Vlog and Vlogging – what is it all about?

Vlog title
How to use a vlog and vlogging within your business

What is a Vlog

A ‘Vlog’, sometimes referred to as a video blog or video log, is simply a blog but in the form of video or web TV content – or indeed a video element within a normal regular text blog or website article.  I personally hate the name, but the value of vlogging within marketing, and its ability to develop a strong website following, is well documented and accepted.  People love watching video content as it’s the simplest and quickest way to gather information and discover the identity and culture of the vlogger and their business.

Whilst you can host your vlogs on any suitable server, most vloggers use the likes of YouTube or Vimeo as it is very easy to add tags and metadata to enable your content to be indexed and found within search engines. Once you start building a body of vlog content you can also group all your content within your own YouTube or Vimeo channel – giving viewers the chance to see your entire vlog library and share it with others who share similar interests.  Further syndication is made possible through channel subscriptions so that your audience can choose to be notified of new content as and when you post it – which in turn anyone can then share through their own social media platforms.

So what can you Vlog about?

The subjects and motivations for vlogs are virtually endless and can be seen as a way to diary your thoughts and feelings and to share news about your business that you think your audience will find of interest – and content that hopefully they find interesting or entertaining enough to share with others.  For this reason the most popular vloggers are those who use humour, share specialist, valuable knowledge or a strong viewpoint on topical matters.  This might sound like a challenging proposition, but if you can’t say something of value or interest about your business or products then no one else is going to be able to.

Here’s just 10 ideas which flew into my mind, but the list is actually endless…

  1. A great customer experience story
  2. A new product launch
  3. An anniversary of the business
  4. A new office being opened
  5. A new member of staff joining
  6. A long-term member of staff retiring
  7. Results of a customer survey
  8. A version update on a piece of technology
  9. Comment on a new piece of legislation which affects your customers
  10. A report on your attendance at an exhibition

To aid and encourage syndication always try to include third parties within the message in the hope that they will want to share your content too.  Each of the above suggestions have the potential to include others…

  1. The customers themselves
  2. The manufacturer, distributor or reseller of the product
  3. The founders of the business or the town where it was founded
  4. The estate agency who rented/sold the property to you
  5. The employment agency who found the employee
  6. The family members of the retiring person
  7. The survey software that was used
  8. The software manufacturers or supporting hardware
  9. The politicians involved in the legislation
  10. The exhibition organisers   

The frequency of your vlogs will be determined by the stories you have to tell.  Some vloggers will be adding content almost hourly, whilst others will add just a handful of vlogs each year.  As with all video content, the secret is to keep your vlogs short and sweet.  Viewer’s attention span has become shorter and shorter, which is why video aps like Vine have become popular in recent years.  Vine has a maximum video duration of 6-seconds which might seem impossibly short for a vlogging platform but many users prefer this time restraint as it keeps your mind focused on the message.  The other benefit of the 6-second limit is that the viewer will know they don’t have to invest much time in absorbing your content and are more likely to share – especially if it has entertainment value.

Vlog skills  

One of the key qualities or skills that you’ll need is to develop your own on-screen presence.  Whilst a vlog doesn’t have to be made up of someone presenting to camera, your viewing audience will want to develop a rapport or relationship with the person creating the vlog.  Some will find this easy and it will come naturally – but for those who would struggle with this it’s probably best that you gain some professional on-screen training.  The video camera is quite revealing, and engaging with your audience through it will require practice.

Presenting a video review
Developing your vlog presentation skills 

Finally, the technology used to create a vlog is generally very basic.  A great deal of vlog content is created using a mobile phone and very basic video editing software – which is all totally acceptable if you are trying to create a video diary kind of look and feel to your content.  However, if you are trying to create a very professional image or augment an already polished premium brand, then your vlog content will need to reflect this with high production values and slick presentation skills.  This might be beyond what you can achieve in-house.

If you would like to talk through your vlogging ambitions in more detail, please feel free to contact us for more details – 020 3602 3356.


Producing an in-house corporate video

DIY corporate video title
Tips on DIY video for your business

Why produce your own in-house corporate video?

There’s probably a thousand reasons why you might want to create your own corporate video and, as a professional video production company, we could probably suggest a thousand reasons why you shouldn’t be doing this yourself. You’ve already come to the conclusion that you need (or want) a video to help achieve your goals. You’ll understand the power of video as a communication tool, and seen it’s meteoric rise as a means of generating website traffic, helping to build brand loyalty, delivering a corporate message and motivating an audience to act in a certain way.

Commissioning a video production has traditionally been seen as an expensive exercise and, right now, you’ll be thinking that it’s going to be cheaper and easier to do it yourself – and with all the right knowledge, kit and experience you could possibly be right. It’s the latter part of that last sentence which presents your greatest challenge. Creating a great video looks pretty easy but the reality is that you’re going to face a steep learning curve and need much more kit than you think if you want it to represent you and your business the right way.

That said you’ve probably heard all this before and are still determined to give it a go. One of the important things about the video production process is that it can be a whole lot of fun – and extremely rewarding when you create something that delivers the results you desire. So here’s some practical notes for those determined to go down this path which highlights the obstacles and challenges you will face.

Getting the message right

Regardless of whether you go down the DIY route or commission a professional video production company to create your film, the one thing you have to do is know exactly what it is you want to say and how you want your audience to react. This is all about getting your message right. To do this successfully you’ll need to know your subject matter inside out, understand the needs and desire of your audience and have the mechanisms in place to allow them to do the thing you want them to do after watching your film. This could simply be buying your product from a website or retailer, registering to attend an event or understand how to use a product. The video might actually require your audience to do nothing other than to establish your product or brand as the market leader.

Once you know your message you’ll need to develop your script – never losing sight of what you are trying to motivate your audience to do. Do not waste a second on anything which deviates from this plan or is added purely to massage your own ego. You might well be the biggest widget maker in the world but unless you can get this information over in a way in which your audience can recognise this as a benefit to them then don’t waste their time with it. Never list features unless you can link them to benefits, and never knock your competitors.

The kit

Video cameras are everywhere these days – on phones, laptops, pads and all manner of devices. And the picture quality they can produce is increasingly impressive. Whilst there are some video production tasks these devices will be OK for, they are far from perfect and will limit what you’ll be able to create – and they will almost certainly fall very short on your expectations in recording sound.

Tiny video camera
Tiny video cameras are great – but not always perfect.

The golden rule of good audio recording (which is equally as important as the pictures) is to get your microphone as close to the subject as possible. In-built microphones found on phones are simply not good enough to capture anything other than general ambient sound – and this is also true of purpose-built video cameras with internal mics. To get perfect audio you’ll also need to understand a little about microphone characteristics and their pick-up pattern – but the golden rule mentioned above is paramount which will often mean recording sound separately from the pictures or use a camera which can accept external audio connections so that you can place the mic close to the subject and yet still film from a distance. Ideally you’ll need a selection of microphone solutions and cables to connect them to the camera.

Keeping the camera steady is also extremely important unless you are trying to create a special effect or give the audience a voyeuristic point of view of a scene. You’ll therefore need a good tripod and a camera which can easily be mounted on it.

Martin shooting at the SSDF
Keeping it steady and level on a tripod

All video cameras these days are very light sensitive, even those found on mobile phones. However, good lighting is about controlling light and creating shadows to give your subject form and interest. Just slapping up a light and pointing it in the direction of your subject is rarely going to give you results that will be pleasing on the eye and look natural. The human eye is always attracted by the brightest part of a scene, so if there are other things in a scene which are brighter than your subject your viewers’ attention will be drawn to them. If you are filming people pay particular attention to their eyes as this is what your viewer will concentrate on – so adding light to give the eyes a sparkle will help keep the viewer’s attention on them.

Video editing software is included on almost every computer or laptop these days – and all of them are capable of doing the vast majority of editing that will be found in your average corporate video. Where they fall short is on the niceties and their ability to correct errors made at the filming stage. The only other challenge of using editing programs is their complexity and ease of use. Your first few attempts at using an editing program will be spent learning how to import your footage and carry out basic cutting of shots – so give yourself plenty of time to get the editing completed.

Other refinements of a more professional editing program will include the ability to add more polished titles and graphics – and also in the control of how the final film is output and distributed. A beefier computer will also help to speed up the editing process as video files are data hungry. Some computers might not be man-enough or up-to-date enough to do the job at all!

The true cost of video production

Assuming you are starting from scratch, a basic video production toolkit will set you back something in the order of £5,000. This would include a proper video camera with external audio connections and controls, a reasonable directional microphone with cables and headphones for monitoring, a video tripod (not a photographic tripod), a couple of lights, a basic computer with free editing software and a bag full of cables and batteries. Armed with this an experienced videographer will be able to turn out something which is watchable – and if you achieve this on your first attempt you’ll have done pretty well.
But with all the best kit in the world and the technical skills to go with it, without a clear idea of the aims and objectives, and a creative way to achieve them using video, the whole exercise is unlikely to give you the results you desire. Whilst a DIY approach might save pennies on paper, bringing in a professional video production company might actually give you a much greater return on your investment.

If you’re planning to start using video on a regular basis then the DIY route could be the best solution by building an in-house team or individuals to manage the video production process. These people will need to be trained and whilst there are various video production training resources available, another solution could be to engage an established video production company to help them produce the first one or two films and perhaps be retained to assist in the process should additional help be required.

Hopefully this has given you a better idea of the challenges facing you. If it’s not dampened your enthusiasm then we wish you every success and hope that you soon start to benefit from using video within your business. If it all seems too much, we’re only a phone call away (020 3602 3356).


Handheld Vs Shoulder-Mount Cameras

Shoulder-mount title
A short documentary about the benefits of shoulder-mount design video cameras

When shoulder-mount is the only option

I’ve been shooting with the JVC GY-HM650 for over a year now and it’s become my go-to camera for many assignments. Being of handheld design, the camera is compact yet pro-feature rich, making it ideal for shooting conferences, newsgathering and any event where you need and all-in-one camera with professional connections and performance.

Since its launch the GY-HM650 has been an incredibly successful camera for JVC – a demonstration of which was its adoption by the BBC in 2013 when it purchased over 500 of them for newsgathering in the UK and overseas. But, as good as this camera is, there are still some applications where its handheld design makes it less than perfect. Whilst the camera is light and compact, the handheld design can be very tiring to use off-tripod for any length of time – which is true of any camera in this class.

To address this, at the beginning of 2014 JVC launched the 800 series cameras – namely the GY-HM850/ HM890. The 800 series has adopted all the very best features of the 600 series and designed them into an excellent shoulder-mount solution. All the bits that I really like about the HM650 are included, plus there’s a host of new features which will appeal to a wide range of camera operators.

The GY-HM850 Shoulder-Mount Solution
The GY-HM850 Shoulder-Mount Solution

If you have something to say, say it with video!

Towards the end of last year JVC approached me about creating a short documentary which explains why some applications are better suited to a shoulder-mount camera – and to reveal some of the other less obvious reasons why some camera operators prefer this design type. They also wanted something that would highlight some of the new features which have been introduced into this model to make it even more useful to the professional cameraman.

Once you have used both of these types of camera you’ll have a very good understanding of where one performs better than the other. However, in today’s world of DSLRs and the trend of making cameras smaller and smaller, its not that obvious to the uninitiated as to why a shoulder-mount camera could be preferable. Despite being substantially larger and heavier, the only way you can persuade someone that they are far more comfortable to use, easier to handle and far less fatiguing to operate off-tripod for any length of time is to actually get them to try it out. My challenge for this film was just that – to encourage camera buyers to actually consider the camera design more closely and to explore all possibilities – and ultimately to give shoulder-mount cameras a try. I hope it achieves this!

Video Outline

After an initial consultation with JVC I presented them with a short treatment. Following a few tweaks the format was agreed and I worked on developing the script and coming up with ideas on how to achieve the objectives.

Whilst it would be simple for me to simply talk people through the camera’s features I really believed that we needed to get some other people’s comments and views, so I planned a visit to the Kit Plus event in London and door-stepped a few of the delegates there to get their views on why the shoulder-mount design still has it’s place in video production. Apart from giving the viewer a break from my own on-screen performance, I thought it was extremely important to get other real users to reveal the important and less obvious benefits.

Production Notes

I’ve produced a number of this type of film before here at our studios in Loughton, Essex – so finding the location to shoot the pieces to camera and the studio pack shots wasn’t a challenge. Every shot you see in this film was shot using my GY-HM650, with the only exception being the one shot of the GY-HM650 which was created using the GY-HM850.

HM850 on set
Shooting video cameras with video cameras

The only other material which was not actually filmed with the GY-HM650 was the GUI screen shots. These were created by capturing the camera’s HDMI output via the Intensity Pro card directly into my Edius edit suite.

A huge thanks to JVC for commissioning this film, and also to those who volunteered their time at Kit Plus London to be interviewed.


AKM copyright-free music review – A Perfect Day

AK172 Title
AK172 – A Perfect Day copyright-free music review

Looking out my window right now it’s hard to get in the mood for this new album from AKM Music. I should have really written this copyright-free music review on a warm summer’s evening with a cool beer in hand instead of looking out to a grey, wet and dismal November afternoon. But then again it has brought a ray of light into my edit suite.

AK172 ‘A Perfect Day’ is pretty much what it says on the tin – a compendium of light and positive tracks which have a happy and upbeat guitar vibe. It conjures up summer scenes with the sun flaring through wooded landscapes with dandelion heads drifting on a warm breeze. Having said that there is enough variety on the album to create different moods but it should give you an idea what to expect.

There’s certainly more than a hint of ‘Good ole USA’ throughout the album, which should make it appeal to the North American royalty-free music user – or indeed anyone looking to add a ‘made in the USA’ feel to a piece. More than one of the tracks leans on that country music steel guitar and fiddle sound. It’s not exactly ‘Deliverance’ but every now and then you’ll imagine yourself on a veranda swing chair chewing tobacco and spitting in a bucket whilst waiting for the rodeo to hit town.

AK172 Cover
Every little bit ‘USA’

It does get a bit funkier in the middle of the album, with ‘Summer Barbecue’, ‘Cruising’, ‘Back in Town’ and ‘New Wheels’ taking the tempo up a notch. They are still very much in the American mood, but could equally be used on a non-USA corporate film to give you a more generic feeling of positively. There are also enough passages and breaks within these tracks to help you emphasis a point or drop the music level to an underscore and allow your feature sound (voiceover or interviews etc.) to rise to the top.

The latter tracks ‘Running in the Fields’ and ‘Sunny Sunday Morning’ takes the pace back down again. The former has a tinge of “Hispanic” about it, whilst the latter is a bit more “hotel lounge music” – but both continue with guitar-based sound and steady drum percussion.

Each score comes in three or four lengths; a full version, a long and short underscore and a short version of the main theme. I really like that feature of any copyright-free music album, especially on longer projects where you want to maintain a theme to your story, enabling you to link scenes and take the viewer with you on your story.

I can’t think of anything I’ll be using this album on for the moment – but that’s the strange thing about choosing a copyright-free music score for your films. I’ll quite often find that my original ideas on music change as a film develops from paper, to camera and finally on the edit. It is so affected by the colours, the characters, the weather conditions and what the final message is (which can also change) that you can never have too much variety in your copyright-free library. I think this is one of those albums that one day will be drawn from my every expanding library and put to good use. Yee Ha!

Notes: You can preview this album on the AKM Music website here.


Working as a freelance camera operator

freelance camera operator title
Media Simulation as a freelance camera operator

My introduction to Crown Media

Who says you get nothing back for your IOV Membership? Back in July this year, IOV Member and partner within Crown Media, David Bennett, posted an article on the IOV’s forums seeking freelance camera operators entitled, “Looking for interesting work?”. The headlines within David’s article which caught my eye were… “work around the world”, “we replicate TV news and current affairs”, “sometimes in relatively rudimentary conditions”, “preparing military organisation for media engagement in combat operations”, “Some jobs last a day – others more than three weeks”, “Interested?

I certainly was interested. After digging a little deeper into Crown Media’s website I made an approach and an email came back from Andy Reeds (the other partner within Crown Media) which included a more comprehensive guide to working with Crown Media, detailing the type of work I’d be expected to do, the remuneration and their expectations of me as a freelance camera operator. I also noticed that one of their regular freelance camera operators, Ben Bruges M.M.Inst.V., was listed on their website so I made contact with him to see what it was like working for Crown Media. I was hooked.

About Crown Media

Crown Media covers a variety of work, but their main activity is providing organisations with realistic media simulation. The majority of their clients are within the defence and emergency services industries, providing them with a real-world experience of working with media, in all its guises, within their regular training exercises. This doesn’t just stop at providing freelance camera operators, but extends to all areas of media including TV News, Print Journalism, Radio Journalism, On-line Journalism and Social Media.

The value Crown Media bring to their clients was obvious to me from the very start. The way organisations and their activities are portrayed in the media plays a vitally important role in forming public opinion and maintaining or improving their public support. Giving these organisations an appreciation of how their actions might be perceived, in both friendly and more hostile media, enables them to manage and facilitate the press more effectively and help ensure their actions are seen in the best possible light. This experience gives participants confidence, helps identify areas where they need further training, helps them to refine their messages and plans for dealing with the media and generally helps them cope and prosper in the most difficult of circumstances.

These are often sensitive situations which require a distinctive set of skills and experiences in order to deliver this service. Crown Media was established in 2006 and are able to meet these demands through the many years of experience of company’s partners; David Bennett being a trained print journalist and BBC TV reporter and Andy Reeds having spent most of his career in the British Army where he was heavily involved in public relations, media training and journalism.

The company now has large pool of specialist freelancers working alongside them from all areas of the media, working in small or large teams on assignments across the globe. Apart from media simulation the company also provides media training and consultancy for an increasing range of private and public sector organisations – including various national armed forces, NATO, blue-light emergency services as well as private companies looking to improve their in-media performance.

TV journalist
Working with a professional TV journalist

Cutting the mustard at Crown Media

Crown Media look for certain qualities within all their freelance operatives. Firstly, you’ve got to have a proven track record within your particular area of speciality. Secondly, you must be a first-rate team player. Whilst you will be expected to work under your own initiative, Crown Media place a lot of emphasis on being able to work within a team in order to deliver the product. You’ll also have to prove your ability to be able to work under pressure, often to tight deadlines and often in demanding situations outside of normal working hours. There’s no room for anyone being precious and you’ll often have to muck in even when there’s work to be done outside of your normal remit.

You’ll also need to sign the Official Secrets Act as there will be situations where operational security could be compromised. Further NATO security clearance and CRB disclosures are also required for certain areas of work, but in every case you will need to observe the company’s strict confidentiality policies at all times.

As a freelance camera operator and editor you’ll be expected to supply all your own technical and support kit. This means having a reasonably light but robust professional-level camera, enough battery power to keep you going all day, radio microphones, tripod/monopod, a portable editing system which can input and output to a variety of formats and enough media and storage to handle projects which might last up to 3-weeks at a time. You’ll also need to make sure you are adequately insured – for your kit, your travel and personal injury.

Dave and Mary wide
Working in demanding situations requires the right kit

The only kit you’ll be provided with is specialist PPE (personal protection equipment), which often means wearing a bullet-proof vest, combat helmet and survival suits on some sea-bound exercises. On some of the military exercises you’ll be embedded with the troops on exercise which means having to cope with the same weather and sleeping conditions as they are coping with. Assignment locations can range from the North American prairies in winter to the plains of Africa in summer, and you’ll be expected to come prepared for any conditions you may likely face – and includes items like bivvy bags, sleeping bags, bed rolls…

You are clearly warned that overnight accommodation can range from a reasonable hotel to sleeping rough, or in dormitory-type shared accommodation. It goes without saying that you can’t be overly fussy or expect your own living space. The work often results in many hours within the confines of vehicles, be that military or civilian, so there’s no point in applying if you suffer from motion sickness or claustrophobia.

The range of exercises you could be involved in can vary quite considerably – from computer-generated indoor simulations through to ‘live-rounds-in-the-field’ exercises. You’ll therefore need to be in good general health and able to cope with the physical challenges. They can last anything from one day up to three weeks – sometimes with little or limited contact with the outside world. If your business or family life dictates that you can’t be away for any length of time, then Crown Media work probably isn’t for you.

BATUS – My first Crown Assignment

OK, so I’d read and understood all the requirements and challenges of working for Crown Media but was still more than keen to offer myself up as a freelance camera operator and editor. They’d checked me out through my connection with the IOV and I’d supplied them with my CV and examples of my work. That whole process only took about 2-weeks to complete before I got my “Welcome to Crown Media” email. An offer of my first assignment came in shortly after, working as a freelance camera operator and editor for 15-days on Exercise Prairie Storm at the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) in Alberta, Canada in October.

From what I have seen so far, most assignments are allocated by way of a notice email which gives the exercise name, location and date. It’s then up to you to say whether you are available to cover it or not. As a freelancer, whilst there’s no obligation to accept any Crown Media assignment, once you do accept it then nothing should stop you from fulfilling your obligation other than extreme circumstances beyond your control. I was actually away on holiday when the first notice email came through but managed to respond quickly, and the confirmation that I’d got the job came back a few days later. I have to admit, my emotions at this stage swung from extreme excitement to mild concern about what I’d let myself in for.

Even though I’d read and re-read all the information Crown Media had supplied I was still in the dark as to what I would be facing, or indeed what a typical day at work would be on this assignment. Thankfully they’d put me in touch with Steve Gravenor, an experienced freelance camera operator who has covered BATUS on many occasions. I was also introduced to the rest of the team working on this assignment – namely Graeme Bowd (Team Leader), Mary Green (Television Journalist) and Dave Pethick (another newbie freelance camera operator who had also applied to the original IOV forum article).

Mary Green – Graeme Bowd – Dave Pethick – Kevin Cook

The contact with Steve was really helpful and removed any concerns I had about coping with the technical and creative requirements of my post. Steve also gave me some really useful tips on the undocumented challenges about working at BATUS, emphasising that the biggest of which would be coping with the many hours of downtime spent either waiting for an exercise to start or at the end of your working day.

To give you an idea, BATUS is located within an area roughly the size of Derbyshire amongst the many thousands of square miles of featureless rolling prairie. Steve drew a pretty accurate picture of ExCon (Exercise Control) where we would be stationed for 15-days, which consisted of a main control centre building, a canteen/cookhouse, a huge mast, helicopter pad and an accommodation block which was essentially a Portakabin arrangement containing our bedrooms (AKA our cells), ablutions and a laundry room. And that was it – other than an abundance of ground squirrel holes and a few boulders. There was no nightlife, no corner shop, no nothing really – and the only internet access was within the main building and canteen when it was open.

Our cell block at BATUS
Our cell block at BATUS

Graham and Mary were also really helpful in putting my mind at rest. Over the years Graham had been building up a list of essential kit needed for the assignment which proved invaluable and also highlighted a number of bits and pieces that I would need to acquire before travelling. Whilst I had some cold weather gear it was all a bit too brightly coloured for this type of work (you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb – or indeed a target!) so I had to factor in a trip to Go Outdoors to get a bivvy bag, self-inflating bedroll, mosquito head net and numerous other bits and pieces that would help me cope with any conditions I might find. On a previous October BATUS exercise Mary and Graeme had experienced -18 Celsius, but it could equally hit +20 so most of my case space would be taken up with “what if” weather clothing.

All the flights and transfers were arranged by the British Army via Crown Media, travelling cattle-class with BA from Heathrow to Calgary and then a 2 ½ hour taxi transfer south to BATUS. We didn’t need any special work permits as we were attached to the British Army, and both Dave and I were booked with additional hold luggage to cope with our video gear and masses of embedding kit. Whilst it was unusual for a team to include two newbie cameramen I found some comfort in this. At least I wasn’t going to be the odd one out and I dare say both of us took slightly more kit than we actually needed so there would be some spares should either of us lose or forget something vital. I’d met Dave before on a couple of occasions at past IOV events so we weren’t complete strangers, and we were familiar with each others work having both been recipients of IOV Awards.

After brief introductions whilst we waited for our departure, and Mary and Graeme sharing many of their Crown Media experiences, we were on our way. By the time we arrived at BATUS I think both Dave and I were pretty confident about what the next two weeks would bring. I suspect we still looked like wide-eyed newbies though. We spent our first night at BATUS base camp before being transported up to ExCon the following morning. It was, pretty much, as explained – nothing to write home about! Had we not had an unplanned three-day down period mid exercise that is where we would have stayed, however we did manage a day trip down to Medicine Hat (a 40-minute taxi ride away and the nearest major town to BATUS) and had a very welcome beer or two (BATUS is totally dry!). Not sure I’d bother with Medicine Hat again though.

Into Action

BATUS tank
Exercising at BATUS

I can’t go into too much detail, but BATUS provides the army with a virtually unrestricted environment in which to exercise troops in a number of scenarios. Whilst on this occasion this consisted of companies of foot soldiers undertaking various objective-led assignments, such as securing strategic mock settlements and helping the civilian populations in their own peacekeeping efforts, BATUS is also big enough to allow for mechanised and heavy artillery exercises. Whilst the British Army have fantastic facilities nearer to home, nothing compares to the freedom of movement and range of terrain offered by BATUS.

Divided into Blue Press and Red Press two-man news crews (with Graeme and Mary working as front of camera reporters), our task was to position ourselves within the target villages or alongside the troops as the exercise progressed and to film the action. This included interviewing soldiers as they worked and filming pieces to camera by the reporters. Blue Press team played the role of a more friendly news crew (akin to the BBC) and the Red Press adopted a more hostile position. These represent the two kinds of media found on a military operation, ‘Unilaterals’ and ‘Embeds’. Unilaterals roam the area reporting as they see fit and without reference to the military. Embeds agree to report within constraints laid down in an agreement negotiated between news editors and the MOD. This is known as ‘The Green Book’. The media give the military the right to vet their product to ensure that operational security (OPSEC) is not compromised in return for unique access. Part of the training is to see whether the military properly understand the differences and the implications for how they should manage these differing relationships.

The different roles played by Graeme (Blue) and Mary (Red) were immediately apparent, and as their camera operators we too were expected to take on a similar stance with our camera work – Blue Team being more cooperative and compliant than Red Team. It was fun, but at the same time you had to imagine the soldiers and their opposite combatants were firing real bullets (on this exercise they were firing blank rounds and electronically monitored a bit like laser paintball) and being subjected to real IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) – so you couldn’t just swagger through the battle scenes to get your best shot. The point is to give the troops a realistic impression of working with TV crews around them, and to experience the range and style of questioning they might experience in the real world.

Red Press
Working as Red Press with Mary

Apart from us playing our roles, each scenario included CivPop (Civilian Population) who were actors playing the part of people and local militia within the mock villages who were either thankful of the army’s attempts to help them or resistant to it. The atmosphere was therefore very close to what the soldiers will experience in the field, with everything going on around them ranging from human atrocities to political positioning – and on top of that there was us recording the story from our Blue and Red perspectives.

At the end of the exercise we were shipped back in army vehicles to ExCon where we started the editing process in our bedrooms – first capturing the footage, selecting a range of interviews and pieces to camera and then recording a voiceover with Graeme or Mary once they’d written their respective stories. These were then edited into short, 2 to 4-minute Blue and Red news packages, much in the style of a regular bulletin you would see on the TV news back home. In the meantime, the troops in the field would be tabbing (marching) on to their next exercise within the BATUS training ground and preparing for another exercise.

Every exercise is broken down into a series of missions. Every few days at the end of these missions (natural breaks in the exercise) the lessons identified during the training are fed back to the soldiers through a process known as an After Action Review (AAR). In our case the news packages reflect how effectively the troops had communicated through the media the operations that they were involved in. This was then briefed down to the youngest soldier in the unit so that they would better understand how their actions would appear to the public on television.

My BATUS Kit Choice

For my main area of work I’m still shooting on DSLRs, but these are simply inappropriate for this kind of work. They’re great for beauty shots but totally useless for run-and-gun news applications. Shoulder-mounted cameras are fine for general news work but too bulky for war zone environments where you need to be nimble on your feet and not overly fussed by the rough and tumble of trench and battlefield warfare filming and the damage it could cause to an expensive camera. However, you will need something capable of producing news-standard images and sound, so therefore something which you can easily connect XLR-type mics and radio mic systems to.

Shooting with the JVC GY-HM650
Shooting with the JVC GY-HM650

My JVC GY-HM650 was perfect for this, weighing just over 2Kg and being compact yet fully configured for professional audio and monitoring. Whilst much of the time you’ll be running in full auto mode, having the ability to quickly set things manually is ideal and, in some situations, vital. For my radio mic system I was using my Sony UWP-D11 system with a Sony ECM674 directional mic connected to the transmitter. A radio mic system is essential as you’ll often drift apart from your reporter, and they’ll also need a handgrip and wind gag on this to record in often windy outdoor conditions.

Even though Crown Media specified a lightweight tripod there was little opportunity to use one on this exercise. Further to Steve Gravenor’s advice I’d taken my Mogopod with me but ended up leaving it back in my room after the first couple of days. There simply isn’t enough time to use one, and all they become is another dead weight to carry around. This did mean that most of the time I was relying on the HM650 Optical Image Stabiliser, but the ever so slight picture degradation it causes and additional strain on the battery wasn’t an issue. On a couple of extremely long lens shots I’d also used my NLE’s shot stabiliser too.

For editing I’d took along my recently purchased Edius Laptop system which was built by DVC in Hove. I’m an Edius fan boy through and through, and it’s ability to suck in and spit out almost any format is a real advantage. Whilst it seems extremely antiquated, the delivery specification for the news packages used within the AARs was standard definition, 4:3 aspect ratio in Windows Media format. This was because the videos were used within a PowerPoint presentation and this format causes less issues for the guys handling the output. This didn’t matter a jot to Edius. Both Dave and I were shooting at 1280 x 720 50p, and whilst I was using this format throughout the entire editing process, and only outputting to the pillar boxed Windows Media format as the final button click, Dave was having to do some intermediate format changes using his Mac-based Premiere system – and then a Sorenson Squeeze to give him the final Windows Media file at the end. It all looked the same on the final output but I think Edius saved me a fair bit of time over the two-week period.

BATUS editing
Editing the news packages with my Edius laptop

Having decried the use of DSLRs for this kind of work I did take my trusty old Canon 550D out with me should I need it in an emergency. This also meant taking out my Tascam DR-60D audio recorder too as without it I’d have struggled to connect anything useful audio wise. Thankfully I didn’t have to call on it as, with hindsight, it would have been next to useless.

After Action Review

With only one Crown Media assignment behind me I can’t honestly say I know what it’s like to work as a freelance camera operator for them, but I have a much better idea and would certainly know what to expect from another trip to BATUS. With an extraordinary number of down-days and virtually nothing in the way of embedding with the troops, Graeme and Mary both said this was not your usual BATUS assignment, nor any way typical of working for Crown Media.

At this point I need to thank Steve Gravenor for one of his greatest tips, in that I needed to take plenty of things to do in my spare time, such as books and DVDs. His suggestion of taking the complete box set of Breaking Bad was spot on. Having not seen a single episode before I managed to watch all 48-hours of series 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 by the time our taxi came to pick us up and take us to the airport. I think I might have gone a bit loopy had I not had this to fill in the blanks.

BATUS sunrise
Shooting a sunrise at BATUS in my downtime

As tame as this introduction might have been I’ve certainly got a taste to do more Crown Media work. The downsides are few as far as I can see, leaving aside the daily freelancers’ rates which are somewhat less than I would normally achieve in the corporate sector but comparable to BECTU rates. However, the experience was amazing and if Mary, Graeme and Dave are typical of the teams I will be working with in the future then I’m going to have a lot of fun and stand to gain a lot of experience from working with some extremely professional people.

Thankfully I’m not going to have to wait too much longer for my next Crown Media assignment to find out. Whilst out working at BATUS another opportunity was emailed out, this time working with a team of ten Crown Media people on a week-long exercise in Cornwall at the beginning of December. I don’t know much more about it other than the dates at present but I’ve been confirmed as part of the team – whoever they may be. Bring it on!

Kevin Cook F.Inst.V.

Note: Details about working with Crown Media are available from their website – www.crown-media.co.uk