“Every story has the potential to be great, but you have to be willing to put the work to make them shine,” says photojournalist Randy Schumacher.
That’s exactly what he and the WHO-TV team did for the Excellence in Video Murrow Award-winning piece “A New Space for an Old Place.”
We spoke to Schumacher and reporter/writer Andy Fales about the process behind the story, a look at a unique overnight move: an entire house was moving to a new site in a historic Des Moines, Iowa, neighborhood.
How many of those great shots were captured through planning ahead and how much was spotting opportunities that arose?
It turns out that this wasn’t Schumacher’s or Fales’ first house move, which was helpful in planning ahead.
Schumacher: When we heard about the story and what time it would be moved, there were a variety of ways we could go about setting up the story. Andy and I talked about the opening shot as a scene-setter: we didn't want to give the story away right off the top, and it needed to be something that would set the stage for things going on later in the night. I was going to be shooting this solo, so I knew of a few possibilities given the time and how the sun was going down.
Fales: I also knew that Randy would be very active in capturing the “organized chaos” on the street level with the movers and spectators and that we’d have a lot of good nats to work with. I’d guess that we planned about half of the shots and then let the rest come to us.
Schumacher: Once on scene (constantly changing since the house was moving along), it was just about anticipating how long the house would be moving and what was going on at that exact time. Some shots I lucked into, and others were all about getting in the right spot, being patient, and just letting the house roll right through. Wide/Medium/Tight/Action/Reaction.
I would gather a few sequenced shots, then try to gather sound as the house came to a stop. It was really important to get instant reaction from people watching this event take place.
I also had the mover miked up the whole time since he was constantly barking out orders, so it was really important to keep my head on a swivel (and my headphones in my ears) in case I heard something memorable or saw another good shot falling right in my lap.
So much of the story’s energy comes from the light: streetlights, police lights, dawn. What kind of a challenge was lightening with a nighttime story?
Schumacher: It is always tempting to use your on-camera light on darker shoots, but I really wanted to focus on what everyone else would be seeing without the use of a floodlight. As [the house] was coming down Grand Avenue there were very few lights/street lamps that were independent of the power grid that was being shut down, so I knew I wanted to get as many shots as possible with the light I had. It had police cruisers in front and behind, so I made use of the light from their headlights/flashers for what I needed. I did use my camera light for a few of the interviews, but tried to stay away from it as much as possible.
Fales: I agree that Randy’s attempts to stay in “night mode” by staying away from camera lights and Eric [Gooden, editor]’s decision to incorporate as many “night lights” as possible really added a lot to the wee-hours feel of the story. I did try to make this story about a big (and perhaps astounding) event that happened while most of the city was sound asleep. I envisioned someone in Sherman Hill waking up and wondering “How in the world did that house get here?” and then telling that story.
The video matches so well with the script, which raises a bit of a chicken/egg question. Are there any secrets to your logging or writing processes?
Schumacher: The shoot took about 6.5 hours (lots of video!) so when I got back to the station I logged a lot of my video and highlighted the shots that I thought we absolutely needed to use before I left around 5 a.m. Andy anchored the AM show, and then wrote the story after. He just has this incredible knack for capturing moments and putting them on paper. He and Eric did an amazing job putting it all together.
Fales: Randy and I talked about the shoot ahead of time and laid out a list of shots we thought we’d like to capture shots that would lend themselves well to writing (traffic blurring, night settling in, people watching the move, easing past trees, lurching up the hill, etc.). This gave me a general idea of what we’d have even before it actually happened. I think that this was a story that had more planning than the typical day-turn, but I still logged everything ahead of writing and definitely wrote in and out of the great bites that Randy was able to get while on the move shooting the story.
What would your advice be for tapping into creativity?
Fales: Creatively, I don’t think I invented any wheels with this story. I think it’s actually a piece that speaks to the value of two simple approaches to storytelling:
- Looking at something unique and asking “How did that come to be?” It can be a unique house, a really crooked street, a funny name for a business, or even a strange injury or accident. If it has a funny or unusual look to it, there’s often an interesting story there.
- Being there, up close, when something happens. The video and sound is all captured in the moment—in the dark, on the move, with real reactions. We didn’t sit down with anyone and—though we knew the move was coming—we didn’t really do a lot of research on the subject prior to the shoot.
This story was so unique and had such potential, we knew we wanted to see it all the way through not just for our viewers, but for ourselves. Sometimes the most unique stories can pass right by you...even at 4 miles an hour.
For more how-tos from Murrow winners, check out our regular Murrow Monday column.