplative place, a more painterly place," Menell says. "When you're using cuts, you're more in a cheese grater, the sand paper, the more immediate experience."
Hyjek believes a good edit goes unnoticed. "When you edit with 'eye movement' in mind [the way the eye naturally absorbs a scene], the viewer perceives smooth transitions between shots. Thus, the edit doesn't draw attention to itself, and the viewer tends to concentrate on the story line presented."
Learning to choose the right editing tools involved trial and error, Guzman says. "I'd do what seemed appropriate, go back and look at it after a couple of months and see if it seemed like it was still called for."
Editing to sound
For Douglas, the biggest weakness of many of the pieces was too heavy a reliance on an interview or narrator, and not enough environmental sound. "I watched some of these stories and thought, oh, if only you'd gotten the mic in closer..."
When I first came to the newspaper, it shocked me when several photographers told me they turned off their ears when they were shooting.
Douglas said sometimes that showed. "The importance of sound is to bring the viewer a much more intimate sense of reality, to take the viewer where we went."
His recommendation: "Listen, listen and listen some more. Close your eyes and hold your breath and hear."
Then he suggests learning to layer the sound. "I'm reminded of music producer Phil Spector's 'Wall of Sound' of the early 1960s. By layering music, particularly that of the The Ronettes, he created what was then the most innovative sound in rock music. There's no reason why today's print photojournalists can't borrow from Spector, layering audio they capture during a shoot."
When using environmental sound, Menell suggests leading with experience before explanation, to introduce audio before you switch to the picture. "Your ear tells you something new is coming. Something starts off almost in the distance, and when the cut happens, the brain is engaged in what's coming. Getting the story to happen in viewers' minds is more important than getting it to happen on the screen."
(Click here for a video that uses this technique.)
New story forms
After watching more than a dozen slideshows, Menell says it seems as though there are two styles of stories developing. Some stories were paced like a video story with sound bites, a narrator and natural sound. Others, he said, seem to be "coming from the school of silence -- with a soft relationship between sound and images. Interesting. It felt to me like someone trying to create a hybrid between sound and silence, and develop something out of it." Sometimes he thought it worked, and sometimes it didn't.
Overall, he enjoyed the time he spent. "I thought it was really great; I'm glad they're excited. And they are inventing this thing for themselves."
Guzman was impressed as well and says he plans to look for more audio slideshows. "It seemed like everyone was really on track. I'll be watching more of it."