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Making of a documentary short

Friday, June 30th, 2017 | Tags: , , , , , , ,

My short documentary video, Farm Time, premiered in June of 2017 at the New Haven Documentary Film Festival. Being juried into a film festival tells me that a given video is in fact good, since succeeds in the eyes of others who get paid to look at lots of films. I am often asked what is the process that I undertake as I make the kind of short documentary videos that I like to make (and that I appear to be good at if you believe the numerous film festivals which have selected my work for screening.) With the idea of explaining the process, I offer this blog entry.

Some of this blog entry, about my short documentary movie, Farm Time at https://vimeo.com/216434196, was included in the article about me and the film, written by David Schonauer in Motion Arts Pro, at https://www.ai-ap.com/publications/article/21639/spotlight-farm-time-in-rhode-island-by-david-w.html

This particular video started as an assignment for one of my favorite clients, the printed and web-site versions of EdibleRhody. My editor said she had a really “good one” for me. She suspected that it might end up being a “bigger project” than just the short three to five minute video that she normally wants from me. One of the many great things about this kind of client is that since they only publish quarterly, most assignments are done with a one year lead time, giving me plenty of time to “do it right.” 

I did a total of five shoots. Most were two hours or less. I mention that because though I had a year to do the project, in order to make a living, I need to use my time wisely and efficiently. I did one shoot each in June, July, October and December of 2015. Those were followed by the one shoot in the snow in January of 2016. The final shoot, when I did the interviews, was in March of 2016.  I prefer to do the interviews last so the people I am working with are comfortable with me. By the end of the project I will have seen what it is they do, so I can prepare intelligent questions for the interview. During the first shoot and especially during the interviews, I worked closely with Mae Gammino, who is my partner in the small video production company we run, http://www.broadrockfilms.com. 

The sound was recorded with Sennheiser microphones. I used a Lavalier microphone set for the interviews and a shotgun microphone for the ambient sound. I edited the whole video in Final Cut Pro X. 

The last shoot was in January of 2016 and it was edited in March/April of 2016. I like to do a rough cut and share it with a few friends to get some feedback. Then I take some time away from a project the revisit the editing process with the friend’s feedback in hand. Being away from the piece for a couple weeksI also gives me something of “new set of eyes” with which I look at the video.

With that feedback in hand and a few reviews and revisions of the project, I made the final eleven minute version, which is the version that won the film festival award. Based on the input from EdibleRhody’s editor, I also made a shorter, four and half minute version. The shorter video was posted on the web (and the still images I made at the same time were printed in the magazine) in the Summer 2016 issue of EdibleRhody. Like most projects these days, it was a shoot that required both still and video content. While some people have issues with shooting in both media, I don’t, as long as I have plenty of time. Since I had a year to complete the project, I was happy to work in both media.

As always, I used Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses for the project (mostly OMD EM5 MK2 cameras. ) That particular camera has an audio in plug in the camera body and an optional add-on handgrip with an audio out plug. The first enables me to send the good audio from my various microphones to the camera directly and have that all nicely synched with the video. The audio out port enables me to listen in on the audio to make sure I am getting the sound that I need. 

The time lapse animations featured in the opening and closing sections of the video were made over the four seasons with a compact camera on a tripod in roughly the same spot. I used an Olympus Tough camera atop a D.I.Y.  360 degree camera rotator (also known as an IKEA egg timer with a tripod screw on top and a quick release plate on the bottom – both epoxied in place.) That camera is just like a GoPro so it weighs very little. Read more about the camera rotator I made myself and I used for this shoot at: http://www.getawaymoments.com/2011/07/how-to-make-cheap-and-easy-ikea-time.html

There was a tree stump on the farm, that I used as a landmark in terms of where to place the tripod during the four different shoots so the four different seasonal videos aligned in the final video.  (They were close but it took some work in Final Cut Pro to get them to align and I am still not 100% happy with the alignment.)

Finding the stump in the snow was not easy. The best thing about the “egg timer” rotator was that I would set it up atop the tripod, wind it up and then go shoot. I would come back to it an hour later and I had my “shot.” If you watch closely in the winter section near the end of the video, you will see me in the video. 

Most of the shoots were on the farm in Johnston, Rhode Island, which is 15 minutes drive West of the state’s capital city, Providence (where I live.). The one brief shoot at the Farmer’s Market was in Providence.  

All the skills that I have practiced doing photo-essays (in still images over the last thirty plus years) came into play on this project. Working with people, developing trust, teasing out a story line, using my shooting time efficiently, composing beautiful frames, etc.  Then you throw in sound, which is both a challenge and an opportunity.  The format of this video, a ten to twenty minute documentary short video plays to my strengths.  It allows me to lay out an idea/story in a way not possible in the typical three to five minute short. I am looking forward to doing more of these for clients in the future. 

I am learning to really love video as a format for visual storytelling.  It incorporates visuals (of course) with the addition of sound and motion. When they figure out how to add smell and touch, it will be a complete sensory encompassing storytelling technology. Ironically, I tried to work in video in college, decades ago, but back then it was using video tape and the technology I had access to was B & W only. Plus editing that kind of video was a huge pain. So I never returned to video, until the DSLR video revolution came along and with it, a rapid drop in the price of the technology and and explosion in the ease of use. 

In making the video, I learned a lot about small scale farming, the whole farm-to-table world, etc.  The two subjects, Matt and Catharine are passionate about what they do and (I like to think) that comes across in the video.  After the video was posted /published by EdibleRhody, I started sending it out to film festivals. NHDocs (New Haven Documentary Film Festival) was one of my “target” festival, so I was thrilled to be juried into the festival. 

I will continue sending it out to film festivals and sharing it with peers and with clients-to-be. I hope you liked the video and I would appreciate sharing the link to it with friends, peers, family, etc. https://vimeo.com/216434196

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