Travis Fox on NPR/Frontline collaboration: “I feel like it’s a great model for the future”
We’re longtime fans of the work of video producer Travis Fox, creator of engaging Web projects combining video and interactive elements. With so many journalists pondering narrative in the digital era, we thought it would be interesting to highlight a March collaboration between Fox and NPR business reporter Adam Davidson. As part of a joint effort by Frontline and NPR, Fox and Davidson went to Haiti and ended up creating audio-only stories for NPR and two videos for the Frontline Web site (which also ran on PBS’ NewsHour). Here, Fox talks with us about the project, practical approaches to collaboration and how he thinks about visual storytelling.
The assignment was to do this coproduction with NPR’s Planet Money and Adam Davidson. It was up to us what we came up with. Frontline wanted two Web pieces to pair with the broadcast on March 30, and they also wanted us to do a longer piece that will air this summer.
I met with Adam a little bit before, and we talked about ideas, but it wasn’t until we got on the ground that we decided what we’d do.
I love that opening footage from the tent city during the church service, where you get a shot of the woman’s feet, and then the story turns toward pedicures. Did you already have that footage before you knew the story would take that turn?
The technique of shooting is that you shoot in sequences. You deconstruct a scene. So if the scene is the people singing on the hillside at the church, you get the wide shot, then you get a series of details. So I got hands, faces, lips moving, the person holding the Bible with the cross. Getting the feet is a logical thing. I do feet especially when it comes to dancing—they’re a way to signal dancing. But certainly later when we talked about feet I was sure that that stayed in there.
In a lot of ways video editing is like a question and answer with the audience. It gives you a visual preview, then you deal with the scene later in the piece.
The stories are not necessarily the kind of images people picture when they think of recovery from natural disaster in such a poor country. What, in your mind, was the story you were hoping to tell?
The videos were paired with the March 30 Frontline broadcast. That’s a very serious documentary—the earthquake was of course very grim. We wanted to do something complementary and different, to come at it a different way. We didn’t want to produce fluff—Adam is an economics reporter, so we wanted to deal with economic issues. We wanted to have fun with it as well, to create some sort of a contrast.
Visually, I feel like my style is more or less the same, though. I ‘m not sure I did anything different in terms of how I shot it.
Adam Davidson talked about you waiting for the “magic hour” of day to film. Was it important to the particular story you wanted to tell to get the tent city in a certain light, or is that just standard practice?
That’s standard practice when possible. For news, you can’t always do it, especially when you have limited time in a place. The way we worked together was that I shot them all first before I brought in Adam. When I brought Adam in for the interviews, it was a matter of scheduling. If I had a choice, then I’d schedule that in the magic hour or in the late afternoon. It’s for light, and it’s also because of the heat. It’s hot in Haiti.
How we work together is a little unusual. Typically, I work alone on stories, but when I was working with Adam, we had to experiment. I went first and found the characters and did the shooting and the basic interviews. When I went back with him, I needed to go at the same time of day so all the footage would match up.
So you were the one that found the characters, the people you focused on?
We tried different ways of how best to work together, for him to go after a radio story and me to go after a TV story, and we figured out that was the best way. The way I work, I need lots of time to follow characters naturally and record scenes when I’m not interacting with the characters, the subjects.
For him it’s different, he needs a lot more time doing interviews and talking. The times we went out together we would do the interview and then I would need to get so much more, and so he would just be killing time waiting for me to finish stuff he didn’t need for radio.
Adam said you two were really pressed for time. Is there anything you wish you had gotten and didn’t?
When you’re in a place like Haiti, everything takes longer than you think. When you’re here planning it, you feel like you’ll get a lot done, but it doesn’t quite work. Ideally it would be great to work together from the beginning, to decide together who the characters are. I think it worked out fine, but the edit was a crunch. In terms of the edit, I would do a rough edit and a rough script. It would have been great to have him more involved in the edit from the very beginning. These pieces were pretty simple and straightforward, but as we go into more complicated economic stories, it would be great to have him more involved in the edit, so we can take advantage of his expertise.
How long were you there together?
We were there for just about two weeks. And we worked together on and off, probably 30 or 40% of the time. We edited back here in New York.
We ended up with ideas that work for radio and for TV—material not solely based on interviews but also seeing what people were doing and what their environment was like. The visuals matter; you have to have people doing things. While we were in the field, we talked about the edit. We got back here and did it in exactly one week.
These are simple, simple pieces, but those were intense days. What I did was pull the footage, pull the quotes I thought were best, and create a rough edit. So the editors at Frontline watched it, and Adam watched it—his editor watched it as well, I think—and we made our changes. He took my script, which was a placeholder script. He has a very distinctive style for Planet Money. He basically took my bad script and made it into a good script and then voiced it. And then it was just a matter of cutting, so we cut, cut, cut—down to five minutes.
Anything else? Thoughts on what makes a great short video?
I look at these videos as a really successful collaboration. Two people were able to produce a radio story and a TV and a Web story in a very efficient manner, whereas in the past it would have taken a crew of video people to create just a TV show. I feel like in terms of the manpower, it’s kind of a new way of working together. It’s not a traditional videographer-reporter relationship.
But to actually answer your question, great strong characters are always central in terms of video storytelling. I feel like we got pretty good characters. After that you have the other aspects of the story, a surprise, unexpected twists and turns. I think these were unexpected stories. Good writing, good photography, good editing are the other elements.
Let me preface that by saying that the story is the most important thing. But once you have a good story idea, in order to make it into a video, you have to have strong characters, surprises, scenes, that sort of thing.
I don’t mean to say that I start off with characters and figure out what the story is. You figure out what the story is and in order to tell that story, you find characters and visually interesting scenes. For longer pieces, you deal with character development. It’s almost like a feature-film way of looking at it. Your character has a conflict or has to overcome something and changes in the meantime. There’s some overlap with Hollywood—this is what quality video storytelling is.
I’ve collaborated with print reporters at The Washington Post, but I’ve never done anything with radio, so it was a new set of challenges. We’re not necessarily working together like a traditional TV crew would work. We were really collaborating. I feel like it’s a great model for the future, as budgets shrink and more is expected out of journalists. It’s a lot to ask one person to do everything, but if you can pair up efficiently with someone, it can work to everyone’s advantage.
[For more on this project, read our commentary on the Haiti videos and our interview with NPR’s Adam Davidson. You can also check out a Nieman Lab conversation with Frontline executive producer David Fanning.]