Advice from a pro about online video

Update: Download Garrett Hubbard’s 3-page handout with tips, workflow, and more links! (PDF, 472 KB. Available here with his permission.)

A first glance can give you a completely wrong impression. Go to the USA Today Web site and try to find some engaging, innovative video, and you might come away feeling certain that there is none.

Garrett Hubbard shoots video for USA Today. He spoke about his work on Sept. 13 at the Online News Association’s annual conference and showed his audience some wonderful, even delightful videos — the likes of which I have NEVER SEEN at the newspaper’s Web site.

Just look at the one about Tony Hawk, the god of skate, or this one, about a kid who made himself into a YouTube star. These are fast, fun, well edited, and way better than most TV news video.

On a more newsy and serious note, see Hubbard’s video from Ethiopia, which intersperses solid information and beautiful visuals.

Too bad the USA Today video player is a stingy 400 pixels wide. Too bad you can’t download these for your iPod or iPhone. And most of all, too bad that when you try to find video on the USA Today site, all you get is low-grade AP video that’s mediocre at best.

Hubbard comes from a still photojournalism background, he told us. After earning a degree in economics and accounting, he went to Brooks Institute of Photography and studied visual journalism. He worked at the Naples (Fla.) Daily News for about 18 months and then went freelance in Washington, D.C., in June 2007. Now he’s on staff at USA Today.

“A lot of my assignments will require a still for the print edition, but 80 percent of my time is spent on video,” he said.

Some of the tips he gave:

  • Set up a pace that suits the story. Return to an idea again and again, instead of just putting “bookends” of narration on the front and back of a piece. (The YouTube star story is an example of this.)
  • Use audio to hint at what will be coming up next. This creates a little anticipation and holds the viewer’s interest. (Some of this in Ethiopia.)
  • Explain to the person you are about to interview how you need him or her to include your question in the answer. Explain that you will be cutting out your own voice.
  • Never use the on-camera mic for interview audio. Always use a lavalier, or if you must, a hand-held. (If you are solo, and you have no wireless lav, then break the rule.)
  • Use straight cuts, no transitions. Exceptions: fade in your lower-thirds, and your end credits.
  • Use natural light whenever possible.
  • Having a second pair of eyes (an editor looking at your work) is “priceless.”
  • Use a voiceover narration when it’s needed.
  • Keep it simple. “I believe that less is more,” he said.

In comparing TV news video and newspaper video, he said he admires how TV is TIGHT — they have great writing. “They tell you what you need to know, and they do it fast,” Hubbard said. What TV does badly: They tell us what we can see (“It’s really windy here!”), and they sensationalize too much.

He also emphasized something I have heard from other videographers:

“If you’re shooting video and not editing it, I think you’re not going to be a good shooter.” The reason: In editing, you learn what you should have shot, and didn’t. You discover what’s missing. Next time, you’ll try to get those things. You’ll be better next time — if you edited your own last take.

How long does it take to edit a three-minute video? About eight hours, if it’s the one about the YouTube star. Oh, yeah, you ought to watch that one.

“As a video storyteller, I am so STRETCHED,” he said. He referred to being alone on a story, without a reporter, so that it’s up to him to conduct the interview and shoot the video. A still photographer is often “spoon fed” his assignments, Hubbard said — someone else does the interview and writes the story, while you are just told where to go and what to take pictures of. He wasn’t complaining.

“It’s going to make you a better journalist,” he said.

While you may have heard (as I have) that Gannett is all Avid all the time, Hubbard contradicted that. “At USA Today, we are all on Final Cut,” he said.

He shoots with both the Sony PMW EX1 and the Sony HVR A1U HDV. Otherwise, his kit is mostly the standard Gannett gear I listed here last summer.

After his edit is complete and he has exported the MOV, Hubbard compresses an FLV file in Sorenson Squeeze; he writes a title and caption for the video; he gets a frame-grab and tones it, then saves for Web in Photoshop. Finally, he watches and tests the compressed FLV and uploads it to the server.

But hey — he doesn’t know Flash. Or HTML. He made sure to mention that.

7 Comments on “Advice from a pro about online video

  1. Mindy,

    Seems like you took copious notes at these sessions. I wanted to share something that he said at the beginning of the session that I think is so important.

    “I don’t know where online video is going, but good storytelling will always be there.”

    While everyone is debating (and rightfully so) the difficulties in monetizing video, it can be easy to think newspapers will abandon video. But it is a powerful and honest way to tell important stories.

    Garrett was a true professional. I only wish people hadn’t wasted so much time discussing what type of camera, tripod, etc. he uses. They are JUST TOOLS!

    It was a pleasure to meet you as well. (I introduced myself after the integrating web JO into college curriculum class. I was the young multimedia reporter. I work for the Burlington Free Press, a Gannett paper. (We use Avid, but again, they’re just tools)

    Thanks for the detailed posts.

  2. Thanks, Mark. I enjoyed meeting you!

    You’re SO right about storytelling being far more important than the tools. I find it’s easy to teach tools and much more challenging to teach storytelling (classroom time has to skew to storytelling, about 80 percent, in my opinion).

    Hubbard’s videos themselves make this argument.

    (P.S. I learned how to take notes in my print journalism undergrad. I almost never record anything, unless I intend to put the audio online.)

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  6. more and more newspaper videos are looking like video press releases.

    Every aid agency in the world has a pro (often highly paid)videographer, some have dozens. Likewise Tony Hawk.

    Having a newsroom produce these pieces creates “collaborator video”. It rests on an implicit agreement along the lines of “we will co-operate 100% with you, so that you can produce a video that gets our message across”.

    It’s not news – unless you include Fox News. There is no such thing as an independent collaborator.

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