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Blog: Good Ideas Rock!

Organizations That Do Good: Here’s How To Communicate Results

Because we’re all hard-wired for story, focus on people and their passions first, not on your own programs.

It’s been more than 4 years since I first wrote about Kinote, a coffee farmer in Meru, Kenya who was working hard to build a larger house for his family.

For a DC-based client, I was in rural Kenya to tell Kinote’s story. The larger context was the agricultural extension agent (and his NGO) who was helping the farmers improve yields and sell direct-to-market.

Despite the many differences between us, Kinote’s quest to grow his business and provide for his family was something I identified with.

His story came rushing back to me as I added new clips to my company’s updated reel, “Videos for Good.” [Dorst MediaWorks Reel 2018].”

That’s because Kinote’s two young daughters are the first two people you see in the video, wiping sleep out of their eyes crawling out of bed.

Kinote’s not alone. Every person in the reel brings back a torrent of memories for me, usually their hopes and dreams.

There’s a lesson there.

I’ve been to 25+ countries to tell stories for organizations that do good. The topics are diverse and sometimes complex—capacity building in the Agricultural Ministry in Afghanistan, microfinance in Lebanon, and corporate governance in Colombia, Egypt, and Azerbaijan.

How do you tell these stories? I mean, corporate governance and capacity building are super abstract.

It’s the people and their passions.

I don’t recall the details of the programmatic interventions on any of these project, but I definitely remember the hopes and dreams of the people I chose to film.

LeCow is a Brazilian teenager from a sprawling favela who’s dream is to become a musician (13 seconds.)

Sara wants to grow her clothing company and export from Ethiopia to America (34 seconds. Spolier: She succeeds, and I see her products at The Gap at a Maryland suburban mall 12 months later!)

Rabih’s chief ambition is to grow his fishing business in Lebanon (At 38 seconds.)

The beautiful thing about the documentary video process is that you give voice to people. Done properly, it’s founded on listening. You look people in the eyes. You follow and observe them. In their own voices, whether that’s Meru, Arabic, or Tagalog, they share what matters to them.

Why do I remember LeCow, Sara, and Rabih like we met yesterday?

Because we’re all hardwired for story.

 

Focusing the lens at the cusp of change

As a storyteller for organizations that do good, my focus wasn’t always on people and their passions.

Early on, I found myself writing scripts that featured the organizations that hired me, rather than their beneficiaries.

My big “aha moment” came during a strategy session with a big multilateral client that does a lot of work throughout Latin America.

They were understandably focused on programmatic nuts and bolts: logistics, buzzwords, metrics. They were in their own world.

I just wanted to learn about the people they serve.

Fortunately, the Director of Communications had just spent a week in the field and she had a lot of great stories.

The people we want to focus on, we all agreed, are no different than you or me. They have jobs and families. They have a past and a future.

Finally, the makings of a script outline! What if we just show their before and after, I proposed, and be honest about how your organization is helping them achieve their dreams?

Exactly.

Kinote is doing his best to increase coffee production so he can build a three-room house, tripling the size of his current house.

Rabih (00:38), the fisherman: “My dream is to expand my business, and buy a larger boat.”

Maxima (00:41) who I met in the slums of Manila: “I intend to keep working to provide a better future for my grandchildren.”

Kinote, Rabih, and Maxima are agents of their own change. Today, their families and communities are better. Our project helped them along the way.

That’s the story.

 

Organizations that do good: a conduit of authentic communications

So much of successful communications by organizations that do good is simply getting out of the way.

Are you the SCR arm of a Fortune 500 company working in your own community? Let the people you help tell their own story in their own voices (and minimize the product placement on your branded t-shirts in the video!).

Are you a large issue-oriented nonprofit, focused on water or nutrition or women’s reproductive rights? Your best stories feature the people benefiting from your activities.

Are you a foundation funding 501(c)3s? Is there a way that people can help illustrate the larger issues you care about?

The Dorst MediaWorks reel “Videos for Good”  speaks to these creative choices, with animated text: “What is your greatest dream … goal … hope … desire.”

Hala in rural Lebanon: “I started alone in this (flower) business. But today I have four shops and four employees.”

Success!

Anthony, in Kenya: “Visiting them (the farmers) you’ll see bigger smiles, because there’s hope now.”

Success!

Again, animated text: “My health … civil society … conflict … economy … education is better.”

“My governance … agriculture … rule of law … job …is better.”

It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing nonprofit marketing, a fundraising video, or nonprofit media of any kind.

Focus the lens on the people you serve. Help them tell their own stories in their own voices. In so doing, you’re connecting your audiences with hopes and dreams that resonate.

“My life is better.”

Like Kinote.

 

Lessons Learned

  1. Let the people you serve tell the story
  2. Their passions are the secret sauce in impactful storytelling.
  3. When they achieve their hopes and dreams, with a little nudge from your organization, this illustrates results.

Why Philip Glass’ Soundtrack Undermines Brett Morgen’s Jane

Philip Glass fans, apologies in advance, but his score just ruined a movie that could’ve been great.

Arriving at the Palm Springs Film Fest on Friday, I was eager to watch Jane, director Brett Morgen’s new biopic on the legendary primatologist and conservationist. It promised new insights into her revolutionary work in 1960s Gombe, Tanzania through 100 hours of newly rediscovered Super-8 footage (misplaced for a half-century in some dusty Nat Geo closet?!) And not just any footage—stuff shot by Ms. Goodall’s former husband, the renowned wildlife cinematographer Hugo van Lawick.

Here’s the trailer:

Morgen does an incredible job with what I imagine was exceedingly difficult footage. Super 8 doesn’t have an audio track, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the picture. Every whisper of wind; every action by every chimp—from David Graybeard to Flint—seems natural and keeps you in the moment. Kudos to the entire sound department!

The director really draws out Ms. Goodall, who is a tough interview. I know, because I’ve worked with her several times (I write about the experience here and here).

Morgen’s stylistic decision to light Ms. Goodall’s interview to match the film’s passage of time is incredibly daring. It reveals an intense preparation: he knows where in the film he’ll use her answers before he poses the questions! When you watch the film, the interview space is bright early in the film, but dark toward the end. Wow!

And the visual effects that jazz up Ms. Goodall’s journals are astonishingly well done. The animations—staccato visions of her research—suggest persistence and knowledge accumulating. During these montage segments, Glass’ music works well, because it propels the the animations forward. It’s not competing with human reflection or emotion. Great FX job by Stefan Nadelman!

Going in, I was keen to hear the Glass score. I’ve been a big fan of his since Errol Morris’ 2003 The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. In fact, that soundtrack was one of my inspirations for the music in my 2012 film Shattered Sky, composed by the talented Steve Steckler.

But a big difference is that The Fog of War is more cerebral, a film of ideas. The disjointed visuals really benefit from the cohesiveness of a dominant soundtrack.

Alternatively, Jane has a strong protagonist who is in the frame driving the action. She’s on an unforgettable quest. Van Lawick’s cinematography transports you to the pinprick of emotion. All of this creates a strong sense of character, time, and place—the foundation of a potentially powerful documentary.

So when the score kicks into high gear barely 10 minutes in—before Ms. Goodall really achieves anything—it doesn’t work.

It is premature. Rigidly metronomic, an orchestra of strings plopped down right there in the middle of the forest in 1960’s Tanzania, the music highjacks the story.

Glass’ score, for me, is excessively masculine, and relentlessly propulsive. Does The Fog of War music fit Robert McNamara? Yes. But that’s because he’s a hard-charging, ambitious business executive and Secretary of Defense. He’s caught in a political machine and the music’s repetitive structure mimics McNamara’s foolhardy forward-press during the Vietnam War.

But Jane couldn’t be more different. Admittedly, Ms. Goodall is an icon, and maybe that’s why National Geographic drew Glass into the project. One icon to shed light on another.

But this film chronicles Ms. Goodall’s first days, when she is an unknown. She is brave yet vulnerable, and she’s afraid her approach will not work.

Glass’ music belies that uncertainty. The music’s early peak precedes Ms. Goodall’s success, which feels manipulative. The confident fullness of the orchestration seems inconsistent with her solitary project during these early stages. And the surety of the repetitive structure betrays her slow progress.

Morgen is one of the best documentary storytellers out there working today. I just wish he would’ve let Ms. Goodall, the chimpanzees, and the Tanzanian landscape sustain the story. It would’ve been a better movie for it.

Video Storytelling: Visual Primacy and the Hero’s Quest

I’m a lucky man. Yesterday, I got to talk about my two passions–documentary filmmaking and international development–as one of four panelists at the Society for International Development’s (SID) “Storytelling with Data” event in Washington, D.C.

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rabbi’s Fishing Business

We watched the first minute of Rabih’s Fishing Business together. I wanted people to see how I approached the storytelling.

 

 

“What did you notice about the first minute of the video?” I asked.

One guy up front piped up immediately: “There’s nothing about microfinance or the project at all in the first minute.”

Exactly!

Then, we talked about two important storytelling pillars that often get lost when people make videos showing the good work of international organizations: The primacy of the visual and the importance of a hero’s quest.

 

Visual Primacy

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

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

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

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

No!

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

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

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

I resisted.

I wanted a hero shot of Rabih and his boat to start the film. And that’s what I got.

For the first 10 seconds, there are no words. This is by design.

 

Rabih-Hero-Shot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My opening here is a poor-man’s version of the kind of thing Alejandro Innárritu achieves to great effect in The Revenant. In one of these long takes, Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki follows Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) into a natural cave, into the water, with the camera floating around him, gradually revealing his surroundings, a frightening perspective.  (See the New York Times Anatomy of a Scene)

If I was making a feature with Rabih, I’d choreograph his departure to play out in one take. But this is low-budget documentary-style video and Rabih really is fishing and he’s in a hurry. So, I started behind Rabih’s head to get his point of view, so the viewer could inhabit his world, if only for a moment.

When I’m editing, I like to turn down the volume and see if the video is telling the story visually. That’s the ultimate test. This opening passes that test.

 

A Hero’s Quest

We connect with people with authentic passion.

I didn’t understand a word of Rabih’s interview, because it was in Arabic. But when I got the translated transcript a few days after meeting him, I absolutely loved what he said: “Since I was 10 years old, I’ve been a son of the sea … I saw fishermen and discovered my passion.”

These words vibed 100% with the commitment, agency, and persistence that I witnessed through my camera lens.

Who’s not immediately intrigued by an individual who is so passionate about what they do?

Then the whammy. A text block: “Today, Rabih will pay more than half his earnings to the boat owner.”

This is a BIG problem in need of a solution.

Voila! This explains why USAID established the microfinance project in the first place.

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

Viewers can try to care. We all try to care about issues and their resolution. Rural poverty in Lebanon is an important issue. Yes.

But here, in a minute, is the power of story. The sort that goes straight to the heart, not the head.

We meet Rabih pre-dawn. We join him on his boat and learn of his lifelong passion to be a successful fisherman. We don’t have to try to care. We care, instinctively. Call it empathy. But its the storytelling gene built into us, refined over millennia.

As a result,  we’re invested in a solution.

As the video unfolds, we meet Rabih’s microfinance loan officer and Rabih’s family. We see Rabih sell his fish at the market. His world gets a big bigger and we understand it a bit more. By the end, as Rabih is tidying up his boat at dusk, we learn that his dream is to buy a larger boat and grow his business.

His life is improving and the USAID project is part of it.

This is the hope and the promise of international development. Rabih embodies this success story. Strong visuals and Rabih’s passionate quest to succeed help us care.

 

Also on the Panel …

Dani Clark works in communications at the World Bank. Turns out Dani also blogs at Medium, where she’s currently writing a gripping true-crime serial about a Texas man on death row. I started the first one last night and couldn’t stop until I’d read them all.

Kunle Badmus owns Kowree, a start-up technology firm aimed at helping African governments and businesses access opinions of their citizens and customers. Its’ true innovation is simplifying the feedback loop for improved communications and performance.

Allen Carrol gave a riveting introduction to Story Maps, a browser-based interactive storytelling platform that lets you combine authoritative maps with narrative text, images, and multimedia content. For a visual person like me—who’s always looking for new and better ways to distribute video—I’m excited about the insane potential of Story Maps and can’t wait to start using it.

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

7 Calculated Risks that Boosted My Creative Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

1. Go for it!

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

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

 

 

2. You have to give to get

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

5. Target your weaknesses

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

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

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

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

 

 

6. Forge unorthodox partnerships

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I flew the DJI Phantom 4 in Dakar, Senegal last week. Over a mosque, through a statue, hovering near curious children. It was a great experience and really elevated the production values of my international development video. This was my first trip to Senegal, but my 20th trip overseas to make a video for an international development organization, with my company Dorst MediaWorks.

Since I just bought the Phantom 4 last month and this was my first project using it, I wanted to share nine reflections from the trip.

 

1. Cinematic, yes

Bottom line, aerial shots take it to the next level. I’ve filmed in a lot of places in a lot of conditions, but I got truly excited when I put the Phantom 100 meters in the sky and started filming. Brilliant moving pictures.

 

2. Client love

At the first review session, my client loved the aerial footage. It was all they wanted to talk about. I spent 90% of my production days earthbound, shooting interviews and following characters, but the aerials garnered all the attention!

 

3. Content is still king

img_8173I was in Dakar to tell the story of how a newly renovated container terminal has helped Senegal’s economy, and how a unit of the World Bank helped make it a possibility. It’s a typical project for me, since I specialize in making videos for international development organizations, like subcontractors for USAID or partners of the World Bank Group. I bought the Phantom 4 because I knew it would be hard to show the sheer scale of operations from the ground—humongous cranes, massive containers flying through the air, rows of stacked containers. The copter was the perfect tool. If, by contrast, the story had been about an education project, the most I could have expected out of the copter would have been some transition shots. But on this gig, the Phantom gave pictures that were absolutely essential to the storytelling.

Here’s the finished film for the unit of the World Bank Group, MIGA:

 

4. Mohamed, thanks

img_8196Unit Producer Mohamed Srour was great. A white guy in West Africa already gets a lot of attention. Throw in camera equipment and a drone, and you get very curious crowds! Flying a drone in Africa is a magnet for attention. Mohamed has been plying his craft for almost 30 years and was a joy to work with. He allowed me to focus on the creative. If you ever need a fixer in Senegal, give him a shout: 011 221 776300208

 

 

5. Safety first

steve-beach-dakarIt was school vacation in Senegal, so loads of children were out playing during the day. Mohamed led us to some well-known spots to fly the drone, including the Mosque de Oukama. As soon as I sent the copter up, boys immediately started gathering around. I was glued to the DJI app on my phone, busy piloting, so the first time I looked up there were 30 boys crowded around me. As the sun set, the Phantom was about 300 meters west over the Atlantic. Suddenly, the app started beeping: the battery was running out! Even though I was pressed to land the thing immediately, I had the presence of mind to ask Mohamed to clear a safe landing area — the rotating blades can be very dangerous. Almost as soon as the Phantom landed on the sand, the envelope closed and all the boys crowded in again. We took a few photos, I high-fived everybody, and we wrapped for the evening.

 

6. Geofencing, ugh

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-3-20-49-pmThis version of the Phantom has geofencing built in. I guess drunk guys flying drones onto the White House grounds didn’t help. The good news is that people can’t fly copters into the paths of airplanes. The bad news is that I can’t fly the thing in Arlington, Virginia where I live — or anywhere within an approximate 20-mile radius of the White House (that’s the big red circle).  I can’t even take off. What surprised me was that in Dakar, there was similar geofencing around the airport there. DJI calls it a Geospatial Environment Online (GEO), which is continually updated and also includes other sensitive areas like prisons, power plants, major stadium events, etc. Good idea, but bad news if you just want to practice flying at the local park and you’re too close to a no-fly zone. Like me.

 

7. So Easy!

I bought the Phantom 1 when it came out in 2013. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a gimbal and the GoPro I rigged up yielded shaky, unusable footage. But on the plus side, I became a proficient pilot. So when Red Bull hired me to direct a few episodes for a TV series, I flew the Phantom 2 Vision Plus: in Portland, Oregon and the Florida Keys. Then I got hired to operate camera for a PBS documentary in Jamestown, Virginia and I also flew there. But I hadn’t flown a Phantom for about 18 months when I got this Senegal gig. Yet it is so easy to operate that I had no problems at all.

 

8. Great value

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

 

9. Just fly!

The Dakar story about the container terminal took me to a company that imports most of its product from Europe. I wanted to illustrate how a company became more profitable now that the container terminal is more efficient. “Time is money,” said the project manager in English (even though he speaks only French and Wolof!), which was exactly what I was hoping to hear. After the interview and some b-roll, I got out the Phantom (I always do it last in case people object). I figured I’d get a quick establishing shot and call it a day.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-5-54-10-pmSuddenly, something special happened. The laborers went into hyper drive. With the copter overhead, I was able to see what I couldn’t see from the ground — they were all loading and unloading gas tanks in three independent dynamic assembly lines! Immediately, I lowered the copter to the far right of the scene and piloted a slow push left over a truck (see 00:12 – 00:23 in the video above). In one take, I was able to capture a beehive of activity that illustrated the project manager’s quotes perfectly. It was my favorite shot of the trip.

For more on the history of the DJI Phantom.

The History Of The DJI Phantom

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

Until last month, my best Olympic memory was this: While in college in 1992 I traveled across Europe for a summer. In Barcelona, I splurged on Olympic track and field tickets for my 21st birthday. Sunshine, world-class runners, and … Evander Holyfield? What was he doing in the cheap seats? I have this enduring memory of sitting behind the boxing champ all day, surprised he had itty-bitty calves in comparison to his hulking upper body.

Then Rio happened.

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Self-portrait, Ipanema Beach

In my opinion, Brazil pulled it off. I had one of the best weeks of my life. Rio buzzed with Olympic spirit, and I saw Neymar, Simone Biles, Matthew Centrowitz and hundreds of other elite athletes doing what they do best.

The experience made me realize a few things along the way:

1. Make Up Your Own Mind

I arrived on high alert. How could I not? The negative news was relentless. I mean, just type “Rio Olympic problems” into Google and you get 26 million results: Zika, unsafe water, crime, corruption. Sure, Brazil was going through an unprecedented political crisis and their worst recession in a century. But, during my week in Rio, the Olympics went off great. Transportation was excellent. The metro was cleaner and faster than the DC metro in some cases. Volunteers were all over the place, affable and helpful. Crime wasn’t an issue, for me. Oh yeah, and nobody got Zika. Oops! Makes me wonder why our media was so down on Brazil. For me, it verged on some sort of implicit editorial prejudice against a poorer country. Journalists simply didn’t get the green light to expose London’s pockets of squalor and rampant inequality in 2012. But this year, they had free reign to hate on Rio. My take-away: be skeptical of what you read. And then make up your own mind.

 

2. Choose Your Corner: Lochte, Trump … or Not

On a daily basis, people wanted to engage with m on Trump. Not just Brazilians. Everybody. I don’t blame them. He’s fascinating, a Narcissistic blowhard without a censor mechanism. This was different than the years of Bush Junior, whom I felt I needed to defend to some degree, since dismissing him outright felt like dismissing American Democracy (since we voted him in twice and our Congress authorized the Iraq invasion). Trump ain’t elected. Yes, the Republican Party is broken for selecting him. No, he won’t be elected. No, he doesn’t represent America, our policies, our values. That felt great to say. Liberating. Now let’s go drink a beer.

But then Ryan Lochte happened. My first instinct was guilt. An American Abroad Behaving Badly. But then I had a Liberating Trump Moment. I don’t know Ryan Lochte. He doesn’t stand for me. In fact, he’s not representative of Americans abroad or American athletes at all. He’s one guy (here’s a complete timeline of Locate’s imaginative story). But he does have a supreme talent for accidental humor.

 

3. Fresh is Best: Açai!

img_7670If I could snap my fingers and import one thing from Rio today, it would be Brazil’s culture of fresh fruit juice. Every morning, I bought an açai bowl from one of my favorite corner juice joints in Ipanema: Polis Sucos or Big Nectar. My favorite: acai, with banana, strawberry, and granola mixed in. Yes, the food was great. And I was fortunate to have several friends who live in Rio who took me to their favorite places and introduced me to all the local delights—churrasco, feijoada, moqueca do camarao—but my favorite: açai and the fruit juices!

 

4. Even Elites Seek Mentors

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Ashton Eaton walks to the stands to talk with his coach

At track and field, we had tickets up top. But the Brazilians weren’t checking tickets, so we wasted no time boogying down to ground level … about 10 rows behind a group of Olympic coaches. The men’s decathlon was in full swing, namely the discus. When
defending Gold Medalist Ashton Eaton walked over to us the first time, I could almost hear his conversation with Coach Harry Marra. Eaton listened intently. It was impressive. Here was the best athlete in the world—maybe the best decathlete in history—and he could have relied solely on experience, technique, or mental focus. But he chose to connect with his coach after every throw. It made him stronger.

 

 

5. Know the Rules of Your Game

That same morning, my heart sunk during the qualifying round of the Women’s 4x100m relay when Allyson Felix dropped the baton. Disqualified! I was crushed. What I didn’t know—and wouldn’t learn until dinner with friends later that night—was that she had been bumped by the Brazilian runner next to her. The team filed an appeal with the IAAF and got a second chance, qualifying for a chance to win the gold, which it did. Great summary here.

 

6. Stay Determined

img_3665
This street performer hammed it up for loose change. That was cool, until he kissed me on the cheek. Here I am, seconds after …

This one is more Brazil and less Olympics. Everywhere you go, commerce comes to you: on the beach, in the metro, at red lights. Men and women selling everything from candy bars to drinks to clothes—and all manner of random chochkies. Having lived in Cameroon, I got used to this sort of thing long ago. Here in Rio, the traveling salesmen weren’t aggressive. Yeah, there’s a lot of poverty in Brazil, but these people were doing their best to get ahead. They deserved as much respect as the guy with the desk job or the woman driving a bus. Did I want a tablecloth at the beach? No. But was I known to buy Kit Kats on the metro en route to Olympic events. Yes!

 

 

7. Golf no Bueno

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

8. Run Your Own Race

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Centrowitz, moments after his gold-medal run.

It was a cool Saturday evening at the Olympic Stadium and I didn’t hold out much hope for Matthew Centrowitz. Sure, I saw the American 1,500m runner qualify during our Olympic Trials and vaguely knew he grew up somewhere near Washington, D.C. But Americans don’t win distance events, right? An American hadn’t won gold in the 1,500m since 1908. Yes, Centrowitz got 4th in London, but at the starting line Ethiopian and Kenya runners predominated, including Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop, the 2008 Olympic winner and Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, the 2012 Olympic winner. The gun fires! The first lap is slow at 66 seconds. And the second lap is even slower at 70 seconds. It is the pace of a high-school mile! Centrowitz, in the lead, seems to be conserving his energy for the final sprint, and nobody is calling his bluff. At the bell lap, with the runners still in a tight pack, the pace ratchets up, and Kiprop finds himself in 9th place with no choice but to sprint up the outside—burning a lot of matches just to make it up to Centrowitz’s shoulder. Watch the last lap: it’s incredible. It’s more like a battle—elbows flying, runners tripping, all fighting for position since position means victory. In the lead, Centrowitz is protected from all that. It’s like he’s running in a vacuum. His own race. At no point does he appear to “start a sprint,” or look around, or even alter his exquisite form in any way. On the homestretch, he maintains form all the way, and amidst an absolutely insane crowd screaming bloody murder—including me—he’s the first to cross the line. Gold! Centrowitz’s last lap is a sprinter’s pace—50 seconds. He looked around as if utterly shocked. His father, in the stands, literally loses his mind! After the victory, Centrowitz the Younger says: “I came into this championships with a different mind-set. Thought to myself, I’m in great shape. Just run to my capability . . . It was about being the best I could be on this day.” Centrowitz never let the chaos behind him dictate his strategy. He ran, and won, his own race.

New Dorst MediaWorks Site … And a Higher Goal

I’m excited about my company’s new website, which is live this week!

It was high time to define Dorst MediaWorks’ mission statement to reflect what we’ve been doing for 14 years: video production for international development.

“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.”

The website features four main sections: feature documentary films, videos for international development organizations, a bio page, and a blog.

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 3.35.23 PM

Patrick Calder of the Design Foundry did the design work.

On Dorst MediaWorks’ portfolio of videos for international development organizations, you can skip around and see 30+ films from 15+ countries. Or you can filter by topic (education, health, small business, etc) or location (Azerbaijan, Kenya, Zimbabwe, etc). You can even click around on a world map to see where I’ve produced for clients ranging from USAID to Catholic Relief Services to the World Bank.

It was a blast looking back at the blog posts I started doing nine years ago around my experience making my first feature documentary film Volcanic Sprint, with Dan Evans. This new version of the blog lets you jump into categories, like the 57 posts tagged “Field Production,” or 54 tagged “Travel,” or cycling, equipment, or my latest doc, Jobs for G.I.s.

I like how the site is visually rich. The slideshow on the front page contains stills from my work. The pictures, films, and blogs — so many great memories of working in some challenging, interesting places with amazing people.

It’s an honor to be doing this work, amplifying the efforts of international development organizations, and ultimately improving the quality of life of the people they work with.

JOBS for G.I.s: Joint Service Achievement Medal

IMG_6023I’m honored to have received a Joint Service Achievement Medal” for “Outstanding “Achievement” for my recent documentary film, JOBS for G.I.s.

The honor was a complete surprise. Given by former Air Force officer, Aneika Solomon, who is one of the five transitioning service members we follow in the film, the award reads: “Director Stephen Dorst distinguished himself by outstanding craftsmanship as Director and Producer, Z-Channel Films, Washington D.C. by creating the documentary film, G.I. JOBS. While in collaboration with DirecTV and working alongside Producer and Director Doug Gritzmacher, Director Dorst’s keen perspective was instrumental in capturing and melding the stories of five veterans from the services of the Army, Air Force, Navy and the Marines.”

IMG_6020Aneika, like the other four people we follow, was brave to share her story with us. I hope this films helps all of us to pay more attention to this transition out of the service, which is such a critical juncture in the lives of millions of people. Too often, I think, people figure they do their part by clapping for the military at a baseball game or supporting Congressional increases in defense budget spending. But that doesn’t cut it.

We have to do a better job of making the transition work for more people. We need to target resources better for education, workforce training, and other support. If you own a company, you can help out by keeping an open mind and trying to interview former military for every position, not just the ones they’re stereotyped in. If you know somebody that served overseas, try to learn more about Iraq and Afghanistan so you can better appreciate what they went through.

At the policy level, we should all encourage the DOD to share more information with veteran service organizations (VSOs) at the city level. Too often, these VSOs want to help, but don’t find out about veterans in need until they’re already jobless, homeless, or worse.

When you empower veterans, you strengthen communities.

Doug and I went to Los Angeles six times during 2015 to film JOBS for G.I.s. Working with Doug as a two-man documentary film crew was a big pleasure: he’s super talented, with a great sense for story, and a strong eye. But we couldn’t have done it without the support of many organizations that are doing great work day in and day out:
Reboot
Vet Hunters
Salvation Army Haven
JVS Los Angeles
USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families (CIR)
National Veterans Foundation
Weingart Center
Veterans in Film and TV
Silhouettes for Vets
New Directions 
Goodwill Veterans Employment Program
Operation PAVE (Paralyzed Veterans of America)
LA County Dept of Military and Vet Affairs 
Got Your 6

Doug and I are on the lookout for our next documentary topic. If you know of a great, inspiring story, let us know. If you are an Executive Producer-type, interested in funding great stories, reach out. We are always looking to expand our team.

 

 

“Super Humans Unmasked”: 1.7m Facebook views

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 10.39.56 AMIn December, Doug Gritzmacher and I joined Producer T.J. Cooney for a few days in San Francisco to film a bunch of adults that dress up as superheroes.

It was one of our first projects under the banner of Z-Channel Films, our new company. Doug and I have been collaborating off and on for years, and we’ve finally decided to take the plunge and work together in this new initiative (more on our motivation and background).

As for the superheroes, I was skeptical. What was the catch? Were they Comicon junkies living out a suspended adolescence? Or bored middle-agers with aspirations to be cast in Kick-Ass 3?

As soon as I met Roxanne Cai, however, I got an immediate appreciation for her commitment and true motivation.

Since Roxanne founded the California branch of The Initiative, she’s led efforts to pick up used drug needles around the Mission District. Not just once in a while. But every week for four years. At last count: about 200 trips and about 7,000 needles off the streets.

That’s not all. About once a month, the group hosts a pop-up Street Boutique. They dress up as superheroes for fun and to attract attention to their good deeds. Then they hang up all the clothes on mobile racks so people can consider options in a dignified manner.

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

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

 

Behind The Scenes: Epic Longboard Charity Jam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

steve-jump copy

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

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

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

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

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

And let me know what you think about the video!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep the copter alive to live to fly another day!

 

Directing for Red Bull in Hong Kong

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. George Slays the Injera

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 addis food

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big red

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d definitely go back to Ethiopia again.

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

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

Best Smoothie Recipe: “Perfect Life Hack”

3O8A1266 copyIt’s spring and the sun’s out! Now that I’m more consistent with  cycling workouts and eating healthy, that only means one thing: I’m making smoothies!

Here’s my favorite: the insanely yummy “Perfect Life Hack” (recipe below). It packs a punch of 9 different fruits and 11 vegetables? Yeah …

Warning: Your friends won’t rave about how pretty it is. In fact, it’s a fugly purple-mauve. (Ladies, go here for dainty, lavender-lace smoothies that you wanna bathe in).

Cramming fruit into the blender is the perfect life hack.

This smoothie is function over form. It’s a meal-replacement energy kick that’s better than drugs. And knowing I’m getting a week’s worth of fruits and veggies is peace of mind. Not to mention that it makes my evening burger and beer relatively guilt-free.

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I’ve been making smoothies for about a year. I first got inspired by my old friend Lucy, who made a zesty carrot and lemon special at her Dorset home, summer 2012. But it wasn’t until I got wind of Dr. Oz’s 3-day detox that I bought a $99 Ninja and went to town. They were easy, healthy, and tasted great! Trifecta!

I’ve been experimenting ever since. I like to meal-replace for lunch. When I’m traveling for work, I tend not to eat as healthy as I’d like (like Afghanistan, Lebanon, or Brazil). When I’m back in the US, I usually work from my home studio, so I have the flexibility to eat when and what I want!

3O8A1286 copyI mess around with the recipe, depending on my mood. I’ve stopped using kale; too much of a chore to chew (I substitute spinach). If I want my smoothie creamier, I’ll add more bananas. If I want it sweeter, I’ll add more mango or mixed berries. If I’m especially hungry or I know I need more calories because I did a long ride, I’ll double or triple the avocado.

This smoothie [is] a meal-replacement energy kick that’s better than drugs.

Last Christmas, my brother and his wife splurged on a Vitamix. If the Ninja is a Honda Accord, the Vitamix is a Tesla. That same week, I read this article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

That’s when I realized I’m not making smoothies because I’m some evolved foodie. It’s because I’m a dude!

I don’t love to cook. I love to eat. I prefer to eat healthy, but not if I regularly have to work too hard at it. Getting 20 fruits and vegetables delivered to my door (Peapod or Safeway) and then taking 15 minutes to Ninja the hell out of them to make meal-replacements for 2-3 days — now, that’s good times!

3O8A1288 copyOr as Bloomberg author Joshua Green wrote: “Cramming fruit into a blender . . .  [is] the perfect life hack. . . a whole universe has sprung up to support the hapless male user. The Web abounds with recipes and video clips demonstrating all sorts of easy concoctions. . . . A Vitamix is essentially failproof; with a banana or a splash of apple cider, even an old shoe could be made delicious. The seductive ease of liquefied foods eventually makes ordinary methods of food preparation seem as burdensome and archaic as churning your own butter.”

Hmmm, guilty as charged! But “hapless?” Come on, Joshua!

“Perfect Life Hack” smoothie. That’s a good name! Better than “Ryan Secrest’s Brazilian Thunder Green Smoothie,” right?!

Hope you enjoy it.

 

RECIPE: Perfect Life Hack Smoothie

makes four 16-oz servings

 

FRUIT

8 oz mango juice

8 oz coconut juice

8 oz lemonade

banana, 2

organic green apple, 1

mixed berries, 2 cups (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries)

 

VEGGIES

organic spinach, 5 oz bag

organic cucumber, 1/4

ginger, 1 thumb

tomato, 1

avocado, 1/2

broccoli, 3-4 heads

cauliflower, 1/4 head

corn, frozen, 1/3 cup

peas, frozen, 1/3 cup

garlic, 1 clove

onion, 1/4 large

 

Flax seed, 1 Tbs

 

Directions

Mix in a ninja or other mixer. Organic items noted because of measured pesticides in these. Mix half, add rest, mix (half spinach at beginning and half at end). Top-notch smoothie-ready mango juice available here. Mix with granola.

Updated, January 2017: To reduce sugars and calories, substitute unsweetened almond milk for juices. Simplify as desired to make it easier. Another version I like is for the days you don’t want veggies: 1 cup almond milk, 1/2 banana, 1/2 cup blueberries, scoop of egg-based protein powder. This is a simple, fast energy boost before your exercise; has about 40g carbs and 40g protein, and low on the sugars and fats. As always, don’t go too crazy with the smoothies, because it’s easy to drink more calories and sugars than you want to.

Leading a Photography Workshop in Kabul

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Stay in touch! And keep taking photos!

Beirut Dispatch: 5 Things I Learned in Lebanon

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

1. Beirut’s got an image problem

 

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

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

 

2. Dynamic and cool, the Lebanese carry on

 

The first day of shooting goes according to plan.

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

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

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

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

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

Dynamic and cool, the Lebanese carry on.

 

3. Fishing is an endurance sport

 

Jet lag sucks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4. Shawarma & Robert Downey, Jr. go together

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

5. Byblos is irresistibly photogenic

 

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

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

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

Mandela, Cameroon, and me

sd-prince copyWhen I arrived in Yaoundé, Cameroon on September 15, 1994 for a scholarship year, His Excellency Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had been President for four months. As South Africa’s first black President, Mandela finally possessed a political power on a national stage to match his outsized moral authority.

I was grappling with how to fit in a completely different culture. My French was pretty good, but there was a lot of Cameroonian slang. I’d jump in a taxi, tell the taximan “Poste Centrale,” pay my 100 CFA (18 cents), and then amble through downtown Yaoundé. I was the only white person for thousands and thousands and thousands of people. Everywhere I walked, children stared. Adults took note.

It was a shock.

Meanwhile, everybody wanted to talk about Mandela. Cameroonians had followed his story as much or more than we Americans. After 27 years in prison, would he choose vengeance and spite? Or would he work for hope, reconciliation, and nation-building?

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After a month of trying to find my feet, I felt really at home in Cameroon. I started dreaming in French. I had new friends at the University, and was taking lessons on a traditional instrument, the “mvet,” from a local master, Noah Ondongo Generaud. I was forging what would become a life-long friendship with my housemate, Jean Paul Fosso.

As minorities go, I was privileged. My US passport gave me a freedom few people around me had. My bank account distinguished me from the masses. Even the color of my skin got me invitations to parties, and seats up front, near Ambassadors and the elite.

But there was a flip side. It’s strange not to be in the majority—to be a token, different, stared at for something so superficial as the color of your skin. The psycho-social effects of being a minority left a residue.

Today when I think of Mandela, I think of my year in Cameroon. The two are linked for me. I think of how Mandela influenced a continent even as he set an example for the world.

I think of life in Cameroon, my friends, and their lives there. Their enduring challenges are like those people face in the townships of South Africa.

I think of injustice and how people confront it: how people battle for progress on issues they care deeply about . . . climate change, gun safety, and gender equality.

I think my friend Vincent Pan, who today is in his 11th day of fasting for Immigration Reform. I think of Americans like him, who work in the spirit of Mandela. I think of how much I admire them.

I think of my democracy, which is slowly failing. Can Mandela’s example inspire Congress to pass laws that will give as many people as possible a leg up?

I think of my work as a filmmaker and how I might contribute better. I set out as a documentary filmmaker not only to try and entertain people, but also to change the world for the better. Looking back, Mandela took office 20 years ago. Looking forward, I’ll be 60 years old in 20 years . . . what can I do in that timeframe to make a difference?

Most of all, I think of Mandela himself—and the echoes of MLK and Gandhi. Had he chosen vengeance, we all would have understood. But he redefined justice. He elevated a people, and inspired the world. And me.

Is [Angola] a Real Place? Do You Care?

angolaTwo 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.

Sure, there are explanations why. A dominant power exports its culture to the world—a logical extension of Joseph Nye’s “Soft Power” theory.

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?

Here’s one way it matters: Next month, there’s a big meeting in Moscow to determine how much money the 82 poorest countries in the world (40 of which are in Africa) can access for grants and interest-free loans. These countries are home to 2.8 billion people. An estimated 1.8 billion of those live on less than $2 per day. These poorest countries use this “cheap” money for infrastructure, education, health, and clean water. It’s an investment. It helps them be less poor. Maybe their children can live on $4 per day.

The convening organization is IDA, or the International Development Association, which is a unit of the World Bank Group. The pot of money has averaged about $16 billion a year the last few years and  it is shared by 52 rich countries. Even though the U.S. only gives about 11% of the total (or about $1.8 billion), it plays a catalytic role in getting the rest of the world motivated. The word on the street is that the U.S. may be wavering on its commitment to the poorest of the poor.

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?

Do we care?

Solar, Kiva, and How to Change the World

kiva copyI went to my 20th college reunion last weekend at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. It was insanely entertaining catching up with people, most of whom I hadn’t seen in two decades. Writing “two decades” just made my fingers tremor. How am I old enough to be 20 years removed from anything—much less, you know, a college graduation?

Anyway. Wandering through the hallways of Townsend with James and Courtney was particularly nostalgic. But beyond the material memories (that paintings, those couches, the still un-tuned piano) I was attentive to an existential difference—back then, I lived a blessed non-linearity, characterized by marathon debates and the expanded sense of possibilities that youth conveys.

In this very common room, I defended the existence of God in a late-night debate against a guy named Graham (he was pretty damn smart; he won). That table over there was where I studied for my favorite class, “Hunger, Plenty, and Justice.”

We knew we could change the world.

Back in DC yesterday, I found an email from Kiva telling me I had $148 in available credit. I haven’t done much on Kiva for a while and it got me thinking again about changing the world.

Kiva is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that connects people through lending to alleviate poverty. Since it was founded in 2005, more than a million people have lent almost a half billion dollars in 73 countries. They have a 99.03% repayment rate.

 

In the spirit of college-worthy debate, I challenge you, faithful reader, to name a single development innovation that, if spread worldwide, could do more than distributed solar to raise the living standards of the poorest of the poor.

I joined Kiva in March 2007. Since then, I’ve deposited $672. I’ve made 121 loans to the working poor in 53 countries. When they pay back, I re-loan the money, so I’ve lent about $3,100 now.

A few years ago, I became disillusioned because I saw a lot of people lending for stupid reasons—so somebody could open a bar or the like. Nothing innovative. Nothing the local market wasn’t already supporting.

So after complaining a bit, I created a Kiva team called “Solar Explosion.” This was while I was directing a documentary about climate change, and I got really excited about the potential of distributed solar power. It could leapfrog the rural poor in the developing world out of abject poverty.

On the “Solar Explosion” team page I wrote: “1.5 billion people still lack electricity. Only a global solar explosion can change that and end poverty.”

And in the spot where you write “About us,” I put: “We know if you really want to fight poverty, you start with distributed renewable power – harnessing the sun in your own backyard! Micro-solar technology already exists that can transform people’s lives. The problem is that banks are only financing the old model: centralized power stations and expensive transmission grids. We lend to inspire awareness, so microfinance does more and more solar financing projects. Our goal is a solar explosion! Join us today!”

In summary: small-scale solar technology exists, but the financing doesn’t. It’s gonna take tailored models in different countries so poor people can do solar power in their own backyards and pay it off over time.

Some of my recent loans
Some of my recent loans

“Solar Explosion” started slow, but today, there are 51 members who’ve made 572 loans to the tune of $14,525. Still not much, but a start.

In the spirit of college-worthy debate, I challenge you, faithful reader, to name a single development innovation that, if spread worldwide, could do more than distributed solar to raise the living standards of the poorest of the poor.

With electricity, children study more, get smarter, and perhaps get better jobs; family members are more productive, perhaps doing small businesses from home. And everybody is connected to the outside world, by simply plugging in a TV or charging a cell phone.

At the end of the day, there are tons of people who know way more than I do about distributed solar, about solar financing, and what the bottlenecks are. And perhaps Kiva’s not the best way to jumpstart this.

But it’s one way.

If you join Kiva, join “Solar Explosion.” Lend to green projects, especially solar.

Cycling: 7 Reasons “OMG WTF” is the Cruelest

OMG WTF v2.Still005I didn’t name it, but it’s spot on. The “OMG WTF” ride is the hardest ride I’ve ever done. It chewed me up and spit me out; put me between two pieces of white bread, and served me for school lunch. I went riding recently with a few cycling friends: Bill Berlin, Jay Stanley, and Bill Murray. We leave Arlington at 6am to miss Beltway traffic, and start pedaling around 7:30 from Frederick, MD.

It‘s my first time to tackle this route, which seems to have been designed for maximum elevation and suffering. It’s a figure-8 in and out of Gambrill State Park on Catoctin Mountain. With at least four categorized climbs (Cat-3), it’s a legit test. Lots of quality cyclists seem to come here: on Strava, 467 cyclists have ridden the first mountain climb, for example, over 1,400 times.

Jay’s Contour helmet cam captures some surprisingly good footage:

 

1. Reason #1. Hamburg Road

The first climb is up Hamburg Road, and it’s a doozy! It’s 3.3 miles long, with more than 1,000 ft of elevation gain (6.2% average grade). It takes me about 21 minutes and I average 9 mph. It’s incredibly painful, and I know I’m in for a long day, since I’m reduced to constantly checking my bike computer, doing fast math: “OK, I’ve gone 9.1 miles, 60 to go” . . . and an eternity later . . . “OK, I’ve gone 9.2 miles, 59.9 to go!”

 

2. Reason #2. Harp Hill

The second hill, Harp Hill, is “only” 1.8 miles. It’s also a cat-3 climb, but shorter — and as a result, not as painful. I cover the 630 ft elevation gain (average grade of 6.7 mph) at a slower 7.9 mph. Bad news: I’m slowing down.

 

3. Reason #3. The crosswinds

The next 15 miles or so are no picnic, to be sure, but they’re rollers and fun. It’s a beautiful Autumn day, with the sun streaking through the trees. Unfortunately, the crosswind is unpredictable and strong. It gusts upwards of 15-17 mph. Fortunately, most of the climbs are protected, narrow roads. But some of the open descents are too windy.

 

Part of the pain is that you’ve already done 57 miles and climbed more than 5,000 feet when Coxey smacks you in the face.

 

4. Reason #4. Middlepoint Road

Middlepoint Road starts to wind upwards at the 35 mile point. Having not ridden much the previous two months, I was dreading this. It’s 1.8 miles long, with 740 ft of elevation gain (with an even higher 7.3% average grade). I’m just trying to survive.

 

5. Reason #5. Coxey Brown

Jay is talking about how Coxey Brown is the hardest hill he’s ever done, and I just want to get it over with. Part of the pain is that you’ve already done 57 miles and climbed more than 5,000 feet when Coxey smacks you in the face. It’s insane: 1.9 miles long, with 1,024 ft of elevation gain, and 9.6% average grade. No rest for the weary!

 

6. Reason #6. 5.3 mph

Midway through Coxey, I feel like it’s my first day ever on a bike. It’s a old, narrow one-lane road, with odd off-camber turns and cracked asphalt. It’s not even 60 degrees this afternoon, but I’ve unzipped both my jacket and cycling shirt as far as they’ll go. It takes me 24 minutes to reach the top—at a paltry average speed of 5.3 mph!

 

7. Reason #7. The paperboy

When you suffer like this, you do things to survive. From the get-go on Coxey, I pull out a shameless maneuver: the paperboy. You know, riding far left and far right, just to manage the slope and stay on the machine. Far in front of me, Bill Berlin is pushing his Trek straight up Coxey. Respect!

Coxey has claimed another victim, but today it’s not me. Torquing up the extreme grades, Jay busts his hub. He ends up running up the hills next to his bike, then gliding down them—covering 6miles this way until we pick him up on the way back to Washington, D.C.

OMG WTF. If you’re ready to test yourself, do it. It’s a helluva ride.

Winning the Air Force Challenge Ride

steve-airForce-2013-thumbThe 2013 Air Force Cycling Classic Challenge Ride had 1,408 people this year—a fun mix of both avid and recreational cyclists. This was my fourth year. Previously, I’d always bonked at some point and fallen back. Sunday, my objective was to stay with the lead peloton, and then sprint off the front to win. I told a few people this goal, and I got some weird looks — I haven’t done any real categorized road races before. But . . . I’ve been training a lot more this year.

First, my stats: I averaged 23.1mph for 65.1 miles, for a 2:49.03 total time. Here are the results. (Edited: Seven riders completed 8 laps and are listed above the lead peloton in the results, but the fastest among them finished the 7 laps more than 5 minutes and 2 miles behind us . . .)

The Challenge Ride is not to be confused with the Crystal Cup, where world-class pro racers compete about a half hour after we clear the course (JJ Haedo won this year). The weekend series also includes categorized races, with seriously talented Cat 1 to Cat 4 racers competing for small prize money. In fact, watching the Clarendon Cup Saturday for maybe the 8th year in a row, I was blown away by their endurance, power, and bike-handling.

For the last few years, I’ve been riding most Sundays with neighbors. It’s a good group, and can get competitive—in a good way—since they are really strong riders. This year, we have a small contingent going to the Crystal Cup. I meet up at 6:30 with Eric Miller, Phil the Hill, Steve Cahill, Bill Mowery, and Mowery’s son Jack (age 11, a great athlete). Colin Brown will meet us at the starting line, but we never find him.

Post ride pic from last year, left to right: Phil the Hill, Bill "Orange" Berlin, Steve Cahill, and Ron Paletzki; bottom: Bill Mowery, Jay Stanley (who won), and me.
Post ride pic from last year, left to right: Phil the Hill, Bill “Orange” Berlin, Steve Cahill, and Ron Paletzki; bottom: Bill Mowery, Jay Stanley (who won), and me.

The start is messy and crowded. I wish I was closer to the front, but participants in various corporate and team challenges get to start up there. Almost as soon as the horn sounds, I lose track of Phil and Eric. Normally, Bill “Orange” Berlin is wearing his eponymous jersey, which serves as an effective beacon. This year, he’s outta town, and we have none.

I’m winding in and out of lots of riders. An early accident gets the adrenaline flowing. About three miles up Route 110, five guys in United Healthcare and DC Velo kits race past with a purpose. That’s our cue. Cahill and I glom on. By the Iwo Jima Memorial, our turnaround, we have a peloton of 15 riders. These guys are out to win it. The size of the group will ebb and flow between 10 and 20 riders until I make my move at the end of lap 6.

The Challenge Ride route is an advertised 16.5k, but really 15.0k (or 9.3 mile loop). In years past, it was a very tidy 12.5k, so when you did 8 laps, you did a metric century, or 100k. This year, I figured I’d do as many laps as the lead group, probably 6 and maybe 7.

While I ride, I review my plan: to sit in with the lead peloton, pull as little as possible, keep as much in the tank as I can, eat a gel every 45 minutes, match any breakaways in the final lap, and then try to separate at the end. I’d figure out exactly where to make my break as we loop around.

Lap 1 is hard. The peloton has not yet coalesced, and we’re jerky. I’m not feeling warm yet, so I stay at the back. The problem is, I keep yo-yoing. At the turnaround, Cahill yo-yos as the peloton accelerates and I lose him. I remember what my friend, ex-racer Ron (see photo) always says about staying in the first third of the peloton, so resolve to move up.

By lap 2, I’m warm. I move up gradually before the Air Force hill and am in the front five riders. The Air Force hill doesn’t seem as tough this year. I just put it in the small chain ring and do a higher cadence, staying around 17mph. The descent, however, is curvy and dangerous, because it’s hard to decide whether to keep it at 40mph when the circuit narrows and you pass a bunch of unpredictable riders going 20.

At this stage, along with three other guys, I somehow gap the peloton and gain some serious time (is there an accident behind us on the descent?). It’s just us for the three miles into Crystal City. The announcer calls us the “chase group” as we race through the start/finish line, but I don’t know what that means. One rider says there’s a single breakaway rider out front, by 20 seconds. So we resolve to pull him back. This is not especially in my strategy, but we start pushing the pace in a rotating pace line of three (this ends up being my fastest lap at 23.7mph). Apparently he doesn’t like my style, and yells “Man, don’t you know how to do a pace line?” Sorry, I meekly respond.

At the Air Force Memorial
At the Air Force Memorial. Check out Tony Estrada Photography to get photos from the ride: www.backprint.com/tonyestradaphotography/‎

Moments later, on the narrow northern stretch of 110, I almost hit a displaced orange cone, swerving left (into oncoming bike traffic) to miss it. The guy behind me hits it squarely, stays up, but the cone spikes up and smacks my nemesis in the face. (We chat about this amicably during a subsequent lap).

The cone incident puts me alone in 2nd place. But I don’t have a clear idea of how far back I am, so I sit up, soft pedal, and wait for a minute for the peloton to catch me. It’s about the 24 mile mark.

Laps 3-5 are routine. There are some strong guys taking long pulls, including a new friend Greg Butler. I eat and drink attentively. I’m focused on the wheel in front of me and not getting in trouble. The peloton is working well together: indicating road hazards, doing all the hand signals, slowing down when we get to accidents. These guys know what they’re doing.

At about the 8-mile mark of every loop, there’s a long gradual 1% downhill and then a sharp 3% uphill as you cross a bridge and drop into Crystal City. It’s typical for the speed to inch up to 30mph, and then slow down to 15mph in the span of les than 20 seconds. Here toward the end of lap 5, at about the 43-mile mark, a rider attempts a break. He gets maybe 10 seconds on us, but we gradually reel him back before the start/finish line.

But this is all the inspiration I need for when to attack!

It’s lap 6, and the gamesmanship begins. The pace slows considerably after the halfway point, and nobody wants to pull. Somewhere in the middle, we finally swallow up the sole breakaway, a super strong cyclist named Tim—he’s been out front by himself for 2 hours! By the Air Force Hill, I’m at the front and get some energy when I see my wife and daughter cheering! I wanted to take the descent first to stay out of trouble. That’s because last year, I got gapped by Jay Stanley here (who went on to win), trapped behind a super slow group. I didn’t want that to happen again.

On the approach to Crystal City, we’re averaging maybe 20 mph (where we’d done 26+ before). I see the bridge about a half-mile in the distance. That’s my cue. I take a swig of water, then use the rest of it to spray my head and try and cool down.

Bam! I make my move, pushing it to about 35 mph on the gradual downhill. I hit the uphill hard, try to maintain as much speed as possible, and enter Crystal City still ahead, yelling “on your left” like a banshee.

Now, the road here is so torn up that even the pros actually complained about the potholes! There are tons of riders, and I’m winding around them willy-nilly. As I make the right turn onto Crystal Drive, I catch a glimpse back over my shoulder—my move has broken up the peloton. There’s a string of 5-6 riders behind me. I don’t look again. I’m getting dog tired, but just push it as hard as I can the final quarter mile or so.

I cross the finish line first, which is kind of a new and amazing feeling. I sit up and try to catch my breath. A few seconds later, Greg rides up (I note he’s not breathing that hard!) and says, “we’re doing one more” . . . UGH!! I’m so dead after that sprint! Had I miscounted?

This is definitely my low point. I’m out of breath, out of water, and the peloton is down to only five guys, so it’s gonna be harder to hide. I just catch a wheel and determine not to drop off. At this point, I honestly am confused and still don’t know if I’ve done 5 laps or 6 (the discrepancy with the loop length, and the math involved doesn’t help!). When it’s my turn to pull, I demur, and go straight to the back.

The first half of this lap is a total blur. One guy falls off the pace. Then another. Then Greg signals me as if to say, “I’m dropping back.” Now it’s just Tim and me.

To be fair, Tim Kelley is a better cyclist than me. His name is all over Strava and he’s clearly a beast. His first lap was the single fastest lap of anybody in the Challenge Ride, averaging 24.7mph—a minute faster than my fastest lap. However, I know that he decided to test himself with a solo breakaway for more than two hours, which means he’s tired.

Tim’s not too troubled that I suck his wheel for the final 4 miles, nor that I jump him with about 300m to go. I round the final curve in full sprint mode, determined to give it my all. And then! I hit a pothole and drop my chain from big to small. While I’m struggling to put it back, he passes me. I get back in gear and struggle to catch him . . . finishing in a dead heat!

We congratulate each other, and I seek out my friends. When I see the results Monday, my time is about 5 seconds ahead of Tim’s. I know it’s not a legit categorized bike race, but it was loads of fun! 

 

The Bad, Boring, Blowhard Washington Nationals

 natsWe interrupt this regularly programmed blog on film and video so I can vent about something that I didn’t realize I cared so much about: the bad, boring, blowhard Washington Nationals.

They’re bad: 9th of 15 NL teams, with a losing record, 29-30. But they’re worse than their record indicates. Of 30 teams in baseball, the Nats are 28th in batting average, 27th in slugging average, 29th in runs scored, and 30th in on-base percentage.

Because they don’t score, they’re boring. At least the Colorado Rockies lose games 9-8 and fans can chat about the 10 home runs they saw! Yes, Strasburg and Harper are exciting, but they’re both injured (along with about a fourth of the team).

Worst of all (and it pains me to say this), the Nats are blowhard. When New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan predicted he’d win the Super Bowl in his third season, I thought he was full of it.

That’s because since birth, I’ve been a Steeler fan. Steelers and their fans can be a lot of things, but we don’t tend towards acting the fool or self-aggrandizement. It’s about the team. And Coach Mike Tomlin is the anti-Rex Ryan.

Is Nats skipper Davey Johnson any different? His pre-season boast, “World Series or bust” became a rallying cry before 20 year-old Harper and 24 year-old Strasburg had even played a full season together!

And the DC media ate it up. It’s been a dry spell here. But sometimes you have to ask yourself whether it’s sports journalism or wish fulfillment. In fact, the hype has inspired a rash of Onion-like articles proactively inducting the pair into the Hall of Fame.

But this is American sports. Hyperbole rules. I get that. Big-market teams have big pocketbooks, hyped players, and braggart media. ESPN talking heads play armchair quarterback with all the reserve of Ann Coulter heckling an ACLU gathering.

Yet what I didn’t realize is that I cared so much.

After going to exactly one Major League baseball game in the two decades between 1992 and 2011, I’ve been to 20+ Nats games in the past two seasons. Where’d this passion come from? Did I catch . . . “Nattitude?”

SORRY PIRATES, I’VE FOUND A NEW MATE

I broke up with baseball at 11:52pm October 15, 1992. That was the moment Barry Bonds’ throw to Catcher Mike Lavalliere arrived a split second too late. The Atlanta Braves’ Sid Bream score the walk-off, overcoming a two-run deficit with two out in the bottom of the ninth to dispatch my Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1992 NLCS.

The Pirates of my youth were stacked: the power-hitter Bobby Bonilla, CF Andy Van Slyke, aces John Smiley and Doug Drabek, and a skinny kid named Barry Bonds.

But because the small-market Pirates couldn’t sign these budding stars to big money, they lost them all. In 1993, they finished 22 games back, and have been stuck there ever since.

I was only 20 at the time, and baseball and football were my favorite sports. But the way money dominated baseball didn’t seem fair.

So I broke up with baseball. Went cold turkey. Stopped pouring over statistics in the morning paper. Packed away my Topps mint-condition cards. Muted my amazement that Dave Kingman could ding 35 homers while hitting .210; stopped comparing Rickey Henderson to Lou Brock to Ty Cobb; Nolan Ryan to Steve Carlton to Sandy Koufax to Walter Johnson. Stopped it all.

Life went on. Studies, travel, new aspirations.

Lots changed in me, but little in baseball.

In 1992, when the Pirates lost Barry Bonds to the free-agent market, I wanted to be a college professor. The next year, I was an aspiring homeless advocate. By 1995, I wanted to be a professional piano player; in 1997, a management consultant, and (finally) in 2001 a documentary filmmaker.

All the while, the Pirates were losing, and I didn’t care. Baseball was dead to me. And it’s not clear to me if MLB tried to fix what ails it. In fact, the Pirates still haven’t had a single winning season. In 20 years.

OMG, DID I CATCH “NATTITUDE”?

Fast-forward. In Washington, D.C., with a family, career, and the Pirates-pain dulled by the passage of time, I didn’t see it coming.

The 2012 Nats snuck up on me. After their 2011 losing record, they became exciting! And it brought up a lot of great memories of baseball and my youth.  I started buying SRO tickets to watch this underdog team—hanging at the Red Barn, drinking IPAs,  and eating burgers at Shake Shack—just enjoying the new stadium!

I’d check stats in the morning paper, like I hadn’t done in 20 years, text friends with predictions on upcoming games, dissecting last night’s.

I was becoming a fan again.

So, as a new fan, here’s my two-cents: Nats, thanks for making baseball fun again. It’s been a while. I don’t need a World Series this year, nor predictions about it. Nats media: I don’t need the hype. I’m happy to see you build a good, solid franchise (perhaps like the Pittsburgh Steelers) that is in contention for many years to come. You’re a young franchise, and GM Rizzo seems to be doing a great job building young talent. Don’t start swinging your money stick around like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers. It cheapens the sport. Acquisitions like Jaysen Werth ($126 million) and Dan Haren ($45 million) remind me why I’m paying $9 for a lite beer. And it reminds me of the Pirates.

So, if I’m going to trade in my self-imposed baseball isolation for the big-market Nats, it only feels right if you do it with class.

Oh, and can you score some runs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

kstill-2

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.

Ahmed driver
Despite a language divide, Ahmed and I become fast friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

steve-hold-pyramidsteve-jump steve-liftRock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cherry Blossoms: Naked and Famous

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salt & Ice: A Cyclist’s Confession

It took a day to thaw to write this. On the eve of President’s Day, I’m tipping back single malts with Triathlete Jay, in close proximity to ex-Cat 3 racer Ron. And I get peer pressured. In a “good” way (photo credit, not of me).

“Going riding tomorrow, Steve?” asks Triathlete Jay, the hint of an evil grin apparent, to which I confidently respond, “Sure!”

This is the hard time of year to be a cyclist. Yes, I’ve cross-trainied on running trails, attended co-ed spin classes, and watched documentaries on Netflix from my Kurt Kinetic.

But it’s a chore. And it’s nowhere close to the fun of riding a bike outdoors.

Yesterday, I was excited to get outdoors for the first time in about a month. At 7am, the mercury’s quivering at 25 degrees. I meet up with Jay, Erik, and Dave—all motivated by fear since signing up for Lake Placid Ironman. Cycle Guru Phil somehow . . . feels . . . no . . . cold.

By mile 15, we pass Great Falls Park on the shores of the Potomac. And the temperature drops. My fingertips, encased in bulky ski gloves, are itchy and bulbous. I am unthirsty, but remind myself to drink. Yet my “insulated” water bottles are frozen shut. Shaking vigorously, I manage to coax out a semi-liquid the consistency of a 7-11 Slurpee. Meanwhile, the ice blocks that were my feet (despite the foot warmers) are taking over my ankle like gangrene.

Stinger Waffles are concrete discs. Slurpee water is in solitary confinement. I make the unwise decision to not eat or drink, and just ride.

My face is crinkly for the dried sweat-salt. I become obsessed with avoiding the patches of black ice on the shoulder of the road. As I bonk, I withdraw, focusing on the pedaling; I flex my cheeks and feel the salt. Salt and ice. Ice and salt.

About 8 hours later, some friends are over for dinner. It’s President’s Day, and what better way to celebrate? Yes, I’m still exhausted from the ride, but I feel myself rebounding after an afternoon of sluggishness . . . Their middle-school son, ostensibly good-natured, opens the stopwatch on his phone. “Are you ready for a challenge?” he smiles. Maybe the hint of an evil grin apparent.

The boy shakes salt into my palm. Then places an ice cube in it. “Close your hand,” he instructs, “squeeze hard, and see how long you can go.”

I’m 20 years removed from science instruction of any kind, so I don’t see this one coming. When the zapping begins, it’s mild at first . . . until its not. After 1 minute and 9 seconds, the stopwatch clicks, and I’m bent over the sink, glorious water flowing, punked by a middle-school science geek.

My blisters are nowhere near what you’ll see if you Google “salt and ice challenge.” That’s good. But today I have to ask myself: Am I too old for such craziness? Am I too old for 50-mile bike rides in 25-degree weather?  . . . Not sure. Ask me next weekend.

Photo from Huffpo article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/30/salt-and-ice-challenge-12-year-old-badly-injured_n_1640429.html

A Dose of Inspiration

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.

Shattered Sky: A Whirlwind of Good

Since the March 22 premiere of Shattered Sky at the DC Environmental Film Festival, it’s been a whirlwind of good: NY Times coverage and lots of contacts with festivals, colleges, and activists who want to play the film.

Most importantly, our Shattered Sky team is growing, and setting a solid foundation for a campaign to make a huge impact on the issues come September – the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, the international ozone treaty.

The New York Times article quoted me well: “Shattered Sky is not about the science. It’s about what a responsible leader does when there’s a good chance the science is right. It’s important to remember that the first draft of the ozone treaty wasn’t perfect. It was a first step. It showed the world that America was committed to lead — and that made all the difference.”

The festival was super. Expertly run, our screening was super packed. We had Sunshine Mendez moderating, with Rolling Stone editor Jeff Goodell joining Dan Evans and me on stage for the panel afterwards.

We had a private reception at the nearby Hotel Rouge following the panel, with about 100 people. National Wildlife Federation CEO Larry Schweiger talked about the educational partnership with Shattered Sky.

I’m personally really excited about this, and will write more as it continues to take shape. The outreach will focus primarily on high school and college. It will be national. It will be a combined science and civics curriculum. And it will focus on the positive message that America led the world to a solution on the ozone crisis during the Reagan Administration—and we can do it again on energy and climate.

If you’re on Facebook, you can see the photos of the film, the vibe, and the party.

It’s been a crazy month, but has exceeded all my expectations. Thanks to everybody for all you’re doing to get our campaign going. You know who you are!

NIH Research and the Lives it Touches

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.

MLK Day & A New Memorial

It was cold and bright today at the MLK Memorial on the Mall in DC. Lots of people cycled through inspirational quotes, craned their necks up at the towering stone likeness, and hammed it up for photos on the banks of the Tidal Basin.

It’s fitting that the new Memorial for Dr. King is located between the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Monument. Lincoln kept our country together and hastened the demise of slavery. Jefferson espoused (if he did not always live) the ideals that distinguished our young country from all others.

There’s been a lot of press about Dr. King’s mien. Is he too angry, imposing?

I wanted to decide for myself. I checked it out up close; from far away. For me, it’s the right tone. Fighting discrimination has been a long, bitter battle. You don’t get there with a smile and a pat on the back. Like Congressman Andrew Young (who I interviewed last month), you do it with with an iron resolve, an uncompromising commitment to non-violence, and perhaps a strong faith.

Dr. King fought the powers that be with that approach. His message was confrontational. Upending institutionalized injustice always is.

With a friend . . . and Dr. King.

And that’s why i think the Memorial will keep growing on me. It’s good to see Dr. King’s message in that stone just as much as his visage. And it’s a credit to our country that we’ve put him right there on the Mall smack dab between our elected Presidents.

It’s a reminder that citizens like you and me — despite unjust laws or even public opinion — can still make this nation a better place.

That’s something I can believe in.


Storytelling, at a Crossroads

Do you know a good storyteller? She’s the life of the party. The one who gets everybody rip-rolling, turns us deathly silent, then provokes a tear or two. We gather around. She regales us.

Now, imagine 25 of the most amazing storytellers you’ve ever met gathered in the same square mile, performing to circus tents full of 500 enthusiastic listeners. But it seems like they’re talking straight to you. That’s the National Storytelling Festival, in its 39th year.

I spend the weekend in Jonesborough, Tennessee — the oldest town in the state. It was founded in 1779, before the Volunteer state became a state. Almost 8,000 people prowl the town with me, on the hunt for stories. It’s like a film festival, only better. Tellers duck and weave by synapse and whim, bending narratives in response to giggling children, passing trains, or thundering applause.

It’s “night at the improv,” but better. David Holt plays 10 acoustic instruments; Bill Lepp gives me cramps as he invents insane tall tales; Elizabeth Ellis slows it down – I shed a tear. Antonio Sacre is energetic, yet tender. Clare Murphy is protean, spinning morality tales from the dawn of time. Donald Davis pays homage to Kathryn Windham; Holt remembers Ed Hicks. Tellers know they stand on the shoulders of those who came before them.

Billed as “One festival, three days, a world of stories,” it was much more. A time to reflect on the nature of stories themselves, and how they move and sustain us.

Jane Goodall LIVE

 

Today was the second time I filmed Dr. Jane Goodall recently for an upcoming movie, and each time she has taken me off guard (in a good way) with an extraordinarily gentle spirit, iron resolve, and tendency to break into impromptu primate calls.
Dr. Goodall is 77 years old. She moves lightly; the years exert no visible weight on her. She talks in a whisper, not out of reserve or infirmity, but from the quiet confidence of somebody accustomed to her own authority and eloquence. People listen.
This morning, Dr. Goodall speaks with the crew at the International Space StationCommander Mike Fossum and Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa join in. I film her side of it. The astronauts are inspired by Dr. Goodall’s life-long conservation mission. She finds common ground, learning about their science and their thoughts about the Earth from their perch.

In orbit, the world’s most accomplished astronauts are zipping at more than 17,000 miles per hour, chatting with the only person who’s ever been accepted into chimpanzee society. As I type this, Jeff Orlowski is putting the final touches on Jane Goodall: Live, which is playing one night only, September 27, in 500 cinemas around the country.

Afterwards, Dr. Goodall and I discuss Roots and Shoots, a youth-oriented program of the Jane Goodall Institute that is in 100+ countries and all 50 states. It’s her passion; it’s visceral how intent she is on getting the next generation to care. She leans in: “I bet you need a chimp hug,” she says. I mutter something far less poignant than how David Graybeard might have responded. She utters a chimp call, and tenderly squeezes. I smile.

 

Innocuously named “Chef’s Salad”


What comes to mind when you think “Azerbaijan” and “food”? If you’re like me . . . nothing. So, what a surprise to arrive here Sunday and discover . . . some incredibly fresh, tasty cuisine! Here’s a photo of the Chef’s Salad that I had for lunch Sunday. It was maybe the best salad I’ve ever had. Most salads in the US are lettuce-dominated. Unless you LOVE lettuce, that’s not awesome. The good salads have an overpowering dressing, like a gorgonzola or blue cheese. These are yummy, but overpowering . . . Today’s “Chef’s Salad” at the “Restauro 90A” on the first floor of the Landmark Hotel blew my socks off. What you see is a perfect balance of: mixed lettuce, grilled chicken, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, capers, parmiggiano, parsley, dill, mint, and purple and green olives. The only dressing is a subtle olive oil. Everything was in harmony. The tomatoes were sweet. The artichokes were the best I ever had. The capers were the largest I ever saw. . . . I’ll let the economists argue over the “WHY,” but all I know is that all these veggies taste awesome and the veggies in my country don’t. . . . Now tell me: Which country is “developed”?

Carbon Age Over Tandoori Chicken

So, I’m eating lunch at my favorite local Indian place with my friend Eric Roston today. Roston’s the author of The Carbon Age, a brilliant, definitive book about carbon as a structural element in life and civilization. So, over some tasty Tandoori Chicken, the conversation fortunately veers away from molecular composition and astrophysics to something I can at least talk about: ethics. Roston makes the point that the climate issue is the perfect moral quandary: any actions you and I take to try to arrest the build-up of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere will have little to no impact during our lives. We simply won’t see it, since CO2 emissions have atmospheric lifetimes of 100-150 years, and sometimes a lot more.

Are our political and economic systems equipped to handle long-term, complex, moral issues? So far, no.

Check out this nice blog post, with a video of Roston on the Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. Roston holds his own pretty well. Funny!

Google 2030: How’d a Tech Company One-Up the Gov’t?

Google’s Energy team put out a strategy in October called “Google 2030,” which makes a strong case for smart investments in clean energy. Like most everything Google does, it is smart, thorough, and transparent — they’ve improved it quite a bit with public comments in the past six months (why can’t the federal government work this way?). It targets some aggressive but realistic goals, which not only help address climate change, but reduce pollution and get us well on our way to using renewable energy at scale. Some highlights: it aims to reduce fossil fuel-based electricity generation by 88%; reduce vehicle oil consumption by 44%; reduce dependence on imported oil (currently 10 million barrels per day) by 37%; reduce electricity-sector CO2 emissions by 95%; reduce personal vehicle sector CO2 emissions by 44%; reduce US CO2 emissions overall by 49% (41% from today’s CO2 emission level).

Does everyone have an agenda? Sure. Google’s is to have cheaper, sustainable energy in the long run so their massive server farms don’t become a PR nightmare in CA during the next generation. Oh, and it might help their bottom line. And Google knows that utilities are essentially monopolies, so we need government intervention in making the move toward cleaner alternatives. Is the US federal government up to the task?

What’s one way forward? Read Google’s HOW TO.

Kiva: Direct Development

As a documentary filmmaker, I know what it’s like to have a vision and passion — and then have to go out and raise funds to help me make progress on that vision. That’s why I like Kiva, which does a great job of connecting people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty. Their website gives you a chance to learn about entrepreneurs around the world. They have a vision, and are just lacking the funds to make good on it. Given global income inequality, even $25 from me can make a difference. Today, I funded my 35th individual through Kiva; and once they pay me back, I just recycle the investment to another worthy entrepreneur.

Anybody else have good experiences about Kiva? Let me know. Or if you know of other organizations like this one – using technology for “direct development” — please let me know too!

Dibusse on Volcanic Sprint

My favorite Cameroonian blogger covers Volcanic Sprint: Mount Cameroon Race: “Volcanic Sprint” Now Available on DVD. Other media coverage: Cameroon: The Race – Down Memory Lane from the Buea Post on February 21; Cameroon: Epoch Making Innovations from the Cameroon Tribune on February 19; L’ascension du Mont Cameroun vue par Steve Dorst from the February 15th edition of Le Messager.

Some bloggers covered the film as well. Thanks, and I enjoyed reading your blogs! blogmyruns, Albert Caruana, Constintine Njeru, 21st Century Mom, Complete Running, Rick Gaston, <a href='http://journeytoendurance.blogspot.com/2008/02/volcanic-spirit.html
‘>Brian Hawkinson, and Ian “Vanilla”.

Houston Chronicle Covers Volcanic Sprint

In <a href='http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2008_4513616
‘>”Marathon a rugged climb / Film documents race up volcanic mountain in Africa,” Houston Chronicle journalist Roberta MacInnis writes about the Mt. Cameroon Race, Volcanic Sprint, and our shoe donation.

A Video Code of Conduct

Policy Innovations blogs a summary of Steve Dorst’s presentation at a gathering of international nonprofits in Washington DC:

“Steve Dorst of Dorst MediaWorks followed Daub with a presentation A Video Code of Conduct. He stressed the fundamental importance of content. “Content is king,” he said. . . .

Goldman Environmental Prize

I went to the ceremony and reception for the world’s most lucrative prize for environmental activism tonight at the National Geographic Society. The Goldman Environmental Prize gave $125k to each of six impressive eco-organizers from six continents. The videos were well done (I think produced by the Mill Valley Cooperative – great job!). The recipients all transcended ecological activism, having all advanced various aspects of social inclusion, indigenous rights, and sustainable land (and sea) planning. It was good to see old friend Dave Rothschild there, who organized the event. Oh, and the free food and drink was a good thing.

Documentary’s Modernist Standard-Bearers

Today, I went to the exhibit “Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It’s open until July 29, so hurry and check it out. So many recognizable artists and architects appeared, it was like a roll call for early century iconoclasm and influence; I learned a lot. The exhibit launched with the nascent ideals of Utopia, innovations of Cubism, and radical concepts of Futurism (Giacomo Balla is my favorite). I first learned about the Futurists went I went to London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in 1998 shortly after it opened. Today, I was again intrigued by their efforts to devise a comprehensive theory, juevenile antics, and ill-advised ties with fascism.

In the Corcoran’s “Promoting Modernism” and “Performing Modernism” rooms, I saw film clips from some of the big names in early cinema: Walther Ruttman’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1924), Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924), and Joris Ivens’ Philips Radio (1931). Ruttman’s ode to Berlin is urban and upbeat. It established the benchmark for all documentaries about cities to come. In the “Aetheticized Machine and Transportation” room, film clips included Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927); Abel Gance’s La Roue (1923); and Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) . A few years ago, I rented this one and watched it three times in a week. Vertov’s film did more for point-of-view in documentary filmmaking than any work that generation. It was good to see it included, among the architecture, industrial design, and plastic arts.

Above the entrway to the exhibit is a quote by Corbusier : “A great epoch has begun: there exists a new spirit.” If that’s the core of Modernism, then we’re still smack dab in the middle of a Modernistic age.

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