The Robot Park – EP

March 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

For a long, long time I’ve really enjoyed electronic music. Not necessarily EDM, dubstep, house music, or techno, though they have their place. I mean music, rendered electronically, as heard from Jean Michel Jarre, Kitaro, Isao Tomita, Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream and of course my favorite, Vangelis. More recently, I’ve discovered works by Anthony Gonzalez, Ulrich Schnauss, Scott Hansen, Boards of Canada and Faunts, which take the fundamental sounds of these legends and push them into exciting and unexpected territories.

This kind of music is at once the most nostalgic and the most isolating kind I know, putting me right back into my boyhood mind and pushing me out into the woods for a walk; while waves of sine, triangle, square and saw wash over me, drenching me in reverb and warm harmonies, ultimately floating away on a lonely lead melody, delicate and singular among the ambient, undulating sea of noise. There’s an unexpected but special connection for me between electronic compositions and scenes of nature, and I relish any chance I get to experience the two simultaneously.

I’m not a greatly musical person, but knowledge and skill not especially relevant here; one of the wonderful things about this type of electronic music is its painterly, impressionistic nature, where form is secondary to harmony. Endless combinations of sounds pour from the keyboard like colors and tones from a palette. It’s also the perfect creative outlet for someone who, like me, has a thing for technology, and is too lazy to build things or leave the house.

This EP is a fairly polished sample of my recent efforts to create my own sonic paintings, using a couple different recording programs and a digital synthesizer. I’m not 100% happy with everything going on in this small record, but it represents a good variety of moods and memories, and ultimately those are what I seek to communicate. I hope you enjoy the sounds.

The Greys – A Poem

October 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

Forest_Location

Just some thoughts about our dead Dutch Elm during autumn.

*  *  *

The skies are steel, their winds are quick
They lay the branches bare for cold
That covers thick.

Alive and mute, the Naked Greys
Give no more shade and shiver, wait
For warmer days.

Among them is an Elder, tall
And wise, but he has seen the last
Summer of all.

His strength is gone, his flesh laid low
The fallen raiment from his arms
Will never grow.

The rest of them, those Naked Greys
Do watch and heed, and freeze and wait
For warmer days.

On the Decay of Old Dreams

October 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I submit that, unless you are an island or very, very lucky, the notion of ‘doing what you love’ for a living (or at least chasing that goal) is either an out-of-mind fantasy or a real annoyance for many people. This has been my experience anyways, so far.

I grew up with a love of movies that I suspect was barely tolerated by my parents and only slightly shared by some of my siblings (and now my dear wife). I found the craft, science, trivia, criticism and process of movie industry as entertaining as any spectacles that the movies themselves provided. It fascinated me enough that I began to make small movies myself, with the help of friends and family. I can’t claim that any of them were good, but the process was interesting and fun. I assumed for quite a while that this was not only a great hobby, it was my calling. It was what I loved, so I assumed I would always be doing it.

It’s been 6 years since I made a feature-length film (somehow I finished four or five between the ages of 16 and 20). It’s been almost two years since I put any real work into even a short film. I would love to create a movie again. So why haven’t I done it in a while? The obvious answer is I grew up and married and took on some real responsibility, but is that an excuse? Or do I even need an excuse?

We hear a lot of inspirational talk about people taking back their lives, giving up everything about their drab, routine existence to pursue ‘the dream’ – the life where a man is his own boss doing his own thing, independent of The System which would regulate his lifestyle until he is a husk of his former self. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been admonished, directly or indirectly, to ‘get busy living or get busy dying.’ To hear some entrepreneurs, it’s only ever one or the other.

* * *

I’ve had daydreams, sure, of being famous and respected as a writer and filmmaker, perhaps I even still do. But were those ever serious ambitions? I suppose they were serious enough to help me actually make a few movies, but that eagerness has faded. The truth is, these days I would really rather spend a lot of my free time consuming than creating. What happened to the pleasure and excitement of creativity? Shouldn’t I be making the world a better place through original ideas? And if I don’t bother to do it in my free time anymore, shouldn’t I be seeking to do it for a living?

It’s easy to reflect on my life and wonder where the fire went. It’s easy to assume I took a wrong turn, or made a bad trade, or settled for an easy but boring road. But people change, and their dreams and desires change with them. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t really miss those old days, and I do really enjoy my present life – a lot of my interests and priorities have simply changed, and not only is that OK, it’s actually supposed to happen to one degree or another. There’s a lot I could be doing to improve some things and stay busy, but the overall path I’ve taken is a good and satisfying one, and appropriate for my age.

Would I like to be creating more? Yes. Is it nice to have a job I don’t hate? Absolutely. Should I pursue a dream creative career? Probably not, at least not right now, because my life isn’t my own anymore.

I submit that it is possible to have a steady job that doesn’t thrill me, and to have a rich and rewarding personal life – one does not require or cause the other. In fact, one reason I believe I lost a lot of interest in filmmaking was the job I took at an imaging retailer.

The job required me to use, read about and evangelize the very tools that had excited me as a film enthusiast, and it burnt me out. I was required to have way more technical knowledge than I could possibly use, and that knowledge became a burden. The last thing I felt like doing at the end of the day was working on videos. In fact, the trial of educating customers who seemed to actively resist learning left me with very little desire for human interaction of any kind. Full-time work is one thing, having it destroy your human motivations is another.

I believe I still love filmmaking, and I’d love to shoot more. But I doubt it will ever be my #1 goal again – marriage, homeowning, and various miniature hobbies and distractions have crowded it out a little, as should be expected. But I recently took a new job in a tangentially-related field which promises real labor, variety, and room to grow. My hope is that, even though the job itself may not excite me in the way film & video used to, that it will occupy my mind and hands in a way that leaves them fresh and ready to take up those old interests, or pursue new ones, with renewed vigor. Sometimes the professional and personal lives are best separated.

I guess what I’m saying is, the career ‘doing what I love’ is not my ultimate goal (knowing me, as soon as it becomes my job I’d probably hate it to some degree); rather, the job that lets me do what I love on my own time, or spend time with people I love, or consume things that I love, is an immediately-attainable mark. Baby steps. One day God may throw the dream fully back into my life and everything will fall into place (and I’m prepared for that to be a ton of hard work). For now, I can put my hand to the humbler work right in front of me and live my simple life guilt-free. Being happy and content need not be the same as complacency.

A Keen and Aromatic Ritual

July 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Lighter, tamping tool.

The Song of the Pipe

When the night air is shading ’round you,
And the lake is lying still;
When you hear the evening tuning,
Of the lonely whippoorwill;
When the woods are big and silent,
And the world seems all at rest;
And the cheerful fire is blazing,
Then your good old pipe is best.

When you are tired out from tramping,
Through the winding forest ways;
And you’ve had your trout and coffee,
And you dream of future days;
When you sit close to the fire,
Then the time is surely ripe;
With the owl’s bark resounding,
To fill up the good old pipe.

When the dreary rain is falling,
And the world is wet and gray;
When the loon’s long, dismal holler,
Rolls out clear and dies away;
When the woods are all adripping,
From the alder to the oak;
Then just lay back in your chair,
And hit good old pipe, and smoke.

-Earle P. Stafford

The hallmarks of life Up North – a camera and a briar.

It is best when the only breeze is from the happy laughter of my brothers, when the rich vanilla plumes linger until we wave them away in our own time. The birdsong, the evening stillness in summer, or the chilly snowfall and crunching footfalls of winter – it makes no difference. The bowl is comfortingly warm year round, and the sound of the striking match harmonizes well with cicadas and frozen silence equally. The scents of coffee and cavendish blend intoxicatingly and the passage of time slows as if by magic, and without fail.

When with a friend, the talk is slow, objective, thoughtful, mutual, friendly, bonding. Bias and opinion are abandoned and respect is embraced, and wisdom is sought, if not always found. When alone, the senses ripen with keen observation and the soul stretches to touch every corner of the visible world, now quiet and docile. Comfort and contentment run rampant.

Surely this is a very idealized, even romanticized vision of the pipe-smoking habit. But it is wonderfully honest! Every instance of personal indulgence in this habit has been resoundingly pleasant. The dangers of tobacco are well known, and its dismissal by many is largely justified. But a sweet, creamy aromatic, designed not for inhalation or stimulation but sensory enjoyment, and for ritualistic relaxation and calm, reflective habit. Smell and taste abound and blend, and even the sound of a crackling bowl, if smoked too quickly, can be a familiar attraction. Inhalation is strongly discouraged, and physical addiction to the tobacco itself is avoided. The mental and spiritual satisfaction, however, of regular reflection is enormous, and 20-30 minutes per smoke affords a perfect habitat for such meditation.

But I stray from idealization to idolization. Surely, once hunting for benefits to a habit, there are as many to be found as there are dangers and objections. To evangelize too strongly something so simple and inconsequential would be insensitive, strange, inglorious and narrow, and I certainly don’t  recommend pipe habits to everyone. And like any pleasure, any happiness, even any convenience, excess is too easy to achieve. Moderation is a wise pursuit. But the World is an increasingly small, crowded, hurried place, ever more complex and demanding in its myriad trivialities and enormities. And when a simple pleasure like a briar pipe can provide a regular time and place to find rest, peace, and righteous conversation, I will rejoice and be thankful for it.

“I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.” -Albert Einstein

Self-portrait, with briar companion.

Thanks to The Art of Manliness for the quoted sections.

 

Running High

June 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have reached that point in my run where I cease to perceive progress, where the world becomes an enormous treadmill. The scenery changes subtly from time to time, but the end never seems nearer. My pores are struggling their very hardest to keep me cool by secretion, but they cannot keep up. It is broad daylight in summertime, and I am withering like the undead in the sun. Later the sunburn will incapacitate me and my limbs will refuse to move with dignity. The exhaustion I feel now is nothing. Wait until I’ve swam and showered, and my body has time to realize what I’ve done to it. Its vengeance will be terrible.

Normally I do not go jogging in daytime, in the heat of the day. Nighttime is a blessed time for all pursuits, the world asleep, all the normally busy rooms and streets empty and ripe for exploration, inhabiting. The feeling of freedom when living in the dark, and the fire it gives to the creative imagination, is like no other. The inspiration is palpable. The deadlines and distractions disappear. But it is all gone in daytime, where the sun bakes the skin, sucks the energy and moisture from the body, and humanity swarms. And as I begin my third mile around Lake Calhoun, I feel the last vestiges of sentient thought evaporate through the pores in my forehead and around my nose, and the daylight claims me. Simultaneously, the runner’s high kicks in.

A runner’s high, like any addictive, becomes elusive with familiarity, with more and more daring extremes required to achieve it again. A lifetime of mediocre running performance has made it an increasingly rare occurrence for me, and its pursuit is never a priority for me.  But the Sun’s debilitating reclamation of my consciousness seemed to unlock that primal readiness.

My vision does not much change, but a certain tunnel-like fixation on the path ahead is evident. My physical hearing disappears, replaced by steady substitutions, imaginations, made by a body now independent of my control and interpretation. A form of organic white noise, less audible and more colourful, merging several of my senses and thuddingly timed to my footfall in its undulations. That footfall, formerly subject to my endurance, now freely continues, unfettered by fatigue and the bore of repetition. My lungs also take control of themselves, breathing in good rhythm. The overall sensation is of being able to run as far as the road might take me, with fatigue and distance becoming meaningless concepts along with everything else. Emotion and logic are both dismissed, replaced by the pure physicality of a weak but determined body, shedding mental and spiritual burdens and  pushing its puny limits.

Two things end this haze of achievement: the heat of the Sun itself and the bark of my smartphone, alerting me to the end of my third mile. I abruptly slow to a walk, and my senses flood back. Blood returning to my brain clouds my vision for a good ten seconds, and my body has enough autopilot left to guide me to some shade. Had I achieved this high at night, there’s no telling how far I may have gone. But a few steps further in the hot Sun today may have caused me to faint completely.

My vision returns, then my sense of touch. Sweat running down me. Then my hearing, seagulls, waves. Then smell. Freshwater brine, sand, reeds, sunblock. I’ve just run around a lake, and now I run into it, my nearest and best refuge from the heat of the Sun. And swimming has never felt so refreshing. But the damage has been done. My body’s punishment is coming, and I’ll have to decide if this blissful high and amazing swim was worth it.

It probably was, but next time we need not involve the Sun.

Hear the Mullets, Boy

June 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Absolution to follow.

“I’m expecting that you can help me. This is broken and it happened by magic when I wasn’t using it, and you need to fix it by magic. Now, and preferably free.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but your expectations are marvelously unfounded. But I’m flattered by your assumption that I perform miracles using magic.”

I was not actually sorry, not about that. I was sorry, though, that she possessed, in addition to broken technology, a startling mullet, spiked and dyed in front and gray in the back. She also was tattooed, but only just visibly so, and her sleeveless denim outfit had a plunging neckline that drew the eye, not out of attraction, but out of horror. Her apparent subconscious love of flattery, expecting magic from me, had also bestowed her with an appalling confidence, even pride, in her own senior appearance.

“Isn’t it true that your Company fixes technology?”

“It is not.”

“But you do sell it.”

“I do, so.” I could tell she somehow saw a contradiction here. I saw a different, actual one. “But this isn’t broken. Look, it works exactly as designed.” I demonstrated, and observed bridled fury in her gaze.

I later watched her remnants leave the building. I did not reflect on her. Hers is a common type. The novel mystery of where they come from, who dresses them in the morning, and who gives them driver’s licences had worn bland over the months, and instead I now thought about the resolution I’d made that morning – Today my efforts and energies will bear fruit. Today I make a living. It had sounded so confident, so possible.

Instead, mullets. Tattoos and shriveled cleavage. Spectacular leaps of logic, fictional greivances and ignorant indignation. It baffled me how I could possibly be of help to someone who wanted help, but didn’t need help and yet needed so much help.

I confided my frustration to the Wizened Naturalist. He looked across the room at a pile of unsorted merchandise, and made an unhelpful remark under his breath about our Company’s sense of organization. Then he looked at me.

“It’s exactly as you say. Many people desire solutions to problems they don’t have, and do not acknowledge their real problems. They do not recognize their capacity to understand themselves. They feel they require the understanding and decisions of others in order to be confident in their choices. For some, it may be because they lack context, experience or a frame of reference. Or perhaps others are simply lazy in their minds, and we are their shortcut to confidence. Whatever the reason, we can easily solve their most pressing, immediate need, a need they may not countenance – their need to be heard, and to communicate understanding to them. All we must do is listen, and then when asked, advise.”

This sunk home. “So, we are counselors, not preachers. We are confessional priests, giving peace through absolution. We are not salesmen.”

The Wizened Naturalist smiled his tall, wrinkly, mirthful smile, a smile I loved for its genuineness, and a smile which operated much like an irony detector. “Not salesmen, no. You wouldn’t think we were anyways, to look at our numbers lately, would you?”

Full of Eggs – Sony NEX-7, A Most Versatile Camera

June 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

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Sony Alpha NEX-7 with Zuiko 38mm f/1.8 lens.

(Wilbur is eyeing Charlotte’s egg sac.)
Charlotte: I’m versatile.
Wilbur: Does versatile mean full of eggs?
Charlotte: [chuckling] Certainly not. Versatile means I can change with ease from one thing to another.

For some months now I’ve owned and used a brilliant mirrorless camera, the Sony Alpha NEX-7. My reasons for moving to this as my primary camera are many (mostly having to do with its surprising convenience and power as a video camera), but one of the things that has really endeared me to it is its simple versatility. As I’ve posted before, one of the great things about modern imaging technology is the ability to take both photographs and videos with equally pleasing aesthetics, using one camera – if you know good photography, you can easily learn good video, and vice versa.

Since purchasing the NEX-7, I’ve found a ridiculous amount of uses for it, and have been pleased to find it small enough to take with me literally *everywhere* – and versatile enough to give me pleasing results, whether photos or videos, in almost any scenario – truly and easily one of the best values for the money I’ve ever seen in any camera, especially if one is willing to experiment and explore the camera’s full potential and capabilities. Here are some of the cooler ways I’ve configured the camera, with examples of images I’ve taken when using them.


Rangefinder Style – Walkaround/Point & Shoot

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NEX-7 Rangefinder Style – a steampunk, poor man’s Leica

Outfitted with a leather half-case and a vintage Olympus Zuiko 38mm f/1.8 lens (originally designed for Olympus’ 35mm half-frame PEN-F series of cameras),  this configuration allows for a small size, a pleasingly antique (steampunk, even) visual look for the camera itself, and some enjoyable, patience-building hands-on photography. The lens is manual-focus only, so by using the camera’s focus-assist features and the lovely electronic viewfinder in tandem, beautiful pictures are achieved by taking care that focus is exact and composition is worth the trouble. A lot of the creativity, satisfaction and care of film photography carries over in this configuration, and the film aesthetic of the photos captured with this lens is enhanced by its unique bokeh (out-of-focus/blur characteristics). If auto-focus is desired, I switch to Sony’s own tiny 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens.

The camera’s sensor is a very generous APS-C size, and 24-megapixel resolution. This results in astonishing image quality and remarkable control over how the image is rendered, with pleasing selective focus (shallow depth-of-field) and enormous latitude in dynamic range and cropping capability, especially when photos are captured in uncompressed RAW format vs. the traditional JPEG.

Sample images:

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Water glasses – a good example of this lens’ bokeh rendering

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My sister Gracie – using the camera’s “Rich Tone Monochrome” setting

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My brother Mark – texture is rendered very richly by this camera/lens combination.

Basic MF Video/Cinema Setup

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NEX-7 with focus arm, microphone and Contax Zeiss manual-focus primes.

This setup uses manual-focus vintage lenses too, but with video in mind – so the lenses are bigger, of sturdier build and of higher, sharper optical quality. In addition to the Vectra microphone, which aids in capturing much cleaner and richer audio during recording, a focus arm has been added to the lens for precision focus adjustment. Auto-focus is undesirable for most video projects I do, because selective focus must be carefully, properly timed, and leaving that timing up to the camera is a bad idea. Plus, manual-focus lenses are often less expensive, built to a higher standard of quality, and feature pleasantly resistant focus-throws which make slow, precise focus-pulling easy and satisfying.

The lenses pictured here are newly-acquired Contax/Yashica-mount Zeiss prime lenses, purchased with an old top-quality film SLR, the Contax RTS II. Their solid build, razor-sharp optics, butter-smooth focus and unique colour and contrast rendition make them ideally suited for staged videography. The lenses are Distagon 28mm f/2.8, Planar 50mm f/1.7, and Sonnar 135mm f/2.8. All I need to complete this gorgeous set of primes is an 85mm f/1.4.

Sample video:

Run & Gun AF Video Rig

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NEX-7 with AF lenses, hood, microphone and simple handle rig.

Retaining the microphone for audio quality, this setup switches to Sony’s native E-mount autofocus lenses for mobility and speed, where the shots are of an improvised, spur-of-the-moment nature, almost documentary style, rather than being planned and staged. The P&C pistol grips are joined by an 11″ articulating arm, forming a rifle-stock-like rig which allows me to brace the camera against my shoulder or chest. The attached 50mm f/1.8 OSS lens is desirable for its low-light capabilities, smoothly silent auto-focus during recording, and excellent optical qualities, as well as its very effective image stabilization technology for handheld shooting. The 16mm f/2.8 lens is useful for a wider field of view, increased context, and shots which require the camera to move during recording – shake from handheld use is reduced with wide-angle lenses.

Sample videos:


Anamorphic Cinema (Extreme Widescreen Video)

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NEX-7 as an anamorphic camera, mounted on rails.

Still retaining the microphone (even the cheapest external microphones provide much better sound than the camera’s built-in mic), the setup now relies on two lenses simultaneously, as well as a rail system to properly support the setup. Once again using a  lens adapter, I’ve attached the camera to an old Canon FD-mount lens, an 85mm f/1.8 manual-focus prime. Then, using a special clamp built by Vid-Atlantic, I’ve attached a vintage Sankor 16-D anamorphic lens to the front of the 85mm lens, and supported them both with a Cat Claw lens support and an Indie Flyer Pro compact rail system. All this will connect to my Manfrotto tripod and fluid head via quick-release plates when in use.

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Sankor 16-D anamorphic lens viewed from in front. Note oval/curved optical design.

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Sankor 16-D with Canon FD 85mm f/1.8 lens. Mounted on rails for support.

An anamorphic lens, with its uniquely oval, curved optical elements, is designed to bend light as it enters the camera through the primary lens (in this case, the 85mm), effectively squeezing a wider field-of-view into the camera’s sensor. In this case, the Sankor lens doubles my camera’s field of view, making the sensor’s native 16:9 video ratio into a 3.55:1 extreme widescreen ratio after post-processing. This allows me to take advantage of much more dramatic camera angles with a great deal more scope and visual interest, and adds a larger sense of scale, as well as some extremely unique and cinema-like optical properties which are otherwise difficult or impossible to achieve.

However, there are serious challenges to this setup which require much more practice on my part: both lenses must be focused separately, meaning that both lenses must be focused exactly for the shot to be sharp, and changing focus during a shot becomes nearly impossible. For many shots, this generally requires “stopping down” the 85mm lens to increase the image’s depth-of-field and keep the subject in focus. Also, the anamorphic lens has a minimum focusing distance of 2 meters, meaning a magnifying diopter or close-up filter must be used if I wish to focus on a closer subject. But if care is used to set up each shot, and if I have time to plan a bit beforehand, the extra effort is easily worth it in the end. Anamorphic footage is utterly unique, mesmerizing and beautiful, and I’m constantly amazed that I have access to this unique aesthetic for my video. Now I just need more practice.

Sample video:

So there you have it. The Sony Alpha NEX-7 in four different, equally useful configurations. It will be a very long while before I get bored of any of them, if ever. (Assuming I don’t come up with even more configurations.) Of course, it’s never the hardware that counts most: it’s important to have capable equipment to help me realize my projects, but it is the projects themselves, the art, the story, the message, and the creativity, that are most important. And for this reason I hate to spend much time watching and reading about endless comparisons between lenses and camera bodies and editing suites. This camera fills so many roles and is so useful for so many things that obsessing over its shortcomings rather than working within its few limitations and working around the few difficulties it presents would be insane. For its size, usability, versatility, and for the intricate level of control I have over the image it produces (both in-camera and in post-processing), there’s simply nothing else out there like it. I hope to have lots more terrific stuff to show you from these combinations soon.

Thanks to Andrew Reid over at EOSHD.com for the great inspiration and education he’s given me in exploring mirrorless video and anamorphic lenses, and thanks to my remarkable roommate and partner in crime Peter Baehr for sharing in my photo and video adventures – and for letting me use his excellent Canon EOS Rebel T3i to take pictures of my gear for this post.

Here’s one last video, taken on St. Patrick’s Day 2012, using the NEX-7 and a small set of Canon FD prime lenses in the basic MF video setup described above. Cheers!

The Wood (Up North) – Video

March 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Filmed in the woods around our family cabin on Lake Inguadona in Cass County, MN.

Narrative poem written and recorded by myself. Music is “They Should Know Me By Now” by Bobby Bayer of Cottoncurse.

Equipment used:
Canon Rebel T3i
Tamron 17-50mm 2.8 w/ basic CP filter
Tamron Adaptall 2 90mm 2.5 Macro
Konova Slider

Minnesota State Fair 2011 – Videos

October 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here are some video clips compiled from our annual night at the fair this year. Special thanks to my cousin Bobby Bayer for creating the music for the fireworks video. As always, follow the videos to Vimeo for in-depth descriptions, and also to “like” and comment!

How It Begins – Video

August 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Filmed this in half an hour as Peter and Goodwin painted. Everything in life starts out as a blank canvas. How will your “unpromising beginning” end up?

Narration by Brian Eno. Music by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois (song: “San Juan” from the album “Shine” by Lanois).

Filmed with:
Canon T3i (used 3x & 5x digi zoom for select shots)
Tamron 17-50mm 2.8 lens
Cowboy Studios shoulder mount
Cheap magnet viewfinder