The TV Animator: Chris Chmura Breaking Ground in Traditional Video-Storytelling Methods to Grow Audiences
Over the last few years, local television news stations have been finding ways to implement graphics and animation more effectively to tell their stories while trying to engage a younger audience. It’s an effective strategy backed up by research from the Reinventing Local TV News Project at Northeastern University. Newsrooms are hiring animators, designers, and reporters who are taking further steps to learn the skills and software to boost their content.
Chris Chmura, NBC Bay Area consumer investigative reporter, has been challenging the notion of traditional video storytelling by using graphics and animation that help the viewer better retain information. He currently leads the NBC Bay Area Responds Team, where he creates “How-to” videos that respond to consumer complaints and advocate on behalf of viewers.
Early in his career, Chmura was working off-air when he started making videos for about.com as a side hustle. “Before it was called a side hustle,” Chmura recalls. He bought a license for Final Cut Studio, which included Soundtrack Pro and Motion, and started to experiment with the latter.
Working on a clunky old 17” Mac laptop, Chmura began drawing very basic graphics and animation to supplement the traditional video. After moving to the consumer beat at WTVT in Tampa, he began using graphics and animation more regularly. Chmura produced tiny videos with simple keyframes that added depth to the story, even if it was just a little number in motion. As he animated more content, he began learning from things he watched on TV, deconstructing commercials that he would pause, to his wife’s dismay.
As a self-taught learner in graphics and animation, Chmura believes it could be the same for everyone out there. “If the folks on YouTube can integrate imagery, make graphics and put it all together, we need to be able to do the same thing,” he says. ”We have something that a lot of folks on YouTube don’t have and that is the trust of our audience over decades, and the fundamental understanding that we do is journalism.”
Storybench sat down with Chmura to discuss the process of developing graphic video content in TV news, creating “How-to” videos, animation in his work and its potential in transforming TV news.
What influenced you to use graphics in TV news?
We have realized that in television the traditional (video news) package just doesn’t work and it doesn’t work for a lot of reasons. Mostly, though, because it takes a lot of time to put one of those together. But also, because we put a lot of effort into that for ourselves, not necessarily for the viewer.
It came clear that one of the main things that we would use in doing that is relying on graphics. We would generate graphics that visualize the story and do that with nobody else’s help.
That’s what we’ve started with basically like okay: this is going to help us get on TV faster.
Frankly, our stories are very video poor, so it requires some creativity in the writing and to write around the fact that you don’t have video of everything. The beauty of being able to create your own graphics is that you aren’t boxed into having to dance around not having video. You can create the visuals. Prior to graphics when I was writing a story and I was handcuffed by whatever b-roll (video) I had – it limited the copy. In this case we’re able to free ourselves from those shackles and create the visuals to match the copy.
I think that in television for too long we’ve been writing the copy to match the visuals when it was probably doing a disservice to the viewers. Now we can match the visuals and the copy and the idea we want to convey to the viewers and it for me is a perfect synergy. It’s also efficient because there’s nobody closer to the data than I am, and so there’s no middleman involved.
Tell us a bit about the process of developing the graphic video content.
The data goes from whatever I’ve got like a spreadsheet [that goes] right into the graphic system and there’s ideally no lag time. We minimize the opportunity for mistakes, and it can be tweaked fast and that I think is key too. When we need to adjust, we can be very nimble with that. If the public records come in at the very last second, we can still adjust it.
Whereas in the past when you’re dealing with a graphics department or an offshore graphics house that became cumbersome. Sometimes you have to ask yourself a very difficult question like do I just run with what I had as of the deadline, or do I push the broadcast or publication and put in the new numbers or do I drop the animation and cover it up with generic b-roll. Now we don’t have to ask those questions; we can just update it. When you’ve got the graphics project up on your desktop you can adjust it right up until broadcast time.
What has inspired you to create the “How To” videos?
The things that we do mainly are we do these segments in the morning and in the afternoon, where we talk about fixing people’s problems, then occasionally we do these deep dive stories. What we’ve largely discovered is that the stories break up into three parts: problem, solution and lesson.
We realized that the lesson was an opportunity for us. My boss came to me and said, ‘Look, you need to do something for [yourself]. You have got to do something that is digital and original.’
We thought of what we were going to do. And she said, ‘What about all these how-to videos on YouTube?’ We realized that is quite brilliant. We already have the material right in front of us, because when we do the stories that are in the three acts. Act one is the problem, act two is this the solution and act three is the lesson. Well, the lesson is the how-to video. If you just drew a flow chart you can see, like every story that we’ve done on our how-to series can be tied back to a TV story that we’ve done at some point.
Your “How To” videos are educational. How do you narrow down all the information into a 2–3-minute video? Do you think it’s a good time limit for the viewers to remain attentive?
The clock starts when we start recording. So, it’s four hours from me sitting down on the red couch until there is a finished product for approval.
Prior to that it can go for weeks. When the federal government rolled out the website for the free Covid-19 test through the mail. We had it on our calendar to do it the next day. I sat on my couch first thing in the morning, went through the process, wrote a script, sent it to my boss, got it approved, went and shot it, and we were on the air same day. [That took] probably six hours [from the] start to finish.
And there are others, though, that we can come up with an idea and try to get information. And like other news stories it’ll sometimes drag on. I wish I could say that, like it’s so perfectly planned out but, like everything else in the newsroom you are kind of at the whim of the wind in whichever way it’s blowing that day you try your best to control it, but not always.
The timing is a challenge because we on television cannot run a six-minute explainer video. My bosses will not stomach it because they believe the viewers will not stomach it. I’m not sure we’ve ever really tested that and I’m not sure they want to because they know which way that’s going to go. We have had some of these [videos] that have gone a little longer and that was not received well by our executive producers and managers.
Our morning show [roughly] wants a minute long [segment]. While there are some topics where I think we absolutely could talk for four or five or six minutes, we could make that video for YouTube and then cut it down. That’s not what we are doing. We make the full-length video [which is around] two and a half minutes for our 5pm newscast and then we cut it down. The full-length version is what goes to YouTube.
I think what we’re doing is working, because when I run into viewers on the street or in the store or at a Rotary club meeting – they talk about the red couch! I think we’ve found a time that seems to work, but that’s always subject to change.
How do you think the animated explainer is different from other types of videos? Tell us about the agility you have when you use graphics and animation compared to video to engage audiences.
Let me rewind to the very beginning of our YouTube project. Internally in the mid-level ranks, we did face a bit of pushback. Their thinking was “You’re going to put something for YouTube on TV?” My answer to that was, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’
I think that unfortunately there might still be some people in this business, who have this brick fence mentality that there’s YouTube over here and there’s TV news over there. I wholeheartedly disagree. I believe that our viewers are watching YouTube and some YouTube viewers are watching our newscast.
Having text over my shoulders, 15 years ago probably would have been a little weird. 10 years ago? Not quite as weird. In 2022 – that’s everywhere. We should be taking most advantage of what it is we are producing, and we should be distributing it on as many platforms as possible.
I think that content we create with a graphics treatment is far more interesting to see than generic wallpaper video. Specifically, when properly done the graphics help to emphasize the point that the reporter is making. And that’s what I try to do.
I think that essentially when I’m creating an image on screen, it reflects what is in the reporter’s head. You are seeing what’s in my head when I’m trying to unpack whatever the topic is. Ideally speaking if the reporter knows the audience and there’s a relationship there. Perhaps the audience already knows well that’s how that guy thinks. So, we’re already on the same wavelength. To me, that is far more interesting and far more engaging than just standing outside of a government building with the logo over your shoulder and saying, whatever it is you’re going to say.
The highest compliment I have ever been paid by a news director: Chris is very good at telling a story when there are no pictures. It’s so true because, unfortunately, for too long, TV has avoided certain stories, because there were no pictures.
We don’t have to do that anymore, we can illustrate these topics that are important, and we can tackle them when, in the past, we would have shied away because we didn’t have the tape.
In what ways can animation transform the news and where might it come up short?
If you are a viewer watching the news, and people are showing you the same old video repeatedly, but the information is new. I believe that if we can make the [newer] information match with [newer] visuals then we are delivering on our promise to the viewers, to give them something new.
One of our challenges is that I am not sure that we have adequately wired our people for this kind of content creation. I haven’t been to a university in a while, but I do see what we get from the universities, by way of junior employees and interns. I will say that they are better trained than they have been in the past for multimedia journalism, but I am still not sure if it’s enough.
You must be a Swiss army knife today, there are no one trick ponies in the newsroom anymore. The obligation falls on the back of our academic institutions, they should be the ones who are teaching students today about the integration of the message, imagery, and graphics because tomorrow they’re absolutely going to need to make them merge, otherwise they’re putting the business in peril.
If the folks on YouTube can integrate imagery and make graphics and put it all together, we need to be able to do the same thing. We have something that a lot of the folks on YouTube don’t have, and that is the trust of our audience over decades and the fundamental understanding that what we do is journalism.
Our best defense is to train as many people as possible in the academic settings so that, when they get into the workforce, they bring that to the table and eventually that just becomes the norm and what I do will no longer be this anomaly. It will just be standard. I hope for the day that you don’t have to interview me because everybody’s doing what I’m doing and it’s not some oddity.