Michael Crawford's Take On The 2005 NPPA TV NewsVideo Workshop In Norman, OK

Apr 15, 2005

By Michael Crawford
KVUE-TV, Austin, TX

In March I had the privilege of attending the NPPA's 45th Annual TV NewsVideo Workshop at Oklahoma University in Norman, OK. So, you may ask, what happens at one of these things? The day starts with "Good morning Campers!" at 8 a.m., when a staff member addresses the roomful of bleary-eyed photographers. What follows are guest speakers, video presentations, and classroom critiques for the rest of the day, with optional group "cutaways" later in the evening (these were what I enjoyed the most, as they were more interactive). The cutaways covered a variety of topics from HDTV to lighting, and included a special Farkas-a-thon which I will get to later.

Participating faculty and staff included Brett Akagi, director of photography at KARE 11; freelance photojournalists Darrell Barton and Bob Brandon; NBC News reporter Bob Dotson; Ray Farkas from Off Center Productions; John Gross from NFL Films; Charles Hadlock, a freelance reporter who also works with KHOU; television editor John Hyjek of NBC News in Atlanta, GA; WJZ reporter Mike Schuh from Baltimore; and Kimberly Arms Shirk, who at one time was a reporter/photographer for WOI-TV.

Safety First: Kimberly Arms Shirk. As a young reporter in Nebraska, Shirk had been married only two months when she and her husband moved to Des Moines. She’d done one-man-band stuff in Nebraska and expected things to be the same at her new station in Iowa. Then the news director mentioned that she would also be required to run the live truck. She was apprehensive but it was now part of her job description. This was 1997. A colleague was off to do a live shot at the courthouse and needed a hand so Kimberly in her generous way kindly offered to sacrifice her lunch break to help out. She was sent out into the field, even though she had received no real safety training regarding the hazards of operating ENG vehicles with telescoping masts. With the clock ticking, eager to get the shot up, she failed to notice her colleague had parked underneath the power lines. He raised the mast and the shock of 13,000 volts went surging through his body. Witnesses described in graphic detail what happened. Kimberly, noticing something was amiss, ran to the other side of the truck to find her friend on the ground convulsing. As she attempted to go to his aid, the right side of her head made contact with the truck, causing severe burns on her skin and part of her skull, the electricity exiting her left knee and feet. Her big toes on both feet were blown off and her knee and other parts of her body required numerous reconstructive surgeries. At the scene, EMTs saw her injuries and left her for dead, treating her partner instead. Only after he was whisked away in the first ambulance did they turn to her. Kimberly's recovery continues to this day. Anyway I think you get my point: Safety is no accident.

I mention this because it was the most important presentation of the conference: SAFETY! Here in Austin last year we got a primer from Austin Energy about the dangers of electricity and what can happen if you are rushed, angry, upset at the desk or whatever, and raise a mast into power lines. No story is worth your life! The lesson is: Look up. Check. Double check. Ask your partner, “Do you see anything?” Use the flashlights.

Fun Stuff. Now on to the fun stuff. If there was a main theme of the workshop, it was storytelling. Think of your favorite comedian. Every joke has a setup, building action, or a complicating incident, and then a punch line at the end. It's that simple: a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Just think, you went to college and spent all that money, and in the end this was all you needed to know.)

Every story should have a plot, a protagonist, and a journey. There should be strong central characters, a dramatic arc, foreshadowing, conflict, resolution, and a closing. How these elements fit together is the question you answer when telling your story.

One point I’d like to make is that the NPPA TV NewsVideo Workshop is not only for photographers. Reporters are encouraged to go as well. Understanding what we do as photographers is important to the way reporters tell their stories, and vice versa. The workshop shows how success depends upon having a plan before you leave for a story. How many times have you gone out on a story, shot this, sprayed that, done a few interviews, a stand-up, and then gone back to the station and tried to put it all together? It probably happens more often than you’d like to admit. The reporter will blame the photographer: “He/she didn’t get that shot.” Photographers will blame the reporter: “He/she wrote me into a corner. I didn’t have a shot to cover that line.”

The real problem is, you didn’t have a plan to start with. The key is in knowing how the story is going to play before you shoot it, and that’s what Mike Schuh, a reporter for WJZ in Baltimore, explained at the workshop. As he took the floor, Mike held up an empty tape case and shook it. The objects inside made a jingling and rattling sound. He explained that his market, Baltimore, is an extremely violent place, and more often than not he finds himself in parts of town where police at crime scenes can’t tell the difference between shell casings used in the commission of the crime and the random ones that seem to litter the streets.

As quirky as we news people tend to be, he’s taken up collecting the shells he finds in the street. At this point he opened the tape case and dumped the shells on the floor and said, "Don't shoot wildly. If each one of those shell casings now represents a shot we have on our tape, what do we have? A bunch of random shots on the floor in no distinct order, representing nothing. Now what’s left to do but to pick up the pieces and to try to make sense of it all.”

What a pain, right? Have a plan, Schuh says. Shoot sequences and counter sequences, wide-medium-tight shots, action and reaction. To illustrate his point, he showed us a story of a train derailment that happened in Maryland a few years back. Because the train went off the track and caught fire in a tunnel, there was little video of the train itself other than the opening of the tunnel with smoke billowing out. So how do you tell the story of a train derailment that you have no pictures of? The story included the obvious: the tunnel opening, the fire public information officer, witnesses, the scene, and so forth. But having a plan, Schuh found a location that had a toy train and a tunnel he could use in a stand-up to explain which cars were leaking sulfuric acid, which cars were on fire, and how the accident occurred. He used a series of sequenced shots which, when cut together, were seamless and gave the viewer a frame of reference to visualize what had happened. Needless to say, because he had a plan, the competition was blown away while he ended up with a piece that he now shows at seminars.

Bob Dotson’s Middle Method. Bob Dotson is a reporter for NBC News whose work regularly appears on “Dateline” and on “NBC Nightly News.” We were lucky to have him as a speaker to share his insights about storytelling techniques. He opened with a package about twin bombings that happened several years ago at an abortion clinic in Atlanta. After the first explosion, a second was timed to explode after emergency crews and cameras had arrived. All the other networks opened their packages with tape of the second explosion. But Dotson – on the phone with producers and editors, and with the clock ticking – had a better idea: “Let’s build up to the (second) explosion and then in the middle of the piece, BOOM!” By building the dramatic effect, setting the scene with aerials and eyewitness accounts of the first bombing, the second explosion had an even greater impact on the viewer.

Another trick Dotson shared with the workshop was about story writing. After he’s been on a story for a while and the pieces are starting to come together, rather than struggling to come up with a “killer” opening line, he writes the middle of the story first, with all the nuts and bolts, and then goes back to find the next most interesting sound bite that he hasn’t yet used and rephrases that into the opening. By that time, the story is mostly written and he already knows what it’s about, so the opening and closing shots fall into place more easily.

About pictures and closings, Dotson made the point that television is fleeting, that the pictures are here and gone. In the old Western movies, the cowboy rides off into the sunset away from the camera. That’s what you want in a closing shot, one that says “resolution.” So when you’re nearly finished shooting, Dotson says ask yourself, “Do we have the cowboy yet?” If not, you’re not finished. Continue until you have it. We were shown several pieces, and then 30 minutes later we were asked to name a particular shot in the piece. In general, the viewer will remember the first and last shot because the pictures go by so fast.

John Hyjek, an NBC editor, was keen to point out that the eye is always drawn to the brightest part of the screen (as in a still photograph, the eye is drawn to the whitest or brightest spot). Knowing this, photographers should carefully watch backgrounds, skies, and ceiling lights. Anything in the shot that’s brighter than the subject will distract the viewer, drawing the eye way from what you want the viewer to see. To steal a line, “A good photographer will not show me what he saw, but what I didn't see.”

Communication & building relationships. One of the most important aspects of television storytelling is teamwork. Rarely do we work alone, and no story will succeed without creating a team environment. We work in the ultimate communication medium and often fail to communicate with each other. Building a relationship between the reporter and photographer is essential. Building trust and respect from your partner will make them work harder for you. A lot of it is attitude, being positive. Manny Sotelo, chief photographer for KUSA-TV, has been known to send applicants for photo positions out to work with a reporter for the day and then question the reporter afterwards to find out about the applicant’s attitude. If the reporter gives the applicant a thumbs-up, Sotelo is more likely to hire that person, even if their tape wasn’t that great. He knows he can craft the person into an excellent shooter, but the one thing you can’t craft is someone’s attitude.

For building the right team attitude, reporter Greg Vandergrift and photojournalist Scott Jensen have a Top 10 list of things for each team member to do.

For Reporters:

1. Carry the tripod. It shows you care. That hill to the Capitol is a big one. 
2. Think like a photographer. Know you are a visual storyteller. Write to video.
3. Be aware that your photographer may know better which way the story should go.
4. Allow your photographer time to gather the pictures necessary to tell the story.
5. Understand that your photographer is able to ask questions and collect information just like you do. 
6. Allow your photographer to make script suggestions.
7. Constantly communicate with your partner.
8. Do anything that will help your photographer gather the best pictures and sound. 
9. Don't write your photographer into a corner. 
10. Take pride, and have fun telling great stories.

For Photographers:

1. Get over your ego.
2. Realize you are collecting the puzzle pieces with which the reporter will write the story. 
3. Know your reporter can contribute or learn to contribute visually to the story.
4. Understand your reporter needs to collect information. Work to fit the info into your sequences. 
5. Know that sometimes you will have to work alone in order to get he job done. Prepare to ask questions. 
6. Allow your reporter to suggest shots. 
7. Constantly communicate with your partner. 
8. Tell your reporter how he/she can help you do your job better. 
9. Don't shoot your reporter into a corner. 
10. Take pride, and have fun telling great stories.

People Who Need People. Bob Dotson tells a story we should remember: Many moons ago, back around the time when we thought color television sets were a cool new invention, the Shah of Iran was in the States having surgery. His condition was grave, and the outcome was unclear. Local, network, and international television news crews were camped out near the hospital waiting for word of his condition. There was a rumor that the Shah’s son was also at the hospital and, if that was so, that was the “money sound bite” everyone wanted.

Around noon most of the crews left for lunch, except one particular photographer who stayed behind with his sandwich. A few minutes later the photographer noticed a young man smelling some of the beautiful red, pink, and white flowers in the hospital’s outdoor garden. On a hunch, the photographer casually approached him, camera rolling, shotgun microphone at the ready, and said, “Those sure are beautiful flowers, aren’t they?” The young man said, “Yes, they are.” The photographer’s own father had recently been hospitalized, so he said to the young man, “You know, my father was recently in the hospital and he loves to tend flowers in his garden.” To this the young man said, “Yes, my father is here in the hospital now having open-heart surgery and I’m deeply worried about him, I love him very much. He is the Shah of Iran.”

When the rest of the crews returned from lunch the photographer whispered to the reporter, “Guess what I got?” He went home a hero. How did he get his exclusive? Not by being a cameraman, but by being a person with a camera. When we talk with people in the field they are often at their best, but more commonly they are at their worst, and we must treat them with the respect they deserve. We don’t need to compound their grief with our intrusiveness and insensitivity. Remember to treat people as people and not as just the sound bite you need. If people are in distress, it’s best to talk with them first off camera. Then have the reporter wear a wireless lav microphone (if necessary) and shoot from a distance. Without a camera in their face, they may feel less threatened and may even forget that they’re on tape. You will get more emotional, natural sound bites, and by the time the reporter thanks them for talking with you, they’ll think, “Wow, that wasn't so bad. I didn't even realize they were recording.”

Darrell Barton & Ray Farkas. During the Thursday session, freelance photojournalist Darrell Barton, who regularly shoots for “60 Minutes,” “48 Hours,” and “Dateline,” introduced Ray Farkas. But first, Barton talked about shooting stories in Afghanistan with Dan Rather and showed a few pieces from Nicaragua and El Salvador. He also showed a raid on a cocaine processing plant in the jungles of Colombia, in which they had to run for cover when they came under fire as the Colombian military torched the facility.

Barton and Farkas go back a long time. Barton recalled how as a younger man, back when he was just beginning to freelance, a woman from NBC called and said, “Hi Darrell, I think we might have something for you. Will you work with Ray Farkas?" Barton was eager to go and hungry for work, so he said, "Lady, I will work with the Devil.” “This might just work out,” she replied. So Barton flew to the location and was pulling his light kit off the luggage carousel when a man walked up to him and said, "I hate lights." A bit taken back, Barton said, "Well, sometimes they help for illumination." Being the “A” cameraman in charge of the shoot, Farkas said to Barton, “Look, when we get there just go roll the camera and then you can go have a smoke or a cup of coffee, I don't care.”

Farkas, as many already know, is not your “ordinary” individual, as his first meeting with Barton illustrates. Recently Farkas suffered from a severe form of Parkinson’s disease that required brain surgery and, being none other than Ray Farkas himself, he decided to shoot it. With the help of Barton and a few others, including Farkas’s son, they documented every moment of it, from his suffering before the surgery, though the operation to implant electrodes to stimulate sections of the brain that were causing debilitating tremors, through his recovery. An episode of “Nightline” aired a version of the story, and a feature film documentary will soon be released called “It’s Not Television, It’s Brain Surgery.” Farkas said that he told the doctors that if they came up with a cure for Parkinson’s he was “going to strangle them and make them do the surgery anyway” because he’s worked so hard on the pre-production for the film.

It’s Ray Farkas’s style that makes him unique (www.offcentertv.com). His work includes a short film, “The Penis Museum,” shot for HBO. It’s about a real museum in Iceland that collects the penises of species native to Iceland: the arctic fox, the sperm whale, you name it (except for human). The piece includes an interview with an elderly Icelandic gentleman who has willed his penis to the museum when his time comes. It’s a charming story that got a lot of chuckles in the darkened auditorium. Farkas’s style of using compression in his shots and wireless microphones was also apparent in a story he did in Nashville, TN, with a street vendor’s hot dog stand. Farkas put the camera across the street from the two guys working the hot dog stand and told them the story was about Nashville music. Then he walked back across the street, rolled the camera on a two-shot of them, and let it roll locked down.

So these two guys just talk and play guitar and sing and totally forget that they are on tape. Ray likens it to eavesdropping, and it truly gets some magical moments. He used the same technique in a New York restaurant two days after 9/11, capturing all the grief and uncertainty that gripped the country after that terrible day. His work was truly inspiring and influenced my thinking about ways of shooting: Move the camera BACK! Look for shots that have foreground and background of what you want to be in focus, and look for compression shots. And when doing those man-on-the-street pieces, move the camera across the street and shoot with a long lens. As Farkas says, “It’s all about the journey.”

A Teamwork Checklist from NPPA Handbook:

1. Use language that will create a pro-team environment, words like "us" and "our" as opposed to "I,” “me," and "mine."

2. Discuss how to best visualize the story.

3. Work to find a central character.

4. Tell each other where you see the story going. Respect each other’s opinions. Brainstorm together.

5. Talk about the story structure and discuss the outline.

6. Build the open together before you get back to the station.

7. Talk about setting up surprises.

8. Be efficient with your time. Having more time to edit means a better-crafted story. Know what elements you need and what you don't.

9. A missed deadline reflects poorly on both of you. Don't give the managers a reason to break up your team. Try to resolve any issues with your partner before you go home. Follow the advice for married couples and don’t go to bed angry. It will only get worse.

10. On your assignment today, be ready to improve on what you didn't do so well yesterday.

11. The story belongs to the subjects. You and your teammate are privileged to be able to tell their story.

Michael Crawford can be reached at mcrawford@kvue.com.