The Art Of Invisible Craftsmanship
Written by Wayne Freeman
The next time you come across a hand-made wooden chair, take time to examine it closely. Whoever made that piece was a craftsman, a person so much in touch with his medium that he left no trace of his sweat and toil. He wouldn’t want you to notice the joints, the glue, or the nails. He would prefer those separate parts to appear as one. For that carpenter, the work was about making a beautiful and pragmatic piece of furniture.
For television news photographers, reporters, or editors, apply the same standard. Your work should be about the stories. True craftspeople are neither obvious nor boastful.
It’s only natural that we want to show off our skills. Problem is, we often overdo it. We fall into what I call the “Benihana Trap,” named after the Benihana of Tokyo restaurants. Diners sit around a grill as the chef tosses knives, food, and chop, chop, chops his way through the courses. Been there? When the meal is done, which do you most remember? Was it the meal or the chef?
What should it be?
Many of us make similar mistakes when producing television news stories. We over-shoot, over-write, over-voice, over-cut, and over-involve ourselves, often at the expense of our material and audience.
It’s the equivalent of making a chair to look at rather than one in which to sit.
The Railroad Theory
Go back through the archives. Study classic news stories. Notice how their craftsmanship appears effortless, assuming you notice that craftsmanship at all.
I like to compare craftsmanship with riding a train. On rough stretches of track, you notice every connection from every separate rail. Smooth sections, however, blend together, as if those multiple rails were one.
Extend the metaphor, and television news stories link sections, too, except that instead of building a segment from rails, we use pictures, narration and sound.
NAT/SOT Delerium: When Natural Sound Becomes Unnatural
Your work does not end with a script. It’s only a start. What looks good on paper doesn’t always become good television. Those of us in the NPPA, especially, tend toward an over-usage of natural sound. We force too many sound bites and pops into unnatural spaces, and sometimes, even, into the middles of sentences.
Why would you want to interrupt yourself? I know…someone, somewhere, told us the technique improves pacing.
Sometimes, it does. Mostly, however, those quick SOTS disrupt flow, especially if they are unintelligible. Viewers get only one pass at a story. If a sound bite hits unexpectedly, or is unclear, too short, or clips, then it becomes an intrusive bump in the narrative that raises more questions than it answers.
It’s like a magician breaking his own spell.
Adjust Your Script and Inflection to Match the Sound Bite
Use your writing to smooth transitions when connecting tracks and SOT’s.
If you’re a reporter, manipulate your voice as you would a clutch in a car, revving inflections up or down to sync energy levels in a piece. Your interplay between tracks and SOT’s is just another form of dialogue. If a track doesn’t work, read it again, fix the copy, or both. To reiterate, stories need a natural flow that does not call attention to your process.
Match the Background Sounds
Here’s another trap. Sounds in the background can wreak havoc with seamless storytelling. A crafty photographer, reporter, or editor notices them when shooting, logging, and writing. He or she works with and around them.
Let’s say you have an interview on a busy street with a jackhammer audible in the distance. Common sense dictates that this won’t cut cleanly against another interview recorded in a quiet room. It will be worse if we use that noisy audio over video from an unrelated location.
So, don’t write the piece that way.
As a standard practice, try to conduct interviews in neutral audio environments. Record a few seconds of ambient sound before leaving. It may save you later on by helping to open spaces between tight words or sentences.
When finished cutting that background sound, listen to it discreetly without the narration (if you have time). You should not be able to hear the individual edits. If you do, smooth them out or replace them with one long section of background sound or ambient noise from just one of those shots, but from the same location. That way, it isn’t cheating. It’s smoothing. Again, minimize distractions.
Connect, Connect, Connect—Smoothly
If there are two most important words for you to take away from this rather technical article, ‘connect’ would be one. ‘Smooth’ would be the other.
The attached video link takes you to a piece from 1998 about a minor league umpire. Editor James Sudweeks and I cut it old-school style, on tape, using just two channels of audio. We led and lagged sound, made split edits, and twisted knobs on the fly. I dare you to listen to our mix through fine headphones. Despite our technical limitations (and my youthful voice), the sound in that story is seamless. The narration delivers you into and out of every element. You will not hear changes in background.
Why show you such an old story? To make the point that, if we could do it then without multiple tracks and digital audio dissolves, you can do it now. You have all the tools at your fingertips. Use them…invisibly, silently, and craftily.
When the story shines brightly on its own, the glow reflects on you.
If you’d like a copy of his book contact Wayne Freedman <firstname.lastname@example.org>