Philip Bloom’s Advice

Philip Bloom, a filmmaker who has been extensively involved in the DLSR-as-filmmaking-tool world, has some interesting advice. Keep it simple. Work hard. Perfect your craft and learn what you can on simple gear. And don’t let gear selection be your sole focus.

Here’s a short film Bloom posted on his blog. He made the film with simple gear (NEX 5n). He says it remains one of his favorite projects.

I found the film simple but well-crafted. I’m pulled through the story and not overwhelmed by glitzy angles or technique. The surprise information about his character that Bloom drops in toward the end of the film gave me just the right boost to keep going through the 9 minute film.

Not to minimize Philip Bloom’s expertise, but this is a very do-able style of film that inspires and motivates me to carry on.

Storytelling Comparisons

Here’s an interesting question that Bob Sacha raised: what is the best way to communicate a story? Print, multimedia, TV broadcast or radio? Bob noted that in December 2011, four media outlets (NYTimes – print, NYTimes – multimedia, NPR – radio and Buffalo TV News – TV) ran the same story about an 82-year-old jazz pianist from Buffalo, NY. Bob provides links in his blog post. He also asks the questions:

  • Which worked well?
  • What did each version leave out?
  • How did each version start and finish?

But, ahem, Bob didn’t answer his own questions. So here’s my take on the strengths of two of the four forms:

PRINT
Strengths:

  • Imagination and visualization: because you don’t have images, you form (mental) images. I can picture a young, lythe Adelaide down in North Carolina…
  • Information and backstory: Print can easily include tid-bits about Mr. Dunlop’s arrival at the nursing home 4 years ago, how he played in the Army and at nightclubs, etc.

Weaknesses:

  • Slow to get through. This is particularly a problem on the web. I do a lot of my web reading when I’m in front of a screen, like, for instance when I’m (ahem) at work. Can’t dilly-dally too long there.

MULTIMEDIA
Strengths:

  • Audio – both narration and ambient sound enrich the experience. Hearing Mr. Dunlop’s voice adds character, richness and a closeness you just don’t pick up in the print version.
  • Visuals – same. Well-crafted images here are a joy to behold. Warm colors. Great lighting. Wow.
  • Information and backstory: I also pick up information about Mr. Dunlop, particularly throught some images of him getting medical attention from a nurse and the sound of his voice. It’s not as “factual”, but it is backstory and information about the qualities of this man.

Weaknesses:

  • Slow to get through. This may be even a bigger a problem than print. People do a lot of browsing at work, and it’s probably easier to explain reading a story than watching a slideshow if the boss walks up. Makes me kinda’ nervous as I watch it.

Multimedia as Grant Documentation

Chance Multimedia, a denver-based multimedia firm, produces videos and photography for foundations, nonprofit organizations and businesses. Here, Chance did a video highlighting a non-profit organization to communicate the group’s message, document the group’s activities and (presumably) bolster the group’s image for future grants.

 

Thoughts?

My initial reaction is that despite some distractions (e.g., lip synch problems, background noise in some portions), the piece works to communicate the group’s message and impact in the community. Emotionally it’s neutral, but I get information. I contrast that with another multimedia piece (shown below) covering the work of MAG, a non-profit organization dedicated to removal of landmines in former conflict areas, done by MediaStorm in 2011. The Chance documentary communicates information; the MediaStorm piece connects emotionally. You judge: which makes a greater impact?

Surviving the Peace takes an intimate look at the impact of unexploded bombs left over from the Vietnam war in Laos and profiles the dangerous, yet life saving work, that MAG has undertaken in the country. See the project at http://mediastorm.com/clients/surviving-the-peace-for-mag

Simple Storytelling Tool: Soundslides

Here’s an example of a simple, but very effective, storytelling tool called Soundslides. Soundslides allows photographers to present their visual work in a sequence (i.e., a slideshow) accompanied by an audio track. Soundslides automates the sequencing of images (users just adjust the duration of each image as it flashes across the screen. Soundslides also makes adding an audio file very simple. In fact, that’s the whole premise of Soundslides: ridiculously simple storytelling. And that’s a great concept.

Brian Vander Brug of the Los Angeles Times strings together short profiles of Las Vegas residents, each telling their stories, in his Soundslides multimedia piece entitled “Chasing the Dream“.

Soundslides can be purchased online for $39.95 (basic version) or $69.95 (Pro version). I’d get the Pro version.

Marc Maurice: The Soundtrack

Marc Maurice has created an intriguing short film to submit to StillMotion for a contest. The StillMotion contest theme was __. Marc, who has been shooting weddings and “corporate films for companies without the budget / room for storytelling,” knocked one out of the park with this gem.

I’ve contacted Marc and we’re swapping messages about a conversation as time permits. In the mean time here’s a bit of backstory that Marc provided:

“The story-background of SOUNDTRACK OF MY LIFE was following the recommendation “to look for stories in your own life first”… it was about some of my own memories. The basic idea was coming out quickly after reading about the STILLMOTION contest, but then I invested quite some time into the script-details, working it out very similar to a song (intro, verse, chorus, bridge…), planning the scenes, gear, camera moves, equipment, props, sounds, etc., in a big spreadsheet (with NUMBERS so that I had it on the iPhone while shooting). Nicely prepared the reality turned out differently: we shot most of the film in a crazy time pressure due to the contest time-schedule. I believe people with their head on straight (incl. a part of myself) would have give the project up more than one time.

“I shot 50% of the film 7 hours before the edit was finished, because my lovely little actors arrived late from their holidays… no way to find others.

“Since we shot in our holidays in the homeland of my girlfriend, Portugal, we had good and bad points: we knew we’ll have beautiful places, but I could only take along a minimum of gear (7D, Glidecam, photo tripod, table dolly). Instead of my slider I just used the table dolly on a wooden board that I bought at a local store jn Portugal: I fixed it with a studioclamp on a photo-tripod! Sounds like MacGyver? No, no, in reality it didn’t work that cool, but in emergency situations…

“I finsighed the film 30 minutes before the deadline … no sleep, 6 a.m. in the morning, 2 hours(!!) before our flight back home… and guess what… the internet connection failed in our apartment! Uploading via iPhone? No chance! So we had 2 options: missing the flight and uploading from a friend or flying home, missing the contest deadline! We flew… Back home, a few hours later, I sent Patrick Moreau the film (and let him know what happened) just for their “possible personal enjoyment”. I didn’t expect to be listed … but he wrote me back and presented the film at the contest site while noting it won’t qualify for the main prizes… which was of course no problem at all… I was just happy to “somehow complete the project” and maybe get some constructive feedback!

“I learned so much at this point from the little SOUNDTRACK OF MY LIFE production:

– how fulfilling and motivating it is to work on something you really love
– don’t care about gear too much (actually I am known as the opposite)
– even wildly improvised scenes can work out beautifully
– better be fast with kids and entertain them well :-) GET TOYS / PRESENTS BEFORE!!
– you can work out so much in NO TIME if you stick to it
– preparing a very detailed script helps SO MUCH to put the puzzle pieces together in the end
– left out ideas (and I had to leave out quite a few because of the schedule) are not necessarily a problem
– show your personal work in the internet, socialize and enjoy critics and compliments
– go for the films you really want to do and go the clients who fit to your films.”

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?

Sound Piece

Gearing up for football season is always an exciting time around our house. 2012 is no different. We have 2 boys, both play football but at different high schools. The programs are different – in some ways like night and day – so it’s an interesting contrast in styles, personalities and perspectives. But, hey, underneath it all at any football program is a lot of hard work. Sweat. Frustration. Exhaustion. Commeraderie. Competition. All that stuff which makes it such a fertile environment for honing multimedia skills. There’s a lot of action, a lot of passion and emotion, and if you stuff your camera in there some fantastic imagery.

There’s also wind, distracting noise, 250 lb. guys smashing into each other at full speed (with potential camera/audio gear collateral damage), swearing (high audio recording spikes), coaches who don’t know what you’re doing in their practice, and all kinds of additional impediments to a good multimedia story. Perfect!

Here’s a little “sound piece” that I put together during practice. Later in the season I’ll add some narration layers across the top of shorts like this to build up more of a story. And this year – my resolution each season – I want to find a kid who will serve as a central character through whom we can all experience this football thing.

Stills captured with Nikon D700 and D300 using a 17-35 f/2.8 lens. Video capture with (new) GoPro HERO2 (I’m lovin’ this thing!) Audio capture with Audio Technica AT8035 shotgun mic mounted on a monopod (serving as a multi-use boom pole), pumped into Marantz 661 digital recorder. I dropped in one audio track (the “swoosh” sound) purchased off Pond5. Project edited in Final Cut.

Raymond McCrea Jones – Damian’s Ride

Raymond McCrea Jones worked as a journalist with the NY Times after finishing up his journalism degree at UNC. While at the NY Times, Jones did a number of very, very powerful multimedia projects, including “Damian’s Ride” which in my book is just flat-out magnificent.

Click image below for short film on NY Times site.

What struck me most about this project was Jones’ pacing and suspense. Jones begins with close-ups of Damian pedalling, but with sub-titles we quickly learn that something may not be right. “When I’m riding a bike I feel like a normal person….” we read — so why wouldn’t this guy feel like a normal person when he’s off a bike. Boom – in the first 12 seconds I’m hooked. At 0:36 seconds we learn more: Damian is training to compete in the Paralympics. Okay, but from the images at this point you don’t see what’s wrong. We’re 1:10 into this film before we see Damian’s face. By then we know his backstory, how as a boy he was electrocuted while trying to recover his kite, leading to his disfigurement.

Also striking is the transposition of beauty and, hmmm, how do I say this?: awful. Jones’ records richly colored images of Damian’s action and bike, especially in the early portions of the film. Then Jones gives us Damian’s face. Wow. Those two components placed so closely together is really emotionally charged.

Wonderful angles. Wonderful story. Wonderful resolution. This is just…wonderful.

Raymond McCrea Jones now works as a commercial photographer in Atlanta, GA.