New Video: Montana Roadtrip in 1,062 Images

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

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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.)

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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)

I’m Featured on a Trip Films Blog Post

This week I was featured, along with several other TripFilms filmmakers, offering tips on exporting videos for use on the Trip Films web site. I really hope it helps someone dealing with the difficulties of video. I had weeks of problems getting videos up that didn’t weird lines when things were moving through the frame. Online forums were hopelessly opaque regarding “deinterlacing,” which turned out to be the majority of my problems.

Eventually, I learned the trick for Adobe Premiere Elements, which you can read about, along with tips from other filmmakers, here.

Harbor Fish Market Video – Portland Travel Videos – Tripfilms

Harbor Fish Market Video – Portland Travel Videos – Tripfilms.

I kneel down in the middle of a floor soaked in icy water, feeling the wetness seep into the fabric of my pants. The scent of fish hangs thick in the air. People around me make an effort not to pay attention to what I’m doing. I hit “record” and pan across the scene, following a woman named Patty as she packages lobsters up in brown paper bags. I stop recording and let the euphoric “I got the shot” feeling spread through me. It’s tempered by the fact that I don’t have time to replay the footage to be sure–and, of course, Patty has moved on to her other duties. I move into my next position to catch the next quick clip.  The location is Harbor Fish Market on Custom House Wharf in Portland, Maine, and this is my latest freelance gig: hometown video correspondent for tripfilms.com. For them, I’ll be shooting 10 1-minute films about Portland. I’m very excited to be working with these guys, since, in a very practical way, they put me on the path to living one of my long-forgotten dreams: Travel Show Host.
Not long ago, you had to be very cool, charismatic, and–most important–backed by a network to be a travel show host. For a while during the mid-90’s I would rush home to find out where Lonely Planet’s “Globe Trekkers” Ian and Justine were headed to next. I wanted to be one of these guys, jet-setting to exotic locals, meeting interesting people and eating cringe-worthy local delicacies.  Eventually, my interests moved on to things that don’t require a production crew and I lost touch with my yearning to take people out into the world from their livingrooms. Last winter, the bike/ski shop I work at opened a new location at a XC ski center. Embedded in the center’s web-page was an amateur video made by a film student about the trails. This use of video on a webpage reminded me of a statement I heard several times while attending the SATW (Society of American Travel Writers) Travel Writing/Photography Institute: because high bandwidth is becoming more common, video is THE THING to get into. I typed “travel, video” into a search engine and was deposited into TripFilms.com. I saw a bunch of people traveling, and creating travel videos. Though most didn’t have the polished feel of a “Travel Channel” production, they had every bit as much heart, were every bit as deep in the culture and appeared to have just as much fun. Plus, these filmmakers were fully independent! A few more clicks of the mouse led me to an extraordinary revelation. HD camcorders capable of creating decent quality video were less than a $1000! In less than 15 years, technology has completely altered the landscape. Since scraping together the money to buy my camera and software, I have signed on as an intern for Matador TV. Looking for “the best travel content on the web” led me to an overwhelming amount of awesome filmmakers from solo travelers looking into a camera at arm’s length to full-scale productions. I also found Web Series like “In Transit” and “Brainrotting” and “The Season.” These series showed me that a person can actually produce a TV show with multiple episodes themselves. People like David Adams and Peter Bragiel are stars. Now I’m a star, too–well, not yet. But I am living my travel host dream.

My story as Special Guest Editor of Mountain Bike Tales!

Here’s the link to my most recent story appearing in Mountain Bike Tales:

Farewell, Mountain: A riding Retrospective on Monture Trail, Montana

The story has roots in a ride I took with friends Aaron Teasdale and Rod Kramer a few years back on one of the trails most in danger of closure in the United States. With the current situation of Montana (and the greater US) trails getting more perilous, I wove it together with the recent Federal Court ruling closing trails in a WSA near Bozeman that threatens access everywhere. The story is an adventure of hope.

Transitions make the Heart Grow Fonder

I’ve been taking a lot of time off from writing on my blog.  A lot of time off from writing on my novel project.  A lot of time off from fiction in general.  I haven’t been taking a lot of time off.  While on a short leave from fiction, I’ve been writing articles for the Matador Network, working with New England Mountain Bike Association and most importantly, in a transitionary sense, shooting some video.

What’s a novelist with no kids doing shooting video?  Funny you should ask.  It brings me to an admission.  I don’t know what to do with my life.  Just when I think I have myself nailed down, I do something that defies my conventions.  I’ve done this plenty of times in the past, moving from fiction to travel writing (or photography) and back.  I’m convinced I like adventure and the grass always looks greener on the other side.  Well, I’ve strayed way to the other side this time.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a fan of documentaries.  You get to watch a true story unfold in front of you.  That love only compounded with the invention of The Travel Channel.  I would search the cable listings to find shows like The Lonely Planet series with Ian and Justine or The World’s Most Dangerous Places with Robert Young Pelton.  For an hour each afternoon I would be swept away to another world.  I was addicted to travel and Ian and Justine were my dealers.  (Pelton’s the kind of dealer that pushes you past the gateway drug into the more dangerous stuff…)  But what these guys were peddling was the free sample.  And for most viewers, that’s all they needed.  I, however, need the real stuff.  The stuff of adventure.

Enter my new HD camcorder.  Armed with a new way to see and show the world around me, I’m hoping it will be the catalyst of a more significant change in my life.  A change that will take me out into the world, rather than just watching it from the sidelines.  I already have a few projects in mind and you can read about them here:  Life’s Fast

I’ll still be writing fiction, but my tiny amount of free-time will be divided between passions (as it always has been.)  In the end, I hope that this transition makes me a better, more dynamic writer of fiction with a fresh passion that only a little distance can provide.