Mission

The Digital Naturalist is an inspired forum for video, film, and multimedia with a cause. It brings together an elite panel of experts to analyze what makes digital storytelling successful, establish helpful guidelines for advocacy groups, and shine a light on the most effective and inspiring work being produced today. Through analysis, forums, interviews, and personal accounts, we hope to help nonprofit organizations and the creatives working with them better communicate the most pressing, complex issues of our time.

Try This!

If your video is comprised of interviews, try to get your b-roll after you’ve recorded all or most of the interviews. The reason is that inevitably the people interviewed will say certain things that may inspire the kind of b-roll you’ll want to shoot. Read more bladeronner.com.

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Thursday
Apr192012

3 Stumbles

Documentary Finalist: Born Into Coal

Okay, so today's title isn't entirely accurate. I only have one place I want to send you, but once you get there, you'll find dozens of the most inspiring, best-executed videos on the internet today. Even better, you get the final votes.

Yep, I'm talking about the annual Vimeo Festival + Awards. EPIC. Check out the finalists, chosen by judges like James Franco-- great stuff in all the categories, but I know this crowd is partial to Documentary. Let us know which ones you love and why!

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Tuesday
Apr172012

PROJECT BREAKDOWN: Weaving a New Beginning

Weaving a New BeginningMaureen Tembo, one of the two widows featured in Weaving a New Beginning / © Tucker Walsh

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.

The video portrait shot I decided to not use in my final draft. / © Tucker Walsh

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.

Thursday
Apr122012

3 Stumbles

"Caine's Arcade" by Nirvan Mullick

1. Caine's Arcade: A super charming, ridiculously uplifting short film about making a little boy's dream come true. Be sure to watch all the way to the end of the credits!
2. Behind the Scenes of Tyler Stableford's newest film.
3. America's Wilderness: A surprisingly compelling advocacy video by the National Park Service. Did it work for you?

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Tuesday
Apr102012

PROJECT BREAKDOWN: The Other Side of the Clouds

Yosemite volunteers Henk & Georgia Parson at their campsite / © Tucker Walsh

As many of you know, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) recently launched a video that Tucker and I produced in Yosemite last fall. On many levels, it was a dream assignment: Spend 10 days in a stunning national park, and come back with a cool story that supports NPCA's mission. But like any storytelling assignment, we encountered many unique and often stressful challenges.

Check out our video below, then read the project breakdown that follows. And let us know what you think!

THE ASSIGNMENT


One of the coolest parts of working for NPCA is that after seven years, you're eligible for a six-week paid sabbatical to pursue a passion project related to the national parks. Well, last June marked my seventh anniversary as an editor for National Parks magazine. And there was no question in my mind that the following September, I'd hitch up my Airstream, head west to a national park, and direct an advocacy video for NPCA.

After months of planning and brainstorming with coworkers, I set my sights on Yosemite, and invited Tucker to join me to shoot a story about traffic problems within the park. There was just one problem: Two days in, it was clear we'd missed the worst of the gridlock. And while we knew we could probably land some good interviews, it would be impossible to tell this story visually.

Thankfully, NPCA was open to us heading in a whole new direction, and another answer lay in our very backyard. Turns out the couple in the campsite next to us-- retirees turned full-time Yosemite volunteers-- had some fascinating stories to tell. After spending just 15 minutes with them, we knew they'd make great characters for our film. (Read more about this on NPCA's blog.)

So we went right to work. And this is how the project unfolded...

THE CHALLENGES


1. Time. Because we switched stories, we had, at most, four days to embed ourselves with our subjects.

2. Tension. The last film we wanted to make was a fluffy profile video about two jolly volunteers. We needed tension. So when they told us that they hardly ever went into Yosemite anymore, our ears perked up. How does someone volunteer for Yosemite full-time, yet never actually goes there more than once or twice a month? Turns out they spend most days working in an military-like office complex in the small town of El Portal. Their jobs range from stuffing envelopes, to creating spread-sheets, to scanning and cataloging books. Immediately, Tucker's mind started racing for possible ways to introduce this hook: Cute couple that’s traveled the world now sits inside doing mundane tasks minutes away from Yosemite. Why they do it: Year after year after year they continue volunteering to keep busy, stay healthy, and prolong death. They see their old friends just “rocking in their chairs counting down the days,” and they say, “Nope, not us. We’re going to keep on living.” Sounds like the start of a solid little narrative, right? Well…

3. Depth. Here’s where it gets complicated. Henk and Georgia, in their words, come from a generation and upbringing that frowns upon complaining in any way. So during the interviews, there was this stalwart refusal to speak about their jobs or health in any negative light. Admirable qualities, indeed, but certainly makes storytelling difficult. In fact, stuffing 700 envelopes in a dark room all alone on a beautiful Sunday afternoon is something they enjoy! We didn’t buy it. Two days to go, and we’re back to square one of narrative building.

4. Visuals. We had plenty visuals of Henk and Georgia in their RV and the office, but without any direct quotes to carry the tension we wanted to portray, we were basically left with shots of an adorable woman stuffing envelopes. Zzzzzz. One day to go.

5. Advocacy. Three days in, Henk admitted that they didn't "waive the National Park Service flag." Sure, they supported the idea of public lands for all to enjoy. And yes, when it came down to it, Yosemite held a special place in their hearts. But they tended not to differentiate between the value of volunteering in a national park versus anywhere else where they were needed in the past-- like the Olympics in Atlanta, for example. So anytime we fished for an inspiring quote about the power of Yosemite, or something about their connection to the place, or what's kept them there for 10 years, we'd get painfully logical answers: They weren't here because of some intense love or loyalty to the landscape; they were here because they were trying to stay active while they aged. And Georgia's doctor happened to be in the town next door.

THE SOLUTIONS


1. Location. We came to the conclusion that the only way to pull this video off was to get them in the park. It meant they'd no longer be the atypical volunteers that first attracted us to them, but we’d get some beautiful Yosemite visuals-- something NPCA and park lovers would enjoy. So they dug up an old assignment that required them to document historic markers in the valley, and we got a few hours of footage of them in the park, which ended up being nearly half the film.

2. Tension. The more we transcribed, the more we realized that the tension and conflict we needed to create a complex story just didn't exist. So we decided to keep it simple and light, about a charismatic couple coming to terms with aging the best way they knew how: by doing good in a national park.

3. Time. We spent as much time as possible filming Henk and Georgia at work and in their RV-- and they were extremely gracious about this, inviting us in every time because they wanted very much to see us succeed. At night, we'd go through footage and talk about how the story was shaping up, so that by the time Tucker left, we had some semblance of a storyboard to work with.

4. Advocacy. I can't tell you how many times I freaked out over the lack of inspiring park quotes. Had I made a huge mistake, choosing to focus on characters who didn't live for the national park experience? But Henk and Georgia are who they are, and framing them as anyone different would have been a huge disservice to their story. So we went with the story they gave us. And then we threw in as many inspiring Yosemite images as we could. And what do you know, a few months later when I premiered the film at NPCA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., staff were so drawn to Henk and Georgia's charm and honest message that they didn't seem bothered by the lack of inspiring park quotes. One coworker even commented after the showing that because the message was so subtle, more Americans-- park lovers or not-- will be able to relate to the story. Exactly!

3 LESSONS TO APPLY TO OTHER FILMS


1. When in need, remember stock photos. With only a few hours of footage from the park, the video was feeling a little too light on parks for NPCA. So we found three nice, cheap landscapes of Acadia, Ft. Sumter, and, yes, Yosemite-- all of the park units where Henk and Georgia had volunteered-- and then Tucker applied an Instagram effect so they'd match other old photos in the scrapbook scene. Not ideal, but we think it was a pretty clever solution for filling an important visual hole.

2. If your characters aren't opening up in interviews, get them to open up when you're shooting b-roll. A big part of the reason we decided to keep the office scenes is because Georgia finally admitted that stuffing envelopes was “a lot of repetition,” and it was enough to hint at the fact that not all the work they do is glamorous and fun. That said, even without this, we absolutely needed to incorporate their office work into the story somehow; showing them only in Yosemite would have been fiction.

3. Quotes shouldn't have to do all the work. This was a hard lesson for me, coming from so many years of print journalism, where we often rely on stellar quotes to guide stories. But in this case, even though Henk and Georgia didn't say everything we hoped they'd say, we were still able to tell a genuine story about them and let the visuals (Yosemite landscapes, office scenes, hand-holding on trails) do the rest. Never underestimate the power of visuals!

That's all we've got! Thanks to Tucker for adding many of the thoughtful reflections above. We'd love to know what YOU think of the video, so share your comments below, or join the conversation on Facebook!

Thursday
Apr052012

3 Stumbles

Gnarly Bay Productions, Inc.

1. A Story for Tomorrow: One of the most inspiring video travelogues EVER.
2. Silver & Light: A brilliant 9-minute film on an INSANE photography project.
3. Behind the Scenes of "Inside Disaster": Tracy Boyer Clark from Innovative Interactivity offers a fascinating glimpse of what went into the epic films and interactive website documenting Haiti's earthquake.

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