By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
"A dozen pies?" "I don't have a dozen pies, where did he get that?" I heard that waft from an edit bay tonight as a fellow photographer edited an anchor package he shot earlier in the day that was written by a producer. We have all been in this situation; here is the continuation of a remedy.
So you have watched your tape of great writing until the oxide fell off the tape. The scripts run through your head at night as you lay down to go to sleep like the last song on the car radio just before you took the key out of the ignition. Every shot, every edit, every word is as familiar as the big specks of dust on the inside of your viewfinder. It's time to write.
This is the perfect time of year to find a good story to cut your teeth on. I don't recommend a passion project, some story you have been eyeing for months or years. Get a few packages under your belt so you can concentrate on that special story rather than what it takes to get the story. This will make you laugh, but the best stories to practice on are the "Triple Crown of Bullshit" stories, as they are referred to by John Larson of Dateline NBC. You know them, and we all dread shooting them year after year---homeless people eating Thanksgiving, hottest toys this Christmas, how to protect your purse and presents while holiday shopping. That cheese ball "biggest shopping day of the year story" you could normally shoot with your eyes shut takes on a whole new dimension when you are the one putting words to the pictures.
Here is how to do it:
You know how much shooting a package requires, so just shoot it as you normally would. Sounds too simple? Here is the weird part. As you are shooting, think about how you are going to tell the viewer about the biggest shopping day of the year or what ever story you choose. As the lines come into your head, either write them down or I say them into my shotgun mic so when I am logging tape I know what line goes with what video and I can put it directly into the script with the time code. The words are not coming into your head? This is where the tape of great writing comes into play. Crawl into the head of one of the reporters on your tape. How would they describe this scene to the viewer? It is the WWJD approach to reporting (for me, the J is Jim Axelrod at CBS News). The words are still not there, don't worry, just keep shooting and we will find them when we sit down to log the tape.
First get the nuts and bolts:
Just like when you pull up to a spot news scene and shoot the basics first just to make sure something sticks to the tape, get the simple stuff out of the way so you can look for the details that will make your story. All too often, I have attacked a story right out of the gate without getting the big picture first and it ended up biting me in the edit bay. Once you find the stride of the story, you will be so excited about getting it back to the station, not even wide shots will stand in your way.
Knowing you are writing the story puts a lot of pressure on getting good interviews with people. Don't be afraid to start with familiar territory: the PIO, the self inflicting group spokesperson, the over enthusiastic store manager, the pesky yutz who keeps quipping "put me on TV". They will probably give you the basics of your story or buy you a little time to spot a better interview. Isn't funny how when you are passing off a tape to a producer or anchor to pull some meaningful sound from, the first three people you can beg to talk on camera will do? Yet now it is time to be discriminating (I am as guilty of this as anybody). Such a big part of our job is being a psychologist, trying to read people, and then getting them to talk on camera. A few things I do to get good interviews out of a crowd:
---Spot chatterbox little kids, ask them two or three questions at once in an hyper-enthusiastic manner "Are you guys having a good time, what are you doing here, why did you wear a red shirt?"
---Then turn to Mom or Dad, "How are you doing, what brought you guys out today?"
---Guys in t-shirts with stuff printed on them are your best friend when you are looking for a character. If they are willing to wear their thoughts on their chest, they are willing to say them on camera.
---I love crazy, fun people---You can see them coming from a mile away...the grandma in the giant Christmas sweater with real blinking lights, the husband and wife dressed head to toe in matching Denver Broncos outfits, the woman who gets out of the VW Bug with McDonald's Happy Meal toys glued all over it...aside from the fact that they are a package in themselves, they always have an interesting perspective on whatever story you are shooting.
---Little ol' men sitting on benches surrounded by shopping bags, they are the guardian of the family finds, they have been abandoned for the sale at Crate and Barrel, they are bored and wish they were watching football right now, they are thankful for someone to talk to and they have a lot to say.
Sometimes I put the wireless lav on them and set up the camera far away, make sure I am rolling and have good audio and then try to stay out of frame as I have a conversation with them. I usually only do this with people who are captive, such as sitting in a stadium seat, office cubicle or working on a factory line. Due to the nature of the stories I do, time does not often warrant something so labor intensive, so I do a lot of camera on the tripod at eye level and ask questions with the shotgun mic. No, it is not art, but I will make up for it with poetry.
However, I am a big fan of putting the wireless lav on someone if they are the focus of my story and doing something where we can have a running dialog while they do their task and do the interview at the same time, such as someone wrapping Christmas presents. It buys you a lot of time if you get what you need and can forgo the formal interview, and it will be far more conversational. But here is the biggest advantage: change your questions into statements and that part of the package is written and kind of edited in the camera. For example:
Q: "What makes this process so difficult?"
S: "This is the tough part of the process"
Q: "Why is this your favorite part?
S: "It's her favorite part for a reason."
Q: "How did this all get started?"
S: "It started so simply (or strangely, or innocently, whatever fits)."
Here is a last ditch effort for sound, but never fails: walk up to someone who seems friendly and talkative, hold out the mic and say, "they did not give me a reporter today, you have to be my reporter, but I will hold the mic, what is going on here?"
As you are gathering sound, here are a few things to keep in mind if you start feeling overwhelmed with information or a lack of good interviews.
---This is not a nat sound package, whatever the interview does not say, your track will.
---You are filling a 1:15 package, add up all of your good sound in your head, plus nats, by the time you fill in the holes with the facts, you are done.
---If your interviews are not giving you information in a usable form (lots of ummms, buts and likes), but they have great reactions... "You would not believe it, it is totally weird", "I had no idea it was this cool", "Dude!"... let them be the punctuation for your writing rather than the body of information, you can say what they are saying in a more concise manner and they will back you up.
--- If you are getting bombarded with information, think back to your days at the NPPA Oklahoma Workshop or high school English class...what is your commitment?...what is the one point you are trying to get across to your viewers? The biggest shopping day of the year is over-hyped, people who work Christmas day don't mind it, Santa Claus is real. Anything that does not support or balance your commitment, drop it at the next doorway and keep shooting. If it is already stuck to your tape, make a note to yourself that when you sit down to log, you can blow past that part and save yourself some time.
Here is the biggest advantage of all to photographers writing. You know the moments you have on tape. That is what is going to make your story. How many times have you watched your reporter start logging the tape and they fast forward through all of the b-roll and go right for the interviews, log the sound, pop out the tape and write their story? Those little moments can say more than any yapping yutz and your reporter just missed them. Just so I don't lose little moments in the midst of wallpaper video, I hit them with a few seconds of colorbars. So when I sit down to log the tape and I am fast forwarding through the b-roll, the bars signal me, "hey back up, check this out, you are going to want to write to this".
When you feel you have enough for your package, step as far back from your scene as you can without losing it completely (the mall, somebody's house, the Christmas parade) and shoot wide, medium, tight and super-duper wide shots of your scene, I call these cartilage, they will help you connect the bones if you end up in a writing or editing jam. I don't want to tell you how much I end up using these. Sometimes they will give you a little inspiration by showing you a perspective of how your scene fits into the bigger world...The little wooden church on the hill is the only building for miles, but for the for Ernestine Clark, it's her whole world. The Metro Center Mall looms over Interstate 17, drawing in passing traffic with the promises of holiday bargains. The Swenson's house sits unassuming in this Peoria neighborhood, but what happens inside is like no place else.
I can tell you right now, when you are putting your gear back in your car, your head will be racing...the opening shot... the ending shot... 1:15... I have not eaten yet... the interview with the woman... tease video...my commitment... do I want Taco Bell? Before you even put the key in the ignition, write down the most memorable moment you shot during your story. It maybe a funny soundbite, a touching reunion, a bizarre fact, an adorable reaction. If it is memorable to you, it will be memorable to your viewers. If you have a cell phone (I am aware all stations do not equip photogs with cell phones, I used to work at one), call into your producer and let them know immediately what you have and listen to yourself describe the story, in a very conversational way, you just wrote it. You just gave your story a focus, you put out the most important facts, you included the sexiest details; you sold it to the producer the same way you will present it to your viewers. Also, your producer will deeply appreciate knowing what you are doing and how you are doing (producers can be very suspicious of writing photogs) and they can get started writing the teases for your story. If you don't have a way to call it into your station, imagine how you would tell your Mom about your story. Believe it or not, you are through the toughest part of writing a package. Now swing through the Taco Bell drive-thru and ask for an extra large drink because you are fired up.
Alright, there are a lot of "Triple Crown" stories out there waiting to be shot, go get 'em, and next time we will sit down at the computer, pound out a script and hit the edit bay. A huge thanks to everyone who wrote in about the first part of this. I truly appreciate your support and input and would love to hear more about how this is helping or what I can do to make it better. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or LEFrenchNM@msn.com.
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