Why is Video Hard? Five Shots and Patterns

This month’s Carnival of Journalism host is Andrew Pergam, who asks What is the role of online video in the newsroom of the future?

I answer with a question: Why is learning (and teaching) video so hard for journalists?

I’ve taught new media journalism for over a decade and trained correspondents with news organizations (Wall Street Journal, Reuters, et al.) all over the world.

Without exception, the weakest part of training journalists old and new is understanding visual literacy while alone, shooting in the field. We can train them before they go out in the field, and coach them after. But video storytelling is technical, complicated and all too often, a lone act while shooting.

The journalist is solo and overwhelmed by all the other duties of reporting. And increasingly news organizations are asking journalists to capture video, without the right training to get it done.

It should be no surprise then, the majority of footage that comes back is shaky and unusable in the edit room, and the visual skills of journalists rarely get better without a lot more determined training.

We don’t train journalists well in video, and we need to do it better.

But there is a solution and it’s through “video patterns.”

One of the most famous, and useful of these, is Michael Rosenblum’s “five shot” method that he developed training journalists from the NY Times to the BBC. It’s actually something he’s preached since the late 1990s, and those who are fortunate enough to learn it get an insight into shooting better video, immediately.

I’ve successfully used this in the classroom to teach visual literacy, because it hones in immediately on what’s important. The five shot method always prescribes these, shot in this exact order (my handout here):

  1. A closeup on the hands of a subject – showing WHAT is happening
  2. A closeup on the face – WHO is doing it
  3. A wide shot – WHERE its happening
  4. An over the shoulder shot (OTS) – linking together the previous three concepts
  5. An unusual, or side/low shot – providing story-specific context

Five shot sequence (Andrew Lih)

Rosenblum stresses that this provides usable footage every time, and this sequence always cuts together logically in the editing room. He’s right.

And it has an Atkins Diet effect — it convinces otherwise despondent journalists that they can indeed do effective video, and that it’s more hard science than unattainable art in getting stories done well.

WSJ multimedia reporter Lam Vo and I have used this to help train professional journalists in the field. I’ve used this in the classroom at USC Annenberg to give folks the starting point for video literacy. Journalists using this have said it’s helped provide an immediate “game plan,” directing them towards good shots and techniques, and reducing training time in the field. (It doesn’t hurt that the first two shots will always be useful B-roll, which can be a savior in the editing room.)

But the method is important not because this particular pattern is a universal story sequence, but because it compels journalists to learn visual literacy by doing, to form good habits, and to understand video is a closeup medium.

By mastering the 5 shot method, they learn:

  • Closeups
  • Logical sequences
  • Respecting the line of action
  • Getting effective B-roll
  • Editing solutions

So where do we go from the 5 shot?

We can build on the experience of 5 shot to go on to more “patterns” as a way to rapidly gain experience in a visual storytelling. The 5 shot does not handcuff journalists to a particular sequence. It leads them to more possibilities.

At the new USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, I’m looking into how to incorporate patterns into the video shooting process through apps for mobile devices. Instead of a paper 5 shot checklist in one hand and a camera in the other, why not integrate them together into one? Imagine an iPhone or iPad interface that provides a storyboard of the 5 shots that guides the videojournalist through this shot sequence. Visual algorithms can give hints and warnings about how well a shot is framed, or if a shot is shaky (ala iPhone’s motion sensor), or if the lighting is correct.

iPad mockup of the five shot method (Andrew Lih)

In this way, the camera is no longer just a capture device, but an instructional device, providing direction and feedback to the operator to learn visual literacy by “doing.”

Instead of learning video shooting from a textbook, or even an e-textbook, such a device is actually an e-workbook, transforming the iPhone or iPad into an integrated capture/learning device. And imagine if we go beyond the 5 shot, to allow many other patterns to be loaded into the e-workbook, providing more visual patterns and tropes to be taught.

It has the potential to revolutionize how we learn and shoot video, opening up video storytelling to journalists and crowdsourcing efforts.

See related Carnival of Journalism posts by Michael Rosenblum and Lam Vo.

I’ll be talking about this project at the Journalism Interactive conference at the University of Maryland, in October. Andrew can be reached at andrew at andrewlih.com.

24 thoughts on “Why is Video Hard? Five Shots and Patterns

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