Blog: Travel

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.

 

Rabih-Hero-Shot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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

From Ryan Lochte to Ashton Eaton: 8 Things I Learned at the Olympics

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.

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Self-portrait, Ipanema Beach

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!

img_7670If 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

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Ashton Eaton walks to the stands to talk with his coach

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

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This street performer hammed it up for loose change. That was cool, until he kissed me on the cheek. Here I am, seconds after …

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!

 

 

7. Golf no Bueno

Golf is an Olympic newcomer. But apparently, golf’s elite didn’t get the memo. The top-4 golfers in the world—Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and Dustin Johnson didn’t go. And 8 of the top-20 golfers in the world didn’t think it was worth their time. Most cited img_3671the “threat” of zika, but it was clear they didn’t respect the Olympics. Why should they? They get more money and prestige winning any number of other tournaments around the world: the British Open, the Masters, the US Open, and so on. At last May’s Players Championship, a golfer named Retief Goosen placed 15th and still earned $212,625. I propose that sports with mature, commercialized, global leagues—such as golf and tennis—take their Olympic cue from Men’s Soccer, which is largely an under-23 endeavor. That way, the Olympics can maintain its self-respect in every sport it allows in. The LA Times disagrees, but it doesn’t seem right when the best don’t come to play.

8. Run Your Own Race

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Centrowitz, moments after his gold-medal run.

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.

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!

Dorst MediaWorks’ Aerial Act: Flying the Phantom 2 Vision +

photoCopterI’ve flown the Phantom 2 Vision + in some historical, challenging, and fun locations during the last two months. I wanted to report what I learned—including one harrowing mission in the old-growth forests of Portland, Oregon.

Dorst MediaWorks is a video production company in Washington, D.C.  but our clients often send us around the country and internationally as well. So far, the Phantom is delivering on its promise to capture smooth shots that amps up the production values of our work!

First, I’ll cut to the chase. For the price, the Phantom 2 is a great value. It’s about $1,500 once you get a pelican case and a few extra batteries. Buy it, you’ll pay it off in one or two gigs.

I got the Phantom 1 when it came out a few years ago. I flew it a lot, and got the hang of it. Then I mounted a GoPro on it. But my footage was never good enough to include in a broadcast. It wasn’t ready for prime time.

But give credit to DJI. They improved the Phantom 2 Vision + in several major ways: (1) The 3-axis gimbal makes for very smooth footage; (2) the integrated camera keeps it simple; (3) the new and improved battery lasts longer (only count on 20 minutes rather than the advertised 25); and (4) the DJI Vision app allows you to watch what you’re filming on your iPhone (mounted on the included smartphone holder). You can also adjust the angle of the camera mid-flight!

In mid-September, I landed in Miami to direct a shoot for the new Red Bull Channel. Because our flight was delayed, I didn’t arrive in Key West until around 2am. The next morning, our call time was 6am, and my soundman handed me a new Phantom 2 box. In this sleep-deprived state, I put together the copter on set.

I was scared out of my mind of crashing the copter within the first few minutes in the Atlantic, but somehow I kept it dry and out of trouble and captured a few establishing aerial shots for the show:

The next week, Story House Production hired me to DP a shoot for PBS in Jamestown, Virginia. The fascinating thing about the documentary is that recent forensic archeology suggests cannibalism took place here during a particularly desperate winter in America’s earliest settlement.

A week later, I got the call by Red Bull to do another show in Portland, Oregon. This time, I’d be following an extreme arborist, who does his thing hundreds of feet in the air.

We trekked into Portland’s Audubon Sanctuary, which has some tremendous old-growth trees. We wanted to show what an expert tree climber this guy is and how he spans from tree to tree in the canopy! The problem running a copter here is that it’s so dense that you can’t get a single satellite—much less the six that the Phantom requires to fly steadily!

For the first two hours, we captured footage with our A-Camera and the GoPros. I was trying to convince myself we’d get enough coverage without the copter. After all, there was only an extremely tiny window of opportunity to take the copter up to the 250-foot level above the trees. I’d have to launch it without satellites, through a 10-foot opening. If I failed, the copter would crash and die. But without the footage canpoy footage, we wouldn’t have a full visual story. . .

Last week, I was in Hong Kong, and captured some stuff there. Just like the trees in Portland, the skyscrapers interrupted the satellite coverage. Only when I got the Phantom up to about 15 stories did it stop acting whacky and start to triangulate the satellite signals. This was something I learned—rarely am I flying in an open field. And when you’re flying the Phantom around obstacles, it pays to be careful.

Keep the copter alive to live to fly another day!

 

Directing for Red Bull in Hong Kong

shrimp chorizoThis shrimp chorizo burger in Hong Kong’s K-Town Bar and Grill in Kennedy Town was $28. Yowza!

I’m used to traveling the world to make videos for international development organizations, but this time around I’m in one of the most expensive cities around. I’m here to direct and produce an episode for a series on the new Red Bull Channel, hired by Story House, a production company with offices in Berlin, Halifax, and Washington, D.C.

On the team are DP Paul McCurdy, who’s wielding the C300 and a Red Epic on the Ronin for slow-motion. Our soundman is Mark Roberts, who’s on top of everything and nice to boot. When David Chung is not fixing for us, he runs his own local production company, Lemonade and Giggles. David captured this:

We get a lot of coverage on our first day. In addition to directing, I’m also running second camera. I’ve been trying to get better at the Glidecam, and I was really happy with it today. It gave me a lot of options for smoothly following the action. And when I needed to lock down or get a stable interview, I just set it down or balanced it on my belt. Here’s a little clip following our protagonists down some windy stairs and along a sidewalk — something that would have been too bouncy to even consider trying without the Glidecam. Check out the banyan tree roots that stretch for 40 or 50 feet down the sheer rock wall. Amazing!

I’m interested in experimenting with the Glidecam in other situations where you’d never dare filming on the move. Like following trail runners bouldering over the rocky Billy Goat Trail in DC, or other outdoor stuff.

I’m not sure if Red Bull will become the new ESPN, but this story’s going to be a good one!

St. George Slays the Injera

bira_logo_georgeIf you’re a butcher, don’t open up shop in Ethiopia—the country is fasting.

For most, this means not eating meat or dairy. They fast for Lent, which seems to go on longer than normal. And people fast Fridays. And Wednesdays. And yes, there are other prophets, and people fast for them too.

I’m no a food critic. I’m a documentary filmmaker and I run Dorst MediaWorks. We make videos for international development organizations. This time, I’m here to make videos for USAID projects.

It’s my first day in Addis Ababa, and the fasting explains why my unit producer, Addis Alemayehou, is angry.

Or maybe that’s because he picked this week to quit smoking.

In any case, Addis (the man, not the city) looks like he can take it, so I rub it in: “This injera with spicy beef is pretty darn good,” I grin, still baffled that meat is literally off the table 200 days a year.

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Addis heads 251 Communications, a local PR and business facilitation outfit that’s riding the crest of Ethiopia’s economic boom. He’s also the former Chief of Party of a successful USAID project (I’m here to tell the story of how it made a difference). Addis grew up in Canada, is whip smart, and seems like the perfect bridge for a dynamic Ethiopia looking to nail down new markets.

During the next five days, I film different entrepreneurs and their businesses. They’re in different sectors—apparel, shoes, handicrafts, tourism—but all have benefited from USAID support, mostly in the form of technical advice to improve their production processes and “export-readiness,” as well as trips to U.S. trade shows. As a result, they’ve increased exports to the U.S., grown their revenue, and hired more people. My client is IESC.

The second night, Addis takes me to Yod Abyssinia, which is part restaurant, part cabaret. I join a gaggle of expats and friends who are enjoying local music and dance. In what is swiftly becoming a trend, I eat more injera. I try Meta beer.

Meta is supposedly the upscale beer, but I prefer St. George. It’s an unassuming light lager, like 90% of beers in Africa. The way it slays your thirst after a bite of injera and spicy beef is like a Miller Lite washing down a Ben’s Chili dog at Nats Stadium on a sweltering DC afternoon. It quenches, it doesn’t inebriate (suffice it to say, I’m not a fan of this rating of Ethiopian beers).

The next morning, I film another business. Sara is an ambitious entrepreneur who’s taken her company from a domestic firm with seven employees to a 300-person firm that supplies the Gap. Here’s the final video on that one:

My driver is the genial Kirubel Melaku, and his van I dub “Big Red.” It looks like somebody dipped Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine in a red bath. It sports red carpet on the ceilings. Need I say more?

Big red

Outside of Addis, the country gets poor and hardscrabble pretty fast. It’s the dry season, and dust whips across fields and covers the highway. A pack of gaunt horses assembles on the highway median, inches from speeding vehicles—it’s the only place with wind, explains Kirubel, so bugs bother the horses less.

Ameseginalehugn,” is the byzantine six-syllable expression for thanks. My breakthrough is this: its iambic pentameter is strangely analogous to how I learned to say “Hello” in Hungarian: Jó napot kívánok. Six syllables each, same rhythm.

We fit in an afternoon of b-roll footage, and I find myself shooting in Trinity Church. There, in all my beady-eyes reverence, I’m at the grave of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia, Elect of God.

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Lots of buildings are going up. Outside the city, there are scores of roadside scaffolding shops. Long, young denuded trees are stacked and bundled, ready for transport to urban construction sites, where workers will scale the fragile trellises. My only thought is that if Ethiopia doesn’t stop using trees for scaffolding soon, there won’t be a tree left in the country.

Last year, Kiru drove Bono around when he visited Ethiopia, and he shows me pictures. Cool! Another European passenger downloaded the Billboard Top 100 on Kiru’s phone. That explains why, as we crawl through bumper-to-bumper traffic, I put Pharrell’s Get Lucky on loop. Somehow, it fits.

The Chinese are everywhere. The largest shoe factory, the largest steel factory, building the largest highway—trucks and motorcycles and phones. I wonder if the Chinese write stuff about us on their blogs: 美国人到处都是。最大的汉堡包特许经营店,含糖的可乐类饮料,最糟糕的不合身的运动服。和美国的游客大声,脂肪和忘却。

By the third day, I realize I can’t say a single word in Amharic. It’s not for lack of trying, but honestly, it’s incredibly opaque. No cognates, nothing to hang on to! The whole day I’m trying to learn something, but it goes in one ear and out the other.

Suddenly, I have the most bizarre synapse and am saying “thank you” without a hitch. “Ameseginalehugn,” is the byzantine six-syllable expression for thanks. My breakthrough is this: its iambic pentameter is strangely analogous to how I learned to say “Hello” in Hungarian: Jó napot kívánok. Six syllables each, same rhythm. It’s odd, but it works!

All in all, the people I meet are bright and friendly. And especially going there on the heels of a film trip to locked-down Kabul, Addis is literally a breath of cultural fresh air!

I’d definitely go back to Ethiopia again.

Finally, no dispatch from Addis Ababa would be complete without a knock-down drag-out darts competition with a dozen locals at a German pub:

Darts, dance, beer, injera. A couple new friends and a dynamic city. Despite the fasting, I’m all ready to go back!

International Development Video: Shooting in Afghanistan

ABADE-1120As I take my first steps on Afghan soil for a 10-day film shoot, I can’t shake the knowledge that the Taliban just launched their spring offensive.

I’m walking the gauntlet, a no-man’s-land, since Kabul airport doesn’t seem to permit cars anywhere near it (fewer bomb threats?). So under an intense sun, I push my cart stacked with video equipment for four city blocks to an awaiting armored SUV.

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Kabul Airport, jetlagged, and trying to take it all in

I’m here to make some international development videos for a subcontractor of USDA (since 2004, my company Dorst MediaWorks has made videos for international development organizations). It’s my 11th country in the last four years, but I’ve clearly underestimated Kabul.

I move into what people call a villa, but what’s really a walled compound. Like a prison. It has 10 armed guards on duty at any one time—a UK ex-special forces type and nine locals. When I go out, it’s in an “armored” with an armed guard. We get security briefings every morning, don’t leave the villa except to work, and return home before nightfall.

My friend Joe, a USAID veteran, skypes me several times from the States—most likely to give me a pep talk . But I don’t answer. For some reason, I don’t want any more context than what I have in front of my own two eyes. It’s verging on overwhelming. 

“[A]pproaching a checkpoint outside of Kabul, a soldier bangs violently on our window. We stop. My heart’s pounding.”

My job is to make some short documentaries about a successful USDA project, CBCMP, that is improving how the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture functions. It’s a capacity building project. In a country where more than 70% of the population derives some or all of their income from the agricultural sector, it’s important work. If farmers are more successful, the thinking goes, there’ll be less poverty, less opium, and perhaps a weaker Taliban.

Editor’s note: Check out the final videos in this YouTube playlist, “Afghanistan: Agricultural Capacity for USDA and IESC”

The first shoot day, I can barely open the SUV door it’s so heavy (bullet-proof glass, armor). Kabul is crowded, dry as dirt, and framed by the most imposing snow-capped mountains I’ve ever seen. Hardscrabble stone homes, etched into the mountainsides, snake to impossible heights—overshadowing my memories of Rio’s favelas (my blog post from Brazil).

I run all the creative—directing, shooting, audio, and lights. I have a series of young men serve as my unit producers, ushering me around, asking questions in interviews, and making sure I don’t commit any cultural gaffes (“don’t look at any women,” one says the first day). They are smart, dress in Western clothes, and I get along well with all of them, especially Najib Siawash.

najib
Najib is great to work with.

Interviews are in English or Dari. I’ve just conducted a bunch of Arabic interviews in Lebanon (Beirut Dispatch: 5 Things I Learned in Lebanon) and will soon head off to Ethiopia where we’ll do Amharic. I start reflecting on all the interesting languages I’ve filmed recently: Meru in Kenya (Directing in Kenya . . .), Russian and Azeri in Azerbaijan, Tagalog in the Philippines, and lots of Spanish.

I think about how I love the documentary process, how at its best it can be respectful and authentic. I think about how in the edit, I’ll use people’s voices rather than narration or dubbing, and how this makes all the difference.

Hardscrabble stone homes, etched into the mountainsides, snake to impossible heights

After a few days, I’m fed up with filming government workers in government buildings, so I insist (again) on a day filming some farmers. With the security situation, it takes an act of Congress to find common ground between the local Deputy Chief of Party (“let’s go to Jalalabad!”) and the hardcore UK special forces guy (who prohibits travel anywhere).

So the next day we set off for some farms on the outskirts of Kabul. Looking around on the drive, I never get over how men dominate every public space. It’s like aliens abducted the women. In some commercial districts, we pass literally thousands upon thousands of men and boys, without seeing more than a handful of women.

For the next week, I have a dozen conversations with both locals and expat aid workers about the absence of women in the public sphere. It’s like I’m obsessed the way I keep bringing it up, but I do a good job being sensitive and listening. I never can escape a deep conviction that half of the population is being shut out of jobs, opportunity, and personal liberty.

So I film some women farmers, some of whom are wearing a blue full-body chador, or burqua. Afterwards, Najib takes my iPhone and starts snapping, including this odd video:

On the way back, approaching a checkpoint outside of Kabul, a soldier bangs violently on our window. We stop. My heart’s pounding. I have my camera rig on my lap and a hundred scenarios run through my mind, the least of which is the camera get confiscated.

I never get over how men dominate every public space. It’s like aliens abducted the women.

The driver unlocks the doors. The military guy sticks his face in the back seat, two inches from mine . . . and breaks into a huge smile. He leans back a touch, and over his rifle, he stretches out his right hand. Before I realize it, I’m grasping it in in a big friendly handshake. The soldier breaks out in his native Dari, then as quick as he appeared, he’s gone.

Najib translate: “Sorry to stop you, I thought you were my friend!”

Apparently, I look like Afghans who come from the Panjshir Province. What’s more, Afghanistan’s greatest national hero, Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir” hails from there. He was assassinated two days before 9/11, and he is celebrated here on a national holiday called “Massoud Day.”

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Never thought I looked so Afghan . . .

Now that I’m home, I follow the news with renewed interest. Today, the Tailban attacked an election office. Last week, gunmen indiscriminately shot women and children at the Serena Hotel. I hope against hope that next week’s election will go off peacefully, bringing to power a new President who can quell the violence and move Afghanistan in the right direction.

Leading a Photography Workshop in Kabul

IMG_0120-smallWow, what fun! I really didn’t expect to have such a blast leading a photography workshop for local Afghan staff of a USAID project.

I was already on location to make some capacity building videos about a successful USDA project, CBCMP, that is improving how the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture functions. That’s a typical assignment for me: making videos for international development organizations. (Check out the YouTube playlist with the final videos; and my blog post).

But the photography is a rare treat. In addition to the workshop, I visited five companies to take photos of their work.

ABADE is a $105 million USAID project that offers technical assistance and business advisory services to Afghan companies on the rise. It stands for Assistance in Building Afghanistan by Developing Enterprises.

 

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Twelve staff joined, from as far away as Herat and Mazar. Most work in Kabul. All of them have other primary jobs—from program coordinators to monitors to engineers. But they had one thing in common: they wanted to learn how to take better photos (event organized by the incomparable Che Cuspero, ABADE’s Communications Manager).

The questions were great. I stayed practical. Most would be sharing the project’s only camera—the Canon 650D—so our conversation revolved around how to better use this camera. We covered camera fundamentals—ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Then we talked about how to approach a scene better prepared, with a checklist of what to shoot. Finally, we analyzed a bunch of photos together—which showed how much the group had learned.

Thanks everybody for the interactive session! Great to meet you Yama, Bibidil, Elham, Kabul, Abid, Ibrahim, Mochtar, Boya, Wais, Abdullah, Toor, Obaid, and Nasir.

Stay in touch! And keep taking photos!

C100 rig: My love-hate affair . . . mostly love

steve-kabul-cameraI just wrapped a three-country shoot—in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia—using my new Canon C100 rig for the first time, so I wanted to report on the pros and cons.

When I first considered the C100, I wanted the beautiful pictures that my Canon 5D Mark III gives, while addressing the 5D’s main limitations: no sync sound, not good handheld (too shaky), no built-in ND, and short record times.

 

Putting together the kit

 

In a dream world, I’d throw down some trust-fund cash on the Arri Amira with some compact Fujinon zoom lenses, the Cabrio T2.9 18-90mm and the Cabrio T2.9 85-300mm.

But currently my business is more documentary stuff, where I direct, produce, and frequently (but not always) shoot. At this point of my career, I can’t bill top dollar for my camera like a dedicated commercial DP might.

So while a lot of my friends are investing in the C300, it was off the table for me (at $14k for the body alone). The more I researched and talked with friends, the more I realized I’d need a ton of accessories to make the C100 operational. I got some good advice from Brooklyn-based DP/Producer Cameron Hickey. And fortunately, I worked with Jessica at Abel Cine to put it together (full rig specs below). Full price tag was around $9k.

 

 

When I travel, I break down the C100 rig to its 23 (!!) component parts. The first few times I put it together, it took forever. These days, it takes about 15 minutes. I keep it assembled the entire shoot.

 

Verdict: A hate-love affair . . . mostly love

 

I shot for five days each in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia—three very different places. I definitely grew more accustomed every day, and am happy with the quality of its pictures at a good value—with one glaring exception, as I’ll describe below.

I shot 1920×1080 24fps, capturing ProRes to the external Atamos Samurai, which solves the AVCHD codec issue that people complain about. I used the two lenses I already had for the 5D—the Canon 16-35mm 2.8 and the Canon 24-105mm IS 4.0.

Here’s an interview set up in Kabul (and a still of the resulting footage) and an interview set-up in Addis Ababa. I was happy with what the C100 (and 2.8 lens) did. In Addis, we were shooting at a textile factory, where every indoor location was loud with people and machines, and every outdoor location was loud with traffic from the nearby highway. The only quiet space was the storage warehouse. I used natural light for the key and reflected back gold. It turned out great!

 

 

My C100 rig: the good

 

So, with no attempt to be official, here are some first impressions.

Image quality: The clear winning edge is the pictures. I’m happy with the final product.

Upgrades from 5D: The sync sound, built-in ND, and longer record times were super easy and worked like they should. It’s great to upgrade from the 5D’s limitations! With my external recorder, I’m getting 4 hours of ProRes footage on one SSD. I brought a second SSD, but never needed it. The rig rests on my shoulder like a regular ENG camera. It’s comfortable, but heavy. I’m pleased with how stable the pictures are, even when I zoom.

Ergonomics: The good. Canon’s put most of the buttons where they’re easy to locate without looking. With my right pointer finger: record, aperture, and ISO. When it’s time to make more drastic changes (ND filter, white balance), I can hold the rig with my right hand on the Zacuto ENG grip relocator and adjust stuff with my left hand.

 

My C100 rig: the bad

 

The glaring exception to all this good stuff is the interface between the C100 and the Atomos Samurai. I’m currently using the Samurai not only as a recorder, but also as a high-resolution monitor (1280×720, 5″).

The visibility is great about 90% of the time for me . . . until you’re in full sunlight. Then it’s just really tough to see. I struggled with this.

The ergonomics can be miserable. I have it connected via the Noga Cine Arm. The Samurai can get loose and rotate around on me at the most inopportune times. I like to jump on tables or crawl on the floor to try and get a good shot, so I regularly put some good torque on the Samurai that the Cine Arm sometimes couldn’t handle.

Also, the 3:2 pulldown can be hairy. For the first week, I didn’t understand it and kept getting crappy interlaced footage. Finally, I read the manual (duh!) and realized I’d been doing it wrong.

 

Conclusion

 

So, I’m in love-hate with my new C100 rig. During every shoot day, I’m 95% happy with the thing, but if you catch me in full sunlight or when the Samurai recorder is not cooperating, I hope you don’t catch what I’m muttering under my breath!

Then when I get back to the computer and see the pictures, I’m back in love again. . .  In this business, like so many, there’s give and take. And  I’m getting 4 hours of nonstop ProRez footage with a great Canon codec at less than $10k.

In terms of being a full-proof run-and-gun documentary camera, my C100 rig is not quite there. I’m hoping that with more practice on it — and perhaps an alternate solution for the Samurai — it will be everything I hoped for.

 

C100 rig: full specs

 

I started in  documentary film  as a director/producer and have kicking-and-screaming learned all the technical stuff that makes a shooter competent. The C100 has been no exception for me. It’s been a lot of research and conversations and practice.

So, here’s a list of what I’m using and a link to where I bought it. If I can help one person cut the time in half that it took me to figure this stuff out, it’ll be worth it.

If you found this useful, let me know! Thanks for reading!

Canon EOS C100 Cinema Camcorder (Body Only)

Canon BP-975 Battery Pack (3)

SanDisk 32GB Extreme SDHC Class 10 Memory Card (3)

Zacuto Studio Baseplate with 12″ rods for Canon C100- C300-C500

Shape Mini Composite Shoulder Pad

Zacuto ENG Grip Relocator

Atomos Samurai Blade

Atomos Sun Hood for Samurai Blade

High Speed HDMI Swivel Cable 3ft

Atomos CONNECT-H2S HMDI to HD-SDI Converter

Noga DG Hold-It Cine Arm – Medium

SanDisk Extreme II 240 GB SATA 6.0 Gbs 2.5-Inch Solid State Drive SSD SDSSDXP-240G-G25 (2)

Premium Belden 1505F Digital Video BNC Cable w. Canare Conn. – 1.5′

Sony InfoLithium L Series Battery – 6.6A (3)

Sony InfoLithium L Series AC Adaptor/ Charger – Dual Position – F970

Zacuto 4.5″ Black Male/Female Rod (4)

Zacuto Z-Lite

Shape Back Pad