Blog: Bench to Bedside

TV Director in a Cowboy Hat (Part 1)

steve-cowboyHat

When I first got the call, I wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat. It was November 2010. The TV series was called “Survivor Tales.” It was its first year, and more an idea than a series. Produced by an upstart production company in DC with a skeleton staff, they’d just lost their DP/editor when he moved to NYC to work on a (now defunct) reality show, and outsourced creative to an underling. They were halfway through their third episode and needed some pickups in rural Minnesota . . . on a ranch . . . of a dog . . . named Dakota.

I was like, “Yeah, I’m in!”

First, I got familiar with the footage they had in-the-can. Unfortunately, it was rough. Master interviews in a server room, the rattle and hum of machines over voices. And a run-and-gun style that might have made sense on the battlefields of Afghanistan or Iraq (where my friends John Collin and Ryan Hill have captured some beautiful images, notwithstanding the inhospitable environment), but was just sloppy for this context.

The next day, I found myself at the University of Minnesota. It was sink-or-swim time, since we were a crew of two — the producer and me. I ran camera, lights, and audio. I found a deep, quiet hallway for the interviews. At the time, they only had budget for the Sony EX-1, so I needed all the depth I could wrangle. Then I started directing broll of the doctors, mostly lab setups to help bring to life their cutting-edge research.

The next day was more fun, chasing a black Lab around a 100-acre ranch. This dog, Dakota, had beaten brain cancer thanks to a revolutionary vaccine the doctors were hoping to adapt for people someday.

Footage from that first shoot eventually made it into episode #10, “Dakota’s Brain”:

The good thing about when a DP/editor skips town, the production company needs to find a replacement DP and editor. They liked my Minnesota footage, and then entrusted me with the writing and editing of the show.

Little did I suspect, but this gig would grow to me serving as DP, writer, and editor for 10 episodes over the next two years.

The next month, I flew to LA. where I spent four days with Toby Forrest, who was bravely overcoming an incredibly devastating spinal cord injury to become an accomplished actor and singer. The narrative arc on this story was amazing.

One night I followed Toby verité style to a gig at the Viper Room on Sunset. I got a Director credit on this show, which became episode #1, “Toby’s Story”:

Like every shoot, “Toby’s Story” had challenges. At the Viper Room, I would have preferred a second camera, and we weren’t allowed lights, tripod, or an assistant. Most challenging, on the final day we had about an hour of sunlight left to shoot a conclusive scene, but we were stuck in the Valley in Van Nuys and my producer didn’t have any ideas. What’s more, we didn’t have a wheelchair-enabled vehicle. What to do?

Fortunately, having graduated high school nearby (Redondo Union High!), I knew just the place. I took the wheel of Toby’s van, drove south on the 405, and pulled into Redondo Beach right at golden hour. “Toby’s Story” concludes with what I shot next. “Will I walk again, I don’t know,” muses Toby in extreme closeup as he gazes toward the sun-dappled Pacific. “Will I be independent again? I sure hope so. Will I adapt to my circumstances? Most definitely.” Cut to Toby’s point of view. A jogger, in silhouette, exits frame left. Music track fades up. It is the end of Suite 68, which brought down the house at the Viper Room. Against a wistful final guitar lick, Toby’s own lyrics close the episode: “All alone in my misery.”

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Steve Dorst earned credits as DP, Writer, and Editor on 10 episodes and Director on 4 episodes of the TV series, Bench to Bedside, which was acquired in 2013 by the commercial television arm of Australian Broadcast Corporation for global distribution. With a producer, Dorst captured inspirational stories and cutting-edge research on location across the country. Filmed documentary-style, the series is about true stories, real diseases, and high stakes.

Happy New Year!

Really excited for 2013. Bench to Bedside, the new TV series that I’ve been DPing and editing for the past two years, was acquired by Australia Broadcasting Corporation for global distribution. Not sure what channel will see the program domestically. “The other” ABC seems to be one of the biggest players in the Pacific Rim, so interested to see what they’ll do with it.

Some fun shoots I’ve done lately include an interview Friday with World Champion figure skater Kimmie Meissner. For an elite athlete, she was really down-to-earth. The shoot posed its own unique challenges, as I found myself setting up lights and c-stands on ice. This was for a TV series distributed by Fox called The Real Winning Edge. I learned that Meissner co-founded the Cool Kids Campaign, an organization for kids with cancer. And she told me she’s going to NYC next week to do a show with Barry Manilow. So, will Barry be on ice skates?

Saturday night, I found myself stifling an urge to laugh. Not because I’m a killjoy, but because I didn’t want to shake my shot! At DC’s historic Lincoln Theater (within nose-shot of Ben Chili’s Bowl!), I was helping out old friend Chris Billing on his latest documentary. I followed Atlanta-based comedian Small Fire verité-style (Small Fire’s YouTube channel): to her green room, backstage, joking with the band while waiting in the wings, and finally on stage for a 40-minute set that had a SRO-crowd hooting and hollering. Small Fire riffed on her upbringing in the church (which I could identify with), although her church sounded a lot more fun than mine did!

2013, starting off real well!

 

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Fireworks photo by Rob Chandler, from: http://bit.ly/VlpjIK

A Dose of Inspiration

Sometimes all it takes is a 7-year old on a moped to remind you why life is so awesome! Here’s a sneak peak from another episode of this new TV series called “Survivor Tales,” about cutting-edge medicine and the brave people who stand to benefit from advances.

I went to North Carolina to film Liviya. Liviya was struck with a rare blood disorder called Aplastic Anemia. My director, Liz Hodge, and I spent several days with her family – reliving the horror, celebrating the recovery, and enjoying life at school, with friends, around town. And having had this near brush with death, the entire family was reveling in every moment!

One late afternoon during a break from filming, I looked up to see Liviya on a mini-moped. She went off-road, on a bee-line for Liz, rambling over tree roots. At the last minute, she veered away, disappearing around the garden, only to reappear again with the most uninhibited joyous smile I’ve ever seen.

I’m fortunate to be shooting and editing a documentary series of substance, with real people surviving real issues — in stark departure from the manufactured drama of reality TV. I’m so glad to have met this family, that Liviya is healthy, and we’re in a place where we continue to search for cures for even the rarest of diseases.

NIH Research and the Lives it Touches

Had a shoot today at the National Institute of Health. Connected with a physician who is an expert on aplastic anemia. Spent some time in his lab. Did an interview. All for an episode of Bench to Bedside, a science documentary TV series that I’m shooting, editing, and writing.

Something he said really stuck with me. He said the American taxpayer is helping people around the world. We fund NIH. NIH does all kinds of research, there in Bethesda, Maryland, but also in collaboration with Universities around the nation. This research often centers on extremely rare diseases, even those that you don’t see much in the US. Gradually, with a lot of time, money, and expertise, our researchers indentify answers. As cures emerge, the world benefits.

In the case of aplastic anemia, Europe initially made great strides, and then US helped advance cures. Only 30 years ago, this disease was an immediate death sentence. Today, it’s on the verge of being something we can control. Instead of children dying within months and years, they can live full lives. Now, that’s a great bit of good news.