I've been making occasional bicycle pilgrimages out to the Wissahickon Creek over the past few years. This is to give myself a little workout, but since I do this maybe twice in a year, the "workout" aspect isn't something I'd put up against Jack LaLanne. It's also to go play with my video cameras. Nature's always nice to shoot. People like it, in small doses. Match it with the right music, and you can inspire some pretty cool moods with that stuff. I think my first taste was when I shot the trailer for The Drowning Girl with Caitlin Kiernan and Kyle Cassidy; in addition to the three actresses in the trailer, we got some wonderful looking footage of the surrounding scenery, and I guess it stuck with me.
Eventually, I tried to think of something that'd help me make some money at this video thing. I could take thirty-second clips and sell'em as stock footage. I tried this with some time-lapses I shot in a cemetery, and managed to sell one clip over four years for six bucks. (Turns out the real stock-footage money's in helicopter shots over major cities or exotic locations.) But eventually, I decided that I might be able to create one of those ambient-video things, a long sequence of calming nature shots cued to appropriate woodland sounds and/or ambient music. The sort of thing you might put on your big-screen when you're meditating, soaking in a mud bath, or trying not to scope out that cute person at the yoga class.
There's a company that puts out Blu-Rays of hi-def footage of Beautiful Places, and I have their Costa Rica disc as a nice background-generator for when I'm working. I may not be heading down to a spectacular rain forest full of toucans and parrots, but for all I know, this company might've set their cameras up at the edge of the parking lot and shot what was nearby. So, I finally sat down to take what I had, and put it into shape.
The stuff I shot totaled about thirteen hours. No, really. Thirteen hours of a local park. I had some wonderful things. The waterfall. The patterns of leaves drifting in calm water like stars in the arms of a spiral galaxy. Stones in the creek, water flooding over them like crystal. Cathedrals of green trees. Moss on branches. Ferns sprouting from the hillsides. Boulders and rock walls, cracking gently over the centuries. Overhead shots of rapids, filling the screen with slow-motion turbulence. A rotting tree stump, carved by termites into Pueblo hill-cities.
Most were shots lasting a minute or so in length. Some were shot at 60 frames per second which, when slowed to 24 fps, ran for more than twice as long and turned the waterflows into magnificently slow cascades. Lots were duplicates of the same scene: I might take a shot, do it again with another color balance, change the angle, or zoom in or out for better framing. Or, I'd try tilting down from the trees to the river, and then I'd tilt from the river up to the trees. I trimmed the pile to shots that I could use with a minimum of duplication, and was down to under three hours.
The next step was to take the shots I still had, and cut them to length. I looked at some similar videos, and found that the shots ran for maybe ten to twenty seconds each. Thirty seconds, and you started to lose the viewer's interest; the only shots that lasted longer than twenty seconds were shots where the camera was moving or panning. So, I took my pile and trimmed each shot to roughly twenty seconds. Now I was hovering under ninety minutes. That's not so bad; lots of ambient videos run about an hour.
I had some wonderful things. The waterfall. The patterns of leaves drifting in calm water like stars in the arms of a spiral galaxy. Stones in the creek, water flooding over them like crystal. Cathedrals of green trees.
Now came the hard part-- arranging the damn things. I can't just have a random sequence of pretty nature shots, right? The thing has some have some shape, some flow, something vaguely like progress from point A to some moving, placid finale... right?
That's what took me a few weeks, on and off. I grouped the shots into rough categories, and found other shots that worked as transitions between them. Maybe it worked to go from the shots of trees standing still, to a sequence where the winds began tossing the treetops around a bit... or should I start with those Terence Malick-y shots where I'm aiming up into the sky through the canopy? How do I transition from the waterfalls to the rapids, when the rapids are upstream from the waterfall? Do I use the shots of man-made structures, like the bridges or that water font by the path? Do I try to mix the shots taken in the autumn and the spring, and hope people don't mind how the colors change from greens to yellows?
Here's the sequence I worked up.
Stream to Rapids
Rapids to Trees
Groves of Green Trees
Trees in sloping ground
Stone in the Forest
Tree Roots and Ferns
Stone by Water
Calm Water with leaves drifting
Water and Trees
The Upper Trees- a long tilt-up a nice oak tree, that Malick shot, the wind tossing tree tops
Decay: fallen trees, rotting stumps (which are really pretty)
Last night, I took some music I had-- Biosphere, Ravi Shankar, some bits of Peter Gabriel's Passion soundtrack-- and threw them onto the soundtrack. I adjusted things a bit for timing and when the music changed, and rendered a draft out to my TiVo. I actually like it. There's a lot of stuff I have to do (lots of color correction: a lot of the river bed is just brown), but I can put this aside for a while.
The next step is the soundtrack. I'd like to have two ready: one of nature sounds and noises, and one of an ambient music track. The nature sounds are difficult, since you can hear the hum of traffic at the Wissahickon. I may be able to take that out, but no guarantees; I may have to find licensable nature sounds and dub them in.
As for music... you have to be careful. Sometimes, a composer will introduce long sections of near-silence. Or maybe they'll go from low, moody strings to a harp sound that Andreas Vollenweider'd find twee and precious. Or, they'll move from something natural-sounding to techno-sounding, like a synclavier suite that sounds like tamagotchi fucking. Or they're dubbing in what sounds like a Soviet administrator making an announcement over the factory's faulty loudspeaker, with moody echo, like that blimp in _Blade Runner_; I like that, but not here.
But you know why it's really difficult to find the right music? You have to listen to a LOT OF AMBIENT MUSIC. Lots of low, slow, minimalist, repeating music. And maybe you do NOT want to lower your metabolism that much.
It'd be nice to have a local composer who's got some meditation-mood stuff he or she's willing to license in exchange for a piece of the profits, assuming there are profits. (I'd rather it be something they already have; I do NOT want to have someone bust their ass composing something special for this. For one thing, I may not like it.) I may have to go hunting through licensable music online.