Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Meanwhile, back in video class

Whenever I hear about basic video shots, I think of the old television show “Dragnet.”

I brought this up in our video training class the other day, and Stacey, our instructor, and everyone else looked at me strange – except for our photo editor Brian Corn, who has been around as long as I have. Not that I remember the first-run “Dragnet.” I did grow up watching reruns and, yes, saw it the second-time around when it revived in the 1960s.

The show that made “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order” possible always started off the same: a wide shot of the Los Angeles skyline glistening in the sun, or in the ‘60s, smog hovering overhead.

“This is the city,” Jack Webb’s voice would intone, “Los Angeles, California.”

Cut to an exterior shot of the LAPD headquarters. Cut to inside the office.

"My name’s Friday,” the voice would say, as you would see Webb’s character walking through the office door. “I carry a badge.”

Those are the basics:

An establishing wide shot to set the sense of place, time and even weather conditions.

Gradually tighten the shots, bringing us to where the scene will be set.

Show the characters and their faces.

Catch action: people doing things, moving about. Otherwise, why are we shooting video?

You look for wide shots, medium shots and close-ups. That’s really all you need to get started, when someone hands you a point-and-shoot video camera to take on a story. If you do them in that order, you even spend less time editing them, because the scenes logically go together.

“You need a sense of location, and you need action of what the people are doing,” Stacey said.

Pick up the sounds of what’s going on, and a couple of interviews with people that you can roll behind your other shots, and you’re off to a good start to produce a video that will enhance your multimedia coverage.

It sounds simple but consider this the next time you want your favorite movie. You’ll be surprised how often you see this simple progression.

“Gone with The Wind” opens with a wide shot of the mansion of Tara. Cut to two men with their backs turned talking of war. They step aside to sit by the young lady they are talking to and the camera zooms in to reveal Scarlet O’Hara.

“Manhattan,” displays with the New York skyline and the roar of the clarinet opening Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The camera cuts to a sign flashing “Manhattan” followed by close-ups of a corner café, people bustling about the streets, people milling about a street market, as Woody Allen describes his love for the city.

These are fictional, scripted and directed. Still, we learned how to write narrative journalism by reading the short stories of Hemmingway, Twain and Chekhov and applying their tools to our way of presenting the facts. It’s the same with visual narratives.

I also like the BBC’s “Five Shot Rule” - close-up of the hand, close-up of the face, over-the-shoulder and two shots from other angles.

Be careful, though. This can become addictive. You’ll be watching movies and documentaries, saying to yourself, “Establishing shot … close-up of the hand …”

Just don’t say it out loud. People will stare.

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