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Behind the Scenes: Shooting a Poetry Short Film

September 27, 2013

About a month ago, Irene asked me to write a post discussing my new video, “Backwards”. I’ve been enamored with the concept of videopoems, or short poetry films, since I encountered it a few years ago. I first came across the idea on Dave Bonta’s blog, Via Negativa, sometime in 2009. (For his complete list of posts about video poetry, check out: http://www.vianegativa.us/category/poems/videoetry/). The idea of combining art forms – especially poetry with a visual art form such as film – had fascinated me for a while so naturally, I found Dave’s discussions intriguing. To date, I’ve done three of what I’d consider short poetry films – You Don’t See It, Letter to My Father, and now Backwards; with each one, my goal has been to give the poem a unique treatment and to improve our (by our I mean me and my fiancé) filmmaking skills each time.

Some of you may have seen the video, which I released in early August, on YouTube, but for those of you who haven’t, I’ve embedded it below in this post as a reference.

And now, without further ado, I’ll talk about the poem itself, and how the video came to be.

About the Poem

The poem itself appears in my new chapbook Novena (remixed) and was original written for a Read Write Poem prompt in early 2010. The prompt encouraged us to explore the creation of new human life with a bit of spin on the sensual: we could either go forwards…or backwards. I decided to go a little less sensual and a bit more literal…and backwards, which led me to my earliest known ancestor on my father’s side of the family, Jefferson Nicholson (who we affectionately call “Old Man Jeff”).

I am the part of the fifth generation (that I know of) of Nicholsons in this country – the last name, however, is not ours. Family scuttlebutt that I heard via my father says that the family that owned our ancestors were either Irish or Scottish, and the plantation was supposedly located in Warren County, North Carolina (unfortunately, the research I’ve done has yet to confirm if this is true).

Research of an African-American family line brings with it the usual difficulties: a lack of records, a lack of accuracy in what records do exist, name changes, lack of standardization in record keeping, family members sold apart from each other, and so on. Fortunately for me, one of my half-sisters revealed to me a few years ago some information about our family line, but even she ran into a brick wall: to this day, no one in our family knows whether Old Man Jeff was born in this country or brought over on a slave ship. That is one of the many mysteries about my family I hope one day to solve. I have an ever-present need to know and understand myself, and at times, this need is intense – and since I did not grow up knowing my father as well as could have been possible, this means that the search for Jefferson Nicholson is even more so a search for part of myself.

The Video’s Concept

The concept for this video originated in a plan to shoot a video for “Epistle to J. Cole”, but after J. Cole apologized for his awful lyrics about autism, my fiancé (also my camera person) and I agreed that we wouldn’t do a video about that poem. But…being unwilling to throw away a good idea, I looked at the other poems in Novena (remixed) as possible candidates for a video. “Backwards” won out, as we felt it would be the poem best served by the original concept and treatment I’d thought up for “J. Cole”.

When I had conceived of the video for “J. Cole”, I thought that it would be a straight performance video, with the final product looking something like this: a fade in from black to a shot of me sitting at a table in a coffeehouse and drinking a drink, after which I’d open my notebook and write the first verse of the poem in my notebook. After this, I’d shut the notebook and perform the poem. The video would close with the ending credits rolling over me sitting at the table and drinking my drink. We would have used alternating shots of me performing from several different angles. Since “J. Cole” is a rather fast-paced poem, this original treatment would have worked for it.

However, I felt we needed to slow things down a little for “Backwards”. We kept the coffeehouse setting, along with the idea of me drinking something, opening a notebook, and then beginning to write. I still chose to perform this poem sitting at the table, but we reduced the number of different camera shots we used to allow things to flow more slowly. We also did this to avoid needing more than a couple of hours of shooting time in the coffeehouse.

I wrote a screenplay for the video to help guide us on the day of shooting. I used the original scene and some of the camera angles from the screenplay I’d written for “J. Cole”. I broke up the poem into several parts where it made logical sense for a camera angle change or a graphic to be inserted. I remembered a little about writing scripts from my undergraduate education (my B.A. was in communication, with my major being Telecommunications/Radio Broadcasting) but I consulted Screenwriting.info for a little help, as I’d written scripts for audio productions only before this.

When writing the screen play, I did a couple of things that I hadn’t conceived of for the original “J. Cole” video: 1) I chose add some graphics to highlight the meaning of certain words and images in the poem and 2) I added the “Nicole meets Raven” sequence to the end of the storyline, partially to help spotlight the new chapbook and partially because I’ve really been wanting “Raven” to make an appearance in a video again since the last one we made in late 2011, Letter to My Father. However, one major thing that I kept in from the original “J. Cole” screenplay was a demarcation point between me writing in my notebook and me performing the poem live. I felt that the contrast between the two allowed for a kind of difference between two “worlds”, if you will: 1) the inner space that I go to in order to write, and 2) my sharing of those worlds with the world through the medium of speech.

See my script for Backwards.

Shooting Location

Next came a more difficult task: finding a location to shoot. The original coffeehouse in which we’d plan to shoot declined our request, citing their corporate policy (it’s the one with the mermaid logo…gee, I wonder which company that could be?) – so we went next to a locally founded, owned, and operated coffeehouse, Cup O Joe. Cup O Joe — a chain of coffeehouses out of Columbus, Ohio — was happy to accommodate us, allowing some shooting space near one of the windows in the shop and actually turning down the music when we asked (I guess there’s a lesson to be learned here: Go Local!)

Shooting Day

The day to shoot our video came. My fiancé and I trucked off to one of the Cup O Joe locations near a local movie theatre. We set up, reviewed the screen play, and began shooting.

Cup O Joe, AMC Lennox Center, Columbus, OH

As I mentioned above, the staff of Cup O Joe were an absolute gem in assisting us with shooting. We made sure to patronize the shop, buying a few drinks and some pastries as we took breaks during shooting. A few times, we had to stop production to make sure that customers didn’t wander through and accidentally become caught on tape (we didn’t want a legal issue on our hands). And aside from a few strange looks from a couple of patrons and an irritated customer knocking on the bathroom door repeatedly during one of my costume changes, I would say that everything went rather smoothly.

Editing

After we got home, we reviewed the footage we’d shot – and a couple of days later, I edited the video. Right now, I am using Corel Video Studio 4, but there are many non-linear video editing software programs on the market, including Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro for Mac OS X. Corel Video Studio produces a great result for the money. I will say at some point in the future, I’d like to upgrade to more robust editing software with more features – but we’ve been making do very well with what we have.

For me, editing the footage was an intricate, careful, and time consuming task – it took me several hours to produce this six minute, forty-five second video. Since my fiancé filmed all of the shots for each angle during a single take, I spliced shots from each angle together to create the illusion of movement between multiple cameras. As I was editing, I also added in public domain or non-copyrighted images at certain key spots in the video.

What proved to me the most difficult was the voiceover. If you’ve watched the video, you’ve noticed that we used natural, ambient sound in the beginning but transition to a voiceover when I begin writing the first verse of the poem. I recorded the voice over after I’d edited the video, and sometimes, I had difficulty either getting the timing of my words just right or reading my own lips to make sure I recited along with myself on the original footage. I was forced to splice a LOT of audio to make the final product look – and sound – right.

My practice with these kinds of videos is to include subtitles at the bottom of the screen. With Asperger Syndrome, I sometimes have difficulty processing speech: so I began adding subtitles a few years ago not only for myself but for other viewers, especially those with disabilities affecting the ability to hear and process speech, to help them follow along. That took me around an hour to add them in my editing software. After this task was complete, I uploaded the video to YouTube.

DIY!

Since we started making videos for my poems, we have adapted a DIY approach to everything – we plan, shoot, and edit everything ourselves. Costumes come from my own wardrobe with a few notable extras – the masks in Letter to My Father and Backwards were purchased from local vendors. I publicize them myself on Twitter, Facebook, and my own blog. We also shoot low budget right now, as our finances won’t allow for professional quality equipment and software at the moment. I like the DIY approach because it allows me as an artist to be hands-on with each video and directly control the finished product.

I hope you enjoyed the video and this post providing a “behind the scenes” look at how it came to be. We will be doing a couple of more videos in the next sixth months and seek to learn more and become better at this as time goes on. Thanks for reading!

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5 Comments
  1. September 27, 2013 6:09 pm

    Wow, such interesting sharing, Nicole. Anyone else out there itching to do a poetry short film?

  2. September 29, 2013 10:54 am

    I have been eager of such poetry movie like this too! Kudos to you!

  3. September 29, 2013 2:02 pm

    Completely fascinating, from start to finish. I admire your ability to put this project together and complete it so professionally. Something like this would intimidate me no end! Well done, Nicole, and huge applauds.

  4. September 30, 2013 7:45 am

    Thanks, everyone. And believe me, Misky, I am a pretty disorganized sort, so I was forced to be a little more organized in order to make this project a reality. It requires some discipline to get the vision out of your skull and onto film — and at first, getting it on to paper is the best. I took this lesson to heart after I tried to describe what I was seeing to my fiance and I got the poor man confused. 🙂

  5. October 8, 2013 12:44 pm

    I salute you, Nicole. I cannot imagine putting these films together. They are well done, and your speaking voice is lovely. Thanks.

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