My First Documentary

I thought that the best way to learn how to shoot a documentary was to shoot a documentary. So with camera in hand, I tracked my subject, Heather Hendrie, in her attempt to build a electricity generating bike adapter. She thought she could build it in a day, and I naively thought I could finish a documentary short in a week.

A year and a half later, I’m finally releasing my first documentary short. I’m proud to say it will be premiering this Friday evening at an outdoor movie event during Cyclepalooza, a ten day celebration of bikes. Here’s the trailer:

It’s humbling to see the evolution of my camera abilities and how difficult it is get the right shot in changing outdoor lighting conditions. Nevertheless, the project has rewarded me with lessons in patience and persistence.

In life, I am quick to take action and impatient for results. In documentaries as in life, the meaningful things take its own time to grow and flourish. Strangely, through my computer screen I examine life more closely and fully than in real life. I can replay interviews and extract themes and nuance. I can observe the story of a year’s journey in seconds. Here on my editing suite, I am permitted the luxury of reflection.

Perhaps this says something about how I do tend to see things through a fog of ideas. Documentary video helps me crystalize some of those ideas in ways that feels practical. The ideas become real for me.

Editing is a process of reflection and meaning-making. Every cut is a decision that says “this is important” because it’s significant or it entertains or it simply moves the story along. One day, I’d like to reach this level of mastery where every cut is purpose made.

Like any meaning-making process though, I have to see the small moving pictures in the context of the larger stories. How am I able to see clearly in these moments of life if I don’t invest myself in experiencing and understanding life itself?

Sounds abstract I know, but it is eminently practical. On a small scale, Heather’s project is just a bike that generates electricity. But in the context of our collective dependency on energy, particularly fossil fuels, and its threat to the environment, the bike takes on greater significance.

So I remind myself. There are times to act and do your best. But there are more times where taking more time will lead to far better results.

Why sports often doesn’t develop character

The word sport came from a Old French verb, desporter, meaning to divert or amuse or play. Ref a few testosterone-laden soccer games and you’ll see why the “sport of kings” originally referred to war-making.

I have higher aspirations for sport. Can it serve a purpose above the motivations of war? Will it remain the domain of diversion and amusement to pass the time? Or will it simply be a spectacle to be charged for at the gates? I hadn’t considered this question until a recent Artist in Residency partnership with Sport Calgary had me thinking about what sports offer, if anything, to society. With over 500 amateur sports organizations and 80 categories of sports in Calgary alone, there is no doubt it plays a big role in the community.

Unfortunately, in an age where success is often measured by fame and fortune alone, the spirit of sport is lost in the economic drive to commercialize all aspects of life. But I think sport, if properly understood, is a potential vehicle for developing values that make for a strong and vibrant community.

At its core, sport is a form of organized play requiring physical prowess. For some, this form of play may become a lifelong profession. For many others, playing is a healthy form of leisure. But as every child learns, play is a form of practice for the big game of life and it should be taken seriously.

Sports inherently creates conditions where good character could be developed. One may need to overcome fear and stress to overcome obstacles, or compete with intelligence and respect against an opponent, or strive for excellence in one’s ability. But it can just as easily descend into a winner-takes-all attitude where slavish loyalty to the team trumps ethical behaviour. Famous basketball coach, John Wooden, was on to something when he said that “Sports do not develop character. It reveals it.”

The issue is that sports by itself is insufficient for developing character. Sure the structure of the sport, whether team or individual, plays a role in the types of skills developed. Nevertheless, coaches, parents, celebrities, schools, sports films, and news play as much, if not more, of a role in shaping how athletes approach their sport. Imagine a coach who preaches respect and fairplay in the dressing room, but dresses down the ref on a bad call, or parents who pressure kids to win at all costs even if it means sneaking one past the ref. The lessons learned from an activity depends on the culture surrounding the individual athlete.

Yet, even if there is a supportive network of people present to draw out the best in the athlete, there is also no guarantee that qualities developed in one discipline will transfer into other areas of life. You can be disciplined in your training, but undisciplined in your personal relationships. Or you might excel in sport, but lose sight of the bigger picture of life.

Consider the values that could be learned through sport:

  • Resilience – the ability to manage setbacks or failures in productive ways
  • Persistence – the resolve to continue to pursue objectives despite challenges
  • Adaptive Learning – the ability to learn from mistakes or failure and build new skills for changing circumstances
  • Courage – the ability to manage fear and move ahead regardless of it
  • Fairness – the ability to act well despite the heat the moment or the pressure to achieve objectives
  • Respect – the quality of treating people, friends and foe alike, with dignity and compassion.
  • Teamwork – the ability to work with and coordinate with other people to achieve the same objectives
  • Excellence – the drive to continuously improve oneself

At a high level, they make perfect sense. The devil really is in the details. Knowing is not the same as having the capacities. They require as much practice and training in life as in sport. Developing the courage to climb Mt. Everest is different than the moral courage to question your own team, but climbing Mt. Everest might help. The specific disciplines in kicking a ball accurately every time under pressure is different than the specific disciplines of doing an investigative documentary on a corrupt politician. But the general principles of diagnosing problems, self-correcting, pulling back ignorance, and managing the pressures performance does cross disciplines.

I’m interested in hinting at the possibilities that sport offers beyond the vague generalities that sports commercials offer. Hence, the artist in residency. If you have any thoughts on what sport could develop and how, I’d love to hear what you think. Until then, remember that you are what you train in sport and in life.


About the Artist in Residency

Hidden Story Productions and Sport Calgary would like to invite you to participate in an exciting exploration of the true spirit of amateur sport through a series of short documentary films. Our goal is to illustrate in cinematic style these values through the thoughts and feelings of local athletes and the sports that they play. To this end, we are looking for amateur athletes in Calgary willing to share their stories, the behind the scenes of their training, and how it shapes their life. We are now looking for amateur athletes in Calgary of any age, skill level, or sport (except for hockey, soccer, baseball, basketball… sorry too mainstream).

This project is sponsored in part by Calgary 2012’s Artist-in-Residency Program. Calgary 2012 is an independent, non-profit organization that helps showcase Calgary’s culture and create legacy projects to encourage future cultural achievements.


TEDxCalgary – Threads of Ideas

If you haven’t heard of, it’s about time you have. It’s like finding an info desk at a vast library where you can be introduced personally to some of the incredible ideas percolating in our global culture.

TED talks are just an introduction though. They aren’t the meat. They don’t feed you. They only show you possibilities of the human imagination and spirit. Only by taking the path ourselves do we fulfill the promise of listening to a TED talk.

TEDx Talks, an independently run version of TED, is coming to Calgary in the form of TEDxCalgary on June 4th. We’re bringing together some thinkers and doers who are playing on the edges of society. All from very different disciplines, but they all share a hope is for a better, stronger civil society.

I have the privilege of directing the video production crew and the stage design for this event as well as setting up a space for an in-depth interview with a few of the speakers. My hope is that these speakers, these ideas will find a home in people seeking to build a better community.

I wish we could have invited the whole city to the event, but even if you can’t make it the actual event at the Glenbow, you can connect with us online. All the videos will be posted for free, and the possibility to connect is unlimited.

Adaptive do-It-yourself? Or next ‘Canada’s Worst Handyman’?

There comes a time in every young man’s life when he must learn how to light a blow torch, to run stone through a wet saw, and mix cement with water. Or so I tell myself as I stumble my way through learning how to redo a part of my bathroom.

And so it begins... no turning back.

Let’s face it. I grew up with a computerized, virtual view of the world. The merest stroke of a key and all can be altered in the digital world with little consequence to the real world except perhaps a numbered software error. But renovating the bathtub faucet and tub surround requires a crowbar and the possibility of wrecking or blowing up your home.

For those that grew up on a farm, you can stop laughing now. And just for the record, I had an experienced farm hand with an eye for design help me with this project.

For others less inclined to take apart stuff, I’d say try it! If possible and if in the right state of mind, try to (as I tell myself) relish the frustrations of discovering your own ignorance, but also know that you can figure it out.

For instance, we initially took apart the walls and waited for the plumber. Then a stroke of good fortune: the plumber did not show up. Which left us to decide whether we could do it ourselves. And you know what, when we looked at the cuts and crimps and solders needed, we got the plumbing job done with only one too many trips to the Home Depot. 

Nevertheless, turning on the water and finding no leaks was sweet victory. What made it truly sweet though was understanding how the flux works and where to apply the heat and knowing how you’d fix it if something goes wrong. It’s knowing that it wasn’t a fluke. At this point, I have to thank my many supporters: Brian, YouTube, Google, and three different opinions from Home Depot.

It’s too bad Do-It-Yourself isn’t encouraged more. In my parent’s day, DIY used to mean frugality and self-reliance particularly during the big recessions. My dad, during one particularly bad year in the 80’s learned to build the garage, renovate the basement, and make furniture. Nothing unusual.

These days, DIY has become fodder for reality TV shows. Why do it yourself when you can hire someone to do it all better? Why take the risk? Isn’t it a waste of time?

Which is unfortunate, because DIY is not about efficiency. It’s about learning how to figure things out and developing a sense of power over the world around us. It’s also my way of battling against the age of over-specialization. In a world, where we have delegated our powers to grow food, make things, and fix things to other people, what skills are we left with?

Water-resistant Kerdi membrane installed on bathroom wall.

Once we got the rough-in valve installed, it was time to take off the tub surround. We expected the worse… black mold, rotten beams, a dead rat maybe. Instead we discovered old, but dry boards. No problems. Up goes the new water resistant boards and a special pink membrane to block moisture. Measure twice, cut once… unless of course you use the exact same erroneous process both times you measured.

Peer learning was what rescued me from certain disaster. My partner / mentor and I constantly bounced our understanding of the situation off each other. With his experience and my naivete, we were miraculously able to correct each other’s assumptions. I get now why the trades have an apprenticeship / journeyman system. It’s the best way to learn.

So when it came to planning the tile setting, I jumped into action with my computer skills and created for us a model.

Scale drawing of tiles taking into account grout lines. Framing tiles could be adjusted to get less cuts.

Overkill? Well, you must understand that our hubris from our plumbing success led us to set our sights higher. We wanted to install stone tiles in a diagonal pattern. Two choices that made this job three or four times harder than installing waterproof porcelain in a standard grid pattern.

Laying out some of the tiles on the living room floor to get a feel for the look.

But when I saw the natural stone, I was mesmerized by the unique organic patterns in each tile. I felt as if each stone had a story. For a moment, I rediscovered my childhood inclination to pickup colourful stones from the alleyway.

As it turns out, the computer model made it very easy to choose the right sized tiles. We could move tiles around, decide on grout width, number of cuts and tiles needed, and even plan our approach to allow for variation in reality. That is afterall what a good model helps one to do. The resulting layout, however, has to be checked against the actual wall which is neither flat nor square. Nowhere is the refrain “the model is not reality” more apparent.

The anticipation of seeing whether one’s best laid plans were accurate is thrilling. Perhaps it’s the strumming of that thin, invisible link between one’s thought and one’s actions. To know that you can work through a two-week process of planning and learning and doing makes you think that you could do the same over a lifetime.

Not bad for the first time. But it took much longer than expected.

And the result? Well, so far it looks great in the photo. But it belies the little frustrations of imperfections inherent in the stone, the wall, the cut, the human hand multiplied by a need for perfection. My role was modest in this part. Mostly I was the apprentice that cleaned tools, ran errands, and more importantly observed closely. On occasion I got to make cuts and lay tiles that weren’t critical to the overral pattern.

The renovation continues, yet I already feel a sense of pride. As Ken Low would say, achievement is success hard earned.

Testing Irrational Passionate Ideas

What if you were seized with a crazy desire to buy a video camera and tell stories, but you don’t have a clue how to make a film let alone hold a camera? That’s the question I was faced with a few months ago.

The idea smacked me across the face. Video is a beautiful intersection between my techno-geek, story-teller persona and the needs of projects I was involved in. So how to travel down this path a little further? Or as Savage Garden once sang, “I don’t know if I love you, but ooo I want to find out.” Here are some of my first steps down in that journey.

Is this idea even feasible in my life?
I started thinking about what kind of video equipment I needed (versus wanted which was unlimited). Not the necessarily best place to start, but it leads to questions of purpose for the camera and me in the short-term as well as what I wanted to grow into in the long run.

But how to pay for this venture? Fund raising was a possibility, but knowing nothing about that, I settled on starting a small business in videography. What set of skills did I need? How could I get them? What kind of work could I get? What can I learn from other videographers out there? And in the context of other things I could be doing, is this worth while for me to do?

After seeking answers to those questions, there was only one thing to do: get my company started.

Logo and name for the basic conceptual idea

If yes, ramp up and get started
Convincing myself (or perhaps rationalizing) that it could work, I proceeded to build my own action-oriented curriculum since film-school was overkill at this time for my little side project.

  • Learn Basics of Editing – Luckily I had hours of raw footage from my wedding that I could use. It was perfect for practice and my anniversary was coming up in any case.
  • Practice Basic Camera Work – Incidentally EMMEDIA had an Intro to Videotaping workshop. But as it turned out there was more than enough resources on YouTube and the web that explained the basics of videography. Here’s an oldie but a goodie:
  • Do Live Shooting – Nothing brings out a keen desire to learn like pressure, and that means weddings. Weddings are one of the most difficult kinds of events to shoot. Poor lighting, high expectations, long hours and you only get one shot. Fortunately, my friends Lindsey and Mandy were willing to be my guinea pigs for my first creative production. Here was the result:

  • Discover Audio and Lighting – Lighting properly and getting good sound was a whole other world. Purchasing the camera was only the first third of the expense. The second third was lights and microphones. I now understood why people specialized in each of those areas. Small tip: purchase cheap daylight bulbs and reflectors from home depot; they work great for simple setups.
  • And the Third Third? – High definition means high computing requirements which means high additional costs for new software and computers.
  • Learn from Other People’s Work – Pretty soon, I couldn’t watch a movie or a show without noticing the camera work, how the cut was made, and what filming techniques were used. Documentary films took on a whole new meaning for me.
  • Seek Out Mentors – As I started telling others about my plans, I met a number of people working in the field many of whom were helpful in giving me a feel for the industry. I’m still seeking the right guild of people you might say who will provide the kind of feedback I need to get to where I want to go.

The experiment goes on. There’s storytelling and storyboarding to learn. There’s shooting mini-documentaries. I feel as if there are invisible lessons everywhere to be learned. Some significant, some not. Now if I can only find them.

I have to admit that I like learning my way versus the school way. It takes more discipline, but it is also vastly more liberating, and it has to lead to interesting collaborative and creative projects such as this one. Try it out with your irrational idea.

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business