Entries in video ideas (19)
Every time I sit down at my computer to learn more about video and multimedia, I get sucked in for like, hours. The number of blogs, tutorials, and other online resources available to digital storytellers is mind blowing-- but I always walk away inspired, energized, and a little wiser.
I also walk away with a tinge of guilt, wondering if I could have wrapped it up sooner and gone on that hike with my dog. Or coffee date with my friend. Or mountain-bike ride with my husband. It's a delicate balance, diving head-first into a field so electric and new while fighting the tendency to get lost in cyberspace for unhealthy stretches of time. Usually, I can achieve that balance. But it's not always easy.
If you're reading this blog, I suspect you struggle with it too. So here's my little gift to you: A new, weekly department called "3 Stumbles"-- three links to my favorite finds from sources like StumbleUpon, Twitter, Vimeo, and other blogs. I'm posting the first entry now, because there are just too many goodies from last week to wait. But in general, this will run on Friday mornings when we're all tapped out, tired of to-dos, and craving something different to focus our brains on. It won't always tie directly into advocacy, but it will always be relevant to good storytelling.
So, enjoy. Then go get some fresh air.
I discovered this trailer through a Twitter post, and when I watched it, I knew I'd stumbled on something special. The filmmakers behind this project-- brothers Ted and Stan Alcorn of Danger Documentaries-- clearly understand how to connect with their subjects, and as a result, their films are raw, genuine, and 100% from the heart. Check out the trailer, then read more about their project in the Q&A below.
TDN: Tell us how you got into video and multimedia.
TED: My answer depends a little on how far back you want to start. Our parents owned a one-screen movie theater when we were growing up where I (and later Stan) were projectionists, which may play some role in the story. I ended up studying film production as a college student and then working afterward on some documentaries being produced in New York. Somewhere in there I began shooting and producing small films as a freelancer, which I continued to do even as I went back to graduate school and balanced other kinds of work. I now live in Beijing, China, where I am grappling with 普通话 and developing a number of photography and documentary projects.
STAN: I got into film more recently than Ted by way of print journalism. I ran a magazine in college and worked for a newspaper after college, but now my day jobs are in radio--as a researcher and production assistant at Marketplace-- and multimedia journalism--as the editor and producer of multimedia for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. The Dart Center enrolled me in a weeklong workshop with MediaStorm, which jump-started my film-making. I now live in New York City, and continue to take on freelance writing, radio and film projects when my schedule allows.
TDN: How did you find out about this group?
Danger Docs: Ted first encountered the Rescue Mission a few years earlier, making a film about welfare reform for a conference at the Princeton Policy Institute for the Region. Knowing the organization and having a relationship with staff and residents gave us a head start-- both in understanding the content and in earning everyone’s trust.
TDN: Who was your intended audience when you made this film?
Danger Docs: The ideal viewer is someone who might donate time or money to the Rescue Mission if only they knew more about it. That really just means someone thoughtful and generous who might have some connection to New Jersey and might encounter the film either online or at a public event with the Mission’s director, Mary Gay Abbot-Young (who appears in the film). Since they might be watching it online without any other context, it needed to provide them with a fair amount of detail about the Mission’s activities while at the same time keeping their attention.
TDN: How did you feel about process? Was it collaborative? Did they give you total creative license, or did they help guide messaging? How did you balance those needs?
Danger Docs: Thanks to the trust Ted already had built with Mary Gay, the Mission gave us free rein, but that doesn’t mean they lacked a strong vision about the goals of the film and their intended audience. They came up with the basic idea of getting ‘success stories’ from some former and current residents, and we talked through the desired messages of the film with Mary Gay and members of the Mission’s board.
TDN: What went well?
Danger Docs: It's a truism but worth repeating that documentary depends on the relationship between the filmmaker and their subject. Though we had a clear vision of the film and an existing relationship with the staff and residents, we still spent our first day out at the Mission without a camera in our hands, just talking with people and adjusting to the environment, and allowing it to adjust to us. And in the end, we invariably got the best material from people who had spent the most time with us. In this sense, just being in the space and amongst our subjects was the most important part of the process. If we could have spent even more time with people, it could only have helped.
TDN: What was especially challenging? What would you do differently next time?
Danger Docs: We knew going in that part of the challenge of the film was to confound stereotypes about Trenton and homeless shelters as places of despair and to show the Mission as the friendly, welcoming and healing place that it really is. At the beginning of shooting we relied a lot on the interview, which is good for exposition and an extremely comfortable format for the person sitting behind the camera asking the questions. But it can be pretty artificial and off-putting for the person in the crosshairs of the lens, and we found we were having trouble getting some of our interviewees to let their guard down. Fortunately, we noticed that a lot of our best material was happening when the interview stopped and people loosened up, and as a consequence we broadened our approach and shot some more theatrical exercises with the residents, which really helped them shed their shells. For instance, we threw up some lights and a dropcloth and asked for volunteers to get up in front of it and introduce themselves a bit – it ended up being less of a performance for us than it was for each other, with some serious moments but a lot of laughter as well, and the footage now forms the beginning of our film. Next time, we’d probably give even more thought to finding other creative ways to get people animated and acting natural.
In the editing, the biggest challenge was finding a narrative arc that could involve the viewer in the story of individual characters, but also carry them through the various aspects of what the Mission is and does. We shot many more interviews than are featured in the film, and to find the structure, Stan literally cut up all the transcripts and pinned them all over whiteboards, and spent weeks moving things around, cutting scenes on Final Cut Pro and moving things around again (an adaptation of the process he learned from Mediastorm). It started gaining momentum when he was able to cut entire characters from the film, and to distill deep interviews to a single point that serves the larger story. He found that being present during the filming was helpful in some ways, but it also made it harder to have aesthetic distance, and to see the film as a viewer rather than an interviewer.
TDN: What did you learn that might be valuable to nonprofits wanting to produce videos, or videographers/photographers producing multimedia for nonprofits?
Danger Docs: Doing your homework is key, especially as you make the first, bedrock aesthetic decisions. For example, we knew that the homeless, hungry and addicted people who end up at the Mission are often spoken for, about, over. That was one reason why we decided against having an omniscient narrator interjecting and commenting on their personal stories.
TDN: Why produce a trailer for the longer piece?
Danger Docs: A two minute video is something that can be watched at work, between emails or at a conference before making a brief presentation. A 15-minute video is something that might be shown on a film festival, or watched during free time on the Internet. Perhaps now more than ever, you need to meet people where they are, and the more platforms you can take advantage of the better.
TDN: How are you measuring results? Do you have any numbers yet?
Danger Docs: Although the film is not explicitly an ask for funding, we’ll certainly be interested to hear if there seems to be an uptick in donations to the Mission, and its gratifying to hear about screenings where the Mission has presented the film, or to see our views climb on websites where we have it embedded. That said, we’re film makers and not film distributors, and so the best measure of our success is what happens in the head of the viewer. Not an easy thing to measure, but we’ve gotten a lot of moving feedback.