Storytelling & video projects when working as a one-man crew

(Above, a short video created to show flavor of the NEPA coal mining region & community for the film, Beyond the Breaker, and where we found the title from John Kish, former town barber in Ashley, Pennsylvania).

Hunting, Fishing & Drilling. Those are three things a traveler expects to find in the northern parts of Pennsylvania these days. But I also relate them to the capture and editing of video and they help me frame how to improve being a professional storyteller.

Most of my storytelling experience comes from working as a photojournalist. Of course, I’ve worked with writers while photographing stories, but my best work is shot while alone. During my evolution when I first integrated video into my still photography, and while Hunting for stories, I purposefully worked alone. And during interviews, when I Fish, I’m often on my own, tossing tightly focused questions to my subjects hoping to reel in a gem contained within a soundbite.

Working alone has tradeoffs. Specifically, the amount of equipment to set up plus your ability to divide attention between camera, audio, and interviews. But I think for anyone starting, it’s perfectly fine to toss yourself into the fire, in a low-risk situation (like a personal project), and see what you can create.

When it comes to The Edit, I think of the Drilling. It’s how you go into the deeper parts of the story and find your cinematic gold.

Often, I’m aware of the perfect sentence that sums up the entire story as soon as it’s spoken; and when it’s memorable, you don’t even need to keep notes. That clip is probably the first one you’ll watch upon initial review, and it will probably guide you towards your first cut.

But what about the hidden elements of a story? Really important ones are buried within longer questions. An example comes to mind regarding a documentary about community identity and the history of the coal industry.

We’ve interviewed former miners, historians, state politicians, and even the former Ashley, Pennsylvania town barber. And while we were using a wide net to gather these stories, we didn’t have a title even after a year of filming. That’s until we reviewed (and drilled into) an interview with the town barber. There, within an interview we weren’t sure we would ever use, we found our film’s title. It was incredibly obvious in hindsight, but without a thorough review process, and hours of drilling, we may have been searching a lot longer.

So is it best to work alone? Maybe. You’ll make mistakes for sure, but as long as you view them as part of learning, it’s important to experience the entire process on your own.

Should you edit alone? Also a “Maybe.”‘ If you are an accomplished shooter and can communicate your vision to an editor, then it’s very efficient and the right editor can transform your work in amazing ways.

But at some point, whether it’s a solo attempt at a short film, a spec commercial, or creating an About Page video, it’s worth the time you’ll invest even if you feel like you are fumbling. What you’ll learn is far greater than the energy spent to learn new software and the mechanics of workflow.


Previously published on ASMP’s Strictly Business Blog.

John Welsh is a photographer & storyteller from Philadelphia as well as a director on the National Board of ASMP. He’s a refugee from the land of photojournalism and still manages to carve out some truth for his clients.