Mid-Career Grad Student

Curtis Franklin’s Weblog for Graduate School at the University of Florida

Learning to tell stories in video

Posted by Curt Franklin on 27 April, 2008

This has been an interesting term in Journalist’s Toolkit. On the one hand, I’m convinced that the things that we’ve learned are essential skills for journalists in the opening decades of the new millennium. On the other hand, I’ve been frequently frustrated as I’ve tried to keep up with learning these new skills. Some explanation is obviously in order…

The essence of “story” is something I think I have a decent handle on. I’ve been telling stories for a long time, I understand the concepts, I get the structure — the essence of the craft is something I “get”. In general, this term didn’t change my understanding of story telling, though it did help me attach a new word — the “train” — to a concept I’d worked with before.

The train came from our textbook, Documentary Storytelling: Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films, which was an interesting piece of the experience. Most of the points made in the book were on-target and useful — it was the scale of the examples that made things interesting. There were plenty of suggestions on topics ranging from story to scripting to financing the production, but they were aimed at longer-form documentaries. A section on developing the arc of a story through a 3-scene structure, for example, seems a touch over-engineered for a 2-minute video. With that aside, I’m not sorry that we worked through the book, and I plan to keep it on my bookshelf.

Now, the best part of the course was, I believe, the time I was able to spend with my hands on a video camera or editing tool. The worst part of the course was, I believe, the (lack of) time I was able to spend with my hands on a video camera or editing tool. While I understand the structure of telling a story, telling that story through video took me well out of my comfort zone. Yes, I had become much more comfortable using photographs with text to tell a story, but video was something else — I think the best analog would be if I had been told to tell a journalistic story through rhyming verse. On the one hand, I understand both story-telling and the basics of rhyme, but I don’t have nearly enough experience actually doing it to let me feel comfortable putting them together.

That could be, to be honest, the point of the course. I don’t feel like I’m coming out of the course with a mastery of telling stories using video. I do, on the other hand, feel that I’m coming out of the course with enough knowledge to allow me to keep learning from a rational starting point. I’m fortunate — I have a video camera that I can use to practice, and further develop my skills. If I didn’t have that equipment access, I can imagine becoming quite frustrated with a new set of skills that I couldn’t build upon.

One portion of the course that I greatly enjoyed was working on the final team project. I have a very small number of people with whom I collaborate on articles in my normal work, and it was fun working with a new partner on the final video. A partnership is always an interesting relationship in which the members have to bring their skills, judgement, and opinions while realizing that the final result won’t be exactly as it would have been had they worked on it alone. In my case, my partner has a great eye and a story-telling sensibility that is different than (though completely compatible with) my own. It was a very good experience.

So, do I think I’ll use what I’ve learned? Absolutely. I’m on assignment now, and I anticipate producing at least two video segments during the next week. I know that I’ll use the video skills for my primary job, and I am confident that I’ll be able to build freelance business based on video, as well.

What do I want to do with the skills? I want to improve my ability to tell stories through video, and I want to work on combining video, photographs, audio, and text into complete story-telling packages. For that, I’m certain that I’ll need to improve my Flash skills — another area in which I’ll be building on the initial exposure we received in class.

What’s my overall impression of the course? As I said at the top of this post, I’m absolutely convinced that any journalist who wants to earn a living in the next few years will need to know how to tell a story in a number of different ways. Video, Flash, photography, text, and all of these put together will be part of the job description of working journalists. For those of us who want to teach and train young journalists, being able to use these techniques to tell stories will be essential to preparing the next generations of journalists. My only significant disappointment is that our department isn’t moving in this direction more quickly and completely. We need the theories, the skills, and the tools to become complete modern journalists — not the modern journalism equivalent of the master button-hook maker.


4 Responses to “Learning to tell stories in video”

  1. floraxu1220 said

    This semester, I always struggle with what we learned about story arc and story telling for documentary and our own video projects. I always try to find a great story during interview, but it really difficult to tell a compelling story in 150 seconds.I always expect too high for my video, but find it usually disappointed me in the end.

    I feel the skills I learned this semester are really useful in my future career if I can fully develop those skills and apply them to my job. However, I still try to find out the best direction I want to lead my career to. I still cannot see the whole picture of the future role of new media in communication. I know that be able to tell story in different ways can add me a lot of points in future career, but my problem now is that, I am interested in all these new technologies I am not familiar with, and I am kinda lost my own direction.

  2. britr said

    I couldn’t have put it better myself. I don’t have a good, hard grasp of story-telling process with video, but I do have skills that will enable me to learn more. I even have enough motivation to get my hands on my own camera. Like you said, we just need to fiddle with it a little more.

    Question for you: Do you use your own equipment on assignment, when you’re story-telling? Or do your employers provide your story-telling equipment? Sometimes I worry that equipment barriers (whether they’re corporately enforced or enforced by an slow-to-change university system) are what’s keeping journalists from truly mastering the art of news story-telling.

  3. Question for you: Do you use your own equipment on assignment, when you’re story-telling?

    I’ve invested in my own equipment for use on assignment, or have had clients invest for me. My publication has a few video cameras, but they’re in a pool (and the pool is located 2,500 miles from my house), so getting my hands on the video cameras is tough. I’m much happier with my own gear — I can practice, practice some more, use it for multiple projects, practice a bit more, and finally feel like I have some facility with their use.

    Your concern about equipment barriers is valid. When I look in my bags, I see equipment that is far from being the most expensive, but still represents thousands of dollars in investment. I’m not sure there’s a good way around that, since I’m convinced that most of us are going to be living the (mostly) free-lance lifestyle from now on. It requires you to invest in yourself, and that can be tough when there are other things (like house payments and food) that are demanding your financial attention.

  4. amescua said

    Um… interesting, I do believe that the best way of learning the use of any new tool, or any new process is repeating it or using it. That’s why I don think that having your own camera, even if it is an old one or an old one, helps you a lot when you try to learn. The same with video. If you have your video camera hanging from your neck day and night, you will get use to it, you will learn to be faster and skilful with it and you will be able to play with it and try different ideas or concepts.

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