Moving back to the United States (until further notice) has been a strange transition. Of course this country is home in many ways, and yet I never quite seem settled in it. But the current period of life I am in means that where the wind blows, there I go.

At this point the wind is blowing west to Los Angeles again. After working on my first feature film as a cinematographer in Manila I have been picking up odd motion picture jobs and co-producing a film as I prepare for a move across the country (as I write this I am on a corporate video shoot for a medical instruments company).

Hopefully it is already known that the short film Hadeas is now in its funding stage on Kickstarter. (If not, please visit the page!) Coming back to LA to work on a creative project with fellow APU graduates Randy May, Megan Prescott, and Becky Train seemed like a great plan. Randy began writing the script last year and together we talked about the possibilities of what we could create. The project has ended up being more important than we could have first imagined, providing a creative outlet to try new ideas and challenge us as we grow in our knowledge and love for the craft of cinema. You can follow the production journal here.

Due to a random set of circumstances, my drive won’t be straight from Chicago to LA. I have a few stops to make along the way. Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas are among the destinations. So I might as well make an event out of it.

And now seems like a perfect time to embark on another journey. It is almost amusing how chapters of a life can be marked by movement from one place to the next. So this trip will be advantageous as I seek to redefine who I am as an artist, what I am pursuing, what I want.

In terms of business, I’m forming my brand.

It’s something global.

It’s something creative.

It’s something narrative.

It’s something collaborative.

I can’t quite put my finger on it yet.

It is difficult to follow a massive success like The Lord of the Rings (not at all speaking from experience). So it’s no wonder that both Hobbit films emerge with cinema-literate audiences cringing slightly.

It could have been worse…remember this version of The Hobbit?

“But it’s not The Lord of the Rings”, comes the constant defense, citing the children’s-book nature of Tolkein’s first tale of Middle Earth. Of course not…but it is, isn’t it? When the music and production design makes us believe we are in the same universe as Aragorn, Frodo, and Galadriel, we get the feeling it’s the same place.

So why have both hyperboles of J.R.R Tolkein’s Hobbit tale felt so out of place in a world that should be their own?

As a wise art professor once said, “art influences technology and technology influences art.” This is perhaps more evident now than ever before.

Anyone acquainted with the independent film industry knows that cheaper digital technology has impacted their line of work, perhaps even created the possibility for it to exist. But these folk will also know that showing up to a set without storyboards is also a common practice, as is rewriting the script on set, or rolling for several minutes on a take, “allowing the scene to breathe” (more like, making up the plan while the record light is on).

I know from first hand experience that these practices aren’t just isolated to low-budget productions. I have experienced work on “higher-end” shoots where the lack of creative discipline was depressing.

Why?

Because it’s possible. To hit record on a Canon 5D Mark III* hardly costs a thing. Why does one need a strict plan for a day of shooting when rearranging binary code onto a CF card* is so cheap? And so easy?

Changes in production technology aren’t inherently destructive (remember the ‘technology influencing art’ part?) but often the innovation becomes a crutch that dulls the creative possibilities.

Has this accessibility affected the top echelons of film production in this industry?

Some of us experienced it in theatres starting December 13th. During one of the many video game sequences of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we found ourselves careening through a river-rapid fight that would make EA Games giggle.

And all of a sudden it happened.

Shock. Immediate recognition.

Was that a…? It was unmistakable.

They used a Go Pro!*

The Rule of Thirds wasn’t created by a human, it was simply an acknowledgement of the connection our minds have to visual content, and thus, framing an image in a certain way causes us to take it in differently. A rule that is equally steadfast (though unnamed as of yet): if the audience has become accustomed to a “look” through which we experience a world, especially a storybook setting like The Hobbit, they are immediately brought out of the moment when a jarringly different “look” is achieved. Basically, when you cut to a cheap Go Pro shot in the midst of a fantasy epic, we suddenly become aware of the crunchy popcorn under our feet and the “EXIT” sign (that may or may not be calling our name).

“But you can’t pick on The Hobbit! It’s a kids movie!”

When that kid’s movie costs $180 million and supposedly represents some of the highest quality of film production, it’s fair game to tear it apart for consistently making choices that simply don’t make us care about the characters or the world they’re in.

Remember the Fellowship of the Ring? A $93 million budget from an unknown filmmaker in a quiet corner of the globe. Breathtaking images, gritty textures, in-camera techniques, the movement and feel of 35mm film?

There is no such thing as cinematic perfection, but have we allowed cheap, accessible technology to cause us to drop the ball when quality is concerned?

There is still hope for the art of cinema, even in the midst of a creative famine where theatres are only comfortable with showing flicks that are based off of bestselling books, video games or other movies.

Much of the power is in your hands. If audiences have an appreciation for well-told stories and quality production, we have the power to shift an industry. The change is happening in food as consumers become more aware of just how much what we eat impacts our health. Have you noticed a rise in things like, “grass-fed beef” or “free range eggs” and “locally grown, organic produce”? That is the power of consumers at work.

R1- 7Why couldn’t this happen with cinema?

What is your role in impacting how we tell stories, what sorts of stories we tell?

Which movies have you gone to see in theatres lately? How many featured new directors, new production companies, and new talent?

How many Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns for films have you looked at? These are the places where new ideas are sprouting in a very democratic forum.

*Canon 5D Mark III – The latest redesign of the revolutionary Canon 5D cameras. The first widely used DSLRs that made it into the film production world. I recently shot a short film in Melbourne, Australia (called Lost in the Dark https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Bg_RmBczMI) that was nominated for several awards at a festival in LA. We shot it on the 5D Mark III. Great camera for a film with a budget of $500.

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On the set of Lost in the Dark with Director Chris W Bailey (right) and Producer Dana Marie (middle).

*CF Card – Compact Flash. A small solid-state media card that records images, video, or audio, depending on the device it is inserted into.

The CF card is on the left, SD card in the middle and a Micro SD on the right.

*For the as-of-yet uninformed, the Go Pro is a waterproof, shockproof camera system roughly the size of a chocolate brownie. Often seen on the helmets of sky divers and mountain bikers, it carries a reasonably nice-looking image for such a small camera. There is no comparison, however, to the quality of a digital cinema camera system. Everything from contrast to color rendition to sensor refresh time is noticeably different.

The Go Pro Hero 3. The latest in the Go Pro line up.

Living up to the title of this blog seems unavoidable, however, continuing to write about the unfolding story is just the opposite.

In my post-graduation wandering I’ve found myself in many places and on many projects.  Though the opportunities that have been presented have been exhilarating, as I look back I realize how easily I have lost sight of the original goal.

We all had one, I’m sure: the goal for after graduation. Of course we knew it would take a while to reach it, of course we heard those of an older generation telling us we had no idea what hard work was and that if they only knew what they had to put up with in their day.

“It’ll work out, just make money. You’ll get it.”

We believed them and struggled and flailed. And here we are devouring Game of Thrones at the same speed as bags of M&Ms. And we’ve lost it.

That thing we held in our minds when we leaped from the realm of the theoretical into the grind of the practical.

Where did it go?

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that our whole lives we were told how special we were and showered with comforts to go with it. And somehow our parents managed surprise when we couldn’t seem to grasp the idea of suffering for a long time and not receiving any reward for it. Am I the only one?

Imagine a group of talented, trained, hard-working artists collectively creating, telling stories together. Imagine the potential of this kind of unit. Imagine the rewarding work that could come from a group that was dedicated to loving their toil and loving each other, a group that included people into their work, encouraged and challenged and built and restored. Imagine a converted warehouse, a place of industry and creativity and meeting. And in the basement an aquaponics endeavor, maybe a hydro-electric hookup and geothermal or solar to offset operating costs.

Where did it go?

Feeling banished on that Antipodean isle for a year and a half I was met with an inability to run, and an absolute difficulty in finding worth in my work. But that contract to a job that promised no fame and no fortune, nor even a sure “step up” in the world of motion picture, turned out to be a much-needed sentence. Like the prison cell at the bottom of the pit Bruce Wayne finds himself in. He just needed a place to re-grow his backbone.

Of course the place I worked in Sydney was not anywhere close to a jail cell. There were fantastic co-workers and a grueling objective of opening the eyes of the new to a world of possibilities. But I could not help but question how binding books, making copies and ordering brochures could possibly get me closer to my GOAL.

And even traveling for work from project to project sounds adventurous, but when your day to day consists of the same grind you’d find in any lifeless suburb, you begin to see that travel alone doesn’t save you. Nor does it inherently get you closer to where you want to be. And it’s difficult to keep sight of what could be when you’re drowning in the mundane.

But I have noticed a trend.

When I return to familiar places and reconnect with familiar people there is something rekindled. A vision returns from the blur of ambiguity. To vision cast with fellow entrepreneurs and trailblazers is like bursting from the surface of the rapids and breathing fresh air.

So the missing part of the equation is comradery…or fellowship…or that tragically over-used word that has thus been stripped of all meaning: community.

With dozens of options for next steps I’m returning to a familiar place in pursuit of an exciting new project. After shooting a feature film in the Philippines it’s time to create a story of our own. With Writer/Director and Co-Producer Randy May, I’m telling a story of evil geology.

More to come.

An aerial of Tatalon Studios, complete with full-time extras and state of the art production design

An aerial of Tatalon Studios, complete with full-time extras and state of the art production design

Chicken intestines, cause wasting is for suckers

Chicken intestines, cause wasting is for suckers

A container yard makes a great place for action scenes

A container yard makes a great place for action scenes

On a smoggy location scout in Tatalon with Dir. David Bolt

On a smoggy location scout in Tatalon with Dir. David Bolt

One of my grips, useless, couldn't get him to do anything except make a lot of noise at 4am

One of my grips, useless, couldn’t get him to do anything except make a lot of noise at 4am

Awaiting his close up

Awaiting his close up

After the final edit of the Kenyan documentary* (custom made one-man-show for Tamar’s Voice in Indiana) was shipped and premiered in late September, I could turn my attention to the next big fish to fry.

After the showing of an Australian short film in a festival in LA, I was contacted by a director in search of a willing and schedule-free crew for a low-budget feature set in the Philippines. I said yes. Then asked what it was about. Something about slums, orphans, action, car chase. Yep. I’m in.

Upon landing I regretted spending the whole flight watching back to back movies interrupted by push ups in the back of the plane. Jet lag is an unfortunate bunk mate. But hitting the ground running is a better remedy.

With shooting only a few weeks away the need to meet, approve and hire local crew is upon us. What I hadn’t expected was the amazing talent and experience of crews here in Manila. I obviously didn’t know much about the Philippines before coming but there is an overrepresented amount of film production happening. And it’s not all foreign film; Filipinos are creating feature length, dramatic and comedic content on a regular basis from microscopic budgets and schedules that would make an American indie crew violently choke to death.

Already, as I’ve hired crew members and asked about their particular style of running a set, I’ve learned just how far some are willing to go to see cinema happen in their own language. This story starts with math:

Imagine you’ve spent $5000 worth of gear for a day’s shoot. Most films would attempt to get the most for their dollar by working their crew a solid 17 hours in a day. Crews here in Manila came up with a better solution: Go big or go home. A crew will work for 24 straight hours to get the most usage out of their gear rental. Then the next day, after turning in equipment, they’ll rest and location scout. Day 3, back at it again for a solid revolution around the sun, followed by a day of rest and location scouting and so on. For how long? 12-18 days is a typical time to shoot a FEATURE FILM here. It’s actually hard for me to understand how this would work. But somehow it does.

Luckily our producer and director are used to a more drawn out pace.

After working with the local production coordinator and AD, I’m confident about where we’re at 2 weeks out.

More to follow.

*You can find the link for the documentary – “A Kenyan Sunrise” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVXCBo504vY

4 continents in 3 weeks. Finally, I’m living up to the title of this blog. Even as I write this I am on an Amtrak bus to Sacramento.

After bidding farewell to Australia I prepared for my next project and adventure in rural Kenya.

SONY DSCI had been asked in Christmas of last year to accompany my grandmother, mom and dad on a trip to meet a pastor (Paul), his family (wife Mary and their three kids plus adopted children) and his ministry in a place called Kitale (a bumpy 9 hour drive northwest of Nairobi). My grandmother’s grassroots ministry, Tamar’s Voice, which reaches out to heal the wounds of sexual abuse, had been contacted by the Kenyan pastor with a similar vision for healing in rural East Africa.

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Left to right: Jan Tuin, Mary Odari, Paul Odari

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“Mama Jan” speaking to women at Divine Love, Paul translates.

IMG_1687 My only other experience in Africa had been a trip to South Africa in 2004. I didn’t really know what to expect. Even more so considering the trip was happening with 3 generations of my family and with no structural support of a big organization or church.

In essence a family from the US was meeting a family from rural Kenya.

I had the intent of visually telling the story of this unique connection for other’s to learn as we did, but I didn’t realize how much I would become involved in it. The video will be used to raise money for the women’s rescue home the two ministries will build together in western Kenya.

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Children at the Amazing Love school, part of the Divine Love ministry in Sikhendu.

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Strapping on speakers and heading to church.

Poverty is something that has always been on my mind. And, like most upper-middle-class-Christian-white-folk, I considered myself an expert on it. Rockin’ my TOMS shoes and going on short term missions trips, I was actively engaging with what I saw as a major issue in the world.

SONY DSC SONY DSC R1-05328-0007If nothing else, taking a trip to Kenya expanded my view of poverty.

Feedback on this thought would be much appreciated; I want to know what you think. It is beginning to grow on me that to view poverty as merely a lack of resources is to severely misunderstand it.* What if poverty is ANY situation where human flourishing is compromised? So perhaps Australia, The United States of America, other industrialized counties are living in extreme poverty of a certain kind? Let me explain.

Imagine a dusty, rough landscape. Rich, red soil and deep green vegetation hung beneath a vast blue sky. A rutted red road cuts through the green and disappears into the horizon. Covering nearly every square meter of this place is the buzzing of activity: women carrying children in back slings sell roasted maize and potatoes along the road. Children haul bundles of sticks. Cows graze by the roadside (on grass!). Rows of tin shacks open up to reveal electronic appliance stores, cell phone top-up shops, car repair centers, agricultural veterinarians, even hair salons. Motorbikes zoom in and out of goats and sheep (that eat grass!) herded by young entrepreneurs. Chickens (that ate bugs and grubs and seeds) hang in butcher’s windows. Old men sip tea and watch the activity. Old women roll chappati and stir ugali (made from the corn that grew just meters away). Everywhere, everyone is doing something, and all the while interacting face-to-face with each other. Smiling faces, straight teeth, hardly a set of eyeglasses to be found.

SONY DSC R1-05328-0010 SONY DSCNow imagine a wide open road. Smooth concrete, big parking lots, rows of lit storefronts pass by. A pattern in the businesses emerge (mostly owned by a few people far away). Hardly a person to be found except within their glass and steel (or plastic) escape pods. Shelves stockpiled with products made from a few ingredients. Plastic and chemicals sterilize every surface. Everywhere there is space, air conditioning, and silence.

Poverty?

Of course financial poverty is very real, with some living not far from starvation, with little disposable income for malaria drugs. And corruption in Kenya can’t be ignored, it is a cause of suffering to its people. Of course the majority of Kenya lives on less than $1 per day. But maybe we miss the power of that statement. They LIVE on less than $1 per day. These are people of extreme resourcefulness and hard work.

So with this in mind, financial poverty isn’t the problem. It is a symptom. The highly toxic nature of our food and personal care products in the US isn’t the problem. It is a symptom. To treat a symptom is to miss the bigger picture of human flourishing. The good life. The Kingdom of Heaven.

The book When Helping Hurts (by Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert) talks about aid in three different ways: relief, rehabilitation, and development. It suggests that to provide one where another is needed is to stunt the growth process.

In our experience with the pastor of the church, we were surprised and impressed by the leadership structures put in place, the room for growth in the visions he and his team had for a women’s shelter, an already existing primary school and youth ministry. It became clear very soon that this community was above needing relief. There was potential, is potential, for development. And the possibilities are nearly limitless when local people, who have an acute awareness of local needs, take initiative. Our time in Kenya began to take on the look of a partnership, not a mission’s trip. We were siblings in the family. The agenda wasn’t ours, as the outsiders. We allowed ourselves to experience Kenya (as much as possible in 11 days) along with our Kenyan brothers and sisters.

And it was sometimes awkward, sometimes without sure footing and sometimes we got it wrong. It was clear we hadn’t practiced partnership in cross-cultural interactions. It seems that no matter how well our meaning, we have another, more sinister default setting.

Now I don’t want to make the mistake of leveling all of poverty in every part of the world as equal. There is a major difference between the poverty of finance and the poverty of social capital and relationships: we, in the US, can go about our daily lives largely unaware of our lack. In the developing world, there is no choice. Waking up to need every day is the only way to wake up. I’m not proposing negligence as an alternative to colonialism. So maybe partnership is needed, but it has to be partnership. The dignity and empowerment of everyone involved must be a priority. As wealthy Americans, we are more than our dollars (do we really believe that?). And rural Kenyans are more than their lack of resources. There is a larger goal we can work towards than simply having more disposable income. Do we think that to make East Africa like the US will somehow allow them to experience more of the richness of being human? Will it allow them to experience relationship with God more clearly?

Perhaps in more ways than one we have much to learn.

Are you preparing for, leading up to, a missions trip or “serving trip”? What goal is implicit in the actions and schedule of your team? Are you narrowing the definition of the good life to financial resources? There is no shame in getting it wrong.

So why is this post appearing in a blog about a filmmaker? Now imagine a production company in the developing world that trains children from the slums in photo and video skills and then employs them, giving them vital skills for a creative and constructive future. Imagine this production company sustaining themselves financially on commercials and corporate productions while consistently emphasizing the creation and distribution of their OWN content. Stories about their world, told by them.

I would love to start such a production company.

But what if it already existed? Film production in East Africa? We’ll see. More to come on that.

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*Our team of 4 read excerpts from a book called When Helping Hurts, which helped prepare us for what we would soon experience.

It was a complete time capsule into the ’20s: The Great Gatsby (2013) at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace (ok so it opened in 1935, but close enough). And of course what completed the spectacle was the first few moments of the film naming all the locations around Sydney and how they looked from the Sydney Ferries as they went whizzing by (the Valley of Ashes? Yeah, ride the bus by that all the time – minus the oppressed steel workers).

As for the film: it felt very Baz, and yet not Baz at his tightest. It has been interesting to see how his work is more popular in the US than in Australia, try to ask any Australian what they thought of Australia (2008). But who knows, maybe the delayed release time clues us into trouble behind the scenes? Nonetheless, the spectacle was entertaining.

As someone who had somehow made it out of high school without reading The Great Gatsby (I was too tangled up in The River Why…why?), it was a mysterious ride. I found that while being enchanted by the dazzling sets, costumes and glamor, I had a hard time handing my feelings over to the dramatically affected Gatsby. Why should I care about the 1st world problems of literature’s biggest playboy? Because he loved the girl he spent some quality time with five years earlier? Maybe it has to do with the fact that the green light glows on as the characters race about in their cars, which take their directions from the very same color (though the filmmakers didn’t necessarily go there with their interpretation so never -mind).

I wasn’t sold.

Forgive me if I’m simply adding to the high school conversation several years too late but it didn’t hit me until having sushi with my friend Kimberly after the film. It struck me, after exploring the eyes that saw all from the billboard, that the thing Gatsby strove for was never Daisy at all. So far so good. I graduated from high school I promise.

But suddenly, and with little help from Baz I think, I was Gatsby. The green light? That thing on the horizon that grows never nearer. Like F Scott’s ships in the current. Cool, high school diploma means something.

And Daisy? Everything that ends up between me and that green light. Everything I mistake for that green light. So maybe the story is yet another retelling of how our expectations, once fulfilled, only disappoint. Is there anything to that green light? Or is it simply the chase we’re after?

The documentary I’ve been making for the past several months explores not only how the pursuit of this green light, and what we believe it to be, shapes us, but also that the actions and practices we engage in, form our expectations of what that light is. And if we choose to take it on, we ask, “this thing that I’m striving for: is it a ‘Daisy’? or is it that green light?”

And in the end of the film Gatsby discovers that which the narrator has already made clear to us: in putting Daisy on the same trajectory as the green light he destroyed her.

So maybe Dr. Steven Garber is on to something when he asks, “Do you have a telos that is sufficient to meaningfully orient your praxis over the course of your life?”

What’s the green light? Do you have a strong enough answer to that question?

And if you’ve got an answer, does your every action move towards or farther from that green light?

Photo on 2013-06-12 at 02.04

The last known photo of Jesus Christ

Verily I say unto thee brethren; I have emerged.

As it says, there are times for everything: times for being around people and times for living a hermit-existence. The latter has been my reality for the past few weeks.

In would be a fair accusation to say that the title of this blog was ill-chosen. I have neither exhibited the constant flow of anecdotes that accompany a filmmaker (whatever that means) nor have I been geographically on the move.

However, I’ve emerged from the grave to prove I am worthy of the title.

To begin, the documentary on global experiential education that I’ve been developing/producing for the past several months has reached a respectable enough state to be allowed outside for a bit of social interaction, however, only in intimate settings.

It has ceased to resemble a formless blob and has begun to take the shape and feel of a real documentary. With a total runtime (at this point) of 01:02:56 it is the longest piece of motion picture I’ve ever directed/produced.

Camel

This camel has little to do with the story. But it makes it seem really exotic.

Alyssa Directed byJen Smoke Sydney We just held a test screening compete with feedback forms and wine and cheese. There is something extremely rewarding about watching an audience interact with something you’ve created.

In other news, I had the amazing opportunity to be involved in a 168hr film festival team that is competing from Australia. Through a friend in Melbourne I was asked to DP a sub-10 minute project. After slogging through the hundreds of hours of interviews that accompanies a feature-length non-fiction project, it was a refreshing experience to be involved in fiction again. There is an electricity and buzz to a team that is creating a world an audience hasn’t experienced quite that way before.

Because the rest of the crew was Melbourne-based I knew only one other person to begin with. But I couldn’t understand why the set ran so smoothly. Limited budget, limited time, limited crew (some of which having never worked on a film before), limited location. These are the ingredients for a disastrous set. But I kept expecting for something to go horribly wrong, for us to be set back or stressed. I was expecting someone to yell at someone for something as usually happens.

But nothing of the sort happened. We shot a fantastic little narrative, 9 pages in 2 days. I got more sleep than I had before I came and I even had time to see a bit of Melbourne (which is an under-appreciated city with heaps of potential). And as a result I met a group of creative, hard-working filmmakers. It is these sorts of experiences that future projects come from.

Below is the trailer for our film: Lost in the Dark. Shot on 5D Mark III. Lit with a few lowel lights and a random assortment of LEDS. Oh, also the sun.

http://youtu.be/0Bg_RmBczMI

And of course my departure date of June 30th looms in the not-so-distant future. Along with that comes the reflection of realizing just how much I’ve learned from the past year and a half of living here in Sydney. The truth is, I will probably continue to find out just how much these experiences and practices have shaped me as I continue on.

Tune in next time for:

Kenya                        and                                               Indiana.                           Connection?

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