Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Few Observations That Have Made Video A Little Harder

Character casting. Back in 2007, when I was working on my master's project on Burmese refugees for several months, I knew that would have to do this to find a decent character for documentary. We interviewed dozens of people, went through several agencies and organizations. Some granted us interviews only to vanish after. Some wanted to tell us about their agenda rather than about their story. And some really disliked the camera. Finally, a month and a half into the research process, we arrived at three main characters. It was an arduous, but ultimately rewarding experience. 

Then, after graduation, I entered the world of news. 

The Character vs. the Interviewee 

What happened there was that speed on superseded character. The nutgraf overruled the uniqueness of an individual shown on camera. They had to be representative of a greater story. 

Perhaps that was a newspaper approach to a video package. But it did a number on me. 

For many stories, it became about getting the right quote and finding the person with the appropriate background to match a hypothesis, to fit neatly into an idea. That works for a certain kind of video feature, a news-driven feature. 

On some level this has also crept into some first person narratives told by individuals representative of a larger trend or of a certain human experience.  

There is a lot of heart-tugging work out there in the multimedia-sphere. Master pieces in story crafting, beautifully executed pieces. But sometimes they fall flat of lending their characters a third dimension because they are representing an issue, a trend, a sad saga. 

But that runs the hazard of becoming formulaic. 

I did a lot of reporting trips while I was based in Hong Kong. Trips that lasted 5 or 10 days tops. My life in Asia consisted of a lot of news and very often representative interviewees. It became a straight-forward task to produce stories (though it always remained hard work). I knew my stories were solid, but I started feeling that something was lacking. 

And then -- after listening to the experiences of many documentary filmmakers around me -- it all came back to me. I remembered the Burmese refugees in New York, the hours of footage we wasted trying to find the right people, the effort and time put into that search and the difficulty we had trying to put together these stories. Real characters throw you curve balls; they can be cast as both villains and victims, and they will test your ability to weave together a complex set of facts to paint -- at best -- a Jackson-Pollock-like picture. 

Gosh. How I long for this agony!

Radio vs. Video

Working with some amazing radio reporters also reinforced in me one very crucial thing: most media, even radio, can travel into the past. Video can't. 

There's a lot of work out there and work I've done, that describes things that happened in the past. Or things that happen every day ("What do you do on a typical day?" I hear myself asking). 

"TV where nothing unravels in front of the camera is dead TV," a friend said recently. 

There's a lot of broll gathering in today's multimedia work. In other words, there's a lot of beautiful stuff out there. But there is little where things unravel. 

The best footage requires time, serendipity and trust from your character. It requires a bit of luck. It also requires lots of time for things to happen. On some level perhaps years (depending on how deep you want to be entrenched in something and how long it takes the story you're pursuing to come to its natural conclusion). And yes, add to that technical and aesthetic skill. 

(Re)discovering all this just made me so much more skeptical of my own work, which has been largely driven by news gathering. I will keep working in visual media, don't get me wrong. But it's changed my focus. I used to concentrate on what I realize now are mostly stylistic, methodological aspects of storytelling -- pacing a visually and orally told story, shooting for information and aesthetics, interspersing moments of reflections between anecdotes and action shots.

Now I want real people who do things in front of the camera over time. That'll mean fewer videos. But hopefully better ones, too. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Recent Work: Evan Twyford's Industrial Design for Outer Space

Something I reported back in December. Space is fun.