Loaded for Bear

I quickly learned the expression “loaded for bear” as I struggled to master what it would take to become a backpack journalist.  It’s a wonderful way to say “be ready for anything” — and when you’re out there in the field by yourself armed with a camera, you had better locked and loaded for the shot of a lifetime.  The conundrum?  You have to pack enough to prepare for all eventualities, while at the same time you need to be compact and mobile.

Now, As I prepare for an intense five-day shoot in Detroit, I have to think hard about the ratio of gear:production values.  For sure, YouTube and Flip cameras have sensitized us to shaky video and hollow audio.  But at the same time, as everyone piles into the visual storytelling game, maybe better production quality will help my content stand out.  It’s a lesson I learned after my MCDM program hosted TEDx Seattle.

We originally intended to stream the event live through a consumer-grade camera.  Ultimately, we decided to spend some money and go with a high-end setup that would emphasize the “professionalism” that our degree represents through broadcast-quality video and audio.  It was a sound decision: we found out later that we had higher than average viewership for this kind of event, and people remained on our streaming site longer.  Other than the exceptional content, I believe superb audio-visual standards of our live stream compelled our viewers to stick around.

I’ve been noticing this “bifurcation” for a while.  On one hand, we do want more “authentic” multimedia content, and it’s great to have all of these amateur sources.  On the other, we’ve bought into high-definition TV and 3D Hollywood blockbusters in a big way.  Indeed, The Economist magazine remarked upon this peculiar phenomenon last year:

Hollywood has learned that bigger is better. Although small films can do astonishingly well…they do not do so at all dependably. SNL Kagan, a research firm, calculates that between 2004 and 2008 films costing more than $100m to produce consistently returned greater profits to the big studios than cheaper films did. With DVD sales slumping in the recession and outside financing hard to obtain, the leading studios are cutting back their output of films. But the cuts are concentrated at the bottom end. Studios have shut down or neglected their divisions that specialise in distributing low- and middle-budget films. None has sounded a retreat from big-budget blockbusters.

We’re clearly in the middle of a content production arms race.  Even as Hollywood champions new technologies to differentiate itself from the YouTube crowd, amateurs quickly raise their own standards, adopting new platforms and cameras to try and keep up.  Sony is working on a prosumer-level 3D camera. Fans can produce films such as “The Hunt for Gollum” for a few thousand dollars, approximating the look, feel and effects of the blockbuster Lord of the Rings series (which cost hundreds of millions to create).  What strategies should independent storytellers adopt?

My new MCDM colleague, David Evans from Psychster Inc., has actually studied the effect of production values of online videos on an individual’s willingness to watch them.  Some conclusions:

– Highly-produced videos were watched 30%-50% longer than simple videos, a significant increase.

– A point of limited returns was reached where additional production elements did not result in longer
viewing times.

In other words, it pays to put some higher quality production elements into a film — but not to the point that it comes off as an over-produced infomercial.

So how am I going to proceed with Detroit?  We’re going to shoot in broadcast quality 1080p high definition (some of it with the new Canon T2i DSLR camera), using professional microphones; I’ll take a Kodak Zi8 camera for backup on-the-go shots, or to give to a character to capture more subjective shots.  I’ll make room in my case for a decent, somewhat bulky 1000 watt halogen softbox light even as, more likely than not, much of our footage will be run-and-gun.  To be “loaded for bear” these days, you not only need to hit the target, you’ve got to look good while doing it.