Blog: Shorts

Video Storytelling: Visual Primacy and the Hero’s Quest

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.

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SID’s DC chapter aims to be a “global town square” by convening development professionals from across the spectrum. Since I make videos for international development organizations, they invited me.

 

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Left to right: moderator Elizabeth Corley, Dani Clark, Kunle Badmus, Allen Caroll, and me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 make some videos about in 2014.

 

When the Sky’s the Limit, Where Do You 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.

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.

Ultimately, I made three videos, about Hala’s Flower Shop, Sameer’s Cattle Business, and Rabih’s Fishing Business.

 

Rabbi’s Fishing Business

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.”

Exactly!

Then, we talked about two important storytelling pillars: The primacy of the visual and the importance of a hero’s quest.

 

Visual Primacy

I read somewhere that when we watch videos, what we take away 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.

Because of substandard visuals, viewers do not have the reaction that the producer wanted.

And this helps explain 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 resisted.

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.

 

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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.

Thanks to Kenlee Ray and Riccardo de Marchi Trevisan for organizing the event (check out the Society for International Development’s DC chapter on Facebook). Stimulating event. Good times.

The 6 Most Epic International Development Videos Ever

Here in Washington, DC, we have a lot of smart people working to make a difference in international development, and a cluster of global nonprofits, USAID subcontractors, and multilaterals.

With all this competition, it can be tough for you—a communications professional—to get the word out about your organization’s results.

As the founding producer of Dorst MediaWorks, I’ve specialized in video production for international development organizations since 2003. My primary counterparts are Directors of Communications, and we spend a lot of time brainstorming how to tell great stories.

Here are six international development videos that have animated our conversations and inspired us. Use the comments below to critique these choices, or add your own favorites!

“Still the Most Shocking Second a Day,” by Save the Children

Hands down the best video about the Syrian refugee crisis you’ll ever watch. It’s even better than its predecessor, “Most Shocking Second a Day,” whose message clearly struck a chord: “Just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening” (and surpassed 55 million views!). Maybe it gets to me because I’m a parent, with a daughter. But that’s the point: it brings the crisis home. The protagonist is our daughter, our neighbor. Emotionally, you can’t dismiss her, particularly given how it’s filmed, with her experience so front-center. Knowing that, Save the Children emphasizes via the YouTube description: “The refugee crisis isn’t just a story on the news – it’s happening here and it’s happening now. Please watch and share.” Moreover, at the 01:30 mark, an annotation reminds us to donate via text. Spectacular strategy, well-executed video, with a wraparound fundraising campaign. This is as good as it gets.

 

“Price tag lipdub by 500 women in Uganda,” by SYPO

The most entertaining microfinance video you’ll ever dance in your chair to! My face hurts from smiling ear-to-ear! Well-produced, the video has fun music, choreography, and mobile camerawork that takes us to meet hundreds of women beneficiaries of a microfinance project. The message, “We want the same things that you want,” really hits home, making a connection. And their lip-syncing refrain of “It’s not about the money, we just wanna make the world dance,” is a brilliant (and ironic) send-up by the Dutch NGO SYPO. The YouTube description reads, “Every single one of these strong and resourceful women has started a business of her own.” I’m a believer: happy, agents of change, dancing their way into our hearts. That’s results!

 

“The Source,” by Charity: Water

Immersive storytelling at its finest! Charity: Water is known for its successful outreach, so it’s no surprise they give us this. “The Source” is a Virtual Reality (VR) video, so get out your Google Cardboard, or at least watch it in the Chrome browser for the full 360 experience. At one level, this is traditional documentary storytelling: six days in the life of an Ethiopian girl Selam as a water well is constructed in her village. What distinguishes this video is the VR novelty that puts you in the driver’s seat. Scroll around and be part of Selam’s world! You decide what to look at. When these VR videos are done well, I find myself watching them several times, like this one. “The Source” is part of a first wave of immersive VR videos that will only get better as the technology continues to become more accessible and we filmmakers learn how to work in this new medium.

 

“Project Daniel,” by Not Impossible Labs

The best storytelling around innovation ever! I had the opportunity to shadow Mick Ebeling in New York City for a few days last month for an upcoming DirecTV documentary. He’s a charismatic guy whose Not Impossible Labs has, quite incredibly, won two consecutive SXSW innovation awards … Several years ago, I saw this video and loved it. And I’ve been taking it to my clients ever since. I like to watch it together because international development organizations love to talk about being innovative, but rarely manage to show it well, like “Project Daniel.”

I love a lot of things about this video, but here are three things in particular. First, the opening sequence tells the entire story visually in 10 seconds: A boy without an arm throws an object and smiles. Tremendous! No words required. I will never forget that scene. Second, the story structure plays with time to great effect: we start at the pinprick of transformation (Daniel throwing the object), then back to Daniel’s injury, then to Mick’s inspiration, then fast-forward to Mick “putting the plan in action” and finally, the breakthrough … where we started. It’s fun, unpredictable, and serves the story well. Third, Mick’s passion and perspective: Without Daniel, there is no transformation and no story. But without Mick, there is no connection. We are Mick. We get inside his head, and can’t help but be in awe of his determination. Unforgettable. That’s true innovation!

 

“Kony 2012,” by Invisible Children

The video that provoked a Thermidorian reaction! It’s hard to understate the widespread influence this video had, the allegiance it inspired—and when the pendulum swung back—the hate. Love it or hate it, Invisible Children brought Joseph Kony to the national consciousness; it helped shape policy; and it inspired a cohort of college students to think about conflict-affected people in Africa. Not too shabby! This should be on every list for the next generation. It was that influential.

 

“One Future, #ZeroHunger,” by World Food Programme

OK, so maybe this one isn’t “epic.” It’s nowhere near as inspiring as “Project Daniel,” tear-jerking as “Shocking,” or entertaining as “Lipdub,” but this video is effective nonetheless. Why? It has one idea and delivers. Visually, it’s strong and memorable. The script is concise, and refreshingly devoid of any wonky insider lingo. Watch it again: it’s all stock footage. It reminds us all that strategy always trumps budget, which is great news for comms departments with shrinking resources. Now that’s epic indeed!

So, what do you think? What do you think of these choices? What are your favorites? What’s inspired you?

Flying the Phantom 4 in Senegal: 9 Reflections from the Trip

 

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

img_8173I 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

img_8196Unit 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

steve-beach-dakarIt 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

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-3-20-49-pmThis 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.

 

8. Great value

I spent $1,600 at Adorama for the DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter Aircraft With Pro accessory Bundle. This costs less than a Canon 70-200mm lens; less than a tripod; even less than my trusty Litepanel 1×1 I take everywhere! At this price, the Phantom 4 is a great value.

 

9. Just fly!

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.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-5-54-10-pmSuddenly, 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.

For more on the history of the DJI Phantom.

The History Of The DJI Phantom

Sarajevo Shoot: International Development Video

When I touch down in Sarajevo for a film shoot for a World Bank Group project, I‘m mindful that this Olympic city suffered through the longest siege of a city in the history of modern warfare – 1,425 days long.

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This bridge is Šeher-Ćehajina ćuprija.

I’m here to make a video for an international development organization, but all I can think about is the Bosnian War, which ended 21 years ago. My driver, Chola, doesn’t have to point out the bullet holes pockmarking the exposed facades along the Miljacka River. When I learn he was Bosnian special forces, I imagine how these streets, for him, are more than just a vehicular grid. Buildings are tactical. They block artillery fire. Perhaps on this corner he lost a fellow soldier; or on that one, he returned fire.

Even two decades removed, how do you shake off war and just drive a car?

And how do you grow up in Yugoslavian brand of Communism, brave a four-year war, and then transition to capitalism on the margins of Europe?

This is running through my head as I load four pelican cases of video equipment in Chola’s car. Sarajevo has a long history as a cosmopolitan city, but post-war identity politics seem to be delaying the country’s pivot to Europe. It’s not like Bosnia isn’t capable. After all, in 1981, Sarajevo’s GDP was 133% the Yugoslav average. In 1984, it hosted the Winter Olympics. Moreover, during Communist days (pre-1992), Bosnia had a significant industrial base – all state-run of course. But since then, the country has had a hard time adapting to a market economy.

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That’s why I’m here: to help with that transition. Dorst MediaWorks makes videos for international development organizations. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) hired me to chronicle a project of its Corporate Governance unit, which works with a local organization to help improve local companies’ corporate governance (Watch films I made for the same group in Colombia and Egypt).

What is corporate governance? It’s the processes and structures by which companies are directed and controlled. Here in Bosnia, most companies are young, family businesses. They lack formal structures, such as independent boards, defined succession planning, and other hallmarks of larger companies. As a result, they find it difficult to access capital and grow regionally and internationally.

We’re heading east of town now on a winding road to film a small-business owner. He’s operating out of the renovated site of a Bosnian weapons armory. Amila, a confident, bilingual staffer at the IFC is my Unit Producer for these three days. It’s May and it’s raining, and Amila calmly reconfigures our shooting schedule to accommodate my obsession with rare patches of sunshine.

We arrive at the business and I unpack. I’m excited to be using my new Sony FS7 abroad for the first time. I’m looking forward to putting it through its paces, and plan to do a full blog post later about how much I loved using it!

From a work perspective, my two days in Sarajevo and one day in Banja Luka are a success.

bosnia3Personally, my absolute favorite part of my job is coming into contact with different cultures: meeting people, listening to their music, eating their food, learning about their hopes and fears, politics and history.

Sarajevo’s Old City is a joy. Much of it is a pedestrian zone, with small shops, ancient structures, a natural habitat for a coffee culture. I emerge at Vijecnica, which is both a library and City Hall. Fire-bombed by the Serbs during the war, it is recently rebuilt. Nearby, I stumble upon the Latin Bridge, where 102 years ago, a young Serb nationalist shot and killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand—and launched World War I. I meander up through parks and by mosques. Hungry, I stop for a hladno pivo (cold beer) and a cevapi (pita bread stuffed with grilled meat).

Back at my hotel, the day’s footage is definitely done cloning. It’s time to string out the interviews and upload an MP3 for the transcription service. I hope jet lag doesn’t keep me up too long tonight. And I’m praying for sunshine tomorrow.

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I’m in good hands with Chola and Amila. Great work team!

“Super Humans Unmasked”: 1.7m Facebook views

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 10.39.56 AMIn 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.

Meanwhile, Roxanne’s story is getting some interest on Facebook, with about 1.7 million views.

Way to go Roxanne! If we all followed your inspiring lead in the community, there’d be a lot less pain and suffering.

 

Directing in Brazil: In a Favela, an Oasis

Wphoto11hat is a favela? When I left Washington DC for a filming trip in Rio de Janeiro last week, I was apprehensive. It was my first trip to Latin America’s biggest country.  And instead of filming a documentary film on the beaches of Ipanema or Copacabana, I’d be a director/producer on a commercial in some of Rio’s poorest slums (favelas). What would I find? (I took this crazy pic on accident as a wave crashed on me during a walk on Ipanema beach!).

To prepare, I read a book entitled “Culture is our Weapon,” by Patrick Neatte and Damian Platt. It chronicles the severe poverty, ubiquitous drug trafficking, and endemic violence of the favelas. It follows the birth of AfroReggae, a transformative nonprofit that gives at-risk youth opportunities to shine, primarily in art and music (samba, hip hop, dancing, drumming, etc).

At that point, I spy three teenage boys in shorts and flip flops—and automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.

I stayed in Ipanema with an old friend, Neil Breslin, who flew in from Luanda, Angola to be the Unit Producer. Neil runs a firm connecting businesspeople in and out of Angola and speaks perfect Portuguese. He also owns apartments in Rio, so it was a great change of pace to stay at a friend’s place rather than a hotel.

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Wrapped AfroReggae shoot at AR21 concert, with AfroSamba lead singer LeCao Magalona and M’zée Fula-Ngenge. Leviano Bar in Lapa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.

The first morning, we turn inland to a favela called Vigário Geral. As the stunning seaside landscape recedes behind us, Rio is revealed as a sprawling mega-city. Most striking is the trajectory of the favelas, precipitous, straggling, and clinging to hillsides.

Our AfroReggae contact drives with us. Then outside Vigário, a local teenage boy meets us. He sits up front and is our ticket in. There’s one way in and out, a desolated and looping off ramp that issues to a main street blocked by two industrial trash containers. Culture is our Weapon describes why favela residents erect such blockades: to keep out overzealous police who have been known to rush in with assault vehicles, purportedly chasing drug traffickers, shoot with impunity, and leave just as quickly. It occurs to me that AfroReggae was established after the massacre of 21 innocents in August 1993, right where I am now.

At this point our genial driver, Elton, turns into a spider’s web of narrow alleyways. Homemade super-sized speed bumps pepper the route, so we top out at 5 mph, and Elton executes an exaggerated zigzag for several minutes. We trace a large “U” until we rejoin the main street again. We’re in.

At that point, I spy three teenage boys in shorts and flip flops—and automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. This sent a shudder through me. I tell my car mates this is freaking me out. That I’m only used to people in uniforms with guns. Neil counters that we’re actually safer here. The boys won’t harm us. They’re simply keeping the status quo (to protect their drug turf)—whereas if you get robbed in Ipanema or Copacabana, good luck getting justice.

I hadn’t filmed a frame yet and already my worldview was turning upside down. Safer neighborhoods with gun-toting teenagers? Citizen blockades to keep out police? Moreover, I was already seeing parts of Brazil that most Brazilians never see.

AfroReggae’s impressive, new four-story community center was built in 2010. It is clean and imposing, with a gaggle of children playing ping pong and foosball in the courtyard. It has all the collective good energy of a YMCA. A massive sculpture of a fist extends from the roof — is it a warning or an expression of pride?

The first person I meet is Anderson Sa, AfroReggae’s co-founder and the lead singer of AR21, formerly known as AfroReggae Band. I’d seen Favela Rising, an average documentary about a fascinating subject, where Sa factored prominently. I shot Sa in his recording studio, practicing with his band, and mentoring a younger singer, LeCao Magalona, who headlines the AfroReggae band AfroSamba. Both Sa and Magalona prove to be charismatic guys and very skilled musicians.

My client for this job is a private sector company based in Reston, Virginia. They are growing their business overseas, with Brazil one of the priority countries. So they hired me to make a series of spots that will be distributed in Brazil first and foremost. I’m shooting, directing, writing, and producing. I’ve already written the script. The voiceover is in Portuguese. The story needs to resonate with a local audience—which is a change for me. Usually when I travel to film overseas, the resulting film or video is to be viewed by Americans.

All this is going through my head at nightfall as I’m getting the last few shots. A plague’s worth of mosquitoes have descended on us from a nearby marsh and are harassing my young on-camera protagonist. The poor boy can’t concentrate on anything else. People are streaming home.

Both Sa and Magalona prove to be charismatic guys and very skilled musicians.

Since my morning encounter with the rifle-toting teenagers, this is the first evidence that Vigário is an unsafe, unhealthy place. The dozens of people I’ve met are authentic, nice, and all doing their own thing like anybody in any neighborhood. I played soccer with some boys and challenged a young man to a pull-up contest (I lost). I saw (and filmed) a steady stream of talented youth in violin lessons, samba classes, and all manner of dance practices—from ballet for little tots to African dance for seriously legit young adults.

AfroReggae has helped create an oasis.

Adany Lima runs the only youth dance troupe, Movimentos, in Cidade de Deos, a favela made famous by a movie of the same name.
Adany Lima runs the only youth dance troupe, Movimentos, in Cidade de Deos, a favela made famous by a movie of the same name.

Directing “Saving Sally”

sally copyThey say there’s freedom in structure. But how do you tell a story that spans 20 years in a traditional 60-second commercial spot? That was my challenge when Paul McKellips, President of FBR Media, asked me to direct “Saving Sally.” McKellips wanted to show the research and development that goes into developing life-saving medicine, with a focus on the people it saves.

First, I wrote the script with McKellips, who in a former life was a successful film and TV director and producer. Working with him went really smooth.

Visually, my solution was to shoot the spot with two distinct looks: For the bookend scenes with Sally’s family in the hospital room, I wanted to go more realistic and handheld. For the flashback to the years of discovery and progress, I’d do a dreamlike blue, exclusively dolly.

I also wanted to find a way to use visual FX during the compressed flashback scenes to convey complexity and chronology. The FX would be a secondary storyline. I knew the viewer wouldn’t be able to process all the FX in one pass, but that was kind of the point—there’s a lot that goes into developing medicine.

Then I storyboarded with my friend, Director of Photography Doug Gritzmacher. He did an amazing job visualizing all the scenes in advance—so we could think about how to integrate the visual FX in post.

In post, “Saving Sally” came alive. It was my first time collaborating with the insanely talented Peter Von Elling, whose visual FX wizardry exceeded my expectations.

As a documentary filmmaker, I tend to work on small teams. On location, there’s a lot more concern with reality — however that’s defined. When I’m director/camera on documentary shoots, I follow the action, concerned with emotion, interaction, human feelings. On the “Saving Sally” shoot, I spent days in advance working with a pretty big crew to ensure that we could conjure up emotion on set. It’s a big difference.

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This is a good example of the collaboration we had on this project. DP Doug Gritzmacher and I coordinated on the framing of this shot. In the original, the paper is blank. Then Visual FX guru, Peter Von Elling, filled in the paper with “notes” and composited all the other elements as well.

On the day of the shoot, I left Washington, D.C. behind and went to Maryland. Line Producer Kurt Uebersax ran the set like a well-oiled machine. Carl Glorioso, director of the Frederick Film Office, hooked us up with an ideal location at Frederick Memorial Hospital—where we staged some incredibly realistic scenes without trucking in a boatload of extra props.

I knew it was going to be tight—9 scenes in a 12-hour day. With about 20 actors and scenes on three hospital floors, we were moving fast. But it was 10pm and I still had two scenes to shoot, with some serious overtime charges looming—for actors, hospital, etc, if we didn’t wrap soon. I was exhausted and my creative synapses weren’t firing (despite a fourth cup of coffee!). But Gritzmacher (and Gaffer Chris Walter) actually accelerated the pace. I got everything I needed.

In post, “Saving Sally” came alive. It was my first time collaborating with the insanely talented Peter Von Elling, whose visual FX wizardry exceeded my expectations.

Much of my work over the years has been documentary, where you get more time to let events unfold, and time to tell the tale. But this year I’ve been directing more commercials, where every second counts. I’m lucky to have established my video production company in Washington, D.C., where there are really so many talented people working in the business. They really helped “Saving Sally” come alive!

 

 

 

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This is another good example of the collaboration we had. DP Doug Gritzmacher was sure to leave a lot of space on the left of this shot so that Visual FX Peter Von Elling could jazz up the shot with all the magical elements you see here.

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

Harlem for Earth Institute

“We the rich are literally dumping on the poor,” said Lisa Sharper today while I was interviewing her for a short film that documents eco-hazards and eco-opportunities in Harlem. Sharper’s NY Faith and Justice group has collaborated with WeACT and Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Science and Religion to engage Harlem’s communities around the issue of environmental justice. This is a hot topic in a place where public health indicators suggest something very fishy: some communities in Harlem and the Bronx have the nation’s highest asthma rates, for example. Why? Well, as Sharper explained, there are no public dumps in Manhattan, but 40+ in the Bronx. And of the seven bus depots in Manhattan, six are in Harlem. So, every hour of every day, buses go though Harlem, creating these corridors of pollution that settles in clouds on schools, homes, children. Lots of it. WeACT is into its 12th year on an MTA Accountability Campaign, that’s trying to get the city to think more about the health of Harlem’s people. Having not seen or heard much about this story, I didn’t care much. But now that I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I have two reactions: first, I’m ashamed to live in a country that lets this happen; and I’m hopeful that progress can happen fast.