Q&A with BBCs Nicola Rees winner of Prix Circom VJ of the year award.

Nicola Rees for BBC’s Look North won the Prx Circom VJ of the Year award just over a fortnight ago. I caught up with @Nicola_Rees via twitter  and asked her about her VJ experience.

GM Q1. How long have you been a video journalist? 
@Nicola_Rees:
I’ve only been working as a VJ for the last 18 months.  Prior to this job I worked as a TV producer/ reporter for BBC Inside Out and also as a radio reporter at BBC Leeds.  In my role as a producer I was responsible for directing the traditional ‘craft’ camera crews, but I was always interested in the technical side of the job.  I’m an avid stills photographer so for me the progression into moving images was a natural one.  I would find any opportunity to assist the crews I worked with, and I would regularly borrow a Sony Z1 camera from the equipment store.  I taught myself how to use it, and began to shoot the odd sequence to use alongside the traditionally shot crew footage.  Then in 2009 a Video Journalist position came up in the TV newsroom at BBC Yorkshire, and I decided to go for it.  It was the best decision I’ve ever made. 

 GM Q2. What drew you to the job, as its often perceived as a difficult and challenging role? 
@Nicola_Rees: I love the independence that working as a VJ allows you, and I like the feeling of owning my stories.  It’s nice to sit down at the end of the day and watch a report that I’ve researched, filmed, scripted and edited myself.  Being a VJ can be ridiculously hard work, especially with the daily deadlines that come with working in a newsroom, and there are times (usually when it’s pouring down and dark outside) that I’d rather not be clambering up a hillside with my tripod and camera.  But for me the positives outweigh the negatives, and it’s a real privilege when people invite you into their lives and open up in front of the camera.

 GM Q3. What are the best and worst moments in your VJ career to date? 
@Nicola_Rees: For me the best moments have always involved a longer term project.  For example I got to spend a few days on the Falkland Islands last year with soldiers from Yorkshire who were preparing for deployment to Afghanistan.  In the past this sort of job would have probably required three people, but as a VJ I was able to travel alone and the extra time meant I could really build up trusted relationships with the regiment.  I produced a series of three reports, and for me the experience of being out there was amazing.  I’ll never forget being dropped off by a helicopter into the middle of a live firing range!  I haven’t had a worst moment as such, but when things go wrong I can be in a mood for days!  I spent some time onboard HMS Ark Royal earlier this year as it made it’s final voyage through British waters.  Within about half an hour of being at sea a gust of wind ripped the rain cover off my camera.  It was a bit of a disaster because the weather was appalling.  I ended up putting my own jacket over the camera, which meant I spent the next few days getting soaked (and cold)… this was a definite low point.

GM Q4. What do you think are the greatest risks and challenges in working as a VJ? 
@Nicola_Rees: The main challenge for me is the constant multi-tasking.  There’s such a lot to remember; spare batteries, tapes, lights, gaffa tape, mini cams, high-vis vests, waterproofs, boots… just some of the things I have stuffed into the boot of my Mini!  I’m constantly thinking have I got enough wide shots/ close ups?  …Is the sound okay? …Is that lamp post coming out of the top of his head? Am I going to make it back in time to edit this??  Basically there’s always a lot going on and amid all of this you have to remember the journalism.  Have I asked the crucial question?  Have I challenged this person enough?  Every day is an adventure!

As for the risks – well safety is always the biggest risk when you’re working alone in all kinds of different situations.  You don’t have someone to watch your back so you do have to look after yourself.

 GM Q5. What equipment do you use and what is your MUST HAVE piece of kit? 
@Nicola_Rees: I have a Sony Z5 camera, with an onboard mic and a radio mic, a tripod and a couple of small top lights.  I also have occasional access to a couple of mini cams, and a larger Balcar light, which can be useful if I have the time to plan ahead and book the extra kit out.   For me the must-have piece of kit is just an extra (lightweight/ small) tripod that I use with my spare top light.  It means I can add a bit of backlight to an interview without having to try to balance the light on a bookshelf or something.

 GM Q6. Whos work do you follow (if any) as examples of exceptional video journalism or photography? 
@Nicola_Rees : Two of my favourite photographers are the legendary photojournalists Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, both of whom managed to tell a whole story with a single black and white photograph.  I can stare at Capa’s wartime pictures for hours, they’re spontaneous and amazing.  And Cartier-Bresson’s reportage photos are always beautifully composed, and manage to capture the happiness and hardships of humanity.  I try to stick to their famous words of wisdom when I’m working with my Z5… Capa always said if your shots were no good you weren’t close enough, and Cartier-Bresson talked of the ‘decisive moment.’  Their advice still holds true today.

 When it comes to modern day video journalism I recently discovered the work of Travis Fox at the Washington Post. His documentaries are extraordinarily beautifully shot, and I can only imagine that he must use an HDSLR to get that amazing cinematic effect on all his shots.  Something for me to aspire to!

 GM Q7. How much training and post training critique has been involved in your development. 
@Nicola_Rees: I’d had very little official training, until recently when I went on a two-day BBC course.  I found it really useful to show my work to other Video Journalists and to get some feedback about how I might do things differently.  I learnt that I was probably a bit too attached to my tripod and that I could get away with going hand held a lot more often.  I also found it really useful to look at lots of different examples of Video Journalism.

 Q8. In your experience, what is the staff attitude to video journalism, from editors and ENG / EFP crews for instance?
@Nicola_Rees: The Editor at Look North is a big fan of Video Journalism, mainly because the VJs in our newsroom have proved they can do the job without sacrificing quality.  In the main the engineers, editors, crews and operational staff are also encouraging, although on occasion I have had to fight my corner.  There are still are few people around who don’t like the increasing use of VJs in the newsroom, I think partly because of fear for their own jobs, and partly because they really don’t believe VJs can do the job of a crew and reporter.  I do understand the doubters, especially because there’s still a lot of VJ work out there that isn’t fit for broadcast.  But that doesn’t mean that all VJs should be tarred with the same brush.

 GM Q9. Given that the PRIX CIRCOM is a European wide competition, how do you feel having won the award for best VJ? 
@Nicola_Rees: I’m absolutely thrilled.  It was fantastic to hear I’d won, and since being presented with the award I’ve had lots of opportunities to meet new people who’re interested in and excited about Video Journalism.  It can often be a solitary job, and people don’t realise how much more effort it takes to make a film as a sole operator so recognition like this is absolutely fantastic.  It was also great to meet the commended VJ, Magnus Brenna Lund from Norway, and to see that video journalists are making an impact at regional television stations right across Europe.

 GM Q10. If you were a trainer on a Video Journalism course what advice or tips would you offer new talent?
@Nicola_Rees: In terms of getting to grips with the technical side of the job it’s good to keep practising basic 5-shot sequences.  I’d also say never be tempted to use auto focus! …I still haven’t worked out why it even exists as a function on a video camera.  Remember to hold your shots steady for at least 10 seconds, and to let your a subject leave the frame.  Get close to the action, and remember that sound shouldn’t be an afterthought – it’s just as important as the pictures so wear headphones and mic up your subjects.  If you perfect all this, editing will be a breeze! 

 More generally I’d say it’s important to be organised – charge your batteries, label your kit, remember spare tapes and lights, and wear warm clothes and comfortable shoes (I never do and I’m always sorry!)

Check out some of  Nicolas’ work on you tube: http://www.youtube.com/user/MsBluedomino

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About vjmentor
Innovation Lead, RTÉ | VJ & MoJo (Mobile Journalism) Trainer -Circom Regional | Photographer | HDSLR shooter| Views are strictly personal, not those of my employer.

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