Being a VJ: doing everything yourself in video & TV
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Mike Clay, a Sydney-based video-journalist & documentary filmmaker.

On doing everything yourself – or how I learned to stop worrying and love video journalism.

There is a pervasive view in journalism that one person cannot be everything, that some things will inevitably fall to the wayside. This view contends that one person cannot operate a camera AND do sound AND interview AND appear on camera AND produce.

This view is wrong. Doing ‘everything’ is hard, certainly. But it is doable. How do I know? Because I have built my career on it.

It’s taken a long time (at least ten years in the industry) but I have built my shooting, editing and storytelling abilities over that time. I would put my editing and shooting up against that of a dedicated operator. My shooting might not win any awards. But it’s all in focus, well-exposed, the shots are nicely composed and the sequences have good coverage.

MikeClay_Videographer

Mike as a 24-year-old videographer. Stars in his eyes and a camera in his hand.

Certainly it is difficult to stay across so many things. When I’m out on a shoot, I exist in an attention loop: “is it focus, well framed, exposed correctly, is the audio peaking, are they saying what I need them to, is it in focus, well framed, etc.”

But the more I do this work, the more it becomes second nature. I need to pay conscious attention to fewer things, because I know that I will do them out of habit and routine, rather than through concerted effort.

And I’m not alone. I know many people who have built up their skills as a solo shooter-producer or video journalist.

So why does that “no one person can do everything” idea persist?

I believe it’s a top-down problem rather than a bottom-up one.

Key decision makers in big media organisations see video journalists as a way to save money. It is. But that’s not all it is. Saving money is the opportunity. But there are challenges. And if you ignore those challenges, then you doom video journalism to always being the poor cousin to full crew shoots.

(I actually believe video journalism or solo shooter-producers actually use produce work that full crew shoots can’t even come close to matching. But more on that in a later post.)

All too often, managers, executive producers and supervising producers hire reporters with no shooting experience and very limited editing experience, hand them a cheap handycam, give them a day (ONE DAY!) of training and then say “go make TV”. This is doomed to fail.

Being a video-journalist IS a specialist skill set. But it’s a skill-set you can learn. You’re not born with it, it takes time and practice and hard work. It’s not something that happens after a day of training.

storyhunters

Mike interviews a subject for a story on the ABC’s Story Hunters project.

But here’s the good news: outside of news, being a solo-shooter is actually the norm. At the bottom end of the filmmaking industry: in videography, corporate video, documentary and indie filmmaking, there is an assumption that you HAVE to do everything. Everyone is a solo shooter producer, nowadays. There are accomplished visual storytellers working in the industry. We just need to lure them into the journalism fold.

Some of you may balk at this idea. But what’s harder: teaching a reporter to shoot and edit to a professional standard, or teaching an accomplished shooter-producer to apply journalistic rigour? I would argue that journalistic rigour can be imposed by a Supervising Producer, Executive Producer or senior editorial staff when it comes time to put the story together, back in the newsroom. But no one can turn an inexperienced shooter into a good one.

The funny thing is: international media organisations already know this. The revolution has been slow to make it to news organisations in Australia, especially the television outlets (online news outlets have already jumped on this bandwagon). We in TV news and current affairs still bow down to the outdated idea that every shoot needs a sound operator and camera operator. They don’t.

Don’t get me wrong, we still need crews. Full crew shoots will still make up the bulk of the work of any TV news organisation. But we need to start carving out space for one or two dedicated video-journalists to work in every newsroom, even the well-resourced ones. They are not a replacement for the traditional crew, they are a different tool in the newsroom toolbox.

Just as drones and iPhones didn’t render the professional camera obsolete, nor do video journalists render standard crews obsolete. But a drone can do what a standard camera cannot do. And a video journalist can tell stories that a standard crew cannot. (More on this in a later post.)

The King is dead. Long live the King and vive la revolucion!

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