Natpacks – Telling a Story Without Your Voice

Everyone who gets into journalism thinks of themselves as storytellers. We all know how to take facts, cut out the fat, package it together and share it with people in ways that are as entertaining as they are informative. You put us around a campfire, and we can paint you a word picture.

Now, imagine doing all of that without your voice.

“Impossible!” you say.

“Impractical!” you hiss.

“Unfair!” you cry.

Obviously you’re never seen a natpack.

A natpack is a “natural sound package.” It has all the elements of a traditional TV news package – video, sounbites, nat sound – but with one obvious omission: a reporter’s voice. The story is told entirely through the use of natural sound, interviews, and images.

This means that a good subject of a natpack is something with a lot of video and audio elements (so a story about someone working in an office might not be the best candidate). Maybe there’s lots of action. Maybe there is an engaging interview subject. Or maybe there are just things that make a lot of noise present. The key is, you are creating a story that gives the viewer the feeling of being there, without the interruption of a reporter’s voice.

Anyone can make them, though natpacks are typically made by photojournalists (photogs), and it just shows the tremendous talent of those shooters. Everyone should aspire to that skill level – reporters, photogs, producers, and sports reporters. If you can tell a strong story using only the natural sounds and powerful images of that moment, you can do anything as a videographer. In my opinion, natpacks are the peak.

I was lucky enough to make a few natpacks in my time as a reporter, but they were only good because I learned from the talented photogs on staff. So I turned to them again to find some great examples of creating a strong natpack.

First is an example from one of the most talented and hard working photojournalists I’ve ever worked alongside: Michael Cooper, who is now with KOLO 8 in Reno.

Mike was great at finding the most interesting aspect of any story and bringing it to the forefront. When he was making a natpack, he always kept his eyes and his ears open for opportunities to get good video and sound. Watch the beginning of the story above – the interviewee says “welcome to paradise” followed by the awesome shot of the mountain peak and the ear-slipping sound of chainsaws cutting the ice to prepare the resort. Same thing a few seconds later – “need a way to cut through the ice” followed by shots and sounds of chainsaws cutting through the ice. Mike is great at finding opportunities for the video and audio to compliment each other.

A NATPAK to me is a moment in time,” he told me recently. “Nothing is in the past tense, so you need to get everything there at that moment.”

He also allows the interview subjects to explain things. With a natpack, you don’t have the safety net of being able to explain details, so you need to ask the right questions to get the people to explain things for you.

“Get a lot of interview sound, from multiple people and ask redundant questions,” he says. “Although you can use your five senses, you can’t convey anything except the sound. Get everybody to explain what they see and what is going on, standard stuff but they need to say it, because you can’t.”

Here’s another Cooper example:

There’s a lot going on at this BBQ event. Music playing, people cheering, and meat grilling. With so much going on, it can be hard to keep all the action from overwhelming a natpack. But here, Cooper organized his shots and his thoughts. He layered his video so that none of the sounds competed with each other, and he sorted through his shots in the editing process to find video and sounds that worked together: cheering leading into the guitar riff leading into a soundbite.

“If you were a viewer who just tuned in, can you follow the story? I never know what the on cam intros and tags will be and that’s a good thing for me. If somebody can watch the story without an explanation and get the gist of it, then I’ll usually call it done.”

Next up is an example from another talented photog I worked with: Scott Perry of KDRV in Medford, Ore. In this example, Scott shows us that when a story hands you lots of nat sound opportunities, you make the most of them!

With such a unique event like the Rooster Crow competition, you know there won’t be a shortage of opportunities. So Scott rolled on a large number of them; he shot dozens of contestants. But he found ways to mix it up. He didn’t stand in the same place every time, he moved around for different angles. Then in the editing room, he chose a good mixture of people: young and old, man and woman. Variety was the key to that natpack.

He also had the presence of mind to talk to the winner, then put the story together so that there was a “moment” at the end, when we find out the guy we’ve been talking to was the winner.

But what do you do when you don’t have a crowd full of people crowing? What if your story is very quiet? Well, my former colleague Adam Thompson, now of KOIN 6 in Portland, shows us how it’s done:

In this piece about a nutcracker collector, Adam made sure to let his interviews drive the natpack. He asked good questions and got the woman to open up and tell her story. Then, he made sure to take advantage of any little sound in the room – the woman walking down the stairs, a music box, and a nutcracker’s wooden mouth opening and closing. Just because it’s a quiet subject doesn’t mean you can’t make a good natpack about it.

One of the beautiful things about a natpack is the ability to simply clip a microphone on someone and let the story tell itself. A great example of that is this natpack from Michael Driver, who is now at KATU:

This is such an emotional moment. But Driver allowed it to happen naturally. He didn’t shove his camera in anyone’s face, and he didn’t interrupt the moment with quick cuts or narration. He just clipped a lav mic on the man, stood back, and captured the moment.

And in the end, that’s the key to a good natpack – you are capturing the moment as it naturally happens. So much in news can be cluttered with narration, stingers, and animated graphics, sometimes it’s powerful to witness a real moment, or hear the real words of people, uninterrupted. It’s the essence of photojournalism.

Here’s one last good example from Driver. I showed this video to students, and the shooting and soundbites helped them know exactly what the story was about (they also said “I didn’t even notice there wasn’t a reporter!”).

If you can cover a story completely using only images and sounds, you can cover anything.

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