Reflections on the 2005 Platypus Workshop

By Mike De Sisti

The word ‘video,’ I know, can carry negative connotations. We’ve all heard horror stories about still photographers in newsrooms being handed video cameras and told to, “Go ahead and shoot some video for the website while your shooting stills.”

I don’t know about you, but for me all 100% of the 10% of my brain that I use is fully occupied with managing the menagerie of still photography gear I already haul around. Throw one more piece of electronics and a few cables my way and I’d look like R2D2 on steroids. And yet, I’ve been making movies since I was a kid, realizing even then the power of adding motion and sound to images.

It started with my little Bell & Howell 8mm silent movie camera. By the 1980s, I was shooting with one of those refrigerator sized VHS video cameras. The cameras would eventually shrink, become compact, but my realization of its power only grew. Photographs of family vacation were nice, but the real emotion came from watching home movies. I’d slow a few clips down, add a little heart-bending theme music and you’d think my family was watching the end of Old Yeller.

And so, when I learned about the intense, nine-day Platypus Workshop – designed for still photojournalists who are interested in using video to tell their stories – I persuaded my editors into enrolling me. The instructors were Dirck Halstead and PF Bentley, two award-winning still photographers who have made the jump into the video world.

Bentley, who has produced ³Nightline² broadcasts for ABC, is renowned for his intimate photographs of Bill Clinton’s final days in office. The result was a best-selling book, “Clinton: Portrait of Victory.” Halstead, a long time senior White House photographer has had his photographs on the cover of Time Magazine more than 50 times. He has won the NPPA Picture of the Year award twice, and the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his coverage of the fall of Saigon.

Discovery of the furry duck-billed Platypus in the mid 18th century shocked biologists. They had their books written with all animals placed into specific categories: mammals, reptiles, fish, etc. The Platypus, crossing over into many categories, forced a change in the way the Zoological community thought. A visionary in the field of video journalism, Halstead saw the Platypus as the perfect analogy. In order to survive the evolution of new media, like the Platypus, we must adapt.

The creation of the Platypus Workshop enables photojournalists to break through the division of print and television. We were given a Canon GL2 mini DV camera, wireless microphones and a tripod. Our days started with in-class lectures, instructing us wanna-be filmmakers on the necessary techniques needed to operate all this foreign equipment we had been handed. We were then sent out into the world to find interesting stories to shoot. We edited all our projects on Final Cut Pro, which is some truly amazing software.

As it happens, I’ve done a half dozen video projects for my newspaper’s website using my little consumer mini DV camera. They’ve been well received by my colleagues. So, I went in thinking this workshop would be pretty smooth sailing. I’ve been watching TV photographers do their job for years. Throw on a pair of shorts, grab a few sound bytes and you’re done. Piece of cake, right?I was gravely mistaken. For our first assignment we were asked to do simple man-on-the-street interviews. I thought I was doing fine until I had my tape critiqued. It looked like a true blue California earthquake.

My footage was so shaky I needed a vomit bag to watch it. Not only that, but my subject’s answers were cut off by the sounds of semi-trucks, airplanes and barking dogs. Also, one of my subjects appeared to have a telephone pole lodged deep in his skull, like some amazing survivor of a tornado.The simple exercise pulled me back to earth. This TV stuff, I realized, is no pajama party. The next day, I pried my tail from beneath my legs, stepped into a new attitude and hit the streets. Our assignment: Shoot B roll. B-Roll is cool. For us photographers, it’s all the visual elements you see on an assignment but don’t necessarily shoot because it probably won’t run.

Say you’re shooting a story about a farmer. You notice a stalk of wheat, wet with morning dew, backlit by the rising sun. For a daily assignment you might need two or three photos, one of the farmer farming, and maybe one of his farm. It’s not likely the image of the wheat will run. But with video, not only can you use that shot, you need that shot. When he talks about his love of the farm, you’ll cut to the glowing wheat.

So that’s B-roll. B-Roll is cool because it allows photographers to share images that would not otherwise appear in a daily 2-3 photo package.Thanks to the spastic job I did on my previous lesson, I learned the value of a special device called a tripod. In video, this piece of equipment is the difference between looking like a professional, and appearing as if you are one sip of coffee shy of a seizure.

After a few rejections I found a local barber who was willing to accommodate me with my B-Roll project. Things were going great. I had every angle covered. I was B-Rolling everything from the barber pole to a tight shot of the scissors cutting hair. I even had a beautiful image of cut hair gently falling to the floor. All’s I needed was an exterior of the business and I was outta there. Like a good boy, I went outside, set up my pod, and shot the mother of all exterior shots. Then my day took a nosedive. The rebel that I am, I felt the need to remove the camera from the pod to get another low angle. I did so just before I turned to see that the tripod was gone. The neighborhood was not the best. I realized this as I frantically asked a guy passing by if he saw anyone take the tripod.

³You left what, where? Oh man. Big mistake.² After filling out a meaningless police report and again tucking my tail where the sun doesn’t shine, I reported back to class, minus one tripod, plus one personal check made out to the Brooks institute of Photography. I did manage to get some nice B-Roll footage of the barber. If only I’d noticed the chunk of hair that had fallen on my lens, managing to fill the corner of all my shots.Just dandy!

Hey, you live and you learn right? Leaving gear unattended for any length of time is not advisable. But checking your lens for hair chunks is recommended. I knew all this but obviously needed reminding. What I didn’t know was how much of a challenge the Platypus Workshop was going to be. We managed to jam a semester’s length of learning into nine days. Thanks to the patience and guidance of our instructors, we went from zero to sixty in terms of producing quality video.

More than the ability to capture, edit and tell cohesive story, we learned that a photojournalist armed with a video camera is a powerful option. This Unique ‘one-man-band’ approach to video journalism is unconstrained by the financial and physical aspect of doing a ‘Nightline’ type of story that must include a crew of camera people, reporters, and producers. We are a crew of one. Would a woman who lost her husband in the 911 attacks, left alone to raise her children, act more natural with a large TV crew of six, or with just you, your video camera and a genuine concern for what she is going through? My bet is on the latter.

I’m not moving away from still photography. A good photograph stands alone. It’s power to reveal emotion can and often does transcend video.Still, newspapers nationwide are offering less space for photo stories. This sad reality leaves us with a choice. We can either fight for something that we won’t get or realize we’re storytellers at heart and adapt.

If we are not careful we could make the same mistake as the railroads years ago. For a hundred years, railroads were the most successful business in the United States. If you shipped anything it was by rail. Then came the trucking industry. The railroad companies could have invested in trucking. But they chose to go it alone and went bankrupt. Their mistake was in thinking they were in the railroad business. In reality they were in the transportation business. We are not in the ³still photography² business.

More now than ever people are turning to the Internet for news. Newspapers circulate not only in print but also in cyberspace, where they are competing in a rich multimedia environment, forming a new medium where the possibilities are endless. Whether it’s through the use of video, online photo galleries, or audio with still photos, the goal remains the same, to tell a story, to entertain, to educate, to move people.Video is not for everybody, but for me the transition seems natural.

It’s doing what I love while alleviating the exhaustion of the daily grind. Where this New World of story telling is headed is unclear. As the late Jim Morrison once said, “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors.” The door has opened revealing a new terrain worth exploring. I think I’ll take a look. You never know. I may even see a Platypus along the way.

Mike De Sisti has been a staff-photographer at The Post-Crescent in Appleton, WI for six years. He’s a 1996 graduate of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL with a Bachelors of Arts degree in photography. He currently lives in Appleton with his wife Carol. E-Mail Mike with any questions at:

More information on the Platypus Workshop

The Digital Journalist A Multimedia Magazine for Photojournalism in the Digital Age

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