By Tucker Walsh
In January of 2011, I spent three weeks in Zambia with the non-profit Chikumbuso Women & Orphans Project to create a short film profiling two widows. At the time, I had just delved into the world of multimedia with very little video experience and a minimal understanding of audio. Turns out the shooting was the easy part. When I got home, I started up Final Cut Pro and threw my raw footage into a timeline, trying to convince myself that three weeks of unconverted footage, four interviews, and a bunch of stills would blend together organically into a nice little story. Apparently it doesn’t work that way. Overwhelmed, I threw the files on a hard drive and told myself for almost a full year, “Don’t worry, self, I’ll just get to this tomorrow.” Finally, after three internships and several short video projects, I decided to dust off the hard drive and give it another go, this time as part of my senior thesis project for college. Today, I’m proud to share this film with the public and all of you!
Check out the video below, then read about some key lessons I learned along the way-- often the hard way. I'd love to hear your feedback!
TAKEAWAYS & LESSONS LEARNED
1. Use your time wisely. I spent three weeks in Zambia and somehow only managed to have six or seven full days of productive shooting. I kept telling myself, “I have three entire weeks... plenty of time.” Wrong. Don’t assume there’s always tomorrow. Pretend like every moment is the last moment to capture the moment. This is especially important advice for those of us who work best under pressure!
2. Take a chance. I went to Chikumbuso knowing I wanted to profile Maureen, who's known as the “rockstar” of the 60 widows supported by the nonprofit. But near the end of my trip, someone mentioned in passing how it would be neat to juxtapose Maureen’s uplifting story with a more typical widow living in the same township-- someone who's journey revealed a little more struggle. Brilliant! The next day, my contact brought me to Eledesi’s house, and the story completely transformed from there. It was a risk to refocus my narrative so late in the trip, but with risk comes reward, and I think it paid off.
3. Balance stills vs. video. It didn’t take me long to learn that simultaneously shootings stills and video is extremely difficult. So I often stopped trying to do both at the same time. Rather, before a scene was about to unfold, I decide on one or the other based on the moments I expected to take place. As a rule of thumb, I find video much more effective at making a boring scene (like doing the dishes) visually stimulating, especially by shooting lots of details. Stills were best for capturing peak emotions and evoking a mood, like when Maureen was praying in church after revealing she’s infected with HIV (see photo at top of post).
4. Use headphones. It’s been said a million times before, but it’s worth saying again: Take the time to set up and record the interview properly. I was using a cheap microphone, and I failed to place it close enough to the subject, which left me with hissy, distant-sounding interviews. Luckily I had a backup microphone that sounded slightly better, which I was forced to fall back on in post-production. I’ve been kicking myself for months, wishing I had listened to every instructor I've ever had and worn those damn headphones!
5. Overlay your translations. While in Zambia, I worked side-by-side with an amazing young translator named Moses Chimedza. The big mistake I made was not immediately overlaying the translated text onto the corresponding video clips (see image below). This technique is a fool-proof way to insure that you'll always know exactly what audio corresponds with what translated text.
6. Go with your gut, but use your brain. I made eight drafts of my thesis video. The first seven all had Eledesi starting before Maureen. My gut told me it was the right decision. But everyone who I called on for feedback disagreed: It made the narrative more confusing, I was told. But even if the original story line was harder to follow, I just couldn't justify losing the drama and tension that it created. That's when I remembered what MediaStorm producer Eric Maierson once told me: If the story doesn't work, nothing else will. By Draft 8, I went with my brain and decided to lead with Maureen. There was universal agreement that it worked better-- even my stubborn gut eventually came around to it.In case you're interested, here's an earlier draft where I led with Eledesi:
7. Avoid clichés. I felt Eledesi’s dramatic and, frankly, depressing story added depth to the narrative and a stark contrast to Maureen's story, but having only spent a few short days with Eledesi and because of the language barrier, it was very difficult to avoid making her a cliché, an expected character. I shot one video portrait in particular that I loved, because it was so viscerally powerful-- but I ended up ditching it entirely (see image below). Eledesi was a shy and lonely person, and this shot was simply too over-the-top and misrepresented her.
Two other ways I tried to round out her character were by including the clip of her grandchild making farting sounds with the baby, as well as the still-photo church sequence with the uplifting music. My goal was to show that even though her life is extremely hard, Eledesi is still able to find moments of humor, happiness, and relief.
8. Use your friends. Producing a 9-minute film by yourself is certainly a challenge. Luckily, I have some amazing friends, classmates, and teachers who were extremely helpful and generous in their feedback and support. If you’re in a funk, never underestimate the power of fresh eyes.
9. Recognize that too much feedback can be counterproductive. I went through a stage where I tried to incorporate every single piece of feedback I received. In the end, I lost my voice. I was so concerned with appeasing every single critique that I lost sight of the bigger picture and the story that I wanted to tell. Eventually, I learned to focus less on individual opinions and more on the general trends in the feedback I was getting.
10. Avoid unnecessary calls to action. I was so impressed by the good Chikumbuso does that I wanted to have an epic call to action in my film. Originally, I had two additional text slides at the end of the video: “Help empower Zambian widows” and “Buy a bag or make a donation.” However, my teacher was quick to remind me that the story alone should do 99% of the marketing. People want to feel organically driven to support the cause, not demanded by the filmmaker. In the end, I reduced the direct marketing to a single slide: “To learn more, visit Chikumbuso.com.” Even the nonprofit felt this was more than enough.
Last Friday, I was both thrilled and relieved to premiere the film to welcoming crowds at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s NEXT Exhibition opening. If you’re in D.C., come see the film screened at the Corcoran, now playing through May 20th! And please consider sharing this film with your social networks, so you can help me get the word out about Chikumbuso! Finally, I'd love to know what YOU think of the video, so share your comments below, or join the conversation on Facebook.