Interview by site editor Dan Chung:
Twenty six year old Mike Anderson is a talented shooter who has been shooting for NBC Bay Area. Most of his video work is on DSLRs and he was recently awarded an Emmy in the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences 41st Annual Northern California Area Emmy Awards. He took the time to answer a few of my questions:
Who do you work for?
For about two-and-a-half years, I worked for NBC Bay Area, also known as KNTV. It’s the NBC owned-and-operated TV station in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area. Actually, I’m excited to start a new job soon at Cisco at the end of July – working with their Social Media Communications team. I will be focusing on creating video content for Cisco’s technology news website, The Network. Here we will focus on NBC though.
What was your job exactly?
My official title at NBC was Content Producer, but it’s always difficult to define what I do because I actually do what traditionally required 10 different people. That’s the challenging state of the news business today. The coolest part of my job was creating video pieces that aired on TV stations across the United States. I was responsible for pitching and researching story ideas, scheduling shoots and interviews, shooting video, recording sound, lighting, writing, editing, encoding – the list goes on and on. I also got to shoot some fun still photo assignments like a future airplane being tested in a gigantic wind tunnel and President Barack Obama, when he visited town. Some people might call me a “one-man band” or “multimedia journalist”. The one thing I haven’t done yet, and have no desire to do at this point, is be an on-camera talent. I prefer being behind the scenes.
I also worked heavily on the station’s 24/7 news website, NBCBayArea.com, which feeds content to MSNBC.com and other news sites. I was basically a web producer/editor responsible for curating the homepage and making sure the site stayed fresh and relevant throughout my shift. The site primarily covers local news, sports and the Silicon Valley tech scene. So I posted articles, selected photos, wrote headlines and blog posts, set up live video streams from the news helicopter, updated social media followers and all that sort of stuff. In online news, the deadline is always now. It can be a terribly high-stress, high-pressure environment, especially working in a busy TV newsroom. Sometimes people are yelling, phones are ringing, police scanners are buzzing and hundreds of unread emails are always waiting. It’s a challenging job, for sure, but it’s also very exciting. I definitely enjoyed getting away from the newsroom to shoot video, though.
You are just 26 years old. How did someone like you get a cool job like that?
I get this question a lot, usually from sarcastic coworkers who like to tease me about how lucky I am. I hope my talents played a small part, but luck also had something to do with it. I graduated from the journalism/photojournalism program at San Jose State University in early 2010, and a requirement before graduation was to complete one internship. I ended up landing three internships and NBC Bay Area was one of them. On my first day as a web intern, my manager told me he was leaving NBC to work somewhere else. My internship could have fallen apart right there, but fortunately, the rest of the web team quickly adopted me. The unpaid internship was supposed to last for three months, but I stuck around for nine because I was getting great experience. Eventually, a new manager came in who wanted to take the site in a new direction, with a heavier focus on original video content. That’s when I sort of raised my hand and said, “I can do video!” (I have actually been creating video most of my life. Even as a young boy, I can remember using my parents’ clunky VHS camera to shoot silly home movies).
Around that same time, NBC was launching a new lifestyle site called The Feast, which needed video content fast. There also happened to be a new statewide digital channel coming called California Nonstop, which brought with it a bunch of new shows like Scene in California, Nonstop Foodies and an additional hour-long newscast. Basically, the station was under enormous pressure to help fill all that new air time. And luckily, my new manager wanted me on his team and decided to start paying me. I guess I was in the right place at the right time.
From there, I teamed up with the very talented food and music writer Tamara Palmer. We created around 30 food-related video packages for The Feast, all on a DSLR camera. I also enjoy shooting spot news and violent street riots, so this stuff seems totally fluffy in comparison. But these feature pieces were a ton of fun to work on and the other NBC stations loved them. One piece even ran inside New York City taxi cabs. The work I did for The Feast really paved the way for me to work on my own stories later on.
During that time, I think everyone at the station just started getting used to me doing video. It also didn’t hurt that they read my name over the air whenever the videos ran. The TV anchors would announce “NBC Bay Area’s Mike Anderson brings us this story,” and I think it gave me some credibility. Especially at a station serving the 6th largest market in the country.
What was the Emmy awarded for?
The Emmy judges saw a 14-minute sampling of my work called “Mike Anderson Composite“. I won in a category called “Crafts Achievement: Photographer – Video Essay (Single Camera Only)”. It’s a category for people who produce, shoot and edit video without a reporter or professional talent track.
At NBC, I actually created a fun video series called That’s a Job?, which profiled Bay Area residents with unbelievable and unusual jobs. I let each of my subjects tell his or her own story and my Emmy composite was composed entirely of pieces from that series. I worked solo on the whole project, which I also shot on DSLR. Some of my favorite pieces were on a Google doodler who took me behind the scenes of Google’s second-longest doodle ever, an astronomer who hunts for alien planets, a coin washer who cleans money in a secret room of a hotel and a cemetery worker who lives in the “City of Souls”.
It’s so weird because I had never considered entering the Emmys before. I saw it as something so up there, so unattainable at this stage of my career, especially in the competitive Northern California region. But one day I was chatting with my co-worker Vicky Nguyen, an experienced reporter at NBC, and she was the first person to put the idea in my head. She encouraged me to enter and I ended up going for it. Later, I found out I was nominated. Then I realized I was the only person nominated in my category, which is very unusual. And at that point, Vicky just said “You are going to have a great night!” because she knew I was going to win it. The whole thing is still sinking in and it truly is an amazing honor.
Do you work in a team or alone?
I enjoy working in a team, but I usually work alone. There are benefits to both. At NBC Bay Area, those who work in the field usually operate in teams of two: an on-camera reporter and a photographer. In TV news, the term “photographer” is used to refer to a videographer, which I still find odd. Anyway, these crews are usually tasked with chasing down the news of the day and shooting video packages to make deadline for the evening newscast. They often cover fires, deaths, press conferences, the same thing all the other competing stations are covering. But because I was part of NBC’s online team, I didn’t get bogged down by the TV schedule. I can only remember a few times I was actually assigned to go shoot something. Instead, I was fortunate enough to have the freedom to pursue my own stories. And since I was shooting in a style that completely cut the on-camera reporter out of the equation, I usually worked alone.
Working alone allowed me to focus on original, exclusive, local feature stories that required a bit more time to put together. In the piece I did about the astronomer, for example, I really wanted to include a basic time-lapse of the stars. It appears about 26 seconds in and it only lasts for about six seconds, but it took me hours to shoot and edit all of those still photos, including two hours of driving up and down the highest mountain in the Bay Area in the middle of the night. Ideas like that would never fly if I was on a TV deadline.
It can be challenging working alone, but I think it allows me to make mistakes and hone different skills much faster than if I had a team doing everything. I think it forces me to learn and improve more rapidly. It’s also a wonderful feeling to be in complete control of the creative direction of your project from start to finish. On the other hand, if you have a rock and roll crew with each person focused on one thing, it will probably be apparent in the final product. It’s a tradeoff.
Who edits your work?
At NBC, I edited all my own video work.
Were NBC okay with you shooting DSLR or did you have to use other cameras most of the time?
There were a couple of times I needed to shoot something that was airing in the newscast a few hours later, so I used a P2 camera. On a tight deadline like that, there’s no way I could say “Just hold on a few hours while I transcode the DSLR files and synch up the sound.” Luckily, NBC was cool with me using DSLR 99 per cent of the time. Since I was part of the online team, I rarely faced TV deadlines. The TV-only photographers at the station use P2 exclusively. The P2 cameras are great, but they don’t offer the same quality and control as the 5D MKII, in my opinion. One P2 shooter even asked me once if the shallow depth of field in my DSLR interviews was an effect I created in post. I guess he didn’t realize the true potential of a wide aperture on a full-frame DSLR.
You shot the winning work on DSLR, can you describe your kit?
Sure, but first off, I believe content and story outweigh all the cool gear in the world. My kit is constantly evolving and improving, and there are many other tools available that are capable of producing quality work. That said, I used the gear below regularly to create the work in my Emmy composite. It’s a portable kit that allowed me to get the job done. I pretty much carried it all in three bags.
– Canon EOS 5D mkII camera
– Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens
– Canon 70-200mm f2.8L USM lens
– Canon 100mm f2.8 USM macro lens
– Canon 50mm f1.8 II Lens
– Marantz PMD661 solid state portable audio recorder
– Sennheiser SK100 G3 bodypack transmitter
– Sennheiser EK100 G3 diversity receiver
– Sennheiser ME2 Omnidirectional lavaliere microphone
– Sennheiser MKE400 shotgun microphone
– Sony MDR-7506 headphones
– Davis & Sanford Provista 75XB tripod with FM18 fluid head
– VariZoom Flowpod handheld stabilizer
– LCDVF LCD loupe
– F&V Z96 5600K LED lights
Can you talk a bit about your DSLR workflow?
Like many DSLR shooters, I employ a double-system sound technique. Using my trusty Marantz recorder, I gather high-quality audio files that need to be synched up to the video in post. I haven’t used any automated plugins like PluralEyes. Instead, I synchronize everything manually. The video pieces I did at NBC usually consisted of two basic parts: an interview and b-roll. After planning and research, sometimes I was able to shoot it all in one day. Sometimes it took a few days. On a non-technical note, in the field, I like shooting interviews before I shoot b-roll. That way, my subjects have an opportunity to get comfortable with me. And after the interview, I usually have a far better idea of what b-roll to shoot.
I normally edit audio and video in Adobe Premiere Pro, which has been my primary editing software for about ten years. When I was working on “That’s a Job?”, I was still running CS3 on my Apple MacBook Pro. Unfortunately, the native h.264 files that come out of the 5D MKII don’t play nice with most editing programs, including CS3. So I was stuck transcoding all my footage into an editable format. It was a huge pain and it usually took hours. I eventually upgraded to CS5.5 and that problem was solved. Now I can drop raw 5D mkII files into the timeline and just start editing. No glitches. No crashes. It’s awesome.
After a shoot, I would backup all my files on a couple of external hard drives and begin editing. I never had time to transcribe interviews, but the interviews were the backbone of all my pieces. Most of the time I spent in editing was definitely spent on sound. Sometimes, I’d have to cut a 45 minute-long interview down to two minutes. And that two minutes needed to be completely self-contained. The story had to flow through the beginning, middle and end, using only the interviewee’s voice. It was crucial that my subjects talked on all the key points during the interview, because that’s literally all I had to work with in editing. Once I had a rough cut of the vocal track, I would start paying attention to editing in the picture and music. I also love using natural sound whenever possible, so when I find stories like the coin washer, I can’t thank the video Gods enough.
Staring at the same project for days in a row can kind of distort your judgement, so I always like to seek out second opinions. I would show my rough cuts to my girlfriend or my family or my boss. They would say, “You should let that shot run for a few more seconds,” or “That ending didn’t flow,” or “I’m confused.” And they were right. And I would fix it. Once I had the final edit, I usually made some minor adjustments to improve sound quality and levels.
I always shoot in full manual mode. I also shoot with a very flat and neutral in-camera picture setting in order to protect the highlights and shadows, which also gives me some leverage in post.
What does shooting DSLR give you that other cameras don’t?
The greatest benefits of the Canon 5D mkII are its 24p frame rate, quickly interchangeable glass, full-frame sensor and performance in low-light. The small form factor of DSLRs in general is also an important selling point since I can get into some tight shooting situations. At NBC, I found myself shooting from the inside of a grave, on a motor boat on the bay and even in a crane 100 feet up in the air. The piece I did about the crane operator probably wouldn’t have been possible if I was using a bulky camera. My subject, who lifts containers from cargo ships at the Port of Oakland, works in a small cab at the top of a big crane. Just to get up there, I had to climb up a tall, thin metal ladder, take a tiny elevator even higher, then move across a small walkway into the cab — all with my DSLR gear. While I was up there, I accidentally dropped a lens cap through a crack in the walkway. I watched it fall and fall and fall until it landed on the top of a container 100 feet below me. It’s an extremely dangerous shooting environment where one slip could have cost me my life. NBC’s lawyers even had to get involved before I was allowed to go up there! Anyway, the DSLR equipment I brought with me barely fit, but it did fit. And I was able to get some powerful bird’s-eye-view shots looking down from inside the crane. I also got my lens cap back later.
But along with all the benefits, DSLRs come with some major downfalls. I hate the jello effect. I also hate the moire and aliasing. And while I don’t have to deal with it anymore, the transcoding situation is completely ridiculous. Other than that, the quality packed into these DSLR cameras is fantastic.
Any tips for aspiring news shooters?
The proliferation of mobile devices with cameras has really changed the news game. Anyone at the right place at the right time can shoot a spot news event and upload it for the world to see online. If you want to make money shooting news, I think it’s wise to focus on doing work the general public cannot do. Find compelling stories no one else knows about. Get access somewhere no one else can. News websites and TV stations want original, quality content from their freelancers and staffers. If you can provide that, you stand a chance. And if you are young, try to find an internship somewhere you’d like to work. Even volunteer. Just getting a foot in the door can be so important. It was for me.
What is next for you?
As I mentioned above, I’m excited to begin a new job soon. I’ve also been starting to do more freelance work through Mike Anderson Media. Lately, I’ve been teaming up with a very talented video producer named Bart Bishoff, who runs DoF Media. Bart is also an NBC alum, so it’s cool working together on some non-news projects. A recent video project I worked on was a two-day women’s hacking event at LinkedIn. I shot all the video on DSLR and Bart edited the final piece.
Anything else you would like to add?
I want to thank you, Dan, for giving me this opportunity. I appreciate your interest and your work on DSLR News Shooter. It’s a valuable resource for the DSLR community. I also need to thank my boss at NBC, Jason Middleton. I pitched him all sorts of random video stories, and he gave me so much freedom to work on each one of them. The Emmy wouldn’t have been possible without him.
You can find out more about Mike and his work on his website.