Archives for August 2012

Ryan Libre and Documentary Arts Asia

I recently heard an interview with Ryan Libre on The Candid Frame Podcast (www.thecandidframe.com – well worth investigating). I was impressed with Ryan’s interest in documentary photography. He discussed in particular his project to document the Kachin culture and independence movement (winner of the 2010 Nikon Inspiration Award).

Ryan also discussed his work forming Documentary Arts Asia (www.doc-arts.asia), which is a non-profit organization located in Chiang Mai, Thailand and working regionally. When I looked into Documentary Arts Asia (“DAA”) I was REALLY impressed and decided to contact Ryan for an interview to learn more about what he’s doing.

Ryan was raised in Northern California but now calls Chiang Mai, Thailand, his home. He has lived in various parts of Asia for over 10 years, having first started his photography career with a self-assigned project to document the largest national park in Japan. In addition to founding and running DAA, Ryan teaches photography workshops and continues his photographic projects.

Q1. Looking back on your experience as a documentary photographer, what skills and attributes do you think best equip a person to be successful?

Libre: To be a successful documentary photographer you need curiosity, passion and 12+ hours days. On top of that to be any kind of successful photographer you need to balance technical mastery and creativity. Many people are too far to one side.

Q2. You started out as a photographer, but now it looks like a lot of your time is spent helping others develop skills at or actually produce documentary work. Why the transformation?

Libre: Why is a huge question, but in a nutshell because it is deeply needed. Especially in the places like Kachin State where i am shooting myself and teaching as well.

Q3. Do you find producing and helping others produce to be equally satisfying?

Libre: Yes, and in many cases more satisfying. When i see my students get shots that would be hard for even myself to get or giving someone their first solo exhibition. These are a few of the many rewarding moments.

Q4. You formed DAA in 2008. What were your original ideas for the organization? How have your ideas evolved since 2008?

Libre: My original goals were to start to shift the documentary production from visitors who stay a few hours or maybe days to locals who live there and also shift the output of the projects that are taken from major international hubs to regional hubs close to where the story was shot and to the area being documented itself.

The plan has not changed goals really but has grown in scope a lot. I found just teaching was not enough to keep people engaged. Teaching plus a gallery to show the students and others work was more appealing. Then I added grants, then an artist in residence, then a library, then a theatre, then a festival, then an agency, now a publishing house and on and on. The more I added programs the more interesting it got and the more they supported each other.

Q5. Part of DAA’s charter is to “assist with the production and promotion of documentary projects which exist outside the standard remit of mainstream media, particularly those which represent the needs of marginalized communities and under-reported issues.” Is the assistance you provide primarily technical (such as teaching photography/video/storytelling skills) or exchanging ideas/advising/critiquing work as it develops? What types of projects have developed with DDA’s help?

Libre: The assistance DAA gives is broad and deep. It goes far beyond technical. We train, mentor, critique, make connections, support gear loans, scholarships to other workshops, provide funding, give outlets for completed work, sell work to give the artists funds and inspiration and much more.

Nothing to too basic or too big for us. DAA teaches people how to upload a photo to the web to connecting new artists with the best galleries in Asia, what ever is needed at that time for that person.

Much of the programming comes from a list I made of things that would have helped me a lot 10+ years ago when I was getting started. I tried to make everything on the list available to others.

Q6. It looks like DAA has a broad scope: gallery operations, an annual festival, workshops, a theatre to offer film screenings, an artist-in-residence program, etc. Which offerings are in highest demand? Are most participants local residents, or are you drawing people in from outside of Thailand? Is there anything you still want to offer but haven’t yet put in place?

Libre: DAA’s events are the most popular, we bring in directors and photographers to show and speak about their films and projects and that is always special and usually brings in 50-300 people. Our festival, the Chiang Mai Documentary Arts festival, brought in a huge crowd from all over Asia the first year. Next year’s festival looks to be even much bigger and better. www.cdaf.asia As much as we offer there are still many more programs I have plans to implement, but with no outside funding we are at the very max now.

Q7. You launched your artist-in-residence program in late 2011. How has that been received? Will the program change over time? What are your long-term plans for the artist-in-residence program?

Libre: Artist in residence programs are very new in Asia, especially SE asia and i dont know another documentary photography AIR in Asia. So we are spearheading this on many levels. All things considered it was well received, but we will work hard to make it even better next year. Long term plans are for the program to include a documentary photographer and film maker at the same time and also to make it four times a year. So a revolving door, as one AIR leaves the next one is coming and we have a big welcome / farewell party 4 times a year.

Q8. On a personal level, with so much going on with DAA, do you have time to photograph? What current projects are you working on?

Libre: I still shoot quite a lot all things considered. I am still actively shooting my 5-year project with the Kachin Independence Organization in Burma and some assignments as well. DAA is based on a team and community who all support our core goals and help out, so I still put in a huge number of hours but can walk away from time to time and trust the team and community who all want to see DAA succeed as much as I do.

Q9. How can people get involve or support DAA?

Libre: Many ways, like buying a print from our online gallery, or license an image from our photo agency. We also have a crowd-funding campaign to fund the first DAA photobook and documentary DVD, donate a book from our wishlist. Finally, we are a registered NGO, but we have no grants as of now. We’re always interested in potential grants to apply for to help fund some of our programs.

Ryan van Duzer – Interview

Ryan van Duzer’s intro to a short clip pretty much says it all: “My name is Ryan van Duzer, and I travel in search of adventure and, most of all, fun! [War hoop]”

I heard Ryan give a keynote speech last year at a video conference. He described his origins as an adventure filmmaker and how he’s taken the simplist of equipment and built a career traveling the world and producing shows for the likes of Discovery Channel, National Geographic and the Travel Channel.

Here’s what inspires me:
1. Ryan isn’t obsessed with gear. He takes what he has and makes it work.
2. Ryan has been successful by force of personality (which since he does travel narratives, means he builds his work around an interesting character).
3. He’s getting it done.

During the keynote, Ryan insisted, “There’s nothing I’m doing that any one of you out there cannot also do, right now.” From a technical point of view, that’s true. Simple gear, simple technique. But not everyone’s Ryan van Duzer – and like a charismatic preacher he’s got a high-energy style that is not easily replicated. He’s got … character. I find myself very tolerant of the sometimes poor image quality and wind noise and other blemishes on Ryan’s work because I can experience his adventures through his character. I never thought about riding a Big Wheels tricycle across Iowa, but with Ryan I can see myself doing that. Maybe.

Ryan was kind enough to answer some questions about his work.

Q1. You’ve managed to document a number of long-distance bike trips with very simple, light-weight equipment, shooting the whole thing solo. Can you tell me a little about how you did that?

Duzer: My first big bike trip was from Honduras to Boulder. I really wanted to document it and I used my trusty Sony DCR-PC9 (about the size of my palm). Having a small camera is KEY to documenting bike trips. I’d say that 60% of my footage is recorded while riding, so my camera needs to be small so I can hold it easily and not crash. Charging batteries is also very important, I usually poach plugs at any cafe or restaurant so I always have power. I also use a little tripod so I can set the camera up on the road and ride past it. It can be a pain but those shots are crucial to setting the scene. I have tons of footage of me pushing the record button and then running to my bike, riding past the camera and then running back to pick it up off the road.

Q2. Speaking of simple, light-weight equipment, are we looking at the shadow of your video camera that you use for all this stuff in the first few seconds of your “Cycling the Southern Tear” video? That sucker’s TINY. Do you really use equipment that small and simple?

Duzer: Yeah, I used the Canon 300HS for that ride. It’s a tiny photo camera that shoots great full res HD. In good light, the footage from that camera looks as good as any camera. I love having a small camera that I can whip out at any time. I keep it in a handlebar bag so I can pull it out quickly and film wildlife or anything else that pops in my view.

Q3. You studied journalism in college. How important was that training for your subsequent projects? You manage to produce interesting videos using simple audio/video gear, no lighting, no assistants — is there some underlying secret sauce you learned in J-school pulling these videos along? What do you think accounts for their success?

Duzer: No offense to my J-school but I was trained more as a dorky local news reporter than an adventure journalist. I did get training on Final Cut which was great, but the style I learned was in producing short news packages. My secret is to keep it simple-stupid, focusing more on the content than fancy gadgets. I’ll never get any high end commercial work, but that’s ok with me. My main goal is to produce fun, entertaining and inspiring content.

Q4. Your style seems pretty consistent across the videos: an audio narration over clips of you (subject) moving through a location (your point of view), with some additional shots of subjects/people/locations you find interesting — again with the narrative voiceover tieing these additional shots together. Is this style something you intentionally do? Or did it just evolve as you started shooting video?

Duzer: I think in order to tell a good story, you have to have some VO to tie everything together. I also focus on soundbites from the people I meet on my adventures…it’s a lot more interesting to mix it up with VO and interviews, my voice gets boring and I always find characters to spice up my videos.

Q5. Where did you start shooting video?

Duzer: My main goal is to host an adventure travel TV show and I got my start working in public access in Boulder. I had to shoot and edit all my own stuff which was a great learning experience. I created a show called ‘Out There’ which played for about a year starting in 2006. From there I began to get more professional jobs with Travel Channel and other travel websites.

Q6. What are you doing now and how has your work evolved from your earliest bike-trip videos?

Duzer: I just traveled to 17 cities in Europe for 60 days with a company called Viator, shooting over 100 short travel videos highlighting their tours. I’m also in production of a travel show I’m hosting called Paradise Hunter. My style is pretty much the same from my first bike trip videos, goofy and loud! I’m getting better at story telling and editing with every video and I’m always excited for the next project.

Commercial Style

I was quite taken by the visual impact of Corey Rich’s “New Mexico – True” commercial (https://vimeo.com/43133280). Corey Rich has a description about the production of this piece below the Vimeo projector — and it’s interesting to see how many people were involved in what he characterizes as a “small footprint production”. I count eight people, including Corey, but excluding the creative agency folks, talent casting team, the actors themselves, and a guest photographer. That’s a lot of headcount!

The script here is great. He got several less-than-enthusiastic comments about the voiceover reading the script, but it works for me. Music adds to this as well. I notice Corey works in pairs of images: a close-up followed by a wide, close-up followed by a wide (see 27 sec, 44 sec, 48 sec, and 51 sec (in reverse)). He sometimes couples that with a rack-focus technique (selectively focusing on a near object and then quickly adjusting focus to an object further away: see 10 sec, 13 sec, and 38 sec).

As was noted in the Vimeo comments, there is another video called “Perfect Summer in Michigan” that employs a very similar style. This video is produced by Pure Michigan, which sounds like a division of the state’s tourism department doing its own production work:

Visual techniques are different (lots of slow motion, less rack-focus, no “image pairs”), but the overall tone is remarkably similar. I think it’s the script, music and voiceover.

Is a “commercial template” evolving for this type of production?

Mullen Football – Revised

I’ve updated the original “sound piece” I posted a couple of weeks ago to include a character who guides us through the piece, providing a personal perspective through which viewers can experience high school football. In addition, since the purpose of this short film is to generate enthusiasm for the upcoming season (amidst players, students and fans), I wanted a player to share his views on where the team stands at this point in time. There’s been a lot of disruptive activity in the program that the boys are trying to set aside to focus on the upcoming season.

Jesse plays offensive line for the team. I asked him if he’d be up to a short video interview that I could use for the piece. He asked what the purpose of the film was; I told him I wanted a character to “make sense” out of the original footage I’ve gathered — someone to describe what the summer’s preparation was like and what the upcoming season means from a personal, participant level.

Jesse was great. He shared his thoughts on the team and on himself and what this upcoming year means for him. He’s looking to play football in college and this is an important season for recruiting. Mullen is also in a state of transition: the school administration fired Dave Logan (a 12-year NFL veteran who had taken the school to 4 Colorado state championships, 3 of them back-to-back in undefeated seasons) in late 2011, shaking up the football program and laying in a new coaching staff for the upcoming year. (The school administrators who made these decisions were, in turn, let go in the first 6 months of 2012.) All of this change was extremely distracting for players, particularly upcoming seniors like Jesse, who saw their program unravel before their eyes. Suddenly all the college recruiting expertise and connections to college scouts were gone. The new coaching staff brought in a new offensive strategy — something that typically takes a season or two to establish — so the advantage of working Dave Logan’s offensive scheme for a 4th season in front of college scouts was replaced with the disadvantage of learning and performing a new offensive playbook.

But Jesse’s attitude was positive and upbeat. He refers to Dave Logan’s firing, but didn’t dwell on it. He’s positive and optimistic about the season (which includes a very, very tough schedule including an out-of-state trip to California to play perennial powerhouse De La Salle High School outside of San Francisco).

I think adding a character significantly enhances the story, converting it from a simple (but relatively boring) “sound piece” to a character profile about a kid and his upcoming adventures.

The Character

In my most recent post, I noted that “I want to find a kid who will serve as a central character through whom we can all experience this football thing.” Why? We can shoot footage of football (or any other activity) and carefully edit that footage into a tight series of interesting images and sounds, but until there’s someone the viewer cares about the clip is not particularly satisfying. We need a character with whom we identify, and through whom we experience the activity.

Tomorrow I meet with Jesse, one of the Mullen players who — with luck — will serve as the character for this short clip. He’ll explain it’s significance in human terms — what he has invested in the football program, what it means to him, how he sees it unfolding. If I get the interview content I’m looking for (video to introduce Jesse as narrator, audio to build out that narration), I’ll wrap Jesse in the video, audio and still imagery I’ve captured so far.

Stay tuned.