Think before you shoot

The minute good MMJs get their assignments they're thinking about who they're going to talk to and how they're going to shoot the video. Different stories present different opportunities for visual storytelling. Sometimes there are so many things to shoot the key is deciding what to leave out. Other times there may only be one subject in the story, and that means using some basic but essential videography techniques that will make the story shine.

Today's story: a veteran is walking to the four corners of the United States to draw attention to PTSD and suicides in the military. He's in San Francisco. The three basic elements I tell my students to look for in a TV story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): The Veterans Administration says 20 veterans commit suicide a day.
  • Real people: the walker.
  • Show me don't tell me (video): Him walking.

All pretty straightforward, but that last one requires a little more attention. Think about it. If the majority of the video is going to be of him walking, that could get boring, fast. Also, there are several stylistic conventions that need to be addressed:

Jump cuts: we can't see him walking in one place and then immediately again in another. This would make it look as though he'd "jumped" a couple of city blocks. Solution: lots of tight shots you can use as transitions between the wide shots. Check out these shots and notice how they could be used between wide shots of different places. The tight shot is effective because the viewers don't know where you are.

wide shot on Sutter street ➡ tight shot ➡ wide shot at Union Square = no jump cuts

Tight shot.

Tight shot.

Tight shot.

Tight shot.

Tight shot.

Tight shot.

A rudimentary example of how allowing the subject to walk out of frame avoids a jump cut to the next shot.

Jump cuts: same as before, we cannot show the subject (our only subject) walking in one place and then suddenly someplace else. Solution: let the subject walk out of frame. That's a simple technique many beginning MMJs fail to execute. All it requires is discipline. Simply hold your shot until the subject leaves the frame. That allows the viewers to think "OK, he's walking somewhere, I wonder where?" The next shot shows the viewers where.

Crossing the line (axis): In this case, you don't want the subject walking in one direction for some of the story and in another direction during other parts of the story. That creates confusion for the viewers - which way is he going? Instead, it's more comforting and logical for the viewers if they see the subject going one way the whole time. Solution: stay on the same side of the subject. Watch THE STORY below and notice how the subject is always moving from right to left. It gives the sensation he's always moving forward. How to make that happen? Stay on the same side of the subject for all the shots. Put another way, draw a line between you and the subject and don't cross it. In this case, notice how during those walking shots, the camera is always to the subject's left.

MMJs spend so much time on the phone. It's a really efficient way to line up interviews. And with cell phones, we're always able to reach out to or be reached by someone. It's not like the old days when reporters had to drive around with pockets full of dimes in search of pay phones. But what we say on the phone can make a difference. The goal is to make it easy, to make it appealing for someone to call you back. So when leaving a message, keep these things in mind:

  • Speak the important words slowly. We've all received voice mail messages that are spoken so quickly we don't have any idea who's leaving them. Slow down on your name, on your TV station and on your call back number. Repeat your call back number - first time slowly, second time to confirm. Think about what you do when writing down a number - you write it down and then wonder if you got it right. As a reporter, you can mirror that thought process - one time slowly, one time quickly to confirm.
  • Give a verbal time/date stamp. Sure, lots of voice mail programs apply an automated time/date stamp to each message, but how cumbersome is it to re-start the entire process to figure out when the call came in? We've all been through this: "Press four for messages. You have three new messages and one saved message. Press four to listen to your new messages. Message one...." Arrrgh!! Instead, make it easy for the person you're calling by saying when you called.
  • Leave your contact information at the beginning of the message. Think of what you do when you get a voice mail message and someone leaves you a number to call back. If you don't have paper and pen handy, you miss the number. If the person leaves the number at the end of a 60-second message, you have to listen to the whole thing over again to get to the number. But, if you leave it at the beginning, the potential interview subject only has to re-start the message to immediately get your call back information.

For example:

Reporters need to make it easy for potential interview subjects to call them back. It starts with leaving an easy-to-understand voicemail.
The one that almost got me.

The one that almost got me.

Oh yeah, that whole thing about parking wherever you want because you're media - that doesn't always fly. Today, I was editing in my work vehicle with headphones on and my back to the windshield. I didn't hear the tow truck pulling up to me and actually putting the lift under my front axle to take me away. Thankfully the tow truck driver saw me inside and knocked on the window. Phew! In some places, when they say "No Parking," they mean it.



  1. On the way to the story location, think hard about how you want to shoot it. Some of it is about aesthetics, but also keep in mind there are some inviolable videography rules.
  2. Make it easy for someone to call you back by leaving a message that communicates clearly.