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Throughout my entire photography career, I was inspired by filmmaking. In fact, I was always pretty frustrated by the static nature of still images.
To be a great still photographer, you have to be able to grasp the peak of emotion. That requires that you unite technical skill with anticipation and timing of the big moment. That part takes an incredible amount of practice. After twenty years of capturing ‘moments’, I learned to do this efficiently because I didn’t have the luxury of the zero-cost digital capture. When I was shooting film, the cost to buy the film, process and proof it was about $1 per shot. Hit or miss.
So you got good at saving your trigger finger until that magic moment when you popped that shutter. I was bound within these constrained limits my entire career as a still photographer, and I learned to live with it, but I found it terribly frustrating. I wanted to tell a story, and it is far easier to do that with cinematography than it is to attempt that with a series of still images.
So my specialty became the “Storybook Wedding”. That was the name of my studio. Wikipedia does a good job in describing my approach towards wedding photography. Here’s a quote:
While watching an on-location filming of “Charlie’s Angels“, Fong saw for the first time an on-set Storyboard and reasoned that wedding photography albums should use a similar format to depict a wedding story. So, using sequential photo layouts rather than static, posed images, Fong introduced the “Storybook Concept”. This style of wedding albums remains popular to this day.
I created page layouts that resembled a movie. I would begin a ‘chapter’ with an establishing scene (e.g. the exterior of the church) and then have my POV glance around the scene before honing in on the action. I did the best I could to recreate the experience of watching a film with my crude tools of still images and page layouts.
Fast forward to today. Nice people will say hi to me in public places, or ask for a selfie. They will say something like, “I love your photography”. But I’m honestly not really a photographer anymore. My mind is in cinema. I do video. Full time. That is what I do. Video.
Yes, I shoot and teach still photography. But my passion is in the film. Here’s why:
Whenever I would look back at my iPhone’s picture library, I would always marvel at the video clips of our twins as they grew. Early videos showed the sounds they made, how their arms would move in big sweeps, as if they were conducting an orchestra. And their little voices.
I don’t capture that experience with still images. I can have adorable images and beautiful moments, but they don’t tell the whole story. Everybody has heard how a picture says a thousand words. Well video captures all of the thousand words in real time. You don’t have to fill in that moment of time with your imagination. You can relive it. As time went on, it was really only the videos that interested me. And they were crude iPhone videos, but they were precious. As the kids grow, it’s only the video that truly brings back the memories. Not the stills.
So, as so many of you know, I was lucky enough to run into Justin MacGregor, a very young filmmaker (I think he was 19 or 20 when I first met him) hell-bent on making a full-length feature film with a single Canon EOS5Dm2 and one 24-105 f4 L series lens. He approached my wife Melissa about using our ranch as a location for filming his movie, and they worked it all out, and I started noticing maybe three people filming scenes. It would be Justin with his camera, and two actors in costume. I remember thinking that it was ‘cute’ that he was making his little movie. But I had no idea what a powerhouse of talent he was until I saw the teaser clip that he made for that film, “The Generations”. I was knocked off my chair. I then ran down to the garage, hopped on my Segway and zipped up to him and said, “what the fuck! You’re incredible!”. He was so modest. Said something like, “Thank you Mr. Fong, coming from you that is quite a compliment”.
So then I am following him all around, sniffing over his shoulder, watching him use his glide-cam or how he setup PVC pipe on the ground and rolled his skate-board wheeled rig to create smooth movement. I watched how he would separate audio. I mean I was his student at that point.
When he finished filming, he said something like, “well I need to get a job as a server now, because I’ve run out of money” and at that point – I offered him a full time job as my cinematographer. I needed to seriously upgrade the production quality of my YouTube videos as the channel was really growing in size.
When Melissa heard about it, she instantly commandeered him to film ‘day in the life’ videos of our family life. She’s like that. She is the amazing guardian of our moments for the future. She saves movie ticket stubs, locks of hair, articles of clothing. When we got engaged in Maui, one of the first things she did was look at what I was wearing, at what she was wearing, and said, “I’ve got to remember all of this”. I remember joking that we should maybe have the nearby lawn chair shipped to our warehouse. This makes the loss of our home undeniably sad, as all of those trinkets went up in smoke. But one thing that we will never lose is the images and videos of our kids growing up. That stuff is backed up (on my end) with so much redundancy and care that barring a nuclear holocaust, we will always have them safe. (I’ll do many blog posts on that topic in an effort to help you someday in the future).
This video was filmed after the fire. We were in California on a month-long holiday, and the house went up on our fourth day of our trip. As the kids had not yet seen Disneyland, and they were still nutty happy about being in the sand and palm trees in the dead of a Kelowna winter, there was much joy to be had watching them. Especially because in the dark recesses of my mind, they (and we) were all still alive.
I watched them blink. I watched them yawn. I watched them giggle. I sniffed their hair. They were alive, we were alive, and we were safe. We were not harmed, the kids were not traumatized by the site of a smoking house. It was all so far away while we were in California.
The video you are about to see was pretty impromptu for a lot of it. The hammock scene, the running around on the beach. It was all unplanned. Things were happening, and Justin and I were like, “holy shit – get out the camera”. Outside of the little dress up scene at the Four Seasons Santa Barbara Biltmore, it was all pretty much unplanned. A day in the life.
I’m going to have so freaking much to say about family cinematography in coming posts. For now please enjoy this amazing piece of family history, and consider how much this film would mean to you in the aftermath of a disaster.