What I Learned from Charles Kuralt


On The Road to making better video….

When we train VJs now, we train them to work in very different ways.

One of the ways we differ is that we teach them to lay in all the pictures first on the timeline, then the audio and lastly to write the narration.

We want their work to be picture stories first, as opposed to being led by the narration.

Most television news in the US is made the other way. A script is written, and then the ‘talent’ goes into a record booth and records the narration track from a written script.

The narration track is then laid down, sound bites included, and once the narrative audio is complete, pictures are wallpapered over the narration.

This makes for scripts that are chock full of information but often hard to follow

We like to work the other way around.

We like to lay in all the video, then the sound bites, and then have the VJ narrate (as opposed to write) the narration directly onto the laptop while watching the video go by. They are, essentially, storytelling to the pictures in real time.

I learned this way of working a long time ago, when I was a producer for Charles Kuralt at CBS News.

I had cut my teeth making docs at PBS in NY, and I was used to working the other way around.

When I had my first story to do with Kuralt, I prepared a written script as usual and booked a record booth for him to lay in the narration track.

He never showed.

I called him.

He told me just to cut the piece and leave spaces for the narration.

You mean, you don’t want to record the narration? How am I going to deliver the piece?

Just cut the piece and leave spaces for the narration, he told me. And make sure I have a copy of the script.

I was sure we were headed for disaster and my new job with CBS News would soon be over.

The show was broadcast live on Sunday mornings, so I went over W 57th Street to watch what I was sure was a misunderstanding for which I would be blamed.

I sat in the corner and watched as he delivered the throw from his stool and the tape began to roll.

Then he lit up a cigarette, watched the monitor, and proceeded to read my copy to the pictures as they went out live.

His timing was impeccable. But I could also see that instead of reading a script he was talking to the audience as he and they watched the pictures.

It was the real way to turn video into compelling storytelling.

And it worked.

So now we do the same thing with our VJs.

Assemble the pictures, then tell the story they tell as you and the viewers watch the pictures go by.

It works.


14 responses to “What I Learned from Charles Kuralt

  1. Maybe this is the way that Charles Kuralt did it years ago, but I doubt it, you probably only saw part of the production and automatically assumed that this is the way everybody do it, far for the real truth. Michael, one of these days you’ll have to find somebody that can show you how real productions are done. Actually the worst examples that I’ve seen lately that the audio doesn’t even closely match the visual are those videos produced by those Verizon VJs of yours in Washington.

    Let me explain to you how this is done in the professional world. After a topic is selected the first step is research, something that you find it unnecessary. The initial research will decide if there’s enough information out there to turn the topic into a full story. Once a green light is given then the research goes into details, usually PAs are assigned to conduct such research. Here the producer and/or reporter with the information obtained start shaping the story. Any story to be credible will need interviews with experts, witness or whoever can be important to the story, the more the better. Of course the reporter must first seek out these experts, this means more research. The crews conducting these interviews will also gather visual material to go along what the subjects said. Unless you can tell these people exactly what to say there’s no way on earth that anyone can pre-write the script, the most a writer or reporter can do is write an outline, a road map to guide the story. Once all the dialogs, voice and information is completed and gathered, including archival material, then the story can be written. Notice that I said “crews” plural, because chances are that these interviews that will give the story credibility might not all be in the same town, often they are scattered around the country or around the world, again more of the research and investigation that you find so unnecessary in this business. How on earth you can gather visuals without knowing in advance what to gather (research-investigation) will always remain a mystery to me.

    There are however different methods to create a story. If the story creator only wants the story to be very specific by only use his narration and his own facts, then the story can be pre-written. If you have ever seen a TV script it has two columns, one for dialog and a corresponding one for visuals. Once the dialog column is completed then the producer and the crew will use that script as a guide to gather visuals to go with the written column.

    I can also tell you that there are many more methods that stories are created and written, unlike what you are trying to make everyone believe, there’s no one size fits all in this business, that’s what they call this business “creative”. If like you say, everybody follow a template system than it would not be “creative”.

    These are the ways that everyone that I know in this business, myself included, has been doing it, and that’s long before you ever got involved with television. People like you have been trying to make changes and take short cuts since the early days of television and all these shortcuts have always resulted in lesser quality programs, and you are a living example of that. Over the years we tried them all and we always end up going back to the traditional methods because year after year it has proven to be the most efficient, and most important, the accurate way to create a story, and also the most cost effective.

  2. I like this concept of narrating the story as you watch it in the post process.

    Kuralt was one of the best narrators when I use to watch him on Sunday mornings.

    Thanks for the insights on how to assemble the narrative.

  3. Dear Nino
    Always a pleasure to welcome back one of our regular readers.
    As I spent two years ‘on the road’ so to speak as a producer for Kuralt’s show, I can assure you that I was able to see more than ‘part of the production’.

    Having spent more than 25 years in the television business (and with 7 Emmys in a box in my basement), I appreciate your lessons in how to make TV, but I think I already knew that stuff.

    We are running a conference in Brussels in March. DNA2008 (www.dna20008.com).

    There will be tv producers from all over the world there who are working in new and innovative ways. Perhaps you would like to come. Perhaps you might even learn something new.

  4. Strong, effective video journalism depends on natural sounds, natural moments, solid content, and storytelling.

    It works best when after you shoot the video…. you log the content. Pick out the best shots, moments and sounds. If you can tell the story without narration, great. If the audio is not strong enough to carry the story by itself…that is when narration helps. Great writing helps even more. Hence the success of Kuralt. He had great content, great writing, and a great voice.

    After you log the content…THAT is when you need to pick the best stuff and then write words to get from point A to B to C. The writing, I think, should happen before editing. Basic producing and thinking ahead will make the story flow best.

    Again, picking out the best moments, sounds, pictures…then blocking out the story…then writing to get from one great moment to the next… seems to work. I assume Mr. Kuralt had solid producers gathering the content, logging the content, blocking out the best moments… so Kuralt had an easier job to write or narrate effectively.

    However, most VJs…. are not Charles Kuralt, with experience, and a staff of shooters and producers to make a story sing.

    My advice above is simple. Shoot, log, find the best moments, then write – or formuate the missing links. Have fun.

  5. “There will be tv producers from all over the world there who are working in new and innovative ways. Perhaps you would like to come. Perhaps you might even learn something new.”

    I do appreciate your invitation Michael, but after seeing who the keynote speaker is and having vivid images in my mind of those videos that the “keynote speaker” refers to as quality work coming from Europe I can well imagine what that conference will be like, thanks but I pass.

  6. Just found the website, and I enjoy it very much…bookmarked it.

    I’ve been in broadcasting for 20+ years, and I’ve always wondered how something like this would work when applied practically. I’ve always been a stickler for being there doing a shoot, watching what’s being done, then going back, logging everything and picking bites…especially tight bites that I can talk into. When I write my stuff I have the shot log with me, usually arranged from best visual stuff to least impressive. I’ve always tried to write that way (also with the nats logged from best to unusable) to keep the pace moving and as a way to make sure I write to video 99 percent of the time. The way you describe this seems a little “magical” which I’m sure Kuralt was. If I recall, his pieces were also longer and a little breezier than a lot of the standard churn in-and-out stuff we get in local news each day.

    I’d be interested in the practical application of this, and is it possible the best practice is a mix of both approaches? I think to some extent I do a little of what you described…when logging the video, the pictures often suggest the copy, and I often write what comes to mind while logging, along with the shot location on tape. Am I going in the right direction?

    Thanks, and I’ll keep reading.

  7. Hi Don
    What makes this work so very well now is the rise of non-linear edits and particularly laptops. you can narrate directly into the laptop! And the non linear allows constant trims. When we did it with Kuralt he had to read to the space we left open. Now, those can all be massaged to fit the track as you create it.
    Really remarkable.
    Try it and lemme know how it goes.

  8. Nino said:

    I do appreciate your invitation Michael, but after seeing who the keynote speaker is and having vivid images in my mind of those videos that the “keynote speaker” refers to as quality work coming from Europe I can well imagine what that conference will be like, thanks but I pass.

    Same $h!t, Different Day in the continued condescending tone which is par for the course it seems.

  9. I know Cliff, sometime I can be really obnoxious, but you have to admit that this whole VJ thing has been kind of a long standing joke with no punch line. A lot of talk and conferences and meetings and writing and comparing to history but the bottom line is that nobody is making any money doing this thing and the reason is that Michael method of production is not commercially viable. Being broadcasting or commercial productions, when you look at the entire picture the crew’s cost is insignificant, a drop in the bucket and yet the results can be the difference between success and failure, quality is still the most important element, something totally missing from Michael teaching. You and all the VJs supporters can come up with all kinds of reasons why in your very own opinion you are a better deal, but with all your arguments years went by and you still can’t convince the people who is paying for the services to hire you, that should tell you something.

    Let’s see, six years ago Michael stated that by now we would all be out of business, well, I’m ending 2007 with my best year ever, not only me but the same also goes for every freelancer that I know, and I know many, 2007 has been a banner year, not only for volume but the higher demand for higher quality HD production has substantially increase our per-day revenues. New HD shows planned and already in production for 2008 guarantee than next year will be even better. This year I’ve also seen something that I was unheard until now, broadcasters actually had to postpone some magazine shoots because they could not find quality crews available that could do the job right, they had to work the shooting schedule around the crews availability.

    Care to list the successes of Michael’s teaching? Can you name how many cable shows are currently being produced by VJs? Have you heard anything else about those “5 Take” VJ produced programs that was supposed to lead television in a new direction? About the web, look at your own posting Cliff, you were supposed to be all over the internet by now; unless you consider having your video on Youtube a success I haven’t seen anything yet that spells revenue. And how about those Citizen Video web sites that Michael called them the outlets for VJs, the Ebay of video, anybody is making a living out of those yet, I can’t even find a sponsor listed there? And what about all those “how-to” videos that were supposed to put VJs on the map, seen any lately? And have you looked lately at the Morningafter web site that Michael claimed to be a sure thing for VJs, have you seen how many more clients they have since Michael posted here? I could go on and on but how many ways can you spell failure, I called every one of those “project” and detailed why they will not work, I didn’t spend nearly four decades in this business without understanding what this business is all about Cliff, and unlike Michael I didn’t do it from a podium, I’m in the trenches day in and day out, when I say something is not from theory or wild dreams, is from dealing with real people, those who pay for my services, and the reason that they do it is because I tailored my services to their needs, they talk and I listen. The key of success is not by creating needs, the success comes from finding what clients need and fill those needs. Cliff you can call me all the names that you like if that makes you feel better, but it doesn’t change a thing. I’ve been saying this for six years with a 100% record of accuracy “anyone who follow Michael’s methods of production will not make a living with a video camera”. It’s commercially faulty, these are well proven and documented facts.

  10. Dear Nino
    I am on the blackberry in a car in england, so I will keep this short for now. You are looking in all the wrong places. While it is true that I encountered much more resistance than I had expected at local tv news channels, the real impact is being felt online as newspapers and magazines move to video. The ny times, the washington post, and now the la times, who has just hired scott anger, a vj who both trained under me at voa and then worked for me (and did a number of frontlines on his own) has now been hired to build a massive vj dept at the la times. We are working with a number of major news magazines to bring vj video online for them. No one in their right mind, looking to get into video for the web would do it any other way. Quite the opposite of what you suggest we have had great success in this area. One thing we learned is it is very hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But I think there are more and more new dogs who do a pretty good job, and that is where I am spending most of my time and enjoying a great deal of success.

  11. Michael, we are talking apple and oranges here. You are talking about skilled people, like “real” journalists, using video to expand their profession; it’s an added tool just like when word processors took over typewriters, they did not eliminate secretaries, the just had to acquire additional skills to keep up with technology. I seriously doubt it that anyone decided to become a secretary just because they now had word processors. As I said before those employed by an organization that will engage video as an additional tool will continue to receive a paycheck just like they did before. Let me repeat this, these are skilled, educated and trained people, a great departure from you well known phrase of “Everybody can do it”, of course everybody can do it, they just never going to get paid to do it. I’m sure that the NY Times will not put on the payroll someone who is a self declared citizen journalist. I can also tell you that any of those journalist now employed by a newspaper and doing video, should they lose their job their video skills are just as good as an unemployment check.

    I’m talking about the rest of VJ, those with little or no skills, the unaffiliated VJ that after a few days of training you claimed that can pick a camera and go into business and be in high demand. When I mentioned the web I wasn’t talking about newspapers, I was referring to your claims that the phone will ring off the hook because of the high demands of cheap productions needed for web programming. The same goes for those “how-to” programs and all those hundreds of cable channels that for years you claimed will need cheap production done desperately. Whatever happens any of those those? Let me help you out on this one, they all require skills, skills that those dreamers who followed in your doctrine do not have but like bunch of fools they still believe in your very damaging statements that those skills are not needed, “it will happen” right? While waiting punch a few more holes in your belt. Let me repeat this again, maybe people like Cliff will finally understand. When you market a multi million dollars business or project, or even a real estate development, a vacation destination or even a restaurant, even if only for the web, another 2K for production is a drop in the bucket when you consider that the impact of the visual quality of the finished product could be the difference between success and failure. Do any of you dreamers really think that any organization would be stupid enough to hinge the success of an entire promotional campaign in trying to save a few thousand of dollars? Wake up guys. Michael, the best thing you could do to help these poor guys is to retract your previous statements and openly state that indeed to make it in this business and be marketable they need to improved and diversified their skills; words, dream and hopes are good for the soul but not for the checking account.

  12. “it’s an added tool just like when word processors took over typewriters, they did not eliminate secretaries, the just had to acquire additional skills to keep up with technology. I seriously doubt it that anyone decided to become a secretary just because they now had word processors.”

    Let me add something to my previous statement. I also doubt that anyone became a successful writer just because word processing technology made it easier to type. The same as I seriously doubt that anyone can become a good photographer just because equipments are smaller and easier to use. And I stand-by my previous statements that all the VJ success stories that you have pointed out so proudly until now were all from photographer who were already skilled professional before they got involved with video. It is just another tool to expand one’s skills, they key word here is “skills”. Actually most good DP that I know were good still photographer before making the transition to film or video.

    Actually there’s a little of role reversal happening lately, kind of a backward move. As everyone is getting deeper involved in the web and merging the various media, I’ve been getting more and more calls to piggyback stills to my video shooting. Until now they had a producer using a small digital camera but now they want quality and are willing to pay well for it. Previously they also hired a still photographer to basically shoot my set-up and some of these guys were getting paid as much as I did. So now it’s back to my first love. I just invested another10k in new and upgraded digital SLR and lenses and about 20% of my video shoots now also involve stills. Clients save money and I make more. Some of my still are now also appearing on the actual magazines as well as on the web. You’ll see this trend gradually increasing.

  13. What the technology does is both empower existing journalists to expand their skills into video (which they are doing very successfully – and, I am sure you will agree, will ultimately impact upon many local conventional freelance crews – and then there is the democratization of video, which while it will produce a tidal wave of junk, will also give birth to a whole new generation of video driven creators – journalist and otherwise. Those who began as journalsits before and now embrace the technology prove the point. Young journalists just starting out, will also pick up these tools and begin to work with them from day one. In 25 years their skills will be as good as anyone else’s. As for your doing stills, just goes to prove the point of new technologies opening new doors. My friends who were professional photographers would not be happy, but that is how life goes. That is precisely why so many of them are taking the video classes – either with me or with Dirck Halstead at NPPA.

  14. Michael, what exactly is a conventional freelance crew?

    As far as revenues goes, news is at the very bottom of the video business. There are some awful photographers in news and there are some incredibly dedicated and talented ones. The salary range, for those employed, depends on the market ranking that they can get hired into. Naturally, career advancement for most means moving to a different market that provides better pay. If you look at B-roll salaries survey, my worse year has been what the top salary is in news is. I could not survive with what the average news photographer makes, so why bother. I often find myself working shoulder to shoulder with those news guys and girls and they have my total admiration and respect for what they do versus what they make. News magazines on the other hand is a complete different issue, its much more equipment oriented, you have to know and do just about everything that a news photographer does plus you have to have extensive lighting and composition skills if you want to get called back. Personally I don’t know of any freelance crews (or conventional crew as you refer to) that does exclusively news so I can’t see how Video Journalist will in the future impact crews that do not exist.

    Maybe I should explain what I mean by “skills diversification”. Simply putting it, it means that whenever the phone rings I know that I’ll be able to successfully do whatever the caller will need me to do before I even pick up the phone. This is not just me, every crew that I know has the skills and is capable to do the very same. Tell me Michael, could a video journalist shoot jewelries? Shiny objects and glassware? Could he illuminate an architectural interior, or do food photography? About a simple chroma-key screen. These are just some of the assignment that a skilled crew is faced with day in and day out, in addition of course to news magazines or documentaries assignments.

    Also, “crews” in reality in this business do not exist. Usually what you have is a cameraman/DP that owns all the equipment and based on the job requirements and the budget he/she will hire the properly skilled individual to form the crew. Today most of the time a crew consists of the cameraman/DP and a sound tech/assistant. Many times if no others are necessary the DP will do the job alone.

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