Imagine you’re one of the producers who decides what will appear on a show like Cops, Real TV, Storm Watch or the national news. Your job is to screen hundreds of tapes from home video shooters, fire truck chasers, security cameras–you name it–and buy the stuff that will knock your audience’s socks off.
All over the world, there are people who chase and videotape disasters for money. If you carry a camcorder around long enough, the odds are that you’ll eventually be one of the first on the scene to tape a disaster. But, if you have a nose for news, there are ways to increase your odds.
A typical disaster junkie listens to police, fire or other official radio traffic for the latest bad news. Most also have a cell phone, pager and acquaintances in emergency services or the media. Some network with HAM radio operators, coast watch volunteers, CB club members or perhaps take part in an emergency pager pool. The more people you know the better the odds you’ll find disaster before it finds you.
If you do find yourself on the scene of a major incident, make sure to cooperate with authorities and rescue workers on the scene, and not distract them or impede their work. Everyone’s first priority must be safety. In some situations, the life you save by cooperating with authorities may be your own.
For the home market it’s hard to beat the quality of the latest digital camcorders. But the camera itself isn’t as important as having lots of tape, charged batteries and a protective cover for your gear if things get wet and sloppy. A light is a must and it’s not a bad idea to consider purchasing a decent battery belt with juice to run everything for 20 minutes or more. Incidentally, when disaster strikes at night, it’s not uncommon for authorities to ask a shooter to help light an emergency medical procedure or a rescue. Get a light.
As far as sound goes, the camera’s built-in mike is only sufficient if the sound is right near the camera. Many masters of disaster have a good, long camcorder-mounted shotgun mike. If you have a radio scanner, it’s definitely worth recording that on a separate audio channel, if you can.
Another sound tip is to think about the soundscape of the area. Are you getting variety? Think about the sound of a raging fire, the murmurs of the assembled crowd or the roar of the fire pump’s engine.
Think Before You Shoot
So now that you’re ready, what do you do when you arrive on a disaster scene with a camera? On rare occasions, you may find you need to come to the aid of someone in distress. Notify the authorities and give any first aid which you are qualified to administer until skilled help arrives.
If you’re free to shoot, try to focus on the human drama: people stranded by high water, trapped in burning buildings, taken hostage, threatening to jump–it could be anything. It’s better to shoot the door of a burning house in anticipation of a firefighter’s exit, for example, than to shoot the flaming roof. If you can find the emotional center of the event, as fleeting as it may be, that’s where you’ll find the story and that’s what news agencies will buy.
Sometimes the aftermath is more important than the main event. What happened after the firefighter came out? What was the look on his face when he took off his air mask? Did he almost collapse from heat exhaustion? And if he rescued a baby, where’s the mother and what was her reaction? Suddenly the footage might not be about the fire at all, but about the re-uniting of the mother and her baby and the proud firefighter standing awkwardly in the background. Disasters are merely the backdrop for the human experience. Mind you, if there’s nothing else going on, shoot the burning house.
Getting Good Shots
When you’re shooting news footage, you should be sure to get a least a dozen different shots with moves, each between six and ten seconds long. The move might be tiny, from a photo in the newspaper to a headline, or huge, from the top of a mountain to infinity and beyond. Moving shots are the workhorses of news and are based on the idea that you start on one important thing and finish on another.
An ideal shot of a street sign, for example, might begin motionless on the sign for three or more seconds, then zoom to a disaster half way up the block and hold a still shot for at least a couple of seconds. Or you could pan from a crowd of people at a bus stop to what they’re watching across the street. No matter how you do it, get enough takes so you’ve got at least two good takes with smooth moves and sharp focus.
This hold-move-hold technique is fast and really three shots in one. In the case of the signs, you get a still close-up, a still long shot and a move (which can be cut out if the video editor doesn’t like it). Keep in mind that editors generally won’t air much less than a three-second still shot or jump from move to move, so moves have to stop somewhere. Remember moves aren’t always easy, but they’re worth practicing if you want to make a sale.
Establishing shots tell the audience where they are and are an essential component of any news story. What would you look at to get your bearings in a new place? That’s what you need to shoot. If there are street signs or prominent landmarks nearby, get them in there somewhere. Setting the scene can also be as simple as following a plume of smoke until you find its source, to panning a beach to a crowd trying to rescue a whale. There’s no right way to do it, only a better way to do it, so try different ideas.
Once you have the storytelling shots you need, go ahead and get artistic. You could do everything from framing a firefighter’s silhouette in smoky light to shooting a close-up of boots sloshing in the mud. Zoom, pan, tilt or pull focus–they’re all good if the shot works. But not every shot has to move, especially if the subject itself is moving. If a wall collapses or someone runs past the camera, for example, all you may have to do is stay wide and steady.
Great news footage isn’t easy to shoot, but practice and experience behind the lens can bring a story to life. Remember, try to find the emotional heart of the story before you shoot. Beyond that, explore the location for interesting framing and composition and–to quote Rudyard Kipling, an old war journalist–try to keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs.