Aug 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Stephen Porter
Working for FRONTLINE/World
With the help of DV technology, FRONTLINE/World not only promotes coverage of independent foreign news stories but gives young videographers a unique opportunity to air their work.
Cameraman Adam Keker uses a Sony DSR-PD150 camera to capture footage for videographer Amanda Pike's (below) short documentary about the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Pol Pot's Shadow. The 24-minute feature aired on the debut episode of PBS' new international news show FRONTLINE/World.
It is six o'clock in the morning in mid-April 2002 when independent videographer Amanda Pike and her cameraman Adam Keker find themselves sitting in a stifling hot shack in the middle of the Cambodian jungle. Across a simple kitchen table sits the grandfatherly man they have come so far to see, a man whose pleasant countenance belies his ugly past.
His name is Nuon Chea, also known as “Brother Number Two.” Though largely unknown outside of Cambodia, he was the second in command in Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge regime back in the late 1970s, a regime that was responsible for one of the worst genocides in human history. During nearly four years of Khmer Rouge rule, more than two million Cambodians were killed, and many believe that this man, Nuon Chea, was as responsible for the killings as any single person.
Now old and frail, Nuon Chea talks amiably with Pike for about half an hour before he tires and is led back to his bed to rest. During the conversation, he says little of substance. One moment he is talking about his admiration for George Washington, and the next he is slyly suggesting that all the killings were done by Cambodia's enemies — presumably the United States and Vietnam. He seems to enjoy his time on camera, but he takes no blame nor expresses any remorse other than to make a vague statement about how everybody makes mistakes sometimes.
The experience of sitting down to a cordial tea with a key official of one of the worst regimes in history was very surreal and very frustrating, recalls Pike. “I had only this short period of time to talk to him, and he dissembled,” she says. “It was like he knew he couldn't talk for that long. It was like we were playing this game. He wasn't answering my questions and was just eating up the time. It was six in the morning, and it was so hot in his little hut that you could barely breathe. Just trying to focus on getting him to open up at all was frustrating.”
Still, when it was over, Pike knew she had scored a coup.
She had come to Cambodia to do a documentary that explored why, after nearly 25 years, the men responsible for the genocides had still not been brought to justice. She also wanted to explore the impact that lack of an accounting had on the country's spirit.
Documentarian Joe Rubin says that the Sony PD150 allowed him to capture honest and intimate footage in Sri Lanka. The people he interviewed were less guarded in the presence of a small crew, and he was able to build scenes quickly.
During her five weeks in the country, armed with a Sony PD150, she interviewed Khmer Rouge victims and Khmer Rouge soldiers. She was witness to another surreal moment when nearly two dozen people — including women and children — traveled to Pol Pot's remote, primitive burial site to sift through his cremated ashes for mementos and say prayers to a man they held in almost God-like esteem. And now she had obtained a rare videotaped interview with a man described by one former Khmer Rouge member as “Pol Pot's shadow.”
The trip had been an enormous success. Now the question became: Where would she show this important footage. Who would buy it? Who would broadcast it?
It's an unfortunate fact that there are few U.S. outlets for international documentaries, especially those that don't fit into a traditional 2 to 5 minute news slot and aren't focused on whatever the hot story of the month is. Moreover, the market is even tighter for documentaries produced by virtually unknown, independent videographers who don't have a long list of accomplishments and industry connections.
Funding for the production of Pike's documentary came from the prestigious Pew Fellowship in International Journalism, which she received several months earlier. The Pew Fellowship is designed to promote greater coverage of international topics in the United States, but simply winning the fellowship is no guarantee that a documentary produced with its funds will get air time.
Fortunately for Pike, just before she left for Cambodia she'd heard from a friend, fellow documentary videographer Joe Rubin, that there was a new show coming to PBS television that focuses on international news stories. Moreover, Rubin told her, the show was actively looking to give opportunities to young videographers — to promote new voices in the news world. The show was going to be called FRONTLINE/World. It was the brainchild of David Fanning, PBS' revered executive producer of the venerable FRONTLINE program.
Although FRONTLINE/World had not yet aired at the time Pike was preparing to leave for Cambodia, she quickly arranged a hasty meeting with the newly hired FRONTLINE/World series editor Stephen Talbot and Sharon Tiller, senior producer for FRONTLINE, to discuss her project before leaving on the trip.
Although they made her no promises, the meeting was extremely encouraging. “It seemed like FRONTLINE/World was trying to do something different,” Pike says. “They were trying to do short stories that tell about news events and places around the world but in the context of a narrative that is a little different and more interesting than a typical documentary. So I was just excited to find there was an outlet for this story I was spending so much time doing. I thought, ‘Wow, I really want to work with these people.’ But first I had to go to Cambodia and see if anyone would talk to me.”
In the end, people in Cambodia did talk to her, and FRONTLINE/World ended up buying Pike's story and broadcasting it last fall on the first episode of the show's first season. Pol Pot's Shadow ran about 24 minutes and was enormously well received. In fact, says Talbot, it was the story “that put us on the map with PBS. It was a really amazing story. It was beautifully shot.”
FRONTLINE/World's first season ended in June and consisted of eight hour-long shows. That doesn't count a ninth show, the pilot, which ran in May 2002 and featured Joe Rubin's piece on Sri Lanka — a tropical paradise that, in the last 20 years, has seen more terrorist suicide bombings than all other regions in the world combined, including the Middle East. Despite that horrific distinction, the country's problems have received scant attention from other U.S. media outlets.
FRONTLINE/World's next season, which will begin next month, will consist of nine or 10 shows. Talbot has hopes that the show will become a regular series or even a weekly series. If that happens, it will fill a gaping hole in the U.S. television marketplace. It will be a place for diverse international stories that are underreported by the mainstream media.
One of the shorter features for FRONTLINE/World, Sapana Sakya's story chronicled five Sherpa women climbing Mount Everest.
According to Talbot, the desire to create a show like FRONTLINE/World had been around for some time, and even attracted initial funding from a corporate sponsor, ABB, based in Switzerland. But it took the terrorist attacks of Sept. 2001 to finally bring the series into existence. In the wake of that event, interest in international news coverage skyrocketed as people found themselves wondering why anti-American feelings were so strong in other parts of the world. All at once, the need to better understand the world took on an urgency that ultimately shook loose the remaining funding needed to get the program off the ground.
The responsibility for producing FRONTLINE/World is shared by two PBS stations — KQED in San Francisco and WGBH in Boston. Under David Fanning's direction, Talbot and his small staff at KQED manage editorial content for the show (working closely with Sharon Tiller and KQED executive Sue Ellen McCann) and have primary responsibility for its accompanying award-winning website. The folks at WGBH have primary responsibility for publicity and postproduction. Offline finishing work is done by Steve Audette, senior editor at FRONTLINE, or by one of the other FRONTLINE staff editors located at the WGBH offices in Boston. The online editing is handled by FRONTLINE Outpost, an Avid-equipped online editing facility located several blocks down the street from the main WGBH offices.
In addition to being a show designed to help educate people about events and cultures around the world, FRONTLINE/World's other core mandate is to encourage more diversity among reporters. From the start, the goal of the show was to “mentor a new generation of video journalists,” says Talbot. “It's definitely a way that someone who is a little younger and a little less experienced can get a foot in the door,” he says “And I think in our first season we've done a pretty good job of getting more women on camera and for that matter behind the camera shooting and producing and editing. We are making a concerted effort to get more reporters from different nationality and ethnic groups on camera telling their stories.”
FRONTLINE/World contributor Cassandra Herrman took advantage of DV's portability and flexibility when her story in Nigeria took a dramatic turn during a riot protesting the Miss World pageant.
For her part, Pike would readily agree. “They were the only people who really stopped and listened to what I had to say and look beyond the lack of credentials,” she says. “They spent several hours talking to me when I got back, looking through all my footage and seeing what I had and appreciating what I'd been able to get. I can tell you there was another news organization that wouldn't even return my calls and emails. And I had a scoop when I got back.”
While FRONTLINE/World's creators were determined to maintain the high journalistic standards that have characterized FRONTLINE for the last 20 years, they also wanted the show to have its own unique style — one that would hopefully appeal to a younger audience. Toward that end, they adopted a different format. FRONTLINE consists of a single hour-long documentary, and FRONTLINE/World offers three stories each hour — a 22-minute hard news story, an 18-minute feature, and a 10-minute piece that tends to be more entertaining or inspirational.
The hard news stories, like Pike's Cambodia story or Rubin's Sri Lanka story, are often disturbing looks at difficult problems in various regions around the world. The shorter features are human interest stories, such as Marco Werman's profile of Iceland's hot pop music scene or Sapana Sakya's chronicle of the attempt of five Sherpa women to climb Mount Everest.
From a style perspective, FRONTLINE/World also makes use of more innovative graphics, hipper music, and faster video cuts than does FRONTLINE. “We have the mandate to experiment, to take chances,” says Talbot. “We can afford to take chances because we are new. We can afford to take some risks that FRONTLINE can't.”
Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is the way FRONTLINE/World chooses to tell its stories. These aren't big budget productions produced over long periods of time by big crews using expensive equipment. Most stories are told by one or two-person crews, and virtually all are shot using small DV cameras. Rarely do they make use of sit-down interviews. They are more personal. They have an on-the-run feel that's like a journey of discovery that the audience shares with the reporter.
“The format of all these shows is generally a reporter on a journey,” says Talbot. “We mix the best of a travelogue/adventure kind of show with very solid journalism. The LA Times called us a showcase for “backpack journalism” and that's definitely the feel of the show. We take the audience off the beaten path to places they've never been before and show them unusual things.”
The decision to have its freelance producers use DV equipment for FRONTLINE/World stories was a very conscious one that contributes to the unique style of the show in a number of important ways. To begin with, it makes the cost of doing the shows more affordable, which opens the door to videographers who can't afford high-end equipment but who have important stories to tell.
Pike, for one, admits she wouldn't have been able to do her story on Cambodia without DV technology because she could never have afforded Beta equipment. As a result, the story simply would never have been done. Moreover, she says, working with a smaller camera was more practical. For example, when they went to meet with Nuon Chea, they had to hide their equipment by wrapping it in towels, something they could easily do with their Sony PD150.
“Working with a small camera definitely helps people feel more at ease,” says Pike. “They pay attention to you and not the big camera equipment. It lets you fit into the environment a little bit more subtly.”
Rubin, who operated as a one-man band in producing his piece on Sri Lanka, agrees that small crews working with small DV cameras are less intimidating to people and allow journalists to capture scenes and tell stories that simply couldn't be told any other way. “I think people tend to be more honest and less guarded because it is not a huge production,” he says.
In addition, says Rubin, who also used a Sony PD150 to shoot his story, a DV camera makes it easy to capture unusual footage quickly. “I'm very aggressive in the field,” he says. “I like to get lots of angles and beautiful shots. That's one of the benefits of DV. You can get down on the ground and use the LCD screen and you can do all kinds of things with it and build a scene quickly.”
The bottom line, however, is that DV technology complements the loose and free feel that FRONTLINE/World is trying to create: a lone journalist out in the field capturing experiences as they occur.
“The use of DV is very purposeful,” says FRONTLINE/World contributor Cassandra Herrman, who co-produced a piece on Nigeria with Alexis Bloom. “It's very much the video journalist model. You have a smaller crew, which makes for more intimate storytelling. And you're not out there lighting scenes. It's very different. The purpose is to bring the viewer into the moment. With the smaller cameras, that's a lot easier. It's also a lot easier in foreign countries to capture scenes that way.”
Because FRONTLINE/World stories are journeys, the DV cameras give the small crews who use them the flexibility to go wherever their journeys may lead. Herrman found that out first hand during the dramatic events that occurred during the filming of her story in Nigeria last year. Originally the story was supposed to focus on what life was like for women living under the rigid Shariah law of Nigeria, a law that sentenced one Nigerian woman, Amina Lawal, to death by stoning for committing adultery. That sentence was to be contrasted against the fact that Nigeria at the time was playing host to the Miss World contest.
As fate would have it, just as Herrman and Bloom were driving north through the Nigerian town of Kaduna on their way to find Lawal, a riot broke out as people upset by the pageant took to the streets. Two hundred people died. Eventually the pageant itself moved to London.
With that event, Herrman's and Bloom's journey took an unexpected twist, and they quickly changed plans to document this new development. “The events in the journey determined the course of the story,” says Herrman. “We were just taking this journey, and I was filming the journey we were on. So we just followed the twists and turns of the story.”
While none of the videographers who've worked for FRONTLINE/World would suggest that DV is the one and only way to shoot documentaries, they tend to believe it's an ideal format for achieving what FRONTLINE/World has set out to accomplish.
“I think David Fanning understands what works with DV and what doesn't,” says Rubin. “With DV, it shouldn't just be cheaper. It should be there for a reason. I'm a big fan of documentaries that have crews and producers and reporters. I don't think they should all be DV documentaries. But I think DV has its place. I know when Talbot or Fanning are considering a story, they are very focused on understanding what the journey part of the story is. Because that's what works with DV.”
And for young videographers, the marriage of DV technology with FRONTLINE/World's mandate represents the creation of a new opportunity to tell the kind of important stories they always dreamed of telling.
Creating an Award-Winning Website
In addition to documentaries, the FRONTLINE/World staff has also managed to create a high-quality website.
The quality of the video streamed on the site, and the wealth of additional, original reporting that accompanies each FRONTLINE/World story makes it clear that this website is more than an afterthought or an archive. It’s an impressive contribution to journalism in its own right.
In its first year of existence, the website has won an Online Journalism Award for General Excellence from the Online Journalism Association and Columbia University, an award for investigative reporting for its material on gunrunning from IRE Investigative Reporters & Editors, and an Eppy award for web design. It was also nominated for a Webby award for best TV-related website.
Despite its high quality, the site is maintained by a relatively small handful of people. The site’s designer is Susan Harris of Fluent Studios, San Francisco, and the site’s producer is Angela Morgenstern of KQED’s Interactive Department. The content editor is Doug Foster, a visiting professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, alternating with a freelance editor, Sara Miles. FRONTLINE/World’s associate producer Sheraz Sadiq helps provide web content and post material, as does series editor Stephen Talbot, who has ultimate responsibility for the site. Sam Bailey of EntropyMedia offers occasional technical support, and several other FRONTLINE/WGBH and KQED interactive staff members pitch in as time allows. Morgenstern also makes use of recent journalism school graduates to help develop site content.
In an email interview, Morgenstern shared some of the secrets of the website’s success:
VS: Beyond the hard work of individuals, what design philosophies or work processes have you employed to create such a top-notch website?
Morgenstern: Instead of just making the site a dumping ground for leftover media or archived bits that didn’t make it into the televised program, we try to emphasize storytelling in our feature choices, publish original narrative and perspectives, and provide tools to help visitors learning about a particular story understand the world around them.
It’s also important to consider elements of intuitive and clean web design. In our case, we were facing numerous design challenges, including an audience that might be relatively unfamiliar with global geography or news, large tracts of text, multiple and sometimes changing stories, and the need to find the right balance between rich media/interactivity and accessibility.
The designer pays enormous attention to layout and presentation to help people absorb all the information and so as not to overwhelm them. The site takes a photography approach, with bold images on the homepage and use of illustrative photos throughout the site. A color is associated with each story in order to give the user a sense of place within the larger site as well as to reinforce the mood and tenor of each story. We try to humanize the online stories by adding photos of local life and landscapes without sensationalizing the topic.
hen we started out, we looked at Benetton Colors magazines and Edward Tufte books, researching the visual presentation of social issue and news information. Then we thought about how that might apply to the interactive nature of the Web. We provide special interactive features with each story. Our editors at PBS national help challenge us to think beyond straight presentation of text.
In the development of these and other features, I find it’s really important to engage everyone on the team in the editorial process, regardless of their title. Our designer, Susan Harris, has been instrumental in conceiving of some of these ideas or bringing them further. It’s important that each person along the chain has passion for the mission of the site.
Communication is also really important throughout, so that what we are doing on the website, while completely original, is still in sync with the TV side.
VS: What’s your trick for creating such high-quality streaming video? What tools or techniques do you credit it to?
Morgenstern: FRONTLINE has a tech guru, Sam Bailey of EntropyMedia. He says his process is “to digitize the video into Final Cut Pro from Beta and then use Media Cleaner Pro 6 to output both RealVideo sizes. Media Cleaner makes everything pretty easy and fast. We might have to fiddle with cropping and coloring slightly depending on the clip but generally as long as we get a good version of the tape it’s pretty easy.”
We sometimes work with outside vendors to help digitize the material at the highest resolution in a short amount of time. We’ve worked with Zaps Inc. in Boston and BuyStreaming in San Francisco.
We also follow specs from PBS national and use a customized audio and video player template, which makes the presentation look nice. They specify that all video encoded for RealPlayer use RealVideo 8 codec or earlier, optimized for two audiences: 56.6K modem users and DSL/Cable users. They also dictate the KB rates per section and the pixel screen rate display for each stream.
VS: Is the producer of a FRONTLINE/World documentary intimately involved in the creation of the website for his/her piece? If so, how?
Morgenstern: Each producer/reporter contributes one original piece to his or her web section. This can be a reporter’s diary, online interview, or behind-the-scenes written piece. The site also benefits from a great degree of collaboration with the TV series staff.
With each story, we sit down together and brainstorm questions that interest us as viewers after watching or hearing about a story. Then, from those ideas, we pick the angles that would be best suited for a web feature. The producer or reporter of the story can be as involved as they want in that process. Usually they are very busy with the production of their TV piece, so they are happy to have researchers and writers on the case who can develop other original pieces around their idea. They are generally pleasantly surprised at the end of the day. I think that seeing all the features that we develop not only provides for a more rich experience and educational extensions, it shows our genuine interest in “their” story or journey.
VS: Do you have any practical advice for others about how to create a top-quality, video-intensive website?
Morgenstern: If you are making a video-intensive website, don’t leave low bandwidth users behind. PBS has a policy that sites must be designed so that key content features are accessible to users without plug-ins. If a plug-in [such as Shockwave Flash or RealPlayer] is used for a key feature, we provide a non-plug-in version as well. For example, we’ll provide a written synopsis of the story alongside the streaming video, or a straight HTML/graphic version of a Flash feature. We try to pick the most rich and interesting elements of the story and create media-rich experiences [Flash, video, etc.] around those, while also providing some info in basic HTML.
Clean and clear design is also important. Tell the user what he or she will get before they click to download something, and provide basic information about plug-ins.
Sam Bailey also suggests that from both an editorial and technical standpoint dividing clips into chapters makes a lot of sense. And if you want to present an entire program at once you can use SMIL or similar technologies to sequence the clips so at least you won’t have to present two versions of the same clip.
Sam also advises that you make sure you have somewhere reliable to host these clips. If at all possible avoid HTTP streaming, except for Quicktime with Autostart, as it can be unreliable and could also end up being costly if your web server doesn’t have limits on bandwidth consumption.
Working for FRONTLINE/World
ANYONE INTERESTED IN PRODUCING A DOCUMENTARY for FRONTLINE/World can view streaming videos of past shows and find story submission contact information at the show's website www.pbs.org/frontlineworld.
According to FRONTLINE/World series editor Stephen Talbot, the show finds its stories any number of ways. Some story ideas are generated internally and assigned to producers who are familiar to FRONTLINE/World editors. But some stories, he says, come from submissions emailed by unknown producers — a practice he readily encourages. “Obviously if people have a track record and good tapes, it helps,” he says. “But sometimes people have sold us because the story idea is so good.”
Once someone is given an assignment, the chances of getting another assignment go up considerably if they do a good job. “When people prove to us they can do it, we want to try and hire them again,” Talbot says.
Sometimes sending in a submission can be useful even if the FRONTLINE/World editors end up not liking the proposed story idea. “One guy sent us a story that wasn't quite right for us, but we noticed from his tapes that he was a good cameraman,” says Talbot. “So that's the kind of guy we put in the Rolodex.”
On occasion FRONTLINE/World will even acquire an already completed documentary, even if it needs to be reworked for the show's purposes. That's exactly what happened to Alexis Bloom, whose story about Bhutan, the last country in the world to legalize television, was used in the pilot episode of FRONTLINE/World.
According to Talbot, the piece, originally entitled Switch on Bhutan, was created by Bloom as graduate school project and ran 24 minutes in length. After seeing it, FRONTLINE/World bought it and cut it down to 10 minutes.
As for fees, FRONTLINE/World will generally pay anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 to acquire an already completed documentary, and anywhere from $30,000 to $70,000 to produce an original documentary.
“Anyone who knows the documentary business knows they are
never going to get rich working for FRONTLINE/World,”
Talbot says. “But for the time that they put in with us, we are
not cheap either. People can do good work and keep themselves going for
the time they are working for us.”
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