It was relentless. As soon as you’d finished one story, the desk editor would ring in another. You could almost calculate a general average time to get to an event, film, report and then leave. Two hours max to news gather and then an hour or less to edit.
Such efficiency called on the provision of crafted techniques. In the broadcast industry its story form is called the news package. When you strip it you can actually see the pattern. We were taught to approach the story using MOSCOW film techniques: Medium shot. Over the shoulder. Close up and a Wide shot. Grab your interview and you’re out.
Some of us managed to turn over 500 stories in a year. Listen here to one of my colleagues here.
The year was 1994, Tarantino released Pulp Fiction; a series about four house mates was about to mutate into pop culture, Friends; and in that year in an outfit called Channel One 30 colleagues and I would radically transform British Journalism.
Actually, we would destroy a model for TV news making and documentary that today is the invisible norm and build a new one. The industry was both fascinated and loathed us. Firstly how could we turn around stories so fast? Secondly how could we do it as one person crews?
In 1990s, the general crew set up was a reporter, camera/lighting, sound and a producer. We collapsed all of those and officially carried for the first time in British journalism the name, Videojournalism.
But this wasn’t the whole story! Radically changing the set up was one thing. Even having mobile equipment wasn’t the killer. We would prove this by migrating from different cameras and in the future using mobile phone journalism ( #MoJo). No, in the process of storytelling some of us were pushing into a future of journalism, a mindset that is now unfolding.
For me it happened as a eureka moment. The ability to turn around a story, as brilliant as that was, brought about a bold radical idea in journalism.
With limited time how do you communicate the complexities of a story? Think about how photojournalists do that in one frame. A photojournalist with a film camera became our bench mark. The framing, lighting, composition really mattered. That’s not to say it didn’t matter for a news camera operators. The difference was we had primary agency to our stories.
The issue still was that photojournalism as a visual medium, what of narrative and sound? The answer came by chance, through ongoing experiments. Some of the video journalists storytelling started to attract praise for looking like cinema. That’s right, journalism that was factual, but wowed audiences for feeling like cinema. Here’s a few comments when I presented at that behemoth of a creative gathering SXSW.
And here’s one of the UK’s most dynamic documentary makers who’s won many awards including BAFTAs. He’s also a former videojournalist and colleague of mine speaking about blurred lines in storytelling. Videojournalism was just about making news either.
Cinema has come to be known as fictional storytelling, but in fact once I dug deeper cinema was a way of making sense of a story by employing an array of tools and skills. Yes you can learn from fictional films, but go back to its origins when it was also non-fiction and you learn fiction and non-fiction filmmakers were borrowing from each other.
Cinema is this broad expansive language. In every culture it’s used to communicate stories that can be general and unique to its society. Hence you have neorealism, new wave and third cinema, and Hollywood.
I was so fascinated by what I was doing, though I told no one, but would learn others were doing the same. That sent me on a mission. I left my job that had given me so much and began to think deeply about the idea at a number of new jobs, like Channel 4 News, and training new generations of storytellers.
It would take me from the Press Gazette in the UK, Chicago Tribune, to China, Egypt and Moscow. In Moscow, this time the place rather than the technique, I was keen to find something I’d long been researching. The other pioneers who sought to make journalism with cinema.
Take Robert Drew, known as the father of Direct Cinema. The clue is in the title. Robert Drew, from the US, was a Life magazine photojournalism editor, whom with friends in the 1960s looked at how stilted journalism was and decided to radically alter it. Their influence could be found in Russia.
Drew fundamentally changed cameras and how two people: a camera and sound person could uniquely work together. There was no need for a reporter, because in this situation Drew was also the reporter.
Many text books will tell you Direct cinema or cinema verite as its often called (and yes there’s a distinction with the French version influenced by Russian filmmakers) is about documentary making. That’s not the case. The creator of Direct Cinema intended it for news journalism film making. I know this because I interviewed him and made a short film.
And then I did a PhD looking at video journalism, the psychology of film and news and its history and discovered this gem. His nick name was Dziga Vertov. He was amongst several Russian and Soviet colleagues who were early theorists and practitioners in storytelling.
Vertov, believed cinema should stay non-fiction and was behind Kino Pravda, which were newsreels. His peers such as Kuleshov were deconstructing how film could communicate hidden ideas within editing. Their ideas were germane and I had to see it myself.
One of Russia’s most dynamic and pioneering multimedia practitioners Oksana asked if I could share my ideas with a national competition looking for the next generation of news makers and whilst in Russia, there was a treat for me. I would visit Eisenstein’s exhibition.
I jumped at the chance. Cinema, like journalism is an evolving langue. When it atrophies the audience gets bored and moves on. That’s what riddles the industry. It is that somehow the langue of broadcast journalism has already been discovered in the 1960s when the news package was formed.
In fact the immediacy of news has resulted in broadly fixed camera journalism. Stand at a plate with a fixed camera and tell the world what’s happening. That’s how the US networks missed one of the biggest stories this year at Capitol Hill. Several were reporting using fixed cameras.
But things are changing and are about to undergo further radical changes. This year I keynoted for TV2 in Denmark. What happens I asked when Netflix and other storytelling platforms do streaming journalism? TV2 are about to, as is CNN+ and soon others will follow.
I once did 500 stories in a year. For streamers, it’s going to be the cinema quality of the stories, and not just the churn. In the end, some of the industry’s most powerful figures came around to what we then as youngsters were doing.
The future will indeed be about the richness and diversity of the many untold stories we’ve ignored and on platforms not yet uncovered. And cinema journalism will become the norm, again!