I’ve done a lot of Photography. Mind you, I’m not a professional photographer (in that its not my full time “job”), however I’ve done professional photography as a hobby for many years, and enjoy it immensely. Given a recent opportunity to get my feel wet in videography, I took the chance, and created my first film, a documentary to tell the story of a Mormon Pioneer Trek. I learned a lot, so the purpose of this article, is to talk about my experience for the benefit of others who would venture from photography into video, and provide the back story to this particular film.
For those who don’t know the history, here is the quick background. Early settlers of the Western United States in the mid 19th century included many Mormon pioneers. Mormon’s (formally known as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) also at the time, included many converts from the United Kingdom and other areas in Europe. Under severe religious persecution, Mormon settlers were given instruction to migrate west, leaving their lands and professions in western Illinois.
Most of these pioneers left on-time, leaving to migrate before the winter storms impeded their journey, traveling to the Utah territory just outside the reach of the boundary of the United States at the time. A few groups however, left late, including the Martin and Willie handcart company. Most Mormon pioneers had covered wagon’s, but these and other groups, largely consisting of impoverished immigrants, down-scaled to hand-carts, and began their journey at risk.
As certain as the sun-rising, winter storms caught both the Martin and Willie companies of guard. At a location now known as Martin’s Cove, the Martin handcart company sought refuge from early winter storms. Many died, and without the rescue from Salt Lake City, its likely most would have perished. While tragic, this and other Mormon stories hallmark the entire experience of many early Mormon settlers who sought safety and religious freedom in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains.
Today, over a 150 years later, members of the Mormon church reenact the experiences of these pioneers, often using handcarts, dressing in the clothing of the era, and participate in an event called a “Trek” in locations in the west, including at the same location as memorable from the history of the Mormon pioneers. While the experience is very short, lasting a few days or a week, the experience enriches the participant and help them gain a testimony of the experience for many, have ancestors who were pioneers. The experience helps people gain perspective of the sacrifice others made, and reminds people about what’s important in life, which is often not the things we invest so much time in.
For more information about the Martin and Willie handcart company’s see Wikipedia.
Of course my personal experience was reflective of those in the documentary, however like I said, I wanted to write about the documentary itself, and let the documentary tell the story of the trek as it does. There were several obstacles I learned from, and if I had to do it again, the quality would be better. Hindsight is 20/20 of course as anybody knows.
I filmed the documentary with 3 camera’s. For interviews I used a Canon EOS 6D, for B-roll I used a Canon EOS 7D, and for some action, water and time lap video I used a GoPro 3. Dust was a major factor, I was always “protecting” gear. I stored equipment in a waterproof (and thus dust proof) case, and was VERY glad I had it. Because video is shot at lower shutter speeds, I used a neutral density filter, this is vital in day light. I used no stabilization gear, no slides and no lighting. I would have liked to have, but it just wasn’t feasible. Nearly all the video was shot using a Canon 24-105mm IS Lens. IS (or image stabilization is vital).
For audio, I used a Tascam DR07. This equipment was VITAL, on camera audio would have never worked, and I knew this going in. I used a “dead kitten” muff, and because of the wind, it was barely adequate. In retrospect, I would have tried to block out more wind noise, but I really wanted to shoot interviews on site.. and it wasn’t easy. I also learned that auto-adjusting audio isn’t good, its best to fix the gain, and better to record lower volume then have it clip. You can always make it louder, reducing clip isn’t fun. The video has several places of clipping wind and such, but its all I have. I also had airplanes going overhead, and the hum of these engines was picked up pretty easy.
Shooting video wasn’t difficult. There are a few thing however I learned. I didn’t use a slider, though I would have liked too, but there was no time to setup any of that anyway. Subsequently many video’s have more movement (hand shake) than Id like.. .but I’m thankful for post processing stabilization… which helped keep some shots that otherwise were unusable for b-roll. Many interviews were golden, but the backgrounds were blown out (too light). I had very little time to setup reflectors or lighting, and in some cases Im not sure it would have even worked due to wind or simply time. I can see why a film crew has a few people to help film, and record, a 1 man show is a lot of work.
Most of the interviews were shot (on the 6d, a full frame sensor), at F4.5. The depth of field is pretty small at F4.5, and I think 5.5 or so may have been better to keep subjects from leaning forward out the focus. Setting the color balance was a challenge. Most of the time I shot it at auto (a bit of a no-no in videography). I did grey card some of them, but it was a hassle. The hard part was making the video consistent from interview to interview in terms of white balance, even the final video, I’m not satisfied with the outcome, but it will do. FCPX has great tools that help, but the real key is to shoot it right from the beginning. For me most interviews were shot as the sun was getting lower, and one night I shot toward the sun (mistake), and the next away from it. The green grasses and sun-burned faces made for a lot of post processing color correction.
I could have easily turned this into a 60 min documentary, had I had enough b-roll but lacked enough usable interview. Part of the problem for me was on the second night a BIG storm came in, I lost about 2 hours of potential interview time. So much wasn’t told, and could have been, and a couple people I wanted to include at the end of the video were not possible. Looking back it would have been helpful to give and instructions to interviewees to pause between replies, so I would be able to post process their content better, editing was no simple task when many comments blended together. Asking the right questions was important. MOST of the big and touching answers simply came from one question: “What would you add to what we’ve talked about?”. You really cannot have enough video however.
I wanted to output the final format in wide screen (theater wide), but much of the video was shot as you see it. I would have had to position the subject more toward the middle of the view (screen).
The video took up a lot of space. I got a 1TB external drive. If you attempt this, do it., you wont’ be able to fit it all on your computer. (unless your computer has a lot of space). My MacBook Pro Retna didn’t.
I post processed the video using Apple Final Cut Pro X. Fantastic software that made it much easier than it would have been even 2 years ago, since I have little experience in video post processing. Early criticism of FCPX might have been accurate, but this software is very powerful and has come a long way in 2 years. I took a lot of time to learn as much as I could before I began so as to be as efficient as possible. I’m sure I broke some rules, but given the content I had, I think it came out as best as can be expected. I purchased royalty free music for use from a great website called JewelBeat. I got permission for use on any other copyrighted materials as well.
During the trek I found myself running up and down the line of hand carts. I had to tell people to ignore me often so the video was as natural as possible. I also had to setup a tent, help prepare food, put on sunscreen and attend to family members and the like. It made for a very busy 3 days.
Feedback and questions are welcome. I will certainly look forward to my next project. Video work is much more complex, but equally as rewarding. I’ll take what I learned and improve on it.