Moving Stills: Video Storytelling by Photographers

By Heather Martino

The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism is “younger than the internet,” Bob Sacha told the crowd during his introduction to Moving Stills. It was a particularly interesting way to begin a panel on transitioning from photojournalism to videography, given the changing nature of journalism.

While most people are aware of the way the Internet has impacted the newspaper industry, the concept of how jobs for visual journalists are changing in this online landscape is less understood. Sure, tons of new jobs for graphics, data and computer science majors have been created, but there are also many more opportunities for video journalists now.

There’s a couple of key reasons for this.

Smartphones.

In the age of smartphones and Instagram, anyone can be a self-professed photographer. But it takes a certain special set of skills to understand how to shoot and edit compelling video pieces, integrating both the audio and video aspects. Additionally, smartphones make accessing video on your mobile device easier than ever before.

Steaming.

With the decline of TV News and success of video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, more traditional news outlets like CBS have been prompted to offer their own standalone steaming packages. As a result, more videographers are needed to produce this content.

Ad Revenue.

And that, coupled with the fact that companies are seeing the potential in selling commercial ad space before videos – which are more profitable than most other forms of online advertising – video journalists are in high demand.

So it’s no wonder that a school that is younger than the Internet – having opened it’s doors in 2006 – is constantly evolving to meet the ever-changing demands of journalism. Most recently, the CUNY J-School created the Department of Visual Journalism, and named Bob one of two Tow Professors.

Main Event.

So with that background in mind, Bob welcomed a packed house on Wednesday to a panel on transitioning from still photography to video production.

He hosted and moderated the 90-minute discussion, which featured three extraordinary filmmakers from both staff and freelance perspectives. They were Leslye Davis, a visual journalist at The New York Times; Andrew Michael Ellis, co-founder of the art collective Nomadique and full-time Director of Photography for MediaStorm; and Malin Fezehai, a freelancer specializing in portraiture and documentary photography, whose clients have included Time magazine, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Fader magazine and Nike.

Malin kicked off the evening by showing her documentary project “Vanishing Nation,” which looks at how climate change has displaced people in Kiribati in the South Pacific. Malin told the audience that she read the camera’s manual while on the plane to Kiribati, and since she was working solo, she had to make quick decisions when switching between shooting photos and video.

http://vimeo.com/34346212

Malin said that her general rule of thumb is to shoot video when there is passion, voice and action unfolding that can’t quite be captured in a photo – like people arguing outside of a court house.

Next up, Leslye shared one of her earlier clips about a young cancer patient. She spoke about how she became close with the boy’s family, but had to keep the camera rolling to capture the human emotion in this piece.

http://vimeo.com/41869033

“Comfort is something that takes time with a subject and it is visible in how you shoot,” she said.

Leslye then spoke about the importance of having a good relationship with your editor and trusting in one another. She illustrated this point by showing the intro to this Times piece, which she drew inspiration for from the film adaption of To Kill A Mockingbird. She worked all night to create just 24 seconds of this piece using a book she found on the internet archives, since she was still shooting her subject at the time that she needed to be editing. The result is nothing short of amazing.

http://vimeo.com/104746334

Her lesson to the audience was to understand the essence of your subject and have a good editor who will inspire you and understand your work.

Andrew was the last to go, and began his talk by showing his film school reel, which has made while a student at NYU.

http://vimeo.com/64652423

Andrew told the crowd that he was going to be a cinematographer, but changed his mind to shoot people’s stories. “The philosophy of storytelling is in your blood and in your bones,” Andrew said.

He’s since worked for a number of NGOs — one for which he created this piece on child soldiers called “They Came at Night.” Andrew said he liked working on this piece because it was made for the community that had lost children due to abduction by the LRA, and it was created especially for them to help them understand what it’s like for a child solider after they’ve been reintegrated in to society. Knowing one’s audience is an important part of shooting.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abd2ckBu8H8

Lastly, Andrew showed the trailer for his short doc that debuted this past weekend at DOC NYC, entitled “Eleanor Ambos Interiors.” He said that his style, especially for this piece, includes spending a lot of time with his subject until he can discover that person’s core story. But he also admitted that he always enters a room with his equipment on and ready to go, so that his subjects associate him with the camera right from the beginning of their relationship.

http://vimeo.com/74109846

Inspiration.

After Malin, Lesley and Andrew gave introductions and shared some of their work, Bob started the Q&A by asking each of the panelists where they draw inspiration.

Non-narrative documentary and conflict photographers are Malin’s influences, but she said that she is also inspired by Radio lab,

Leslye draws inspiration from works of fiction, but also mentioned a couple of individuals, including W. Eugene Smith, Gus Van Sant, and some of her contemporaries, like Chris Gregory.

Interestingly enough, Andrew said that he actually doesn’t always watch his contemporaries in order to remain true to his vision, but really admires Eliot Rausch – a recovering addict. He also said he tries to unlearn Disney and Hollywood techniques in an effort to shake up those styles. Additionally, Andrew enjoys reading books, and has been inspired by Josef Albers, a color theorist, and Joseph Campbell, who wrote Hero with 1000 Faces.

Visual Style.

After they talked about their inspirations, Bob asked the panelists - as journalists and directors - what they think about when they are filming, and what is their visual style.

Leslye started the conversation by saying that she looks for sensitivity in her images and tries to feel a presence in each image she captures. She also said that she favored natural light, and rarely lights a subject. If there is one little source of light, she tries to work around it, and thinks that her style is based largely on light and low lighting situations.

Even when she shoots, Lesley said that she is always thinking about post-production and what her editor is going to want when she begins cutting her piece. “Know what you want,” Leslye told the audience. She also said that she’s “always thinking about scene-building, even when moments are unfolding,” and situations where she can reveal something.

Leslye’s style is to move from a medium or hyper wide shot to show close up details. “Ask yourself questions about the smaller parts of a scene before the moment of action is revealed to you,” she advised.

Andrew jumped in next to tell the audience that his style includes everything from “visuals, music, sound, design, color scheme,” and that he looks to have a strong broad palette when shooting. He also likes stark juxtaposition in his imagery, blending “symmetrical, elegant, spacious” shots with “rugged, in your face, too close shots.”

He also thinks about the beginning, middle and end of a moment, and the feeling that those shots evoke. “The life is happening; you’re just putting a box around it,” he said.

Leslye added on to this by saying that film is a bigger than photo because it’s about giving people emotion through light and sound. “Sound is essential,” she said.

Team vs. Solo

A member of the audience asked the panelists what is it like to shoot on a team versus shooting solo.

“Take out your camera from the start,” Andrew advised the audience. “When shooting, the goal is to become invisible even if you have a big crew,” he said. And if there is going to be a crew, Andrew prefers that they be there with the subject from the beginning — from the very first meeting.

For Leslye, she said it’s hard to collaborate sometimes since she is “used to the intimacy of photography.” But she said that sometimes you need to let go and work as part of a team.

Continual Learning.

Bob asked the participants what they are still learning, and they each had some great answers.

“Video is about waiting — even when you think you’ve waited enough, you need to wait even longer,” said Malin. That is the big difference between photo and video, in her opinion. With photography, you can take a shot and you are done. But with video, you have to wait for the action to unfold, and hold a shot longer than you think necessary to allow the viewer to absorb what has just happened and convey certain feelings.

Andrew said that he is learning the process of editing, and how to really shoot for the edit. He wants to make that process feel invisible and seamless. “Doing it yourself — feels like you earned it,” he said of editing his own pieces.

Andrew again reiterated that he always shows up with his camera ready to roll, thus making the camera an extension of himself. He even goes so far as to practice in front of the mirror using the camera, so that he knows all the controls by heart.

Like Malin, Leslye said that she is learning about time and the importance of lingering on shots to let them play out, as well as the amount of time it can take you to edit something. Being conscious of your habits “grows your shooting,” she said. A huge lesson she has learned is that you can’t sustain your pieces if your audio is not good enough, since a viewer will often forgive bad visuals, but not bad audio. Lastly, she said to always put overexposed footage in the delete bin instead of wasting time trying to fix it.

Bob told the panelists that their deep humanity and caring really shines through in their work. It is key to capturing great video.

*****

For more on this conversation, you can check out the hashtag #MovingStills.

All photos in this piece are the courtesy of Beimeng Fu and the NYCityPhotoWire.