The appropriate eye.

It’s a common bit of advice round many offices (and the halls of academe are no different) that you should always have a bit of paper in your hand to make you look busy. And it seems to be increasingly true that many people feel that you have to have a high-quality, often large, camera in your hand to make you look like a video journalist.

That doesn’t just extend to our own personal confidence. A newspaper VJ I know recently reflected on the time he wasn’t allowed through a security cordon with his little Panasonic camera, despite having a press pass, but the local TV crew just walked straight in.

Looking the part is often as important to some as actually doing your job.

‘Now, Andy’, I hear you say, ‘don’t kick up this whole quality kit debate again’. And I promise I won’t, at least not yet. The reason I’m raising it is that it the whole idea of how journalists are perceived and how the technology changes that , especially when you shoot video, took a different direction for me this week.

The right tools
That thought process was started as I caught up with my feed reading and came across a bit of cross posting by Mindy McAdams and Angela Grant questioning why some talking head video interviews are so dull.

I commented on a couple of my own theories why and a possible solution that involved shooting two interviews. One to get the story straight and one to get the interview to tell the story. Mindy responded:

Some people have suggested that you should do the complete interview the way you would for print — with your pen and notepad in hand — and only afterward, turn on the camera. Only then will you know the right questions to ask for the video.

Reflecting on that I thought, why bother with pen and paper. Shoot the video – tape is cheap – and you have more footage to play with. But I also have to admit that a pencil is less daunting for the interviewee than a video camera.

(added later: Just to clarify, in the light of some comments, that I was thinking about that in the context of gathering content for an interview that was usable in the editing process. I wasn’t dismissing pen and paper or note taking as useless in the face of video. Although I appreciate it can be read that way. I suppose I should have said why not pen and paper and video as well.)


This got me thinking about a conversation I after the official ceremonies at the Manchester Meld event . I was talking to one man video whirlwind David Dunkley Gyimah and Fee Plumley , director of the phone book ltd, who has been experimenting with content for mobile phones since 2000 including their latest looking for ‘Portable Electronic News Gatherers’ (or ‘PENG’) – nice phrase.

We where chatting about the role mobile phones and mobile content had to play in the growth of video online. In particular we kicked around the idea that the next generation of phones will have such good multimedia that they become an instinctive choice for filmmakers and journalists. If that sounds like a simple proposition, just try kicking that one round a room of journos, technologists and photographers and see how long you sit there.

One of the many points that came out that gave me food for thought was that idea of the level of permission a camera or microphone gives you as a journalist. And it reminded me that the technology creates a fine balancing act for journalists.

Opening doors
Sometimes the technology opens the door, like the TV crew, and other times, like an interview, it closes it. When choosing technology we should be thinking about the door we want to open as much as the way we are perceived.

Consider the stories, in the aftermath of the shooting of Rhys Jones, about the about the way Liverpool Gangs are using youtube to flaunt guns and crime.

Okay, so it’s an extreme example. But there are many environments where even a cheap camcorder would single you out and change the way people react to you. But a mobile phone is an acceptable piece of technology in many communities. You have permission to get a mobile phone out to film.

It’s an appropriate technology for that environment.

I’m not saying this to promote the use of mobile over other kit. A mobile phone won’t get you through a press cordon. But it may be invisible enough to get you the video you need to tell the story and that’s what it’s all about.

10 Replies to “The appropriate eye.”

  1. “Why bother with pen and paper?” Lots of journalists are expected to write a text story as well as shoot video. You can write that puppy faster from text notes. Get some text up on the Web site as soon as you’re finished. Then edit the tape at leisure.

    One of the best things I learned in that four-day Travel Channel Academy was that having less tape makes video editing about 100 times easier.

    Before, I was always afraid I wouldn’t have enough. Shoot everything. Don’t miss anything. Well … for me that means I have a lot of 60-minute tapes lying around that I will never, ever edit. Because I’ve not a very experienced video editor, I am really slow at it. More tape is a curse for me.

    If I have 10 or 12 minutes of tape, I can craft a 1- to 2-minute video in a fraction of the time it would take me to cut the same video from 60 minutes of tape.

    And those notes on paper? Everything I need for my narration.

  2. Perhaps I should have added that as well as reflecting on the non-threatening nature of the pen I’m not anti writing stuff down 🙂

    It’s certainly not my intention to recommend using video for taking notes, in fact I think it’s vital. In a multiplatform setting you need as many of the media as possible working for you and we should never forget the value of words in that.

    On the tape note. Having less footage is a great timesaver in the edit suite. There are some people doing great work on trying to cut out the fat from VJ shooting.

    But I think we can sometimes get too caught up in the time it takes. Whilst we may all soon labour under the tyranny of the comscore 2.7 minutes. I don’t think we should be too beholden to the old school TV shooting ratios of 15:1.

    I know we are all about breaking news video now and tight deadlines.I’m not ignoring that. But if one of the forms of story telling in online video is going to produced in a documentary style – structured and non structured interviews used to tell the story – you need the right footage.

    A quick edit is often as much about the experience of the person shooting as it is the skill of the editor.

    As an editor I have agonized for hours over to cut together 2 minutes together simply because I only had 10 minutes of raw footage. The problem was that no one had really thought about the stuff they were shooting.

    If you know the story you want to tell and if you know what you have shot because you have made notes, an edit should be quicker. Almost regardless of the stuff you have shot.

    But you need to know what it is you are shooting and why.

  3. Contemporary text notes are also very useful things to have in case of legal problems. I am not sure how well audio/video evidence stacks up against text in the existing legal system…

  4. Very true Matt.

    I suppose that is also something to reflect on in these days of journalists being expected to do everything. Can you make legally acceptable notes and also operate a camera?

    My own opinion would be that video/audio is just as reliable as written notes and it’s a actually a quirk of precedent and so a problem with an old school legal system as much as it is old school media that notes are seen as something with dominant legal weight.

    Being mindful of how a comment can be taken I would like to preempt one possible comment that some would make – The next step there would be to defend the position that shorthand has in journalism training. But to be honest whilst I see a value in shorthand here I would hate to think that anyone would use video as the reason to validate it as a defining tool of a journalist.

  5. Yes, that’s a thoughtful response Andy.

    > Can you make legally acceptable notes and also operate a camera?

    Answer, no. And if traditional business practice is anything to go by (keeping costs low) this may become a problem for journalists as the demand for professional multi-skilling will increase.

    > My own opinion would be that video/audio is just as reliable as written notes and it’s a actually a quirk of precedent and so a problem with an old school legal system

    Logic suggests you are correct, however, logic doesn’t necessarily play that way in courtrooms, and until there is a large, expensive and precedent setting case for video, it would be wise for journalists to retain tried and tested methods. (And this i think leads neatly into your point about shorthand.)

    The simplest and best available way of defending what you (as a journalist) have discovered.)

  6. Was just speaking to plucky (hope she won’t mind me using that) Fee Plumley.

    It certainly was some conversation. What time did we leave the drinks bar? 1.30 am?

    For me the conversation resonated something like this.

    Fi does a range of projects with the phone. Right!

    But could it become a must have for journos in say the same way the A1 is fast becoming?

    Its obvious benefit is that it’s on your person. An increasing benefit is that you can post straight to your blog.

    And what else?

    I don’t doubt it has huge value, but perhaps like video journalism with its rocky start, we just haven’t seen the trees from the wood yet.

    My thoughts, trend extrapolating ( oh dear I’m off again) is that it should/might/may be beg a new visual language.

    I remember talking to Clyde Bentley, Associate Professor of Journalism at Missouri School of Journalism who told me some years back now that Mobile programme use in S. Korea is huge.

    In visual narrative, I guess it’s more of the FBCU’s than the CU, given the screen size.

    And while it may be great for Citizen jo and “open wide” shooting, what about the construct?

    One major I said to Fee would be when the handset either by max-fi/wifi or some device lets you broadcast straight into a TV show/site or say with you stream live with multiple cams.

    Voila a minature sat kit on the cheap.

    Or what about having the lens on a rotating gimble or attached to key hole camera so you can do clandestine stuff?

    My A1 despite its size would have been too intrusive.

    Just two ideas. I’m sure they’re more.

    Fees in Leeds on Monday. She might be able to enlighten us further.

  7. Don’t remind me. Im just about recovered. 🙂

    I agree.

    Cams like the A1 are fast becoming the middle ground for this stuff and mobiles are ‘almost’ there. I still think we will see more A1’s around because they do what we want them to do, at the right price point. We get more technology than we deserve for our money You only look at the debate around the new version of I-movie to see just how people find and commit to this kind of technology.

    I don’t see mobile filling that kind of gap just yet.

    I suppose foremost in my thoughts was kicking around the idea of the mediation/censorship/editorializing that happens when we stand in front of people with our story telling tackle out.

    I’m just sat listening to the radio at the moment where someone is talking about the photographic eye, the eye of the photographer like Bresson, compared with the untutored eye of the amatuer. They are talking about the different perspective that they can give. (I’m wishing I could audio type at the moment.)

    If we add to that the idea of the appropriate eye – how the eye/lens changes the way people behave and the stuff we capture. Perhaps we need to think about using the technology of the untutored eye- the appropriate eye- to get that photographic eye in to the right place.

    Maybe that’s the gap that mobile can fill

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