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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