Because we’re all hard-wired for story, focus on people and their passions first, not on your own programs.
It’s been more than 4 years since I first wrote about Kinote, a coffee farmer in Meru, Kenya who was working hard to build a larger house for his family.
For a DC-based client, I was in rural Kenya to tell Kinote’s story. The larger context was the agricultural extension agent (and his NGO) who was helping the farmers improve yields and sell direct-to-market.
Despite the many differences between us, Kinote’s quest to grow his business and provide for his family was something I identified with.
His story came rushing back to me as I added new clips to my company’s updated reel, “Videos for Good.” [Dorst MediaWorks Reel 2018].”
That’s because Kinote’s two young daughters are the first two people you see in the video, wiping sleep out of their eyes crawling out of bed.
Kinote’s not alone. Every person in the reel brings back a torrent of memories for me, usually their hopes and dreams.
How do you tell these stories? I mean, corporate governance and capacity building are super abstract.
It’s the people and their passions.
I don’t recall the details of the programmatic interventions on any of these project, but I definitely remember the hopes and dreams of the people I chose to film.
LeCow is a Brazilian teenager from a sprawling favela who’s dream is to become a musician (13 seconds.)
Sara wants to grow her clothing company and export from Ethiopia to America (34 seconds. Spolier: She succeeds, and I see her products at The Gap at a Maryland suburban mall 12 months later!)
Rabih’s chief ambition is to grow his fishing business in Lebanon (At 38 seconds.)
The beautiful thing about the documentary video process is that you give voice to people. Done properly, it’s founded on listening. You look people in the eyes. You follow and observe them. In their own voices, whether that’s Meru, Arabic, or Tagalog, they share what matters to them.
Why do I remember LeCow, Sara, and Rabih like we met yesterday?
Early on, I found myself writing scripts that featured the organizations that hired me, rather than their beneficiaries.
My big “aha moment” came during a strategy session with a big multilateral client that does a lot of work throughout Latin America.
They were understandably focused on programmatic nuts and bolts: logistics, buzzwords, metrics. They were in their own world.
I just wanted to learn about the people they serve.
Fortunately, the Director of Communications had just spent a week in the field and she had a lot of great stories.
The people we want to focus on, we all agreed, are no different than you or me. They have jobs and families. They have a past and a future.
Finally, the makings of a script outline! What if we just show their before and after, I proposed, and be honest about how your organization is helping them achieve their dreams?
Kinote is doing his best to increase coffee production so he can build a three-room house, tripling the size of his current house.
Rabih (00:38), the fisherman: “My dream is to expand my business, and buy a larger boat.”
Maxima (00:41) who I met in the slums of Manila: “I intend to keep working to provide a better future for my grandchildren.”
Kinote, Rabih, and Maxima are agents of their own change. Today, their families and communities are better. Our project helped them along the way.
That’s the story.
Organizations that do good: a conduit of authentic communications
So much of successful communications by organizations that do good is simply getting out of the way.
Are you the SCR arm of a Fortune 500 company working in your own community? Let the people you help tell their own story in their own voices (and minimize the product placement on your branded t-shirts in the video!).
Are you a large issue-oriented nonprofit, focused on water or nutrition or women’s reproductive rights? Your best stories feature the people benefiting from your activities.
Are you a foundation funding 501(c)3s? Is there a way that people can help illustrate the larger issues you care about?
The Dorst MediaWorks reel “Videos for Good” speaks to these creative choices, with animated text: “What is your greatest dream … goal … hope … desire.”
Hala in rural Lebanon: “I started alone in this (flower) business. But today I have four shops and four employees.”
Anthony, in Kenya: “Visiting them (the farmers) you’ll see bigger smiles, because there’s hope now.”
Again, animated text: “My health … civil society … conflict … economy … education is better.”
“My governance … agriculture … rule of law … job …is better.”
It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing nonprofit marketing, a fundraising video, or nonprofit media of any kind.
Focus the lens on the people you serve. Help them tell their own stories in their own voices. In so doing, you’re connecting your audiences with hopes and dreams that resonate.
“My life is better.”
Let the people you serve tell the story
Their passions are the secret sauce in impactful storytelling.
When they achieve their hopes and dreams, with a little nudge from your organization, this illustrates results.
Philip Glass fans, apologies in advance, but his score just ruined a movie that could’ve been great.
Arriving at the Palm Springs Film Fest on Friday, I was eager to watch Jane, director Brett Morgen’s new biopic on the legendary primatologist and conservationist. It promised new insights into her revolutionary work in 1960s Gombe, Tanzania through 100 hours of newly rediscovered Super-8 footage (misplaced for a half-century in some dusty Nat Geo closet?!) And not just any footage—stuff shot by Ms. Goodall’s former husband, the renowned wildlife cinematographer Hugo van Lawick.
Here’s the trailer:
Morgen does an incredible job with what I imagine was exceedingly difficult footage. Super 8 doesn’t have an audio track, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the picture. Every whisper of wind; every action by every chimp—from David Graybeard to Flint—seems natural and keeps you in the moment. Kudos to the entire sound department!
The director really draws out Ms. Goodall, who is a tough interview. I know, because I’ve worked with her several times (I write about the experience here and here).
Morgen’s stylistic decision to light Ms. Goodall’s interview to match the film’s passage of time is incredibly daring. It reveals an intense preparation: he knows where in the film he’ll use her answers before he poses the questions! When you watch the film, the interview space is bright early in the film, but dark toward the end. Wow!
And the visual effects that jazz up Ms. Goodall’s journals are astonishingly well done. The animations—staccato visions of her research—suggest persistence and knowledge accumulating. During these montage segments, Glass’ music works well, because it propels the the animations forward. It’s not competing with human reflection or emotion. Great FX job by Stefan Nadelman!
But a big difference is that The Fog of War is more cerebral, a film of ideas. The disjointed visuals really benefit from the cohesiveness of a dominant soundtrack.
Alternatively, Jane has a strong protagonist who is in the frame driving the action. She’s on an unforgettable quest. Van Lawick’s cinematography transports you to the pinprick of emotion. All of this creates a strong sense of character, time, and place—the foundation of a potentially powerful documentary.
So when the score kicks into high gear barely 10 minutes in—before Ms. Goodall really achieves anything—it doesn’t work.
It is premature. Rigidly metronomic, an orchestra of strings plopped down right there in the middle of the forest in 1960’s Tanzania, the music highjacks the story.
Glass’ score, for me, is excessively masculine, and relentlessly propulsive. Does The Fog of War music fit Robert McNamara? Yes. But that’s because he’s a hard-charging, ambitious business executive and Secretary of Defense. He’s caught in a political machine and the music’s repetitive structure mimics McNamara’s foolhardy forward-press during the Vietnam War.
But Jane couldn’t be more different. Admittedly, Ms. Goodall is an icon, and maybe that’s why National Geographic drew Glass into the project. One icon to shed light on another.
But this film chronicles Ms. Goodall’s first days, when she is an unknown. She is brave yet vulnerable, and she’s afraid her approach will not work.
Glass’ music belies that uncertainty. The music’s early peak precedes Ms. Goodall’s success, which feels manipulative. The confident fullness of the orchestration seems inconsistent with her solitary project during these early stages. And the surety of the repetitive structure betrays her slow progress.
Morgen is one of the best documentary storytellers out there working today. I just wish he would’ve let Ms. Goodall, the chimpanzees, and the Tanzanian landscape sustain the story. It would’ve been a better movie for it.
I’m a lucky man. Yesterday, I got to talk about my two passions–documentary filmmaking and international development–as one of four panelists at the Society for International Development’s (SID) “Storytelling with Data” event in Washington, D.C.
I kicked things off by asking people about their favorite documentaries, just to signal that my talk would be interactive (People mentioned the documentaries of Jeff Orlowski, Jenifer Siebel Newsom, and Michael Moore).
Then I showed them the Dorst MediaWorks reel. I wanted us all on the same page about what I do: documentary-style videos, with a focus on beneficiaries whose lives are improving–who most often tell the story through their own voices.
After we watched the reel, I wanted people to walk a mile in my shoes. What’s my approach to telling stories?
So I introduced a USAID project, Lebanese Investment in Microfinance (LIM), that I was hired to produce some videos for.
When the Sky’s the Limit, Where’s Your Story Start?
In five years, LIM awarded about $10 million in grants to nine microfinance partners in Lebanon, who then made 14,000 micro-loans totaling more than $30 million to thousands of rural entrepreneurs across the country.
“So, if you’re in Lebanon to tell this story, where do you start?” I asked. I paused. Nothing. Talk about drowning in data! 14,000 loans?
“What do you film? Where do you start?” I smiled. And waited…
If you remember one thing, take this with you: In your storytelling, first establish the person and passion, then the problem. Otherwise, nobody cares.
And then people began lobbing up ideas. “Successes and failures of the project,” one man offered. “Challenges the entrepreneurs faced,” said a woman up front. “Lives changed,” shouted somebody from the back.
Yes! For me, telling the Lebanese microfinance story meant that I needed to identify individuals who struggled against great odds and succeeded. I wanted to tell a character-based story that would show the benefits of the LIM program.
I spoke with Beirut-based program officers for IESC, USAID’s implementer. They helped me identify some possibilities and we narrowed it down from there.
We watched the first minute of Rabih’s Fishing Business together. I wanted people to see how I approached the storytelling.
“What did you notice about the first minute of the video?” I asked.
One guy up front piped up immediately: “There’s nothing about microfinance or the project at all in the first minute.”
Then, we talked about two important storytelling pillars that often get lost when people make videos showing the good work of international organizations: The primacy of the visual and the importance of a hero’s quest.
I read somewhere that when we watch videos, what we remember is 80% visual.
Think about it: so many videomakers labor endlessly on crafting just the right narration or interview sound bites, but then fail to exercise such care when their editor slaps up some moderately relevant b-roll footage (a term I hate by the way).
As a result, viewers respond a thousand different ways, jumping to whatever vague or unrelated connotations these visuals inspire.
Or even worse, explainer videos or descendants of the (once innovative) Girl Effect require viewers to read, read, read like they’re at a PowerPoint convention.
And that’s why so many short videos, particularly those cobbled together — without strong visual stories — make no impact. They are a waste of time and resources.
So back to Rabih. Who is he? Rabih is a fisherman who’s having trouble making ends meet, because he doesn’t own a boat and has to pay a lot to rent one. He gets a loan to buy a boat, then increases his income, which helps his family.
There were a lot of ideas from the extended project team about what I should shoot to tell this story: the microfinance institution, the training conferences that the microfinance lenders attended, and even the association of microfinance organizations that the project established.
I wanted a hero shot of Rabih and his boat to start the film. And that’s what I got.
For the first 10 seconds, there are no words. This is by design.
My opening here is a poor-man’s version of the kind of thing Alejandro Innárritu achieves to great effect in The Revenant. In one of these long takes, Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki follows Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) into a natural cave, into the water, with the camera floating around him, gradually revealing his surroundings, a frightening perspective. (See the New York Times Anatomy of a Scene)
If I was making a feature with Rabih, I’d choreograph his departure to play out in one take. But this is low-budget documentary-style video and Rabih really is fishing and he’s in a hurry. So, I started behind Rabih’s head to get his point of view, so the viewer could inhabit his world, if only for a moment.
When I’m editing, I like to turn down the volume and see if the video is telling the story visually. That’s the ultimate test. This opening passes that test.
A Hero’s Quest
We connect with people with authentic passion.
I didn’t understand a word of Rabih’s interview, because it was in Arabic. But when I got the translated transcript a few days after meeting him, I absolutely loved what he said: “Since I was 10 years old, I’ve been a son of the sea … I saw fishermen and discovered my passion.”
These words vibed 100% with the commitment, agency, and persistence that I witnessed through my camera lens.
Who’s not immediately intrigued by an individual who is so passionate about what they do?
Then the whammy. A text block: “Today, Rabih will pay more than half his earnings to the boat owner.”
This is a BIG problem in need of a solution.
Voila! This explains why USAID established the microfinance project in the first place.
If you remember one thing, take this with you: In your storytelling, first establish the person and passion, then the problem. Otherwise, nobody cares.
Viewers can try to care. We all try to care about issues and their resolution. Rural poverty in Lebanon is an important issue. Yes.
But here, in a minute, is the power of story. The sort that goes straight to the heart, not the head.
We meet Rabih pre-dawn. We join him on his boat and learn of his lifelong passion to be a successful fisherman. We don’t have to try to care. We care, instinctively. Call it empathy. But its the storytelling gene built into us, refined over millennia.
As a result, we’re invested in a solution.
As the video unfolds, we meet Rabih’s microfinance loan officer and Rabih’s family. We see Rabih sell his fish at the market. His world gets a big bigger and we understand it a bit more. By the end, as Rabih is tidying up his boat at dusk, we learn that his dream is to buy a larger boat and grow his business.
His life is improving and the USAID project is part of it.
This is the hope and the promise of international development. Rabih embodies this success story. Strong visuals and Rabih’s passionate quest to succeed help us care.
Also on the Panel …
Dani Clark works in communications at the World Bank. Turns out Dani also blogs at Medium, where she’s currently writing a gripping true-crime serial about a Texas man on death row. I started the first one last night and couldn’t stop until I’d read them all.
Kunle Badmus owns Kowree, a start-up technology firm aimed at helping African governments and businesses access opinions of their citizens and customers. Its’ true innovation is simplifying the feedback loop for improved communications and performance.
Allen Carrol gave a riveting introduction to Story Maps, a browser-based interactive storytelling platform that lets you combine authoritative maps with narrative text, images, and multimedia content. For a visual person like me—who’s always looking for new and better ways to distribute video—I’m excited about the insane potential of Story Maps and can’t wait to start using it.
In the future when we all look back at our careers, we probably won’t regret taking too many risks.
On the contrary, most of us are experts at playing it safe.
Why are we so chronically cautious? For those of us with creative businesses, getting in a rut can be a fast-track to failure.
Calculated risk-taking, however, can help us gain new skills, land new clients, and grow personally and professionally.
I’m not talking about impulsive or self-sabotaging risk-taking, where you bet it all on one roll of the dice. I’m talking about the calculated kind—using intellect, effort, and resourcefulness—to take your creative business to the next level. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it!
In my experience running my own small creative business (we make videos for international development organizations), here are 7 of my best calculated risks and what I learned along the way.
1. Go for it!
The year was 2000, and barely a year out of my Master’s program, I was a writer for the World Bank Group’s external website and internal online daily, “Today.” It was a good job in the field of economic development, exactly where I thought I wanted to be. I liked interviewing the diverse staff and writing about something different every day. But there was a glass ceiling: after a while, I wasn’t doing anything new. And I had a nagging feeling that what I really needed to be doing was making documentary films. Yet I had no relevant education, experience, or mentors.
Against all good judgment, I struck out on my own. Thanks to the reputation I’d built as a quality writer, I landed several contracts right away. The lesson here is to listen to yourself. When your inner voice starts telling you that you’re settling, don’t settle. If that means you need to become your own boss, then make it happen. It’ll be easier if you’re at a point in your life, like I was, without children or a mortgage. If you fail, find a way to fail forward.
2. You have to give to get
During the summer of 2001, still hungry to learn more about documentary, I attended the DoubleTake Documentary Institute held at Hampshire College. Ken Burns, Fred Wiseman, Ira Glass, and others held master classes on documentary and storytelling across disciplines. It was inspiring, and made me want to make videos more than ever! Meanwhile, as a freelancer, I was making progress, doing writing, web, and multimedia jobs—but not any video yet. Something had to give.
At the time, my friend Darin ran a nonprofit benefitting D.C. schoolchildren. What if I made him a free video? Sure, he said (surprise!). Suddenly I had to figure it out. Yikes! I had no idea how to shoot, direct, or edit. So I hired a talented shooter and editor, and I did the rest. Somehow it worked! The Heads Up video turned out great, Darin was happy, and I had the beginnings of a portfolio. During the next year, I repeated the “Free Strategy” several times. It was a pretty bad business strategy: I was robbing Peter (my freelance business) to pay Paul (the free videos). But this was the start of an education in video production I never had. Within a year, I had a solid portfolio.
The lesson: I knew a couple things about myself. First, I didn’t want to go back to school to learn video. Second, I didn’t want to work as an intern at a video production company to gain skills and knowledge. My “Free Strategy” gave me a real-world situation where I had the incentive to make quality videos for real clients on a real schedule. I gave my time and some free videos. But I got much more. I learned a lot, and fast.
3. Fake it ‘til you make it – just surround yourself with creative talent
By the end of 2003, I was getting pretty good making short videos for nonprofits, but I’d never done anything too complex. When I bid for a campaign of videos in Tokyo, I didn’t think I had a chance. I simply didn’t have the experience or portfolio.
I won the contract—undoubtedly because I underbid significantly. Initially, I was in over my head. Pre-production was exceedingly tough. Fortunately, I hired my former schoolmate Kayo to serve as Tokyo-based Unit Producer: she also co-wrote the script, translated, and was a total rock star. We engaged a local crew and used 10 actors, and ultimately spent an exhilarating week at some of Tokyo’s most beautiful locations. Less than four years after starting my company, I pulled off a complex international bilingual production. The video even won an award.
The lesson: Most importantly, I continued my education. The talented Cinematographer Stefan Weisen came to Tokyo with me and essentially co-directed. And eons before he launched his uber-successful creative agency, Gigawatt Group, Mark Devito edited. Two super creative, talented partners. This project was really a watershed point for me. Before, I was doing small stuff around D.C. After, I believed I could pull off any video production anywhere in the world. The lesson: you really can “fake it ‘til you make it” if you’re prepared to surround yourself with talented people and work your tail off.
4. To be uniquely creative, use your special networks (and a credit card)
The year was 2006. I was getting adept at writing, directing, and producing all kinds of corporate videos, but I still hadn’t made a long-form documentary. Looking around for a subject, I kept thinking of my experience living in Africa. My idea: make a film about the most extreme running race in the world—the marathon-distance trail run up a live volcano in Buea, Cameroon. The problem was I just didn’t have the budget. What to do?
I remember sitting down to lunch in January 2006 with an old friend, Paul McKellips, who’s made his share of indie features. He saw me waffling, and gave me a good motivational drubbing. His message: you have a great story. Now go to Africa and tell it! The next month, I put everything on my Visa card and flew with Dan Evans and Ryan Hill to Cameroon. I relied on Ryan’s experience with Nat Geo, Dan’s resourcefulness, and my network—which was key. My best Cameroonian friend, Jean Paul Fosso, was working with the Cameroonian Sports Ministry, so I had full access, and even ended up shooting from a helicopter during the race (crazy scary!). Another close friend, Louise Mbango, connected me to Moki Charles, a producer for Cameroonian Radio and Television. He took a week off from his day job to be our Unit Producer and hired seven additional shooters to film on race day. I directed the 10-day shoot. Then Dan and I scripted and edited for a year, working in between paying gigs. Awesome!
Ultimately, Volcanic Sprint won the non-fiction category at the Big Bear Lake Film Festival and was an official selection of the Jackson Hole Film Festival, Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, and Boulder Adventure Film Festival. It was distributed globally by American Public TV Worldwide. You can even watch it on Amazon and iTunes today (and it has an 8.8 rating on IMDB). I earned back my investment and then some.
To tell this unique story, I needed my friends to give me rare access. My hook-up with the Mt. Cameroon Race of Hope was one-in-a-million. The lesson: look again at your own networks. They may inspire more creativity than you give them credit for!
5. Target your weaknesses
The year was 2008. My business was taking off. I had hired Dan full-time and we were scrambling to finish a lot of corporate videos. We started our second documentary, Shattered Sky, which contrasted America’s leadership preserving the ozone layer with inertia in the face of climate change. The problem was, from my standpoint, Dan was having all the fun, shooting and editing. I was the one wearing the monkey suit, writing proposals, going to meetings, producing, bent over my computer. I had the itch to be more creative. I wanted to shoot.
Sure, I’d been shooting for years, first with the Panasonic DVX100 before HD was a thing. But I wasn’t proficient yet. So I started taking the Sony EX1 home to practice at night and on weekends. It didn’t come naturally for me. But I kept at it, and gradually improved. So when Dan moved to Portland to start his own production company, I had the confidence and ability to do all the shooting myself. Since then, I’ve spent thousands of hours behind the lens, first with the Canon 5D, then the Canon C100, the C300, and now on my Sony FS7, which for my money is the best documentary camera value out there.
The lesson: shooting didn’t come nearly as easy to me as writing and producing. But I worked really hard. I targeted my weakness.
6. Forge unorthodox partnerships
The year was 2013. The previous three years had been the most fulfilling in my professional life. I wrapped Shattered Sky, and then shot, wrote, and edited 10 episodes of a documentary TV series called Bench to Bedside. Less than three years after learning Final Cut Pro, I was nominated for an Emmy award for editing. I was doing every aspect of filmmaking and loving it!
Meanwhile, I was directing a commercial shoot one day working with DP Doug Gritzmacher. It was intense: 20 actors, 9 scenes, a big crew. It was approaching midnight and we were about to get kicked out of our location (Frederick Memorial Hospital). I was tired and couldn’t visualize the last scene the way I’d scripted it. There was no way we were going to finish in time and I was stressed out! Fortunately, Doug changed it up on the fly, basically directed the scene for me, and saved the production! The next month, he hired me to direct some interviews for a DirecTV documentary, MLK: More than a Dream—and I got to interview Colin Powell, James Brown, and the incomparable John Lewis. Month after month, I hired him or he hired me for various projects. But along the way, he started packing—to move to Denver!
Doug’s choice was an odd one. He’d spent 15 years building a clientele in D.C. and he was leaving now? (He wanted to settle in a place where he could ski, hike, and mountain bike in his backyard, which I couldn’t blame him for!) So in part to cement an emerging partnership, we launched Z-Channel Films, a full-service video production company. We really had no idea what our business plan was, but it felt like the right thing to do. It was certainly unorthodox timing. I helped Doug pack the U-Haul the same day our website went live.
Ultimately, Doug and I were rewarded for our efforts. Z-Channel won a Telly Award for one of our first collaborations, Saving Sally(the one where he saved the shoot). Then when AARP hired me to direct a couple projects in California, I had them fly Doug out from Denver. Those two short films – Skateboard Mom and then Super Humans Unmasked—surpassed 5 million views on Facebook! And then the incredible happened. Z-Channel Films was the first production company DirecTV chose to work with to make a documentary out-of-house. On Veteran’s Day 2015, Jobs for G.I.s premiered nationally on DirecTV’s Audience Channel.
The lesson I learned: be open to new partnerships, even when it doesn’t seem that logical at first.
7. A.B.L.: Always be learning
The year was 2013 and drones were in the news. When DJI released their first Phantom copter, I was fascinated. Although I had zero experience flying, I immediately bought the first-generation model and started practicing. But the first six times I tried to fly it, I crashed. But I kept at it, and my (empty) neighborhood soccer field became my practice grounds. Gradually I got proficient. The problem was, the Phantom didn’t have a gimbal. So when I MacGyvered a GoPro on it, the footage was shaky. Try as I might, I couldn’t use the footage.
Fast forward a year. A local production company hired me to field direct and run second camera for a new Red Bull Channel series. The night before my first gig they called: “Can you fly a copter?” Sure, I bluffed, even though it’d been a year. I arrived in Key West to find the audio grip holding a brand-new Phantom 2+ still in the box. I put it all together—on the boat!—as we motored to our location. I knew the Phantom 2+ had a gimbal and a pretty good camera. But my stomach was churning: would this thing even fly? If so, would I crash it in the Atlantic? Fortunately, on that first harrowing mission, I barely avoided baptizing the copter: Here’s a YouTube clip. Red Bull liked the footage so much that in subsequent months, I flew the Phantom in Portland and Jamestown. Here’s my blog about the experience. These days, I fly the Phantom 4 all the time. It’s a great tool for cinematic aerials: check out what I did last month in in Dakar, Senegal.
The lesson: Always be learning. We may not be able to use our knowledge right away. But in this business, learning is the best calculated risk you can take!
I flew the DJI Phantom 4 in Dakar, Senegal last week. Over a mosque, through a statue, hovering near curious children. It was a great experience and really elevated the production values of my international development video. This was my first trip to Senegal, but my 20th trip overseas to make a video for an international development organization, with my company Dorst MediaWorks.
Since I just bought the Phantom 4 last month and this was my first project using it, I wanted to share nine reflections from the trip.
1. Cinematic, yes
Bottom line, aerial shots take it to the next level. I’ve filmed in a lot of places in a lot of conditions, but I got truly excited when I put the Phantom 100 meters in the sky and started filming. Brilliant moving pictures.
2. Client love
At the first review session, my client loved the aerial footage. It was all they wanted to talk about. I spent 90% of my production days earthbound, shooting interviews and following characters, but the aerials garnered all the attention!
3. Content is still king
I was in Dakar to tell the story of how a newly renovated container terminal has helped Senegal’s economy, and how a unit of the World Bank helped make it a possibility. It’s a typical project for me, since I specialize in making videos for international development organizations, like subcontractors for USAID or partners of the World Bank Group. I bought the Phantom 4 because I knew it would be hard to show the sheer scale of operations from the ground—humongous cranes, massive containers flying through the air, rows of stacked containers. The copter was the perfect tool. If, by contrast, the story had been about an education project, the most I could have expected out of the copter would have been some transition shots. But on this gig, the Phantom gave pictures that were absolutely essential to the storytelling.
Here’s the finished film for the unit of the World Bank Group, MIGA:
4. Mohamed, thanks
Unit Producer Mohamed Srour was great. A white guy in West Africa already gets a lot of attention. Throw in camera equipment and a drone, and you get very curious crowds! Flying a drone in Africa is a magnet for attention. Mohamed has been plying his craft for almost 30 years and was a joy to work with. He allowed me to focus on the creative. If you ever need a fixer in Senegal, give him a shout: 011 221 776300208
5. Safety first
It was school vacation in Senegal, so loads of children were out playing during the day. Mohamed led us to some well-known spots to fly the drone, including the Mosque de Oukama. As soon as I sent the copter up, boys immediately started gathering around. I was glued to the DJI app on my phone, busy piloting, so the first time I looked up there were 30 boys crowded around me. As the sun set, the Phantom was about 300 meters west over the Atlantic. Suddenly, the app started beeping: the battery was running out! Even though I was pressed to land the thing immediately, I had the presence of mind to ask Mohamed to clear a safe landing area — the rotating blades can be very dangerous. Almost as soon as the Phantom landed on the sand, the envelope closed and all the boys crowded in again. We took a few photos, I high-fived everybody, and we wrapped for the evening.
6. Geofencing, ugh
This version of the Phantom has geofencing built in. I guess drunk guys flying drones onto the White House grounds didn’t help. The good news is that people can’t fly copters into the paths of airplanes. The bad news is that I can’t fly the thing in Arlington, Virginia where I live — or anywhere within an approximate 20-mile radius of the White House (that’s the big red circle). I can’t even take off. What surprised me was that in Dakar, there was similar geofencing around the airport there. DJI calls it a Geospatial Environment Online (GEO), which is continually updated and also includes other sensitive areas like prisons, power plants, major stadium events, etc. Good idea, but bad news if you just want to practice flying at the local park and you’re too close to a no-fly zone. Like me.
7. So Easy!
I bought the Phantom 1 when it came out in 2013. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a gimbal and the GoPro I rigged up yielded shaky, unusable footage. But on the plus side, I became a proficient pilot. So when Red Bull hired me to direct a few episodes for a TV series, I flew the Phantom 2 Vision Plus: in Portland, Oregon and the Florida Keys. Then I got hired to operate camera for a PBS documentary in Jamestown, Virginia and I also flew there. But I hadn’t flown a Phantom for about 18 months when I got this Senegal gig. Yet it is so easy to operate that I had no problems at all.
The Dakar story about the container terminal took me to a company that imports most of its product from Europe. I wanted to illustrate how a company became more profitable now that the container terminal is more efficient. “Time is money,” said the project manager in English (even though he speaks only French and Wolof!), which was exactly what I was hoping to hear. After the interview and some b-roll, I got out the Phantom (I always do it last in case people object). I figured I’d get a quick establishing shot and call it a day.
Suddenly, something special happened. The laborers went into hyper drive. With the copter overhead, I was able to see what I couldn’t see from the ground — they were all loading and unloading gas tanks in three independent dynamic assembly lines! Immediately, I lowered the copter to the far right of the scene and piloted a slow push left over a truck (see 00:12 – 00:23 in the video above). In one take, I was able to capture a beehive of activity that illustrated the project manager’s quotes perfectly. It was my favorite shot of the trip.
Until last month, my best Olympic memory was this: While in college in 1992 I traveled across Europe for a summer. In Barcelona, I splurged on Olympic track and field tickets for my 21st birthday. Sunshine, world-class runners, and … Evander Holyfield? What was he doing in the cheap seats? I have this enduring memory of sitting behind the boxing champ all day, surprised he had itty-bitty calves in comparison to his hulking upper body.
Then Rio happened.
In my opinion, Brazil pulled it off. I had one of the best weeks of my life. Rio buzzed with Olympic spirit, and I saw Neymar, Simone Biles, Matthew Centrowitz and hundreds of other elite athletes doing what they do best.
The experience made me realize a few things along the way:
1. Make Up Your Own Mind
I arrived on high alert. How could I not? The negative news was relentless. I mean, just type “Rio Olympic problems” into Google and you get 26 million results: Zika, unsafe water, crime, corruption. Sure, Brazil was going through an unprecedented political crisis and their worst recession in a century. But, during my week in Rio, the Olympics went off great. Transportation was excellent. The metro was cleaner and faster than the DC metro in some cases. Volunteers were all over the place, affable and helpful. Crime wasn’t an issue, for me. Oh yeah, and nobody got Zika. Oops! Makes me wonder why our media was so down on Brazil. For me, it verged on some sort of implicit editorial prejudice against a poorer country. Journalists simply didn’t get the green light to expose London’s pockets of squalor and rampant inequality in 2012. But this year, they had free reign to hate on Rio. My take-away: be skeptical of what you read. And then make up your own mind.
2. Choose Your Corner: Lochte, Trump … or Not
On a daily basis, people wanted to engage with m on Trump. Not just Brazilians. Everybody. I don’t blame them. He’s fascinating, a Narcissistic blowhard without a censor mechanism. This was different than the years of Bush Junior, whom I felt I needed to defend to some degree, since dismissing him outright felt like dismissing American Democracy (since we voted him in twice and our Congress authorized the Iraq invasion). Trump ain’t elected. Yes, the Republican Party is broken for selecting him. No, he won’t be elected. No, he doesn’t represent America, our policies, our values. That felt great to say. Liberating. Now let’s go drink a beer.
But then Ryan Lochte happened. My first instinct was guilt. An American Abroad Behaving Badly. But then I had a Liberating Trump Moment. I don’t know Ryan Lochte. He doesn’t stand for me. In fact, he’s not representative of Americans abroad or American athletes at all. He’s one guy (here’s a complete timeline of Locate’s imaginative story). But he does have a supreme talent for accidental humor.
3. Fresh is Best: Açai!
If I could snap my fingers and import one thing from Rio today, it would be Brazil’s culture of fresh fruit juice. Every morning, I bought an açai bowl from one of my favorite corner juice joints in Ipanema: Polis Sucos or Big Nectar. My favorite: acai, with banana, strawberry, and granola mixed in. Yes, the food was great. And I was fortunate to have several friends who live in Rio who took me to their favorite places and introduced me to all the local delights—churrasco, feijoada, moqueca do camarao—but my favorite: açai and the fruit juices!
4. Even Elites Seek Mentors
At track and field, we had tickets up top. But the Brazilians weren’t checking tickets, so we wasted no time boogying down to ground level … about 10 rows behind a group of Olympic coaches. The men’s decathlon was in full swing, namely the discus. When
defending Gold Medalist Ashton Eaton walked over to us the first time, I could almost hear his conversation with Coach Harry Marra. Eaton listened intently. It was impressive. Here was the best athlete in the world—maybe the best decathlete in history—and he could have relied solely on experience, technique, or mental focus. But he chose to connect with his coach after every throw. It made him stronger.
5. Know the Rules of Your Game
That same morning, my heart sunk during the qualifying round of the Women’s 4x100m relay when Allyson Felix dropped the baton. Disqualified! I was crushed. What I didn’t know—and wouldn’t learn until dinner with friends later that night—was that she had been bumped by the Brazilian runner next to her. The team filed an appeal with the IAAF and got a second chance, qualifying for a chance to win the gold, which it did. Great summary here.
6. Stay Determined
This one is more Brazil and less Olympics. Everywhere you go, commerce comes to you: on the beach, in the metro, at red lights. Men and women selling everything from candy bars to drinks to clothes—and all manner of random chochkies. Having lived in Cameroon, I got used to this sort of thing long ago. Here in Rio, the traveling salesmen weren’t aggressive. Yeah, there’s a lot of poverty in Brazil, but these people were doing their best to get ahead. They deserved as much respect as the guy with the desk job or the woman driving a bus. Did I want a tablecloth at the beach? No. But was I known to buy Kit Kats on the metro en route to Olympic events. Yes!
It was a cool Saturday evening at the Olympic Stadium and I didn’t hold out much hope for Matthew Centrowitz. Sure, I saw the American 1,500m runner qualify during our Olympic Trials and vaguely knew he grew up somewhere near Washington, D.C. But Americans don’t win distance events, right? An American hadn’t won gold in the 1,500m since 1908. Yes, Centrowitz got 4th in London, but at the starting line Ethiopian and Kenya runners predominated, including Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop, the 2008 Olympic winner and Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, the 2012 Olympic winner. The gun fires! The first lap is slow at 66 seconds. And the second lap is even slower at 70 seconds. It is the pace of a high-school mile! Centrowitz, in the lead, seems to be conserving his energy for the final sprint, and nobody is calling his bluff. At the bell lap, with the runners still in a tight pack, the pace ratchets up, and Kiprop finds himself in 9th place with no choice but to sprint up the outside—burning a lot of matches just to make it up to Centrowitz’s shoulder. Watch the last lap: it’s incredible. It’s more like a battle—elbows flying, runners tripping, all fighting for position since position means victory. In the lead, Centrowitz is protected from all that. It’s like he’s running in a vacuum. His own race. At no point does he appear to “start a sprint,” or look around, or even alter his exquisite form in any way. On the homestretch, he maintains form all the way, and amidst an absolutely insane crowd screaming bloody murder—including me—he’s the first to cross the line. Gold! Centrowitz’s last lap is a sprinter’s pace—50 seconds. He looked around as if utterly shocked. His father, in the stands, literally loses his mind! After the victory, Centrowitz the Younger says: “I came into this championships with a different mind-set. Thought to myself, I’m in great shape. Just run to my capability . . . It was about being the best I could be on this day.” Centrowitz never let the chaos behind him dictate his strategy. He ran, and won, his own race.
“Dorst MediaWorks’ goal is to help make the world a more just and equal place. We make videos for international development organizations that show how international development programs transform lives. This gives greater voice to the world’s poor and strengthens the entities that work with them.”
On Dorst MediaWorks’ portfolio of videos for international development organizations, you can skip around and see 30+ films from 15+ countries. Or you can filter by topic (education, health, small business, etc) or location (Azerbaijan, Kenya, Zimbabwe, etc). You can even click around on a world map to see where I’ve produced for clients ranging from USAID to Catholic Relief Services to the World Bank.
I like how the site is visually rich. The slideshow on the front page contains stills from my work. The pictures, films, and blogs — so many great memories of working in some challenging, interesting places with amazing people.
It’s an honor to be doing this work, amplifying the efforts of international development organizations, and ultimately improving the quality of life of the people they work with.
I’m honored to have received a Joint Service Achievement Medal” for “Outstanding “Achievement” for my recent documentary film, JOBS for G.I.s.
The honor was a complete surprise. Given by former Air Force officer, Aneika Solomon, who is one of the five transitioning service members we follow in the film, the award reads: “Director Stephen Dorst distinguished himself by outstanding craftsmanship as Director and Producer, Z-Channel Films, Washington D.C. by creating the documentary film, G.I. JOBS. While in collaboration with DirecTV and working alongside Producer and Director Doug Gritzmacher, Director Dorst’s keen perspective was instrumental in capturing and melding the stories of five veterans from the services of the Army, Air Force, Navy and the Marines.”
Aneika, like the other four people we follow, was brave to share her story with us. I hope this films helps all of us to pay more attention to this transition out of the service, which is such a critical juncture in the lives of millions of people. Too often, I think, people figure they do their part by clapping for the military at a baseball game or supporting Congressional increases in defense budget spending. But that doesn’t cut it.
We have to do a better job of making the transition work for more people. We need to target resources better for education, workforce training, and other support. If you own a company, you can help out by keeping an open mind and trying to interview former military for every position, not just the ones they’re stereotyped in. If you know somebody that served overseas, try to learn more about Iraq and Afghanistan so you can better appreciate what they went through.
At the policy level, we should all encourage the DOD to share more information with veteran service organizations (VSOs) at the city level. Too often, these VSOs want to help, but don’t find out about veterans in need until they’re already jobless, homeless, or worse.
When you empower veterans, you strengthen communities.
Doug and I are on the lookout for our next documentary topic. If you know of a great, inspiring story, let us know. If you are an Executive Producer-type, interested in funding great stories, reach out. We are always looking to expand our team.
In December, Doug Gritzmacher and I joined Producer T.J. Cooney for a few days in San Francisco to film a bunch of adults that dress up as superheroes.
It was one of our first projects under the banner of Z-Channel Films, our new company. Doug and I have been collaborating off and on for years, and we’ve finally decided to take the plunge and work together in this new initiative (more on our motivation and background).
As for the superheroes, I was skeptical. What was the catch? Were they Comicon junkies living out a suspended adolescence? Or bored middle-agers with aspirations to be cast in Kick-Ass 3?
As soon as I met Roxanne Cai, however, I got an immediate appreciation for her commitment and true motivation.
Since Roxanne founded the California branch of The Initiative, she’s led efforts to pick up used drug needles around the Mission District. Not just once in a while. But every week for four years. At last count: about 200 trips and about 7,000 needles off the streets.
That’s not all. About once a month, the group hosts a pop-up Street Boutique. They dress up as superheroes for fun and to attract attention to their good deeds. Then they hang up all the clothes on mobile racks so people can consider options in a dignified manner.
This is a behind-the-scenes post for a pro bono video I recently made. It was a total blast! All the boarders I met were really cool. And it was for a good cause. Check it out:
One of my good friends is Colin Brown. His son, Kaelen, is a junior in high school. Kaelen’s the lead singer and guitarist for the band Red Light Distraction and is an avid longboarder. When Kaelen told me he and friends Jake Muskovitz and Cole Trudo were organizing a longboard jam to raise money for charity, I was impressed and said I’d make a video for them.
I drew in Mark Devito, Executive Creative Director of local boutique agency Gigawatt Group, to produce. Mark hires me to direct commercials for some outdoor, active lifestyle, and sports accounts he has, so I knew he’d be stoked. Then we asked Rob Bellon to work second camera.
While unpacking my gear, I heard a few people mentioning “Red Bull guy.” Then a minute later, I heard it again. Soon, I realized they were talking about me! I’d mentioned to Kaelen that I was headed to Hong Kong on a shoot for the Red Bull channel — and suddenly, I’m “the Red Bull guy!” (read my post from Hong Kong. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m just an indie freelance filmmaker!)
I brought my C100 outfitted with an external ProRez Atomos Samurai Blade to capture some establishing shots. Rob had his GH4, and I asked him to float around the finish line where everybody was hanging out and capture reaction shots and cool details. I ended up using a lot of Rob’s footage!
That was my first time using the glidecam. If you want to watch another video I just made in San Diego using the glidecam for 100% of the footage, check this out:
For me the biggest question was, how would my new GoPro Hero4s perform? I’d just bought three of them for a shoot I had in Portland, Oregon, but I’d yet to take advantage of the 120 frames per second in 1080p.
As for the event, I was impressed with the organization and community. The Czech Embassy and neighbors didn’t seem to mind all the commotion. The 100+ longboarders were polite and shared the road when the odd driver or cyclist headed through.
Kaelen, Jake, and Cole ran a tight ship. They had tons of raffle prizes donated by all the big companies—Riptide, Loaded, Bustin, Muirskate, Rayne, and other companies listed at the end of the video. A bunch of the longboarders I talked with said it was the best-run jam they’d ever been to.
And the athleticism and technique were impressive—especially at the finish line, where these guys bombed down going 30 or 40 mph, then threw down into various heel side and toe side slides!
Check out this next clip: I actually jumped to avoid a slider (My bad, I got too close to the action!) But the glidecam kept the footage pretty smooth!
How did the GoPros perform? I set all three of them to capture footage at 120fps 1080p, and gave them to different guys to see what we could capture. I actually mounted a flat adhesive mount flush on a board by screwing it into the housing. But that was too shaky. I also affixed the Jaws mount on the front lip of a board, but that was too shaky as well.
The positions that worked the best were the chesty mount, the tried-and-true helmet mount, the wrist mount, and my low-tech favorite . . . just having guys hold it in their hands (or with a pole) and point it at themselves.
One of the most talented boarders, J.D. Casada, captured the best footage, which worked really well at 120 fps. He’s the one featured for more than 30 seconds, from the 41-second mark.