Sunday, August 1, 2010

Standups 101: And we're walking, we're walking...

"You're on TV for two minutes. What the hell do you do the rest of the day?"

That classic quote was from my late father, who was loaded with street smarts but really didn't understand my chosen profession.

However, tucked away in his words of wisdom is a subtle message. If you're only "on TV" for two minutes, those 120 seconds better be a compilation of your best two minutes of your day.

And if you're on camera for ten seconds, those ten seconds ought to show you at the top of your game.

Yes, it's time to talk about standups, those wonderful pieces of reporter involvement that can make a montage great and send your career skyrocketing. They can also keep you buried in Palookaville covering blood drives and doing lame man-in-the-street packages until you finally send up the white flag, give up, and head home to mom's basement.

There are two schools of thought on standups. On the one hand we have the snooty elite journalists with the big "J" tattooed on their foreheads, who believe that standups are basically "a transparent attempt to get your face on camera while adding nothing to the story." Oh, and if you really want to get these people mad, start a conversation about a walking standup. "There's no good reason for a reporter to move!"

Fine. You wanna agree with them, enjoy your life in public television.

On the other hand, your face, your personality, and, if you're lucky, your "IT" factor are what can set you apart from the rest of the crowd. As one of my first news directors put it, "If we can't see you covering the story, what's the point of having you out there?" The audience needs to see that you actually covered the story. If you want that resume tape to grab the attention of a News Director, if you want your personality to jump through the screen, you need to knock out killer standups. Yes, excellent writing and reporting skills are important factors, but when job hunting the standup gets your foot in the door.

A great standup shows your ability to think in the field, to add a clever approach to a story, to display your passion, personality and energy all at the same time. When you're hitting on all cylinders, all of those factors come into play in just ten or fifteen seconds.

So let's talk about the kinds of standups and then we'll work on what you can do to improve them.

-No standup in your package: Uh, no excuse. The only time you don't need a standup is when covering a funeral.

-Standup open: Looks ridiculous and you run the risk of having it chopped up if the director punches up your package a few seconds late. And that can really change the meaning of your standup. Example: "A spokesman denies that the Mayor had an affair with his secretary." A one second late punch gives you this: "The Mayor had an affair with his secretary." (Yet another great reason to start stories with a few seconds of nat sound.)

-Standup bridge: The best of all standups. It shows your ability to think in the field, to be able to tie things together, to get from one place to another in your story. You can use it to change locations, go from one side of the story to another, and just seamlessly change course in the middle of the package.

-Standup close: Used most often by rookies or non-creative types. While better than a standup open, these are often pretty lame afterthoughts that don't add much to the story, and don't showcase your talents.

Now let's talk about walking standups. There are two huge mistakes people make when doing a walking standup: not walking fast enough, and not being in motion when the standup begins.

Walking speed is important, and it's funny to see people with a great energetic delivery all of a sudden just...sort of...amble...along. We're talking about twenty minutes to walk two blocks. You need to approach your walking standup like a New Yorker attacks a crosswalk; up to speed quickly and with a ton of energy. (If you don't do that in New York a cab driver will run over you.) Let me see the spring in your step, and let me see the energy in your walk match that of your delivery. Give me the power walk.

The second most common problem is that people aren't in motion when the standup begins. When you begin counting down, start walking. Don't give me "three, two, one," and then move. I want you to be at full speed when you start talking, so start walking at "three." Then when you edit your standup into your package, you'll already be moving at full speed and this will give much more energy to your story.

Now, how can you make your standups stand out? Well, you have to put some thought and effort into them. Too many people finish shooting and think, "Oh, yeah, let me shoot a standup," and then knock out anything to fulfill an obligation. Take the time to actually think about what your standup will do and how it will work in your story. If you have to write out a rough outline in your package, do so.

Some tips on doing effective standups:

-Your energy level must be up. Remember, talk to the viewer, and be excited and interested in your story.

-Be animated. Your eyes convey that excitement and interest, so don't give me a half-hearted droopy-eyed look. I don't want Mary Hart over-the-top, but a touch of her animation wouldn't hurt anyone. Even when you're doing a serious or sad story, your eyes can convey the emotion of that story.

-Your delivery should match the story. If it's a fun feature, sound like you're having fun. If it's a tragedy, let your tone be serious.

-Be clever. Think of a different angle to your story, then use your standup to illustrate it.

-Show and tell. If you're talking about something and you can show it while you're talking about it, do so.

-Use standups to illustrate hard to imagine concepts. If flood waters rose twenty feet and left a line on the second story of a house, stand under it to show how far the waters rose.

-If you work with a photog, bounce ideas off him about what you'd like to do in the standup. Then rehearse it before you shoot it.

-Always shoot an extra standup even if you've got one that makes you happy. Many a great story has been screwed up because of a tape problem.

-Make sure the camera is not "shooting down" at you. Shooting up even a touch will give you the illusion of height even if you aren't tall.

Bottom line, your standup is your chance to shine. Give it the proper attention and effort, and you'll see better results in both your packages and job hunting.


Anonymous said...

All true. Problem is many of us are one-man-banding for cheap companies. Even if we can manage to set up the tripod and stand in the frame correctly for a hopefully-focused-irised standup, it sure won't be a creative one.

-The Grape said...

True. I'll hit up some of my photog friends to see if we can get one to write a post on that subject.

Kimberly said...

That is false. I take pride in my creative one-man-band standups. It's all about sequencing and editing. And its even more rewarding to know I pulled off the whole thing by myself!

Anonymous said...

Sure, sequencing and editing helps. But don't pretend we're not limited from all the other kind of creative standups... when the camera's tilt and pan and zoom in, zoom out actually move! Have you ever worked with a (good) photog? But yes, there are things we can do, and we better accept the reality that the one-man-band beancounter news is here to stay.

Kimberly said...

Ah yes the golden dream of working with any photog, let alone a good one! I'm beginning to think it's never going to happen in my career. In the meantime, I work with what I have. :)