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Jan. 13, 2009, 8:46 a.m.

Profile of a backpacker: Inside Mara Schiavocampo’s workflow

[Here’s part two of Ted Delaney’s interview with NBC News digital journalist Mara Schiavocampo. Part one ran yesterday. —Ed.]

Mara Schiavocampo‘s workflow has evolved as her job has.

It was only little more than a year ago that NBC named Schiavocampo its first “digital journalist” — a job whose mandate covers reporting, writing, photography, video (both shooting and editing), and being an on-air presence. It was an experiment to help define what a journalist could produce with all the technology now available — but without the team of professionals that have historically been involved in producing news videos.

Schiavocampo’s workflow centers on her Sony HVR-V1U camcorder. It does triple duty as video recorder, still camera and notebook replacement. “I’m very scaled-down — it’s just bare bones for me,” she said when we talked in her NBC office. “I’ve merged all my work down to one workflow,” she says. “I’m never taking notes because I’m tape recording.” Everything, she says, “is merged around my camera.”

There’s resistance in the business to this model. Some say it asks too much of one person’s skills. But, as she said in a November interview with Post No Ills, the model is shifting out of both technological advancement and necessity.

We’ll see print journalists fronting video pieces and TV folks writing for online outlets and some people taking photos and some blogging. I think our audience will demand that, and so do budget considerations. But what’s really great about this time in our profession is that none of the boundaries have been set, no roles clearly defined. So we all kind of get to choose what interests us and make that our niche. You can’t afford to be a one-trick pony.

When she’s at work, here are some of the guidelines she uses to make decisions on the fly:

— When on a tight deadline, shoot sparingly; when time allows, shoot generously. Schiavocampo says an NBC News videographer advised her to “edit in the field” by being stingy with her shooting choices; that leads to a faster and more regimented workflow when crashing a video on a tight deadline. On the other hand, for pieces with less pressing deadlines, she tends to overshoot to have lots of material to choose from. And given that she uses her camcorder as a notebook for her written pieces, she sometimes runs the camera long after her need for video has been covered.

— Set up sequences. For anything other than a basic talking-head interview, she plots out sequences, getting different shots of a person performing an activity (i.e., extreme closeup, closeup, wide shot, detail shot). “Sequences will save you every time,” she says. “What would be one shot turns into four shots.” (British video journalist David Dunkley Gyimah has what he calls the 3-6-9 method: Three different angles (wide, medium, tight); each shot held for six seconds; shots from nine different locations.

— Hold — and then hold some more. Once the camera is up to shooting speed, she holds each shot for ten seconds going in, and ten going out. “I use the counter on the camera to tell when the ten seconds is up.”

— Plan camera moves. “If you’re going to do a move, hold at the top, do your move, hold at the tail.”

— Listen and watch. She notes that when you hear something bad in your headphones (air conditioner hum, traffic noise, rustle from a poorly placed lapel mic), it’s better to fix it then, because it’s no fun to edit out later. Same with what you see in the viewfinder: Blown-out areas of light or bad focus can’t be re-engineered.

— And finally, it’s the story that counts. Getting to the essence of the tale being told is always the spine of the work. The platform on which the journalist chooses to tell that story is the secondary decision, made easier by the equipment and skill in using it.

When editing, Schiavocampo says she prefers to digitize tape first. Usually, she watches it as it uploads to her MacBook Pro, refreshing her memory of the interviews along the way. She doesn’t fill out a traditional log of her tape, because as editor of her own work she already knows the visuals. Then she can begin to think through how she’ll set up the sequence. Besides the standups she does in the field, she may need to write a script and do a voiceover. She works primarily in Final Cut Pro, although she can handle Avid when needed.

In some cases, she says, the work lends itself to being planned out beforehand. On other stories, the plan only suggests itself in the edit. “Even if I didn’t plan how I’d do it,” Schiavocampo says, “at the end of the day I can still break it out multiple ways, because my workflow has been integrated in that way.”

And as a journalist often working alone on her pieces, safety is another area where she must think differently than someone working within the context of a larger crew.

During an assignment in Haiti, “I was working with a crew who has been to every dangerous place in the world. I decided that I would let them take the lead and just observe how they handled various hostile situations. I learned so much from them: when not to shoot; try to stay calm even when the situation’s not; always have an escape route; and really try to read crowds.

“Though I travel alone, when I’m in a foreign country I’m never actually alone, as I always have some type of fixer or guide with me…So my most important decision is in choosing the right person, someone who is personally referred by a contact and trustworthy. Also, since joining NBC whenever I travel to a dangerous place they send me with a crew, mainly for safety reasons.”

POSTED     Jan. 13, 2009, 8:46 a.m.
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