Guest Speaker: Adam Ellick from the New York Times

Our guest speaker, Adam B. Ellick from the New York Times, arrived in class at 7pm. We screened several of his videos, including Tuning Out the Taliban and On Thin Ice. His discussion with us was divided into three basic parts: picking the story and characters; working in the field; and post-production. Once again, we counted ourselves incredibly lucky to be talking with someone with so much experience and insight into visual treatments of legal topics.

Adam’s starting point for any of his films is casting, which he described as the single most important thing that any journalist can do – something that is highly determinative of the story’s ultimate execution. We must make our audience care about the people in our film. When you choose your story, think about whether something has already been done and whether we’re just rehashing discourse, or whether we’re really doing something new. For instance, Adam’s video on Pakistani pop music, largely on the basis of its original story, was both agitating and compelling to the press and people of Pakistan.

When working with an editor, Adam develops themes he wants to tackle, then goes and interviews a large number of people and tries to find people who are affected by these themes. On average of four times a day he will sit down with gatekeepers in a given research area and ask them to introduce him to people who might be affected by a given story. By interviewing a large number of people, he is able to thrive even on a very low interview success rate.

Adam noted that when people talked to him about the stories in his films, they rarely talk about the themes of the story; instead, they talk about the characters. Adam mentioned that people relate to people and to emotions like love and affections, not to governments or administrations. His job is to incorporate information and nuance into stories of humans. He often must work to convince editors that story themes that seem like they will lack mass appeal, such as a story about property tax evasion in Pakistan, will be able to generate a large audience on the basis of characters that can provide entry-ways into the underlying themes.

He asked us to make sure that we were brutal with our footage in our editing.

Casting, Adam told us, is about the process of finding people who embody our themes. If you can get all of your themes through one person, that’s a home run, but not strictly necessary; it’s always possible to cast multiple people to embody multiple themes. For instance, Adam’s Prom video conveys relevant themes in its first 29 seconds through one character. He mentioned that some of the seemingly stupidest questions we can ask to interview subjects will get the best answers: for instance, “do you have problems in Haiti?” or “are you sad that you’re losing your hockey team?” or “why don’t you pay your taxes?” You can ask the same question multiple times and say that you’re having trouble understanding what they mean or what they’re saying.

One type of filming is reconstruction (where people are talking about things that they have done or that they do). But reconstruction is the most boring way of telling a story. It’s much better to be a fly on the wall and to be a voyeur with the camera while things are actually happening. So we need to ask ourselves if our pieces are going to be in reconstruction mode or in-the-moment mode. The latter is preferable.

Two basic important questions to ask are “what are we going to see?” and “what are we going to hear?” We can think of ourselves as radio journalists in the field who are trying to show the audience something new: taking the audience some place they’ve never been before, such that as soon as they go through the door, they want to see more. There are underworlds everywhere.

When in the field, Adam is always thinking about the script. Just like a newspaper can’t have blank pages, a video can’t have a black screen. Think: what is the information you want to convey? And then, what are the visuals that will help in conveying this information? The script consists of two elements: voiceovers (things you tell people that they need to know) and sound bytes (feelings and perspectives from people in the field). Your voice as the narrator is the mortar, and the interviewed subject’s actions are the bricks. Remember that you can always explain and convey information more efficiently than the interview subjects.

You shoot stuff that you think you’re going to need, and you shoot stuff that’s irresistible. Think of the camera as a visual notepad. Then in post-production, you figure out whether footage can be used in the story or not. A lot of extra footage can be used to bring the audience into the story. This is an inverse relationship: think of the field when you’re scripting, and be scripting when you’re in the field.

It’s important also to think of distinctions between the broadcast and print medium. It’s much easier with print to go back to an earlier paragraph, and it’s harder to lose someone. With broadcast, on the other hand, you’ve got a streaming medium and it’s much harder to go back: you really can’t lose someone, because once you lose them, they’re gone. This means that you need to keep things very simple – if it’s confusing, you need to say it twice, or say it very carefully. When scripting, write colloquially, as if you’re talking to someone in a bar. Embrace nuance, sure, but do it simply and delicately. When you change a scene, make sure people understand why the scene has changed: a piece needs clear transition points, and explanations of why each scene is being used and how these scenes are pushing the story forward.

With that wealth of information in mind, we retreated to a local tavern and considered how we might apply Adam’s suggestions both to our scripts and our filming procedures.


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