Chatting with the Pros: Michael Driver

Monday we showed you examples of good ‘natpacks’ – packages that use natural sound, interviews, and good visuals, without a reporter’s voice. The concept seems tough – and it is. But in my opinion, if you can tell a good story using only your images and your sounds, you’ve made it as a storyteller.

xL54tz2PKATU’s Michael Driver knows how to tell a story. He was NPPA’s West Top Photographer in 2013, and has shot great stories in Denver and now in Portland. In our Q&A, he explained his approach to getting sources comfortable enough to clip a mic on, how to let natural moments happen, and making the most of your equipment as a one-man crew.

SS: What got you into TV news?

MD: I started when I was a junior in high school. I was working in the electronics department of Walmart, and I had a buddy that had graduated a couple of years before me move off to Oklahoma to work at a TV station, and he came back to Kentucky to work at a TV station that I ultimately decided to go to. He came in to pick up some pictures and we got to talking and he said ‘I’m going to work at a TV station here.’  I said ‘that’s awesome. I don’t have any experience, but I’m a hard worker, throw my name out there.’ I never thought anything could come of it.

Two days later, he called me up and said ‘I talked to my boss and said good things about you, do you want to come in for an interview?’ And I went in to the interview, they put me on the spot and said if I wanted the job it was mine. And from that day forward I picked up a camera and really enjoyed it.

It’s really fun. There’s something new every day about it. I come into work every day excited because I don’t know what the day holds. It lets you be really creative and do creative things with video editing.

SS: What’s a typical day like for you?

MD: I go out a lot and do nat packages, which are… I kind of go out on my own and go try to tell the story with no reporter. I enjoy it a lot. Natpacks are really difficult. Basically, you have to go out and be able to tell a story with a solid beginning, middle and end that the viewer at home is going to understand what the story is about, but you have to do it with just the moment, the sound, everything that you gather while you’re out there.

I go out and shoot a nat pack about once or twice a week.

SS: When you are assigned a nat pack, what’s your process in the field?

MD: The first thing I do is I go up and meet those people. I never show up to a scene and just grab my camera and start rolling. I go up without a camera, I introduce myself to the people I’m doing the story with, because my main goal, initially, is to build a rapport with those people. When you build a rapport with somebody before you even start rolling, once you put a mic on them, once you put the camera on your shoulder, they’re going to be so much more open. The answers you get will be so much more natural.

It allows you to tell a story with really natural moments that the viewer is going to look at like they’re in that situation. They feel like they’re in that moment.

You’ve got access to multiple audio units. You might have two wireless lav mics and a stick mic. When you go out, you want to gather that sound, so there’s no reason when you’re out shooting that you’re not utilizing all those.

When I’m doing that, I’m asking questions that will fill in the gap of what the reporter will usually do. So I need you to describe, what’s going on here today? How long as this thing been going on? Those basic things, the narration I can put into the package while I trickle in those natural moments and those good, crisp sounds that I’ve gathered.

SS: Do you ever find it difficult to get a natural reaction when you clip a lav mic on someone? I know some people tend to change when a camera is around them.

MD: Not really. I’ll usually joke with (the interview subject). I’ll say ‘I’m going to put this mic on you so I can pick up your sound. In 2o minutes you’ll forget you even had this on!” Honestly, that happens the majority of the shoots that I go on.

The lav mic helps you get those natural moments, as opposed to grabbing a mic with a flag on it and sticking it in their face.

You have to do it with just the moment, the sound, everything that you gather while you’re out there.

SS: One example of that is your story “I miss you, Beryl.” How did that story come together?

MD: That’s probably one of my favorites, because you’re taken into this natural moment that a lot of people don’t get to experience.

The (assignment) desk said, ‘it’s Memorial Day, do you want to go out to Fort Logan cemetery? There’s going to be lots of people paying their respects to loved ones.’ They told me to get a VOSOT, but when I got out there, I’m already thinking in my head, if I can get a good character and elements, I’m going to do more than that. The first thing, I found a woman that was going to put some flowers on her father’s grave. I mic’d her up, got some great sound, then shot some visuals of the cemetery.

At that point, I could have been done. I could have gone back to the station and gave them what they asked for. But as I was finishing up with her, I looked over and there’s this old man with a cane, hobbling back to his car to get in. And I thought, I had to go talk to this guy to see what was going on. So I approached him, he told me he was a veteran, and his wife, who had been with him for 60 years, had died. He was there that day to pay his respects to his wife who had passed away. And I just talked to him for a minute, built up a little rapport, and asked him if I could get some shots of him going to pay his respects to his wife. He had no problem with it.

If you look at the video you’ll notice I’m very far back. I’m not in his face. I did that because this was a very sensitive thing going on and I felt like if I was going to get any natural moments, I needed to fall back. So I got to where his wife’s tombstone was before him, and he walked in, and what I got was an amazing, natural moment that I wasn’t expecting. He started talking to her. He had a conversation with his wife. And I think back to my shot, and if I was in his face, would I have got the same natural moment? Probably not. So hanging back and capturing the moment he was allowing me to capture was the best way to do it.

SS: A story like that is obviously very emotional. When you were out there talking to people, did you get anyone who said ‘no thanks?’

MD: After I got him, I was thinking that maybe I needed one more person to get the natpack put together. After him, I went to one lady and asked if she minded if I got some shots, and she said ‘I’d rather not.’ She was having a moment. And at that point you just say, OK, and you walk away and respect their wishes. You’re going to have situations where it’s an emotional time and you’ve got to tread lightly and be respectful.

SS: What’s something that TV students should know if they are looking to get into a career as a news photojournalist?

MD: Passion. Honestly, if you want to be a photojournalist in a television career, passion and a great attitude are the two main things. If you don’t have a passion for this, you’re going to get drained very quickly. Because in this business, you’re on a constant deadline. You’re going to get to go out and do natpacks, feature stories. But on a daily basis on general assignment, you’re going to be pushed really hard to get content for all these shows. And it can be draining on you. But if you’re passionate about what you do, and you want to go out and do something new every day, you’re going to find that you will rise above the people who have lost that passion.

The reason I think I was able to put my skills to use is because I did a lot of things on my own time. When I wasn’t shooting something, I was picking up the camera, I was going out trying to improve my skill level doing different things. And that’s what you’ve got to do. You can’t wait for your manager so say ‘go out and get a camera.’ Take incentive to do things on your own time

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