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.
-AJ Chavar/The Washington Post
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.
Watch more hard hitting visual journalism at washingtonpost.com/video and follow the whole team on twitter via @postvideo.