Science: The Wide Angle

What a privilege to be able to spend time with each of the scientists and heavy thinkers in the series I shot with Fourth Line Films, Science: The Wide Angle, produced for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  The interviews we captured were fascinating glimpses into the tremendous depth of knowledge gained over decades of work and study by people engaged at the cutting edge of their fields.  The series explores the relationship between religious and scientific thought, amongst other interesting topics of conversation!  Here are a few videos from the series:

BIOLOGICAL EVOLUTION AND THE KINSHIP OF ALL LIFE Featuring Neil Shubin (University of Chicago, Your Inner Fish), Dr. Jeff Hardin (University of Wisconsin), and Dr. Sean B. Carroll (Howard Hughes Medical Institute).

AWE & WONDER Featuring Dr. S. James Gates (University System of Maryland Regents Professor), Br. Guy Consolmagno (Director of Vatican Observatory), Dr. Jeff Hardin (University of Wisconsin), Dr. Jennifer Wiseman (Astronomer, American Association for the Advancement of Science), Dr. William Newsmen (Stanford), Dr. Sean B. Carroll (Howard Hughes Medical Institute), Dr. Huda Zoghbi (Baylor College of Medicine), Dr. Justin Barrett (Fuller Theological Seminary), Dr. Michael Ruse (Florida State University), Dr. Neil Shubin (University of Chicago), Dr. Richard Potts (Smithsonian Institution), Dr. Georgia Dunston (National Human Genome Center), Dr. David Charbonneau (Harvard University).

FRONTIERS OF NEUROSCIENCE Featuring Dr. William Newsmen (Stanford University), Dr. Huda Zoghbi (Baylor College of Medicine).

Know the Truth (No Matter How Beautiful)

Spending time with the artist Robert Feuge was an opportunity to see what can result from being very careful with "yes," and not being afraid of "no." He said "yes" to his creative ambitions and "yes" to the challenges that accompany the decision to call oneself an artist, despite all of the "no's" he heard early in his career: "no, that's not good enough...no, you're not talented enough...no, you'll never make a living this way."  Hah!  In this short documentary I shot with Nate Clarke of Fourthline Films, along with Chris Payne and Scott Goff, Robert shares the best advice he's ever received, which I still remember despite hearing him say it almost 2 years ago.  Here's the film, just released this week as another installment of the Box Canyon Sessions:

Robert Feuge plays with junk. When we visited him in his Fredericksburg, Texas, studio, he pulled out piece after piece of salvaged material, roadside kill (one of his artworks features dove’s wings), and plenty of wood, mostly wilted local oak. “[With] virtually everything I look at,” Robert explained, “I ask the question: ‘What else can that thing be?’” We reunited in the Box Canyon a few days later. Robert brought along junk store spoons he had purchased and hammed, along with some clay. He put on his beret and went to work. We spent the rest of the day watching a grown man play. For more, visit theboxcanyon.org

And here's the crew, standing (and sitting) in awe of Robert's art...

FiveThirtyEight: The Bobby Bonilla Retirement Plan

Deirdre Fenton from ESPN called me up for a quick shoot with Gene Orza, the former COO of the Major League Baseball Players Association.  He eloquently detailed the ins and outs of one of baseball's most controversial contracts, which will pay Bobby Bonilla over $1 million every year through 2035, even though he retired in 2001.  Hmm.

Gene Orza

Gene Orza

Deirdre wanted Gene's interview to fit in stylistically with the other interviews that had already been shot by other DPs, but also have a warmer, "cozier" vibe.  I decided to use his kitchen as the background, and used c-log2 on the C300 mkII to keep the window within range.  Gene was keyed by a LitePanels Astra through a 4x4 frame of full stop and 1/4 stop diffusion, with a LitePanel 1x1 as a backlight.  We bounced in some fill and were set.  Check out the entire piece, Deirdre and Co. did a great job with the edit.

Sandra McCracken video and photography for "God's Highway"

This project pushed me creatively in a variety of ways: I was the DP/Director for a series of live performance videos with Sandra and her band, as well as the photographer for the cover image of her new album, God's Highway. Filming all four live performance videos and capturing the album photography in a single day was a huge task, but Sandra and the crew were up for the challenge.  Her producer, Lea Fulton, secured two beautiful locations for us, and we worked together to arrange the schedule in such a way that we would end up on the shores of the Pacific at sunset.  There was much rejoicing as the sun slipped beneath the cloud cover and gave us a solid five minutes of glorious light to work with before it disappeared behind the San Juan Islands:

This is the final image for the album cover.  Thanks to Brannon McAllister for the wonderful design work.

This is the final image for the album cover.  Thanks to Brannon McAllister for the wonderful design work.

My talented and capable (and hilarious) crew made it all possible: Chris Baron and Jeff Shaw.  Thanks guys!  Images and video from the shoot are below.  You can purchase God's Highway here.

Sandra McCracken: live performance video, "God's Highway"

Bono and Eugene

This was a wonderful project in many ways.  I'm excited to share it with you.  I was the DP and very fortunate to be a part of an amazing crew that figured out a way to pull this off with limited time, access, and budget.  Many, many thanks to David Taylor (Producer), Nate Clarke (Director, Editor), Michael McQueen and Chris Payne (sound), Tim GrantZach Whiteside and Gabe Medina (camera operators), Jonny Rodgers (music), and everyone at Fuller Studios.

"This short film documents the friendship between Bono (lead musician of the band U2) and Eugene Peterson (author of contemporary-language Bible translation The Message) revolving around their common interest in the Psalms. Based on interviews conducted by Fuller Seminary faculty member David Taylor and produced in association with Fourth Line Films, the film highlights in particular a conversation on the Psalms that took place between Bono, Peterson, and Taylor at Peterson's Montana home."

Nothing to Fear

Don't trip, don't trip, don't trip...

These were the words vibrating though my brain as I followed Bono of U2 down a set of stairs outside the home of Eugene Peterson (The Message) for the very first shot of the day (see the film here).  I probably should have been filling my headspace with something more helpful, something like, is the shot in focus? battery levels ok? how's my exposure? am I actually recording right now???  But instead I had this overwhelming sensation that I was going to trip on one of the steps, collapse into Bono,  break his other arm, and probably (definitely) ruin the entire film. 

Eugene Peterson at his home on Flathead Lake, Montana. Frame courtesy Fuller Studios.

Eugene Peterson at his home on Flathead Lake, Montana. Frame courtesy Fuller Studios.

From conversations I've had with other DPs and filmmakers of all types, it's a common fear: I'm just one step away from disaster.  Usually, this is meant in a more figurative, less literal sense: we wrestle with doubts about our own competence, with the idea that people will discover that we don't have all the answers, and we will be revealed as frauds.  "I thought you were a DP!"

Early in my career, whenever I felt this fear rising up inside me--maybe because a shot wasn't working, or we were running way behind schedule, or I'd made my crew move a light back and forth one too many times--my instinct was to act as if nothing was wrong, to never admit that I needed some help. To fake it. To do whatever was necessary to convince everyone that I had it under control.

Bono of U2 at Eugene Peterson's house near Flathead Lake,  MT. Frame courtesy Fuller Studios.

Bono of U2 at Eugene Peterson's house near Flathead Lake,  MT. Frame courtesy Fuller Studios.

As I continued in my career, however, I began to find myself attracted more and more to the filmmakers who did admit when they needed help, who weren't afraid to say (on set, no less!) "actually, I'm not sure what to do right now." These filmmakers were not only more pleasant to work with, but their attitude created an environment where people felt safe to participate in the process, and to engage creatively in the task at hand without fear.  There was a base of gentleness and humility that permeated their sets, unaffected by the ever-present anxiety and excitement of a film shoot, and these qualities often went hand-in-hand with truly excellent work.

Gentleness. Humility.  

As the DP for this project, I was part of a small team of people tasked with the challenge of creating a quiet space that would foster an intimate conversation between a globally respected theologian and a transcendent pop icon, with cameras rolling. Easy, right?  Since this would be the first time I'd ever filmed such a conversation (hah!), I didn't know where to begin; and as the shoot approached, it became clear that the complex calculus of schedules, access, and budget wouldn't allow us to scout the location ahead of time or bring much in the way of grip and lighting equipment.  We'd  need to make a lot of last-minute decisions with some very tight limitations and little margin for error.  In other words, it was the perfect opportunity to practice the same gentleness and humility that I'd grown to appreciate in other filmmakers (right??).

...don't trip, don't trip, don't trip...

A few hundred feet from the shore of Flathead Lake, and maybe three feet behind Bono, we reached the landing at the bottom of the steps.  I moved around to Bono's right to capture a wide shot of him greeting Jan and Eugene at the front door, a move I'd choreographed ahead of time with the other camera operators, Zach Whiteside and Tim Grant, and the sound engineer, Michael McQueen.  It was our first stab at working together as a team, and our only shot at capturing the long-awaited reunion between these three friends. And it worked. It wasn't perfect, but we got it. 

Cut.  

Now, over a year later, it's encouraging to watch the film and see that our work resulted in something honest.  I've had a number of people ask me, "what was it like to be in the same room as Bono and Eugene??" The best answer I can give is, "just watch the film."  Nathan Clarke, the director and editor, together with David Taylor, the producer,  ignored the pressure to exploit Bono's celebrity or overemphasize Eugene's renown.  Instead, they allowed the film to be something quiet, close, and genuine.  

As a crew, we certainly felt the pressure of the moment, but the calm nature of the interaction between Bono and Eugene would also describe the way we--the crew--interacted with each other on set.  I'm happy to watch the film now and know that we were able to approach the gentleness and humility I've admired in other filmmakers, and to see how this way of making films had such a positive influence on the final product.  Because what you see in the film is what we experienced together in Montana: a quiet, intimate reunion of friends. 

The film's director, Nathan Clarke, has written more about the production of the film here

The film's producer, David Taylor, has shared his thoughts on the friendship between Bono and Eugene Peterson here

Bono and Eugene at Eugene's home on Flathead Lake, MT. Frame courtesy Fuller Studios.

Bono and Eugene at Eugene's home on Flathead Lake, MT. Frame courtesy Fuller Studios.

"hey, let's grab an interview with Bono." Um,. ok! Very quick setup on the shore of Flathead Lake, MT. 

"hey, let's grab an interview with Bono." Um,. ok! Very quick setup on the shore of Flathead Lake, MT. 

Work is over, time to skip some rocks.

Work is over, time to skip some rocks.

Bono signs off after the last day of filming. Photo © John Harrison / blueskyhill.com

Bono signs off after the last day of filming. Photo © John Harrison / blueskyhill.com

Where You're Supposed To Be

While wrestling with and navigating through my own doubts and fears around vocation and purpose, I was given the opportunity to film with Stephen Mason, a member of the band Jars of Clay, as he began a new career after 20 years of making music full time.  My time with him was challenging and very helpful, and I hope the finished piece is helpful for you as well. 

Nate Clarke directed this film, with sound by Chris Payne.  The following description was written by Gate Davis of Laity Lodge:

Wintertime in Texas. We built a fire in the dry creek bed of Box Canyon and sat down with Stephen Mason. Just months before he had been in this very spot performing with his band, Jars of Clay, on a memorable summer night. But this time was different. Stephen came alone. No guitar. The trees covered in ice. A lot had changed. In a matter of days, Stephen would be opening The Handsomizer, his new barbershop in Nashville. A small shop, a former storage room connected to the side of the Jars of Clay studio. A new career, yet one that emerged right from the old. How does someone, after 20 years of doing one thing, make such a change? Vocation, Stephen told us, is a journey fraught with fear and questions. “Who am I? Where am I going? Who will go with me?” These are best answered through actions … small steps, each one revealing a new vantage point. If we’re lucky, we will find ourselves looking ahead—alive, content, curious to see what’s next.

The Box Canyon

Almost three years ago, director Nate Clarke and I hiked into the Box Canyon, a narrow space defined by inward cuving rock walls reminiscent of an "upside down cathedral," to borrow the description offered by poet Malcolm Guite when he recently visited the same space with us.  And certainly it became a sacred place for us in some ways. 

Nate's original idea was to see this unique location become host to a series of live musical performances that we would film together. Over the next few years, that initial concept took on a more fluid and evolving form as we invited all sorts to join us in the canyon to share with us thoughts and musings that might inspire and challenge us.  Now, with an entire library of films to show for the countless hours we spent in that canyon, I'm excited for you to be able to explore the box canyon with us by watching the films created in that place and inspired by what we learned there.

Here are a few of my favorites.  I encourage you to visit www.theboxcanyon.org and explore the entire series.

Far removed from his hometown of Cambridge, England, poet-priest Malcolm Guite performs his sonnet “The Singing Bowl” in the Box Canyon at Laity Lodge. Miles beyond cell phone service and paved roads, in the stillness of the Texas Hill Country, he calls listeners to become like the Tibetan singing bowl, an inverted bell that reverberates into sound when a beater (or finger) is run around its rim. The bell is empty and silent until acted upon by someone. But then it produces a beautiful, harmonic sound. “Become an open singing bowl,” Guite invites us. Quiet yourself as the canyon is quiet. Hear your breath. Listen to the blood moving within. “And when the heart is full of quietness, / Begin the song exactly where you are.”

When we met Kelley McRae and Matt Castelein at the Box Canyon entrance, we realized that perhaps we had not sufficiently described the hike ahead. Kelley’s shoes weren’t exactly designed for trails. Both were wearing guitars. We knew that slick rocks and rope-enabled climbs (however modest) awaited our crew—maybe filming Kelley and Matt in the deeper reaches of Box Canyon was not such a good idea after all. But the late afternoon hike was nothing too daunting for a couple who had sold everything to take up a life on the road in pursuit of music. Unfazed, Matt and Kelley led the way. Matt even played guitar as we walked. They helped each other negotiate the climbs: swapping guitars, holding ropes. The sun was setting when we reached our destination. We spent a few minutes talking about their experiences on the road—the joint blessings and burdens that make up a life. When they finally got around to singing “Stay Close to Me,” kicking up dust as they kept time, the song took flight.

The Box Canyon involves a sort of ritual. It starts when we meet in front of the Great Hall to begin the short hike over. Always the same hike into the same canyon. A place within a place. Every time we finally arrive, there is a moment in which we simply, and quietly, look around. We take it in, for both its spaciousness and containment. For the effect it has on sound. For how the water has changed since we were there last. For any new rocks that may have fallen from the cliffs above. Then a spot is chosen. Songs are sung. Conversations amble. With every visit, all that transpires is in some way a response to the place itself. It has been said that “sacred place is ordinary place, ritually made extraordinary.” If anything extraordinary has ever happened—or will happen—in the Box Canyon, surely it depends on such repeated attention to this precise place. Looking again, and finding something new. To discover the universal, we begin by attending to the particular.

Opening Night at Lincoln Center: The Flight Fantastic!

I had the tremendous pleasure of shooting THE FLIGHT FANTASTIC for director Tom Moore.  We wrapped our filming together almost 5 years ago, but this documentary was worth the wait! Tom's film invites us into the past and present of one of circus' greatest acts, the Flying Gaonas.

Director Tom Moore greets us in front of a live circus act at the film's LA premiere at the Egyptian Theater.

Director Tom Moore greets us in front of a live circus act at the film's LA premiere at the Egyptian Theater.

My wife and daughter were able to join me at the film's wonderful, celebratory Los Angeles premiere at the Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard, where it screened to a packed house.  

Next up is its New York premiere, at none other than Lincoln Center.  On Friday, February 12th, THE FLIGHT FANTASTIC will be the opening night film of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Dance on Camera Film Festival.  

You can purchase your tickets to the NY premiere at Lincoln Center here. 

It was a real honor for me to be allowed into the lives of the Gaonas while filming this documentary. I was impressed by their hospitality and willingness to open up their homes to us, and the film would not have been such a success without their energy and vulnerability. 

Interviewing Victor in Venice, FL

Interviewing Victor in Venice, FL

Filming under the net in Venice, FL

Filming under the net in Venice, FL

New from the Box Canyon: How Augustine Can Save Your Life

I've been filming a series of videos with Nathan Clarke for Laity Lodge, taking our interview subjects and musicians into a special place in the Texas Hill Country and listening to them perform a song or share what's currently on their mind (or both).  The canyon has become a familiar and special place for us.  These most recent videos epitomize the kind of articulate reflections and delicate musicianship that we've been so privileged to experience throughout the 2+ years of working on this project: 

James K. A. Smith interviewed live in the Box Canyon at Laity Lodge, July 18, 2015.

Sandra McCracken and Sara Groves performing Dynamite live in the Box Canyon at Laity Lodge, July 18, 2015

Waiting and Chasing

Recently I spent a day with Nate Clarke (@nate_clarke) and Chris Payne (@paynecr) in the Texas Hill Country, doing our best to document a flock of Cliff Swallows in the Frio River Canyon. It was a day spent crouching alongside shallow mud puddles and sometimes shooting on a long lens out of the back of our rented minivan.  It required long periods of sitting completely still, waiting and hoping for a Cliff Swallow to appear, and gave me a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for full-time wildlife shooters.  They must have a deep reservoir of patience to drink from while they wait...and wait..and wait...

Here's the result of our efforts:

“The river is the ruling presence of this place. Here one is always under its influence. … But of all the creatures, except the fish, I think the swallows enjoy the river most. Whole flocks of barn swallows and rough wings will spend hours in the afternoon and evening circling and dipping over the water, feeding, bathing, drinking—and rejoicing, too, as I steadfastly believe, for I cannot imagine that anything could fly as splendidly as the swallows and not enjoy it.” Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House

This short piece is part of a larger project I've been shooting with Nate and Chris called The Box Canyon Sessions, coming soon.  

Playback

Filming a live musical performance outside presents many challenges: can't really control the lighting, can't really do anything about ambient noise, can't really stop the bugs from crawling up your pant legs, etc.  But if you embrace the necessary spontaneity of a shoot like this, you just might capture something beautiful.  We certainly did when Moda Spira joined us in the Box Canyon and performed Playback:

“Playback” is a new song by Moda Spira (Latifah Phillips; joined in the Box Canyon by Jordan Hamlin on banjo). The song title also serves as an unintentional reference to that scientific research paradigm—the "playback experiment"—which examines the responses of animals (particularly birds) to recordings of unfamiliar sounds. In other words, if you start making music in the woods, then you should expect that birds will reciprocate. Listen closely beginning at about the 2:20 mark, and we think you’ll find that a real musical link gets established between Moda Spira and a resident Box Canyon bird who must have liked what it was hearing so much that it simply had to join in.

Citizen Sounder

"Hey want to shoot the Sounders game with us this weekend?" 

I had to think for about 2 milliseconds before responding.  Of course I wanted to shoot the Sounders game; I love shooting soccer (have you seen this?) and besides, the game wasn't just any other game, it was against our most bitter rivals, the Portland Timbers.  Citizen Sounder gave me a field pass and asked me to capture footage for an ongoing piece aimed at documenting the experience of Sounders fandom, so to speak.  Here's a brief example of what I was able to capture:

Citizen Sounder is documenting the experiences of the devoted fans of the Sounders FC. I had a blast shooting for them, spending time in the stands and down on the sidelines.

Music by Zadok Wartes

Special thanks to Beeworks for sending me out with their BW05 camera stabilizer


Supermarket Spree

Supermarket Spree is a healthy-choices app currently in development.  They brought me on to shoot Anne's story at the new PCC in Greenlake (nice!). It was also an opportunity to put the prototype of the Beeworks BW05 through its paces.  I was very pleased with how it performed, and had a great time with the cast and crew: