Kelly Creedon: We Shall Not Be Moved

Kelly Creedon is a documentary storyteller based in the Boston area. She has a strong interest in community organizations and has combined that interest with photography. Examples of her work can be found at We Shall Not Be Moved, a multimedia collaboration with City Life/Vida Urbana, a community group that helps people organize and fight back against banks when their houses are in or nearing foreclosure. One of Creedon’s stories on the site profiles Marshall Cooper, a 75-year-old man facing eviction from his home after falling behind on mortgage payments after paying the medical expenses of his aging parents.

Kelly agreed to provide some background information about her work on We Shall Not Be Moved.

Q1. Tell me about the documentary projects that you’re doing for nonprofits.

Creedon: I studied print journalism as an undergraduate, but spent a lot of time during college learning about issues of social justice, privilege, and inequality. When I graduated, I was more interested in community organizing and grassroots movements than straight journalism, so I started working in community media, organizing, and education. I’ve always felt drawn to photography and am always captured by the human stories behind any issue, so I ultimately went back to school at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in 2008 to study documentary photography and become a better storyteller.

Now, I’m focusing on using my skills as a visual storyteller in support of organizations and movements doing important work for social justice. My projects range from straight still photography to audio slideshows and, more recently, multimedia work that incorporates some video as well. I work with my nonprofit and grassroots clients and partners to develop stories that will help their audiences connect on a human level to the issues and projects they’re working on. My goal is to strike the balance between being a sustainable small business owner and making this kind of work available and accessible to organizations with limited means.

Q2. What’s the origin of your project entitled We Shall Not Be Moved?

Creedon: I began the We Shall Not Be Moved project in early 2009. I had collaborated on a story about a man who was facing eviction after being foreclosed on when his wife died of cancer and he could no longer keep up with the mortgage. He was part of a group called City Life/Vida Urbana that was helping people organize and fight back against the banks. After the story was done, I approached them to learn more about their work and was really moved by some of the stories of people within the movement. I asked the organization if they would be open to me doing some sort of more in-depth project that really told the stories of some of their members as they unfolded over time, and we developed a partnership that has evolved over the past two and a half years.

When I began the project, I spent a lot of time just showing up to meetings, listening, and talking to people. I needed to educate myself about the situation and to gain people’s trust. Foreclosure is an issue that brings with it a lot of guilt and shame, so it was challenging to find people who were willing to share their story so publicly. But most of the people I’ve interviewed over the course of the project have become leaders within this movement, and that process became the part of the story that was most interesting to me. I find it really fascinating and inspiring to see how people, through the act of confronting a devastating moment like foreclosure, find the courage to speak out, tell their story, and become advocates for themselves and their communities.

This project is a partnership with the nonprofit group, City Life/Vida Urbana, but I’ve been fortunate to be able to fund it primarily through grants from Mass Humanities and the Puffin Foundation. In that way, it’s more of an independent project than many of my collaborations with nonprofit clients. City Life/Vida Urbana has been a great and supportive project partner, but I’ve made all of the editorial decisions on the project.

Q3. How did your connection with PBS happen? What was that experience like?

Creedon: PBS Newshour was doing a piece on City Life/Vida Urbana and came to film at one of the weekly member meetings. I introduced myself and told them about my project, and we exchanged contact information. They reviewed my work and decided to run some of it on the web as a complement to their TV broadcast piece. I was glad to have that kind of national exposure from such a well-respected outlet.

Q4. On a technical front – what type of gear do you use? Are there any tools that you regard as absolutely essential to your type of work? What do you rely on the most for your productions?

Creedon: Currently I shoot a Nikon D90 with a few different lenses, mostly in the wide to normal range. I like to be in the middle of whatever is going on and shoot up close whenever I can. For audio, I use a Marantz PMD660 recorder, with either a standard omni microphone or a shotgun, depending on the situation. For software, I do audio editing in the free Audacity program, and most of my audio slideshows are done in Soundslides. I’ve been transitioning to Final Cut Pro recently, which opens up a lot of different options, but I still think Soundslides is a great piece of software and really lowers the learning curve for people who are new to this kind of work.

In general, I try to keep things technically pretty simple. Because I focus on working with nonprofits and grassroots organizations, I don’t have much of a budget to be upgrading my gear and software. But I also believe that good work can be produced with minimal equipment, so I try to focus on creating the best work I can with the limited gear I have, rather than relying on new gear to solve my technical and creative problems.

David Aldrich

David Aldrich is a new media producer, director, cinematographer, editor, and information technologist known professionally for his involvement in the development and promotion of new media technology in a university setting.

In 2008, David started producing Peckhammer TV, a web TV documentary series about people who ride and race motorcycles. David wanted to fill a programming void in television. Through 42 episodes, he learned to interview, host, shoot, edit and direct on the fly.

After finishing the last episode of Peckhammer TV in 2010, David turned his attention to documentary filmmaking. One of his favorite films was “It Might Get Loud,” which featured three of his favorite guitarists: Jimmy Page, Jack White and the Edge. In a few scenes of the film, Jack White referred to his luthier in Seattle. That luthier was Randy Parsons, whose shop was less than a mile away from David’s home. David dropped by and said, “I’d like to make documentary short about you.” Parsons agreed, and filming began in January, 2010. David shot the film using his Canon XH-A1 and the Canon T2i. In 2011, David released Randy Parsons: American Luthier, which will be shown at the ITSA Film Festival at the end of September.

David Aldrich's Randy Parsons American Luthier

Q1: You say you used the Canon T2i for a good portion of the Randy Parsons short. Was that because certain features of the T2i were better suited for the project than the Canon XH-A1? Or was it just to test out the T2i’s capabilities?

Aldrich: I have been a photographer all my life, and when I started shooting video, I thought the results made everything look like ‘70s television. You know, flat, lifeless, cheap, and boring. Definitely not like film-like. I really missed playing with DOF to emphasis something in-frame, and I missed the freedom that you have when working with a camera that fits in your hand. Putting a letus adaptor on a video camera could give you a cinematic look, but now you were wielding a substantial apparatus around that could be intimidating to people in front of the camera.

When I started shooting the Randy Parsons documentary short, we started out using my trusty XH-A1. Parson’s shop is small, so even a bare-bones XH-A1 feels big. I picked up a Canon T2i, as well as 17-55mm f/2.8 lens so I could get in close to the guitars. Wow! It was liberating, and it allowed us to get on top of the fine details we were trying to capture. Once I started using that camera, it was hard to put it down. It ended up being the primary camera – especially after I went on an eBay shopping spree, picking up a half-dozen vintage Nikkor primes.

Q2: Did you find any significant limitations with the T2i for this short — such as excess vibration, uncomfortable/awkward form factor, limited recording time?

Aldrich: Most of the limitations that people speak about when using DSLRs are genuine concerns, in my experience. Some I can live with, some I can’t.

The 17-55mm f/2.8 lens did a pretty good job of image stabilization, but the Nikkor primes were impossible to use unless the camera was on a good set of sticks. I shot a fair amount of footage using a Kessler CineSlider, mounted on their combat-ready tripod which will hold up to 500 pounds. I have a ball head mounted on the CineSlider, which allows me to get moving/tracking shots at interesting angles, and my camera assistant can work the fluid head of the tripod at the same time, so I can achieve compound movements. This allowed me to get stable, fluid shots without much in the way of vibration. That’s fine in a controlled environment, but out in the field, that would be impossible to pull off.

I purposely wanted to keep things simple, so when doing handheld shots, I used the T2i just as it came out of the box; no rails, rig or follow focus. This was not a problem during the Parsons shoot because I always had a bench to lean on. But I do think you’d need to fully accessorize your DSLR, and get a really good monitor if you were shooting somewhere other than a very controlled environment. That’s a serious investment that quickly adds to the relatively inexpensive price of a camera body.

I never minded the limited memory problem that people mention. I like to shoot on 8 GB cards, and they are not very expensive. I know that people complain that you can only get 20 minutes or so on a card, but seriously, how long is a single shot going to last? I am not Stanley Kubrick. I rarely shoot more than a minute at a time, unless it’s an interview. And I like to swap out a full card and hand it off to a production assistant. If a card gets lost, I’m missing 20 minutes of footage. If a tape gets lost, that might be an hour of footage. With the cards, the footage can be transferred to a hard drive and I can get it back into the camera in no time. Can’t do that with a tape…

And then there is the crappy audio people speak of. Again, that’s not a deal-breaker for me because I only use the on-board sound as reference audio. I always have a second camera, or audio recorder rolling, which I think I would do even if I am using a camera with excellent sound recording ability.

I‘ll add one thing that people might not think of: You often have to be on top of your subject when using a DSLR. This changes the dynamics of shooting, and in the case of the Parsons documentary short, this was a good thing. Parsons is comfortable in front of a camera, and the shoots were very intimate. I could see that working against you in other circumstances, though.

Everything I said so far probably makes it seem like my preference is a DSLR. It is not. If my XH-A1 had interchangeable lenses with nice fat apertures (f/1.4, for example), and if I could use my Nikkor primes on it, I’d never use a DSLR again. Some manufacturers are making that happen on cameras with reasonable price points. However, a DSLR is a relatively cheap acquisition, and it puts a powerful film making tool in the hands of someone who may not have a budget. That is awesome. That said, if I were going out into the field and I could only take one camera, I would always choose my XH-A1. It’s got XLR inputs, excellent auto-focus, zebra lines, and a viewfinder that works even when the sun is out. For documentary work – especially field work — it’s the better choice, in my opinion. Sure, I’d like to have something newer, but the XH-A1 still works.

Q3: In comparison with the XH-A1, do you feel there are things the T2i are better/worse suited for?

Aldrich: Yes. When I was shooting my web series, I would rig cars and motorcycles with cameras. I sort of treated the T2i as a disposable item, and I had no problem mounting it in places where it might get destroyed. Of course, when I did that, I always used the cheap 18-55mm lens it came with, rather than my expensive glass. The T2i is also a little more low-key. If you are trying to capture something and not make it obvious, the T2i is a great way to do it. People act a lot different when they know they are being recorded, and there is no way to “get away with it” when you’ve got a big, purposeful-looking video camera in your hands.

If you were a field reporter or photojournalist, I think the DSLR has a big advantage over a full on-video rig. First, you can’t beat the still image quality that a DSLR produces. Second, news is being produced differently these days, with reporters working independently and having to produce complete pieces out in the field. Writing/narrating a story that can be paired with some good photographs or a couple short video clips makes a DSLR the better choice. And it’s small and packs easy.

Q4: How would you rate the image quality between the XH-A1 and the T2i?

Aldrich: That’s a great question. I didn’t give it much thought until I was in post-production, and using shots from both cameras in the same scene. The XH-A1 seems to make a substantially sharper image than the T2i. So I had to sharpen the T2i footage, and play with the contrast curve and color to make the difference between the two cameras less noticeable. Maybe the 5D would have produced a sharper image, but I have no direct experience with that camera.

Q5: What did you use for audio capture on the Randy Parsons short?

Aldrich: Parsons’ shop is next door to Guitar Center, which has thousands of guitar amps connected to the building power supply. There is so much interference being generated that I could not use any of my wireless equipment. So, much the environmental sound was recorded on my XH-A1, which was always rolling as the B camera during the shoots. I also had an H4N recorder running as a backup, but I never used any of the sound from it. However, there is quite a bit of Foley work in the documentary. In the second scene, where Parsons puts the soldering iron back in the spring holder, well that’s a Weller soldering iron in my studio. Same for the screw-driver being used on that red bass – that me in the studio.

I had originally shot the interview portion of the documentary with Parsons at his shop, but I had to scrap it because of all the noise and interference. So I did the interview again in my studio. I used a nice microphone, a pre-amp, a compressor, and I recorded everything on a Mac Mini. To play it safe, I also used a SM58 hooked up to my XH-A1. And in the end, I chose the audio recorded on the video camera because it sounded more natural. It’s just another example of how flexible that camera is, and how much utility it offers.

Gear for Documentaries – Chandler Griffin

Here’s another blog post that examines in detail the toolkit used by Chandler Griffin, documentary filmmaker who works in remote locations. He divides his list into 4 categories: cameras, sound, lighting and power. Griffin’s list is a few years old (2009), but still valuable for several reasons.

First, Griffin often works for weeks at a time in remote locations in Africa, Latin America or the Middle East – no electricity, no FedEx, no supplies if you forget something. He has to get it right or he doesn’t get it. After doing this for 10 years, he’s probably worked out some kinks.

Second, from my experience as a boy scout, when you’re carrying stuff on your back into remote regions, you develop a habit of ditching all that is not absolutely necessary.

Third, Griffin’s equipment is field-tested and, given where he goes, probably pretty durable. He says, “I don’t necessarily need the most expensive equipment. It has to be the right tool for what I’m going to be doing. Period. I realized, that’s all that mattered.”

Fourth, Griffin often works solo, so he’s worked out what he needs to capture images and audio without a crew. The right equipment for a crew of 3 isn’t necessarily the right equipment for working solo (when you can’t interview, monitor audio gear and get stills/video all at the same time without spreading yourself pretty thin…)

Condition ONE Beta (iPad App)

Condition ONE Beta

Here’s an interesting innovation that someone’s working on to capture footage in wartime conditions – from a safe location.

War photographer Danfung Dennis is developing an iPad App that will allow war photographers to control a remote camera via their iPad. Users can pan up, down and around (as shown in this beta release sample video). Do you need it? Probably not. But it is cool… Scheduled App release date is mid-2011.

Interview: Patrick Reis

I found Patrick Reis offering a workshop on HDSLR filmmaking at StudentFilmmakers in New York. Unfortunately, I’m in Denver and NYC trips are hard to fit in, but the workshop sounded interesting, so I contacted Patrick to see if he would participate in an online interview.

Patrick’s career can be traced back to the mid ’90s independent film scene in New York City. He was lucky enough to secure a solid background in film before the digital video revolution exploded and began to dominate the indie market. The majority of his work is commercial but his love of storytelling has drawn him to more narrative projects. Patrick’s clients include ESPN, Nickelodeon, Fox Sports, Canon USA, BETJ, and various independent production companies such as Wonder Wheel Media and Masterlink Films where he is a founding member. A few samples of Patrick’s work can be seen here: Road to Roubaix (shot with Panasonic video cameras); Empire Crush (music video shot with a Panasonic video camera); New York Bartending School (promotional video, shot with a Canon DSLR).

Patrick has shot with 16mm and 35mm cameras as well as myriad video cameras including Canon HDSLRs. Although Patrick has spent the majority of his time behind the camera, he teaches video production workshops at IFP, DCTV, Student Filmmakers and master classes at Frank Sinatra High School.

Q1. How did you get started shooting documentaries?

Reis: My introduction to shooting documentaries was a bit of a surprise. I went to film school and the focus was almost completely on narrative storytelling which is where my interests were (and still are to a large degree). I worked on narrative shorts and features for years with a few TV shows in between. Then in 2006 I was working at the SilverDocs film festival and became friends with the graphic designer, Dave Cooper. He proposed a concept for a movie about a French bike race and we discussed it casually while we were working together. One day he asked me if I had any thoughts or opinions about this project. He liked my ideas so later that week he introduced me to his partner, David Deal, and I was officially on the team. We shot two movies, a short and feature length documentary the following year.

Q2. Apart from exotic destinations, what are your keys to crafting a good documentary?

Reis: My feeling is that most good documentaries are part education and also part entertainment. I often find myself asking the question would anyone pay to watch this for one or two hours? There are many stories that should be told and need to be told but in order to reach an audience you need to have an element of entertainment in them. Two hours of talking heads and stats on the screen aren’t memorable. Intriguing subplots and interesting b-roll help keep the audience invested.

In recent years I’ve noticed a growing interest in voyeuristic style movies. Reality television has tapped into this audience preference to great success. If you look at documentaries from thirty and forty years ago, they were always trying to give the audience the feeling of discrete observation but a 16mm camera with a clap slate and boom operator didn’t allow the subject to relax and actions felt staged (and they probably sometimes were). If you can give your audience an unbiased look into someone’s life, career or tragedy then you’ve got yourself a compelling documentary that will hold the audiences’ attention and stay with them.

Q3. You say you’re going to use DSLRs to shoot these films. Are DSLRs well-suited to that type of work? (This is something I struggle with personally: the DSLR has great capabilities, but it’s a bit finicky. Not as easy to work with as some videocams, for example. If you’ve got just one chance to capture activity – as in documentaries or event coverage – you can miss your chance by using finicky gear. Why are you opting for DSLRs?)

Reis: My opinion is that if you are comfortable shooting with DSLRs then they are well-suited to any type of work. If you want to use a remarkable piece of equipment then you have to know it’s limitations, what it can do and how to use it. The bottom line is DSLRs are real movie cameras. They should be treated with respect and used properly.

I often compare shooting with DSLRs to using film whether it be 16mm or 35mm. Shooting film requires the shooter to be more aware of the camera and therefore it’s more difficult to just “point and shoot”. You are absolutely correct in saying that DSLRs are not as easy to use as some video cameras and if your comfort level isn’t very good with DSLRs and you feel that it could jeopardize your movie by missing shots, etc. then I would suggest using a video camera that you are more comfortable with. I’m not sure that finicky is the right word to use when describing DSLRs but I understand why you use that word. I think formidable could be the word I’m looking for?
I’m very comfortable using DSLRs to record video partly because of my background with film. I’m not the only one choosing to use DSLRs for these documentaries, the producer and director are requesting them.

Regarding these documentaries, my first reason for choosing the DSLR is image quality. They look more cinematic than any other camera that our budget can afford. Second is price and size. I can now bring five or six cameras with me instead of one or two. This will allow me to use multiple camera operators and cover events from many different POVs. I’m also covered if a camera is lost or broken. Third is the footprint. Often these cameras are ignored and by that I mean people don’t see them as video cameras so you’re able to get some uninterrupted, real action. Video cameras tend to attract attention and once people know they are being recorded they tend to change their behavior. Several of these documentaries will feature young children so having a small camera makes them more comfortable. Fourth has to be the low-light capabilities of the camera. If you take the large sensor and put a really fast lens on the body, you can get some well exposed images without introducing too much noise. I am not an advocate of shooting without lights but I know that there will be times in a documentary where you cannot bring lights into the situation.

Q4. What other core gear do you use for documentary work? (e.g., audio, lighting, stabilizing systems for the DSLR, etc)

Reis: First and foremost is an external monitor. The LCD screen on the back of the DSLR isn’t very accurate and I’ve run into trouble a few times when I depended on that LCD screen so an external monitor is key. Some people like using a loupe but I still find exposure and focus difficult to judge. I use the SmallHD monitor because of the false colors option and focus assist. The monitor is compact, durable and loaded with other features so I like using them.

If you can’t get a monitor with exposure assistance, then break out the old light meter. I still have my old analog Sekonic and I am so happy to be using it again.

ND filters are going to save your life. If you have any exterior shots you’ll find yourself stopping down to 11 or 16 or more and sometimes that still won’t be enough. Once you’ve lost your beautiful, cinematic shallow depth of field, you’ll wish you had a ND filter. Still photographers don’t have this issue as much because they can adjust shutter speed to compensate for overexposure.

I try to bring some prime lenses along with my zooms. Zooms are easier in documentary work if you have lots of live action that will require you to be adjusting the focal length while shooting. Primes are important to me because they are always much faster and that extra stop or two can be a life saver in low light situations.

Audio is a tricky subject. I like to have camera mounted shotgun microphones for some of my handheld work but I really prefer my microphones closer to the subject. I find that using a separate recording device is best but if you need a quick turnaround then a XLR adapter like the BeachTek or juicedLink models are best. Make sure you are familiar with them because it’s easy to make mistakes with the XLR adapters.

Using fast compact flash cards or fast SD cards is key to getting that extra hour of sleep. I always go for the faster cards even though they cost more. Every documentary filmmaker knows those evenings that turn into late nights because you’re waiting to empty all of the cards onto a hard drive. Fast cards (and a fast card reader) will shave off those minutes that become hours. Just to clarify, when I say fast cards I mean something faster than the minimum. If you use CF cards, you only need 8 MB/s but I get cards that transfer at 90 MB/s and you see the difference when you’re transferring onto your drive at the end of the day.

It’s been said one too many times but you have to have a solid hard drive. This is where your work will live. After you add up all of the money and time spent on it, not to mention events that sometimes can only happen once, the hard drive has to be a rock. My favorite hard drives are the portable OWC drives. Not only are they durable but their customer service is amazing with a real live human being at the other end of their 800 number. You just can’t beat having a live technical person available to you if something goes wrong.

I could go on and on about gear that I like to bring with me. I’m thinking of doing some small POV style movies of my prep days so people can see what I’m bringing. A couple of filmmakers have asked me to do a double-check of their gear so it’s definitely something documentary filmmakers are interested in.

The most important tool that a filmmaker can bring to a set is patience. Filmmaking, whether it’s a documentary or narrative, never goes as planned and a cool head and good sense of humor is the best way to keep things moving forward at the proper speed for maximum efficiency and eventual success.

New Blogsite Feature: Audio Recording Gear Reviews

I’m starting an area on this website (click the “Multimedia Storytelling Resources” button above) that will house various lists and resources. I’m starting off with a list of sites that review audio recording equipment (microphones, digital recorders, etc). I’ve found this information particularly difficult to locate on the web. Recording equipment can be complicated and expensive. It’s not easy to locate information on gear particularly suited to recording for multimedia projects (most sites covering audio recording are geared toward musicians).

Interview: Margaret Cheatham Williams

Margaret Cheatham Williams gives us two deeply-felt pieces revolving around her grandmother who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease.  The first video, entitled “Goodnight Moon,” focuses on the story of William’s grandmother Dutchie and the people who surrounded her and cared for her.

The second project, entitled “Free,” centers in on Rosa, Dutchie’s caretaker who grew to be a close friend of Dutchie during the months they spent together.

 

Q: What attracted you to these stories? What were you originally trying to accomplish?
Williams: First, I should explain that I created “Goodnight Moon” for my Documentary Photojournalism class at UNC Chapel Hill.  I watched a similar project produced by my professor, Pat Davidson, where he documented his mother’s struggle with Alzheimers.   The subject of “Goodnight Moon,” my grandmother Dutchie, was a constant presence in my life – and sadly, her Parkinson’s began when I was fairly young.  As the eldest grandchild, I felt as if I knew her the best, and I had a responsibility to preserve her memory for my family.  It was a challenge to watch her decline and to feel that I may have been using my camera as a buffer to the pain, but I now understand what the process truly meant for our relationship and my appreciation for the immense beauty in her life.

“Free” began, in some respects, as a follow up to the original “Goodnight Moon.”  After Dutchie died, I fought with the issue and meaning of grief.  I knew I wanted to approach the emotions and space that were created in my grandmother’s absence, but I wasn’t quite sure from which angle to proceed.  Rosa (the primary voice in “Free”) is amazing – and she continues to do so much to hold my family together.  The original idea was not to do a story but to record Rosa singing the hymns to add to the conclusion of “Goodnight Moon.”  But it was far too beautiful and she had far too much to say to simply tack it on. I also didn’t want to affect the integrity of the original piece, as the uncertainty of Dutchie’s condition was such a factor in the piece. It seemed to almost cloud the original intent, to place such a finite and concrete ending as her funeral. I guess in my head, I wasn’t quite ready to put her to rest.

Q: How formal is your process? (storyboarding, shot lists – or more free-form?)
Williams: My process for “Goodnight Moon” was more formal than I am accustomed to.  In school we were taught a form of storyboarding that is fairly structured, and extremely helpful in charting the course of long-term work.  The project “road map” is a form of outline that allows for thematic structuring of a story, with areas to be filled with corresponding content as the project progresses.

Generally I do not like to approach a story with a preconceived notion of the result, but in this case, with my own family, I thought I understood the most complex issues of the story well before I began to shoot.

QUESTION: How would you describe your process for “Free”?
Williams: My process for “Free” was extremely loose in comparison – Like I said, I had no real intention of turning my initial visit with Rosa into anything substantive. I thought she would be an incredible addition, but she really surprised me. I thought I wasn’t ready to hear her reflections of Dutchie, or perhaps that she wasn’t ready to share, but all she felt was love for my grandmother. She had an understanding that I hadn’t quite reached – She was grieving her loss, but she was far more at peace with the fact that Dutchie was no longer in pain.

I had no plan – no storyboard for that one. I asked her only a few questions and let her talk – She had a far better understanding of what it meant to “take care” of someone, that meant a lot to me and to the story.

Q: How much time did you spend on these two projects?
Williams:  Storyboarding, photographing/recording and editing “Goodnight Moon” took about four months.

I went home to Charlotte almost every weekend during the fall semester to work on it, in an attempt to gather as much content and spend as much time with them as I could. The structure of our class demanded that we turn in weekly shoots, which we then discussed and edited as a class. Towards the end of the semester I began to sift through the audio and video and stills – I interviewed my grandfather and aunt once each. I then listened to their audio and began to build a story in transcripts. I ended up creating both the multimedia piece and a still edit of the project.

For the production of “Free,” logistics made it possible for me to shoot with Rosa just twice.  I first went to Rosa’s home with the intention to shoot a video portrait of the hymn that she sang during Dutchie’s funeral.  I conducted the interview by chance, in about thirty minutes before she left for church.  I asked her if she had anything she wanted to say while the camera was still rolling.

Bits and pieces of the “Free” story were shot during the original process of “Goodnight Moon,” and some additional B-roll for “Free” was shot at my grandparent’s home on the day of my grandmother’s birthday.

Q: What type of equipment did you use for images and audio?
Williams: In both “Goodnight Moon” and “Free” I used the Canon 5 D Mark II and a Seinheiser lavaliere mic on the lapel with a Marantz external audio recorder and a Rode mic as back up.  I synched the audio in post with a software program called Plural Eyes.  In Rosa’s case, there is a bit of audio cleaning in Soundtrack Pro.

Q: What was the most difficult part of these projects? (planning, image/audio capture, interviewing, post, etc)
Williams: I would say the most difficult part of the “Free” story for me was not process-related or technical – instead, it was difficult for me to hear Rosa talk about my grandmother.  They had a bond that was indescribable, and it was an emotional and daunting task to sift back through four months of material with my grandmother to fill in the missing pieces.

For “Goodnight Moon” I knew that the story of my grandmother was something that meant a great deal to me, and that I wanted it to be my concentration while I had the greatest amount of time that I had been given for any project to date. I wanted to make it meaningful, however, I soon realized that I had no true understanding of what the true story actually was. The piece, in my head, soon evolved from a story about her condition and the difficulties of disease and aging, to the story of a family and the complexity of relationships.

My professor and mentor Chad Stevens was an enormous presence in this story for me. There were several times when I felt like it was far too emotional to continue – He taught me to be patient, to listen.

My aunt Katie, who is featured in Goodnight Moon, is like a sister to me. All of my family was incredibly involved in the care of my grandmother, but her situation was unique in that she lived three hours away.

I wouldn’t understand the value of family or story telling without the support of my family.

Q: Looking beyond these two projects, I see that you are producing both videos and still photography. Which do you prefer? Are you finding that one is better suited than the other for particular things?
Williams:I began shooting stills in school, but it wasn’t long before I began to shoot primarily video. I suppose I naturally gravitated towards video in a progression mandated by necessity and the changing face of technology and media, but it is something that I have really come to enjoy.

I appreciate the value, the contained emotion in a still photograph– the ability to capture a moment with intricate layers and complexity.

I worry that sometimes with multimedia, audio can be used as a crutch – to mend imagery that doesn’t quite convey a story. My attempt is to layer audio, visuals, video and stills in a way that is most similar to the layers in a photo. Personally I am compelled and driven by voice, and the first person representation of a story. I thoroughly enjoy talking to people and to me it seems most natural to have them express their thoughts in their own words.

Q: In a given story, what drives your choice between still photography and video?
Williams: In choosing between stills and video – I think the motion is the most important factor. Video thrives on details and motion, and stills on moments, light, and composition – interaction. For me, however, it can be difficult to choose… Allowing a moment to unfold on video, to me, is extremely powerful.

Q: I see that you’ve attended some immersion courses – was that experience worthwhile?
Williams: Though I began as a staff photographer and assistant photo editor for our campus newspaper, my most influential experiences have been immersive. Enthusiasm for this work is contagious, and I have been incredibly lucky to have the guidance and support of driven and talented mentors. In situations like the Carolina Photojournalism Workshop and The Mountain Workshops facilitated by Western Kentucky, I was plunged into a culture of dedication, inspiration and energy. I would highly recommend these programs to anyone hoping to expand.

Q. Where are you going from here? Any projects in the works? Things you want to tackle?
Williams: I will return to school in the fall to shoot primarily stills, because I think that still photography is the basis of all good video. I worry that I jumped some of the fundamentals of composition, moment, and elements that make a good photography.

I am currently a video intern at the Washington Post, and though I just started, I am thoroughly enjoying the people and the types of stories that I have been assigned. I have a deep desire to explore the depths of mental health – which I have started to approach in a piece I just finished, Four Seconds, that was shot as part of the Hearst Journalism Championship in San Francisco.

I would really like to push to better understand the complexities of mental health and the systems in place to manage our well being as a community.

I am extremely lucky that these people have allowed me into their lives to try to tell their story, and I so very much appreciate their understanding and support!

Project Review: Udayan – A Refuge from Leprosy (Part 1)

As a starting point, I’m going to dissect a recent multimedia project I recently completed, going through the process of visualizing the project; pre-production considerations like lining up access, permissions, releases and thinking through logistical details; equipment used during the project; what I encountered during the actual shoot (and how flexibility and a sense of humor can help you ride out some tough ones); post-production activity to consolidate images, video and audio capture into an intelligible whole delivered via the Web; and a recap of lessons learned.

The Project: Documentary of Udayan – a Home for Children Affected by Leprosy

Udayan is a non-profit organization located on the outskirts of Kolkata, India.

Udayan girls eat lunch at the cafeteria

Founded 40 years ago, Udayan now houses 300 children whose parents suffer from leprosy. The organization provides housing, education, medical treatment, food and vocational training for each of the children, most of whom arrive at Udayan at a very young age to live the balance of their childhood within its walls instead of living with their parents in leper colonies and/or poor villages. (Most adult lepers in India live as beggars.) The children visit their parents during school breaks (and in fact I accompanied 3 students to visit parents during my visit).

I arranged to create a documentary slideshow of Udayan to highlight its activities and show its impact on the lives of these children. Udayan plans to use this material for fundraising purposes.

Part 1: Pre-Production Planning

Through some former work colleagues now located in India, I made contact with James Stevens, founder of Udayan. 40 years ago, James left his successful haberdashery business in England to do something more meaningful with his life. He founded Udayan and then borrowed a truck from Mother Teresa to gather up 11 children of lepers in the slums of Kolkata, bringing them to Udayan for safekeeping and nurturing. James and I arranged a week in February when I was in Kolkata to conduct the shoot. With everything planned I flew to India with my gear bag and great anticipation.

Only to find that James wasn’t responding to my local phone calls. Or emails. Or texts. Fortunately I had saved and printed out some old emails that allowed me to track down a board member at Udayan who also sits on the Kolkata Foundation board (a funding organization). Through Shamlu, the board member, I learned that James had been taken to the hospital for surgery just prior to my arrival. But Shamlu was able to connect me with several staff members at Udayan who knew of the planned shoot but unfortunately did not have my contact information.

So…. it all worked out but here’s a lesson to remember: bring some extra old-fashioned paper with contact information that will help you connect with more than one local person. And when travelling internationally, especially, be able to connect with those people in several ways. I’d switched my cell phone to international service but it took a couple of days for that to activate, so I didn’t have local cell phone service when I first arrived. So after trying James’ phone from the hotel (no luck), I had to fall back on email via the hotel business office (I didn’t have phone numbers for everyone I’d been dealing with in preparing the trip), all of which slowed me down, cutting into the 5-day period I’d set aside for the initial shoot, some hotel-based review of what I’d captured (and gaps I would need to fill), and another day or two for filling in those gaps. 5 days became 1 day – to get it all and get it right (or you’ll probably have to live with big gaps). Another lesson: build in extra time, especially when working with international non-profits, because logistical snags are much more likely to happen when you’re outside your normal environment, and you also have to expect a certain formality and ceremony when you first arrive at an international location. It’s a part of greeting an international guest and making him/her feel comfortable, and in fact it’s wonderful to experience the warm welcomes that people extend when you meet them on their own turf, so to speak. But it does take time, so don’t intentionally cut things too short.

Gear

Okay, this was my first trip to Kolkata, India and although I’ve travelled internationally quite a bit, I really had no idea what I would find in a city renowned for slums and poverty – especially as I planned to visit a leper colony or two. I needed to keep things light & portable – basically a kit that I could sling over my shoulder to haul from place-to-place, working as I moved along. Here’s what I decided on:

  • Allen shoulder bag – I use this bag (designed for hunters to carry shotgun shells) because of its easy access and, frankly, because it doesn’t look like a camera bag stuffed with expensive gear.
  • Nikon D300 body with two lenses: 17-35 f/2.8 workhorse and 50 f/1.8 (for stills)
  • Nikon D200 back-up body
  • Nikon SB800 flash unit
  • One foldable lightstand with Wescott shoot-through umbrella
  • Lumiquest III small portable softbox and Lumiquest snoot modifiers
  • Canon T2i body with a Fotodiox lens mount adapter to take the Nikon lenses (for the limited video I planned)
  • Marantz PDM661 digital audio recorder
  • Sennheiser MKE400 mini-shotgun mic (including a shock mount for the T2i, an XLR connector, and a windscreen)
  • Audio Technica AT899 lavalier mic
  • 8 ft XLR cable (to connect either mic to the Marantz recorder)
  • Assorted lens filters, lens cleaners, extra batteries, battery chargers, extra media cards, etc

This was a functional kit, and portable. The only modification I needed was to tie down my lightstand/umbrella to the bag (they kept slipping off) in a way that I could release the ties quickly for use. Would I have enjoyed other gear? Absolutely. My largest concessions were lenses. I left a 70-200 f/2.8 off the list due to size & weight, and a macro lens off because I doubted I’d have enough time to use it enough to warrant carrying the thing around. I didn’t bring a larger shotgun mic because it’s just too bulky and fragile – and because I took it internationally once and was stopped in every single airport security checkpoint for special review. That thing looks too much like a gun barrel.

Next up: The Shoot, The Post, The Results