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Over the course of four visits, starting at the end of 2011, photographer and multimedia producer Tim Matsui documented—in video and stills—how volunteers and parks officials in a tornado-ravaged community in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, built a new community center. Funding and design support for the center came from the Pomegranate Center, a Seattle-based nonprofit that helps low-income communities create gathering places, open spaces and public art. Since 2010, Tully’s Coffee, a wholesale bean distributor and roaster owned by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, has funded several of Pomegranate Center’s community-building projects. Matsui was hired by the corporate responsibility department of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and the communications team at Tully’s Coffee. Yet, Green Mountain and Tully’s are scarcely mentioned in the video Matsui produced. Matsui, who is based in Seattle, says, “I was given a loose list of guidelines and a fair amount of freedom to find stories—and to work like a journalist.”
This was the fifth project undertaken by Tully’s and Pomegranate Center that Matsui has documented. In 2011, he shot a wedding that happened to be officiated by Katya Matanovic, the managing director of Pomegranate Center. She told Matsui the nonprofit was about to launch four community projects around Washington State in partnership with Tully’s, “and we’d love for you to shoot still images,” Matsui recalls. He was put in touch with Tully’s communications team and he made a pitch to the company. “I said, ‘For each of these projects, I could do short videos.’” He also proposed to support Tully’s fledgling social-media presence by sharing his iPhone photos of each construction project via Hipstamatic (Instagram hadn’t yet taken off).
The four videos he shot in Washington have been used in Tully’s internal communications, both to show the board of directors how its money was spent, and to share with Tully’s employees, “so people who are roasting beans could see what the company is about,” Matsui says.
The Tuscaloosa community center was a more ambitious project, both for Pomegranate Center and for Matsui. While he began documenting the Washington projects only as construction was getting underway, and had only about two days to produce each video while also supplying stills from the scene, planning for the Tuscaloosa center began nearly a year in advance. Matsui submitted a one-page proposal to the corporate responsibility department for how he could tell a compelling story in a variety of media and platforms. His proposal also made the case that a photojournalist’s experience investigating stories and shaping narratives could help deliver content people would want to watch. “I said, ‘You need to find a universal theme to communicate, and find characters that people can relate to,’” Matsui explains.
“This town has been ravaged by a tornado. You’ve got these historic lines of racial and economic segregation. You’re going to drop in and help them create something for the whole community. There’s huge story potential here,” he says. The hope was that the Alberta Gathering Place, to be built in the neighborhood of Alberta, would serve as a performing arts venue and meeting place for a variety of church and school groups from many neighborhoods, and also become the focus of a new network of bike paths in a city carved up by car traffic. Matsui proposed to create a portrait of the community, both before and after the start of the construction phase, working without a script or any idea of where the stories he pursued might lead.
“I approached it as a journalist would,” he says. “I think that adds, in corporate PR speak, ‘authenticity,’ but without lying to the viewer.”
In December 2011, he traveled to Tuscaloosa with the director of the Pomegranate Center. On this first trip, he shot little, and simply spent time attending community meetings, looking for stories and asking everyone he met to introduce him to people who might have a good story to share. In this way, he met two of the neighborhood residents he later interviewed for the video: Cassie Dorsey, who talks on camera about how the volunteer effort has united people from across the city, and Mary Foster, whose home was nearly destroyed in the tornado and who talks about future uses of the Alberta Gathering Place.
When he returned to Tuscaloosa in January and April of 2012, Matsui shot stills and video of the landscape and damaged buildings to provide context. “I knew everything affected by the tornado would be affected or disappear,” as the recovery continued. When he learned that a steel plant in Arkansas that had donated machinery during the search-and-rescue operation was providing steel beams for the community center’s construction, he wanted to pursue the story. “Like any journalist, you do a lot of research, make a lot of phone calls and then when you’re on the ground, you do the best you can.” Eventually he rented a car, traveled to the plant and shot images that he interwove with video he shot in Tuscaloosa.
Matsui says that working solo and having to react to events as they happened determined both the gear he could manage to carry and his techniques. “It takes time to set up a slider rig or even to move your tripod around,” he says. To get video interviews, for example, he sometimes had to shoot on the fly with a handheld camera, recording audio with a lavaliere mic. But when he had time to plan, he preferred to shoot interviews with two cameras. He would set up two Canon EOS 5D Mark II cameras, each on its own tripod placed close to the subject. “I have a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm lens to get wide and tight shots.” He had a Zacuto Z-finder on one camera to help with focusing, and used a SmallHD DP6 screen with the other to preview shots. In Tuscaloosa, he typically used a wireless mic on top of the camera that recorded to a Zoom. “Sometimes I will spend time either kneeling or crouching by the camera, and let the person know that I might be checking audio or the picture so I might not be making eye contact with them.” Though handling all the technical details while also trying to elicit answers from subjects is cumbersome, he says, “maybe it humanizes me a bit.”
Matsui believes that still photographers like himself who use digital SLRs to shoot video have a different style than broadcast journalists. Photographers “are used to allowing more moments to happen and paying more attention to details within the frame,” he notes, adding, “Using a DSLR camera allows us to leverage that depth of field.”
When construction on the community center began in June, Matsui returned and spent ten days shooting the final piece of his story. Before he returned home, Foster invited him to Sunday dinner. “Could I have done all of this in one trip during the build? Yes, but would I have had the stills and the video and the scenics to support it? No. I think my client was smart to incorporate me early in the process.”
Having edited most of his own multimedia pieces as well as those of others (he briefly worked at MediaStorm in New York City), Matsui says, “I’ve learned over time to shoot more, and to shoot things multiple ways so that I can cover myself in the editing suite.” Even now, he says, “There are always times when I say: I wish I’d held that frame a moment longer or I wish I had a still for that.”
From hours of footage and hundreds of stills, he produced a video just over four minutes long. It opens with shots of tornado wreckage that appear over the voices of many community residents expressing their hopes for making the city better than it had been before. It then cuts to video of kids gathering on the site to make artwork, and groups of volunteers cutting planks of wood. In the editing, some of the interviews he had worked hard to get had to be cut. That, he says, is part of the risk of taking a journalistic approach to storytelling. “Not all the stories reach the conclusion you want, but I had to invest the time into investigating them.”
Online extra: Check out a list of gear that Matsui has used on a number of different multimedia projects including the Green Mountain Coffee Roasters assignment and his sex-trafficking project that was funding by an Alexia Foundation Women’s Initiative grant he won in 2012. He notes that before starting the sex-trafficking project, he picked up a tip on audio recording from Scott Anger, the photojournalist, filmmaker and blogger.
“The audio system I’m now using, courtesy of Scott Anger, lets me operate an HD-DSLR more like a video camera, albeit with more gear. I prefer to lock a usable audio track to the video file and, while I’d like to work with a sound person, my situation and budget doesn’t often allow for this.”
Canon 5D Mark II
24-70mm f/2.8 L lens
70-200mm f/2.8 L lens
Lockport HDMI Lock (Note: In this application it’s used more as a tie-down for the audio-in cable)
Zacuto Z-finder Adhesive Frame (Note: For second camera body)
Genustech Variable ND filter (Note: I don’t like the green cast these filters yield)
SmallHD Dp-6 (Note: Used in conjunction with the Lockport, though SmallHD offers their own HDMI port protector)
Redrock Micro rig components in various configurations
Sennheiser ME 64 with K6 power supply
Azden shock mount (Note: Matsui pays as little as possible for these because they break a lot)
Zoom H4N recorder (Note: For backup audio)
Sony Studio Monitor Series headphones
(Note: For the sex-trafficking interviews only)
Chimera medium softbox
f-stop Tilopa BC backpack (Note: Great for travel)
Canon EOS C100 on loan (Matsui notes, “Using a C100 was wonderful because it’s a video-dedicated platform, meaning less stuff to get in the way of making the image. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to use the camera. That said, I would improve on its ergonomics, which is essentially what the C300 has to offer.”)
16-35 2.8L lens
(Matsui notes that he incorporated a second shooter, Carey Wagner, for the sex-trafficking work and for a recent video he created called “A Love Story.”)
Lenses: 24mm f/2.8; 35mm f/2; 50mm f/1.4
Sennheiser ME400 mic