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!
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...
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.
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!