Teaching Web video: Everything you need to know now

In non-TV news organizations today, we see mostly one of two choices for video (or both of these):

  • iPhone (more than any other phone or small device)
  • DSLR (various models)

All the smaller video cams seem to have fallen out of favor. Only TV and feature-length documentary makers use high-end video cameras.

What does this mean for teaching in j-schools? Some great minds in multimedia journalism education have been discussing that on the Facebook group “ONA Educators,” in response to a question posted on April 25, 2013. With permission of those named, here is what they said.

First, the question — which came from a journalism instructor who prefers not to be named, and who uses “flipcams” to introduce video in a basic multimedia journalism course at a U.S. university:

We’re on the video portion of our Multimedia Journalism class (we did audio and photography earlier in the semester). So far the students have learned:

  • How to operate a flipcam and small tripod and pay attention to sound/background noise and lighting. The five-shot method.
  • The basics of interviewing: Asking non-yes/no questions, not staging scenes, etc.
  • Keeping the camera steady and shooting from different angles and perspectives for more visual interest
  • Basics of iMovie: Editing shots down to ~5 seconds each, using sequencing to tell the story, voiceover technique (separating audio/video), background noise reduction, lower thirds titles

Are there any video skills you’d add to this list for beginning multimedia journalists?

The term flipcams can refer to the Flip brand (discontinued in 2011) or any other very small, simple-to-operate video cameras, usually priced around $100 (U.S.). In professional newswork, these have been replaced by iPhones or other mobile phones with HD video capability. While flipcams were an easy buy for many j-schools, high-end smartphones carry much higher price tags.

Robert Quigley, who teaches at the University of Texas, answered:

  • Teach them how to shoot steady video when no tripod is available (lean against a wall, set camera on a ledge, etc.)
  • Rule of thirds.
  • Basics of three-point lighting, using natural light.
  • Basics of Final Cut.
  • Importance of B-roll (shoot at least 6 minutes of footage for every 1 minute used is the rule of thumb I use).
  • Make the videos entertaining — look for the fun in life. News videos tend to be boring. No people sitting in their offices!
  • Keep videos under 2 minutes. Aim for 60 seconds. If they edit themselves hard, it will be a better video.
  • No fancy transitions/special effects should be used.
  • Get names spelled correctly and identify people.

Let’s break out some categories from what we have so far:

  1. How to shoot (how to hold the camera; getting B-roll; five-shot method); composition (rule of thirds)
  2. Studio techniques or setting up controlled shoots, such as some interviews (lighting)
  3. Editing software and editing techniques (Final Cut; length of final video; avoid transitions; lower thirds)
  4. Reporting practices (get names and other identifying info from all subjects; interviewing on camera)

Quigley also recommended videos from EveryNone to show the importance of audio (one example: “Play it with the sound off for 20 seconds or so first, then turn on the sound and start it again,” Quigley wrote.)

Curt Chandler, who teaches at Penn State, wrote:

We don’t use flipcams. The students shoot with DSLRs, Canon Vixias, JVC broadcast cameras and sometimes with smartphones. We stopped being device specific a while ago. We talk about outcomes and what gear it will take to produce that outcome, then support the students on whatever they choose to shoot with. I do a lot of pass/fail grading early on to encourage experimentation. Once the students and I are agreed on what quality I am looking for on a type of story — and what it takes to produce that — then grades appear.

So much good there!

Chandler said his students learn both breaking news and higher-end Web video/multimedia. Although he doesn’t explicitly discourage students attempting higher-end video with smartphones, he said, “during class critiques I’m pretty candid about comparing results for produced stories shot with high-end tools and the same type of story shot on the fly. The iPhone gallery on Vimeo shows it can be done, but only in a limited set of circumstances.”

And: “After a point, it’s easier to work with the more complex — and controllable — tools,” Chandler concluded.

Andrew Lih teaches at USC Annenberg; he shared the video training checklists that he and Lam Thuy Vo presented at ONA 2012. He also shared his new Wiki Makes Video project. Lih added these tips:

Closeups! More closeups! Not only because detail is more interesting than wide/medium shots, but today more than likely, folks are viewing video on smaller screens (i.e., mobile phones).

Start video shooting by ignoring the zoom rocker/lever. Keep the lens completely zoomed out. Hold each shot for 10 seconds.

Lih’s students start with consumer camcorders (Canon HF-R100 or R300) with mic inputs, “so we can use external mics. This teaches [students] ‘nightly news’–style pieces where they can use a lavalier or stick mic. Also camcorders can get real close for macro shooting. Then we branch out to both lower and higher fidelity,” Lih wrote.

Two assignments Lih shared:

  1. Shoot a piece entirely on your iPhone, Android phone or a point-and-shoot camera as a “web video.” Just to get the experience of shooting with what you have on your person. See here for an example of a piece I shot entirely on a Samsung Galaxy Camera. I teach students that getting close to the subject is not only more compelling video, it gets better audio pickup. Win-win. [The video uses WebM, so you need either Chrome or Firefox to view it.]
  2. Shoot a piece using a DSLR, having to go into manual focus mode. Gives students that third dimension of depth-of-field blur and rack focus. This is a real eye-opener for students, but they quickly realize the shortcomings audio-wise, and that it may not be ideal for deadline reporting.

Here’s a student example from the second assignment:

Allissa Richardson teaches a mobile journalism class at Bowie State University. She wrote:

I add a locative element. Be sure to include some instruction on how to geotag a video, and how journalists can create/use mapping through apps like Meograph to add more dimensions to video reports.

This opens a whole other area for instruction — shooting and editing video in the field using only a phone. In a recent conversation with Richardson, I was reminded that up to four iPod Touch devices can be tethered to one iPhone for uploads (Settings > General > Cellular > Set Up Personal Hotspot) — note that not all U.S. phone plans include this feature. Read more about Personal Hotspot on the iPhone.

There are so many situations when knowing how to get best results with video on a phone camera will pay off. I’m thinking every j-student needs to learn how to do it.

Getting Better Audio for Video

Finally, the discussion included some specific references to audio. The clear advantage of both consumer video cameras and the higher-end models favored by documentary videographers is the ability of such cameras to easily accept microphone inputs and record good-quality audio in sync with video. Using an external mic is a must for all cameras; monitoring the audio signal with headphones is strongly recommended.

Both DSLRs and smartphones have been notorious for recording poor-quality audio without an external mic.

One educator noted that using a separate Zoom audio recorder (Zoom H4n or Zoom H2n) in conjunction with a DSLR means one must then sync the files in post.

Chandler responded:

Syncing is fairly easy in Final Cut X, as long as one of the audio inputs doesn’t have a lot of background noise. DSLRs made in the last six months have headphone jacks and sound level meters, so audio as the Achilles heel of DSLR video won’t be a factor much longer.

We run a shotgun or a lav mic into the Zoom and get good results. The mics on the Zoom are fine, if the recorder is close to the subject. But to get it close enough, it ends up in the picture, so we usually end up using a lav and putting the recorder out of sight in the subject’s pocket.

If Rode ever delivers the smartLav mic to distributors, then you’ll be able to use a smartphone as a .wav recorder that can be placed on the subject.

Another not-yet-available mic, for iPhone and iPod Touch: the Zoom iQ5. Not clear yet (to me) whether this will fit with popular video cases such as Phocus or mCAM products.

Lih noted: “On most DSLRs you cannot monitor the audio being recorded from the tiny mic on the camera body. A big problem. Also, some [older] DSLRs have limits on how many minutes can be recorded uninterrupted.”

Video Editing Software (Quick Notes)

On the iPhone: the Voddio app, from VeriCorder.

On the desktop/laptop:

  • Final Cut Pro X: Easier to learn, teach, than Final Cut Pro 7, but disliked by editors who work in a team environment, including TV newsrooms.
  • Adobe Premiere: Now experiencing a big comeback because of the teamwork production issues in Final Cut Pro X. A number of j-schools have switched or are considering switching from Final Cut to Premiere for this reason.

There are other video editing programs, but these are the only ones that I hear being discussed today in the Web video arena. I recommend using iMovie in an introductory multimedia course that teaches a number of other things in addition to video — especially if the students have their own MacBooks — in part because you can teach it in about 15 minutes. If I had sufficient time in the course, or if it’s a video-only course, I would certainly teach Final Cut or Premiere.

8 Comments on “Teaching Web video: Everything you need to know now

  1. Premiere made more sense than FCP since about 2005 and couldn’t be touched since CS4 in 2008. Why would you torture students with that mess by Apple?

    As far as curriculum (in very general terms), we jump start our students with some basic edits with prerecorded clips in the first year, then move on to photography (including a timelapse/stopmotion assignment), then to audio with some vox-pop and live radio show/podcast type stuff, then finally back to video with an interview, another vox-pop, a recipe/how it’s made assignment and a news report. They finish the undergrad with a 10min documentary. I think this sets them up with the basic skills and a rudimentary understanding of what goes into producing video from a technical standpoint (not that much emphasis on the content as there perhaps should be. Keep in mind this is not a j-school program but media production in general and they presumably handle other aspects in courses I don’t have anything to do with. And then there’s typography, animation, DTP, web design/programming etc. to cover other media.

    In masters we kick off with a live streamed, 3 camera studio production, continue with a 3-6 cam live event recording edited individually in post (they usually go for concerts in small venues), then followed by a short chroma key feature and a fiction short for the finish.

    It’s interesting to see how other schools do video but with sometimes vast differences in the overall approach I find it’s usually not that easy to apply anything directly but just the general idea. I like the two assignments given by Lih but I’m not sure I could use them in any way. But I’ll definitely think about it.

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