FIRST Robotics 2011

The FIRST Robotics competition is a unique event.  Founded 20 years ago by Dean Kamen and Dr. Woodie Flowers, it has the goal of making the process of learning Math and Science cool by creating yearly challenges centered around a competition schedule and a unique culture of personal development and character.  This last weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the FIRST Championships, and this marks my  9th year of traveling to some enormous dome somewhere and following thousands of kids around while I make a quick video project.  Last year we really raised the bar with our shooting style by bringing in DSLRs and having a variety of lenses and I wanted to embrace Shane Hurlbut’s perspective of finding new ways to use the camera, different rigging, etc.  Last year came out well and I was pretty pleased with it, its been received well by other clients and has gotten me work with some of my new biggest accounts to date.

Going into this year, we were headed to a new venue and I had several new things being thrown at myself and my other cameraperson.  First off, this project operates under an incredibly tight deadline, we have three days to shoot pretty much everything that moves, transcode it and edit it in such a way that we capture the attention of 28,000 high school students who have just finished three days of robotic competition, sleep deprivation, a concert, confetti canons and who knows what else in addition.  That may sound like a small task, but it isn’t.  Additionally, we had to shoot a Black Eyed Peas concert and provide video wallpaper to use at the event for both the concert and other programs.

If that isn’t enough to balance in, we’ve been working with White Dwarf Productions on promos for FIRST Robotics this year by providing terabytes of footage over the last three years to create some videos featuring Morgan Freeman in which the lion share of the footage comes from my footage of past events.  You see, the little wrap video we do each year, which nearly kills me, is almost secondary to providing footage for FIRST’s marketing efforts for the rest of the year.  This means we shoot differently, we shoot a lot more than we need too, and this adds more stress to the post-production timeline.

I got to get away this year and get across the river from the St. Louis Arch with my gear and a MicroDolly to shoot some opening and closing shots.  I really enjoyed doing this and I stayed longer than I wanted to, but I kept playing with the light as it changed and eventually had to get myself to stop. It was the only time during the event where I only had to think about the shot, the rest of the time I had to be aware of what competitions where happening where, where Will.I.Am was, when did Morgan Freeman get there, when did the lego competition end, how far along in my edit am I, how much more transcoding is left? It was pretty freeing to be alone on top of a 70 foot platform and just getting to play. Im pretty pleased with these shots, but they by no means do anything but bookend the piece.  No matter how good the shot is,or how much you like it, I only have three to four minutes to tell a story, which is not a lot of time.

I even had to destroy a hour’s worth of Black Eyed Peas footage, and there are some shots in there that we some of the best I’ve done from a documentary perspective. That was hard.

I could go on about the mixed lighting conditions, about using the dolly in the middle of the competition, about my own sleep deprivation, the bad coffee, the worse food – but in the end, I hope you see what I see every year – our future.  These students will be at the core of nearly every major innovation for decades, they are inspired and they will be employed doing something that they have a love for, which is something I am lucky enough to do as well.  

I get to go do something I love everyday, even when Im exhausted, and for that I am thankful.

Check it out if you have the time.

How to Steal like an Artist?

Thanks to Nino Leitner for tweeting this link about learning how to create and learn to find your voice.  For me that seems to be a never ending journey.

The post How to steal like an Artist is great, in it Austin Kleon talks about how you need to saturate yourself with everything that fascinates you and use it to make something that in turn you like.  His thoughts stem from what seems to be his basic principle: “Creativity is subtraction” among other ideas.  Basically you are the remix, and you are your art.  I highly recommend taking a look at it.

Oddly, I just read something about subtraction in David Mamet‘s book On Directing Film. In it, he in turns quotes Hemingway: “Write the Story, take out the good lines, and see if it still works.”

He goes on later in the next few pages to talk about how you tell a story and what to leave out to ensure the narrative moves forward, to illustrate this he quotes Sergei Eisenstein – that narrative should be “a succession of images juxtaposed so that the contrast between these images moves the story forward in the mind of the audience.”  In other words “Portmanteau“.

Confused?  This just all reminds me of a book I read by Steve Martin.

Stolen from Steve Martin‘s book Pure Drivel

From Chapter 2: Writing is easy.

Writer’s Block: A Myth

Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol. Sure a writer can get stuck for a while, but when that happens to real authors, they simply go out and get an “as told to.” The alternative is to hire yourself out as an “as heard from,” thus taking all the credit. It is also much easier to write when you have someone to “bounce” with. This is someone to sit in a room with and exchange ideas. It is good if the last name of the person you choose to bounce with is Salinger. I know a certain early-twentieth-century French writer, whose initials were M.P., who could have used a good bounce person. If he had, his title might have been the more correct “Remembering Past Things” instead of the clumsy one he used. The other trick I use when I have a momentary stoppage is virtually foolproof, and I’m happy to pass it along. Go to an already published novel and find a sentence you absolutely adore. Copy it down in your manuscript. Usually that sentence will lead you naturally to another sentence; pretty soon your own ideas will start to flow. If they don’t, copy down the next sentence. You can safely use up to three sentences of someone else’s work–unless they’re friends; then you can use two. The odds of being found out are very slim, and even if you are, there’s no jail time.


Buying Gear responsibly in the DSLR age.

It used to be that the cost and product lifecycle of equipment forced an independent filmmaker to think carefully about what they purchased and what they rented.  The purchased equipment usually lasted 10 years, maybe more.

With the HDSLR revolution (and before that the DV revolution coupled with the Final Cut Pro Revolution) the world is now full of people who can buy affordable gear regardless of whether they actually have the need to support the purchase.  The line between hobbyists, professional media-makers and independent filmmakers start to blur at a certain level.  Many of these people never see the upper level of production in a large scale commercial, films or television production and experience the division of labor, equipment rental, or the creative and economic dynamic of selecting the right tool for the job based on many factors beyond the picture that a camera can generate.

This sudden democratization of equipment is fabulous in many ways, it gives a creative voice to people who normally wouldn’t have it, it allows greater flexibility in choosing your workflow and provides even greater visual aesthetic choices for nearly any budget.  It is, yet again, an amazing time to be in this industry.

There are many reasons to temper equipment purchases, most restrictions come from budget, workflow, availability and knowing how to run a business properly, but I will most likely address that later.

We owe it to our selves to consider many connections that we as filmmakers should embrace. Two such connections we all should take into consideration is our overall impact on the planet and our relationship to our craft.

The equipment manufacturing industry is rushing to fill the massive sucking sound created by the myriad human beings buying cameras, lenses, tripods, batteries, sliders, jibs, shoulder rigs and any other gizmo that can be created now in our global marketplace.  Stop for a moment and forget whether you can buy something, but should you?   All that plastic, all that extruded aluminum, all that inexpensive stuff that is allowing us to have every single piece of gear in every single backpack and closet, just in case we need it, is taking away from something else that can be made.  We can buy things impulsively now for our industry that before required a business plan to purchase and that puts a stress on available materials for manufacturing everywhere and it can have an unexpected outcome  –  this can create behavior that keeps us alone and acting like Starlings hoarding shiny objects in our nests.

We all must re-learn to have a reverence for resources, both material and relational, we can often become too insular in our workflow and learning process.  Sure, you can learn how to do something online, buy it and have it shipped cheaply overnight, but can you find that resource locally?

Can you borrow or rent gear or hire another person to provide a service in the act of making your vision?

Doing so allows us to use the most important resource available to a filmmaker.  Do you know what it is?

It’s collaboration.

Second to your brain, working together is the single most valuable tool in anyone’s toolbox, and often it can be the most cost-effective.

More importantly it can take into consideration our connections to others and our planet.

Buy less gear, share more ideas, and solve more problems with what you have.  Gaining the experience is worth it.

FIRST Robotics – a 20 year evolution and still a mystery

One of my “First” projects when I started out was shooting video for the FIRST robotics competition.  Since then I have shot footage for that event for over 8 years or more – (its starting to haze over how long ago it was) and I am always inspired by the work and message of this fantastic organization.  One of the goals I have in my professional life is to work on projects that I have interest in.  This program and STEM(or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is one of them.  Year in and year out I am renewed by the energy that I see when I attend these events and I am always impressed by the passion of the student, the parents, the mentors and the celebrities that make up this event.

I have always shot more footage than we can use in the short piece that I am contracted to produce during the event.  We shoot a lot and the time is short to create my edit, so not everything makes it in our quick cut.   Finally the footage I shoot is actually getting used for some very constructive work.

Paul Lazarus at WhiteDwarf Productions is in the midst of creating a new campaign for FIRST Robotics that is trying to inspire new students to join and engage in this event.  You can see one of the videos with Morgan Freeman here.

His project is attempting to convert the unconverted, which is a difficult task for anyone, even an episodic Television Director.  More often social media, documentary or even corporate work fails to speak to anyone except their own band of converted people – they are “preaching to the choir” to use a worn cliche.  This is an epic failure, but happens 90% of the time in media.

All projects intend to speak to the “un-choir” or uninitiated, but often are unable to get outside of their own perspective.   This is difficult and I find most documentarians and corporations really struggle with a clarity of purpose when crafting a message.  I struggle with it – especially when talking about myself and what I do – but I tend to grasp my clients issues easily.  This is true for many people, its always clearer to see someone else’s position rather than your own.

I routinely see this in feature length documentaries, the creators get too close to the subject and loose perspective.  The documentaries are difficult to watch for all except the few who already know the issue, or desperately want to know more.  This does not further their cause, but instead alienates many who could otherwise learn something new.

It’s also boring as hell.

Balancing both audiences – both the Choir and the Un-Choir – requires a good bit of work and an intimate knowledge of your subject as well as a distance from that subject.

I think Paul’s attempt here is a very good effort, and not because I shot most of it.  He removes the jargon that has become both the trademark and the internal language of the program and puts it in simpler terms.  He uses energy and well thought out terms to help people make connections quickly.   By letting the brain take it in and smoothing the way by some great visuals, as well as Morgan Freeman’s iconic voice, he gets people most of the way there without beating them with a concept.

Having the willingness to let your message sit out without extra information is counter-intuitive to many.   But leaving questions unanswered creates a mystery; hopefully one that your viewers will want to learn more about.

FIRST Robotics 2011




Spinning up the FTL


I’ve decided to participate in the great experiment that is social media.  I may be a little late to the party, but I have a lot of ideas about a lot of things that surround my business and more importantly, my craft.

Take a look here and at