Back in 2010, a sweaty and victorious Drew Brees held a 7-pound sterling silver football trophy over his head as red, white, and blue confetti fell to the ground at the Sun Life Stadium in Florida. The New Orleans Saints, the team for which Brees is quarterback, had just won the Super Bowl. In addition to the trophy, the NFL team earned a trip to DC to meet the president. At the time we had been brought on to do a bunch of storytelling for the NFL so they called to ask if we could join the Saints to document the trip for an episode of their television show, The Season.
Here’s where it gets really crazy.
Rather than meet the team in DC at the White House, the NFL asked me to make the trip with the team. Now this trip wasn’t a press event, so that meant I had to show up to some small airfield in the middle of nowhere with my DSLR and monopod in tow, then walk up to the Saints team with a big ole, "Hey guys, I’m here to jump on the flight!”
My presence on the team plane certainly wasn’t a priority for the Saints. Nobody really knew who I was, why I was there, or why I would be trying to get on the team plane. Producing pains aside, once I got all of that sorted, they asked me to get on the plane before the players were to board. As this wasn’t a media event they also asked that my camera stay away, for the most part.
So there I am, on this massive team plane, the only one there, slapping a 24-105 with IS on my DSLR hoping that the image stabilization would be enough to let me pull off a few handheld shots.
Luck was apparently on my side. The one time I clearly pulled the camera out in plain sight was to film people entering—and the first person to enter was quarterback Drew Brees. The whole time I had to do the whole look-the-other-direction-while-pretending-not-to-film kinda deal.
The flight itself was rather uneventful, but the action quickly picked up once we landed in Washington.
It must have been about 10 at night or so, and so it was rather dark. We exited the plane and went straight onto the team buses that were there waiting on the tarmac. I got assigned to bus no. 6, the last one in the row, with all of the players you’ve likely never heard of.
The hotel really wasn’t all that far from the airpot, and the events didn’t start until the next morning. There didn’t seem to be much of a need to rush, yet there were at least six cop cars which came together to form a motorcade, with lights flashing and sirens blazing.
Inside a motorcade on the team bus, racing through the streets of DC on business to meet President Obama is rather exhilarating, to say the least. I mean, don’t forget that at this point I was still shooting a good 30-plus weddings a year and so a cake cutting was a normal highlight of my Saturday nights.
Then the morning comes and we’re off to the White House.
Now a little nugget of wisdom for y’all: If you happen to find yourself on the lawn of the White House with some camera gear that’s a little uncommon (a slider in 2010), and you’re not an American citizen–you may want to be careful. I’ve had more than one run-in with the Secret Service, and let’s just say they weren’t all that appreciative of the slider shots I was grabbing of the White House.
At this point it’s now been a rather unusual bit of travel to get here, finding my way through a lot of uncertain situations, and a minor altercation with the Secret Service.
After all this fuss to get here, when I got into the room where Mr. Obama was going to meet the team—what would be considered the crescendo of the whole trip—I was pretty shocked at what I first saw.
There, at the back of the room, was a raised platform set aside for media. It had tripod after tripod, jammed tightly together, with people angling their bodies at 45 degrees to fit more folks in.
My first thought was wondering why we were all jostling for position, only to get the exact same shot.
And then my next immediate thought: there’s no way I’m going to blow this opportunity by doing the exact same thing that everybody else is doing.
So I looked around the room at where everybody else was...and I went somewhere else. And because I went somewhere else, and I thought differently, I got a perspective nobody else in that room had.
When Mr. Obama walked in—just feet from where I was standing—was one of the only moments in my filmmaking career that I actually took my eye away from the Zacuto Z-Finder (an eyepiece for the camera) to make sure that what I was seeing through my camera was real.
It was such an amazing memory and I’m so glad that I pushed myself to find a different way to cover it.
Because, at the end of the day, that’s all we’re worth as a creative. The value is in our perspective.
No matter how good I can operate the Red Epic or light a scene, somebody out there (and a great deal of somebodies) can do it better.
Trying to leverage your access to additional gear or the latest technique you’ve learned is both a weak business strategy (for most) and a never-ending treadmill. It’s great that you’ve got that new drone, but do you really want that to be the reason somebody trusts you to tell their story?
Here’s the thing, it shouldn't take a crazy opportunity like this one for us to actively work to find our own unique perspective.
If you’re showing up and shooting the same thing in the same way, week after week, where is the growth, excitement, or challenge in that?
Now you may say that you'remaking your clients happy by filming it the same way you did last time–the same way everybody else does—and if that’s really true, and it’s fulfilling for you, then great for you. But for most of us, the moment we become a tripod—the moment we’re simply running a camera with little to no thought or creativity—is the same moment the passion within us starts to die a little.
Do that too many times in a row and you’ll find that you've completely extinguished that flame. I’ve met far too many people in that exact position as I’ve conducted workshops around the world.
So if you’re interested in trying to develop your own unique perspective, here are a couple thought exercises I often do. In fact, I did both of these that day I filmed the president.
- Take a moment, without your camera rolling, ideally without the camera even in your hands, and ask yourself, what am I not seeing?
The act of simply taking time to observe, to listen, and to consider what you might be missing almost always helps you see something new.
As creatives, we far too often live inside our own head (and inside the camera) as we battle the settings and technology. Give yourself the room to be present in the space, feel the energy, take it all in–and perhaps unsurprisingly, you’ll see much more because of that.
That was always one of my huge secrets for capturing incredible moments at weddings as they were happening in real time. It allows you to truly be present in a situation so you can feel where the energy is flowing.
Where most filmmakers would go for the "money shot" of the bride's dress getting zipped up (this was so huge back in 2009), I was always the one waiting until after the dress was on for that real emotional reaction that often follows. Or put more simply, I was looking somewhere other than where the industry would be in that moment.
- And that leads me to the second thing I often ask myself, if one hundred other creatives were in this scenario–what would they do?
Whatever that answer might be, I’d always try to do something else.
Our ability to predict the common path is pretty amazing. Most of us can, in very short order, share the sequence of shots that most people in this scenario would get. What so few of us do though, is take that a step further and push ourselves to find something different.
Now, I should say that it’s not about being different for the sake of being different. Telling a strong story and engaging your audience relies on you bringing a unique perspective. But if I’m going to tell it the same way as every other news camera there, then why even send me in the first place?
I’ll leave you with this. It’s a quote I live by from holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Primo Levi: