The Washington, DC-based World Resources Institute hired the Dorst MediaWorks team to tell the stories of the five finalists for the inaugural $250,000 Ross Prize for Sustainable Cities.
As a result, we traveled to Medellin, Colombia to film Metrocable; to Pune, India to chronicle the work of SWaCH; to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for SARSAI; to Durban, South Africa for AeT; and Eskisehir, Turkey to film the city itself.
Here’s the highlight video that played at the New York City gala last week:
It was a privilege to go to four continents and craft stories from these five worthy finalists.
We did it documentary style, which had us interviewing and editing in Spanish, Marathi, Swahili, Zulu, and Turkish — and mastering to English.
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.
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.
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.
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)!
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.
When the International Monetary Fund hired Dorst MediaWorks to tell the story of its engagement with the Government in Colombia during the past decade, I was unsure how to tell it.
Sure, there was a lot of potential. Many Americans know bits and pieces beyond the drug trade: FARC guerillas had terrorized the country for a half-century, the economy was up and down, and the President just won the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s something to start with.
But so much of the IMF’s work is so inside baseball. And it’s only interesting to economists and policy wonks.
The good news, however, was that I got access to a diversity of smart, informed people who have been on the frontlines in Colombia: among them the Minister of Finance, Minister of Post-Conflict, Director of the Central Bank’s Board of Directors, the CEOs of Promigas and Telefonica, as well as a selection of professors and journalists.
Documentary films for an international organization
For this project, I ended up producing, directing, shooting, writing, and editing four videos, delivered in Spanish. I picked up a unit producer and interview while in country.
Some documentary videos stretch you in new ways. This one certainly did. I had never conducted a production all the way through in Spanish. That was a challenge.
And I had never done a series of videos that were so much about internal economic decisions. I chose to focus on the impacts that these decisions had – on Colombia’s stability and its ability to move forward with the peace process. I also wanted to chronicle the extent to which major public officials had relied on the IMF for sound advice during a difficult time.
The first video tells the story of Colombia’s peace plan that was cut short by an historically large oil shock and economic crisis.
Minister of Finance Cardenas turned out to be a great interview, and I used bites from him throughout the story in all four videos. He called the conflict with the FARC a kind of “handbrake on the economy” because for years, the country had to invest more in its defense and security than it wanted to, to the exclusion of infrastructure and rural development.
The Minister of Post-Conflict, Rafael Pardo spoke almost cryptically of “two years of secret talks and four years of open talks” just to get to a point where meetings were possible. I couldn’t help but thinking that a multi-episodic Netflix series about the behind-the-scene in the peace process would be awesome!
Juan Pablo Zarate, the Co-Director of the Board of Directors of the Central Bank, described the huge oil shock that hit the Colombian economy in 2014, but how the flexible exchange rate helped soften the blow. And other important figures spoke about the decisions they made to help keep the country from getting mired in a crisis, and how the IMF helped out along the way.
A Tax Reform Succeeds
The second video in the series goes into more depth about how a controversial tax reform also helped reduce the effects of the crisis, and keep Colombians out of poverty.
Ricardo Avila, the Editor-in-Chief of the large daily newspaper, Portafolio, explained how 23% of the central government’s revenue “depended on oil, and that almost disappeared completely.” This was a huge number and it blew my mind. How do you fill a 23% hole in any budget?
Ana Fernanda Maiguashca, a member of the Central Bank’s Board of Directors, said the reform was “tremendously important for the long-term sustainability of the Colombian economy.”
Peace is Good for Business
As a result of the quick reactions, the government was able to escape the worst of the economic crisis and move forward with the peace process.
The third video in the series opens with footage from the Nobel Prize Committee awarding Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos the 2016 Peace Prize.
At this point of the narrative, I turn to more voices from the private sector. Antonio Celia, the CEO of Promigas, turned out to be a jovial, whip-smart leader of the largest natural gas company in the country. He spoke at length about the pain and suffering inflicted by the FARC, which I’ll never forget. But he also spoke about the importance of extending opportunity, perhaps for the first time, to poor rural areas: “Peace is good for business, and business is good for peace.”
Business Goes to Quibdó
To show the impacts of the new opening, I chose to film in Quibdó, a small town in Choco, which had gotten itself ensnared in the conflict and isolated from most investment.
I got the perspective of Alfgonso Gomez, the CEO of Telefonica-Movistar, who estliabhsed a call center in the area.
I also interviewed a manager named Raquel, who described the scope of the operation: “I feel personal satisfaction in seeing how we help people, how we contribute to their lives.”
Most exemplary of the newfound opportunity in this isolated town was the perspective of worker Jennifer Quejada: “I had never I had never been able to give my son a birthday party before, so the first gift that I gave him was a birthday celebration with all his friends and lots of presents. Working here has been a wonderful experience.”
I’m a lucky man. Yesterday, I got to talk about my two passions–documentary filmmaking and international development–as one of four panelists at the Society for International Development’s (SID) “Storytelling with Data” event in Washington, D.C.
I kicked things off by asking people about their favorite documentaries, just to signal that my talk would be interactive (People mentioned the documentaries of Jeff Orlowski, Jenifer Siebel Newsom, and Michael Moore).
Then I showed them the Dorst MediaWorks reel. I wanted us all on the same page about what I do: documentary-style videos, with a focus on beneficiaries whose lives are improving–who most often tell the story through their own voices.
After we watched the reel, I wanted people to walk a mile in my shoes. What’s my approach to telling stories?
So I introduced a USAID project, Lebanese Investment in Microfinance (LIM), that I was hired to produce some videos for.
When the Sky’s the Limit, Where’s Your Story Start?
In five years, LIM awarded about $10 million in grants to nine microfinance partners in Lebanon, who then made 14,000 micro-loans totaling more than $30 million to thousands of rural entrepreneurs across the country.
“So, if you’re in Lebanon to tell this story, where do you start?” I asked. I paused. Nothing. Talk about drowning in data! 14,000 loans?
“What do you film? Where do you start?” I smiled. And waited…
If you remember one thing, take this with you: In your storytelling, first establish the person and passion, then the problem. Otherwise, nobody cares.
And then people began lobbing up ideas. “Successes and failures of the project,” one man offered. “Challenges the entrepreneurs faced,” said a woman up front. “Lives changed,” shouted somebody from the back.
Yes! For me, telling the Lebanese microfinance story meant that I needed to identify individuals who struggled against great odds and succeeded. I wanted to tell a character-based story that would show the benefits of the LIM program.
I spoke with Beirut-based program officers for IESC, USAID’s implementer. They helped me identify some possibilities and we narrowed it down from there.
We watched the first minute of Rabih’s Fishing Business together. I wanted people to see how I approached the storytelling.
“What did you notice about the first minute of the video?” I asked.
One guy up front piped up immediately: “There’s nothing about microfinance or the project at all in the first minute.”
Then, we talked about two important storytelling pillars that often get lost when people make videos showing the good work of international organizations: The primacy of the visual and the importance of a hero’s quest.
I read somewhere that when we watch videos, what we remember is 80% visual.
Think about it: so many videomakers labor endlessly on crafting just the right narration or interview sound bites, but then fail to exercise such care when their editor slaps up some moderately relevant b-roll footage (a term I hate by the way).
As a result, viewers respond a thousand different ways, jumping to whatever vague or unrelated connotations these visuals inspire.
Or even worse, explainer videos or descendants of the (once innovative) Girl Effect require viewers to read, read, read like they’re at a PowerPoint convention.
And that’s why so many short videos, particularly those cobbled together — without strong visual stories — make no impact. They are a waste of time and resources.
So back to Rabih. Who is he? Rabih is a fisherman who’s having trouble making ends meet, because he doesn’t own a boat and has to pay a lot to rent one. He gets a loan to buy a boat, then increases his income, which helps his family.
There were a lot of ideas from the extended project team about what I should shoot to tell this story: the microfinance institution, the training conferences that the microfinance lenders attended, and even the association of microfinance organizations that the project established.
I wanted a hero shot of Rabih and his boat to start the film. And that’s what I got.
For the first 10 seconds, there are no words. This is by design.
My opening here is a poor-man’s version of the kind of thing Alejandro Innárritu achieves to great effect in The Revenant. In one of these long takes, Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki follows Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) into a natural cave, into the water, with the camera floating around him, gradually revealing his surroundings, a frightening perspective. (See the New York Times Anatomy of a Scene)
If I was making a feature with Rabih, I’d choreograph his departure to play out in one take. But this is low-budget documentary-style video and Rabih really is fishing and he’s in a hurry. So, I started behind Rabih’s head to get his point of view, so the viewer could inhabit his world, if only for a moment.
When I’m editing, I like to turn down the volume and see if the video is telling the story visually. That’s the ultimate test. This opening passes that test.
A Hero’s Quest
We connect with people with authentic passion.
I didn’t understand a word of Rabih’s interview, because it was in Arabic. But when I got the translated transcript a few days after meeting him, I absolutely loved what he said: “Since I was 10 years old, I’ve been a son of the sea … I saw fishermen and discovered my passion.”
These words vibed 100% with the commitment, agency, and persistence that I witnessed through my camera lens.
Who’s not immediately intrigued by an individual who is so passionate about what they do?
Then the whammy. A text block: “Today, Rabih will pay more than half his earnings to the boat owner.”
This is a BIG problem in need of a solution.
Voila! This explains why USAID established the microfinance project in the first place.
If you remember one thing, take this with you: In your storytelling, first establish the person and passion, then the problem. Otherwise, nobody cares.
Viewers can try to care. We all try to care about issues and their resolution. Rural poverty in Lebanon is an important issue. Yes.
But here, in a minute, is the power of story. The sort that goes straight to the heart, not the head.
We meet Rabih pre-dawn. We join him on his boat and learn of his lifelong passion to be a successful fisherman. We don’t have to try to care. We care, instinctively. Call it empathy. But its the storytelling gene built into us, refined over millennia.
As a result, we’re invested in a solution.
As the video unfolds, we meet Rabih’s microfinance loan officer and Rabih’s family. We see Rabih sell his fish at the market. His world gets a big bigger and we understand it a bit more. By the end, as Rabih is tidying up his boat at dusk, we learn that his dream is to buy a larger boat and grow his business.
His life is improving and the USAID project is part of it.
This is the hope and the promise of international development. Rabih embodies this success story. Strong visuals and Rabih’s passionate quest to succeed help us care.
Also on the Panel …
Dani Clark works in communications at the World Bank. Turns out Dani also blogs at Medium, where she’s currently writing a gripping true-crime serial about a Texas man on death row. I started the first one last night and couldn’t stop until I’d read them all.
Kunle Badmus owns Kowree, a start-up technology firm aimed at helping African governments and businesses access opinions of their citizens and customers. Its’ true innovation is simplifying the feedback loop for improved communications and performance.
Allen Carrol gave a riveting introduction to Story Maps, a browser-based interactive storytelling platform that lets you combine authoritative maps with narrative text, images, and multimedia content. For a visual person like me—who’s always looking for new and better ways to distribute video—I’m excited about the insane potential of Story Maps and can’t wait to start using it.
My video production company, Dorst MediaWorks is based in Washington, D.C., where global nonprofits, USAID subcontractors, and multilaterals are competing to do international development better than the next guy.
There’s a lot in flux right now. But assuming America continues with its small, but impactful, foreign aid programs, I’ll continue to make videos about them.
For the better part of 14 years, that’s there I’ve been–specializing in video production for international developent. Our videos illustrate development results, mobilize funds, or raise awareness. Topics include: health, agriculture, governance, the environment, gender, microfinance, and education.
Moreover, there’s the prevailing income and opportunity disparities. Few of the people I film have much accumulated wealth. Most would have difficulty securing a visa to travel to the USA (fewer now, given Trump’s misguided Refugee Executive Order).
When I point a camera, I’m initiating a relationship: with Kinote the coffee farmer in Kenya; Tich, a brave young man in Zimbabwe; Rabih the fisherman in Lebanon. We are forever linked.
That’s a big responsibility. In a world where you can livestream HD video to Facebook’s 1 billion users with three clicks, sometimes that responsibility is lost on people and organizations.
My mission statement would need to reflect that.
If capturing footage implies a social contract, editing is fraught with ethical implications. Once you string two clips together, your video is no longer objective. Non-fiction stylings, sure, but framed within an illusion of causality. And in this sector where rich-country organizations and filmmakers are telling stories about poor people, ethical choices are inherent in creative choices, whether we acknowledge them or not.
All this was running through my head as I agonized over a good mission to help guide my work.
Finally, after much back and forth, this is what I came up with: “Dorst MediaWorks’ goal is to help make the world a more just and equal place. We make videos for international development organizations that show how international development programs transform lives. This gives greater voice to the world’s poor and strengthens the entities that work with them.”
What do you think?
I like that it keeps my focus both on my client (who is paying me and has power) and the people we choose to film (who I will likely never see again and who have little power).
If I amplify the voices of those with no voice, then I’m using my camera for good.
If through my videos, I help strengthen the organizations that are doing this work, then they can expand to reach more people.
Little by little, the world becomes a better place. More opportunity and access. A little more peace and prosperity for the other 95% of the world’s population.
And for a measly 1% of the federal budget every year, that’s a return on investment that Trump supporters should embrace as well.
I flew the DJI Phantom 4 in Dakar, Senegal last week. Over a mosque, through a statue, hovering near curious children. It was a great experience and really elevated the production values of my international development video. This was my first trip to Senegal, but my 20th trip overseas to make a video for an international development organization, with my company Dorst MediaWorks.
Since I just bought the Phantom 4 last month and this was my first project using it, I wanted to share nine reflections from the trip.
1. Cinematic, yes
Bottom line, aerial shots take it to the next level. I’ve filmed in a lot of places in a lot of conditions, but I got truly excited when I put the Phantom 100 meters in the sky and started filming. Brilliant moving pictures.
2. Client love
At the first review session, my client loved the aerial footage. It was all they wanted to talk about. I spent 90% of my production days earthbound, shooting interviews and following characters, but the aerials garnered all the attention!
3. Content is still king
I was in Dakar to tell the story of how a newly renovated container terminal has helped Senegal’s economy, and how a unit of the World Bank helped make it a possibility. It’s a typical project for me, since I specialize in making videos for international development organizations, like subcontractors for USAID or partners of the World Bank Group. I bought the Phantom 4 because I knew it would be hard to show the sheer scale of operations from the ground—humongous cranes, massive containers flying through the air, rows of stacked containers. The copter was the perfect tool. If, by contrast, the story had been about an education project, the most I could have expected out of the copter would have been some transition shots. But on this gig, the Phantom gave pictures that were absolutely essential to the storytelling.
Here’s the finished film for the unit of the World Bank Group, MIGA:
4. Mohamed, thanks
Unit Producer Mohamed Srour was great. A white guy in West Africa already gets a lot of attention. Throw in camera equipment and a drone, and you get very curious crowds! Flying a drone in Africa is a magnet for attention. Mohamed has been plying his craft for almost 30 years and was a joy to work with. He allowed me to focus on the creative. If you ever need a fixer in Senegal, give him a shout: 011 221 776300208
5. Safety first
It was school vacation in Senegal, so loads of children were out playing during the day. Mohamed led us to some well-known spots to fly the drone, including the Mosque de Oukama. As soon as I sent the copter up, boys immediately started gathering around. I was glued to the DJI app on my phone, busy piloting, so the first time I looked up there were 30 boys crowded around me. As the sun set, the Phantom was about 300 meters west over the Atlantic. Suddenly, the app started beeping: the battery was running out! Even though I was pressed to land the thing immediately, I had the presence of mind to ask Mohamed to clear a safe landing area — the rotating blades can be very dangerous. Almost as soon as the Phantom landed on the sand, the envelope closed and all the boys crowded in again. We took a few photos, I high-fived everybody, and we wrapped for the evening.
6. Geofencing, ugh
This version of the Phantom has geofencing built in. I guess drunk guys flying drones onto the White House grounds didn’t help. The good news is that people can’t fly copters into the paths of airplanes. The bad news is that I can’t fly the thing in Arlington, Virginia where I live — or anywhere within an approximate 20-mile radius of the White House (that’s the big red circle). I can’t even take off. What surprised me was that in Dakar, there was similar geofencing around the airport there. DJI calls it a Geospatial Environment Online (GEO), which is continually updated and also includes other sensitive areas like prisons, power plants, major stadium events, etc. Good idea, but bad news if you just want to practice flying at the local park and you’re too close to a no-fly zone. Like me.
7. So Easy!
I bought the Phantom 1 when it came out in 2013. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a gimbal and the GoPro I rigged up yielded shaky, unusable footage. But on the plus side, I became a proficient pilot. So when Red Bull hired me to direct a few episodes for a TV series, I flew the Phantom 2 Vision Plus: in Portland, Oregon and the Florida Keys. Then I got hired to operate camera for a PBS documentary in Jamestown, Virginia and I also flew there. But I hadn’t flown a Phantom for about 18 months when I got this Senegal gig. Yet it is so easy to operate that I had no problems at all.
The Dakar story about the container terminal took me to a company that imports most of its product from Europe. I wanted to illustrate how a company became more profitable now that the container terminal is more efficient. “Time is money,” said the project manager in English (even though he speaks only French and Wolof!), which was exactly what I was hoping to hear. After the interview and some b-roll, I got out the Phantom (I always do it last in case people object). I figured I’d get a quick establishing shot and call it a day.
Suddenly, something special happened. The laborers went into hyper drive. With the copter overhead, I was able to see what I couldn’t see from the ground — they were all loading and unloading gas tanks in three independent dynamic assembly lines! Immediately, I lowered the copter to the far right of the scene and piloted a slow push left over a truck (see 00:12 – 00:23 in the video above). In one take, I was able to capture a beehive of activity that illustrated the project manager’s quotes perfectly. It was my favorite shot of the trip.
When I touch down in Sarajevo for a film shoot for a World Bank Group project, I‘m mindful that this Olympic city suffered through the longest siege of a city in the history of modern warfare – 1,425 days long.
I’m here to make a video for an international development organization, but all I can think about is the Bosnian War, which ended 21 years ago. My driver, Chola, doesn’t have to point out the bullet holes pockmarking the exposed facades along the Miljacka River. When I learn he was Bosnian special forces, I imagine how these streets, for him, are more than just a vehicular grid. Buildings are tactical. They block artillery fire. Perhaps on this corner he lost a fellow soldier; or on that one, he returned fire.
Even two decades removed, how do you shake off war and just drive a car?
And how do you grow up in Yugoslavian brand of Communism, brave a four-year war, and then transition to capitalism on the margins of Europe?
This is running through my head as I load four pelican cases of video equipment in Chola’s car. Sarajevo has a long history as a cosmopolitan city, but post-war identity politics seem to be delaying the country’s pivot to Europe. It’s not like Bosnia isn’t capable. After all, in 1981, Sarajevo’s GDP was 133% the Yugoslav average. In 1984, it hosted the Winter Olympics. Moreover, during Communist days (pre-1992), Bosnia had a significant industrial base – all state-run of course. But since then, the country has had a hard time adapting to a market economy.
What is corporate governance? It’s the processes and structures by which companies are directed and controlled. Here in Bosnia, most companies are young, family businesses. They lack formal structures, such as independent boards, defined succession planning, and other hallmarks of larger companies. As a result, they find it difficult to access capital and grow regionally and internationally.
We’re heading east of town now on a winding road to film a small-business owner. He’s operating out of the renovated site of a Bosnian weapons armory. Amila, a confident, bilingual staffer at the IFC is my Unit Producer for these three days. It’s May and it’s raining, and Amila calmly reconfigures our shooting schedule to accommodate my obsession with rare patches of sunshine.
We arrive at the business and I unpack. I’m excited to be using my new Sony FS7 abroad for the first time. I’m looking forward to putting it through its paces, and plan to do a full blog post later about how much I loved using it!
From a work perspective, my two days in Sarajevo and one day in Banja Luka are a success.
Personally, my absolute favorite part of my job is coming into contact with different cultures: meeting people, listening to their music, eating their food, learning about their hopes and fears, politics and history.
Sarajevo’s Old City is a joy. Much of it is a pedestrian zone, with small shops, ancient structures, a natural habitat for a coffee culture. I emerge at Vijecnica, which is both a library and City Hall. Fire-bombed by the Serbs during the war, it is recently rebuilt. Nearby, I stumble upon the Latin Bridge, where 102 years ago, a young Serb nationalist shot and killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand—and launched World War I. I meander up through parks and by mosques. Hungry, I stop for a hladno pivo (cold beer) and a cevapi (pita bread stuffed with grilled meat).
Back at my hotel, the day’s footage is definitely done cloning. It’s time to string out the interviews and upload an MP3 for the transcription service. I hope jet lag doesn’t keep me up too long tonight. And I’m praying for sunshine tomorrow.
In December, Doug Gritzmacher and I joined Producer T.J. Cooney for a few days in San Francisco to film a bunch of adults that dress up as superheroes.
It was one of our first projects under the banner of Z-Channel Films, our new company. Doug and I have been collaborating off and on for years, and we’ve finally decided to take the plunge and work together in this new initiative (more on our motivation and background).
As for the superheroes, I was skeptical. What was the catch? Were they Comicon junkies living out a suspended adolescence? Or bored middle-agers with aspirations to be cast in Kick-Ass 3?
As soon as I met Roxanne Cai, however, I got an immediate appreciation for her commitment and true motivation.
Since Roxanne founded the California branch of The Initiative, she’s led efforts to pick up used drug needles around the Mission District. Not just once in a while. But every week for four years. At last count: about 200 trips and about 7,000 needles off the streets.
That’s not all. About once a month, the group hosts a pop-up Street Boutique. They dress up as superheroes for fun and to attract attention to their good deeds. Then they hang up all the clothes on mobile racks so people can consider options in a dignified manner.
A 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?
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.
This is a behind-the-scenes post for a pro bono video I recently made. It was a total blast! All the boarders I met were really cool. And it was for a good cause. Check it out:
One of my good friends is Colin Brown. His son, Kaelen, is a junior in high school. Kaelen’s the lead singer and guitarist for the band Red Light Distraction and is an avid longboarder. When Kaelen told me he and friends Jake Muskovitz and Cole Trudo were organizing a longboard jam to raise money for charity, I was impressed and said I’d make a video for them.
I drew in Mark Devito, Executive Creative Director of local boutique agency Gigawatt Group, to produce. Mark hires me to direct commercials for some outdoor, active lifestyle, and sports accounts he has, so I knew he’d be stoked. Then we asked Rob Bellon to work second camera.
While unpacking my gear, I heard a few people mentioning “Red Bull guy.” Then a minute later, I heard it again. Soon, I realized they were talking about me! I’d mentioned to Kaelen that I was headed to Hong Kong on a shoot for the Red Bull channel — and suddenly, I’m “the Red Bull guy!” (read my post from Hong Kong. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m just an indie freelance filmmaker!)
I brought my C100 outfitted with an external ProRez Atomos Samurai Blade to capture some establishing shots. Rob had his GH4, and I asked him to float around the finish line where everybody was hanging out and capture reaction shots and cool details. I ended up using a lot of Rob’s footage!
That was my first time using the glidecam. If you want to watch another video I just made in San Diego using the glidecam for 100% of the footage, check this out:
For me the biggest question was, how would my new GoPro Hero4s perform? I’d just bought three of them for a shoot I had in Portland, Oregon, but I’d yet to take advantage of the 120 frames per second in 1080p.
As for the event, I was impressed with the organization and community. The Czech Embassy and neighbors didn’t seem to mind all the commotion. The 100+ longboarders were polite and shared the road when the odd driver or cyclist headed through.
Kaelen, Jake, and Cole ran a tight ship. They had tons of raffle prizes donated by all the big companies—Riptide, Loaded, Bustin, Muirskate, Rayne, and other companies listed at the end of the video. A bunch of the longboarders I talked with said it was the best-run jam they’d ever been to.
And the athleticism and technique were impressive—especially at the finish line, where these guys bombed down going 30 or 40 mph, then threw down into various heel side and toe side slides!
Check out this next clip: I actually jumped to avoid a slider (My bad, I got too close to the action!) But the glidecam kept the footage pretty smooth!
How did the GoPros perform? I set all three of them to capture footage at 120fps 1080p, and gave them to different guys to see what we could capture. I actually mounted a flat adhesive mount flush on a board by screwing it into the housing. But that was too shaky. I also affixed the Jaws mount on the front lip of a board, but that was too shaky as well.
The positions that worked the best were the chesty mount, the tried-and-true helmet mount, the wrist mount, and my low-tech favorite . . . just having guys hold it in their hands (or with a pole) and point it at themselves.
One of the most talented boarders, J.D. Casada, captured the best footage, which worked really well at 120 fps. He’s the one featured for more than 30 seconds, from the 41-second mark.
I’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.
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.
If you’re a butcher, don’t open up shop in Ethiopia—the country is fasting.
For most, this means not eating meat or dairy. They fast for Lent, which seems to go on longer than normal. And people fast Fridays. And Wednesdays. And yes, there are other prophets, and people fast for them too.
It’s my first day in Addis Ababa, and the fasting explains why my unit producer, Addis Alemayehou, is angry.
Or maybe that’s because he picked this week to quit smoking.
In any case, Addis (the man, not the city) looks like he can take it, so I rub it in: “This injera with spicy beef is pretty darn good,” I grin, still baffled that meat is literally off the table 200 days a year.
Addis heads 251 Communications, a local PR and business facilitation outfit that’s riding the crest of Ethiopia’s economic boom. He’s also the former Chief of Party of a successful USAID project (I’m here to tell the story of how it made a difference). Addis grew up in Canada, is whip smart, and seems like the perfect bridge for a dynamic Ethiopia looking to nail down new markets.
During the next five days, I film different entrepreneurs and their businesses. They’re in different sectors—apparel, shoes, handicrafts, tourism—but all have benefited from USAID support, mostly in the form of technical advice to improve their production processes and “export-readiness,” as well as trips to U.S. trade shows. As a result, they’ve increased exports to the U.S., grown their revenue, and hired more people. My client is IESC.
The second night, Addis takes me to Yod Abyssinia, which is part restaurant, part cabaret. I join a gaggle of expats and friends who are enjoying local music and dance. In what is swiftly becoming a trend, I eat more injera. I try Meta beer.
Meta is supposedly the upscale beer, but I prefer St. George. It’s an unassuming light lager, like 90% of beers in Africa. The way it slays your thirst after a bite of injera and spicy beef is like a Miller Lite washing down a Ben’s Chili dog at Nats Stadium on a sweltering DC afternoon. It quenches, it doesn’t inebriate (suffice it to say, I’m not a fan of this rating of Ethiopian beers).
The next morning, I film another business. Sara is an ambitious entrepreneur who’s taken her company from a domestic firm with seven employees to a 300-person firm that supplies the Gap. Here’s the final video on that one:
My driver is the genial Kirubel Melaku, and his van I dub “Big Red.” It looks like somebody dipped Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine in a red bath. It sports red carpet on the ceilings. Need I say more?
Outside of Addis, the country gets poor and hardscrabble pretty fast. It’s the dry season, and dust whips across fields and covers the highway. A pack of gaunt horses assembles on the highway median, inches from speeding vehicles—it’s the only place with wind, explains Kirubel, so bugs bother the horses less.
“Ameseginalehugn,” is the byzantine six-syllable expression for thanks. My breakthrough is this: its iambic pentameter is strangely analogous to how I learned to say “Hello” in Hungarian: Jó napot kívánok. Six syllables each, same rhythm.
Lots of buildings are going up. Outside the city, there are scores of roadside scaffolding shops. Long, young denuded trees are stacked and bundled, ready for transport to urban construction sites, where workers will scale the fragile trellises. My only thought is that if Ethiopia doesn’t stop using trees for scaffolding soon, there won’t be a tree left in the country.
Last year, Kiru drove Bono around when he visited Ethiopia, and he shows me pictures. Cool! Another European passenger downloaded the Billboard Top 100 on Kiru’s phone. That explains why, as we crawl through bumper-to-bumper traffic, I put Pharrell’s Get Lucky on loop. Somehow, it fits.
The Chinese are everywhere. The largest shoe factory, the largest steel factory, building the largest highway—trucks and motorcycles and phones. I wonder if the Chinese write stuff about us on their blogs: 美国人到处都是。最大的汉堡包特许经营店，含糖的可乐类饮料，最糟糕的不合身的运动服。和美国的游客大声，脂肪和忘却。
By the third day, I realize I can’t say a single word in Amharic. It’s not for lack of trying, but honestly, it’s incredibly opaque. No cognates, nothing to hang on to! The whole day I’m trying to learn something, but it goes in one ear and out the other.
Suddenly, I have the most bizarre synapse and am saying “thank you” without a hitch. “Ameseginalehugn,” is the byzantine six-syllable expression for thanks. My breakthrough is this: its iambic pentameter is strangely analogous to how I learned to say “Hello” in Hungarian: Jó napot kívánok. Six syllables each, same rhythm. It’s odd, but it works!
All in all, the people I meet are bright and friendly. And especially going there on the heels of a film trip to locked-down Kabul, Addis is literally a breath of cultural fresh air!
I’d definitely go back to Ethiopia again.
Finally, no dispatch from Addis Ababa would be complete without a knock-down drag-out darts competition with a dozen locals at a German pub:
Darts, dance, beer, injera. A couple new friends and a dynamic city. Despite the fasting, I’m all ready to go back!
As 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
I just wrapped a three-country shoot—in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia—using my new Canon C100 rig for the first time, so I wanted to report on the pros and cons.
When I first considered the C100, I wanted the beautiful pictures that my Canon 5D Mark III gives, while addressing the 5D’s main limitations: no sync sound, not good handheld (too shaky), no built-in ND, and short record times.
But currently my business is more documentary stuff, where I direct, produce, and frequently (but not always) shoot. At this point of my career, I can’t bill top dollar for my camera like a dedicated commercial DP might.
So while a lot of my friends are investing in the C300, it was off the table for me (at $14k for the body alone). The more I researched and talked with friends, the more I realized I’d need a ton of accessories to make the C100 operational. I got some good advice from Brooklyn-based DP/Producer Cameron Hickey. And fortunately, I worked with Jessica at Abel Cine to put it together (full rig specs below). Full price tag was around $9k.
When I travel, I break down the C100 rig to its 23 (!!) component parts. The first few times I put it together, it took forever. These days, it takes about 15 minutes. I keep it assembled the entire shoot.
Verdict: A hate-love affair . . . mostly love
I shot for five days each in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia—three very different places. I definitely grew more accustomed every day, and am happy with the quality of its pictures at a good value—with one glaring exception, as I’ll describe below.
I shot 1920×1080 24fps, capturing ProRes to the external Atamos Samurai, which solves the AVCHD codec issue that people complain about. I used the two lenses I already had for the 5D—the Canon 16-35mm 2.8 and the Canon 24-105mm IS 4.0.
Here’s an interview set up in Kabul (and a still of the resulting footage) and an interview set-up in Addis Ababa. I was happy with what the C100 (and 2.8 lens) did. In Addis, we were shooting at a textile factory, where every indoor location was loud with people and machines, and every outdoor location was loud with traffic from the nearby highway. The only quiet space was the storage warehouse. I used natural light for the key and reflected back gold. It turned out great!
My C100 rig: the good
So, with no attempt to be official, here are some first impressions.
Image quality: The clear winning edge is the pictures. I’m happy with the final product.
Upgrades from 5D: The sync sound, built-in ND, and longer record times were super easy and worked like they should. It’s great to upgrade from the 5D’s limitations! With my external recorder, I’m getting 4 hours of ProRes footage on one SSD. I brought a second SSD, but never needed it. The rig rests on my shoulder like a regular ENG camera. It’s comfortable, but heavy. I’m pleased with how stable the pictures are, even when I zoom.
Ergonomics: The good. Canon’s put most of the buttons where they’re easy to locate without looking. With my right pointer finger: record, aperture, and ISO. When it’s time to make more drastic changes (ND filter, white balance), I can hold the rig with my right hand on the Zacuto ENG grip relocator and adjust stuff with my left hand.
My C100 rig: the bad
The glaring exception to all this good stuff is the interface between the C100 and the Atomos Samurai. I’m currently using the Samurai not only as a recorder, but also as a high-resolution monitor (1280×720, 5″).
The visibility is great about 90% of the time for me . . . until you’re in full sunlight. Then it’s just really tough to see. I struggled with this.
The ergonomics can be miserable. I have it connected via the Noga Cine Arm. The Samurai can get loose and rotate around on me at the most inopportune times. I like to jump on tables or crawl on the floor to try and get a good shot, so I regularly put some good torque on the Samurai that the Cine Arm sometimes couldn’t handle.
Also, the 3:2 pulldown can be hairy. For the first week, I didn’t understand it and kept getting crappy interlaced footage. Finally, I read the manual (duh!) and realized I’d been doing it wrong.
So, I’m in love-hate with my new C100 rig. During every shoot day, I’m 95% happy with the thing, but if you catch me in full sunlight or when the Samurai recorder is not cooperating, I hope you don’t catch what I’m muttering under my breath!
Then when I get back to the computer and see the pictures, I’m back in love again. . . In this business, like so many, there’s give and take. And I’m getting 4 hours of nonstop ProRez footage with a great Canon codec at less than $10k.
In terms of being a full-proof run-and-gun documentary camera, my C100 rig is not quite there. I’m hoping that with more practice on it — and perhaps an alternate solution for the Samurai — it will be everything I hoped for.
C100 rig: full specs
I started in documentary film as a director/producer and have kicking-and-screaming learned all the technical stuff that makes a shooter competent. The C100 has been no exception for me. It’s been a lot of research and conversations and practice.
So, here’s a list of what I’m using and a link to where I bought it. If I can help one person cut the time in half that it took me to figure this stuff out, it’ll be worth it.
If you found this useful, let me know! Thanks for reading!
Beirut 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.
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.
Two years ago this month, I got a call from Neil Breslin, an old friend who’s been based in Africa for the past 10 years. “Hey Steve, can you do me a favor?”
Me: “Sure.” Neil: I need you to make me a short video that shows what typical, educated Americans know about Angola. I’m going to show it to some of my clients. Give me a good range of people.”
Sure, why not! So the next morning, I drove to the White House.
At the Starbucks at 17th & Pennsylvania, I bought $75 worth of $5 gift cards (I learned this long ago from a producer for a PR firm who hired me to make some man-on-the-street videos). Then I stood outside the Starbucks with my camera and microphone and accosted coffee-seekers: “I’ll give you a $5 Starbucks gift card if you give me 1 minute of your time . . . to answer a few questions about Africa for a news bit for YouTube.”
Lots of people ignored me like the plague. In fact, the first 10 tries, I couldn’t even finish my sentence before the person raced away.
But free coffee is a powerful motivator! And the interviews began. Dare I say—some people even looked like they were having fun!
What does it mean if the 5th richest country in Africa is invisible to educated Americans a block from the White House?
Within 30 minutes, I did 15 interviews and gave away all the gift cards. That afternoon, I included everybody in the final edit (plus a few friends, who gave moral support). Nobody got left on the editing room floor.
The results were illuminating! Nobody knew Angola’s capital. Nobody could name any person alive or dead, from Angola. Nobody knew Angolans speak Portuguese. Only a few located it in the “south” or “southwest.”
The woman of Nigerian descent (0:56) knew more than most, but still had precious little knowledge. One woman was so at a loss, she treated the whole thing as a joke (1:12). The guy at the end summed it up well (4:12): “Is Angola a real place? I don’t think it’s in Africa.”
Is Angola a real country? Do people even care? What does it mean if the 5th richest country in Africa is invisible to educated Americans a block from the White House?
No offense to the kind people of Ouagadougou or Bujumbura, but it’s not as if Angola is some tiny, landlocked country like Burkina Faso or Burundi. There’s a few reasons it might be considered in our national interest to bone up on our Angola facts: It’s America’s 3rd most important trading partner in Africa. It’s the 15th biggest oil exporter in the world after all.
When Angolans saw the video, it seemed to strike a chord. As you can imagine, the YouTube comments lit up. So Neil hit the streets of Luanda (the capital) to make a reply video: to see if typical Angolans knew much about America:
Revealing, isn’t it! Even Angolan teenagers seem to have better cross-cultural knowledge than working professionals in the shadow of the White House.
Now, soft power is a big assist for U.S. national interests and public diplomacy, but what if they learn about us, but we don’t ever learn about them? Does it really matter? So what if our Trivial Pursuit games last all night because we can’t get that last blue pie piece?
Now, $1.8 billion per year is not chump change—but when you consider it’s going to the 82 poorest countries in the world, it’s not that much. J.P. Morgan Stanley recently got fined $13 billion. Americans spent $7 billion on Halloween this year. The U.S. Pet Industry is estimated at $55 billion per year.
The only problem, perhaps, is that we live in a democracy. If IDA funding is rooted in the will of the American people, then we’re in trouble. That’s because we Americans are not likely to fund stuff we don’t care about. And we only care about what we know.
Is Angola [or the other 80 poorest countries] a real place?
Nairobi’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.
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.
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!
What 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.
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.
They 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.
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!
Egypt, 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):
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.
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:
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:
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 . . .
Every 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.
I’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.
When I first got the call, I wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat. It was November 2010. The TV series was called “Survivor Tales.” It was its first year, and more an idea than a series. Produced by an upstart production company in DC with a skeleton staff, they’d just lost their DP/editor when he moved to NYC to work on a (now defunct) reality show, and outsourced creative to an underling. They were halfway through their third episode and needed some pickups in rural Minnesota . . . on a ranch . . . of a dog . . . named Dakota.
I was like, “Yeah, I’m in!”
First, I got familiar with the footage they had in-the-can. Unfortunately, it was rough. Master interviews in a server room, the rattle and hum of machines over voices. And a run-and-gun style that might have made sense on the battlefields of Afghanistan or Iraq (where my friends John Collin and Ryan Hill have captured some beautiful images, notwithstanding the inhospitable environment), but was just sloppy for this context.
The next day, I found myself at the University of Minnesota. It was sink-or-swim time, since we were a crew of two — the producer and me. I ran camera, lights, and audio. I found a deep, quiet hallway for the interviews. At the time, they only had budget for the Sony EX-1, so I needed all the depth I could wrangle. Then I started directing broll of the doctors, mostly lab setups to help bring to life their cutting-edge research.
The next day was more fun, chasing a black Lab around a 100-acre ranch. This dog, Dakota, had beaten brain cancer thanks to a revolutionary vaccine the doctors were hoping to adapt for people someday.
Footage from that first shoot eventually made it into episode #10, “Dakota’s Brain”:
The good thing about when a DP/editor skips town, the production company needs to find a replacement DP and editor. They liked my Minnesota footage, and then entrusted me with the writing and editing of the show.
Little did I suspect, but this gig would grow to me serving as DP, writer, and editor for 10 episodes over the next two years.
The next month, I flew to LA. where I spent four days with Toby Forrest, who was bravely overcoming an incredibly devastating spinal cord injury to become an accomplished actor and singer. The narrative arc on this story was amazing.
One night I followed Toby verité style to a gig at the Viper Room on Sunset. I got a Director credit on this show, which became episode #1, “Toby’s Story”:
Like every shoot, “Toby’s Story” had challenges. At the Viper Room, I would have preferred a second camera, and we weren’t allowed lights, tripod, or an assistant. Most challenging, on the final day we had about an hour of sunlight left to shoot a conclusive scene, but we were stuck in the Valley in Van Nuys and my producer didn’t have any ideas. What’s more, we didn’t have a wheelchair-enabled vehicle. What to do?
Fortunately, having graduated high school nearby (Redondo Union High!), I knew just the place. I took the wheel of Toby’s van, drove south on the 405, and pulled into Redondo Beach right at golden hour. “Toby’s Story” concludes with what I shot next. “Will I walk again, I don’t know,” muses Toby in extreme closeup as he gazes toward the sun-dappled Pacific. “Will I be independent again? I sure hope so. Will I adapt to my circumstances? Most definitely.” Cut to Toby’s point of view. A jogger, in silhouette, exits frame left. Music track fades up. It is the end of Suite 68, which brought down the house at the Viper Room. Against a wistful final guitar lick, Toby’s own lyrics close the episode: “All alone in my misery.”
Steve Dorst earned credits as DP, Writer, and Editor on 10 episodes and Director on 4 episodes of the TV series, Bench to Bedside, which was acquired in 2013 by the commercial television arm of Australian Broadcast Corporation for global distribution. With a producer, Dorst captured inspirational stories and cutting-edge research on location across the country. Filmed documentary-style, the series is about true stories, real diseases, and high stakes.
Really excited for 2013. Bench to Bedside, the new TV series that I’ve been DPing and editing for the past two years, was acquired by Australia Broadcasting Corporation for global distribution. Not sure what channel will see the program domestically. “The other” ABC seems to be one of the biggest players in the Pacific Rim, so interested to see what they’ll do with it.
Some fun shoots I’ve done lately include an interview Friday with World Champion figure skater Kimmie Meissner. For an elite athlete, she was really down-to-earth. The shoot posed its own unique challenges, as I found myself setting up lights and c-stands on ice. This was for a TV series distributed by Fox called The Real Winning Edge. I learned that Meissner co-founded the Cool Kids Campaign, an organization for kids with cancer. And she told me she’s going to NYC next week to do a show with Barry Manilow. So, will Barry be on ice skates?
Saturday night, I found myself stifling an urge to laugh. Not because I’m a killjoy, but because I didn’t want to shake my shot! At DC’s historic Lincoln Theater (within nose-shot of Ben Chili’s Bowl!), I was helping out old friend Chris Billing on his latest documentary. I followed Atlanta-based comedian Small Fire verité-style (Small Fire’s YouTube channel): to her green room, backstage, joking with the band while waiting in the wings, and finally on stage for a 40-minute set that had a SRO-crowd hooting and hollering. Small Fire riffed on her upbringing in the church (which I could identify with), although her church sounded a lot more fun than mine did!
2013, starting off real well!
Fireworks photo by Rob Chandler, from: http://bit.ly/VlpjIK
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.
Sometimes all it takes is a 7-year old on a moped to remind you why life is so awesome! Here’s a sneak peak from another episode of this new TV series called “Survivor Tales,” about cutting-edge medicine and the brave people who stand to benefit from advances.
I went to North Carolina to film Liviya. Liviya was struck with a rare blood disorder called Aplastic Anemia. My director, Liz Hodge, and I spent several days with her family – reliving the horror, celebrating the recovery, and enjoying life at school, with friends, around town. And having had this near brush with death, the entire family was reveling in every moment!
One late afternoon during a break from filming, I looked up to see Liviya on a mini-moped. She went off-road, on a bee-line for Liz, rambling over tree roots. At the last minute, she veered away, disappearing around the garden, only to reappear again with the most uninhibited joyous smile I’ve ever seen.
I’m fortunate to be shooting and editing a documentary series of substance, with real people surviving real issues — in stark departure from the manufactured drama of reality TV. I’m so glad to have met this family, that Liviya is healthy, and we’re in a place where we continue to search for cures for even the rarest of diseases.
Had a shoot today at the National Institute of Health. Connected with a physician who is an expert on aplastic anemia. Spent some time in his lab. Did an interview. All for an episode of Bench to Bedside, a science documentary TV series that I’m shooting, editing, and writing.
Something he said really stuck with me. He said the American taxpayer is helping people around the world. We fund NIH. NIH does all kinds of research, there in Bethesda, Maryland, but also in collaboration with Universities around the nation. This research often centers on extremely rare diseases, even those that you don’t see much in the US. Gradually, with a lot of time, money, and expertise, our researchers indentify answers. As cures emerge, the world benefits.
In the case of aplastic anemia, Europe initially made great strides, and then US helped advance cures. Only 30 years ago, this disease was an immediate death sentence. Today, it’s on the verge of being something we can control. Instead of children dying within months and years, they can live full lives. Now, that’s a great bit of good news.
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.
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.
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.
Today, I interview and shadow Precious Ncube. She’s 23 and carries herself with a quiet confidence, wielding an easy smile. She also is HIV positive, has lost both her mother and sister to AIDS, never knew her father, has no siblings, and bounced around a litany of households as a young girl.
Today, against all odds, she’s not only stable, but a leader. Her peers at the clinic have elected her President of their group. She aspires to run a nonprofit group someday, using her experience to give back to AIDS orphans. She’s studying how to sew to earn some income. She helps her grandma in the garden and around the house. Her greatest hope is to get married and have children someday herself. I learn that if Precious stays consistent with her medicine, she can keep her HIV viral load down and certainly have kids.
One of the most inspiring people I’ve met here in Zimbabwe is named Precious Ncube.
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.
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.
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.
Despite the fact that I’m a one-man band here in Azerbaijan, I didn’t want to sacrifice quality. I have a local producer/interviewer and a translator, but I’m running camera (EX-1 @ 1080p30), audio, and lighting the whole kitten-kaboodle.
Given airline weight restrictions, I thought long and hard about what equipment to bring. I pared down my typical kit, and ended up with one small pelican (for the camera and fragile gear, including my 7” Sony HD field monitor); a shotgun case for the Sachtler tripod, 3 c-stands, and a well-wrapped Arri 1000k light; and a backpack for various grip/gaffer gear (the backpack went inside my checked-in suitcase).
Lighting was key. I didn’t know the locations in advance, so I needed to be flexible. For the Arri, I brought a chimera to soften it and an egg crate to reduce spill and focus the light. I picked up a local dimmer with a 2k max, which would allow me to ramp the luminosity up and back. I also brought the lightweight LED Litepanel MicroPro, which doesn’t get hot, and is dimmable without changing the color temperature. I figured I’d use it for doc-style shooting in dark interiors or at night, or for interview fill.
This afternoon, my crew and I went to Deveci Broyler, an Azerbaijani poultry processing company. It was recently listed on the Azerbaijan stock exchange and accessed significant new capital, primarily because of its corporate governance reforms (Azerbaijani corporate governance is the topic of the film, and the client is the IFC, an arm of the World Bank Group). Well-dressed manager Elchin Abdullayev led us through a small, bustling office to his corner room. For the interview, I hoped to evoke a modern, corporate feel. Initially, I loved the glass office walls (“for transparency,” he quipped). The depth would help me throw the background out of focus! The only problem was that all the glass was reflecting everything around it—me, the producer, the lights. What to do?
I tried something new. I put the MicroPro on an arm extended from a c-stand, then literally suspended it 18 inches from my subject’s face, just out of frame. I never could have done this with a light that gave off heat. I removed the CTO filter, and really tweaked up the color temp toward a corporate blue. Since it’s powered with six batteries, voila, no cables. And the fact that colleagues were running in and out of offices in the background kept it real, showing the Manager in his element. The lighting on his face is more modeled than I would’ve preferred, but I gladly exchanged excessive facial contouring for the depth and interesting plays of light I was able to produce in the background.
Ultimately—and I never would’ve believed it—I lit this interview with a single tiny MicroPro LED light.
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!
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 . . .
So, today Dan Evans and I interviewed Bruce Nilles for our film on climate change, Shattered Sky. Nilles is the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign Director. He’s pretty focused on ending coal consumption as we know it, and he’s not alone. I asked Nilles if there’s such a thing as clean coal. And, in no uncertain terms, he said the exact same thing that Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy said (who I interviewed a few weeks ago): NO. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is in the study phase, and is at least 10-15 years away as a commercial enterprise. Of course, Nilles emphasized that CCS coal would cost twice as much, and be more expensive as solar and wind. Rogers thoughts that CCS is a good investment. Nilles railed against the production of coal — which includes mountaintop removal, ash ponds, and a certain amount of deaths per year. Rogers didn’t talk much about that.
But we’re in a democracy, right? If we don’t want this anymore, we can change it? “We don’t have choice,” said Nilles. He’s right. Try calling up your monopoly utility company and requesting a second or third option for your electricity. For the approximately 25 states that derive 50% or more of their electricity from coal burning, citizens don’t have much of a choice. Ultimately, is today’s energy debate about providing us with more of a choice? When we find out more, what do we demand? I vote clean. And I suspect, with the right incentives, Rogers’ Duke Energy might invest to help us get there. Possible?
“We the rich are literally dumping on the poor,” said Lisa Sharper today while I was interviewing her for a short film that documents eco-hazards and eco-opportunities in Harlem. Sharper’s NY Faith and Justice group has collaborated with WeACT and Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Science and Religion to engage Harlem’s communities around the issue of environmental justice. This is a hot topic in a place where public health indicators suggest something very fishy: some communities in Harlem and the Bronx have the nation’s highest asthma rates, for example. Why? Well, as Sharper explained, there are no public dumps in Manhattan, but 40+ in the Bronx. And of the seven bus depots in Manhattan, six are in Harlem. So, every hour of every day, buses go though Harlem, creating these corridors of pollution that settles in clouds on schools, homes, children. Lots of it. WeACT is into its 12th year on an MTA Accountability Campaign, that’s trying to get the city to think more about the health of Harlem’s people. Having not seen or heard much about this story, I didn’t care much. But now that I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I have two reactions: first, I’m ashamed to live in a country that lets this happen; and I’m hopeful that progress can happen fast.
Interviewed Hunter Lovins today for our climate change documentary Shattered Sky. Who is not jazzed and encouraged after talking with Lovins?! She advocates action toward clean energy and reducing CO2 emissions, not because it is the right thing to do per se, but because there’s a compelling business case. She cited case after case where companies saved wads of cash by instituting various energy-efficiency practices. Energy efficiency could “reduce energy demand and carbon emissions by 50 %” she said. Inspirational.
So, with co-producer Dan Evans, I interviewed Bill Becker today for our documentary Shattered Sky. So, should we be calling this crisis “climate change” or “global warming” I asked Becker. I don’t much care what we call it anymore, let’s just do something about it, he responded, before deciding on “climate weirding.” This, because there won’t be uniform warming, but unpredictable extremes – droughts, extra rain, possible feedback, etc. On his blog at Yale, John Waldman says Hunter Lovins coined the term; but when I interviewed Lovins, she said she got the term from “a friend.” So who invented it? Or more importantly, is it useful?
Becker is low-key, avuncular, and comprehensive in approach. During the last few years, he talked with hundreds of policy people, scientists, and other experts on what to do on three interrelated challenges: climate, energy, and national security. The conclusions of his Presidential Climate Action Project are in large part being integrated into early-stage Obama Administration initiatives, a credit to Becker and the work of his collaborators.
Interviewed Bob Watson today for Shattered Sky. In my opinion, if you have to pick one person in the world today who contributed most to science informing international policy, it’s Watson. Start with the nascent international science assessments around the ozone crisis in the mid-1980s. Those were organized by Watson and Dan Albritton, from NOAA. Until then, country-level science assessments competed with each other, and often contradicted each other, undermining the authority of science and essentially making it less of an input into policy. Watson wrangled together the best scientists in the world, who coalesced into a convincing, unified voice preceding the 1988 Montreal Protocol, the landmark international treaty that phased out the chemicals that were destroying the ozone layer.
Soon thereafter, in 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its first assessment on global warming. So, 20 years later, we’re up to the 4th IPCC report, which included more than 2,500 scientific expert reviewers, more than 800 contributing authors, and more than 450 lead authors — from more than 130 countries.
So, for the first time in history, we have a truly global consensus in scientific opinion. Some complain that because there are so many participants and it takes so many years to reach consensus, that the IPCC may actually be too conservative. But, I say, better to err on this side than overstate climate change.
In Orange County, CA for some more interviews for Shattered Sky. Talking with journalist Sharon Roan, who wrote Ozone Crisis. Then interviewing Dr. Sherwood Rowland who won a Nobel Prize for his contributions to chemistry. His 1974 Rowland-Molina hypothesis identified CFCs as damaging the ozone layer, which led to the Montreal Protocol limiting the gas worldwide.
My friend Michael Aisner invited me to come film Jane Goodall tonight. They’ve been friends for some 25 years, and he got his hands on some old super-8 footage of Jane and family in the Serengeti and Gombe, at the outset of her pioneering research with chimps. It was a pleasure to meet this world-famous primatologist in person for the first time. And a privilege to see 45 year-old footage of her interacting with her baby boy, her favorite chimps, visiting scientists . . .
Well, sometimes the sheer diversity of a workday is kind of fun. I woke up early (still jetlagged from trip to Italy), and edited in the piano music I composed yesterday for the short film we’re producing for the Department of Justice. With a crew call of 7:30am, Dan picked me up so we could interview Congresswoman Lois Capps on Capitol Hill. This was for a short film we’re making for WomenHeart. This group is doing some great advocacy work for women with heart disease. Quickly back to the office for a fine-cut review of a short film I’m editing for American Red Cross’ measles program. They have been busy trying to provide emergency humanitarian aid for the tragedies in Myanmar and China, so this project has been delayed. But it’s a pleasure to be working with a group that does so much good. Then meeting with the client for a rough-cut review of a short film I’m editing for the World Bank’s East Asia and Pacific Region. They captured all the footage and photos in Vietnam, and I’m justing writing the script and editing. They came back with some good options for traditional music they recorded, so it made it fun. Hmm, pretty brain dead after this day, so what did I do but go home and watch the finale of American Idol. Good times!
Today, wrapped shooting for a new film for Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School in Washington’s Ward 8 in Southeast. Highlights were: standing on my car directing an ebullient crowd of 300 students on the front yard; taking over the camera myself for some shooting around the school; and interviewing Senator Mary Landrieu on the Hill. A crucial advocate for the school, she proved articulate and charming. An incredible school full of passionate, committed people doing great things for the community.
Today, two interviews with very interesting former public officials. For a gala video for Thurgood Marshall Academy, we filmed former Mayor Tony Williams, who spoke about how nurturing such an innovative school in DC’s poorest community was key to improving the city. After a quick lunch, Dan and I headed down to interview General Colin Powell, who was most recently Secretary of State, before Condoleezza Rice. This shoot was part of a new film we’re making for the International Crisis Group, for whom we made a short film in 2006.
Today we launched production for a new short film for the International Crisis Group. This group is one of the most important conflict-resolution outfits in the world, fiercely non-partisan, highly influential, respected across borders and party lines. Today was my first time to meet Dick Armitage, the former Deputy Secretary of State and current principal at Armitage International, based in Arlington. In the interview, he was sharp, frank, savvy, charming, and opinionated. I could understand how this former military man climbed the foreign policy ranks so adeptly and certainly wouldn’t bet against the success of his new company.
Today, we wrapped production on a two-day commercial shoot for Cernium, a video analytics firm based in Reston, VA. It was a fun change of pace, where I directed a four-person crew, with four actors, and we could micro-manage the most delicate of dolly moves and rack zooms amidst set-ups with 5-6 lights. Very non-documentary, and kind of fun.
I decide to cover as much of the race as possible taking photos. The race starts at 7am at Molyko stadium, and I streak out with the runners to rejoin Hans, my moto driver. We have about 28 minutes to document the 4.5 miles of ascending road until the lead pack hits the trailhead at Upper Farms. Buea’s denizens line the race route in droves. The rising sun is soft, the light refracting over smoky hills. The rounded mountain peak is barely visible.
I run, walk, hike, and snap photos along the way. The rainforest is never-ending. It takes the best runners about 35 minutes to traverse the rainforest segment before they confront the even steeper slopes of the savannah. It take me 1 hour 45 minutes. Eventually, I make it to about 7,000 feet, to a little hut between hut 1 and hut 2, then run most of the descent to Upper Farms. I arrive only moments before Sarah Etonge. Then literally thousands of us accompany her down, children, mothers, cars honking, flags waving, and me mounted backwards on an idling motorcycle knowing my privilege to chronicle the Queen’s final race.
Off to Buea, Cameroon today for the 2008 Mt Cameroon Race. San Francisco to Atlanta to Paris to Douala. The trip is packed: Friday the Cameroon premier of Volcanic Sprint, at the French Cultural Center in Douala. Saturday, we’ll film Sarah, Max, Walters, and others for some DVD special features. Saturday night is the open-air projection of Volcanic Sprint at Molyko Stadium — free for the whole town. Sunday is the race, where we’ve again hired four cameramen. After the race, I’m participating in the shoe donation — 400 pairs to the top 100 finishers in each of the four categories: men, women, youth, and masters. Monday, we’ll do some more follow-up stories, and then say good-bye to Buea.
At Stanford. Interviewed George Shultz today for the independent documentary I’m producing, SHATTERED SKY. I was really hoping to link some of the lessons of the fight to save the ozone to today’s climate challenge, and Shultz didn’t disappoint. We focused on his days as Secretary of State under Reagan, and what a key role statecraft played in forging a US consensus to do something about the emerging ozone hole.
Today, we reached another milestone in the ongoing production of Koppo and Lady B, the documentary I’m co-producing with Louise Mbango. She wrapped a phase of interviews with Koppo, Krotal, and Lady B in Yaounde and Douala, Cameroon. And unit producer, Charles Moki, who was so important to our production of Volcanic Sprint in Buea last year, conducted interviews with Louise.
The film aims to tell an insider’s tale of how African identity is changing through the experience of a cultural journalist (Mbango) as she chronicles the lives of Cameroon’s two most famous rap artists (Koppo and Lady B). We expect production to continue for at least another year, with fundraising concurrent.
Today, we interviewed Bob Watson at the World Bank Group. Coincidentally, this is his last day on the job before he moves back to England to assume three different positions in the academic and policy worlds. It is also the last of 12 people Dan and I have interviewed all over the country (10 cities, 7 states) for this film about the struggle to save the ozone layer. In Watson, we may have saved the best for last. Having spent the past 15 years or so at the World Bank Group, Watson may be the world’s foremost expert on the interface between sustainable development and environmental issues. Mack McFarland told us that Watson basically invented the notion of the international scientific assessment, which united the voices of scientists everywhere so they could have more credibility with politicians. This process, refined during the 1980s, was critical for reaching scientific consensus and political agreement on how to deal with ozone-depleting substance. Today, the process is even more mature—and with regard to the climate challenge, is the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
If you can get a job you like in Boulder, Colorado then run—don’t walk—to accept it. Driving into the city is not only absolutely beautiful, but also a lesson in urban planning: green mountains cradle this small-ish city within. It is obvious the city has set aside a lot of public space for parks, sports, and great views. This general sense of livability and work-life balance is reinforced by the number of mountain bikes and sandle-wearing scientists I see at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I’m here to interview Susan Solomon, who led a vanguard expedition to Antarctica in 1986 that proved the science behind the hole in the ozone. Impressive. Solomon is also chair of one of the working groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—so she gives incredible insight into the links between ozone and climate.
At the University of California at San Diego with Dan Evans to interview Professor Mario Molina. This is my second interview of a Nobel Laureate in a month, so I’m starting to get the hang of it! Seriously, Dr. Molina is humble, direct, and has a great sense not only of the science, but complex policy issues. I’m impressed with his Centro Mario Molina that he established with his Nobel Prize money. The purpose: to help shape policy advances in the developing world that improve environmental condition. His first task was fighting air pollution in his native Mexico City. It was a pleasure, Dr. Molina.
I’m in Racine, Wisconsin today. Interviewing Scott Johnson from S.C. Johnson . Johnson is not from the dynasty of owner Johnsons, but he gives a great interview about the environmental leadership this company has displayed over time. Case in point: the decision to ban all propellant aerosols in 1976, a couple years before a government ban. And a photogenic location, too! S.C. Johnson HQ was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright—it’s a brick modernist experiment that is probably the coolest company building I’ve been in since I was in Panasonic’s world HQ in Tokyo for a film a few years ago. That had an all-wood meditation room and rock garden just off the penthouse-level conference room. Cool . . .
The fact that I was up late yesterday drinking single malt and talking politics and real estate with my friend Ron Cathell didn’t douse my enthusiasm early this morning for a quick trip up to Dupont HQ in Dover, Delaware. The upside: I’d be interviewing Mack McFarland—one of the luminaries at the science-policy interface in the fight to protect the ozone during the past 30 years. The downside: I had to wake before 5am to get driving up Highway 95.
Dr. McFarland displayed a deep knowledge of the fluorocarbon science, as well as a pragmatism and authority that obviously swayed his industry colleagues toward substituting safe new products in place of old ozone-depleting substances. He’s going to be a key link in this film to help show the links between industry and policy, especially the transition years of 1985-86.
The plaque in the foyer announces Alcade & Fay. The view out of the 8th story high-rise in Arlington, Virginia is urban. Interviewing Kevin Fay for a short film about the fight to protect the ozone is a treat. He brings 25 years of perspective as an industry representative, who has wrangled corporate interests toward environmental responsibility. He was the initial leader of the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy. In the 1980s, he helped coordinate a united business front as American industry was struggling to find substitutes for dangerous ozone-depleting compounds. As American industry got behind the idea of a phaseout, the Alliance played a key role in supporting the EPA’s recommendations. Ultimately, Ronald Reagan (!) greenlighted a 95% phase-out approach and 50% initial phase-out. I’m starting to discover that there’s a lot of this sort of counterintuitive stuff in the drama of saving the ozone. . .
Currently, as the Executive Director of the International Climate Change Partnership, Fay continues to fight the good fight—but on climate issue. Off camera, he shared an astounding insight into the roots of America’s stumbling policy leadership on climate. After the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated and opened for signature in November 1997, the Clinton Administration had several years opportunity to make the landmark international treaty an early success in the US. But with Clinton’s Lewinsky difficulties and Gore’s move toward the center to position himself for the Presidential election, nobody in the White House championed it. As a result, no progress. No Kyoto. I wrote in this blog a couple months ago how much I loved Gore’s film, Inconvenient Truth. But I wonder: if he had worked more sincerely on the Kyoto Protocol when he had a chance, would climate news be so bad today?
At the University of California Irvine today interview Nobel Prize winning scientist Sheri Rowland for the short film we’re making for the Environmental Protection Agency. Rowland was the one who, in collaboration with Mario Molina, discovered the science behind the ozone hole. I didn’t quite understand much of the nitty-gritty, so I looked it up before interviewing him: Wikipedia: ozone depletion and read up even more on Rowland.
So Dan and I are on location in San Francisco today making a short film about the ozone layer for the Environmental Protection Agency. We interviewed Bill Reilly, former EPA Admnistrator. Reilly is our best interview so far, probably because he not only played such a big role in inspiring US leadership to protect the ozone back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but also because he’s still fighting the good fight today.
Reilly’s making big news: a few months ago, he led the biggest “green” private-equity buyout in history. He joined the board of TXU, which agreed to cancel the construction of eight future coal plants, and agreed to invest $400 million in energy-efficiency measures to meet a portion of future demand. The report on it from the NGO perspective: NRDC article; and from the corporate persective: TXU press release; and from the news media perspective: A Utility Buyout that Has Many Shades of Green.
The shoot went well, and we manage a pretty cool set-up with a background of the city’s iconic Transamerica building in silhouette behind a gossamer veil.
After interviewing Reilly, I walked away with the sense that this one man is a true connector, bridging the worlds of policy, government, finance, and environmental advocacy. May he continue the good work . . . . In the absence of any executive leadership the last six years, we sure need it.
Today in Jacksonville, Florida. I interviewed Lee Thomas, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. This was for a short film for the EPA on the history of the ozone challenge. My co-producer, Dan Evans, and I will interview 10-12 key players (in about 7-8 states around the country) who impacted the science, politics, and industry associated with ozone-depleting substance.
“Ozone-depleting substances!” What a drab phrase. A mouthful. Or I could write “all the chemicals that were first discovered to be burning a hole in the stratosphere, the presence of which scared the living daylights out of people in the early 1980s.”
Back to Lee Thomas. Southern gentleman, wicked smart, but humble. Currently in the private sector and serving on multiple “green” boards. Back in the 1980s, he had the unenviable task of convincing the Reagan Administration that it was high time to do something about the ozone. We interviewed David Doniger last week, who was a key player in NGO circles, filing lawsuits against the EPA, trying to urge them to work faster and do more to protect the environment. Well, what did Doniger think about Thomas? He called Thomas’ leadership “the most important in the last generation.”
Oh, and that includes current leadership on the climate change issue. More on that to come . . .