Josh Davis is an award-winning multimedia journalist and documentary videomaker. Most recently, he was part of the team that produced the interactive documentary, “Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt,” for NPR, and he produced a series of documentaries for MediaStorm, including this one about David Guttenfelder on working as a photographer in North Korea.
Columbia Visuals: HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
JOSH DAVIS: In college I majored in journalism and my professional background is in documentary video. I graduated from college in 2000, and then I worked as a freelancer for a number of years in Washington D.C. and in New York. I worked with a lot of different clients; I worked for nonprofits, news organizations, public television, the Travel Channel, and just in a whole slew of different jobs.
CV: HOW DO YOU DEFINE YOURSELF?
JD: I am a journalist, a storyteller and—I like to think—a pretty down to earth human being.
CV: HOW DID YOU GET INTO PRODUCING INTERACTIVE DOCUMENTARIES?
JD: I was always interested in feature documentaries, but in 2010 when web video seemed easier to do, I made the decision to start making more of my own work. I decided not to work for so many clients, and started looking at ways to tell stories in a more interactive way. I looked at professional projects, but also at what was coming out of graduate schools. That’s what led me to the University of North Carolina, where they were working on interactive documentary sites. “I was like, ‘This is awesome, there’s a different way of storytelling here and it allows you to tell a story in ways that you couldn’t before.’
CV: WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST GIG AFTER GRAD SCHOOL?
JD: When I graduated from UNC in 2012 I got the News 21 fellowship, that’s where I worked on a project called 100 Gallons, an interactive documentary about water. It involved eight weeks devoted to one single project, which was a very special experience on par with anything I’ve done professionally. That’s the kind of thing where you can see how collaboration is really key. The idealist in me, was like, ‘I want to work on projects like these, how can that happen?’ Then I went on to intern at MediaStorm.
CV: WHAT WERE SOME OF THE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WORKING AT MEDIASTORM?
JD: I really understood the process of video and the time it takes to make something good. I really learned to pay attention to the nuances of video, like understanding how your cut is effected when your edit is one or two frames off the beat, or how to pace a voiceover so that it’s not too fast, or too slow, properly mixing audio, and color correcting.
CV: HOW DO YOU START LOOKING FOR STORIES?
JD: I look at issues of social significance (e.g. immigration, energy, globalization), and I look at how they are covered in the mainstream press.These subjects are largely reported with the use of “experts” with polar viewpoints or by reporters limited by tight deadlines. My goal is to put a face on an issue through in-depth, character-driven stories about people most affected by these issues. That, and every once in a while something really cool comes along that I just can’t pass up.
CV: HOW DO YOU START A VIDEO PROJECT?
JD: I think a common denominator in a lot of the work that I do is that it’s character driven. A lot of it comes down to the interview and your character. I start by identifying characters that are the right people to tell the story. Finding them, and doing a pre-interview is very important to establish trust before you start filming. I try to do the first filmed interview as soon as possible after that.
You also want to spend as much possible time with your character without wearing them out, because you want to be there for real moments. If you have an openness from your subject your story will be more true to life, in terms of what you capture with your footage.
CV: WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU LOOK FOR WHEN MAKING A VIDEO OR DOCUMENTARY?
JD: For me it’s about creating a relationship between the viewer and your character so that there is empathy. Most of the time it’s based around a character that can give you some sort of emotional connection. It’s about giving your audience a reason to identify with your character, you have to find universal themes that anyone could relate to. That way you can challenge people’s conventional thinking. I try to find that during production and post. Often it comes from the interview.
CV: WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN FREELANCERS?
JD: People who can do artful cinematic DSLR shooting, but I also like it when they can offer a little extra and are willing to try new things. Someone who works across formats and is willing to be experimental. A lot of it is just work ethic and being really committed in the field, get what you need but also take the time to post on Instagram or Tumblr.
CV: WHAT PUBLICATIONS ARE YOU LOOKING AT FOR INNOVATIVE AND INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING?
JD: I think The Guardian did a great job with their NSA piece, and I really like what the New York Times is doing with the Times docs.
CV: WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU EVER GOT?
JD: Challenge your prejudices. Always.
CV: WHAT WOULD YOU ADVISE TO SOMEONE STARTING OUT IN YOUR FIELD?
JD: Be the first one to show up, and the last one to leave.