Backpack Journalist. Run-N-Gun. Lone Wolf. You've heard all the solo shooting call signs, but with all the advancements in technology and improvements in production practices, isn't it time the name caught up with the times? Two Words -Hybrid Journalism.
These days, it seems like everyone can point and shoot their way to creating video. With technology finally dropping to a price consumers can comfortably stomach, the overall quality of video as an art has reluctantly taken a hit. Video credibility stands to lose all face unless the video production industry takes a collective stand and offers a cost-effective, quality-boosting solution in a viral-obsessed market. It's time we stop accepting shaky reality and offer up stable results. It's time we share some good video camera tips. It's time for Hybrid Journalism.
Hybrid: Mixed Bag
Enter the word "hybrid" in any search engine, and you'll find more than 78,100,000 results. From hybrid cars and trucks to hybrid vacuum cleaners and waffle makers. Search long enough and you could find just about anything hybrid. But what makes a true hybrid? According to Princeton University's WordNet Web, a hybrid is a composite of mixed origin.
We all know about hybrid cars that run on gasoline and electricity; so, how do we apply the term "hybrid" to "journalism"? And do we really need to cross-pollinate? Two good questions, one simple answer: yes. With the state of the video world being what it is, there's never been a better time for Hybrid Journalism to take effect.
Let's talk basic principles: journalism is the art and science of telling stories. Video production is a form of journalism. Traditional video production requires the skills of multiple crafts to create an end result. Hybrid Journalism combines theses crafts - for example, videography, producing, directing, lighting, talent and editing - and delivers a product that meets (or exceeds) the clients' expectations.
Now, it's important to stress that you don't have to be an award-winning cinematographer or accomplished editor or even an Oxford trained thespian to be good at Hybrid Journalism. What you do need, though, is the wherewithal to understand the basics of what goes in - and comes out - of a video shoot.
Taking an idea and making it a reality. This is the basic approach to almost all video productions. Whether you want to shoot video at your child's soccer game, or create a short film for the Sundance Film Festival, preplanning is the most important step to any production. So, put on your producer hat and get shooting, but first remember that every great video starts with a good idea.
Create an outline for what you hope to accomplish during your shoot. Keep it simple, rough and flexible enough to change on the fly. Drafting a basic storyboard with scene and shot selections will help visualize tough story elements. If your video calls for scripting, try to keep the wording simple and to the point. Avoid tired clichs and common sayings.
Prepare a list of questions for any interview you may conduct. Be ready to throw them out if the interviewee can't answer them, or has a better story angle to pursue.
Finally, don't marry your media. Be prepared to divorce yourself from a story idea or production if things just aren't working out before you even head out the door. Sometimes, the best intentions cannot overcome surprise conditions.
The Gear Basics
After you have established what the look and feel of your video is going to be, you need to determine what physical assets you'll need to have on hand. While things like location, subjects and storylines can be aligned in the preplanning phase, it's in the preparation phase where you make sure you have everything you need to make the most of your time.
Hybrid Journalism doesn't require a special blend of video equipment. You don't need to reinvest in sparkling new gear if you already have quality tools in hand. You do need to make sure the gear works, that batteries are charged and you have more than enough tape or media for your camera to capture all of your visual elements. Here is a list of the essential gear you need to have:
1. Lights - In certain parts of the country, there's a saying that goes: "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute and it'll change." This can be applied to Hybrid Journalism. If you don't like the film and video lighting conditions, change them. Having a basic light kit - key light, fill light, back light - on hand will get you out of almost any dark situation. At the very least, a small on-camera light will do the trick as well. Don't have either? Consider a high-end halogen flashlight. Halogen offers a clean, consistent light that will illuminate your subject (just be sure to white balance your camera before and again after).
2. Camera - You don't have to shoot with an expensive video camera to deliver quality. Make sure your lens is clean, you're in focus and that your colors are true (read 'be sure to white balance'). Always carry a white business card, bank teller receipt or small notepad to balance on in a pinch. In the wintertime, avoid white balancing on snow, as the true color of snow reflects the sky it's falling under (blue sky, blue tint; gray sky, gray tint).
3. Audio - Perhaps the best investment a Hybrid Journalist can ever make is in some good, quality professional microphones. They don't have to be wireless microphones, and you can get by with just one, but it does have to be compatible with your camera. Without good audio, your video is going to be hard to watch. Consider an inexpensive lavaliere (clip-on) microphone that you can affix to your subject. When doing interviews, avoid using the camera mic, as the audio will usually sound tinny and possibly indecipherable. You often can't get the mic close enough to a subject for the on-camera mic to be any good, and if it is, you might have the hum of the camcorder's gears or even the breathing of the videographer captured on the recording.
4. Backup Action - What to do in the event something breaks? Be prepared for anything. A spare camera - even a little handheld camera - can serve as an emergency replacement unit should something happen to your main gear. (This can also be used as a secondary camera for extra angles, cutaways and even backup audio tracks in a pinch) Always have backup tapes. Be sure to have spare batteries for wireless microphones. If using a film or video light kit, have spare bulbs. Perhaps the most important weapon in your hybrid video arsenal? An all-purpose utility tool, like the Leatherman Juice Xe6, can do just about anything you could ever imagine needing while on a shoot. The Boy Scouts carry utility tools, shouldn't you?
Remember that with all the advancements in technology, the cost of making video has gone down significantly. Whether you're shooting with tape, internal memory or external cards, you can always do multiple takes. If you miss a shot, flub a zoom or bump an interview shot, you can always set it up and try again.
Making Video Magic
Your preplanning has paid off and now you're ready to capture everything you need for your video. All your subjects are ready to be interviewed, the weather is cooperating for b-roll and your gear is working in tip-top shape. This is when your Hybrid Journalism skills truly shine.
When you watch a show, movie or newscast, what's the one thing about the video that you think really stands? Everyone picks up something different, but the one constant is that there's a steady level of consistency in the work. Become overly analytical of what you're capturing. Be cognizant of your surroundings and make sure what you're shooting is applicable to your end product. Here are a few video shooting tips to keep in mind:
1. Mix it up - Be sure to incorporate some flavor in your shooting - don't just adhere to the routine 'wide, medium, closeup' theory and certainly don't just pan and zoom!
2. Raise Some Eyebrows - Lay your camera on the ground and get dirty; get as close to an object as possible and use the macro on your lens; move objects into the foreground and incorporate a rack focus. If you don't have anything to steady your camera to get a shot shooting up from the ground, use your cell phone or wallet to support the lens - just don't walk away without putting them back in your pocket.
3. Plug in - Always wear headphones to monitor audio levels. Even if you're simply shooting cars going by, if the record settings are too high, the footage will have unusable natural sound. Audio is crucial to every production and decent headphones don't have to set you back too much money.
Consider something like the Acoustibuds from Burton Technologies. These silicon sound saviors slip over your Mp3 player earphones and cancel out a lot of ambient sounds - essentially, serving as a noise canceling system for your standard headphones. They come in different sizes, will run you under $20 and can be found at most online outlets.
4. Become a Jedi of the Cutaway - Watch your local news on any given night, particularly the sports and you'll quickly understand why cutaways are so important.
Take basketball highlights, for example: Johnny Sportscaster is showing viewers five baskets from the local game. He starts with a crowd shot of rowdy kids with their faces painted. Then, he shows a play where Team A dribbles in and scores a bucket. Next, you see the same team, running a similar play, scoring a similar bucket. Kind of hard to tell if that was a replay or a different play, right? By splicing in a quick cutaway of the coach, a cheerleader or band member between the two scores, you're breaking up the action and telling the viewer "Here's one play, followed by the coach applauding, now here's a different play."
Cutaways are applied in standard videos the same way. If you have back-to-back sound bites in your video, cover the transition with a cutaway - some b-roll, a shot of the interviewer or anything other than a simply dissolve between shots - this will show your viewers that you care enough to take the time to make the transition as seamless as possible.
5. Be Efficient - No one likes to waste time. As a Hybrid Journalist, you pride yourself on being able to recognize when you've gathered everything you need for your shoot. Instead of burning through two or three hours worth of tape, make sure the shot you're about to record is something you will actually use in post-production. This will save you time in three ways - your shoot will get done faster, your logging/producing time will be quicker and your editing session can wrap up sooner. This is the epitome of Hybrid Journalism! That said, though, be wary of putting your cart before the horse. Shoot too much footage and you'll be logging tape until the cows come home. Not enough? You'll be cursing your own name in the edit bay. The best way to determine if you have enough footage is to keep a mental tab or notes in a small notebook of shots you've gathered and whether or not you'll be able to edit your way out of any post-production jams.
6. Think Like an Editor - You've got all your video assets together, the interviews were smooth and everything went according to script. Now it's time to prove your worth in the edit suite. So what is the most important thing a Hybrid Journalist can do to save time and energy in post-production? Stephen Covey said it best when he paraphrased the ancient Chinese military leader, Sun Tzu: "Begin with the end in mind."
If you think like an editor when you're out in the field as a videographer, your job as an editor gets easier. If you think like a producer when you're conducting interviews, your story will piece together easier because you hear the sound bites you plan to use in real-time.
Hybrid is Happening
When you're out on a shoot, it's always easier said than done to produce with the end in mind. If your plan is to simply shoot an event and apply little to no post-production elements, then you begin the way you'll be ending. However, if your plan is to create a visually stimulating, emotionally captivating promotional piece for your church fundraiser, having a plan in place before you ever press record will make the ending that much better. By changing your mindset and allowing yourself to think as a Hybrid Journalist, your videos will begin to improve, your audience will begin to grow and the world as we know it - from a video front, at least - will be a better place.
Sidebar: Backpack Journalists in the Big Markets
Hybrid Journalism has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the traditional news media. Many TV stations in markets like San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta are using glorified one-man-band journalists to cover daily news. Outfitted with portable cameras, a laptop editor and wireless internet card, these Hybrid Journalists are producing quality content comparable to their two or three-man production team colleagues.
Gannett Broadcasting may have made the biggest dent in this type of journalism, implementing Backpack Journalists into their major media markets in 2007, sending shockwaves through newsrooms from coast-to-coast. While this may have been viewed as an industry-wide cry for cost-cutting journalism in major metropolitan areas, it's been a right-of-passage for young journalists working in small TV markets - like Fargo, N.D. or Yuma, Ariz.
For video production enthusiasts, however, Hybrid Journalism has been a way of life - and will continue to be - for years to come.
Dave Sniadak is an award-winning photojournalist and video consultant servicing clients ranging from Fortune 100 companies to non-profit organizations.