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For the Love of the Arts

It's been about two years since I last sat down to write a post. Yikes. You'll have to forgive any clumsy writing that comes from my fingers stumbling around the keyboard like trying to walk on tingly legs that have fallen asleep.

The inspiration for this post is the recent completion of a four part video series for the newly formed School of the Arts at the University of Vermont. I have yet to complete a project without amassing a list of lessons learned and ideas for improvement in the future -- this one was no exception. I want to share the behind-the-scenes process on this series that I took from concept to creation to completion and in doing so help myself internalize some of those lessons through reflection.

In some ways, the brainstorming for this project started three years ago before I started working at the university. The idea came to mind to create a series as a passion project that would be titled The Maker Series. The concept: to feature those who pursue hand-made crafts through a blend of music, captivating visuals, and narration from the subject and have them articulate their process and love for the craft in a world that is becoming increasingly automated. Subjects I had identified in my mind were people like a local furniture maker, a landscaper/gardener, a painter, etc.

I've carried that idea around with me letting it comfortably bounce around and have its shiny new-idea edges be worn down to a refined weathered look like a wallet that's walked many miles in a faded jeans pocket. When the formation of the School of the Arts created a need for new digital material to market the arts education at UVM, it seemed like the right opportunity to pull that idea out of the back pocket. After pitching the concept and a few meetings with faculty and staff that would be involved, the project had a small budget for gear rental, a plan, a group of four students to work with, and a green light.

Step one for me was to get to know these students and their stories. We had Tyler, a studio arts major with a concentration in photography. Javi, an individually designed major named music business that allowed him to blend an interest in business and music production. Natalie, a double major in biomedical engineering and dance. And Bruno, a jazz studies major. Cameras and lights make for an intimidating setting to get to know someone, so I didn't want to start there. I scheduled one-on-one conversations with each of them at a cafe on campus to just ask questions, take notes, and chat.

These conversations were also an attempt at problem solving for a larger question I've come up against a number of times: how do you get concise, well-spoken lines from an interview subject in a docu-style project? Every time I watch feature docs, I'm always struck by the language the director is able to get interview subjects to deliver on camera -- responses that are impactful and articulate while still feeling authentic and candid. Are we seeing take number twenty of the same question where the response was finessed over and over with each take? Is it scripted? Are they just working with individuals who are used to being in front of a camera?

My limited experience says it's some combination of option one and option three. But for this project, I knew I wouldn't have hours to work with someone one-on-one to buff jumbled answers into to polished responses. And I knew I wasn't going to be working with students that were seasoned pro's at delivering on-camera responses. My idea was to try a new hybrid method: I would record our candid conversation, take notes on that recording, and use as much of their verbatim words as possible to condense a hour-long conversation into the approximately one minute of scripted voice-over dialogue I needed for the video. We would then record that dialogue in a sound room with no camera footage where I could play around with types of delivery of each line. I'm jumping a few steps ahead though...

The conversations were fantastic, and it was so cool to hear four individual stories of how each student came to find their place in the arts and what that education has done -- and is currently doing -- to their college experience. Those recorded conversations turned into rough transcriptions built on as many word for word quotes as I could while paraphrasing the rest of the background information. When it came time to transpose pages of notes and quotes into a refined script, I ran into another dilemma: In whose voice do I write this? I wasn't sure where the appropriate line was between writing out words in standard sentence structure and wording versus trying to approximate the slang, cadence, and expressions that make up the unique voice of each student. Did I need to be that prescriptive? Or could I aim to write as simply as possible and allow them to freedom to change words as they see fit and infuse their own voice into it? After seeking some guidance from a colleague, Josh Brown, who is a phenomenal writer (check out a recent story he wrote on the idea of assisted tree migration) I opted for the latter. Josh pointed out that very minimalist writing could allow for more emphasis to be placed on the visuals; show, don't tell.

I think I naively began with the expectation that all four of these videos along with each other in unison. All the conversations would be recorded; all the scripts would be written; all the storyboards would be made; all the shoots would be completed, etc. That didn't pan out. The concept for Natalie's video came to mind almost from the get-go -- split screen action that would visually show the equal importance of her diverse interests. Tyler's script practically wrote itself from our conversation, and the visuals were ninety percent storyboarded in a random stroke of creative inspiration walking the 100 feet from my car to the front door of my apartment one night. Javi's and Bruno remained more elusive and frankly didn't really start to click for me until I got into the edit.

So is the nature of the creative process, I suppose.

Two important lessons were reinforced in this storyboarding and development process. The first: visually planning pays off. I've learned it's not enough to just ponder for a few minutes and think "Sure, so we'll see some shots leading into a building, and then there will be some moments of someone doing something, and then etc. etc." Rather, it pays to really sit with the material and map out sequences of shots in as close to real-time as possible in your head. But counter to that point, lesson number two is to allow for adaptations to that plan in the moment of shooting. Things always pop up that you can't expect: a location is different then you're expecting, the person you are filming does something you weren't expecting, the list goes on. It's a constant battle for me to not give into the stress of being in the moment of a shoot and to stop, process what's actually happening in front of me, and respond to that accordingly.

Nine shoots ended up being completed in total:

  • Tyler's house where he was shooting a personal project

  • The film studio at UVM where Tyler was developing his work

  • Natalie working in a classroom on her biomedical engineering work

  • The dance studio at UVM where Natalie was practicing and performing

  • Bruno practicing bass in the music studio at UVM

  • A performance by the band Bruno is in at a local brewery

  • Javi producing music in the UVM studio

  • Javi working with a local artist at his personal studio in downtown Burlington

  • Tyler showcasing his work in a gallery at UVM

With the shoots completed and all the raw materials in hand, the project shifted into the editing phase. I've developed a real love-hate relationship with editing. Sitting for hours in front of a computer is never my idea of fun. Tediously finessing the transition between clips by a few frames, managing folders and folders of files, scrubbing through gigs of footage... particularly if it's a beautiful Vermont summer day out? No thanks.

But on the other hand, I know editing my own work has made helped me improve significantly as a shooter -- you have no-one to blame but yourself when you get into an edit and are left thinking "ah, if only this shot had panned with the action instead of staying static!"

And it is absolutely where the reward for filmmaking comes from. Into this electronic box goes all these raw components (footage, audio, motion graphics, ideas, vision, frustration, etc) and exported out is a final product that has blended together the raw materials into a single file that plays seamlessly together and can **hopefully** evoke emotion and some type of response from viewers. So, down the editing rabbit hole I went.

This project was a chance to really focus on the color grading process -- a new skill that I have been diving into over the past few months. Color grading is the process of adding in and refining the final color you see in a video. Often times, to get the most out of a video file, footage is shot in what's called log format. The image that you see directly out of camera is very flat, desaturated, no contrast... it looks nothing like what your eye saw or what the final product will look like. But packed inside that flat, desaturated image is an immense amount of data that can be pushed, pulled, and resuscitated back to life in the edit. Below is a sequence of the grading process for a shot from Javi's shoot in his homemade studio. Top left is the out of camera image, bottom right is the final shot in the video. As I came to learn, small changes is the name of the game.

But as I also learned, garbage in is garbage out. Or, to quote Spiderman, "With great power comes great responsibility." You can have all the editing power in the world (which in an expert's hands can certainly save a lot of footage), but problems you bake into the footage while filming will be problems you have to deal with in the color grade -- it's not a one one-click magical cure-all process. In the case of one of Natalie's shoots, I did not pay close enough attention to my white balance while shooting -- nor did I have a color checker or grey card from which to set the white balance in the edit. So the transformation you see below is a sequence of the original footage (looks normal enough) being put into a normal Rec.709 color space (this is when I realized I messed up...) and then being finessed back to some semblance of how I wanted it to look.

For some more side by side comparisons...

An ungraded shot of Natalie in the studio. All editing nodes on the right are turned off.

Same shot with the final color grade applied. Still lots to learn about how to properly construct node trees!

After many hours of learning pains, occasional (alright... frequent) frustration, and a growing list of bin names like "Natalie Grade 1", "Natalie Grade 2", "Natalie Grade Final", "Natalie Grade Final FINAL", all four projects were brought from a collection of raw parts through the final color grade and exported out as a final cohesive series. I remember the first time I watched all four final videos back to back being struck by how different each one is from its counterparts. I think I unintentionally got lost in the edit of each one to the point of being a bit numb to the individual style and tone each story developed. But that checks out -- to me, at least. These videos are tied together in their format and creative elements (the narrative component, the ties to the UVM arts, the overall pacing and structure, etc). But they are different in the feeling and tone of each video just as each student is different in their personalities, artistic pursuits, and identity. In retrospect, I think to have not created videos that felt different from one another would have been a massive disservice to the greater intent of this project which was to show how all these different artistic voices and experiences have a home in the School of the Arts at UVM.

You stuck with the post this far -- bravo! I appreciate you taking the time to read through the process that went into this project. Without further adieu, I invite you to check out the series and hear from Natalie, Tyler, Javi, and Bruno directly. They are all incredibly talented artists in their own right with great stories to share. Links for each video are below! Lastly, this project was not created in a vacuum. I mentioned my colleague Josh Brown above; production support, many brainstorming sessions, and editing critiques were also provided by UVM Studios Art Director Cody Silfies, UVM Studios Creative Director Barb Walls, UVM College of Arts and Sciences Strategic Communications Manager Su Reid-St. John, and UVM student Gaelen Kilburn. As I am continuously reminded, the beauty of filmmaking truly lies in the collaboration.






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