Last September, DSI approached me about making a video for their 25th Anniversary dinner in January of this year. Martin had just come home from the hospital, January seemed a million miles away and I had no projects on my plate at the time. So I said yes.
After a brief meeting, we decided on a concept that would highlight a handful of downtown personalities through a documentary-style video about five minutes in length. DSI was to provide me with a list of potential cast members, but the rest of the production was up to me.
I thought it would be fun to write about the process, as it was fairly typical of how I approach projects of this nature. And despite envisioning the final product from day one and having more than enough time, like almost everything else I do, the final days were a hot fire panic that had me thinking it'd be easier to move to another town and change my name than meet the deadline.
This is the actual timeline of the project. Not pictured: how sleep deprived I have been since September. Martin doesn't sleep through the night, and most days seemed foggy. It was too easy to assume that next week, or next month, I would get the sleep I needed to function properly. Well that still hasn't happened, so I've just learned to cope.
Scheduling the interviews was, as always, a task. It took a total of 42 emails and a handful of phone calls to line up 4 interviews on a single day in early January. A 5th interview would happen a few days later. The weather for the day was cold, wet and overcast. Perfect for the mood I was going for, as you can't fake warm and colorful in the middle of January in Central Illinois.
Right away, I knew I wanted the video to start at somebody's house and follow them to work. I've worked with Mary Young before and was delighted to see her name on the list supplied by DSI. I thought she'd be great to start with, so we made plans to meet up at her house before work.
I love shots that start in a dark room, and then a character comes in and turns on the light. For this one, I went to her garage with the light on, set up the exposure and angle, and then had Mary turn off the light and "pretend I wasn't there." Which is terrible direction for most people, but Mary's a pro. And her coat was magical in black and white.
Then I rode along with her for a few blocks, got as much coverage as I could of her driving, shots out the windshield, etc., then she turned around and dropped me back at my car. I followed her to work, filmed a little clip of her driving past the Capitol (I didn't plan for this, but it worked out) and parked by her office.
I wanted the interviews to be lightweight and fun. I was running solo on these, which meant I had to run the camera, monitor audio and remain engaged with the subjects. To complicate things, I was shooting with a shallow depth of field with a new 85mm 1.4, which meant there was a really good chance people would drift out of focus. I haven't found autofocus to be rock solid, so I can't trust it yet.
I kept my gear limited to what I could carry in one trip. One camera, two lenses, a heavy tripod, a c-stand, boom pole, headphones and all the required cables and accessories. And a bag of peanuts.
For both logistics and style, I wanted to use available light. This meant finding a good spot for each subject, ideally near a window with a lot of depth behind them. I made sure to frame up some people on the left and some on the right. The interviews lasted between 12 and 32 minutes.
With a video about downtown, you need to see downtown. Between the interviews, I meandered around downtown filming whatever caught my eye. I tend to shoot like a photographer, where I look for a nice shot, frame it up and take a "picture" of about 10-20 seconds. I always try to have some movement in the shot. I was shooting handheld, which added a little movement of its own.
It's hard finding new ways to see something I've filmed exhaustively already, but I was pleasantly surprised with some of the transition shots I found. I had planned on using some drone footage, but I crashed my drone right before this shoot while filming a nature break at Washington Park. That's probably for the best though, as the handheld, street-level shots worked out great.
Once all the footage was collected, it was time to sit down and feverishly edit.
Haha, just kidding. I procrastinated for a week or so.
To be fair, I should mention that I believe procrastination has significant benefits to the creative process. I always find it helpful to step away for awhile and let things settle. In this case, I knew what footage I had. And in the days I spent doing anything but editing, my brain was putting the pieces together. I'd be going about my day, and WHAM. Out of nowhere, a nugget of an idea would present itself. And another. And another. And all I had to do was listen and remember to try them out.
So once I actually sat down to edit, half of the work was done.
Haha, kidding again. It's not magic. It's hard work, and there are no shortcuts.
But things came together quickly. Because they had to. The dinner was less than a week away, and the programs were already locked down for printing. Everyone was expecting a video called "Downtown" to be shown on Thursday night. It was go time.
Editing is where everything can fall apart. Your initial idea might have been executed well, but when you put it together, it just doesn't work. Or sometimes you just can't find the pieces to make the puzzle. So you start assembling the best story you can out of what you do have.
And then there are times like this, where everything just comes together. I'd like to think this will happen more often as I get better. But the editing on this film came together beautifully.
I made some stylistic decisions on this film that I don't usually make. For example, I put names and titles on their own cards rather than using lower-thirds. I used relatively hard cuts to get into and out of the downtown transitions. And I made a few cuts on dramatic swipes, either with abrupt camera movements or passing objects. All of these decisions greatly influenced the overall feel of the edit.
Another creative decision was to not use music, which was one of those little ideas that popped into my head while I was procrastinating. Music is nice. It's comfortable, it tells the audience how to feel. But I wanted the city to speak for itself. So instead, I built up layers of sound. Footsteps as Robert walks on the carpet. A truck passing from right to left. A train in the distance. A click from a button pushed. A flag flapping in the wind. A door opening. Every single sound was added in post. It's my best sound work since Sarah, and it was rewarding to hear every layer on the great sound system they had at the dinner.
It used to be the case that I couldn't watch films I just finished. I was too close to the material, too exhausted and couldn't look past the flaws. Experience has helped me handle the editing process a lot better, and in the past couple years, I've really enjoyed projects throughout and even immediately after editing. This is a new feeling. I could get used to it.
Of course, I can always find things I would do better next time. With this video in particular, I want a greater diversity of subjects. I want to see more people in the downtown transition shots. I want a few extra pieces of b-roll that I didn't film. And now that I've done a grainy black and white version, it would be fun to do this film again in color and with warmth.
Anyway, this is a video that I'm happy with. I love downtown Springfield, and I support anybody that's trying to make it better.
Thank you, Dave, for representing the creatives in Springfield with this video. You caught the reality of downtown but you somehow magically managed to capture our potential at the same time. Generous, creative and cool. Are you.