Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

How we make the videos (and how we lost one in Cairo)

September 14, 2010 by Rolf Potts

One of the most interesting experiences during my no-baggage trip to Cairo came on my first full day in the city, when a local Egyptologist named Magdi Salash took me on an intensive historical tour of the Old City. Justin shot this interaction on video, and he and I have spent much of the past week logging the footage and trying to craft it into a coherent narrative. We ultimately gave up on this video — for reasons I’ll explain in a moment — but this aborted effort has made me realize that I should shed some light on the creative and collaborative process that goes into making near-real-time travel videos from the road.

As I think I’ve said before, Justin plays a producer-editor-camerman role in the videos, while my role resembles that of writer-director. That means that Justin oversees and organizes the video aspect of the trip (from scheduling tasks down to which microphones to use), while I conceptualize the video content itself (often spontaneously, as the journey plays out), and outline the narrative as we go into the editing process. Hence, while I am typically focused primarily on my writing when reporting from the road, I am actually devoting more creative hours on this trip to making sure the videos come together OK.

I’ll illustrate this creative process in the context of our recent videos in a second — but first I want to briefly explain how Justin came to be involved in the project. It’s actually an example of how taking part in an online community and doing good work can lead to interesting opportunities. Justin was the earliest of my guest-bloggers at my Vagabonding blog five years ago (another early guest-blogger was Tim Ferriss), and his blog work for me eventually landed him a full-time job at AOL working for Engadget. Thanks to Justin’s work on my blog (as well as some research and video-editing projects he’s helped me with over the years) I became aware of his work-ethic, his talent for travel-research, and skills as a multimedia content producer. When I was conceptualizing the No Baggage Challenge earlier this year, Justin was my instinctive first choice as a producer-cameraman. I like to joke that we work well together because we’re both Midwesterners (Justin lives in Missouri) and we share the farmer-style ability to work long hours, avoid petty dramas, and communicate with a minimum of words.

Given what we’ve produced so far, I’d say we’ve been making three different types of videos: spontaneous content, semi-planned content, and field reports. Field reports are the easiest to explain, since they simply entail me talking to camera about the journey’s progress; Justin later cuts in a few close-ups and some B-reel footage to keep things interesting visually. Sometimes our B-reel footage can lead to entire episodes: In Cairo, for instance, I had Justin shoot my straight-razor shave for use in a field report — and the shave ended up being so weird and complicated that I suggested making it into a whole episode by breaking the process down into its individual steps (and Justin’s decision to edit it in jumpy sepia-tones and title cards, with old-timey music, was a stroke of post-production genius).

Examples of our semi-planned videos include the episodes about London cliches and Madrid tapas. I say “semi-planned” because we knew our subject matter in advance, but we couldn’t control our variables in either situation. I came up with the London “cliche” idea before the trip began (it seemed like a fun way to spend a four-hour layover), and Justin recruited his friend Richard as our guide in the city. Sights like Abbey Road and Buckingham Palace were on our list from the beginning, whereas I improvised many of the bits (such as the phone booth and the rain) that wound up in the edit. We probably shot 5-6 more “cliches” than you see in the final edit — and the extra ones were cut because the audio/video wasn’t good (and/or my improv was too lame to keep). In Spain I knew in advance that I wanted to investigate tapas, but I wasn’t sure if Miguel (who we arranged as a guide at the last minute) was up to the task. As it turned out, Madrid was the easiest video to shoot, since Miguel proved an excellent guide, and Justin simply had to follow our interactions and remember to snag the appropriate “food porn” closeups.

As for spontaneous content, so far we’ve had a couple kinds: utterly improvised situations, like the time we wound up going to the wrong town in Morocco; and certain situations — like in Fez and Giza — where I follow a hunch and have Justin shoot specific things as I synthesize an ongoing travel experience with how I think I might tell the story later. In Fez, for example, I knew I wanted to wander the old medina at random, but naturally I had no idea what I might find; as various details captured my attention I had Justin shoot them for possible future use. At Giza, I knew I wanted to explore the Egyptian tout-culture that surrounds the Pyramids, but I wasn’t sure until I arrived what I would find (the souvenir-shop interjections about Justin’s wife arose from the fact that he was shopping for Kelley as we were shooting). As for the “wrong town in Morocco” video, we just decided to roll with things once we realized we were in Tetouan (not Chefchaouen); this allowed us to channel our unplanned interactions with Bilal and Mustafa-the-carpet-salesman into the overall narrative.

Of course, shooting the videos is only half the process; editing the footage is often just as time-consuming. Early on in the trip Justin did much of the editing solo — i.e. I shared a few ideas at the outset (such as a game-show tally-clock and sound-effects in the London video) and didn’t revisit the edit to add final suggestions until it was mostly cut together. As the video content has become more spontaneous and pegged to my travel-improvisations in Morocco and Egypt, however, I’ve wound up sitting in on as much as 80% of the edits. In the Giza video, for example, I sat with Justin and logged (on paper) over 100 clips from just under three hours of raw footage. Then I wrote an outline for the video story-structure (including voice-over text) to guide the edits. We didn’t follow that outline verbatim — there are a hundred little audio and visual problems to solve in building each scene of an episode — but it made the edit process smoother and more efficient. Voice-overs were recorded on the spot, in Justin’s hotel room, using an improvised sound studio that consisted of a mic, a pillow, and a duvet draped over a chair. Clip-selection and story-structure aside, I can claim no credit for the wizardry Justin brings to the rhythm, framing, and visual effects of each edit.

As for why our Cairo Egyptology adventure failed to make the transition to video, that has a lot to do with the circumstances of the shoot itself. For starters, Magdi was less interested in the video aspect of our adventure than in getting Justin and me to envision the various bygone incarnations of the Old City (I met Magdi through my cousin, a social studies teacher who’s visited Egypt with his students several times). Cairo is essentially a gigantic open-air history museum, and we spent the better part of a day (and upwards of 5 miles on foot) walking through the city as Magdi shuttled us through the centuries, pointing out fortresses and mosques and the crumbled remains of medieval city walls. Magdi was so intent on his mission — and so ambivalent about Justin’s required “invisibility” as a cameraman — that he kept cutting off my to-camera commentary and interrupting Justin’s attempts to create establishing shots or record ambient audio. Our Cairo Egyptologist had vast knowledge of his topic, and a deep, mellifluous voice, but — without a separate lapel microphone pinned to his shirt — we continually found it difficult to document what he was saying.

Later, when logging this footage, Justin and I finally conceded that we didn’t have enough good audio or establishing shots for Magdi’s excellent history lesson to translate into an effective 7-minute video. I briefly considered running a short voice-over essay under our best visual footage from the experience — but even from an essayistic point-of-view it was hard to summarize what Magdi had taught us without sounding glib and hyper-condensed and pseudo-intellectual. Justin and I have taken note of lessons learned (don’t try to cover so much ground at once, for example, and make sure your guide’s agenda doesn’t cancel out your own) — but in a way, I don’t mind that we had to scrap this Egyptology episode. After all, the raw experience of travel is much broader than one’s ability to capture it on video, and it’s nice to have some experiences I can keep for myself.

Video aside, one big challenge of imagining historical Cairo is that modern Cairo is a manic, vibrant, smog-cloaked city of 16 million people — and it can be hard to conjure the past when the present is so urgently attempting to get from one place to another and make a living amid the chaos. At one point I mentioned to Magdi that trying to cross the street to get to a monument (a daunting task, given the unceasing madness of Cairo traffic) might say as much about the history of Egypt as the monument itself. Magdi wholeheartedly agreed, noting that the din of everyday life in Cairo has always taken precedence over the grand shrines and edifices that have come to represent its historical eras.

Indeed, few world cities can compete with Cairo in showing how the true history of a place lies less in its archaeological remnants than the shifting, ephemeral moments of chaos, synchronicity, and commonplace anonymity that define the city at any given moment.

This isn’t something that lends itself well to video, perhaps, but it certainly is fascinating to experience it of in small moments of serendipity as you travel.

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  • Kelly Rogers

    It is indeed a challenge to make videos about things and places when we're travelling. You must be a good writer and director to come up with many ideas. And your friend Justin must be a very good editor and cameraman to shoot things as they are or in advance. Good luck to your team. :)

  • Layla

    Great to read about all that goes on 'behind the scenes' - you guys are very INSPIRING!! :)

    Just curious - I hope you do recharge those AAA batteries (or any others), or at least put them for recycling? Africa is notorious to have lack of proper recycling facilities though, so I hope you recharge!!

  • I'm 99% sure that Rolf is still using the original AAA battery in the keyboard.

  • W2best

    Justin: Which keyboard is it he is using?

  • Rolf and Justin -- this has been a great collaboration so far, with darn good narrative and video. Haven't been able to watch all of it yet because of bad internet connections on my end, but I look forward to eventually seeing all of your work. Safe and fruitful travels as your journey continues!

  • Thanks Joel!

  • Marla

    I think it's important to note that the experiment is titled "No BAGGAGE Challenge" instead of No LUGGAGE Challenge. To me there is an important distinction in the connotation of each. I'm not sure if this was by design. I get the distinct feeling that Justin and Rolf are very open to the experience and going in whichever direction it takes them. While they do have "luggage" of sorts as far as the basic necessities and electronic equipment goes, they seem to carry no *baggage*... not holding on to an idea that the day MUST go as planned (if it's ever really planned) and if it doesn't go as planned all is lost. I sooo enjoy reading the posts and watching the videos, which are BRILLIANT!!! It's so great to see something that is entertaining, informative, and so beautiful all at once. And I really enjoy the music you guys have chosen for some of these videos. Safe travels to you both and may you have many more adventures!

  • Nice distinction, Marla! I somehow don't imagine this was the idea, but it's an awesome observation, and inspiration, too!

  • Love the whole adventure and I think the whole cameraman not travelling without luggage is not a fair statement. He's documenting the whole thing for our entertainment! As an aside, Rolf and Justin, maybe you would consider posting some of the raw video from Cairo for those of us curious to see it? Just a thought. Still enjoying the journey...keep it up! Hope you're enjoying the Scottevest stuff as much as I enjoy mine! Take care.

  • I vote for more improvisation! :D
    But I have loved all of the videos (and accompanying text), it's a treat to watch/read works of this quality...

  • pilgrim

    Just a quick question. I noticed you were not traveling without multiple international chargers in your vest. How is the Iphone being recharged. Off the cameraman's laptop?
    Thanks for bringing us along on this adventure!

  • Charlie is right... Rolf is carrying the USB charger for his iPod and plugs in when he's near a terminal.

    The keyboard runs on AAAs.

  • thanks for the info - that's clearly the easiest way to charge small devices (though I really do like the idea brought up in the previous post about maybe incorporating some solar power in some way, maybe into the SeV gear)

  • I went back and checked the earlier dispatch where Rolf shows off his packing list. Apparently (from reading the comments) he's going to borrow USB ports as they become available. Curious how well that works out for him.

    AC charger for an iPhone or iPod Touch is basically a white cube about an inch on each side with US/Japan prongs on one end and a USB port on the other. It works on anything resembling household electricity worldwide. Add a very simple prong adapter (one for each plug type needed), and charging would be pretty well covered. That's what I'd bring if it was me. Bonus feature: The cube can charge other things that take power from USB. Used mine to charge a friend's non-Apple phone last week.

    Looking forward to news about how effective the borrow-a-USB-port strategy turns out to be...

  • Wow. I've been following this series and while it's clearly top-quality, professional work I had no concept of what had to happen to make it be what it is. Thank you for giving us a behind the scenes look at what goes on! Now I can appreciate the results of both of your efforts even more. I also appreciate all the detail you added in this post - clearly a lot of work as well. I realize the intent of the blog/project is to show how one can travel without any luggage, but I've also wondered if you're able to enjoy the traveling aspect for what it is as well - there is so much you have to be considering and thinking of in advance - I hope you're able to enjoy the trip too. Also wanted to mention, that I've been liking the historical factors you relate and how you will reference a book or other travel writer in your posts. And - I'm almost done - I'm glad you had a post today. I'm going to miss the regular postings while you're on safari, but will look forward to what you bring back to share! Thanks to you both for all the effort so we can travel vicariously with you!

  • Hey Robyn, thanks for the kind words.

    To be honest, it is a bit tough to enjoy the trip as I would another non-working trip. We're literally either shooting, editing, writing, traveling between A and B, or sleeping -- there hasn't been much time to relax. Though we have made it a point to sit back, breath deep (and maybe sip a beer or two) while taking in the sights and sound wherever we are for a few moments before moving on to the next editing project.

    As for missing content during safari -- don't worry. Via the magic of the Internet, we've structured the content schedule as to not miss a beat; you shouldn't see a drop in content despite our time off-the-grid.

  • Traveling so much and maintaining both creativity and workmanship is no mean feat..
    Congratulations guys on such a unique adventure and such fun and interesting videos to watch.
    Hope you manage to relax a bit on safari, enjoy!

  • Tyler

    Justin, you videos rock. Really. It is truly professional work on your part. Rolf's writing ain't too shabby either although he makes me feel bad that I flunked 9th grade English class once. Summer school sucks by the way.

    What I enjoy the most about the videos really is the 'real' side of things. Sometimes I watch Anthony Bourdain on TV and they go a little overboard for my tastes on the artsy stuff. That video of yours with all the machinery and equipment and camels and such--ie showing how it 'really is' is my favorite.

    Keep up the good work! I love seeing things 'street level'! You are doing a masterful job!!!

  • Grubstreetnm

    Is this post about traveling with no luggage? It occurs to me you have a challenge with this project: the people interested in traveling with little or no luggage are in the main NOT the people staying overnight at Marriotts. I would have liked to see this project without the Marriotts and without the camerman. (Sorry, cameraman, you do great work, you're just not about traveling with no luggage.)

  • I'm not sure how it would be possible to "see this project" without a cameraman...

  • MattBrownerHamlin

    Well, he could have streamed video live to the web through a mobile phone or done minor editing with a netbook. Is it technically doable? Sure. Would it be low quality and not really worth watching? You bet.

    The quality of the videos you're producing is outstanding. Keep up the great work.

  • JP

    Hey Justin, they should be paying you big time cuz I think the videos are of great quality -- and they're the ones I look forward to see everyday (though that's not feasible). Not only the videos, but the site, the design -- great job!

  • JP

    Clearly, the Marriotts thing is blatantly anti-vagabonding mantra -- but I recalled Rolf, acutely repugnant to this idea, addressed this matter on his field report week two (complimentary stay, internet connection).

  • Marc

    Rolf fully admitted that he stayed at the Marriott in Cairo because they needed reliable internet coverage otherwise this isn't much of a travel blog (the fact that the stay was complimentary didn't hurt). Rolf was not thrilled with this idea as it isolates you from the local experience but the necessities of the project trumped personal preference.This has not been the general tone of the travel thus far. As far as the cameraman is concerned - well since this is supposed to be a near real time Video diary, it kind of makes sense to have a cameraman along with the better camera equipment and laptop to do the editing and publishing (greatly improves the production values of the videos). One of the rules though is the cameraman cannot carry stuff for Rolf.

  • Pharmermike

    I think my take home message from his lack of mentioning the challenge issues is that it has posed little in the way of issues and has freed him up to experience travel in a different way. Yes he has had to make adjustments in how he usually travels, but the focus of any travel blog is on the travel. The message is that travel cannot just be about the things you bring along, but experiencing the places you visit.

    One excellent point that I am learning from this is to be open to where the road takes you and you may find that there are better memories out there than what you have planned. Also, all tour guides have their own agenda and can very easily derail yours (e.g. the post above, being sucked into a rug shop,...).

    I can't even address the criticism of having a cameraman. Just seems without him....I wouldn't be here every day looking for the next step in the adventure.

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