How not to be a Simon Dee
(ask Mr Google if you don’t know who he was)
A Piece to Camera, or PTC, is more than just a picture of the reporter or presenter talking to the camera. After all, if the story is about bonsai plants, show me the plants. If it’s about Martians with ingrowing toenails, show the toes. If it’s about refugees, show me the refugees.
But if it’s about a new car, about bugs as a food source or about learning to walk on the tightrope, then a PTC has power.
What you need to know
The piece to camera, or PTC is that part of the report where the reporter can be seen talking to the viewer about all sorts of things, hopefully relevant to the story.
But in essence what does it do? Well the truth is, nothing much. But it can be used to add a touch of variety to your story, if nothing else. The PTC can be used:
- When you just can’t get any pictures. This seems to happen in quite a lot of news stories, especially business ones. Fair enough – even the most rabid critic of talking heads would agree it’s not easy to get a picture of a reduced dividend payment when you want one.
- To add credibility and authority to the story. The intrepid reporter – ah, yes there he is, so it must be true.
- As a bridge, joining one part of the story to another
- Philosophically – the summing up of the story. Especially useful when you’ve got two conflicting interviewees’ accounts of an event.<
- To illustrate things like emotions and feelings. ” … the excitement here is overwhelming and suffocating as people in this country are voting for the very first time”. Though maybe a shot of the voters queuing to vote might be better.
- To get non-visual information over to the viewer in a direct way. Business and finance programmes feature again.
- When you have access to a super toy like an aeroplane. The viewer can’t ride in it for himself, but his representative, the reporter, can. Make the most of it. It will at least be visually exciting.
But always remember that the piece to camera is part of your whole story, and not something that should be treated as separate.
The Different Types
This is used when the location helps to add to the story. The story is about a polluted river, so where better to give the story a reference but the river. Though try to make the reporter/presenter do something, not just stand there. Maybe dip a glass into the water and hold it up for inspection.
Choosing the right location is imperative. So please don’t go and shoot in front of a brick wall. It could be anywhere in the world and it doesn’t add anything to your story. Unless, of course, the story is about walls
A variation on this one is the REVEAL. Usually the camera pans with the reporter from the polluted water or dead fish on the river bank to reveal the factory and the pipe spewing sewage into the water.
Documents, “black boxes” and lots of other things can be used as props. This kind of PTC helps to establish the credibility of the story and gives the reporter something nice to do. A little action will go a long way towards making the story visually appealing.
This is a little bit like ‘show and tell’; the reporter interacts with the gadget, the location, or the setting. For example, if the story is about little doggies suffering heat exhaustion in cars because the windows are up, our intrepid reporter may simulate the scene by sitting in the car holding a thermometer and giving his or her subjective reaction to the heat.
Of courses there are many other types, for example using special effects to superimpose the reporter’s head in a portrait on a castle wall (if the story is about ghosts). But this kind of thing too easily comes across as cheap and contrived.
Keep it Current
Be careful that the point you make is not going to alter with time. Figures are the enemy here. You don’t want to announce as part of your piece on the polluted river that seventeen of the nearby residents are in hospital with suspected cholera. Even if the programme goes out tomorrow there could well be another couple of victims by then.
Keep it in Context
You must know the kind of information that will come before the PTC. You may not know the exact words you will use, but you must know the content otherwise the flow of information may be confused
Keep it Conversational
Please don’t write down what you want your reporter to say in the PTC. It will come over with all the spontaneity of watching paint dry. Remember that you are trying for as conversational a tone as possible.
Where do I put it?
A piece to camera can go anywhere so long as it is motivated. There might be several, depending on the length of the programme, or there may be one in a short news story. There seems to be a tradition or a charter or something here to use the PTC as a sign-off; “This is Bob Fritz, on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, for News 5 in Sydney”.
A PTC might go at the beginning of a story, but only when there’s a good reason for being there. For example, a close-up of a box of cereal being taken out of a shopping trolley might be followed by a shot of the reporter holding the box and talking about the ingredients or the price.
American news reporters like putting a piece to camera at the beginning so we know who is doing the report right from the start. A good idea, but sometimes difficult to incorporate without slowing down the story.
The Joins – How to Hide Them
The answer to this is quite simple, it’s all in the words. Think about what the viewer will have learned of your story so far and you’ll find that words like, ‘but…’, ‘and…’, ‘nevertheless…’, so…’, and ‘however…’ come to mind. Okay you’ve got the start of your PTC.
If it feels strange – you appear to be beginning in the middle of a chain of thought and ending before it’s reached a conclusion – it’s probably about right.
Remember to try and keep the performance and voice as a close a match as possible with the rest of the story. If the mood and delivery of the story are positive and upbeat, the PTC should have the same feel; if it’s dour and doleful there’s no way to make it fit.
No more than 20 seconds. Absolute maximum. It is enough time to see and hear the reporter and then move onto the other ingredients of the story. Again, if you have a good reason you can break the rules, but just keep it simple and logical.
The shot may be just a static one, and the reporter may be static. But most PTCs include an entrance, an exit, or both. After all, this is motion picture technology, isn’t it?
Whether you move or not is largely governed by the sense of the piece. If the preceding sequence is an interview in somebody’s office, it would look strange to cut straight to the presenter in the street outside – the viewer will wonder how he got there. There are many ways round this problem:
The reporter can enter the exterior shot – maybe actually walk through a doorway. Simple and elegant (though limited by microphone leads, etc.).
You can slip a buffer shot in before the PTC (maybe a close up of the logo on the front of the building). The PTC voice could start over this shot, motivating the cut to the reporter. Or the camera could tilt down to include the presenter. Or the reporter could be moving left to right as the camera tilts down from the logo (looks very nice, and doesn’t require that much organisation). By the way, if you do this sort of ‘reveal the reporter’ shot don’t think you’ve got to wait until you’re in vision before hearing him speak – that smacks of the worst sort of amateurism.
It’s usually a good idea to rehearse at least once with the cameraman. Make sure your presenter uses the same voice level as on the take. It’s a total waste of time and money to mumble through the rehearsal then project full force for the recording. And insist your reporter does all the moves that will occur on the “take” so the cameraman can get things right and see what is happening. In particular, make sure he knows what to do at the end of the piece; does he hold the frame or pan with the presenter?
If you are going to do any sort of camera move, I suggest that you think it through in the context of the whole story. For most stories you will be cutting fairly static pictures; a complex move could look out of place. Also, it is worth noting that if you zoom or otherwise move the camera, it has to be done with motivation, it needs a lot of rehearsal, and that you are then committed to the pace and rhythm of the move.
How do you look?
“Clothes maketh the man”, so make sure that you dress appropriately for the occasion. For example if you are doing a piece to camera from Afghanistan you won’t be wearing a three piece suit. However, if your report comes from Parliament House with some Ministers being interviewed, than a tie and jacket are maybe right. If in doubt, dress down a little, rather than up.
Don’t wear large areas of black or white. Nice pastel colours are nice, and possibly some small areas of bold colour (except red, which bleeds). Avoid checks and stripes like the plague as they produce a shimmering effect.
Practice makes Perfect
When you are recording a PTC you have the luxury of being able to do it over and over again, until it’s right. But remember that the more takes you do, the harder it gets. Worse, after about three takes it begins to lose the lovely spontaneity that you have in a conversation. Your presenter will start to think about the words rather than the sense of the words.
One Man Band
I’ve written most of this thinking of a director and a separate performer. In a news or current affairs situation these are often the same person. The same rules apply, with a few variations:
You must learn to judge your own performance. How will you sound and look?
Will your voice energy, in particular, match the energy on any adjacent interview?
There are exceptions to this ‘energy match’; if you do a PTC by the side of a busy road, you’ll obviously need to project more than in a quiet room.
You’ll need to remember to check hair, make up and costume yourself. The cameraman will help, but he’s got a lot of other things to worry about.
Talk to the camera as if it were a colleague; one person, remember.
Remember the viewer is of maximum intelligence, minimum knowledge. You just know more than he does because you’re on the location.
Always use simple, conversational language.
Try to cut out everything and everyone around you, including those onlookers who are fascinated by you and the television process.