Sunday, April 22, 2012

DSLR Cinema videojournalism - a personal view from research study

Presenting at the University of Reading last Tuesday gave me the opportunity to précis a four year PhD study in videojournalism across a filmic expanse culminating in DSLR videojournalism.

It was followed up yesterday with a great meeting at the Southbank Centre where I'm looking to get creative with one of the most exciting movements in modern times - Simon Bolivar Orchestra

In itself there's much to talk about, but my thesis slants towards a lived experience (phenomenology), which enriches the research data. I have been a dedicated videojournalist since 1994 - one of the first official ones in the UK, but have worked in the media, starting with the BBC in 1987.

Below I give a visual history of my work and some of my thoughts -some of which I shared last week.

Undoubtedly DSLR opens an interesting chapter for videojournalism and film making. It is both seductive and functional. Here I'm in Tahir Square shooting an elliptical piece on Egypt's uprising. The trailer's showing on at present

The shoot suited the style of camera and look, which is ultimately the point. Art philosopher Gombrich's well known dictum of "schema plus variation" posits we are always set to improve upon what we do, yet the choices we make are as stylistic as they are functional.

The DSLR was the appropriate choice; just as an artist might choose different paints, easels and strokes to express themselves.

Below's film was with Heavyweight boxer Lennox Lewis in the period he was gearing up for his unifying fight with Mike Tyson in 2002. I was one of only two film makers allowed into his camp for two weeks and in this case the only film maker allowed into the ring.

The DSLR lens' clarity might have been welcome, but I could still achieve a shallow depth-of-field with a BVW camera. I did however double up with a VX1000 which drew quite a lot of mirth during the press conference.

I shared this shoot giving one of my talks at Apple Store. What has been a requisite in all story formulation has been news training which provides the ability to think fast and often shoot a piece with no fat. 

This isn't a given in news production. For instance at Channel One TV we the videojournalists couldn't afford the time for twenty questions, like the network journalists, so four five questions in we made a decision and would end the interview, often telling the interviewee what quote we would use.

On more exploratory shoots, what might be termed documentary, though this term is loosely used as well as there are several genres of documentary, we would go 'fishing', looking for meaning.

DSLR Cinema Breakout
Yesterday I had the good pleasure of speaking to Dr Kurt Lancaster behind one of the unique books on the market DSLR Cinema. He gave his insight into the shaping of DSLR form and we shared some parallel thoughts. He alerted me to this link Dan Chung's disco where professionals were expressing this general theme.

This methodology of cognitive shooting in my case comes from a combination of working at Channel One TV - the UK's first and only dedicated videojournalism station, where myself and 29 others often shot 3, sometimes 4 pieces a day, written and voiced. 

And, working at the likes of WTN which would become APTV. At the point that you're watching four monitors of feeds and three clients are on the phone to you requesting dope sheets (notes and shot list) and footage, if you can't turn around fast copy....

So the skill is to "kill what you can eat". If your piece is three minutes, then you shouldn't be shooting for a documentary. A test we did in Norway showed how to shoot a three minute filmed interview and then edited and load in 9 minutes. Furthermore, I carry out a test on clients that tests their confidence in what they observe and what should be on tape. 

Novice videojournalists start from shooting around 20 minutes for a three minute shoot to 12 minutes in the next.

Meeting one of the greats in Cinema Albert Maysles was one of the rare moments, but I also had my Schneider super 8mm camera with me. The look regarding this doyen of film making is exactly what I needed. Super 16mm with a bolex would have been even more preferable.

 At Channel One, news presenting was one of the skills we were opened up to, which concentrated the mind. A previous job in radio presenting on the London station GLR slotted in between Vanessa Feltz and Chris Evans, and at BBC Radio Leicester in the 1980s meant the ability to synthesis ideas and rework them became habitual.

When we talk about videojournalism we often negate its cognate fields e.g. radio, writing, presenting - but these are important assets in your arsenal that gives you choice. I have preserved some of my favourite interviews which include the late Eartha Kitt, Mario and Marvin Van Peebles, and James Brown's saxophonist Maceo Parker.

The combination of VJ shoot and Radio was highly beneficial when producing for both TV and Radio. In this piece here diving with Turkish and British Navy to find a wreck in Gallipoli, I could sell the radio to the BBC World World Service.

This is one of my favourite cameras and probably expensive, the Digibeta 900. At the time it costs, with lens, about $50,000.

I used it on a number of videojournalism stories for Channel 4 News, particularly in South Africa 1999 on a follow up story called the Successor Generation.

The three photos show off that workhorse of a camera - the VX1000. In the mid 90s this was the camera of choice, and the image below is of the first generation of Macs for editing.  I actually took a flight to the US for 300UKP return to buy it which was still cheaper than buying it in the UK.

One of the most memorable pieces was the runners-up piece for Channel 4's competition Unleash the Talent - a multimedia piece which still stands the test of time. See what yout think?

A measure of how good the VX1000 was comes from this shoot below. We're returning from a Nato War Games exercise in HRH's private plane. The cutlery is silver and the royal crest is everywhere to be seen.

During the exercise all the cameras we had were ruined because of the high salt content of the environment. The VX1000 though did not buckle.

On our way back at 40,000 feet we were tagged by this Tornado to escort us part of the way, or shoot us down, if we ignored their call sign.

At one point we were so close to each other I could clearly see the face of the copilot. He obviously saw me too as in  the footage I have of this event, he quickly closes his visor.

So we end with Soweto, 1995. I had lived and worked in South Africa as a freelance foreign correspondent working for about four outlets: BBC, ABC News, SABC and a couple of magazines - entrepreneurial journalism 1992.

I have worked with several cameras and I presently have four including the DSLR, but it really is horses for courses. My PhD thesis reveals a more fundamental issue which has to do with the interpretation of reality and how it's codified through the image.

The cinematic has the ability to innervate the image and suspend judgement, but that's a more philosophical post for later.

The upshot is how you extract meaning from the story and how you perceive an intended audience will do so without taking the eye of the prize - that takes experience. As my next post will argue when technology is levelled, and there are no advantage to be accrued from aesthetic excesses, you go back to the fundamental cognitive element, the story.

And this intangible - the story hides a number of cues that require excavation, that won't always work.

Dr Lancaster's book on DSLR Cinema places Hollywood's ability towards the motor sensory experience of film in the hands of a new generation of film makers such as Eliot Rausch - who spoke to us a couple of weeks ago - and some old hands pushing the form such as Shane Hulburt.

David Dunkley Gyimah is a senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster in online journalism, and multimedia projects. He runs a module in Television, Docs and Videojournalism and is an Artist in Residence at the Southbank Centre. His PhD is a phenomenology of news making.