Five Questions with videojournalist Brad Horn
Washington Post videojournalist Brad Horn has spent the last month reporting on the sniper attacks from a decade ago. The result is the video report above: “D.C. Sniper shootings: 23 Days of terror.” The text below is adapted from an email conversation between Brad and myself.
Tell me about the intro, specifically, was that inspired by anything and why does it work with this project?
The summer Olympics were happening at the time we were brainstorming for the video and this one Chevrolet ad kept playing over and over and over again. I probably saw it 85 million times in those two weeks. I swear I saw it in my sleep. You probably know the one - there’s a video shot of a modern scene and a hand comes from off-screen and holds up an old photo over top of it.
In essence, the old is superimposed over the new. It’s a really pleasant juxtaposition. It got me thinking about the concept of a place itself holding years, decades, layers and layers of memories. And since this is a story about the past it dawned on me that it could work well here - superimpose the past on the present. Especially since all these murder scenes exist more or less intact - every day people fill up their gas tanks at the same place someone’s head was blown off. It’s almost too terrible to think about. The rest of the intro was geared toward getting across the overall picture of those three weeks - both facts like the number of shootings (13) and also the pure horror of it. We were trying to just distill those three weeks into a single 45 seconds and kind of “sum it up” emotionally, if you will.
How was it dealing with themes of murder, death, and domestic terrorism as you reported, and what was your philosophy for reporting on those difficult issues?
At the start it really shook me up. I’d drive by gas stations and literally picture people’s heads exploding while they pumped gas, since that’s actually what Malvo and Muhammad did to people. Because I was wrestling with the awfulness of it, I desperately wanted this story to touch on something larger, some instruction for how to live a better life. Otherwise I’d just be making entertainment out of mass murder and would be making something with nothing more to offer. So I asked every interview subject “why is this story important? What did you learn from it?” I think Paul LaRuffa - the shooting victim who ends the piece - hit it on the head: appreciate every moment because, my god, you really could exit this world at any second and not even have a chance to say goodbye. Take nothing for granted. Nothing.
Who did you work with and what roles did they play?
It was such a great crew of people who made this happen. Writer Mike Ruane (who co-wrote the book Sniper with Sari Horowitz) was a character in the piece and also spent hours telling me about what happened ten years ago (and I read his book). He also helped me understand where all these shootings happened so that we could do the “old picture over modern-day video” effect. Photo editor Dee Swann tracked down dozens of old photos. Sohail Al-Jamea did the beautiful animations and After Effects work (and was also the owner of the hand that held the old photographs). My editor Jonathan Forsythe spent hours … maybe days …. going over the script with me. But most important, he sat with me at the end through an 18-hour, overnight editing session. He’s a great boss. I can’t believe how lucky I am. Other people contributed thoughts and ideas and content and critiques and helped smooth out our rough edges. It all made me feel very grateful to work at an organization with such a strong commitment to excellence and the smart, creative people who can make that happen. And there were helpful people at WJLA (who supplied us with the archival video) and the National Law Enforcement Museum (who allowed me to film - and actually hold - the evidence from the case) as well as the Montgomery County (Md.) Police Department (911 recordings) and the Newseum (FBI footage).
The audio story being told in this piece really pulls a ton of aspects of this story together. From a technical perspective you have interviews, archive news footage, 911 calls, and music. Can you talk a bit about bringing all of that together?
I remember reading about Walter Murch’s sound edit for Apocalypse Now and how at one point he had something like 96 (96!) audio tracks going simultaneously. I started to worry that I might get there myself - I had 12 audio tracks going at the same time during one part of the intro. Bringing it all together involved closing my eyes and using only my ears since my final cut timeline looked insane and made my brain hurt.
In terms of the intro, we tried to introduce elements that would add to the feeling of chaos - super quick edits, people not finishing words and sentences, multiple songs going at once (one percussion track, one piano track, one track that was just a low, creepy drone). I also included a recording of a siren and a lot of police radio chatter because it’s such a rich, distinctive sound. The rest of the piece was just edited for pace - we were hoping you’d sort of not be able to turn it off because it was just one surprising thing after another. I also tried to anticipate the questions that might come up for people (“Not a white box truck? Then what kind of car did they use?”) and answer them immediately so you’d constantly have a yearning and then that yearning would be satisfied.
Do you think you’ve changed as a videojournalist and editor after working on the project?
I think I gained a bit of confidence in my ability to propose something out of the ordinary and have other people get behind it and get involved with helping make it happen. I often hold back from doing unorthodox things out of fear people won’t like it - but if it works, actually works - then people will get behind it even if it’s a little odd. As a videojournalist I’ve learned: if you’re doing a story about the past then get the material from that time. And don’t stop trying to help people make sense of this mad, mad world; us journalists have a choice, I think: we can contribute to the chaos by only presenting conflict or people’s crazy actions, kind of punching people in the face with with shocking or out of context information. Or we can help people make sense of what they’re seeing, hearing and reading, and find that greater truth that can be gleaned from what seems totally insane. I’m going to keep trying to be the latter.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
A new way with which I can think about education. What I hope I am able to convey one day is curiosity, passion, and a thirst for not only knowledge, but for the discovery of what a meaningful life feels like.
I recently had a conversation with one of my college professors and he challenged me to think about why I do the things I do / how I live my life / what I really think is a meaningful way of living. And I realized many of the things I do, blogging, social media, and even taking pictures, often are for other people (with selfish intent) or for my past/future. My efforts often involve me trying to project an image of myself, to try and make others happy so that I feel happy, or to challenge others so that I feel important, or so I have physical evidence/proof/things to look back upon with nostalgia / so I can derive some figment of transient self-worth… but how often do I genuinely live in present, for no other reason than just to enjoy the moment, by myself, or with someone, truly spending time with them, without regard to time constraints, without checking my texts, or my apps, without needing to take pictures to document and share with the world (which cares oh so much), without letting the thought cross my mind, “how would I blog about this or change my status about what I’m doing now?”
He talked about how a movie critic had made a great point in regards to The Social Network. The concept of Facebook was designed by an 18-year old, and so the labels we are provided in social media are how teenagers often view the world. You are your relationship status, your worth is directly proportional to the number of friends and cool photos you have, your incentive to read a book decreases because that’s much more time consuming, complex and unshare-able then a quick instagram photo of your latest meal. Even the value of our travels seemingly diminishes when we can’t share the latest cool photo we took with beautiful evening cityscape overseas, or most beautiful sunset, or that exotic animal we got to touch in a developing country. The more we are plugged in and surrounded by this value system, the more likely we are to stay our 18 year old selves. What would it be like to travel all the way to Europe and not take one picture, not make one status update, and not publish any entry on a blog…but instead to literally spend every waking moment fully present physically, mentally and spiritually in the place you are? It would be so revolutionary for someone in our generation to do that, and it’d be an incredibly cool experience, but no one would ever find out, so therefore it must be meaningless.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a blatant attack against technology, or social media as negative or evil things. I am not criticizing people who do these things often (as I am one of them), nor do I assume that everyone even uses / values these things this way, there are many positives to the influx of new technology and social media. They are tools that can be used for boundless amounts of positive things, through creativity, convenience and connection. But Iam realizing how much more aware I need to be… aware of when I am using the tool, or the tool is using me. I can get so strapped into the mindset, worrying frantically if not enough people are confirmed on the FB event I’m planning, scrolling up and down my FB / Gchat to see if there’s someone I haven’t caught up with in a while or who would be free to hangout, zooming through my newsfeed for the latest bits of exciting nothingness, because it gives me something easy to do that I really don’t have to think about, something that I don’t have to examine how I actually feel.
I see it in myself..how ridiculously plugged in I am that I begin to equate unequal things. Ask me what are the most meaningful experiences in my life, and I’ll quickly show you my pictures of nature’s beauty in Ghana, rural classrooms in India, St. Peters Basilica in the Vatican, the stage of Sydney Opera House. Ask me what I’m passionate about and I’ll show you numerous recordings of songs, videos, concerts, dances, and evidence of my sports teams winning championships. Ask me who I care about and I’ll have thousands of pictures with friends and family, jumping photos, memorable and nostalgic still frames freezing who we all once were. Ask me what I think about and I’ll give you the link to my blog, full of ‘deep’ thoughts and angsty posts, reblogs of wise quotations, new perspectives to challenge the casual reader.. And for a moment, I’ll hope, ever so desperately, maybe you’ll be convinced that the person you keep asking questions has it all together and is this amazing world traveler…this talented, athletic, intelligent, compassionate, and humble individual, and you might think you know a decent amount of me. But you won’t actually know anything substantial, nor will I feel satisfied in our exchange of information.
Social media is like an extended resume with pictures and videos, and we love it because we feel like employers, empowered to make judgments on who a person is and if they’re qualified to be respected and liked by us.
I’m still realizing how little I know about myself, or at least how little I can really articulate/express about myself. And those things that are so easily share-able, they are so far from the real me, because they have been shared so many times, and are on wide display for the interwebs, these things are always available for others to consume. It is exactly the things I do not or cannot share so readily, the things that’re too complex for 140 characters to describe, the things that I hold onto so tightly that I sometimes don’t realize they’re even there, that is a more essential part of who I am.
There are times when I know what it is like to long for the endless immensity of the sea, but I have focused so much on assigning myself tasks and work and gathering people together to me to try to quell that desire, that building a ship sturdy enough for all my comforts seems a task far too immense and endless for me to pursue and so I shrug off these occasional reminders of yearning, and feast instead on connection over contemplation, trying to be perfect without really trying to reflect, and when I finally look deeply in the mirror, it’s scary how much I still have yet to learn.
It’s one of the many reasons why I used to disconnect when I travelled. I should start doing that again.
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