I can’t tell you how many of my backpack journalism students lose critical visual and audio information because they are not connected to their characters with headphones. Once your character is out of eye sight and you are not listening to him/her over the wireless microphone, you’ve cut yourself off not only from what’s happening right now but also from what’s going to happen in the immediate future. You can’t anticipate what you’re going to shoot if you don’t know what your character is going to do. Go out and buy a $12 pair of headphones that you insert into your ears. With these, as opposed to the large ear-covering headphones, you can stay connected with what your character is doing and you can retain peripheral hearing as well. These tiny ear plugs don’t get in your way. And they don’t make you look completely ridiculous.
Backpack journalists should document characters as they move from one scene to another. Always shoot the journey, be it by foot, car, plane or train. Shoot his/her feet hitting the pavement, hands on the steering wheel, face in the rear view mirror. Shoot through the windshield and out the window as the scenery passes by. If possible, shoot the character moving into frame and out of the frame. All this allows a smoother transition between scenes, and provides an opportunity to construct another dramatic arc. Before he/she leaves, ask, “Where are we going?” Upon arrival ask, “Where are we now?” Because you are carrying your gear in your backpack, you have the mobility to do this.
Get accustomed to using the eyepiece instead of the display screen. You’ll be better able to tell when your subject is in focus, especially when there’s a backlight, which is a big issue with many of these hand-held cameras. Keep both eyes open. Otherwise you lose peripheral vision on the entire left side. Also, this way you can maintain eye contact with your subject. He/she is talking to you, instead of the man on the moon, or somebody way out in left field. Backpack journalists normally work alone so you will need to keep both eyes open to navigate your surroundings. See http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/440/Journalism-Workshop.html.
Point your left toe toward your subject and your right toe straight out in front of you. This is the way boxers and martial arts experts stand when confronting an opponent. Watch boxing or martial arts films to see what I’m talking about — how to properly position your feet for maximum stability and maneuverability. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPVk08kRg8w&feature;=related.
Backpack journalists use tripods on a limited basis, as this allows us greater mobility and less intrusiveness. So learn how to turn your body into a tripod. Turn your left hip toward your subject. With your left hand as a base holding the camera, tuck your left elbow into your left rib cage just above your hip. Grasp the camera with your right hand and hold your right elbow tight to your torso. Your body becomes a tripod. Now, take a look at yourself in a mirror. It might seem a bit uncomfortable at first but you can hold a camera in place like this all day long. Otherwise, if you stand there holding the camera in front of your face with your elbows flapping in the wind you’ll last about three minutes before your shoulder muscles start screaming. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBjJYiQXFlQ&feature;=related.
To maximize the effectiveness of your backpack journalism tools, learn how to hold the camera properly. Use the left hand as a base upon which the camera rests. Keep your fingers of the left hand free to manipulate switches, buttons and focus/zoom rings. Grasp the camera firmly with the right hand. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPVk08kRg8w.
My Broadcast Documentary class progressed this week from the “pre-production” to the “production” stage, and students have begun to take out the Sony EX-1 cameras to execute their projects.
As I expected, a number of students are unsure about these machines, a natural reaction to any device so multi-faceted and complex as this one.
But, as I tell my students, these are extraordinary cameras, and the quality of the material that they generate compensates for the effort invested in learning how to use them. Learn to use these cameras, I tell them, because that’s the only way you can make them do on the screen what you see them doing in your head.
NOW on PBS has nominated “Afghanistan: The Forgotten War,” and “Nurses Needed” for national Emmy Awards. I produced both of these stories in 2008.
The Afghanistan piece, in particular, is a prime example of how the “backpack journalism” model is revolutionizing the field of visual communication on television and on the Internet. Few media outlets are willing or able these days to invest the time, money and muscle to send a team of journalists to distant corners of the earth to generate quality content. Just as importantly, the U.S. military is more likely to accommodate a single journalist with a hand-held camera than a team of journalists with unwieldy, conventional equipment.
“Afghanistan: The Forgotten War,” embodies the idea of backpack journalism. I pitched this piece, then produced it, shot it, wrote it and narrated it. The model works. I view the success of the Afghanistan story, which also was named the Number 3 most popular story broadcast by NOW on PBS in 2008, as validation of the backpack journalism model.
And I feel its success undermines the argument that foreign news is too expensive to produce.
I am delighted that NOW on PBS sustains a platform for serious content that provides viewers with the information we need to make important decisions about our lives and the life of our nation. This is the social obligation that too many of the corporate media choose to ignore.