It’s been a while and a lot has changed. Ahead of this year’s MoJoCon in Galway I thought I’d write up where I’m at and what’s going on in my brain (not usually a busy place).
So how is Mojo?
Has it transformed the way newsrooms around the world operate? Not yet.
Has it changed the way people work? Yes.
Am I using Mobile Journalism technology ALL the time? Ermmm……
Let’s deal with the third question first by also answering the first. Newsrooms now expect and demand better quality content than they used to. There was a time when a fairly wonky piece to camera could get on air ‘because it had been shot on a phone’. Now the key is to not be able to tell how it was gathered. The editors still get vertical video handed to them for broadcasting in 16:9 (usually taken in the heat of the moment at an event) but it’s getting harder to spot the phone-gathered material from the standard ENG (Electronic News Gathering) camera. The use of DSLR (and similar) footage on broadcast news bulletins has mushroomed – standard news crews now carry some amazing rigs capable of footage and forwarding options that are transforming the way news operates. Rob Wood is one of the BBC’s most innovative shoot/edits: he custom-built his Sony A7Sii based rig to be able to gather and go live exactly as he wants. It’s got every form of connectivity you could wish for and the quality of Rob’s work is simply amazing. Of course it’s not down to the camera he uses but he’s built this to work in the way that he wants and that’s crucial to the way that Mobile Journalism is going to develop over the coming years.There was a time when just carrying a phone was enough. I once tried to poke a stick at the Mobile Journalism community by telling a conference that all you needed was a phone and a sock (the sock being used to cut wind noise). In truth, it’s always required more than that but the concept of the phone as swiss-army knife (an analogy thought up by Glen Mulcahy) still rings true. You can do it all JUST with a phone – but you’ll get better quality and more useful content if you use something else as well. Which is why I carry around half my body weight in gear. I’m now more likely to shoot on a Sony a6300 than my phone – primarily because the lenses are better. The Sony’s onboard mics are pretty awful so it inevitably means that my audio needs to be recorded separately. That involves a smartphone with a lavalier microphone being clap synced afterwards – not a problem, as long as you remember to clap. The quality of material the Sony can take still staggers me – I tend to shoot in 1080 simply because I’ve got to cope with overseas data transfer rates. A piece I was working on in South Sudan took around nine hours to upload and because it was being edited on an iPad I didn’t want to fill it up with raw 4K. Luckily the light I was working in was so good that it made my poor camera work look great. The final film, fronted by presenter Anna Foster, was broadcast on BBC 1. Shot on a sub £1000 camera and edited on an iPad in LumaFusion.
Anna and I had worked together in Iraq at the end of 2016 and pulled together a couple of pieces for BBC Children’s Television’s Newsround programme. The biggest problems with working in, what you might call, challenging conditions involve upload times, battery life and overheating. I used an iPad Pro because it was easier to keep cool and I could power it up for a long time on USB battery packs. The pieces we cut were pretty simplistic in terms of their editing – but the movement was key: I used an Osmo (with camera) for the one in Iraq and an Oslo Mobile with an iPhone SE for the one in South Sudan. I’d be keen to know if you think there’s much of a difference in terms of quality.
and here’s the one in South Sudan
So the days of me using JUST my phone are over, are they? Well, no. Last week a fire broke out at a specialist cancer hospital in Manchester in the UK. I arrived and within 30 seconds of pulling my phone out had recorded three lots of ten second long shots which were then sent to the BBC news website using our internal FTP programme called PNG. They were shown on the BBC News Channel within minutes. To mess around with file transfers from a DSLR to a phone and to then ensure they were in a compatible format is a right faff (as they say in Yorkshire). Much easier to gather and upload from the same device. It’s horses for courses – you pick the tool that works best for you. Sometimes I need to edit on Final Cut Pro X and sometimes I can cut it on a phone or iPad. I still use satellites to broadcast with and I also use IP solutions like Luci Live for radio or WMT for TV work (again, the main issue is one of connectivity rather than quality).
So are newsrooms transformed? I wish they were, I wish all my colleagues and the people I meet from other broadcasters were all using the workflows and systems the Mobile Journalist community have been working on for years. But while they may not be taking everything on board the majority of reporters now seem comfortable with the concept of taking a still image or two while they’re out working. It’s a start. They’ll progress to video at some stage and then.. hopefully.. they’ll start to want to refine their images and video and sound and start to realise how important it is to process their material in the way that they want. I’m pleasantly surprised at the number of university courses in the UK and further afield who are now training their students in Mobile techniques and I’m equally sure this is bad news for the hardware manufacturers who for years have seen education as an easy way of making profits based on sales of equipment that they couldn’t sell to broadcasters anymore. What appears to have happened – and it shouldn’t come as any surprise – is that consumers have embraced the technology on offer and reporters, as consumers themselves, have taken up the cudgels as well. From a time when we took occasional snaps with our phones – grainy, speckled, out of focus images – we now have cameras that tune our dreadful camera work and make the shots passable. The next stage is video. Don’t get me started on ‘square’ vs ‘vertical’ vs ‘correct’. Consumers have completely overtaken the broadcast industry with its use of ‘quality’ voice transmission: HD voice – of whatever hue and variety – is now so embedded in phones that we, as end users, don’t even realise we’re using it. Meanwhile some broadcasters still run and hide from the idea of broadcasting contributors in quality. Live TV is similarly playing catch up to the high street – Periscope and Facebook Live showing the rough-round-the-edges capability is well ahead of the majority of old-fashioned broadcasters. The truth is that modern phones have added in the technologies that broadcasters used to cherish as ‘their own’. It’s up to those same broadcasters to ensure that all their staff can use the equipment to the best of their ability to allow them – as we’ve said all along – to be able to concentrate on the story and not the technology.
Kit wise – where am I up to? I spend an inordinate amount of money on making small improvements: I’m really pleased with the Manfrotto BeFree fluid video head which gave me some nice tilts in South Sudan.
I also spend more than I should on ND filters – I’ve been using them to force open the aperture on a 50mm 1.8 so it pushes the background out of focus. Not great for fast moving footage but good for pieces to camera of a static head when you don’t want the background to be too visible.
I’m STILL trying to find a legitimate news reason for a 360 camera. I’ve got an Insta 360 nano but it’s not much use to be honest. Live video over Periscope eats data (always a problem overseas) and the number of immersive stories that require 360 aren’t as many as you might think.
Gimbal-wise I’ve been using an Osmo with the camera attached and an Osmo Mobile. Both have advantages and disadvantages: the ability to plug in an external mic is a huge bonus to the camera-laden Osmo: try it with the Osmo Mobile and you risk unbalancing it. The advantage of the Mobile is that you can use whatever phone you want and there’s an element of future proofing. I’d love to get a gimbal that I could use with the Sony a6300 but I’ve spent all the money on everything else!
So, where are we with Mobile Journalism? I try not to define my work by it – perhaps that was inevitable as the use of technology in broadcasting became more mature – but as an ethos and a way of working it is central to everything I do. The workflows I use enable me to work at a faster rate than traditional broadcasting methods but I’m no longer straight-jacketed to the extent that I’ll use a phone when something else will work better.