Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for February 2014

Getting into Video Storytelling – using a cheap compact camera

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I’ve been pretty inspired recently. And have become obsessed with a YouTuber named Casey Neistat. He’s a 32-year-old filmmaker who advocates limited resources film making. I stumbled upon his videos, and more importantly the story behind his ascent, from this Guardian article: Ten tools for digital and citizen journalists on the go. Specifically this video:

Casey likes to use a digital compact camera to make his videos.

After making videos that went viral, using basic equipment, he was tapped by Nike to make a commercial.

“Nike asked me to make a movie about what it means to #makeitcount. Instead of making their movie I spent the entire budget traveling around the world with my friend Max. We’d keep going until the money ran out. It took 10 days.”

The ad-hoc video he made from that trip, entirely shot on a point-and-shoot camera (Canon S120), was accepted by Nike and the ‘commercial’ has now over 10 million hits on YouTube.

So I read everything I could about Casey Neistat (I often do this when I find someone I can potentially learn from), and realized three things:

1. The camera you use is not important, and actually using ‘crappy’ equipment might work to your advantage.

2. Having limitations can create awesome things and can cultivate a unique style.

3. It’s all about the story. Story telling. Telling stories. The STORY. 

People like to be engaged and a video with a strong hook will pull in audiences even if it’s shot on a crappy camera phone compared to expensive DSLR footage that’s only about scenery that admittedly looks incredible.

My seven-year-old compact digital camera which I have now replaced. It still works though - the three pictures below were all taken with this camera in the past two years.

My seven-year-old compact digital camera which I have now replaced. It still works though – the three pictures below were all taken with this camera over the past two years.

So I’m going to start doing that then. I bought a Canon S120 (for £270 ’cause my old compact camera is literally falling apart) and downloaded Windows Movie Maker. That’s right, the free-to-download most basic video editing software available. It might sound amusing, but hey at least I’ve started. I’ll keep you updated when my first video hits and where it may end up.

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Money: or rather the lack of it when you’re trying to freelance

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A Beijing hutong (alleyway). Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang.

A Beijing hutong (alleyway). Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang.

Until very recently I did not have a regular income and though 2013 was marked by great experiences (some of the best ever in fact), it was not one that saw me in great wealth. I won’t go over the details but there were periods where I had to subsist on the cheapest foods and debt seemed unending.

Poverty. Not many of us actually know it and know it well, and I would not be one to claim expertise. But a couple of things I saw recently helped to reaffirm my position toward the accumulation of cash. The first was a quote I saw in Tom Bissell’s book Magic Hours. In an essay about writing and writers he quotes author Natalie Goldberg: “I feel very rich when I have time to write and very poor when I get a regular paycheck and no time to work at my real work”.

The second thing was a video of an interview with a musician who said: “If I have enough to pay rent, buy groceries then that’s cool – I can just concentrate on my music”.

Being ‘poor’ is relative. We live in an age of bounteous opportunity. Being so-called poor provides a clear set of options. How? Well, it frees you to concentrate on what most matters.

A month ago I published a post on WannabeHacks.co.uk, a website for aspiring journalists. There I set out the argument that in order to freelance, especially in the early stages of your career, one of the best things you can do is go and live in an emerging economy country.

In writing this blog, I have already made contacts with fellow freelancers who are doing what I am doing: taking a risk, moving to somewhere exciting where things are rapidly changing and kickstarting their journalism career. Someone I know (met via this blog) decided to relocate to Istanbul and has already been commissioned multiple times for a major magazine.

But it can be difficult, especially financially. It helps to have some money saved up. But one of the best things about living in a country like China or Turkey or Malaysia or Mexico is that although economies are growing things are still relatively cheap. In China I eat out almost everyday and party hard. If I were freelancing in London, I’d probably already be dead. Due to starvation and exposure (’cause I couldn’t afford a roof over my head).

Kate Hodal (Guardian) sold most of her possessions to finance a move to south-east Asia and was so hard-up on so many occasions that she almost went home. But she persevered and now has the envy-inducing job of being South-east Asia correspondent, meaning she gets paid to fly to places like Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines from her base in Thailand. Jonathan Kaiman (also Guardian) had to survive on a low-paid internship and a visa that forced him to take a bus full of Mongolian tradesman to Mongolia every month for almost a year, but he got bylines in the New York Times, LA Times, Foreign Policy and is now one of the most talented China correspondents around. Alec Ash, a Brit and correspondent for The Los Angeles Review of Books, wrote for four years for free on his blog about China from his home in Beijing. Now he’s living it up on an advance for a book he’s been signed to write.

Having the ability to purchase that new phone or buy that bag makes people happier. But it doesn’t, not really. You have to switch your mindset around to focus on what’s really going to drive you forward. Those shoes or that expensive meal might seem important but the enjoyment is absolutely inessential. You cannot, must not, think short-term material goals at this stage. What is important and infinitely more satisfying is recognition, appreciation of your work; the attainment of value.

To want more and more stuff is unerringly shallow. Invest in yourself. Buy what you need to hone your craft, no more. Spend on experiences…but spend wisely.

Being rich is meaningless if it doesn’t make you better at what you do.

4 ways to instantly improve your pitching – freelance journalism

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  • Think Visual

If you can write a pitch where the editor can ‘see’ the story, see the characters and the setting, then you’re immediately inside the editor’s mind, a good place to be. Just a couple of good sentences that can bring a character or some aspect of the pitch to life. Be vivid and show details that can make an editor stop and think. These words from Guy Davenport were influential to me not just for journalism but for writing in general:

Harry Levin, at Harvard, taught me a lot, especially about iconography, how to read images in a text—that literature is as pictorial as painting or sculpture. [Source: Paris Review]

  •  Think visual, visual, visual

Sorry to hammer home this point but it’s one of the quickest and easiest ways to improve pitches. I like to play with font colours, use bold where necessary, inject relevant photos inside the email, and hyperlink anything that might need clarification. You can use these formatting tools to emphasize points or themes. Just don’t go crazy, your central idea should always be the focus but a bit of extra effort will help your email stand out.

  • Is it a complete story?

Don’t pitch topics or subjects, pitch stories. Pitch ideas that are wrapped in a story. What’s the difference between a story and an idea? To quote Richard Morgan, a complete story is one with “interesting characters in an interesting situation that changes over time in an interesting environment”. The story can also demonstrate a principle or universal theme adding depth and meaning, forming a ‘take-away’ feeling or message for the reader.

  • Have an outline

You should have an outline of what the story will look like, who you’ll interview, the basic structure of the piece, and the estimated final word count. It pays to imagine for the editor what the content of the article will be and how it’ll develop paragraph by paragraph.

Show you have the expertise by quickly sketching which named people you’ll interview and who they are. It’s also good sometimes to offer options in your treatment of the story: a more intimate interviewee-based feature, or an omniscient analysis with multiple characters? Editors like surety so demonstrate you have a clear understanding of what the story will be and how it will progress.