Finding Inspiration on the Road to (and from) the Wild and Scenic Film Fest

I TRY TO SPEND as much time on the road as possible, whether it’s going across the state to see family, or crossing state lines on an epic trek. There are a lot of reasons I’m attracted to long-distance travel. One of the best is that no matter what I might be worrying about, there’s nothing I can do about it while driving. This allows me to let go of a lot of stresses that I carry with me. It’s the letting go of the everyday that allows stories to come to me.

I’ve been toying with the idea of posting ideas that hit me on the road on my twitter feed with some kind of an #dailyidea hashtag. That didn’t happen when I went to the Wild and Scenic Film Festival last week, but I did want to share some of the places that served as inspiration while I was off gallivanting.

1. Nevada

On the road through Nevada. This is the first time I've been on this road. Who knew Nevada was so beautiful?

On the road through Nevada. This is the first time I’ve been on this road. Who knew Nevada was so beautiful?

I’d never been on this highway before. Long and wide-open, Nevada has a sense of the Old West that competes with Montana’s. The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was held in Elko a few days after I passed through. I’m already working on a screenplay set in the old west (kind of a departure for me), but I found myself thinking about famous cowboys and outlaws while driving through this wild landscape. As the dry landscape rolled by, my brain began constructing a bio-pic about Doc Holiday, the sickly dentist who fought along-side the Earp brothers at the OK Corral.

2. South Yuba River, Nevada City, California

I did get out to explore the South Yuba River on a trail that reminds me of an enchanted fantasy tale.

I did get out to explore the South Yuba River on a trail that reminds me of an enchanted fantasy tale.

I’m not sure who could walk this trail along the South Yuba River, and not be transported to another world. Soft ground beneath the feet muffle footfalls into silence. Trees seem to bend in overhead making a magical corridor. Then the trees part to reveal an almost other-worldly green river. This “enchanted” place inspired the film festival that I’m here to be a part of. Almost any magical story could be set here.

And, yes, the South Yuba River really does really look like this.

And, yes, the South Yuba River really does really look like this.

3. Ocean Park Motel, San Francisco, California

San Francisco's first Motel. Imagine what kind of stories could come out of this place.

San Francisco’s first Motel. Imagine what kind of stories could come out of this place.

I hadn’t intended on continuing all the way to the coast when I started out on this trip, but that’s the great thing about travel: Sometimes you just end up places. And this Motel (San Francisco’s 1st) is a destination all its own. Ocean Park opened in 1937, and has been no stranger to drama over the years. According to the newspaper article reprinted by the motel, “In its early years the Ocean Park attracted the ‘hot sheets’ trade…” aka “trysting lovers”. I’m sure that each room could tell true stories that would make any plot I came up with seem bland. But that didn’t stop me from imagining a noir detective uncovering an insidious plot hatched in room #7 (or, perhaps, being uncovered by a gorgeous femme fatale.)

Stalking the Summit of Mt. Rainier

My good friend Jeff Handlin and his brother Scott just fulfilled a dream by attempting to summit Mount Rainier. “We found out there is no such thing as conquering a mountain; it can flick one off like a piece of lint anytime it feels like it,” Jeff said in an email to me. “But if one perseveres respectfully, it may deem worthiness and grant passage for a short time.”

Jeff and Scott battled steep slopes, crevasses and 50mph winds to earn their summit view at 7:30am Wednesday, June 15th.

“We agreed this was pretty much one of the hardest things we’ve ever done,” Jeff wrote, “but we were treated to one of the most grueling and rewarding experiences of our lives.”

Here are a few of Jeff’s photos from the climb.

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At Muir Camp. Photo by Jeff Handlin

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On Disappointment Cleaver Route. Photo by Jeff Handlin

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Worth the Effort. Photo by Jeff Handlin

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A New Day on Rainier. Photo by Jeff Handlin

Congratulations, guys!

JC’s Special Sauce (Arteries of America)

Real travel is when you put yourself in a position where the unexpected happens. Which is something I sometimes do accidentally.

While driving around Dallas with the cast of “Paulie & Me” and Donna, our awesome Keller-Williams real estate agent guiding us through potential sites for a brewery, we happen by a restaurant called Sol Irelandes. The restaurant’s host runs outside to say hello to our guide and ask if she’s coming in for a bite. We look at each-other and silently agree. What the hell, it’s lunch time and the scent of chipotle wafting from the little Irish-Mexican restaurant is making my stomach ache for something with a little kick.

Click HERE for the rest of the story.

Paulie and Me

“Join Paulie and Loren, long-time friends and hilarious duo, as they embark on a journey to build a microbrewery. Together, they hit the road to meet America’s top beer gurus, and learn what it takes to craft unique beers.” This is the tag line of a new TV show I’ve been working on for the last few months. The show is currently “in-development” (what TV-land calls a show before it has anything to show). Today I head to Dallas to film something to show the rest of the world and begin the process turning “in-development” into “in-production.”

This might be a great place to throw in some background on the show. “Paulie & Me” is what’s called a “Follow-doc” reality show, meaning the camera crew is going to follow these two friends as they work on building their brewery. This is something I happen to have a little knowledge of, having written articles on beer and breweries. In fact, that’s how I came to be part of the show. After Loren and Paul read my Matador Network article on breweries around the US, they contacted me to act as their on-camera brewery expert. Obviously, I’m not an expert on the building of the brewery, I more closely resemble an expert on breweries around the country. Why have a breweries expert? Two words: Road Trip.

That’s right, these guys, who don’t know anything about building a brewery, but love beer and want to craft it, are going to hit the road to see how breweries really do their magic.

This first shoot is to get some footage for the website, but when it’s done, it should show this friendship of opposites in its natural (and funny) habitat. These guys have been compared to “The Odd Couple” being polar opposites, Paulie being loud, unkempt and perpetually late, and Loren being routine-oriented and quiet. I don’t know how they’ve been friends for twenty years, but I guess it works for them. What it means for me is that, no matter how much Loren (or any of us) plan the day’s events, it will almost certainly derail without warning.

New Video: Montana Roadtrip in 1,062 Images

Pompey’s Pillar to St. Mary’s Peak – 1062 Images in Two Minutes

Watch video

This short film takes us on a hard-charging road-trip through 847 miles of Montana’s backroads from Pomey’s Pillar, east of Billings, through Yellowstone National Park and ending at the lookout tower at the top ofSt. Marys Peak just south of Missoula.

I grew up in Montana and have lived in one part of the state or another for most of my life. The distances are so vast that people I meet back east can’t really comprehend it. They would say, “You would drive five hours each way FOR A WEEKEND?!” when I told them about quick trips home to visit my parents. It’s those same distances that make life in the drivers’ seat almost inevitable. I cherished sitting back, putting some music on and letting whatever stories I happened to be working on at the time bounce around in my head. The mountains and rolling prairie often produced bolts of inspiration…

(Read the rest of the post HERE.)

Top Lessons Learned as Trip Films Video Correspondent – Part 1

Anyone following this blog has watched as I’ve been working with Trip Films to record some of the best sights, sounds and experiences a traveler is likely to encounter while in my current home base of Portland, Maine. Recently, I completed the project, posting my 13th video in the series.

You can peruse those videos here.

Lesson 1: Learning the Dynamic Nature of Video

Every new project is a learning experience, and my work as the Hometown Video Correspondent for Portland was no exception. While I’ve been a travel photographer for years, when I started this project I had only used my new video-camera a handful of times. I had edited a total of two videos. When I applied with Trip Films, I thought, I’ve been shooting for years, how different could it be?

The answer is more complicated than I’d realized.

I quickly found out that video is far more forgiving than shooting still photos. (I can already hear all the cinematographers cringing.) Just because it’s forgiving, doesn’t mean it’s easy.

What makes video forgiving…

First of all, after shooting adventure sports, where you have to hit the shutter at exactly the right moment to capture the dynamic action, shooting video feels like cheating. I can just compose the shot and hit the trigger. I can get everything, then go back and edit down to exactly what I need later. If that isn’t awesome enough, in Maine’s perpetually low-light, I have to employ tricky lighting to my still photography to minimize blur. Blur is part of the action in video. And the kicker is that I have a built-in model! No more trying to compare schedules with my friends–I can shoot video of myself. I just set up my tripod, frame my shot, then climb or ride my bike past as I did in the Tumbledown Mountain and Bradbury Mountain Biking videos. Magic!

…does not make it easy.

There’s got to be a down-side, right? Yeah, bring on the learning curve.

My biggest frustrations came from the thing that separates video from still images: movement. Sure, I can just blaze away at moving objects like Stalone in Rambo and still capture a dynamic moment, but I also captured a lot movement that I didn’t want.

During the series I found myself in a lot of fast and loose situations where I wanted to keep my camera in hand and ready. With a still camera, if you have enough light, you can hand hold it. Not so with video. I quickly learned that a tripod is a must. Shots that looked solid on the LCD looked like a wino in rehab on the screen. Trying to piece together footage like that caused hours of frustration in editing. Some shots that I really liked had to be tossed. Of course, there were a lot of times I wanted to pan a shot in ways my tripod would resist. The shaky footage that results is an irritating fact of life in those situations, and I would shoot several takes to maximize the possibility that I’d get something usable.

Getting comfortable with the joy of movement took a lot longer than I’d expected. Panning across a scene or zooming in or out to emphasize a small detail within a larger scene led to much frustration in the editing process. While I love the effect of these techniques, I had a lot of trouble gauging the speed at which to operate. Too fast and the scene looks rushed and the details are blurred beyond recognition. Too slow and the scene drags on for what feels like an eternity. The middle ground wasn’t always easy to judge on location. There are two solutions. One: shoot every conceivable speed pan or zoom, and spend a lot of extra time editing footage. Two: always try to keep in mind the amount of time you’re trying to fill, plan where the shot is going to be in the finished film and shoot accordingly. I must admit, I adhere to a combination of the two, trying to keep in mind what I think I’m going to want, then shooting a couple different speeds, just in case.

The easiest-to-remedy problem I had was with the differences between my personal style and the limitations of my camera. As a still photographer I like to get as much of the scene in the frame as possible, employing some super-wide-angle lenses to do so. My camcorder, like most video cameras on the market today, was built to satisfy the advertising hype of mega-zoom capabilities at the expense of a good wide-angle. I solved this problem in two ways. First, and most inexpensively, I changed my style. I started to use the longer focal-length more often. The result was that I composed very different shots than I normally do with a still camera. Solving these new visual problems pushed me out of a rut I’d been in. Now, when I pick up my still camera, I find myself switching lenses a lot more often than I used to and using the full range of focal lengths available. A very good thing. As much as I like pushing my personal style, however, having the right tools for every situation is important to me. I scraped together the money for a wide-angle converter. These are screw-on lenses that change the focal length of the lens. Most cameras will accept one and it really opens up the options you have with your camera.

Here are a few things I use to help me get the best footage:

-I use a tripod, even if it’s just attached to the bottom and acting as an extra grip (like a steady-cam) for panning. Eventually, l’ll also be getting a good ball-head for the tripod giving me the freedom to pan whatever direction I need to.

-If I absolutely can’t use a tripod, I use as much of my own body for stability as possible. I pull my elbows tight against my torso or if I’m kneeling, I rest the camera against my knee. I also hold my breath while I shoot, which is a technique learned from shooting stills.

-I get as many shots as I can: if I pan left, then I pan right. Also, I try not to get stuck doing the same type of shot all the time. I like to mix it up.-I’m working to understand the camera. I’d shot a half-dozen videos before I realized my camera was capable of doing some of the cool effects I saw in other, more “professional,” videos. Which brings me to…

-I watch as many videos as I can. Inspiration can come from anywhere: Trip Films, Matador TV, movies and even TV commercials. I saw the filming of a TV commercial where the camera operator panned from an object at eye level to a sign high overhead. It looked weird in real life, but in the finished product, it looked great. See how others compose their shots and how they handle movement. Watch videos, get ideas and get stoked!

And finally…

-I’m always trying to push the limits. Often I’ll get the standard shot, then I’ll experiment. Try new things. I’m not afraid to copy techniques I see others do, then try to invent some of my own. Data is cheap. You can always dump it in editing.

More Video Tips

More Posts in this series:

Sound Off! Quality Audio is Essential for Good Video (coming soon)

Talk to Everyone Getting Out of the Shell and Giving Travel Videos That Personal Feel (coming soon)

Everyone’s a Character-Even Me Travel Video Hosting (coming soon)

Story is Key Notes on Story Arc (coming soon)