Two journalism students on a steep learning curve
The instruction was simple. Tag along with a film crew – they are telling the story of former Idols winner Karin Kortje in Grabouw, near Cape Town. Do a multimedia piece to help other young journalists understand the challenges of telling a story on different platforms. Two University of the Free State students rose to the challenge.
When looking at a film set we often think of the glamour associated with the final product. The red carpet. We forget about the hard work and the long hours spent in the field to get the perfect sequences.
Armed with a vague script that we’d been taught how to do the previous day, we left for Grabouw with a set plan. We expected a large crew with one or two prima donnas so we’d braced ourselves for a dash of controversy. The director himself had a script that he had to change because the day turned out differently. They told us it always does. Our set plan also did not run smoothly.
Throughout the course of the day the excitement built up. It sometimes erupted into tension in the harsh heat of the Western Cape apple farming district. The crew worked and worked from early in the morning to make that storyboard come to life. And then an anti climax… the only remaining camera battery died signalling the end of the day’s shooting, at around midnight.
For our part we focused on the equipment we had to bring and less on the aspects of the ‘self’ that we had to polish for the day. We were armed with our enthusiasm. We also understood there was nothing more important than the story, knowing what you will be filming and who is going to feature in the documentary.
When we spoke with the crew and the people being filmed we soon realised that telling a deeply emotional story such as Karin Kortje’s required a sense of compassion. We shared in her pain as we listened. What we did not have on our list – alongside equipment and water bottles – was the emotional control needed. You can’t break down when people are narrating harrowing stories. But we soon learnt that as long as we had good people skills on set, all would be well.
One of us was more drawn to the human dynamics at play while the other was more interested in the technical aspects of putting the shoot together. So we complemented each other perfectly.
We watched and listened as they conducted interviews and shot sequences. So we did the same and began to roll our mini version of the professional camera. We found the people we spoke to more relaxed at the briefing stage, called the ‘pre interview’ by the crew, than when the camera was rolling. The professionals told us it’s the same every time. The intensity and profound things people say before the cameral rolls can sometimes not be repeated.
But here’s what we know about all interviews (see Tim Knight’s series on Interviewing the Anima Way) … It’s extremely important to forge a trust relationship between yourself and interviewees before filming.
Even if someone tells you there is not time, you have to do this. Especially if it’s an intimate subject you’re tackling. And, there are a few tricks involved in building trust. Really listen, do your research, be generous, share things about yourself, make no judgments and be respectful. But while you have to make small talk and build trust, never delve too deeply at this stage – what Tim Knight calls the cocooning phase – or reduce the impact of the real thing.
For the rest we picked up great tips. Some of them might seem trivial but they can make a huge difference. Upon arrival one of us was told to take charge of a magical piece of equipment that enhances the lighting of nature. A reflector. On one side the round, floppy gizmo emitted a warm golden hue that worked perfectly on dark skin. The silver side gave a brighter shimmer. Unzip it and the deflector has a white side, redirecting some of the harsh sun streaming down on the apple farms of Grabouw.
Next we learned about a ‘white balance’. A white piece of paper is placed in front of the camera. Here is a definition we found online:
“White balance (WB) is the process of removing unrealistic colour casts, so that objects retain their actual colour. Proper camera white balance has to take into account the ‘colour temperature’ of a light source that refers to the relative warmth or coolness of white light. Our eyes are very good at judging what is white under different light sources, but digital cameras often have great difficulty with auto white balance (AWB) — and can create unsightly blue, orange, or even green colour casts. Understanding digital white balance can help you avoid these colour casts, thereby improving your photos under a wider range of lighting conditions.”
At the start of the assignment we had anticipated telling you about all the fun editing stuff and free software to cut your video pieces online. But that will have to wait for another time. The editing process is a different world on its own. . Then there is the storyboard. Another thing we will have to look into in 2015. One thing is sure. The set plan always changes.
If you, like us, are still in the learning stages of putting a multimedia story together, find professionals who are willing to groom you. Above all have a teachable spirit so that people are encouraged to share their experience. Go and hang out on a film set. But try to avoid high noon in Grabouw in summer.
The crew was very liberal with tips and advice. They were very willing to dispense useful information and tricks of the trade some of which we have summarised below, with our own observations. A few things you might find useful:
It’s important to be an observer when telling a story. See the subtle aspects of a particular community or environment. Being a faithful observer will improve the quality of your story and make you stand out as a professional.
The director and/or camera person should build a relationship with the subjects so that people trust you with their stories Sometimes people stop co-operating during the interview process. When this happens, take a break and give them space. They’ll probably be more co-operative after a while.
There has to be synergy between the crew. If there’s a sense of hostility in the environment, your subjects will sense it and they won’t be at ease. This will affect their performance on camera.
Immerse yourself in your story but don’t carry it home with you. It may affect your psychological and emotional health if you do.
As a multi-media storyteller you craft pieces that evoke emotions in people – good or bad. Always be aware of what kind of impact you intend. All visual images – especially TV and film – are very powerful storytelling tools. If you don’t understand how it works you will not be able to use it to the best advantage of your story.