My latest story for Studio 360 has taken me a while to share, but that is because there’s so much to say about it. This story had a story from start to finish.
It began when I started emailing a few of my favorite artistically-minded scientist types searching for ideas for a new pitch to Studio 360. My former neighbor Zack Booth Simpson, who was actually a subject for a previous story, told me to take a look at the Mars Curiosity animation. He said he couldn’t stop watching it.
As I say in the story, I am not crazy about space. But this video blew me away. My editor was interested, and I set to finding out who was responsible. The trail led to Kevin Lane, the owner of a small animation studio in Burbank, California.
The most awesome part of the story comes next: I flew out to LA to visit the studio and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is responsible for all unmanned space missions and arguably my favorite NASA base. (I also learned that JPL is not really NASA, just contracted to NASA, and they are quite sensitive about that.)
I came away with SO MUCH GOOD TAPE. I think you have to be a producer to know how that feels. You record data into your little box and you feel like you would find gold inside if you opened it up.
Doug Ellison, the visual producer at JPL, was so incredibly animated and knew how to turn a phrase about space travel like no other. (“A GIANT MARTIAN BACKPACK!”) Tom Rivellini, one of the EDL scientists, was remarkably down-to-earth (pun) about the realities of getting to Mars. (Although I can still hear him chewing his strawberry Twizzlers as he talks.) And Kevin and his team of animators talked to me for two hours about the ins and outs of animating, and off camera told me some absolutely crazy tales about the animation industry. (Involving hookers and blow and outsourcing to Chinese animation students who worked for free.)
Sadly, the hookers and blow studio boss story was off the record and the whole thing had to fit into eight minutes. My editor, David Krasnow, was wonderful to work with as always and made taking those moments of genius out a little less painful, because he is always right.
This story also brought about two of the more surreal moments of my life: The first, being caught stealing electricity from a stranger’s garage as a car was pulling in. My phone was dead after a day of traveling and JPL and I couldn’t find the house where I was staying. Luckily the owner of the car was understanding and let me charge up from his own iPhone cord.
The second, trying to calm a young suicidal driver that I stopped for as I was biking to KUT to voice this story. I don’t want to go in detail, but it was really intense and traumatic and I burst into tears as soon as I saw the studio engineer. One of the things I’m most proud of about this story is pulling it together and sounding normal.
The city of Austin is digging a subway-sized tunnel through downtown. The limestone foundation rock is the ideal material for tunneling, so why not a subway for Austin?
Well, there are a lot of reasons why not. I go through them in my most recent story that aired on KUT:
This story was produced with StateImpact Texas, a collaboration between Texas public radio stations and NPR. Essentially, that means that this story looks wider than Austin, up to Dallas, where they are decades ahead with public transportation.
Here’s the full text writeup I did for the StateImpact site:
That title isn’t technically correct. Dallas has the only subway in all of the Southwest. The only reason it exists is because it would be a bigger headache, or impossible, to get right of way through the neighborhoods that a new light rail line would have gone through on a route that parallels one of the city’s biggest commuter roadways.
The bottom line is that it’s pretty much light rail or bust. And for all Austin’s talk of being the most progressive city in Texas, it’s behind the curve on public transportation.
I love public transportation stories, so this was really interesting for me, even though I knew coming into it that cost is the biggest issue. The best part was talking to Rob Spillar, the director of the city’s Transportation department. After our interview, he spent a half hour talking about future plans and challenges for public transportation in Austin. I wish I had recorded it!
But I love interviews like that - when you realize your interview subject loves talking about what they do so much, they grab ahold of an interested listener, and you get to learn so much more than you came for.
Last week I flew out to New Orleans with a light HD camcorder and a 60 lb bag of lighting equipment on my shoulder. I was shooting my first family history documentary - four interviews that I’ll weave together to tell the story of a wonderful Southern family living in an idyllic Southern town.
One of my unexpected favorite parts of the interview was this reading. One of the interviewees had stumbled on a church program that focused on the importance of family stories. She thought it was akin to divine intervention.
As you can see, the interviews can get very emotional. I’m tearing up behind the camera. Each interview is fascinating and beautiful. It’s a rare opportunity to reflect - with seriousness and intention - on the meaning of time gone by.
It’s a real privilege to be a part of moments like these, and in some ways, responsible for bringing them about.
* The above video is completely unedited. It will get nicer with editing!
**Also, re: heavy and huge lighting equipment bag: Fly Southwest! Tell them when you check in that you’re with media or a commercial filmmaking company, and you can preboard so your precious gear does not get checked.