Making of Kenya, the documentary film.
The story that took 3 years to retell.
Being a part of a Christian humanitarian organization, I've had
the priviledge to travel abroad.
My background is in film production, but short of bringing a camera
on these trips, the two worlds have never really intersected.
In 2000, a team from my organization (RCCM)
traveled to Zambia and the over 20 hours of video I captured there
turned into a short documentary film. Now, 6 years and three documentary
films later, documenting these trips have become a central part
of what I do. The trips are not about the films -- the trips are
about touching and helping people. Offering hope to the hopeless.
I quickly realized how powerful these experiences were and that
they should be documented.
We produce these documentaries for two reasons, 1) to creatively
document our impact and 2) to document and preserve the culture,
ways, and beauty of these foreign lands.
Our first three films, Zambia, Napoli, and Huts of Refuge have
experienced surprising distribution success and have added notoriety
to what we accomplish overseas.
Our fourth film, Kenya, represents a major advance in production
quality and value that we put on these films. Months of planning
went into the pre-production of this film. Our equipment list
and crew is much more complete. We also have a budget (wow).
One thing that has not changed is our methodology..........
As we travel to Kenya, it will be our first time there. Besides
our hosts, we do not know anyone there nor do we know the specifics
of our schedule. We feel, as with our past films, that this will
give us a fresh perspective and an open-minded approach to the
experience. We have no scripts, planned interviews or locations.
We have no idea what to expect. We do know that the primary cities
will be visiting are Mombasa, Nairobi, and Eldoret. During our
third week in Africa, we will be in Harare, Zimbabwe.
A travel advisory was issued by the US government warning travelers
to avoid Kenya because of suspected Al Qaeda activity there. The
US embassy will be closed. We'll see how this might fit into the
When deciding what equipment to bring, there are a number of
things to consider.
We would love to use a complete film package and do justice to
the many telling physical and social panaramas we are sure to
witness, but we need to be un-noticable, or at least unobtrusive
so we can capture stories without changing the essence of them.
Many natives, especially those in remote locations have little
exposure to cameras. To authentically capture them is tricky.
We do many shots of candid conversation, telling shots of natives
in everyday life, shots in tight vehicles, and shots in places
where we probably shouldn't be. We always try not to
look like filmmakers....more like tourists. If we look innocent
enough, we can usually get away with getting something in the
can from locations such as foreign diplomatic areas, airports,
and other sensitive areas....before getting kicked out.
Our primary criteria is to have a camera that is as small and
innocent-looking as possible. We do travel with a rather full
equipment list such as steadicam, jib arms, camera support, lens
options, and full external audio devices. Although we do use this
equipment for cut-aways such as wild life and establishing shots,
we almost never use it otherwise. The bulk of our film will come
from having a small camcorder at our hip and rolling a ton. As
a result, many unique stories will be collected. I'm rather convinced
that the same will hold true while capturing situations in cities
and small towns anywhere. There are interesting stories all around
us, and with creativity and patience in the editing room, these
stories can become captivating films.
The name of our company in New York is
Colors Studios. The production division that handles these
documentaires is called Mwanga il Uliwanya which means
light of the world in Swahili. That is a common name
for Christ -- which is a central part of our message overseas.
The name's double meaning is based on our filmmaking methodology.
We pride ourselves on not embellishing these films, genuinely
retelling experiences, no retakes or staged shots and using only
available light -- usually sunlight. Hence, light of the world.
As mentioned above, the cameras we will use is always a debate.
The primary consideration for our camera is size. That eliminates
our ENG and film cameras that would traditionally offer a better
look than a consumer camcorder. JVC has just released the world's
first small 720p camcorder. We at Colors like to stay on the cutting
edge and that has gotten us into trouble in the past and it may
here as well. The HDV revolution is going to be a very good one
for us. The immediate problem with HDV is that it is not yet supported
by the major editing platforms. I got word from a friend at Apple
that they have "just now begun" to think about how they
may support HDV in future versions of FCP.
With faith in Apple, and with no specific deadline for Kenya,
we have contacted a long-time friend at JVC and we will have some
of the first JVC JY-HD10U shipped to us ready for our late October
departure date. We are excited by the prospect of shooting within
our criteria -- in HD.
The JVC isn't perfect, nothing we've ever used for one of our
documentaries is. Audiences tend to understand the nature of our
films and accept that they may look different than a studio picture.
In our minds, things such as a jitter from a handheld shot or
a moment of focus loss adds to the authenticity of the film. Visual
imperfection it is to be expected. We have taken some measures
to reduce these types of artifacts. The genius rigger in our group
has made....let's call them...devices....one will reduce camera
jitter on handheld and moving vehicle shots. We also picked up
a Steadicam jr.
The JVC shoots natively in 16:9, 30p and renders a flat, rather
desaturated picture. This will work just fine for post-processing.
Audio is the single most important technical element of the production.
Smooth, discernible audio is what gives a project professional
production value. Audiences are quick to forgive poor, degraded,
or heavily stylized visuals, but there is no better way to get
an audience to tune out than having poor audio. A good example
of this is one of my recent short films. I was very pleased with
this project and was convinced that others would love it. After
the presentation, person after person politely said that it wasn't
my finest work. I was quite surprised by the reaction but learned
an important lesson. Only one out of the many people I spoke to
that night said they had a hard time understanding the dialouge.
A few weeks later I went back and looked at the film with a few
other filmmakers. They recommended that I remix the audio. The
entire film was set to a rather loud soundtrack. I realized that
I, as the director, had the dialouge memorized...but others may
have a hard time understanding it.
Long story short: I did not change one frame of video, but I entirely
remixed the audio. I re-released the film nearly a year later
to a new audience and they loved it. It was interesting that the
first audience did'nt even know why they did'nt like it. Audio
is the heartbeat of a project. If the audio is bad, the film will
be received as such no matter how good the rest of it is.
That said, it is extremely difficult to capture good audio on
a "run and gun" documentary. Our primary salvation is
our very talented audio engineers who make even our worst audio
mediocore. Even so, we have an extreme emphasis on capturing the
best possible audio on the field. It is only because of this effort
that can make bad audio usable. Although there are many areas
we will improve on for Kenya, no one item is more important than
capturing better audio. For Kenya, we will bring along Sennheiser
ME66 shotgun mics, along with multiple AKG wireless systems that
we use with Sennheiser MKE-2 lav mics. We will use a shotgun (mounted
to the camera) for general capture, and a second mic, a lav, when
we are tracking specific team members. Even at times when we are
capturing from the lav mic, we will also be capturing from the
shotgun on a separate channel which can be balanced or eliminated
in the final mix.
We use AKG 6100 and 8100 wireless systems in our studio. They
are not made to be mobile, but they can be rigged to do so. For
our last trip to Africa, our techs rigged up a compact, rechargable
12v battery pack that lasted all day and was compatible with their
funky voltage and outlet pin configuration for recharging. The
wireless receiver fit in a side pouch and it connected to the
camera via XLR. The AKG 8100 is a high-end UHF diversity system
which has worked out great in the past and we never had a range
issue. Many (even costly) ENG wireless systems we have used have
not performed nearly as well.
We also will bring along a portable Minidisc recorder. We're big
fans of MD. We have been using them in our studios for years for
demos, auditions, or anytime we need a quick, high-quality recording.
They are versitile, and have been a perfect fit in our remote
production packages. Whenever we have more than a few minutes
to setup, we always record duplicate audio on MD. We also record
ambient and foley on MD.
While overseas, we host various gatherings from extremely large
evangelistic-type crusades to more intimate gatherings with political
officials and such. At these events, we have up to 8 channels
of audio recording. Any production's audio quality is a vital
element that must be well-thought out, well-captured, edited and
We're back from the trip to Kenya and Zimbabwe. It was a grueling
3 weeks of 18 hour days. We shot an amazing 80+ hours of HD footage.
We also recorded over 110 hours of audio (dialouge and music).
In all, we captured more than 10 hours of material per day totaling
more than 200 hours of footage....that all needs to be logged
and organized. Should be a fun year.......
The trip was an amazing experience and far more rewarding than
we ever imagined. Even having been to Africa before, our pre-conceived
notions of what we might capture were thoroughly shattered. We
got some really terrific stuff. My feeling is that Kenya will
be the most socially conscience film that we've produced. We captured
some unique stuff that will offer an insight into the social landscape
of Kenya. We got the sunrise and sunset everyday and it seems
everything in between. It was truly a life-altering experience
and my only hope is that the film will do as intended: Retell
the essence of this experience. We have it in the can, it's all
in the next step....... EDITING.
Logging and organizing: Unlike a narrative film we have no script
to follow and there is no specific story line that will shape
the film. We just have a bunch of raw material of day to day occurrences.
Because of the sheer volume of material, it is vital that it all
gets organized and logged so we can access it as needed. Over
our past projects, we have become convinced that organization
is the key to a successful documentary project. Again, if this
was a narrative, we would know exactly how to piece it together
-- the editing process would be finding the best takes and angles
and assembling scenes as called for by the script. Documentaries
are a much different beast. The story is shaped in the editing
room. However you slice it (no pun...), a system of logging, organization
and filing must be conceived so you can effectively manage and
use the material. The only rule that will govern our editing of
Kenya is chronology. For the sake of accurately re-telling the
story, we are going to do it in order.
LOGGING AND EDITING UPDATE
I thought I pass along our final material management process albeit
a bit unwieldy:
We had never before worked with such a mass of raw material, so
I will admit that this process changed, and changed again during
1) We did not watch the material too far ahead of where we were
editing. We planned on watching and logging all the material before
we started. After about two weeks of that we quickly modified
our thinking for 2 reasons:
a) watching just short spurts of the footage gave us a clear direction
of where we were going next without cluttering our minds with
too much material. We never had a precise measurement of how much
to watch in advance, but we watched enough to finish the sequence
we were working on (for example, "end of day 14: nairobi
slums") and the entire next sequence (example "day 15:
sunrise/beachtrading") -- to conceive a transition to it.
Depending on how detailed sequences or days (meaning
a day in the film) were, we sometimes logged more. It usually
worked out that we were logged 5-10 hours in advance.
b) Watching hour after hour of raw footage was making us nauseous.
2) We used FCP's Bin filing system and logged material into bins
named according to the reel number. For example, all logged material
from tape (reel)
number 9 was placed into a bin (or folder) named "09".
This step is only recommended if you are cutting in chronological
3) Within each bin we had subfolders named after the sequences
on that reel. In case you're wondering, "sequences"
is what we called a combination of shots that came together to
make a scene. For example, shots collected at the August 7th Memorial
Park, where Al Qaeda bombed the former US embassy in 1998, was
compiled into a sequence. The 8-hour van ride from Nairobi to
Elodoret is an example of a longer sequence. So...
4)....Dividing the material into "Sequences" became
our primary organization method.
(September 5, 2005)
Two years after the introduction of the first HDV camera, FCP
v5 was released.....so we can now edit HDV. In the meantime, many
workarounds have been spread over message boards which have prevented
a total stand-still in our new HDV room at Colors. These workarounds
have been a bit cumbersome, but a worthwhile sacrifice to get
HD resolution. With the volume of material we have for Kenya,
we did not attempt an editing workaround as it would have added
time-consuming steps to what was already going to be a tricky
technical production. The workarounds have been helpful on a number
of short films we have made in HDV in the meantime. Through these
films, the promise of HDV was bright and we were producing them
with little or no budget.
We started editing on a year-old G5 machine that had previously
been our After Effects computer. In the days immediately after
FCPv5 was released, users began complaining of a lag in responsiveness
while editing HDV when compared to the very responsive nature
of DV. After experiencing this "HDV lag" we quickly
purchased a new, more powerful machine that would hopefully make
editing HDV smoother. My friend at Apple highly recommended the
"best video card you can afford" and secondly, of course,
maxxing out the RAM. When we received the new computer we were
surprised at the difference in performance. From that point through
the intensive year of finishing Kenya, the technical side of the
production was a breeze. The creative was not.
Having so much material was a double edged sword. In general,
we usually felt like we had enough footage for a particular sequence
to tell a compelling story, but because there was so much footage,
much had to be cut. That was heartbreaking. We look forward to
including much more material on the DVD as Extras, Deleted
Scenes, and Menus. We probably will do the same,
or more, online.
We did miss some shots. I'll never forget a magical moment that
I missed while grabbing batteries. It's bazaar how that's what
you remember. It does lessen the pain when you review the footage
and see great shots that you got....but forgot.
I have been working closely with the kind folks at Red Giant Software
since 2002. Magic Bullet Suite has been a great finishing application
at its price point and it continues to be for HDV. Because of
our history with them, we knew all along that we were going to
use Magic Bullet for finishing Kenya. Because the cameras we used
for Kenya shot natively in 30p, we decided to leave the motion
native and not use Magic Bullet Suite's Frame Converter to convert
the FPS. Incidentally, we have used this converter with great
success on 2 previous feature documentaries that were shot in
60i. Because of the new advances in the Look Suite and the addition
of MisFire, we purchased the new Magic Bullet Editors program
(this is the new Magic Bullet Suite minus the frame convertor).
I wish I could give a long and detailed account of this process,
but in reality it was a piece of cake.
The Look Suite in Editors has a bunch of presets that mimic film
stocks and looks seen in various films. In my opinion, the presets
are a bit over-the-top, but they are a great starting point to
get to the look you're going for. The Look Suite is a series of
controls such as gamma, post saturation, filters, and others that
come together to form your look. The presets are simply different
combinations of these values.
We have been thinking about the final look for Kenya since we
started editing. We wanted more than just a film look.
We wanted the coloring to be a creative element that would help
tell the story. Magic Bullet worked wonderfully with this concept.
Magic Bullet doesn't strive to look like film as much
as it strives to be a toolkit to creatively impact the look of
a project. We wanted the final output of Kenya to look like the
story we were telling about Kenya - dark, colorful, contrasty.
With a bunch of tweeking and testing, we were able to achieve
the look we wanted with Magic Bullet. That look was applied project-wide.
We also added some sequence-specific looks which we applied to
individual sequences. What we like most about Magic Bullet is
that it never sacrifices detail to achieve a look. In our custom
preset, there is a small amount of "white filter" which
I think looks alot like an optical Promist filter. This filter
basically exaggerates the highlights and slightly blows them out.
The Magic Bullet application does this without compromising detail.
It is quite remarkable that it resembles how it might look if
it was done optically. I've included an example below. There are
other parts of the Magic Bullet Suite that make it a compelling
buy for any filmmaker.
Shot from raw footage (half resolution)
Same frame treated with Magic Bullet (half resolution)
The 1st cut....
....Always the toughest step for me. This is the step where the
story is formed from the raw footage. It is creatively intensive
and therefore very draining.
I sometimes found it difficult to get into the flow.....there
were days when I just couldn't engage. On those days, I usually
got ahead on my logging. Towards the end of the 1st cut, a change
in venue also helped me. After feeling confined in my studio for
months, I ended up editing a good deal of the 1st cut in other
places. I got to know the campus at RCCM wel....lugging my computer
into rooms I've hardly been in. Sequences were grouped onto portable
drives, so I could also just plug the drive into another Mac with
FCP and a reasonable amount of power.
I tend to flow better at night. There were many days that I felt
that I couldn't get started.....only to have a burst of energy
late at night leading to a very productive number of hours. There
are two 24-hour coffee shops within a mile of my studio. I'd often
make runs all through the night to let off creative steam, for
a quick change in environment, and of course, a large coffee.
It was important for me to be fully focused during this period.
Being totally enveloped in the project allowed a greater connection
and a more powerful creative flow. It wasn't uncommon for me to
wake up with an inspiration or to even dream about a sequence.
During the 3 months of the Kenya 1st cut, I did nothing else besides
It, and the other essentials neccesary to keep a pulse. Mental
and physical burn-outs were competing with one another and one
would win every 15-20 days. I would then separate myself from
the project...and sleep. It was amazing how ready I was to go
back after that. During this process, I logged the most signnificant
hours per day, averaging between 16 and 20.
This process should drain you. It is the process in which a documentary
film comes alive. I always relive the experience in my mind and
then tell the story based on what I personally recall. The 1st
cut of a documentary is never something that should be scheduled
or deadlined. It should be completed as it comes. Putting
an expectation on a day or week such as cutting "15 minutes"
is not effective on such a project because while it can be done
-- you simply cannot be true to the story if you rush or plan
the creative experience. For me, it's always difficult to begin
cutting a new sequence. Every sequence you create is like a painter's
first stroke on the canvas. The more you envelop yourself in the
creative process, the more it will flow on a consistant basis.
I found I had little downtime.
I usually need a trigger to get going. Usually my trigger is an
inspiration I can recall from the raw footage. Inherit with capturing
80 hours of video is capturing some very amazing things. It is
exciting to see a shot while watching the raws that astonishes
you. It is an instant trigger and the sequence unfolds quickly
right in front of you. That said, some of my favorite sequences
in Kenya didn't have such a trigger. I just had to grind away
with the raws. Eventually, inspiration hit me and the sequence
got developed. Even though this process may not always be enjoyable,
it is very rewarding.
This was indeed the 1st cut. I purposefully did not refine the
cuts and sequences in this phase, I merely shaped the story. I
left refining for the next phase which would require less inspiration,
but a more keen eye for detail....for which I wasn't zoned for
in this phase.
Kenya ended up using a total of four 250 gig drives. "Drive
A" contained roughly the first half of the captured raws,
"Drive B" is a copy of "Drive A". The same
is true with the second half on Drives C and D. Drives A and C
were my working drives and were portable so I could lug them home
or to different locations as described above. Drives B & D
were internal SATA drives that remained in my main computer while
I was editing that half. For security purposes, the drives were
always separated when not in use. I also backed-up the project
files across the drives and on a third drive on our external server.
The final FCP project file for Kenya was just under 100mgs. Drives
that are not in use or archived drives at Colors Studios are always
kept in a fire-proof safe for added security.
2nd Cut, Audio Processing, and Final Cut
The 2nd cut is a welcomed phase after the grueling 1st cut. It's
much more enjoyable as you watch and tweek rough sequences. Although
for me it is always more than just a simple tweek, it still requires
far less draining brainpower. This is the process that make my
films more watchable. I balance out the emotion of reliving
the experience, with the reality of the viewing experience
and what would keep a viewer interested. It does water-down some
of the passion put into the 1st cut.
I also refine transitions between sequences, experiment and add
special-effects coloring, and even change some sequence placement.
This is also where we start paying close attention to audio. The
audio ended up being as good as expected on the raws. Right after
the 1st cut, we met with our audio engineer for the first time.
His initial reaction was the same as always : "you need me
along with a boom on your next project". We watched the film
together and then started working on it clip by clip, sequence
by sequence. Each and every frame of audio was edited in one way
or another. Straight-forward effects such as EQ, and noise-reduction
were done using Soundtrack Pro-- right off the FCP timeline. The
more intensive effects such as imaging, stereo effects, reverb
and other special effects were set via gigabit ethernet to an
audio-optimized machine were the effects were completed and later
sent back to the FCP timeline. As I mentioned near the opening
of this article, discernible audio is vital to a project. In all,
we spent nearly the same collective hours editing the audio of
Kenya as we did the 1st cut of video. It's that important. One
final note on audio: As I described above, the audio collected
even with good equipment on a documentary can be horrific. A good
de-noiser can be the most valuable audio tool one can have. The
standard de-noiser that comes with Soundtrack Pro is the best
that I've heard. Virtually all of the audio in Kenya was treated
with some measure of this effect.
After we finished the audio treatment and the 2nd cut, I went
through individual sequences a few more times and tightened it
up further. After taking a week off to gain some objectivity,
I trimmed again. A total of 16mins (about 15%) was trimmed from
the film during the 2nd cut.
After the 2nd Cut, I screened the project for myself and a few
friends and colleagues on the big screen in the beautiful RCCM
theater. I took alot from that and then did a final cut during
which I added the final color treatment (Magic Bullet).
Kenya was in the can.
Making a documentary film is always a labor of love. it requires
an impractical amount of time, but when finished it can be very
fulfilling. There is no better way to immortalize a story.
I invite you to see the trailer and website for Kenya on the web
The film in its entirety will also be posted soon.