How journalists are experimenting with 'the one-shot technique' when telling video stories

Some journalists are starting to renew attention to an old storytelling form -- "the one-shot" technique.

Rather than editing together dozens or even hundreds of shots to tell a video story, the one-shot story uses just one shot, sometimes a couple of minutes long, to tell a story.  A reporter drops in sections of voiced-over track to fill in the gaps or explain information the viewer might not know. It sounds amateurish, even YouTube-ish, until you see a journalist like John Sharify use it.

How journalists are using this storytelling form

Sharify, who has won dozens of national journalism awards, also has a master's degree in film directing from Columbia University. He said ever since he was a film student, he has been captivated by the old cinematic movie technique that involved long, unedited shots "that you simply could not turn away from."

It is as if an edit would give the viewer permission to look away, "but the uninterrupted shot engages your eye," he told Poynter. The single-shot technique may have started with the earliest "actuality" films; even Alfred Hitchcock tried the technique in 1948, producing an entire film with (what what appeared to be) only 11 very long shots. Then there was the 2002 film "Russian Ark," which was billed as the first feature film to be created in "a single take." But could it work in a news story?

Sharify and photojournalist Randy Carnell first tried this technique in 2004 when they worked together at KOMO-TV Seattle. It was Sharify's work from several years ago that prompted WDRB-TV photojournalist Sarah Haeberle and her husband Bennett to try the technique on their own story.

Sharify and Carnell were assigned to do a story on the monthly unemployment figures. Rather than use statistics to tell the story, they used faces. If you watch the story, you'll see it's one single, unedited shot with Sharify's voice occasionally dropped in to explain what you're seeing.

Sharify said Carnell just walked up the line of people waiting to get into a local food bank. He lingered his shots on a handful of faces and kept walking. Then Sharify hustled down the line to gather basic facts about the people Carnell's lens had landed on.

"I watched the video, wrote some copy, read it out loud while the video played to be sure the copy would fit timing of the shots," Sharify explains. But he said a key to the technique is not to overwrite. "You have to let the moments breathe if you want the viewer to feel like they are there," and not watching a TV report. Video storytellers like Sharify call the technique of fitting voice-over audio to video without a video edit "parallel parking."

A couple of years ago, Sharify was working with one of local television's most honored photojournalists, Scott Jensen at KING-TV in Seattle. They spent months following the story of a woman who lost her job and was desperate for work. When she finally got a promising interview, Sharify and Jensen turned to this seemingly low-tech one-shot technique to document the two key minutes of her life that she hoped would lead up to a defining moment; landing a job.

At first, Jensen said, he resisted the one-shot technique because he didn't want to use a technique for the sake of using it.

"If you think about what our job is as journalists," Jensen told Poynter, "we are supposed to illustrate reality. We portray what real life is. I am about capturing a real life. I want to be in the moment and presenting it in a raw unfiltered form." This story, he said, could do that best with one uninterrupted shot.

Why it's not as simple as it seems

There is more to this technique than it may appear. Jensen said that while the story only involves one video shot, there are multiple audio tracks. The subject is wearing a wireless microphone that the crew placed on her before she boarded the bus hours earlier.

There is a microphone on Jensen's camera to pick up "natural sound," and then there's Sharify's narrated audio track to mix in. Jensen said he spent two-and-a-half hours editing the story despite the fact it involves no video edits.

WDRB-TV photojournalist Sarah Haeberle didn't think about all of that when she and her husband Bennett decided to try the one-shot technique last week. Her station has been documenting the story of a local woman's struggle to adopt orphans from Sierra Leone. Haeberle wanted to capture the woman's reaction when the orphans and her husband came off the flight, but the flight was running late. She had not yet discovered, as Jensen did, that mixing audio from multiple sources, a wireless mic, a natural sound mic and a reporter voice-over would be a complicated edit.

And while there would only be one shot, not the usual variety of wide-medium-closeup and super closeup shots to capture and edit together, Haeberle told me, "I was worried that we were going to miss magical moments. The subject was pacing all over the place. I realized that I didn't know when the shot was happening that we would use. If you only have two minutes for one shot, when does the shot begin?"

In both of Sharify's stories, he knew the ending even before they started shooting the story.  But Haeberle did not know how the reunion unfolding before her would turn out. The Haeberle team had a little more than an hour to edit the story. While she looked through the viewfinder, Haeberle kept asking herself, "What would John do?" referring to Sharify, whose work she admired from afar. Here's how the final video turned out:

United Flight- Reunites from Sarah Haeberle on Vimeo.

What photojournalists have learned from using this technique

Both Jensen and Haeberle offered advice on what they would change about the way they shot their stories.

Jensen said he would have liked to have had more variety in his shots while he walked with the story subject. He intended to do a 360-degree walk around her as she walked from the bus to the business but changed his mind at the last second when he realized he didn't know what distractions might show up in the shot that he could not anticipate.

Haeberle said she would have tried to capture more closeups and wide shots even while she rolled on the one shot that would air unedited.

Both photojournalists say this one-shot technique won't work for most stories. The key, then, is figuring out when it will work.

"The choice to do a one-shot story rests on finding that one moment that lasts a couple of minutes -- the one real compelling moment," Jensen said. If you have a story where the compelling moments that you need to tell the story are separated by time, minutes or hours apart, he said, you have to edit those together in a more traditional video story.

Jensen, the chief photographer for KING-TV, said the one-shot technique should not be an excuse to shoot low quality video. "I didn’t want the fact that it was going to be a one-shot story to stop me from shooting it the way I would any other story." In fact, Jensen arrived at the bus stop an hour ahead of time to practice his walking technique while smoothly moving the camera from his shoulder to the ground and back up.

What reporters have learned from using this technique 

Bennett Haeberle said the key lesson he learned producing his first one-shot story is not to overwrite.

"There is this feeling that I have this much time between these two breaks in the story and I have to fill it up with my words." It is better to write short and let the story breathe, he said: "I think broadcasters are too afraid of silence."

The best writers use their words to explain the images, not narrate them. That is what Sharify did in the story about the food bank line; he told you things you would not know just by watching the video.

All of the journalists I interviewed agreed that this technique should be used sparingly. Most stories need a lot more explanation. "A lot of one-shot stories I have seen don't work because they don't have enough meat," Sharify said. "There has to be a story there."

How the one-shot technique is being used outside of journalism

The one-shot technique is so powerful that Old Spice uses it for its commercials. Tech guru Leo Laporte has interviewed the guys who came up with the concept and goes through the commercial shot-by-shot.

The New York Times said in an article last week that since cameras can now use digital cards rather than film reels that have to be constantly reloaded, (the problem that confounded Hitchcock in the 1940's), the one-shot technique is back in style. The article highlights a new documentary, "People's Park," which is taking the one-shot technique back to the big screen. It's 78 minutes of one continuous shot that tells the story of a vibrant city park in Chengdu, China.

The New York Times article, which highlights other good examples of the one-shot technique, says it took 23 tries to capture "People's Park." Some of those takes lasted up to 100 minutes before something went awry and filmmakers had to start over. The promotional materials say:

"The film explores the dozens of moods, rhythms, and pockets of performance coexisting in tight proximity within the park’s prismatic social space, capturing waltzing couples, mighty sycamores, karaoke singers, and buzzing cicadas in lush 5.1 surround sound. A sensory meditation on cinematic time and space, People's Park offers a fresh gaze at public interaction, leisure and self-expression in China."

So the goal of the uninterrupted shot in "People's Park" is the same one Sharify, Jensen and the Haeberles were aiming for in their news stories; it was not just fact-telling, it was an attempt at producing a sensory experience that deeply connects the viewer to the subject.

How have you used the one-shot technique? Please tell us in the comments section.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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