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Making a Corporate Video in Colombia? Here are 15 Things You Need to Know

I’ve been to Colombia three times in the past few years for film shoots. The country is gorgeous, with a fascinating history, and welcoming people. But producing a quality video there requires some planning. Here are 15 things you need to think about when producing a video in Colombia.

1. No visa required

If you’re a US citizen, you don’t need a visas if you’re staying less than 60 days, for tourism or business. Here’s updated information from the US State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

2. Vaccines?

If you’re a US citizen, you don’t need to show proof of any vaccines upon entry. In terms of what the CDC recommends you have before you go, check out this article. You probably have them all, but better safe than sorry. In major cities, you’re good. If you’re shooting in the rainforest or villages, it’s worth it to pay attention and get the shots.

FYI, this is the latest video I made, in early 2019, in Medellin:

3. Customs & permits

As a small crew, we didn’t bother with a permit, but definitely inquire with your unit producer. It all depends where you’re going to film and if you’ll attract attention. Upon arrival at the airports of Bogota and Medellin, we had an easy time getting through customs with our video gear.

Simone Bruno (right) was a great fixer for this shoot in Bogota in 2017

4. To Uber or not to Uber?

Technically, Uber is illegal in Colombia, but everybody uses it, and Uber claims 2 million users and almost 90,000 drivers. That said, my Uber driver at Medellin’s International Airport made me sit in the front seat so it looked like we were friends. The benefit: I got to adjust the radio (see #14, reggaeton, below)! Uber, of course, was cheaper.

5. Definitely hire a fixer

A local video production company is not required (during our shoot in Morocco recently, it was mandatory). But having a fixer with us was key for each of these three shoots. It enabled me to focus on directing and shooting and not have to think about traffic, schedules, logistics, etc. And even though I speak solid Spanish, by the end of the day my brain was tired and it was a relief to have a fixer just fixing stuff and simply focus on the creative.

6. Spanish!

Brush up on your Spanish. Yes, you can navigate the big cities with English, but outside the big cities, few people speak English. Besides, you’ll have a much better time and learn a lot more if you have at least basic Spanish. Say “dale” early and often: it means, “cool” or “ok” and keeps conversational momentum going. Just a little Spanish got me to play a little soccer with this guy:

 

7. Money stuff

The Colombian Peso is currently about 3,330 pesos to the dollar, which makes the math pretty easy! A lunch of 10,000 pesos is $3. The country is not as cheap as it used to be, since the economy continues to grow, but outside the major cities, it is a bargain. ATMs are ubiquitous. To avoid getting hit by transaction fees, try one of these checking accounts. People don’t regularly tip. In most restaurants, if you want to leave 50 cents, you’re good. High-end restaurants may expect or tack on a 10% propina.

8. Drones are cool

I had no problems flying my drone all over Medellin. Curious kids, but no overzealous police. Check out this site for some general drone laws in the country.

9. Safety is good

It’s safe. The people are nice. Anthony Bourdain said it best while filming an episode for Parts Unknown in 2013: “If you want to find bad people in Colombia, you can surely find them, as you could in New York or Los Angeles. But nowhere have my crew and I been treated better or with more kindness and generosity. I’d bring my family on vacation there in a heartbeat. And hope to soon. As I said before: Colombians are proud. Let them show you what they are proud of.” I couldn’t agree more. I felt comfortable. In the cities, there’s a big middle class and life and culture has a recognizable rhythm.

10. Diversity in people, climate, experiences

Colombia is incredibly diverse. Its cities are the most modern on the continent. Its rainforest is some of the most untouched (Darién). The climate zones include tropical rainforests, steppes, deserts, mountain climates, and savannas. Incredibly, it is the second-most biodiverse country in the world, after Brazil. I took a puddle-jumper from Medellin (population 2.5 million) to Capurgana, a remote, car-free village on the Caribbean coast. Then hiked to Panama the next day. From a modern, cosmopolitan place to another where my ride from the airport was in horse-drawn carriage. That’s diversity.

11. Eat all the food. Drink all the drink

The food is worth exploring! In the big cities, there’s a foodie renaissance going on. That being said, a lot of the typical stuff can be relatively bland, since culturally the cuisine uses far less spice than, say, Indian or Middle Eastern food. So, it’s worth it to dig a bit and find the specialties of each region. In cities, the water is safe to drink. For me, the fruit was a standout: I tried mamoncillo, cherimoya, lulo and guanabana. (And yes, drink the coffee. My favorite coffee shop in Medellin was Pergamino)

photo by a thirsty Steve Dorst

12. Cell phone service

AT&T offered the $10/day International Day Pass that allows you to use your phone normally (no limits), so I did that. If you’re planning on staying more than a week or so, it would be cost-effective to buy a new SIM card.

13. Adapting your plugs

Americans are in luck. The plugs and sockets are of type A and B, same as in the US. I recommend packing a 3-to-2 prong adapter just in case type-B sockets aren’t available. In Colombia the standard voltage is 110 V and the frequency is 60 Hz. You don’t need a voltage converter. Charge your equipment with peace of mind.

14. Get on the reggaeton

Colombia is the world capital of reggaeton. Give it a shot if you don’t already know it. Some of the best reggaeton artists in the world hail from Colombia, including J. Balvin, Karol G, and Maluma.

15. Save on airfare

Get email alerts about cheap flights leaving from your favorite airports at Scott’s Cheap Flights. The premium service costs $49/year, but if you buy one ticket every few years, you’ve saved money. I’m amazed by some of the prices I see.

If you have ideas, leave me a comment here. I hope you have a great film shoot in Colombia!

Feature Photo by Julian Florez on Unsplash

Making a Corporate Video in Morocco? Here are 16 Things You Need to Know

I just returned from a film shoot in Morocco. The country is beautiful, with a rich history, and accessible culture. But making a professional video there takes some doing. Here are 16 tips to help you get the job done.

1. No vaccines or visas required

If you’re a US citizen, you don’t need a visas if you’re staying fewer than 90 days. A fun fact: in 1777, the Kingdom of Morocco became the first country in the world to recognize United States independence, only a year and a half after the U.S. Declaration of Independence was issued. We’re friends.

2. Definitely hire a fixer

You need a local video production company. There’s no way around this. I worked with Casablanca-based Tswera Productions. They did a great job. I plan on writing a longer piece about the positive experience.

Spice vendor in Marrakesh’s medina (old city) at Jemaa el-Fnaa. Photo by Steve Dorst

3. Nabbing that elusive “authorization to film”

You’re going to need a letter from the company/organization you’re working for. Then your local Moroccan video production company will go to the Centre Cinématographique Morocain to get your permit. This process will take a while. You’ll provide a lot of info, including the CVs of your crew, list of equipment, list of interviews, interview questions, distribution plans, etc. You’ll be asked to specify the exact dates and locations of your shooting schedule, so be ready to be specific.

4. The police are trustworthy

I’ve been in a lot of countries where the police stress you out, but Moroccan police were great. They were ever-present. But several locals emphasized to me that the country had suffered far fewer terrorist bombings than their neighbors (or Paris and Madrid for that matter). Yes, the police stopped us every time we were filming outside, but they accepted our permits and let us continue. While driving throughout the country, we were stopped at multiple roadblocks, but they never hassled us. The roadblocks were there to stop the bad guys.

5. Sorry, no drones

There was a time that you could fly a drone freely in Morocco, but those days are long gone. We didn’t manage to get permission. Apparently, there’s a process, but you have to name the exact GPS coordinates, day and time, which leads me to this next one …

6. Stock footage resources

If you can’t get all the (drone) footage you want, there are some good Morocco stock footage resources.

In Tangier, with awesome driver Jawad and Unit Producer Zola. Photo by Jake Lyell

7. Adapting your plugs

You can use the same plugs you use in Europe (type C) and especially France (type F)

8. Brush up on that French!

This is a polyglot nation! Moroccan Arabic is the most widespread, with French and Berber right behind. In the north, a lot of people will speak Spanish. Some in more touristy spots speak English, but don’t count on it. My team spoke French, so that worked out well for us.

9. Fridays are holy days

When you’re making your shooting schedule, keep in mind that Friday is the holy day and many people go to the mosque. It’s their Sunday.

10. Clothes to wear

For b-roll outside, we wore shorts and t-shirts because it can get hot. For most interviews, we wore long pants, business casual. For interviews with government officials, we wore suits. The women on our team wore long pants and covered their shoulders.

11. Money: Haggling is a sport

The Moroccan currency is the dirham and is about 10X1 to the dollar. ATMs abound. People prefer cash. At most markets, the prices aren’t posted. Vendors didn’t mark up drinks and food for me, but for most everything else they name a price that is 3x or more what you should pay. Best strategy: go with a local and don’t do the haggling yourself. Second-best: treat it as a game, don’t take anything personally, remember that nobody is your friend despite the Oscar-winning performances, and always be willing to walk away.

12. Mosques are verboten

If you want to see a mosque in Morocco, you’re out of luck unless you’re Muslim. The sole exception is the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. It currently is the fifth-largest mosque in the world and has the second-tallest minaret. Visit, then watch the sunset from the promenade. Maybe play some soccer or take some tea with the locals. People are welcoming here.

In Casablanca, having a tea with some friendly locals by the Hassan II mosque. Photo by Zola 

13. Beer is (sometimes) hard to get

After a long day of filming in the hot sun, there’s nothing better than a beer … unless you’re in Morocco. Alcohol isn’t available on patios or rooftops. And a lot of establishments are dry. Hotels are a good bet, so if you’re hankering for a drink be sure to ask before you get settled in. Or better yet, be like the locals and drink mint tea: it’s a ritual and a pick-me-up. I was partial to the fruit juices, especially anything with avocado in it.

Avocado smoothie, lunch in Casablanca. Photo by Steve Dorst

14. The food is insanely good

Early in my career I worked with an American cameraman who’s go-to meal every day in Cameroon was grilled chicken and fries. It worked for him, because he wanted to stay healthy and do his job. But when I’m in a new place, I like to try new things. In Morocco, you’re in luck. First, look for tagine, pastilla, and couscous. Tagine is the name of the clay cooking pot and the amazing dish that includes spices, vegetables and either beef, chicken, or lamb. Pastilla is a sweet and savory pie that’s filled with meet, with a layer of sugar, ground almond, and cinnamon. Couscous is only cooked on Fridays to celebrate holy day.

15. Cell phone service

In Morocco, my AT&T did not offer the $10/day International Day Pass that allows you to use your phone normally (and not have to stress out about your data). So I had to buy a $60 1GB Passport that I exhausted in three days and then I upgraded to the $120 3GB Passport … on the other hand, my crew had Verizon and they had the day pass. Easy peasy. We all used WhatsApp to communicate with each other.

16. What to film?

Like in most countries, be smart and don’t film government installations or policemen. Our film permit didn’t give us carte blanche: the private security guards at several private buildings, including an outdoor mall in Casablanca and the marina in Tangier, didn’t let us film. And when photographing people, be cool and ask permission.

Well, hopefully a few of these tips will help you as you head out to make a great video in Morocco. Good luck!

Dorst MediaWorks Produces World-Changing Videos Right Out of DC

Dorst MediaWorks is a Washington, D.C. based video production company which helps international organizations create documentary-style films. We have been working with top-notch international organizations since 2002, including the World Bank, USAID and many more nonprofits that we believe are here to change the world. We have worked in over 50 countries, creating award-winning, human-centered videos wherever we go, always respecting the local culture and people.

We are proud to say that our good deeds have earned us the title as a one of the leading video production agencies in DC by Clutch!

Clutch is a B2B ratings and review firm also located in DC which collects client reviews and connects businesses so they can be more successful together. We recently partnered with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to create a video for a country documentary series. The Deputy Chief of the IMF, one of our partners in this project, left Dorst MediaWorks a review outlining our excellent services. The Deputy Chief explained our involvement in the project, how we developed a game plan for the video, and how we delivered results. They are quoted as saying, “they produced a beautiful video that was very visually appealing–we’ve posted it with pride on our website and social media channels.” Moreover, our profile features a comprehensive project summary with the IMF, here are a few more quotes:

“Steve [Producer/Director] gets it. Not only is he a talented video producer, but he also understands the subject matter.”

“Dorst MediaWorks did a phenomenal job of creating a video that effectively told the organization’s narrative, including its complexities.”

Dorst MediaWorks has been featured on two other sites that provide B2B services. The Manifest gathers business news and tips and has listed us as one of the top video production companies. The other site, Visual Objects, posts portfolios of visual and creative design firms and has listed our portfolio items open to anyone curious about our completed projects!

We are so proud of the entire Dorst MediaWorks’ production team and their ability to capture emotional stories and change the world one video at a time!

We encourage anyone considering our services to come by our websiteto learn more about our message and our videos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11 Drone Camera Moves for More Cinematic Video Production

Today, everybody has a drone, so aerial footage is nothing special. That’s why I wrote this definitive guide—to help you capture great aerial footage every time so it helps tell your story.

Video team in Haiti
Back in the Phantom 4 days. 2017, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The key to capturing story-ready aerial footage is to do three things:

#1. Dial in your settings for best picture quality.

#2. Understand how the camera moves you are doing are powerful emotive tools.

#3. Master 11 of these drone camera moves to capture more cinematic footage and tell your story better.

Before we dive in, a note about me. This article is based on my six years of piloting drones. I crashed my Phantom 1 more times than I’ll admit. Since then, I’ve tried to keep learning, using drone videography for all sorts of video productions, including Dorst MediaWorks’ video productions in Washington, DC and around the world. I’m not a specialized drone guy or even a drone fanboy. I’m a documentary guy, who’s trying to use a tool to tell stories.

In 2016, I became a certified pilot. That gave me a greater appreciation for everything that goes into flying a drone legally and safely. Since then, I conduct a pre-flight safety check and frequently check updates at the FAA site. Being a drone pilot is fairly easy, but being a safe, legal, capable drone pilot is not.

#1. Recommended Drone Settings for Best Picture Quality

First, make sure you have all your settings correct dialed in. I’ve settled on these after a online research and testing (I own the Mavic Pro 2): Manual, 4k/24, MP4, no style, color is D-cinelike, h.265 codec; ISO 100, shutter 1/50. Buy some ND filters and use them so you don’t have to change the ISO or shutter. I never push the ISO beyond 200. And honestly, the best time to fly your drone is dawn and dusk. When you take off, enter Cinematic mode, which makes your moves slower and more …. cinematic. Use “program” mode in most cases (T, P, and S on side). If you have other settings, please let me know. Experiment and see what works best for you. (I plan on doing a subsequent blog on LUTs and color grading).

#2. Where’s WALLDO?

Second, make sure you know what you’re saying with your drone camera moves. That’s where WALLDO comes in. No, I’m not talking about the character from a British series of children’s puzzle books (thanks Wikipedia!). WALLDO is a handy acronym that serves as a sort of Cliff’s Notes for video production videography in the field. It was developed before the introduction of drones, but it applies to aerial cinematography as well. 

WALLDO stands for Wide, Angled, Low, Linking, Depth, and Opposite. Each word has a purpose for storytelling. After all, cinematic language is more than 125 years old. Because we’re exposed to so much visual media, we’ve grown to have emotional responses to camera movements. If you’ve worked as a director or cinematographer, you’re probably very familiar with this already.

WIDE: Filming video from far away, or a wide shot, provides perspective and context. It gives viewers the lay of the land and helps establish a sense of place. This is rarely a problem for aerial videography since most lenses are fixed and you can’t zoom in (not the case for the Mavic Pro 2 Zoom). Moreover, with whirling blades, it’s not a good idea to get too close to your subjects (Unless you want a lawsuit). Most of the drone shots I see are wide shots.

ANGLED: Filming video right in front of your subject is one way to do it. Unfortunately, this can get dull if you do it exclusively. Capturing novel angles can enhance depth. It also tends to be more interesting and dynamic. Here’s how to turn on the gridlines on the DJI Go 4 App to help inform your compositional choices.

LOW: A few years ago, I directed and shot a broadcast TV show about a dog that survived brain cancer. It seemed that for half of our location video shoot day on the farm I was shooting from ground level, chasing the dog. This is “low.” It gives people a new perspective. It should be motivated by the content. How can you do that with the drone? Well, use it like you would the Ronin-S, holding it in your hand (without blades). On location in Pune, India recently, we didn’t have a gimbal, so we just held the drone in hand to follow our protagonist:

LINKING: Here, you want to connect two objects by moving the camera. This is editorial in nature—you’re making a point (otherwise, why move the camera, right?) Usually, it’s accomplished with a pan or perhaps a rack focus. One example of this move is the final 40 seconds of a video I produced for USAID in Haiti. I wanted to link our protagonist to the entire country in one conclusive shot. So I conceived of one long take, where the drone pushed in as the heroine approaches (denoting importance), but then as soon as she hit her mark, the camera does a neverending crane (see below) upwards as smooth and fast as possible:

DEPTH: Early in my career, I was lucky enough to team up a lot with talented cinematographer Stefan Wiesen. Born in Germany, one of Stefan’s favorite sayings was “vordegrund macht bild gesund,” which translates to “the foreground makes the picture.” And Stefan was a master at creating depth. This is incredibly important for aerial cinematography, arguably more so, since wide shots of faraway objects get dull quickly without a sense of perspective. How about a tree or two? Foreground elements help bring the viewer into the scene by making it feel three-dimensional.

OPPOSITE: The reverse angle, or reaction shot, is what you see when you turn around and show the opposite point of view. Film a preacher, then show the rapt congregation. I don’t use this one as much as I’d like, but I keep it on my cheat sheet to remind me to do it more.

#3. 11 Drone Camera Moves That Will Change your Life

Sometimes, when I’m piloting a drone, the technical operation takes all my brain bandwidth and I don’t have much creativity left to consider the best camera moves. That’s why I always have this list of 11 drone camera moves with me—and yes, they will change your life! 😊

It’s not really about being artistic or cinematic. It’s about using a diversity of techniques to help you tell the story best.

1. Neverending Crane.This shot helps link an object or a location to a wider context. Check out this Bjork video, directed by Spike Jonze. The final crane shot is surprising, majestic, and visually conclusive. You may not be able to get your talent to take a ride on a 70-foot crane, but you can do similar things with your drone shots:

 

2. Gimbal Down.This move features the drone camera tilted down to earth, with no horizon showing. It is best used when there’s dynamic action beneath it. It’s a unique perspective, and at its best when the movement below suggests shapes and geometry, perhaps that are undetectable to the terrestrial eye. Otherwise, why use it? For example, here are two gimbal down shots in a row for a video production in Medellin, Colombia, one with a mild rotation:

 

3. Gentle Rise. This camera move also uses a gimbal down, with no horizon showing, but the drone is rising here. The effect is making an object or location smaller or less important. Or it can link geographic elements. For enhanced effect in your video production, use it for a respite following a sequence that relies heavily on close-ups. Or use the very beginning of the rise and the very end, like this excerpt from a Hanoi, Vietnam traffic roundabout above. It compressed time and is entertaining for the viewer:

 

4. Fly-by. This drone camera move shows scale. Check out this video shot from a hillside above Bogota, Colombia. The trees in the foreground frame the impressive skyscrapers, giving us scale, turning what would be a flat skyscraper shot into something better.

 

5. Object Pull Out. You see this a lot—the drone camera pulls away from a sad person and it accentuates how remote and lonely she feels. In this video production for the International Monetary Fund, we get right to the point where this is a banking crisis and ensuing panic. So, we pull out from people walking on a pedestrian bridge:

 

6. Object Push In. By contrast, pushing in denotes importance, like this drone push into a factory in Senegal. The aerial composition has a clear focus and we push in on it from above:

 

7. Slider / Lateral. This is a long pan or dolly move. The drone gives us great power to stick with action longer from above or to link objects in new, creative ways. Formerly, you’d need to build long dolly tracks or hire expensive cranes and jibs. For example, check out this lateral aerial video shot from a promo video I made for one of the best cycling clubs, Squadra Coppi (ok, I’m a member!). They were riding 15mph, so no dolly was going to keep up with that (29-second mark):

 

8. Follow moving object forward. This tracking shot is even easier these days since various drones have the ability to lock on to a subject and follow it.

 

9. Follow moving object back. In traditional land-based camerawork, this is pretty standard visually, but difficult to accomplish without a gimbal, jib, or dolly. In this video production for the Millennium Challenge Corporation in Malawi, I followed Mary on her motorcycle. My idea was to contextualize Mary in the harsh environment and introduce her as a strong woman protagonist:

 

10. Rotate. This camera move sounds like what it is. Fly your drone to a spot, then rotate it above your object. Don’t overuse this, because it’s not a natural thing for the eye to see. But if you want to attract attention, or it serves the story, try it. For a narrative short video I’m directing, the protagonist was entering a dream state, so I decided to use it. Here’s a quick clip above the swimming pool.

 

11. Tilt. This is a powerful tool—follow your protagonist to the cliff’s edge, then tilt down to reveal the ravine below for example. It reveals new information, and shows space between two objects. Adjust the gimbal dial on the front-bottom left of the drone controller. This shot from the Squadra Coppi promo video links the peloton in the distance to the hills of Virginia in a majestic, conclusive shot. Tilting up to the sky lets us place a logo there as well (the end).

Hopefully these camera moves help take your drone footage to the next level, so it’s more of a storytelling tool. Thanks to all the talented people out there from whom I’ve begged, borrowed, and stolen good ideas, including Pro Church Toolsdroners.io, and dronelife.com.

Are you interested in how drone videography can help tell your story? Check out our Washington DC video production portfolio and services. Or come pay us a visit at the Dorst MediaWorks’ Washington DC video production offices at 1211 10th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001

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A version of this article first appeared on the Z-Channel Films’ website.

It’s a Wrap! International Nonprofit Health Video in Africa

Washington DC video production company Dorst MediaWorks just wrapped an international health video for SIGN Fracture Care International, a nonprofit organization.

SIGN works with skilled surgeons in some of the poorest countries to heal patients with badly broken bones.

Typically, before SIGN shows up, people suffering badly broken bones may fail to get appropriate treatment, and then face a lifetime of disability and poverty. But SIGN is working for equality of fracture care around the world, and Dorst MediaWorks is supporting that through video production.

Impactful Nonprofit: Accomplished Surgeons Are Chief Changemakers

By providing implants and training for surgeons, SIGN empowers surgeons in developing countries to provide timely care for patients. SIGN has trained 5,000 surgeons in 50+ countries.

Dr. Billy Haonga, Muhimbili’s Head of Orthopedic Trauma Surgery, began with SIGN in 2008: “SIGN has really helped me to remain at the hospital,” Haonga says. “As a surgeon, it helps to have safe, working equipment and tools that are easy to use.”

The nonprofit’s work to build orthopaedic capacity in Tanzania has spread beyond Muhimbili. SIGN Surgeons like Dr. Haonga train other surgeons to use SIGN Techniques. Then the newly trained surgeons work with SIGN implants in their own hospitals across the country.

With an approach that focuses on empowering skilled surgeons with training and implants, SIGN Fracture Care has developed sustainably, with skilled surgeons driving growth.

“SIGN has helped many people from falling into poverty after breaking a bone,” says Dr. Haonga. “I thank SIGN for that.”

In 20 years, SIGN’s global footprint has expanded to more than 50 countries, with SIGN-trained surgeons having healed more than 237,000 patients.

Washington DC Health Video Production

Tanzania’s film office is stingy in its award of film permits of late, so Dorst MediaWorks hired a local crew for this video production. The talented Eugene Kiliwa and Esther Atanasi shot on location at Dar es Salaam’s Muhimbili Orthopaedic Institute.

Back in Washington DC, the Dorst MediaWorks editorial project team ran point on the post-production storytelling process. First, we received the footage from our Tanzania crew; second, we commissioned translations for the Swahili interviews; third, we compiled a transcript that we shared with our nonprofit client. Together, we collaborated on the story. After all, in documentary, we tell the story from the people we film, highlighting their perspective and experience.

Dorst MediaWorks invited the SIGN Fracture Care team to give input on a draft scripts before we launched editing. Then we edited a rough cut and then a fine cut, all the while working closely with the client team to make sure the story was working for them. Finally, we did color-grading, did a final audio mix, then created high-quality video files for event and online distribution.

As Washington DC’s top video production company for international organizations that do good, Dorst MediaWorks has a lot of experience working in other languages and telling impactful documentary stories that show results on the ground.

So if your organization has a story to tell about its programs overseas, Washington DC’s Dorst MediaWorks is a video production company that should consider. We’ve worked in more than 50 countries, with some of the most impactful international development and humanitarian relief organizations out there.

Dorst MediaWorks’ post-production editing facilities are located in Washington DC just a few minutes from the DC Convention Center and the Mt. Vernon Square metro station. We’re a short walk or ride share ride from hundreds of international nonprofit organizations, associations, and government agencies.

My experience working with SIGN is that they do a lot with a little. Their website reads, “95 percent of our budget goes directly to supply the SIGN Surgeons with the implants and training needed to care for their patients.” That’s what I inspired me to donate to their cause after working with them.

16 Documentary-Style Gender Videos for International Development Stories

So, you’re tasked with producing a video highlighting a great project overseas. The project is empowering women. What’s the best way to tell the story?

Dorst MediaWorks has produced gender videos for a range of clients, including the World Bank Group, the USDA, IESC, the IMF, MIGA, PIR, WRI’s Ross Center, and USAID.  Along the way, we’ve come up with some thoughts about what works—and what doesn’t.

First, check out our Washington DC Gender Video Production page, which contains 16 documentary-style gender videos we’ve produced lately—in Haiti, Ghana, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Lebanon, Brazil, the Philippines, Malawi, and India.

The first thing you’ll notice is we’re not scared of foreign languages. Our video production in Haiti is chock full of Creole, Hala’s story in Lebanon is all Arabic, and in the Philippines video, you’ll hear Tagalog. Of course, we master to English captions, but for the stories to be enduring and credible, viewers need to hear the voices of project beneficiaries. These women need to tell their own stories. And the video needs to make a personal connection.

1. Washington DC Video Production Services: SWaCH (Ross Prize Finalist)

SWaCH Pune Seva Sahakari Sanstha is a member-owned cooperative for waste pickers that is helping to clean up the streets of Pune, India. Our protagonist, Pinky Sonawane, speaks Marathi. She’s gone from being disrespected to working for the city, recycling, and earning more income than her husband! Yet, her world is so different from ours in so many ways: she lives in a slum, speaks a different language, bobble-nods her head “no” when she means “yes” … how do you make that connection? We elected to show her peers, then Pinky’s work setting, and then her family situation. By the end of the video, when we see Pinky welcoming her children home from school, it’s a recognizable moment. We’ve all either welcomed our children home or been welcomed home. In the span of 4 minutes, we’ve gotten to know Pinky and understand how her life has improved. This is the power of documentary-style video production, and why documentary is often the best solution for gender video production around the world.

2. Washington DC USAID Video Production Services: Haiti Private Sector Development

This is the story of USAID’s efforts to spur Haiti’s private sector. We see through the eyes of one factory employee, Hermine, who is one step closer to her dream of owning a home and providing a solid education for her son. How does Dorst MediaWorks tell the story? Compared to Pinky’s story above, we went a different direction, starting at Hermine’s home. The first frame is a stunning aerial shot at dawn over one of Port-au-Prince’s dense slums. In this context, we hear a rooster (added in post-production) and see Hermine and her son moving around their tiny shack in the half-light. A little color correction helps give the impression that all this takes place very early in the day. Before Hermine says a word, we have a strong sense of place and point of view (which only documentary style can provide). Despite the fact that they are living in poverty, their morning ritual is recognizable. And when Hermine walks her son (we don’t name him for privacy reasons) out the door for school and she says in her native Creole, “He’s always wanted to be a doctor,” we connect with this aspiration. As a parent, I also connect with this strong desire to help your child’s dreams come true. From here on, we are rooting for Hermine to succeed at her job, which she does thanks to USAID’s investments that have helped her company grow.

3. Washington DC USAID Video Production Services: Ghana & the Global Shea Alliance

This is the story of USAID’s work with the Global Shea Alliance to help 16 million women from 21 African countries to collect, harvest and sell shea products and thus earn more income. Rita Dampson is our protagonist, who works with shea collectors and processors in rural Ghana. How does Dorst MediaWorks tell the story? To an outsider, Rita (the entrepreneur) seems very similar to the village women. So we wanted to give the viewer a chance to bond with Rita and see life from her perspective to start the video out. So we made it a journey, filming her POV in the jeep, then as she greets all her acolytes. Our camerawork highlights that it is her story — filming over her shoulder, following her as she walks. Perspective is key, as is always keeping in mind what your target audience knows or doesn’t know.

4. Washington DC Government Video Production Services: “Mary’s Story,” Millennium Challenge Corporation Malawi

This is the story of Mary’s new business and her improved quality of life. It’s also the story of how the Millennium Challenge Corporation helped Malawian women in river communities develop new economic opportunities that also protect the rivers that power 90% of the country’s electricity.

5. Washington DC Sustainable Development Video: Empowering Women Farmers

After the war, Afghan farmers — particularly women farmers — were getting virtually no support from the government. This is the story of how the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture improves how it does business, which helps farmers, spurs the economy, and contributes to stability. This is a USDA program named CBCMP (Capacity Building and Change Management) that is uniquely effective.

6. Washington DC Video Production Services: “The Power of Education,” The IMF & Vietnam

For the IMF: Vietnam has invested heavily in education, allowing young people to fulfill their dreams of starting their own business. Hear how Nguyen Thu Ha thinks her studies will enable her to be a successful business owner.

7. Washington DC USAID Video Production Services: Lebanon and Hala’s Flower Shop

This is the story of Hala, who had a passion for flower arranging and used to dream of starting her own business. And the microfinance institution Vitas, which is extending loans to women entrepreneurs in Lebanon for the first time.

8. Washington DC USAID Video Production Services: Ethiopia & Sara’s Handicraft Passion

This is the story of Sara, a fashion designer from Ethiopia. Not long ago, she had 7 employees and only served the local market. Today she has more than 400 employees and her designs appear in major retailers such as J. Crew.

9. Washington DC Video Production: “Women Powering Africa,” MIGA’s Gender CEO Award

MIGA hosted its 2nd Gender CEO Award on International Women’s Day (March 8) to recognize the accomplishments of a CEO, or equivalent, from one of its clients with a record of seeking to create opportunities for women and promoting gender equality.

10. Washington DC Gender Video Production Services: “Innovative Solutions to Gender-Based Violence,” World Bank Group

The World Bank hired Dorst MediaWorks to produce five videos from innovative projects fighting gender-based violence around the world, in Bangladesh, Moldova, Kenya, Lebanon, and Pakistan. Here are some highlights.

11. Como é Tua Experiência .ORG? — DANCA — Agência de Redes Para Juventude (Português)

This is the story of Agência de Redes Para Juventude, a Brazilian nonprofit that fights for social transformation through dance and culture. And the story of the Public Interest Registry, the global institution behind the popular “.ORG” Internet suffix, which is popularizing “.ORG” around the world.

12. Maxima’s Story: The IFC in the Philippines

This is the story of Maxima, who goes from waiting in line every day for hours for well water to having clean running water in her own home. And the company Manila Water, which is connecting low-income famiies to water for the first time.

13. Washington DC Government Video Production Services: “Annie’s Story,” Millennium Challenge Corporation Malawi

This is the story of Annie’s tragic loss and her new passion. It’s also the story of how the Millennium Challenge Corporation helped Malawian women in river communities develop new economic opportunities that protect the rivers that power 90% of the country’s electricity.

14. Washington DC Government Video Production Services: “Emily’s Story,” Millennium Challenge Corporation Malawi

This is the story of Emily’s new business, beekeeping, and her improved quality of life. It’s also the story of how the Millennium Challenge Corporation helped Malawian women in river communities develop new economic opportunities that also protect the rivers that power 90% of the country’s electricity.

15. Washington DC Government Video Production Services: “Judith & Alice’s Story,” Millennium Challenge Corporation Malawi

This is the story of Judith and Alice’s new business and their improved quality of life. It’s also the story of how the Millennium Challenge Corporation helped Malawian women in river communities develop new economic opportunities that also protect the rivers that power 90% of the country’s electricity.

We at Dorst MediaWorks are proud to be Washington DC’s go-to video production company for producing gender videos around the world. We’ve worked with some of the most impactful international organizations out there. We are committed to showing how important their programs are through the lives of the women and girls that are benefiting.

Dorst MediaWorks, Inc is centrally located in Washington DC, a few minutes from the DC Convention Center and the Mt. Vernon Square metro station, conveniently located on the green and yellow lines. We’re a short walk or Uber ride from dozens of US Government buildings.

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Videos for Good: Washington, D.C. Video Production for US-based International Organizations

Wow, that was painful! I’m used to being the guy behind the camera! As a documentary director/producer and founder of Dorst MediaWorks, that’s where you’ll usually find me, but a friend who advises purpose-driven brands encouraged me to record this short mission statement. Yes, we’re just a boutique video production studio, but at Dorst MediaWorks, why do we do what we do? … Um, I’m a little nervous halfway through… 😊

Here’s a little more about how we got here.

I started Dorst MediaWorks in 2002…How’d I get into this business, since I didn’t study film? At the time, I was working as a writer. I had a burning desire to be a documentary filmmaker, but not a clue about how to get there. So I went around asking charter schools and nonprofits in Washington DC if they wanted a video … for free. I hired professional cameramen and editors and did the producing and writing myself (in retrospect, my cameraman did most of the directing 💪). I wouldn’t recommend this approach for making money. But within a few months, I had a portfolio that let me start charging for videos. As we proved ourselves, Dorst MediaWorks moved up the food chain. By 2004, we had our first international location shoot in Japan. By 2006, I was in Cameroon making my first independent feature doc, Volcanic Sprint. We were off and running …

Dorst MediaWorks, Tokyo, Japan
My first international shoot. Tokyo, Japan. Rooftop of Mori Tower, March 2004.

To help US-based international organization show results...[WHO DO WE HELP?] Having studied international relations and sustainable development, I was eager to tell these kinds of stories. Fortunately, Washington, D.C. is full of organizations that do this good work. By sticking with this niche, Dorst MediaWorks gradually earned a reputation for knowing the issues. And because our teams not only know video but also know international relations, economics, and other development topics, this made the whole project cycle easier for our clients. This saved time and money; and earned us trust and respect, which you can feel when you read Dorst MediaWorks’ Google Reviews.

Through inspiring documentary-style video…[WHAT DO WE CREATE?] As Dorst MediaWorks gained traction, we got calls for other styles of videos: training, press conferences, explainers, events, music videos, etc. None of this felt quite right. Documentary was my initial passion and that’s what we’ve stuck with over the years. A big part of that is staying true to character-based storytelling, featuring people’s voices where they live and work. That’s why in the past year alone, we’ve filmed in nine languages, including: Chichewa in Malawi (watch “Powering Malawi (MCC in Malawi): Washington, D.C. Government Video Production“), Creole in Haiti (“Haiti: Private Sector Development [USAID] Washington DC Video Production“), Marathi in India (“SWaCH in India: Sustainable Cities Video Production, Washington DC“), Spanish in Colombia (“Colombia: A Peace Plan, an Oil Shock, a Crisis [#1 of 4] Washington DC Video Production“), and Zulu in South Africa (see below). We always master into English, because our primary audience is usually American.

That journey has taken our team to more than 50 countries… [OUR EXPERIENCE] I’ve directed in 10 countries in the past year and my team is well-traveled. Photographers Jake Lyell and Kyle Laferriere collaborate often with Dorst MediaWorks: our clients seem to want both videos and photos lately. You can see where we’ve worked by filtering by location at Dorst MediaWorks’ Videos for Good video page. I also want to emphasize that relationships are key. We have a serious commitment to treating our clients, subjects, and crew well, especially across culture and language barriers. We acknowledge that kindness and empathy are prerequisites, and cinematic quality follows.

Dorst Mediaworks team in Medellin, Colombia
15 years after the Tokyo pic above. In Medellin, Colombia, with our team, and some new friends. Our documentary set-ups are indie and nimble; we film in public places. And we have to respect and be kind to the people who share these public places.

Our mission continues to be to try and make the world a more just and sustainable place...[WHAT DRIVES US] I believe that your work should improve the world in some small way. I respect doctors, solar developers and elementary school teachers — people that are making a difference every day. That’s what I aspire to. If a well-told story can help our clients increase their impact around the world, then that’s a good thing. Our team just finished a whirlwind five-country trip for WRI’s Ross Prize, where we chronicled innovative urban projects that point the way toward a more sustainable future. That sort of assignment is motivating for all of us.

By working only with organizations that do good...Our client list is full of do-gooders. Most are based in the US. Most have projects overseas that aim to improve the lives of people and communities. Their missions are humbling and their impact considerable.

Dorst MediaWorks' clients are organizations that do good, across sectors

Check out our portfolio — from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe…In 2014, we filmed in Afghanistan for a USDA program building capacity in the Agriculture Ministry. The logic was that if Afghan farmers had good harvests, they would be less vulnerable to extremists. A year earlier, we went with Catholic Relief Services to Harare, Zimbabwe to document a youth HIV program that was working with an entire generation orphaned by the devastating disease. Since then, we’ve been to dozens of countries to tell inspiring stories to strengthen the organizations that trust us.

Do you work at an organization that does good in the world? If you think we’re a good fit, send me an email! Hopefully we can work together and make some Videos for Good…

Odds are, you’ll make a visit to our office and editing suite in Washington, DC. Looking forward to seeing you soon!

Who We Work With


Videos for Good. The name says it all. We are a boutique video production studio based in Washington, D.C., traveling the world to tell your story. Our team has been to more than 100 countries. We are seriously committed to treating our clients, subjects, and crew fairly, especially across cultural and language barriers. And these days, we have the luxury of being incredibly focused: we only make documentary-style videos for international organizations that do good. 

Since 2002, making videos for good

NONPROFITS AND NGOS

So when it’s time to raise awareness, do some fundraising, or simply show your great results, call Dorst MediaWorks. Let’s make some Videos for Good

If you are a nongovernmental organization (NGO) or a not-for-profit, we want to tell your story. You do great work transforming people’s lives. The people you serve are your greatest fans, and when they tell your story, documentary-style, their passion and enthusiasm is contagious. When we amplify their story with a little cinematic magic, this forges an emotional connection between your work and your audience. Sometimes, that’s a head connection, but more often, it’s a heart connection. Let’s collaborate and create videos that motivate and inspire people to advocate for what you do.

Are you a Nonprofit making the world a better place? Let’s make some Videos for Good.

GOVERNMENT AGENCY

Are you a Government Agency making the world a better place? Let’s make some Videos for Good.

Photo by Jake Lyell.

Video production and storytelling for government agencies that do good around the world has been our privilege for years. We’ve filmed in Haiti for USAID, Malawi for MCC, and Afghanistan for USDA, producing diverse stories. Our documentary-style videos translate high-level issues and topics into results on a human scale—outcomes you can see and feel in communities around the globe. These stories share knowledge, advocate for policies, and illustrate results. 

MISSION-DRIVEN COMPANIES

Perhaps you work for a private sector company that supports philanthropy, volunteerism, or CSR work around the world. Increasingly this is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also a strategic differentiator that makes your company a workplace of choice.

Are you a Mission-Driven Company making the world a better place? Let’s make some Videos for Good.

MULTILATERAL ORGANIZATION

Are you a Multilateral Organization making the world a better place? Let’s make some Videos for Good.

Photo by Jake Lyell

Washington, D.C. has the greatest concentration of multilateral organizations in the world, and we enjoy working with them. In fact, we have worked with the biggest and the best. The world is a complex place, and while bilateralism may be in fashion these days, the most complex global challenges like fragility and conflict, climate change, financial stability, and global health are best tackled with multilateral solutions that unite the strongest, richest countries with all the rest. 

YOU

If you don’t see yourself above, contact us anyway. Are you passionate about something that is making the world a better place? Then talk with us. We want to hear from you.

ORGANIZATIONS WE’VE WORKED WITH

Our clients include:

Dorst MediaWorks has teamed up with diverse clients in various sectors around the world. Our solutions are rock solid, solutions that will make your job easier. We tailor our video solutions to your specific needs to bring your goals to life. Along the way we’ve garnered Emmys, Tellys, and other awards. 

USAID
World Bank Group
AARP
AT&T People Planet Possibilities
Braille Institute
Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
Catholic Relief Services
Colombia University
DAI
Discovery Communications
Distributed Sun
DirecTV
Earth Institute
Earth Justice
FAO
FBR Media
Forum One
Global Environment Facility
Habitat for Humanity
Human Rights Campaign
ICF International
IESC
International Crisis Group
International Finance Corporation
International Medical Corps
International Monetary Fund
Johns Hopkins University
Maryland Public Television
Millennium Challenge Corporation
Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency
Nathan Associates
National Democratic Institute
NCRC
PACT
Plan International
Population Services International
Public Institute Registry
Red Cross
Ross Prize for Cities
SIGN Fracture Care International
Smithsonian Institution
Thurgood Marshall Academy
UN Foundation
United Nations
University of Baltimore
USDA
US Department of State
VEGA, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance
WebsEdge
World Wildlife Fund
World Resources Institute
YMCA

Women for Women International


We’d love to hear from you, to talk about the next international video production you have in mind.

This USAID Video in Haiti Shows USAID is Working to End Poverty

Based in Washington, DC, USAID is the world’s premier international development agency. USAID works to help improve lives, strengthen communities, and advance democracy. As its website says, “USAID’s work advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity; demonstrates American generosity; and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience.”

So we at Dorst MediaWorks were proud to have been selected to work with subcontractor Nathan Associates to tell the story of USAID’s investment in Haiti’s private sector.

Our Washington, D.C. video production team set off for Port-au-Prince to spend a week documenting Haiti’s progress. What we encountered was a country that is still mired in extreme poverty, but with certain bright spots of hope.

This video production shows the experience of one factory employee, Hermine, who after suffering the devastating effects of the Haiti earthquake, is one step closer to her dream of owning her own home and providing a solid education for her son.

Hermine’s company received a grant to upgrade its equipment and open up a new business unit making t-shirts for sale to American companies. As a result, our hero, Hermine, gets promoted and takes on more responsibility. We see her training staff on the production room floor. Ultimately, with her salary increase, Hermine buys a small plot of land (to replace the house that was destroyed in the earthquake).

USAID’s investments in Haiti’s private sector help empower women and youth. This creates trading partners for American companies and helps Haiti on its path to self-reliance.

 

Dorst MediaWorks | Videos for Good. We are a video production company in Washington, D.C. We make videos for US-based international organizations. We’ve been to more than 100 developing countries, and are committed to treating our clients, subjects, and crew kindly, especially across cultural and language barriers. We aspire to authentic character-based storytelling and exemplary service. So, when its time to raise awareness, do some fundraising, or simply show results, call Dorst MediaWorks. Let’s make some Videos for Good.

Vietnam Documentary Videos

One of the benefits of making a video in Vietnam is elbow room.

I’m flying Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, reportedly the busiest air traffic route in the world, with 20 daily flights. Our 787 Dreamliner must seat 500 people, and there’s not a free seat in sight. But far from cramped, I feel fine.

At 5’10” 165 pounds, I’m the largest person on the plane.

Vietnam video team

I’m in Vietnam to make a series of short documentary videos for the International Monetary Fund to chronicle their cooperation with the Vietnam Government. It’s a bit of a success story, with millions of people escaping poverty in the last generation alone.

One of our first stops is the National Economics University, where in addition to interviewing the director, I visit some classes and talk with students.

Smart and bilingual, these 20-year-olds couldn’t have timed it better. They’re coming of age when Vietnam is opening up to the world.

They are a testament to how the country’s strong education system is positioning it well to take advantage of the opportunities that are brimming in the world’s biggest regional economy, which stretches across southeast to east Asia and represents half of global production.

How far they’ve come! It’s insane to consider is that their parents very likely suffered through the famine of 1984, and their grandparents endured the “War of American Aggression.” Their great-grandparents resisted the French occupation as subjects of French Colonial Indochina.

Indochina map Vietnam

Life is changing fast here, but these young adults are not looking back. They’re practical, motivated, and good-natured.

One of their dream jobs is working for Samsung, which has hired more than 160,000 employees in Vietnam and is set to export $50 billion worth of phones, TVs, and other goods this year alone.

After the Government’s sound economic management, such foreign direct investment is the single biggest factor in a resurgent economy.

Anna Saigon, 5 stars on trip advisor, is bubbling with internationals. Shaking beef (bo luc lac) and pork chops are the stars, and the Bia Saigon beer is light enough to down two at a time (ummm, it’s hot and humid here, don’t judge)!

Steve drinking Vietnamese beer

The next day, back in Saigon, we hit up Sax N Art jazz club, which has an international cast of legit jazz artists. Sebastien is on keys and trombone — sometimes both at the same time! He stole the show, but hey, as a a pianist, I’m partial. The owner, Tran Manh Tuan, is on a multi-country tour. A prominent jazz saxophonist, he’s created something special here in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.

Sax N Art Jazz Vietnam

 

 

 

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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 6.13.00 PM

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.

I kicked things off by asking people about their favorite documentaries, just to signal that my talk would be interactive (People mentioned the documentaries of Jeff Orlowski, Jenifer Siebel Newsom, and Michael Moore).

Then I showed them the Dorst MediaWorks reel. I wanted us all on the same page about what I do: documentary-style videos, with a focus on beneficiaries whose lives are improving–who most often tell the story through their own voices.

 

After we watched the reel, I wanted people to walk a mile in my shoes. What’s my approach to telling stories?

So I introduced a USAID project, Lebanese Investment in Microfinance (LIM), that I was hired to produce some videos for.

 

When the Sky’s the Limit, Where’s Your Story Start?

In five years, LIM awarded about $10 million in grants to nine microfinance partners in Lebanon, who then made 14,000 micro-loans totaling more than $30 million to thousands of rural entrepreneurs across the country.

“So, if you’re in Lebanon to tell this story, where do you start?” I asked. I paused. Nothing. Talk about drowning in data! 14,000 loans?

“What do you film? Where do you start?” I smiled. And waited…

If you remember one thing, take this with you: In your storytelling, first establish the person and passion, then the problem. Otherwise, nobody cares.

And then people began lobbing up ideas. “Successes and failures of the project,” one man offered. “Challenges the entrepreneurs faced,” said a woman up front. “Lives changed,” shouted somebody from the back.

Yes! For me, telling the Lebanese microfinance story meant that I needed to identify individuals who struggled against great odds and succeeded. I wanted to tell a character-based story that would show the benefits of the LIM program.

I spoke with Beirut-based program officers for IESC, USAID’s implementer. They helped me identify some possibilities and we narrowed it down from there.

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 that often get lost when people make videos showing the good work of international organizations: The primacy of the visual and the importance of a hero’s quest.

 

Visual Primacy

I read somewhere that when we watch videos, what we remember is 80% visual.

Think about it: so many videomakers labor endlessly on crafting just the right narration or interview sound bites, but then fail to exercise such care when their editor slaps up some moderately relevant b-roll footage (a term I hate by the way).

As a result, viewers respond a thousand different ways, jumping to whatever vague or unrelated connotations these visuals inspire.

Or even worse, explainer videos or descendants of the (once innovative) Girl Effect require viewers to read, read, read like they’re at a PowerPoint convention.

No!

And that’s why so many short videos, particularly those cobbled together — without strong visual stories — make no impact. They are a waste of time and resources.

So back to Rabih. Who is he? Rabih is a fisherman who’s having trouble making ends meet, because he doesn’t own a boat and has to pay a lot to rent one. He gets a loan to buy a boat, then increases his income, which helps his family.

There were a lot of ideas from the extended project team about what I should shoot to tell this story: the microfinance institution, the training conferences that the microfinance lenders attended, and even the association of microfinance organizations that the project established.

I 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.

7 Calculated Risks that Boosted My Creative Business

In the future when we all look back at our careers, we probably won’t regret taking too many risks.

conserve2
In California on a shoot last month (with Teri and Julio). But when I started my business, I had no idea what route to take to get here …

On the contrary, most of us are experts at playing it safe.

Why are we so chronically cautious? For those of us with creative businesses, getting in a rut can be a fast-track to failure.

Calculated risk-taking, however, can help us gain new skills, land new clients, and grow personally and professionally.

I’m not talking about impulsive or self-sabotaging risk-taking, where you bet it all on one roll of the dice. I’m talking about the calculated kind—using intellect, effort, and resourcefulness—to take your creative business to the next level. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it!

In my experience running my own small creative business (we make videos for international development organizations), here are 7 of my best calculated risks and what I learned along the way.

 

 

1. Go for it!

The year was 2000, and barely a year out of my Master’s program, I was a writer for the World Bank Group’s external website and internal online daily, “Today.” It was a good job in the field of economic development, exactly where I thought I wanted to be. I liked interviewing the diverse staff and writing about something different every day. But there was a glass ceiling: after a while, I wasn’t doing anything new. And I had a nagging feeling that what I really needed to be doing was making documentary films. Yet I had no relevant education, experience, or mentors.

Against all good judgment, I struck out on my own. Thanks to the reputation I’d built as a quality writer, I landed several contracts right away. The lesson here is to listen to yourself. When your inner voice starts telling you that you’re settling, don’t settle. If that means you need to become your own boss, then make it happen. It’ll be easier if you’re at a point in your life, like I was, without children or a mortgage. If you fail, find a way to fail forward.

 

 

2. You have to give to get

During the summer of 2001, still hungry to learn more about documentary, I attended the DoubleTake Documentary Institute held at Hampshire College. Ken Burns, Fred Wiseman, Ira Glass, and others held master classes on documentary and storytelling across disciplines. It was inspiring, and made me want to make videos more than ever! Meanwhile, as a freelancer, I was making progress, doing writing, web, and multimedia jobs—but not any video yet. Something had to give.

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My first corporate video ever. My “Free Strategy” — and my on-the-job education had begun.

At the time, my friend Darin ran a nonprofit benefitting D.C. schoolchildren. What if I made him a free video? Sure, he said (surprise!). Suddenly I had to figure it out. Yikes! I had no idea how to shoot, direct, or edit. So I hired a talented shooter and editor, and I did the rest. Somehow it worked! The Heads Up video turned out great, Darin was happy, and I had the beginnings of a portfolio. During the next year, I repeated the “Free Strategy” several times. It was a pretty bad business strategy: I was robbing Peter (my freelance business) to pay Paul (the free videos). But this was the start of an education in video production I never had. Within a year, I had a solid portfolio.

The lesson: I knew a couple things about myself. First, I didn’t want to go back to school to learn video. Second, I didn’t want to work as an intern at a video production company to gain skills and knowledge. My “Free Strategy” gave me a real-world situation where I had the incentive to make quality videos for real clients on a real schedule. I gave my time and some free videos. But I got much more. I learned a lot, and fast.

 

3. Fake it ‘til you make it – just surround yourself with creative talent

By the end of 2003, I was getting pretty good making short videos for nonprofits, but I’d never done anything too complex. When I bid for a campaign of videos in Tokyo, I didn’t think I had a chance. I simply didn’t have the experience or portfolio.

I won the contract—undoubtedly because I underbid significantly. Initially, I was in over my head. Pre-production was exceedingly tough. Fortunately, I hired my former schoolmate Kayo to serve as Tokyo-based Unit Producer: she also co-wrote the script, translated, and was a total rock star. We engaged a local crew and used 10 actors, and ultimately spent an exhilarating week at some of Tokyo’s most beautiful locations. Less than four years after starting my company, I pulled off a complex international bilingual production. The video even won an award.

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On top of the Mori Tower in Roppongi, Tokyo. Stefan Weisen on camera. Production: “jointokyo.” Client: World Bank Group’s Global Development Learning Network and the Tokyo Distance Learning Center.

The lesson: Most importantly, I continued my education. The talented Cinematographer Stefan Weisen came to Tokyo with me and essentially co-directed. And eons before he launched his uber-successful creative agency, Gigawatt Group, Mark Devito edited. Two super creative, talented partners. This project was really a watershed point for me. Before, I was doing small stuff around D.C. After, I believed I could pull off any video production anywhere in the world. The lesson: you really can “fake it ‘til you make it” if you’re prepared to surround yourself with talented people and work your tail off.

 

 

 

 

4. To be uniquely creative, use your special networks (and a credit card)

The year was 2006. I was getting adept at writing, directing, and producing all kinds of corporate videos, but I still hadn’t made a long-form documentary. Looking around for a subject, I kept thinking of my experience living in Africa. My idea: make a film about the most extreme running race in the world—the marathon-distance trail run up a live volcano in Buea, Cameroon. The problem was I just didn’t have the budget. What to do?

I remember sitting down to lunch in January 2006 with an old friend, Paul McKellips, who’s made his share of indie features. He saw me waffling, and gave me a good motivational drubbing. His message: you have a great story. Now go to Africa and tell it! The next month, I put everything on my Visa card and flew with Dan Evans and Ryan Hill to Cameroon. I relied on Ryan’s experience with Nat Geo, Dan’s resourcefulness, and my network—which was key. My best Cameroonian friend, Jean Paul Fosso, was working with the Cameroonian Sports Ministry, so I had full access, and even ended up shooting from a helicopter during the race (crazy scary!). Another close friend, Louise Mbango, connected me to Moki Charles, a producer for Cameroonian Radio and Television. He took a week off from his day job to be our Unit Producer and hired seven additional shooters to film on race day. I directed the 10-day shoot. Then Dan and I scripted and edited for a year, working in between paying gigs. Awesome!

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On location in Buea, Cameroon shooting Volcanic Sprint (L to R): Ryan Hill, Moki Charles, Dan Evans, Jaba Wose, yours truly, Simon Gobina, and a cameraman whose name I forgot.

Ultimately, Volcanic Sprint won the non-fiction category at the Big Bear Lake Film Festival and was an official selection of the Jackson Hole Film Festival, Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, and Boulder Adventure Film Festival. It was distributed globally by American Public TV Worldwide. You can even watch it on Amazon and iTunes today (and it has an 8.8 rating on IMDB). I earned back my investment and then some.

To tell this unique story, I needed my friends to give me rare access. My hook-up with the Mt. Cameroon Race of Hope was one-in-a-million. The lesson: look again at your own networks. They may inspire more creativity than you give them credit for!

 

 

 

5. Target your weaknesses

The year was 2008. My business was taking off. I had hired Dan full-time and we were scrambling to finish a lot of corporate videos. We started our second documentary, Shattered Sky, which contrasted America’s leadership preserving the ozone layer with inertia in the face of climate change. The problem was, from my standpoint, Dan was having all the fun, shooting and editing. I was the one wearing the monkey suit, writing proposals, going to meetings, producing, bent over my computer. I had the itch to be more creative. I wanted to shoot.

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Enjoying a coconut in Senegal in October 2016. Here, I’m shooting with my Sony FS7. But in 2008, I still had a lot to learn!

Sure, I’d been shooting for years, first with the Panasonic DVX100 before HD was a thing. But I wasn’t proficient yet. So I started taking the Sony EX1 home to practice at night and on weekends. It didn’t come naturally for me. But I kept at it, and gradually improved. So when Dan moved to Portland to start his own production company, I had the confidence and ability to do all the shooting myself. Since then, I’ve spent thousands of hours behind the lens, first with the Canon 5D, then the Canon C100, the C300, and now on my Sony FS7, which for my money is the best documentary camera value out there.

The lesson: shooting didn’t come nearly as easy to me as writing and producing. But I worked really hard. I targeted my weakness.

 

 

6. Forge unorthodox partnerships

The year was 2013. The previous three years had been the most fulfilling in my professional life. I wrapped Shattered Sky, and then shot, wrote, and edited 10 episodes of a documentary TV series called Bench to Bedside. Less than three years after learning Final Cut Pro, I was nominated for an Emmy award for editing. I was doing every aspect of filmmaking and loving it!

Meanwhile, I was directing a commercial shoot one day working with DP Doug Gritzmacher. It was intense: 20 actors, 9 scenes, a big crew. It was approaching midnight and we were about to get kicked out of our location (Frederick Memorial Hospital). I was tired and couldn’t visualize the last scene the way I’d scripted it. There was no way we were going to finish in time and I was stressed out! Fortunately, Doug changed it up on the fly, basically directed the scene for me, and saved the production! The next month, he hired me to direct some interviews for a DirecTV documentary, MLK: More than a Dream—and I got to interview Colin Powell, James Brown, and the incomparable John Lewis. Month after month, I hired him or he hired me for various projects. But along the way, he started packing—to move to Denver!

Doug’s choice was an odd one. He’d spent 15 years building a clientele in D.C. and he was leaving now? (He wanted to settle in a place where he could ski, hike, and mountain bike in his backyard, which I couldn’t blame him for!) So in part to cement an emerging partnership, we launched Z-Channel Films, a full-service video production company. We really had no idea what our business plan was, but it felt like the right thing to do. It was certainly unorthodox timing. I helped Doug pack the U-Haul the same day our website went live.

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On location with Doug in Los Angeles in 2015, with the Vet Hunters. We were the first documentary team to be hired out-of-house to make an original documentary for DirecTV’s Audience Channel.

Ultimately, Doug and I were rewarded for our efforts. Z-Channel won a Telly Award for one of our first collaborations, Saving Sally (the one where he saved the shoot). Then when AARP hired me to direct a couple projects in California, I had them fly Doug out from Denver. Those two short films – Skateboard Mom and then Super Humans Unmasked—surpassed 5 million views on Facebook! And then the incredible happened. Z-Channel Films was the first production company DirecTV chose to work with to make a documentary out-of-house. On Veteran’s Day 2015, Jobs for G.I.s premiered nationally on DirecTV’s Audience Channel.

The lesson I learned: be open to new partnerships, even when it doesn’t seem that logical at first.

 

 

7. A.B.L.: Always be learning

The year was 2013 and drones were in the news. When DJI released their first Phantom copter, I was fascinated. Although I had zero experience flying, I immediately bought the first-generation model and started practicing. But the first six times I tried to fly it, I crashed. But I kept at it, and my (empty) neighborhood soccer field became my practice grounds. Gradually I got proficient. The problem was, the Phantom didn’t have a gimbal. So when I MacGyvered a GoPro on it, the footage was shaky. Try as I might, I couldn’t use the footage.

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This year, with my genial crew in Senegal. All the hard work learning the Phantom in 2013 paid off.

Fast forward a year. A local production company hired me to field direct and run second camera for a new Red Bull Channel series. The night before my first gig they called: “Can you fly a copter?” Sure, I bluffed, even though it’d been a year. I arrived in Key West to find the audio grip holding a brand-new Phantom 2+ still in the box. I put it all together—on the boat!—as we motored to our location. I knew the Phantom 2+ had a gimbal and a pretty good camera. But my stomach was churning: would this thing even fly? If so, would I crash it in the Atlantic? Fortunately, on that first harrowing mission, I barely avoided baptizing the copter: Here’s a YouTube clip. Red Bull liked the footage so much that in subsequent months, I flew the Phantom in Portland and Jamestown. Here’s my blog about the experience. These days, I fly the Phantom 4 all the time. It’s a great tool for cinematic aerials: check out what I did last month in in Dakar, Senegal.

The lesson: Always be learning. We may not be able to use our knowledge right away. But in this business, learning is the best calculated risk you can take!

“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.

 

JOBS for G.I.s Now on DirecTV

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 6.34.43 PMA year ago today, Doug Gritzmacher and I flew to Los Angeles to start pre-production on a documentary that we pre-sold to DirecTV. The idea: since 9/11, more than 2 million people have left the military. How are they doing re-integrating into civilian life?

Our challenge: make the feature documentary film in nine months, soup to nuts! This was our first documentary film under the banner of our new company, Z-Channel Films.

That first whirlwind week we met with as many people as we could who were working on veterans affairs in Los Angeles. (We set the film there because the city has more veterans than any city in the nation; more homeless veterans; a Navy vet as a Mayor; and the city is the headquarters of DirecTV, so they liked that it was a “local” story.)

Over the subsequent six months, we returned to Los Angeles seven times. We followed a lot of transitioning service members, and ultimately settled on five, at least one from each branch.

Kudos to DirecTV, which gave us great latitude to tell the story we wanted to tell!

When JOBS FOR G.I.s premiered on DirecTV’s Audience Channel around Veterans Day in early November, I was elated. Mad props to my filmmaking partner, Doug Gritzmacher, who was a delight to work with. He does it all, from directing and shooting to editing and color correction. I hope we make many more documentaries together!

Long form is a grind. You don’t make much money. When you do it the way we prefer — more observational documentary — it takes time. And you’re not necessarily sure where the story is going or when it’s going to wrap up.

But that’s documentary. Thanks to Doreen, Aneika, Andy, Christian, and Alex who let us into their lives. Respect to the thousands of providers in the city of angels who are helping service members transition out. And thanks to our patriots who serve in our stead.

Making this film gave me a renewed appreciation for what you do.

Behind The Scenes: Epic Longboard Charity Jam

steve-jump copyThis is a behind-the-scenes post for a pro bono video I recently made. It was a total blast! All the boarders I met were really cool. And it was for a good cause. Check it out:

One of my good friends is Colin Brown. His son, Kaelen, is a junior in high school. Kaelen’s the lead singer and guitarist for the band Red Light Distraction and is an avid longboarder. When Kaelen told me he and friends Jake Muskovitz and Cole Trudo were organizing a longboard jam to raise money for charity, I was impressed and said I’d make a video for them.

I drew in Mark Devito, Executive Creative Director of local boutique agency Gigawatt Group, to produce. Mark hires me to direct commercials for some outdoor, active lifestyle, and sports accounts he has, so I knew he’d be stoked. Then we asked Rob Bellon to work second camera.

When I got there Saturday morning, the long, sloping road in front of the Czech Embassy in northwest Washington, D.C. was already swarming with teenagers. Half of them were wearing Halloween costumes – I’d forgotten that this was one of the (loosely enforced) entry requirements!

While unpacking my gear, I heard a few people mentioning “Red Bull guy.” Then a minute later, I heard it again. Soon, I realized they were talking about me! I’d mentioned to Kaelen that I was headed to Hong Kong on a shoot for the Red Bull channel — and suddenly, I’m “the Red Bull guy!” (read my post from Hong Kong. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m just an indie freelance filmmaker!)

I brought my C100 outfitted with an external ProRez Atomos Samurai Blade to capture some establishing shots. Rob had his GH4, and I asked him to float around the finish line where everybody was hanging out and capture reaction shots and cool details.  I ended up using a lot of Rob’s footage!

I was most excited to use my new Glidecam HD-4000 with my Canon 5Dm3. Having just binged on some stellar Devin Supertramp videos, I wanted to capture some fluid, moving shots where the guys were competing for longest slide.

That was my first time using the glidecam. If you want to watch another video I just made in San Diego using the glidecam for 100% of the footage, check this out:

For me the biggest question was, how would my new GoPro Hero4s perform? I’d just bought three of them for a shoot I had in Portland, Oregon, but I’d yet to take advantage of the 120 frames per second in 1080p.

As for the event, I was impressed with the organization and community. The Czech Embassy and neighbors didn’t seem to mind all the commotion. The 100+ longboarders were polite and shared the road when the odd driver or cyclist headed through.

Kaelen, Jake, and Cole ran a tight ship. They had tons of raffle prizes donated by all the big companies—Riptide, Loaded, Bustin, Muirskate, Rayne, and other companies listed at the end of the video. A bunch of the longboarders I talked with said it was the best-run jam they’d ever been to.

And the athleticism and technique were impressive—especially at the finish line, where these guys bombed down going 30 or 40 mph, then threw down into various heel side and toe side slides!

Check out this next clip: I actually jumped to avoid a slider (My bad, I got too close to the action!) But the glidecam kept the footage pretty smooth!

Thanks to Jacob Funk for the amazing photo. Nice timing, Jacob! Check out Jacob’s rad photography portfolio!

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If you look close in the video above, you can see the DJI Phantom Vision flying. I’ve been doing a lot flying with the Phantom Vision 2 Plus lately, so got to talking with those guys (read my copter post here, with aerial footage from Virginia, Oregon, and Florida!).

How did the GoPros perform? I set all three of them to capture footage at 120fps 1080p, and gave them to different guys to see what we could capture. I actually mounted a flat adhesive mount flush on a board by screwing it into the housing. But that was too shaky. I also affixed the Jaws mount on the front lip of a board, but that was too shaky as well.

The positions that worked the best were the chesty mount, the tried-and-true helmet mount, the wrist mount, and my low-tech favorite . . . just having guys hold it in their hands (or with a pole) and point it at themselves.

One of the most talented boarders, J.D. Casada, captured the best footage, which worked really well at 120 fps. He’s the one featured for more than 30 seconds, from the 41-second mark. 

Kaelen, Jake, and Cole say they’re going to organize another jam soon. Check out their Facebook page for the TML Halloween Charity Jam.

And let me know what you think about the video!

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!

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.

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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!

Beirut Dispatch: 5 Things I Learned in Lebanon

photoBeirut is a complete blast. The people are dynamic, the food crazy good, and in a week I’m all over the country, from the Syrian border in the north to close to Israel in the south. Here’s five things I learned during my film shoot in Lebanon.

1. Beirut’s got an image problem

 

When I told friends I was going to Beirut, all conversations and Facebook comments were variations on “be safe, be careful.” Some mentioned Hezbollah. Most focused on the Syrian civil war, which has already sent almost a million refugees into Lebanon (a small country of only 4 million that is ill-equipped to welcome so many people.)

Turns out, concerns aren’t overblown. The night I arrive, police stop me for more than an hour near my hotel. They don’t like my camera equipment (it doesn’t help that the hotel is catty-corner to Parliament!) My taxi driver has a soccer ball, so we juggle on the cobblestones while Mr. Police speaks, at length, on his iPhone. No dice. Ultimately, my hosts book me in a less sensitive accommodation. Aaaah, sweet sleep.

 

2. Dynamic and cool, the Lebanese carry on

 

The first day of shooting goes according to plan.

That literally is the most beautiful sentence you can write if you’re a filmmaker abroad.

“Yes, there are bombs . . . If you die, you die.”

This is 100% due to my team in Beirut, the all-Lebanese staff of the USAID-funded Lebanese Investment in Microfinance project. All logistics, scheduling, transport, and access issues are worked out in advance. Thanks Khalil, Carla, Mahmoud, Moussa, Liliane!

Here’s a few things I hear throughout the day—the likes of which don’t float around the local Whole Foods back home: “We had our own civil war for 20 years, and we didn’t all go running into other countries!” . . . “The refugees get a stipend at the border. Then they accept lower pay in our jobs. Our young men can’t compete!” . . . “Yes, there are bombs. But we go out almost every night: if you die, you die.”

Day one’s a wrap. I’m impressed at the work ethic and efficiency of my team. I’m also surprised by how sanguine people remain despite the dicey security situation.

Dynamic and cool, the Lebanese carry on.

 

3. Fishing is an endurance sport

 

Jet lag sucks.

I don’t get to sleep until past 3am. I hate my 4am wake-up call. I despise the 4:45am pick-up. It’s still pitch black as we drive up the coast to the tiny fishing village of El Beddaoui, in Chekka.

What I don’t know is that we’re less than an hour from the Syrian border. And minutes from the sectarian violence in Tripoli—where we’ll go before lunch.

Rabih is a fisherman. He’s been on the water since 3am setting his nets. He bought his used boat and nets with a microfinance loan. Today, he work for himself and not for the man. It’s changed his family’s life, and I’m here to tell that story.

It’s the pre-dawn blue hour as I step on the boat. Here, at the dock, the water is serene, but soon in the open Mediterranean, the waves knock me around. I’m filming with the Canon 5D Mark 3, with the 16-35mm lens on a Manfrotto monopod—small, lightweight, great in low light.

“Rabih can’t stop smiling. After all, it’s his boat, his nets, and he’s making a better living now.”

As the sun rises, Rabih stands heroically above the horizon. The work is grueling, as he pulls up the thousands of yards of nets by hand, fish entwined, balled up in baskets on deck.

After two hours at sea, I shoot some b-roll around town, rejoin Rabih at the fish market in Tripoli (no issues), hang out with his family at home, then return to port where he’s prepping to head out to sea again.

I’m exhausted, but Rabih can’t stop smiling. After all, it’s his boat, his nets, and he’s making a better living now.

 

4. Shawarma & Robert Downey, Jr. go together

 

My second day of filming I spend on a cattle farm in Bekaa with Samir. He’s bought 10 heads of cattle over several years thanks to three successively larger microfinance loans, and expanded his business considerably.

Working around all that cattle dung inspired a terrible hunger, so Khalil recommends one of his favorites: Barbar Shawarma, which is located in Corniche, a seaside promenade in Beirut’s central district.

First, Khalil. This guy is really the project’s M&E Coordinator, but this week, he’s my extremely capable Unit Producer and translator. He gets along extremely well with everybody we work with across the country, and we never have a problem.

And as the week unfolds, he’s also acting food critic and cinema aficionado, since he can’t stop reciting the closing scene in Avengers, where Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man crashes to Earth, opens his weary eyes, and says, “You ever tried Shawarma? There’s a shawarma joint about two blocks from here. I don’t know what it is, but I wanna try it.” (Back story on that revised ending on Entertainment Weekly).

Well, I try Khalil’s favorite shawarma in shawarma’s birthplace, and it’s great!

 

5. Byblos is irresistibly photogenic

 

The rest of the film shoot takes me to five of Lebanon’s six Governorates (or provinces). I’m deep in Hezbollah country, where billboards of the Ayatollah Khomeini share real estate with ads for Pepsi and designer watches. And by Friday, I have more than enough quality footage to cut four short films.

Saturday is a day off. What’s brilliant is that long-time friends Stefano and Margherita live and work in Tyre, about an hour south. They pick me up and we drive up the coast to Byblos. It’s a respite, a quiet tourist town, and irresistibly photogenic. You’d think on my day off, I wouldn’t touch a camera, but the light was beautiful and I took 50+ photos . . . on my iPhone! Oh, and Byblos is a UNESCO world heritage site.

It’s a perfect way to close out a great week, where I feel good about the footage I captured and learned a lot about the culture and people of Lebanon.

Directing in Kenya, Distributing in Tokyo

steve-equatorNairobi’s Westgate mall terror had not yet seized headlines when I left Washington, D.C. to direct and shoot a short documentary there. While I’ve been all over central Africa, it was my first time in Kenya. I stayed at the Nairobi Fairmont, which had all the old-world charm of a century-old safari hotel, as well as a dash of unsettling colonial vibe.

The DC-based World Bank Group has sent me to a lot of countries in the past few years to document what it’s doing on the ground. You can take issue with how successful the institution’s been in some countries or some sectors, but I like what I’ve seen. Lately, I’ve been serving as director, shooter, editor — and I’ll usually work with a DC-based producer and a unit producer in the field.

This time, it’s the Inclusive Business unit of the IFC, or International Finance Corporation—that has me in Meru, Kenya on a coffee farm. When we get there, our coffee farmer is nowhere to be found. We scramble to find a replacement. Soon, I find myself filming a day in the life of Cyrus Kinote, his wife Rhoda Nkirote, and their two darling children.

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Sometimes, the craziness just overtakes you . . . 

I direct and shoot, and enjoy working with IFC producer Marcus Watson, who has a good eye. I know this will be more believable if we let Kinote tell his own story, documentary style. I also want the visuals to show his agency and dynamism. So many development videos are bad because they have top-down narration and don’t really give space for the voices of the poor. I resolve to do better. Today, I want to film how Kinote earns a living, spends time with his family, and collaborates with his colleagues. I want to do it all from his point of view. In so doing, I hope the viewer might empathize with Kinote, and care that his life has improved.

Today, I want to film how Kinote earns a living, spends time with his family, and collaborates with his colleagues. I want to do it all from his point of view.

They say that working with animals or children can double production time. On Kinote’s farm, this definitely holds true. Kinote’s cows are lowing like it’s their job, perpetually interrupting the master interview! Finally, Kinote throws some extra food in the stall, and we buy ourselves a window of time.

Rose Moseti is a stellar unit producer (sorry for the eating pic, Rose!). She works for Camerapix, Kenya's best video production company: http://www.camerapix.com/
Rose Moseti is a stellar unit producer (sorry for the eating pic, Rose!). She works for Camerapix, Kenya’s best video production company: http://www.camerapix.com . . . Below, Marcus Watson is a fun producer to work with. He’s since left the IFC to take a job in Kenya.

Late in the day, I film a series of shots with the GoPro, where I affix the little POV camera all over the place: in a coffee tree, a pile of coffee berries, and a wheelbarrow—even around Kinote’s chest. The end result appears as a short montage starting at 2:29.

We did the interview in Kinote’s native Kikuyu. Back in Washington, DC, I edit the story and dub in English. It turns out that the IFC also wants a version to show to some important stakeholders in Tokyo, so I master a second version with Japanese subtitles.

For me, it’s a first: from Meru to English to Japanese!

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I really enjoyed getting to know Anthony Ngugi, who works for Ecom SMS, the outfit that trains all the coffee farmers and gives them market access. Anthony’s a charismatic guy who seems to relate equally well with the uneducated farmers and the company executives — and comes from a farming background hiimself.

Here's a still from the Japanese version. This is Kinote crossing a stream to his coffee fields.
Here’s a still from the Japanese version. This is Kinote crossing a stream to his coffee fields.

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.

Film @ Egypt: Ahmed, Ambulance-Beater + 5 Videos

steve-liftRockEgypt, for me at least, is not one of those places you can parachute in and feel at home. It’s intense, with its own pronounced contours and customs.

A Washington, DC-based organization hired me to go to Cairo and film for four days. As DP and director, I’d pick up a unit producer and driver in country, (When I’m back home, I’ll write and edit a short documentary film).

Here’s a 1-minute clip from some stuff I shot on day 3 on a nature preserve. Check out the underwater clips!

Day 1 starts early. After a couple interviews, it gets fun. Khalil runs the agribusiness unit of a large company, so I decide to put us on motorbikes, winding through the vineyards on the way to his staff. Anytime you can ride on the back of a motorcycle, filming, and get paid for it, it’s good times . . . What a blast! Here’s a quick clip:

I decide to do Khalil’s interview in the greenhouse, since it’s quieter and there’s some shade. I get set up, using my Litepanel LED, then wait a bit until the golden hour is just right. Here’s a still (no color grading):

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Anytime I can complete three interviews and some creative b-roll on day 1 in a new country, it feels great. This rosy feeling of accomplishment takes a hit, however, when my “unit producer” informs me she needs to “spend some time in the office” on day 2. She’ll be leaving me with the driver for beauty shots Tuesday around Cairo.

Anytime you can ride on the back of a motorcycle, filming, and get paid for it, it’s good times . . . What a blast!

This is well and good, except I speak no Arabic and Ahmed, my driver, speaks about 57 words of English.

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Despite a language divide, Ahmed and I become fast friends

Now, I’ve shot city b-roll in some crazy places before, from Harare to Baku and Manila to Mexico City, but nothing compares to Cairo. Old lady drivers make Manhattan cabbies look like Zen Buddhists. It’s manic. Somehow things function, but it’s tight, chaotic, and extraordinarily loud.

After a lengthy argument, my unit producer relents—only to call at 10:30pm. She’s not coming; driver to pick me up at 7am.

I feel abandoned, but there’s work to be done. This is what it’s like to be an independent documentary filmmaker — you move forward, you solve problems, you do it all: shoot, run audio, direct . . . and I was ready to learn some Arabic along the way!

The next morning, Ahmed and I head to the pyramids. Without a unit producer, I wing it. Fortunately, Ahmed knows a guy who knows a guy. Because it is virtually impossible (and prohibitively expensive) to bring film equipment in the main tourist gate, I should get a horse and go around back where I can film the pyramids from a hilltop in the desert.

Good plan, right? Except the stable owner tries to get me to name the first price. Having lived in Cameroon—where people approach haggling with the vigor of Olympic athletes—I knew enough to wait.

“2,400 Egyptian pounds,” he offers. I laugh out loud. Stable owner wants $350. The next 20 minutes is a legendary back-and-forth where I feign disinterest, act like I’m walking away, and eventually settle on about $64. I immediately have this sinking feeling in my stomach that I could have gotten it for much cheaper, but I can’t haggle the whole day. I have a job to do.

A fence encircles the entire Giza pyramid area. It is reportedly 22 kilometers long. It probably helps the state capture more tourist dollars, because everybody has to enter the main gate, paying some 60 pounds.

Skirting the pyramid fence from the slum side is a start contrast. Dilapidated storefronts advertise horse tours or all-terrain vehicles. I pass a dead horse, a cemetery. Then we enter the desert:

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Muhammad knows no English, but is a nice boy who carries my slider to our destination. Thanks!

My guide, Ali, complains how tourism is way down since the revolution. He has a winning smile, and fortunately for me, a background in TV. When we finally reach the distant hilltop, and I capture the footage I want, Ali takes my camera and directs me with the confidence of a commercial director:

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What saves the rest of day 2 is Ahmed, the driver. Every time I want to get out of the van and film, he makes it happen. Alternately, he charms security guards, tips people to watch our van, and finagles our way behind locked gates. Thank you Ahmed! You are a lifesaver.

At Muhammad Ali Mosque at sunset, Ahmed and I capture a stunning silhouette of this historic building:

Day 3 promises adventure. We’re accompanying the CEO of the company to an innovative pilot project where they’re raising seabass in a saline lake, Al Fayyum. The drive is only 150 kilometers, but because we start in central Cairo, it takes four hours.

Despite the 95-degree heat, this is my favorite day. Any time you can film on a wooden rowboat and underwater with a GoPro on a monopod, it’s cool. The clip posted up top is from this day.

The rest of the afternoon we take our time heading back to Cairo. At golden hour, we come across a family harvesting wheat. While my unit producer (back with us today) stays in the van on her phone, Ahmed jumps out with me. He spreads some small tips around to the grandfather and the children just to say “thanks,” as I film the family in action:

We continue down a rural road. The light is so nice, I jump out. Soon, outgoing young men gather around. They’re curious. Ahmed explains what I’m up to, and they enjoy hamming it up for the camera:

Day 4, I do an interview, spend some time with the company, and then spend an afternoon getting broll around the city. At sunset, Ahmed invites me for “koshari.” It’s yummy, and a fitting end to an intense week.

Because my flight departs at 4:35am, I awake at 1am, and Ahmed picks me up at 1:30. What we don’t count on is a big accident on a bridge, and I’m dangerously close to missing my flight. We’re going nowhere. And what’s not helping is a sea of gawkers who arrive on motorbikes, park them on the only functioning lane, and start directing traffic of their own accord. Where’s the police? Where’s emergency services?  . . . At a snail’s pace, we creep forward to the scene, which has the vibe of a democracy demonstration more than a traffic accident. At that moment, Ahmed spies an opening. An ambulance breaks free from the scrum. Ahmed reacts. We are hot on its tail, and race through the city at breakneck speed.

Eventually, even the ambulance is going too slow. Ahmed, with commentary, leaves the ambulance in his dust!

I make my flight! And head back to Washington, D.C. Thanks my friend . . .

Cherry Blossoms: Naked and Famous

silhouetteEvery spring here in D.C., the cherry blossoms come out and the city shuts down. I decided to go to the tidal basin for a few hours and take part in the mayhem . . . through my camera lens.

I set up at three locations: by the MLK, Jr. Memorial, around the corner facing the Washington Monument; and across the polo grounds on the banks of the Potomac. I brought the Canon 5D Mark III, the MYT Works glider, and several lenses: 16-35mm, 24-105mm, and 100-400mm.

I didn’t have a shooting plan. I was just having fun. Lots of tourists stepped through the frame, smiling, happy, with good energy. A Japanese woman with friends. A picnic at water’s edge. The golden hour gave way to blue.

I edited the footage today. I decided to use “Jilted Lovers” by the New Zealand band, The Naked and Famous. What inspiration? I pictured that Japanese woman. What if these lyrics were her story? What would capture her eye? What would she be thinking? Would she give in to bittersweet nostalgia? Or could she find release in the beauty all around her?

I decided to go to the tidal basin for a few hours and take part in the mayhem . . . through my camera lens.

The clip runs just short of 3 minutes. Hope you like it.

Colombia shoot with the Canon 5D Mark iii

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mecánico as Film Crew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Respects, Dr. Rowland

I was all set to write something today about how we just got our 400,000th fan on the Shattered Sky FB page, before our film festival premiere later this month, when a friend sent the Washington Post obit for Dr. Sherwood Rowland, chemist and Nobel laureate, who passed away over the weekend.

When I first met Dr. Rowland in 2007, he was already 33 years removed from the defining discovery of his career — that chlorofluorocarbons contribute to ozone depletion.

I remember how nervous I was before our interview at UC Irvine. Here was one of the most renowned atmospheric chemists in history. What if he and his doctoral student Mario Molina (co-Nobel Laureate) had never made the discovery? What if the ozone hole had kept growing? Would skin cancer be a much more serious threat today? Would crops and fisheries be suffering? What about our health and environment today if Rowland and Molina simply hadn’t done the work?

I recall how tall he was and how my hand disappeared in his as we greeted each other. Something from his bio jumped to my mind, and I mentioned it: that he’d been named the MVP in the AAU Chicago city basketball championship game in 1949. Dr. Rowland smiled and relayed some stories. Our interview got off to a good start.

The enclosed photo is a screen shot from a 2009 interview for Shattered Sky, my new documentary that compares the ozone crisis with climate change. I literally couldn’t have made the film without Dr. Rowland, who gave Dan Evans and me full access to his archives, going back four decades.

Dr. Rowland was the rare scientist in the 1970s who spoke forcefully for political action. He set a strong example that a scientist’s role didn’t end at the laboratory door, which paved the way for other strong scientists to speak out, including some in our film.

As Shattered Sky premieres later this month (and we announce an exciting nationwide educational partnership), a new generation will learn not only about Dr. Rowland’s discovery, but also about America’s success in solving the ozone crisis. My hope is that the story inspires us all to take action on climate change, because it’s the smart and right thing to do now for our energy, economy, and environment.

Respects, Dr. Rowland.

 

MLK Documentary Premieres on DirectTV Tonight

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

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

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

 

Jane Goodall LIVE

Today was the second time I filmed Dr. Jane Goodall recently for an upcoming movie, and each time she has taken me off guard (in a good way) with an extraordinarily gentle spirit, iron resolve, and tendency to break into impromptu primate calls.

Dr. Goodall is 77 years old. She moves lightly; the years exert no visible weight on her. She talks in a whisper, not out of reserve or infirmity, but from the quiet confidence of somebody accustomed to her own authority and eloquence. People listen.

This morning, Dr. Goodall speaks with the crew at the International Space StationCommander Mike Fossum and Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa join in. I film her side of it. The astronauts are inspired by Dr. Goodall’s life-long conservation mission. She finds common ground, learning about their science and their thoughts about the Earth from their perch.

In orbit, the world’s most accomplished astronauts are zipping at more than 17,000 miles per hour, chatting with the only person who’s ever been accepted into chimpanzee society. As I type this, Jeff Orlowski is putting the final touches on Jane Goodall: Live, which is playing one night only, September 27, in 500 cinemas around the country. Afterwards, Dr. Goodall and I discuss Roots and Shoots, a youth-oriented program of the Jane Goodall Institute that is in 100+ countries and all 50 states. It’s her passion; it’s visceral how intent she is on getting the next generation to care. She leans in: “I bet you need a chimp hug,” she says. I mutter something far less poignant than how David Graybeard might have responded. She utters a chimp call, and tenderly squeezes. I smile.

Carpentry and the Artist as a Young Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boys . . .

I’m in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city. Today, I’m spending time with four boys that have benefited from being part of Catholic Relief Service’s programs here. At first, they are reticent, eyes quiet and downturned. “Bonding” is penciled into the shooting schedule, so the boys start to feel comfortable before I start shadowing them with a camera. So that means . . . soccer! My old skills come in handy as we play a spirited game and I earn a little street cred with these little guys.

Nkosilathi is the oldest, the weight of his responsibility heavily apparent on his face. He’s 19, but has been raising his three brothers by himself since both of his parents died and an older sibling fled to South Africa — stressed by the chore.

Handsome is 14. His smile belies his status: orphan, absolutely poor. John is 12. He is second in his class. Nqobizitha is 9. He is short and slight as a 6 year old. Even saying his name requires a unique tongue clucking like from that movie The Gods Must be Crazy.

Their house is a concrete shack measuring about 10 feet by 8 feet. Without a bed, they sleep on the floor covered in blankets. Without a table, they eat with their hands from bowls resting on the floor. Without electricity, they’ve pirated a neighbor’s line via a wildcat cable.

But they have each other, newfound support from a local group, and things are looking up. Their spirit strengthens my resolve to do better in everything I do.

Zimbabwe shoot for Catholic Relief Services

 


Shooting in Zimbabwe means a lot of firsts for me. First time shooting in southern Africa, first time in Zimbabwe. We have a benign, but frequent police presence and were strictly limited to pre-approved locations. I’ve never had film subjects so keenly aware of the authorities. Undoubtedly, it’s the fresh memory of the 2008 post-election violence. Our home base was a Catholic school where I assume we could film nothing more provocative than noisy children — which skewered audio conditions for our interviews, but made us some friends.

Hats off to the Xirdalan Beer Appreciation Society

Just wrapped day 3 in Baku, which included three interviews and some fun broll about town — 13 hours in all, including a great dinner at Namli Kebap. (By the way, how is it that everywhere I go has its own website?). Dinner rocked with a selection of kebabs: lamb, spicy lamb, minced beef, and chicken; bulgar rice, an “improvised salad” (says my host) of aubergine, cucumber, and tomato (and yes, Azerbaijan’s rep as a place of super-fresh veggies is still intact). And is all went down smooth with the unremarkable, but smooth lager Xirdalan beer (which I was happy to discover has its own 10-member “FacebookBeer Appreciation Society.”) Well, now it has 11 !

Azerbaijan Interview: Without a DIMMER ? !


Coming to Baku to film a short documentary meant checking to make sure that anything I plug in doesn’t blow up like a firecracker. I brought an Arri 1000k light for interviews, which runs on both the USA’s 120 volt and the 220 in Azerbaijan. All I had to do was buy a 220 lamp from B&H, which I did. I got 4 plug adapters so I could charge my various batteries, phone, computer, etc, and I was good to go . . or so I thought! Hours before my departure, I realized my dimmer only ran on 120 volt. . . . So began a hunt, as I was taxied around town by my implacable driver, Jarulla. We soon strike gold at Santral Electrik, a halogen dimmer rated up to 2k watts. Fortunately, the guy behind the counter, my new hero Ceyhun, was not only an able salesman, but a quick electrician, who rewired the thing, transforming it from a home wall dimmer to a mobile video-production dimmer . . . There I was, good to go for interview set-ups. Thanks to Ceyhun!

In Baku: Russian, the Persistent Lingua Franca


So, here I am with (left) Ilaha Mammadli, a finance journalist from “Trend,” an international news services with offices in Baku. On the right is Rasmina Gurbatova, the film’s director. . . Most people speak Azeri to each other on the streets, but this interview was conducted in Russian. And although the vast majority of people in Baku speak Azeri, many people communicate in Russian. One expat told me it is elitism. Is it possible that despite 70 years of Soviet totalitarianism in Azerbaijan, Russian is still the urbane lingua franca here? Haven’t most cities that were colonized by the USSR (Budapest, Vilnius, Dresden) dispensed with its Lenin statues, Politburo leaders, and vestiges of Russian culture (language, etc) long ago? Baku, however, is an exception: is this because Baku has been a multi-ethnic crossroads for as long as it’s been a city? Only recently has it become majority Azeri. . . . For me, it’s a surprise that card-carrying Azeris still speak so much Russian without it messing with their Azeri nationalism . . .

Welcome to Baku!


Baku is a big city with a tiny airport. I’ve landed in Azerbaijan, a country with about 9 million people — 4 million of whom are jammed into this cosmopolitan city on the Caspian Sea. I’m here to shoot a documentary . . . Newly landed, we queue up to jam through a single door. On the other side, travelers are chain-smoking in an endless passport-control line. This of course is comfortable compared to my second connecting flight: In Istanbul, a people-mover had dropped us off at the base of our airplane — in the middle of a driving rainstorm! All us travelers were drenched before we could mount the stairs. The Turkish Airlines flight was straight out of Pan American Airways, with turquoise seats and friendly stewardesses (!). I half expect to see Leo DiCaprio flying the plane. . . . After 20 hours: DC-Franfurt-Instanbul-Baku . . . I’m here!

Studio shoot @ Interface

Did a long studio shoot last night at Interface. Directed a crew of 11 people, and had about 15 actors. The Interface crew was great to work with.

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