2016 Odds & Ends

Vimeo—one of the services where I host my videos—offers a recurring workshop they call the Weekend Challenge. The 2016 Memory Bank episode challenges filmmakers to create a short film (under 3 minutes) out of their orphaned video clips from the year.

Until I learned about this assignment, I hadn’t given much thought to how many videos I’d recorded incidentally over the course of the year, nor whether they would fit together into a coherent narrative. I was surprised to discover that yes, they did. I hadn’t done very much work in this “video montage” style, so it was a new and interesting challenge.

I’d also never begun a movie project with the music. Previously, I had only added music to films after making the video part, like adding spices or a garnish to a meal. But using that approach has often resulted in movies where the music seemed like a poor fit or an afterthought.

This time around, I approached the project as a music video. (I was a big fan of MTV back in the early 1980s.) I started by writing and recording the music using Apple’s GarageBand software, overdubbing piano, synthesizer, and drum loops.

Then I imported the song into the Final Cut Pro video editing software, and added video clips to the song’s rhythmic timeline (versus the other way around). I liked this approach—it shifted my way of thinking and got me out of a couple of ruts I had slipped into.

I’m not exactly sure of the overarching theme among the clips. In 2016 I traveled more than usual. I had surgery. I got sick a couple of times. I had a good year at work and some pretty great times with family and friends. I got outdoors and did some hiking and bicycling. I played hockey. I grew some amazing garlic. I made sprouts. I learned to roast my own coffee. I took a bunch of photos and movies. I made four paintings. I published. I tried to improve. I learned some new technological skills. All the while a relentless and dissonant political battle raged in the background. My team lost, twice.

Perhaps the theme is one of continuing to be kind, creative, resilient, graceful, and happy despite the challenging nature of the times. Or maybe the lesson is simply to focus on the good stuff in life, because there really is so much of it to be enjoyed and shared. Hopefully this short film captures some of the happy highlights.

Nightfall over Providence

Recently we made a quick overnight trip to Providence, Rhode Island, to help Rebecca’s daughter settle into her dorm at college. The view from our hotel (Omni Providence) was pretty nice, so I got to try something I’ve been wanting to do: make a time-lapse movie of day turning into night in an urban environment.

I suppose I could have used my iPhone’s time-lapse mode and called it a day (into night—ha), but the quality of the iPhone’s photos suffers in low-light conditions. So I got my “good camera” ready, and embarked upon a little project.

Check out the short video above to see the result of my experiment.

Some notes on the equipment I used and how I set things up:

  • Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II micro four-thirds format (great camera, awful name—I propose Zephyr)
  • Lens: Panasonic Lumix/Leica 25mm f/1.4 (equivalent to a 50mm focal length in “full-frame” camera terms)
  • Tripod: GorillaPod Original
  • Fortunately, the window of our 12th floor room was able to be opened about four inches, so I didn’t have to shoot through dirty windows or contend with room reflections in the glass.
  • I spent a good 15 minutes obsessing about whether to use a wider-angle lens, to capture a bigger view of the city. We could see Waterplace Park and a portion of the river from our room, and had it been a WaterFire night, that might have influenced my decision toward the “more-is-more” direction. But Rebecca, bless her, helped confirm my hunch that what this particular scene needed was a tighter crop of a specific subject: the domed Rhode Island State House at the other end of the street.
  • I settled on the 25 mm lens, set the camera on the tripod, aimed it through the open window, and composed the shot through the viewfinder.
  • I used the brightest f-stop available (f/1.4) and set the camera to aperture priority mode, so that the shutter speed would vary and the “after dark” shots would be adequately exposed.
  • I manually focused on the State House so that the camera wouldn’t waste any battery energy automatically refocusing for every shot. Also, auto-focus doesn’t always focus on the right thing—especially when the scene is dark—so I figured I’d take control of that aspect.
  • I set the camera to take medium-resolution shots. Again, I was concerned about battery life, and shooting RAW or high-resolution JPGs would have drained the camera’s battery too quickly.
  • Sunset was going to be at 7:17 p.m. I figured that if I started around 6:00 and ended around 8:00, I would capture the transition from light to dark nicely.
  • As far as the frequency of the shots, I started obsessing with the math, calculating how many shots I’d end up with if I set the camera to take a photo every 5, 10, or 15 seconds, and what the frame rate of the final video would need to be, to create smooth animation. I ultimately decided on one shot every 15 seconds, figuring that I could sort out the timing considerations later, in software. The camera has a programmable time-lapse mode, so I set it up, crossed my fingers, and pressed the shutter button.
  • We left to get some dinner, praying we would not come back to find that a flight of pigeons had taken up residence in our room. (They hadn’t.)
  • I’m glad I chose the 15-second interval, because as it happened, the battery died and the camera stopped taking pictures before I manually intervened. Fortunately, just enough shots (514) were captured.
  • Back at home on the computer, I imported the photos and used Apple’s QuickTime Pro 7 software to convert the image sequence into a movie. I tried one at 60 frames per second (FPS), one at 30 FPS, and one at 24 FPS, to see which one worked best. Ultimately I kept the 24 FPS one.
  • I brought that file into Final Cut Pro X software, cropped the composition to the 16:9 proportion of HD video, and rotated it a half of a degree to correct a slight listing feeling. Also, I shortened the movie somewhat at the beginning, as it felt like it was dwelling too heavily on the “day” side of the transition.
  • I exported the movie to Vimeo, and embedded it into this page.
  • The biggest lesson for me was the consideration of battery life. Olympus sells an add-on battery pack for my camera that combines two batteries, but it adds bulk and weight, and part of the reason I chose this camera in the first place was its compact form. If I plan to do longer time-lapse projects in the future, I might consider investing in it. But then again, I might simply switch to a 20- or 30-second interval, and make sure I start with a freshly-charged battery every time.

In Praise of Cranberry Wake

I love this short film Cranberry Wake by Alex Horner. It is such a perfect marriage of storytelling, history, sport, music, and abstraction, told with an exquisite attention to detail. Every frame of this film is a perfectly-composed painting.

The film starts out seeming to be a mini documentary on how cranberries are grown and harvested. But then the wakeskaters show up, and the film takes on a whole new dimension. “What’s a wakeskater?” you might ask. Watch the film and find out!

I’m particularly moved by how well the music harmonizes with the visuals. Steve Horner’s Light on Blue and Tycho’s Daydream are perfectly ethereal selections that complement the dreamy, slowed-down action shots. I would love to learn how to obtain rights to use another artist’s music in my own short films. Until then, I’ll continue to make my own music for films.

In Praise of Mr. Chickadee

A great resource for do-it-yourselfers (or those who would like to be)

Have you ever wondered how people made things in the olden days before we had power tools, die casting, injection moulding, 3D printing, sheet metal stamping, or robot welding? Well wonder no more, because Mr. Chickadee will show you.

I’ve fallen in love with—and subscribed to—his YouTube channel, which features episodes on how to make all manner of things from split stones, forged metal strap hinges, door latches, and masonry heaters, to entire systems like a timber frame workshop built entirely by hand. There’s also a blog that features some thoughtful writing and photographs, but there’s something magical and mesmerizing about watching the process unfold before your eyes in the movie format. His carpentry skills are exquisite.

Sometimes content on YouTube can be hit-or-miss, but this channel’s production values really shine, and mirror the fine craftsmanship of the work being documented. The films are beautifully composed and shot, and expertly edited. Presumably this is the work of Mrs. Chickadee, who makes appearances in several of the episodes (when she does, the camera seems to be tripod-mounted, versus hand-held). Playful cameo appearances by their pets add an endearing touch.

One of the most notable features of these movies is the lack of background music or verbal narration. All you get are the stoic sounds of the work being done, set against a meditative backdrop of natural sounds like rain, crickets, birds, etc. At first this can be a little disorienting if you have no idea what is being done and are looking for answers in familiar written or verbal form. But if you are able, be patient, learn to trust your eyes and to absorb the information visually. Mr. Chickadee will not let you down. Onward to self-reliance!

Treework

A short film documenting the felling of a tree.

There was a tree in my yard that was leaning about 20 degrees off its vertical axis. Years ago—maybe decades—someone who lived here before me had apparently used this poor tree as a fencepost. There was a three-inch wide ring carved out of the bark a couple of feet above the ground, extending around the girth of the tree. I feared that someday a combination of heavy snow and strong wind would bring the tree crashing down, crushing one or more of my peach trees, and possibly taking out a corner of my barn. I knew I needed to fell the tree, before it fell on its own terms. Because of its height, I knew I needed to take the tree down in sections.

I thought about calling a professional tree service, but in the spirit of Matthew B. Crawford’s excellent book Shop Class as Soulcraft—wanting to be “a master of my own stuff”—I set about to do the job on my own. I already had the necessary tools on hand, and I didn’t want to spend money on something I thought I could reasonably do on my own. (Don’t worry, when I need a new roof I will call a pro.) I won’t lie—there were moments when I questioned the wisdom of doing this job myself. But now it is done, and I am pleased with how it turned out. I filmed the process and edited it down to a bite-sized nugget of a film, which I hope you enjoy.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go:

  • Take a shower
  • Sharpen my chainsaw blade (there’s a rotary tool bit for that)
  • Make dozens of wood-burned log slice trivets as gifts for my friends and family (and for my Etsy shop)
  • Split logs for next year’s firewood
  • Make chainsaw sculptures
  • Plant some new trees, to replenish the stock
  • All of the above.

Making Homemade Almond Milk

A short film about making almond milk at home.

Homemade almond milk is delicious and nutritious. It doesn’t contain all the unnatural chemicals and preservatives that commercial boxed almond milk does. It’s easy to make, so I thought I would make a little movie to document the process. You soak a cup of raw almonds in water overnight, rinse them, then purée them in a blender for a few minutes with a pinch of sea salt and a dash of vanilla. Then you strain the mixture through a nut milk bag into a container. Store it in the refrigerator and use it as you would milk. That’s really all there is to it.

The reason I use raw unpasteurized almonds is that they are alive and full of healthful natural enzymes. You could sprout these almonds and grow trees from them. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires almond producers in the U.S. to pasteurize or steam their almonds, so I buy almonds that are imported from Spain. (Incongruously, the FDA allows food producers to poison the American food stream with obesity-causing high-fructose corn syrup and all manner of artificial preservatives, growth hormones, and pharmaceuticals, so I question that agency’s authority where it comes to natural foods and food safety.)

It is my sense that live organic almonds obtained from a reputable source (a small grower that takes care in its farming practices… or a TREE) are a safe bet. I haven’t had any problems with them so far. If you are in doubt, consult your doctor, or simply use pasteurized raw almonds.

Almond skins contain an enzyme-inhibiting substance that keep the almond from prematurely sprouting. This same substance makes it hard for some people to digest almonds. Fortunately, you can soak the almonds overnight and rinse them to neutralize and remove that substance.

All-Season Rope Swing

Of all the crazy things that kids from Massachusetts do, this is one of my favorites.

When you hear the words “rope swing,” you may think of a hot summer day. Maybe you envision lolling at your local swimming hole, swinging from a shade tree and plunging into the cool water below. But what if it’s that time of year when the days are short, it’s freezing outside, and your favorite pond is covered with a thick layer of ice? Watch as a young skater from Easthampton, Massachusetts demonstrates that a rope swing can be enjoyed in the wintertime too. I tried this swing a few times myself, and it was a blast.

I had captured the raw footage in 2010, but until recently it had sat on my hard drive taking up space and gathering digital dust, as so many other movie clips do. I want to make more movies, but sitting down to teach myself the filmmaking craft requires a level of commitment that until recently I hadn’t made. It’s further complicated by one of my new resolutions: to be more mindful about the amount of time I spend in front of glowing screens. But facility with the filmmaking medium seems like an important attribute for a visually-oriented communicator to develop, so I’m biting the bullet and sacrificing a few more hours to the cause.

Sure, this film may be a little crude: the stylized cloud shapes in the title sequence are cheesy ready-mades from the Final Cut library. The funky Duality typeface (by one of my favorite type designers, Ray Larabie) pairs well with the clouds, but probably isn’t the best fit for the overall subject matter. The choice of music doesn’t particularly support the narrative, either, but I wrote and recorded it, so at least my intellectual property karma is clean.

Who knows, maybe if I allow myself to play more freely and unselfconsciously, and embrace a few inconsistencies, I will grow artistically, and will develop an authorial voice and a stronger narrative vision. The important thing is that I keep doing the work, sharing the work, and learning to use the tools. Meaning can emerge.

I am trying to get over being such a perfectionist that I never publish anything. Hopefully the more I do this, the more comfortable I will become with letting my awkward learning process show. Thank you for indulging me. Your encouragement is appreciated. I hope you enjoy this sketch.

Remembering Hillman Curtis

A tribute to Hillman Curtis, one of the world’s great creative minds who died of cancer in 2012

Hillman Curtis had been one of my personal heroes since the early 2000s. I had discovered one of his short films featuring the music of what would become one of my favorite bands, Mogwai. I promptly went out and bought his 2002 book MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer, and it became one of the handful of books that shaped my own creative aspirations over the years.

One of the things that made Hillman such a compelling influence for me is that his career trajectory foreshadowed and in some ways mirrored my own. He had been a student, a creative writer, a musician in a rock band, a graphic designer, a web designer, and ultimately a filmmaker.

What’s the Story?

In his book (MTIV stands for Making the Invisible Visible), one of the things Hillman taught is that success in creative projects usually depends on how clearly we understand and present the central theme of whatever story we are telling (whether it be our own or that of our clients). In his eponymous video, he characterizes his own theme as “Reinvention.”

I would add that it wasn’t reinvention merely for the sake of change. That would have been easy enough to justify: we live in a society mesmerized by “all that is shiny and new.” What struck me about Hillman’s serial self-reinvention was that there was a deep level of continuity to it. Every evolution built upon the successes of the previous incarnation.

Studying creative writing led to writing songs; which in turn led to his going on the road with a band. His band needed posters to advertise its shows, so Hillman stepped up and taught himself that craft. And with computer skills under his belt, it made perfect sense to move his creativity online when the whole Web thing happened. Motion graphics on the Web became a big deal (and a lucrative business opportunity), and Hillman evolved to become a master of Adobe’s (née Macromedia) Flash technology. When Flash became the go-to platform for delivering video over the Web, the path became clear once again, and Hillman had an opportunity to circle back to his writing and filmmaking roots.

On this, the anniversary of his passing, I’m taking a few moments to appreciate his gifts and his influence upon my creative life.

A few related links

Wintertime Fun: Pond Skating

A short film paying tribute to one of my favorite activities, pond hockey

When I visit my family down South, sometimes I get asked how I tolerate the cold winters of my current New England home. I suppose the answer has something to do with the lesson of survival in the face of adversity. Yes, a cold climate can be inconvenient, depressing, and uncomfortable; but there are ways to adapt. Snow tires, hats, boots, layered clothes, and positive attitudes make a remarkable difference in one’s ability not only to survive winter, but to thrive in it.

Enjoying outdoor activities is another way to avoid the winter “blahs.” Water freezes, so we skate on it. Snow falls, so we don skis, snowboards, or snowshoes and make the best of it. Taking photographs allows us to share winter’s stark, pristine beauty abstracted from its messiness.

In this short movie that I filmed on on Lower Mill Pond, my buddy Matt Waugh and I enjoyed some pond hockey on a patch of ice that I had just cleared of snow. The temperature that day never rose above 21° Farenheit, but was I cold? Not at all. In fact, after shoveling continuously for three hours, I was overheated. The ensuing fun made all the hard work worthwhile.

The Making of a Painting

A time-lapse movie documenting a year’s work

In the summer of 2010 I started to work on a large painting commissioned by the owner of Rao’s Café in Amherst, Massachusetts. (Which has since been rebranded as Share.) Several of my earlier paintings had already been on display at the café, so I knew that this new one needed to fit stylistically and thematically. I settled on the subject of a carnival at twilight, inspired by the traveling carnival that visits the Amherst Town Common every spring. The format is the largest stand-alone painting I’ve ever made: 5 feet by 8 feet (I’ve painted murals directly onto larger walls).

Never before had I so deliberately documented my process of making a painting, so I thought it would be an interesting side project to set up a video camera in my studio, film the process from start to finish, and put together a time-lapse movie showing how the painting developed. What you see here is about fourteen months’ worth of intermittent work (nights, weekends, and holidays) condensed into a two minute video. This is whittled down from tons of original footage. Highlights of the movie include a fair amount of non-painting “prep work” (a.k.a, “getting into character”), a significant composition change (around 00:53) in order to situate the painting on the Amherst Common, and the fact that I wear nutty outfits while I work. Most notably, I showed my sartorial support of the Boston Bruins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 for the first time since 1972. I’d like to think I helped with that!

Update: as of November 2016, this painting moved to Bueno y Sano in Northampton, Massachusetts. Check it out, when you’re in the mood for a great burrito.

Update: on February 20th, 2017, I replaced the previously-silent video with one featuring original music composed and recorded by yours truly. I hope you enjoy the movie with its new soundtrack.

The finished painting: Carnival

Carnival painting by Trace Meek