Blog: Field Production

Colombia shoot with the Canon 5D Mark iii

blogI’m in Cali, Colombia and using my new Canon 5D mark iii to direct and shoot a short documentary film here. Cali-native, Jose David Quintero, is the death-defying biker who flies down the mountain below San Antonio.

Here’s a short clip of stuff I shot yesterday and today, and edited tonight (not color graded). Music is not mine (it’s Morcheeba’s “Over and Over” from the “Big Calm” album. Buy it!

I used my new MYT glider. And found that a monopod, if used properly, can approximate the feel of a mini-jib. I used only two lenses, the Canon 16-35mm and the Canon 24-105.

Cali is much larger than I anticipated. Mountainous, its neighborhoods cling to San Francisco-like slopes. I couldn’t have done the shoot without Producer Santiago Chaher, the co-owner of Cefeidas Group, an international advisory group that does a lot of consulting across Latin America.

I’ll do another post later on other key discoveries: why Club is a better beer than either Poker or Aguila; why marranita is not all it’s cracked up to be (sorry Eulalia!); and how the cacophonous din of high heels threatened more than one interview.

 

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

Mecánico as Film Crew?

Delfino’s a cypher. I’m riding shotgun with this 40-something Mexican, camera in my lap, finished filming for the day in Mexico City. Delfino’s on about some subtle details of a fuel-injected engine. In English.

I hold up my hands in protest. Sorry man, I don’t understand a thing. He keeps at it. Turbo this, catalytic that. I smile.

Delfino’s clearly a master at his mechanic trade, but he can’t read or write. He’s fluent in English and Spanish, but struggles to make ends meet.

I’m here to make a short film for a DC-based group that invests in Vinte, an affordable housing company. Delfino is a first-time homeowner in a Vinte complex, where units start at $23,000.

How does the company do it? Partly it’s economies of scale. Delfino’s complex will eventually have more than 5,000 units. But it’s also the novel condominium business model, with security, paved roads, and reliable water, lights, and Internet. It’s a stellar option for people who grew up in Mexico’s messy informal settlements.

I’ve spent parts of three days here and have to admit, the neighborhood’s nice. It’s clean, quiet, and safe. Delfino’s three children, all younger than age seven, love the community park that has a biking path, basketball court, and jungle gyms.

We do the interview here. For Delfino, it brings back a flood of memories. His parents moved to California when he was a toddler (which explains his mastery of English). He dropped out of school at age nine, but rebuilt his first car engine at ten. His face lights up talking about that first car, how it won a race, how he realized he could build things. He had a gift.

When his father returned five years later, Delfino’s mom enrolled him in school, but it was far too late. Delfino was making good money as an apprentice mechanic. And besides, school was tough. Fixing cars was easy.

The interview wraps. In my ten-plus years working as a filmmaker, I’ve never let a subject help on set. Many volunteer, but it’s a polite gesture that I politely refuse. Before I realize it, Delfino is dismantling lights and rolling cable. He insists it’s his first time around this type of equipment. We work silently, as if we’re a team. Of course, he manages to pack everything up just right.

As he closes the last pelican, I reflect that this is why my job is so cool. Yes, the travel is incredible. But the best thing by far is the personal connections. And it’s the documentary process that I have to thank for it. The peculiar way that reality, premise, and personal narrative combine to create something unpredictable and authentic—and periodically, sublime.

Delfino’s had a hard life, but he’s in a good place now providing for his family. He opened up his life for a few days and I’m better for it. The master mechanic with the irrepressible smile.


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.

MLK Documentary Premieres on DirectTV Tonight

The new documentary film on Martin Luther King, Jr that I worked on recently premieres tonight on DirectTV’s Audience Network.

The film is written, directed, and edited by Kirk Mangels.

I directed a few interviews: with Colin Powell, Congressman Andrew Young, and sports journalist James Brown. We spoke of their experiences growing up during the Civil Rights Movement, and how their lives and careers were influenced by the great MLK. I’m very excited to see the movie tonight.

 

Jane Goodall LIVE

 

Today was the second time I filmed Dr. Jane Goodall recently for an upcoming movie, and each time she has taken me off guard (in a good way) with an extraordinarily gentle spirit, iron resolve, and tendency to break into impromptu primate calls.
Dr. Goodall is 77 years old. She moves lightly; the years exert no visible weight on her. She talks in a whisper, not out of reserve or infirmity, but from the quiet confidence of somebody accustomed to her own authority and eloquence. People listen.
This morning, Dr. Goodall speaks with the crew at the International Space StationCommander Mike Fossum and Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa join in. I film her side of it. The astronauts are inspired by Dr. Goodall’s life-long conservation mission. She finds common ground, learning about their science and their thoughts about the Earth from their perch.

In orbit, the world’s most accomplished astronauts are zipping at more than 17,000 miles per hour, chatting with the only person who’s ever been accepted into chimpanzee society. As I type this, Jeff Orlowski is putting the final touches on Jane Goodall: Live, which is playing one night only, September 27, in 500 cinemas around the country.

Afterwards, Dr. Goodall and I discuss Roots and Shoots, a youth-oriented program of the Jane Goodall Institute that is in 100+ countries and all 50 states. It’s her passion; it’s visceral how intent she is on getting the next generation to care. She leans in: “I bet you need a chimp hug,” she says. I mutter something far less poignant than how David Graybeard might have responded. She utters a chimp call, and tenderly squeezes. I smile.

 

Life is Precious


Today, I interview and shadow Precious Ncube. She’s 23 and carries herself with a quiet confidence, wielding an easy smile. She also is HIV positive, has lost both her mother and sister to AIDS, never knew her father, has no siblings, and bounced around a litany of households as a young girl.

Today, against all odds, she’s not only stable, but a leader. Her peers at the clinic have elected her President of their group. She aspires to run a nonprofit group someday, using her experience to give back to AIDS orphans. She’s studying how to sew to earn some income. She helps her grandma in the garden and around the house. Her greatest hope is to get married and have children someday herself. I learn that if Precious stays consistent with her medicine, she can keep her HIV viral load down and certainly have kids.
One of the most inspiring people I’ve met here in Zimbabwe is named Precious Ncube.

Carpentry and the Artist as a Young Man

Today, I’m shooter, audio grip and . . . set designer and carpenter?

Tichoana Mudhobi (“Tich”) is our subject. When we fail to get permission to shoot at the National Gallery where Tich has some paintings, I have to improvise. Sure, we filmed him at home, with his family, in his tiny room, hanging out with his sister and friends — but how can we show his art in a public space?

With two hours before sunset and a stack of Tich’s paintings in the bed of a pickup truck, I wander the grounds of Catholic Relief Services‘ compound in Bulawayo, hoping for inspiration. A driveway, a shed, a sidewalk . . . around back, there’s a stack of wooden paletts, and I have a vision.

30 minutes to build an art installation, ready go!!

Within minutes, I’ve grabbed our indefatigably positive driver Geofrey Mwedziwendira and with the claws of a well-worn hammer, we reduce a half-dozens pallets to their constituent 2x4s. Then we construct a simple two-tiered structure for 8-9 oil paintings. We leave gaps so when I shoot through the set-up, the art can be in the foreground and the three subjects behind.

Just in time for golden hour, we hang the final paintings and roll tape. I gently push and pull my Sachtler tripod along the Hollywood Dolly tracks, back and forth. Tich is in form, mentoring his art students, discussing each painting, musing about overcoming poverty, confident in his element. Having multiple paintings at eye level and all characters standing was key to creating an eyeline that worked. I flip the dolly to the other side, and the setting sun illuminates three hopeful faces. Another day in Zimbabwe.