The Whittles A behind the scenes chat with DP/Director Allen Baker

Allen Baker is not a baker, but he’s been cooking up some super sweet films for quite some time as one of the lead filmmakers at Newspring Church in South Carolina.  I caught up with him right before Christmas as he was packing his house for his family’s big move back to his home town of Raleigh, North Carolina where he will be a senior filmmaker at Hope Community Church – the place where he got his start as a church filmmaker.  Below is our free flowing conversation where we talk about scavenging kitchen appliances, hot cameras, and how he pulled off his latest film.  If you haven’t watched it yet, I’ve conveniently embedded it ten millimeters below this sentence for your viewing pleasure.

So the other night I was surfing Vimeo, looking at the people I follow and seeing what they’d uploaded recently and came across your film The Whittles and I was in tears by the end of it.  I knew we needed to catch up and talk about this project, so first of all, how did you find this story?

We actually found out about this story three years ago when we were working on another video project where we were introducing long time donors of the church with people from the church who’s lives were impacted by the church and he was one of those guys.  Adam told his story and that he was arrested for trafficking marijuana and was still awaiting trial but he was thankful that his life was changed even as he was awaiting trial.  When we heard his story we knew there was potential to do a series or something and follow their journey.  All of the videos we make at the church are request based, so we’re not normally very proactive, we’re usually reactive, but one of the guys at the church was like “We need to do this story regardless.”

Around March of this year we heard that he might be getting released soon, but for someone in his situation you never know exactly when he’ll get released so we went and interviewed his wife in March and our original plan was to do like an episodic series of 5 videos or so following their story so we started working on it, but later down the road the church was planning for a new sermon series that they needed stories for and this one fit really well so we just consolidated everything from this project into this one video.  But it was nice because since we were proactive it gave us a lot of extra time to capture everything and not rush because we had so much of it already filmed by the time we decided to use it for that upcoming sermon series.

This video is almost 8 minutes long, which I feel like is a very uncommon runtime.  How did you guys land at 8 minutes?

This video was part of a sermon series called Thankful and two of the three films that we made for this series opened a sermon and one of them ended a sermon. Originally they were all supposed to be 5-minutes or less, but every time we’re given those restraints we basically ignore them (laughter). I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that for every church, but there’s some equity we’ve established over time and people trust us to tell the best story we can as quickly as we can. For this one, there were definitely some places in there that we wanted to let breathe. Some of those moments wouldn’t have felt right and there’s definitely things that the audience would have missed out on. I think The Whittles film could have been longer, for example they had a big welcome home party that we filmed that got cut, but I feel like how it turned out couldn’t have been shorter without sacrificing some things that I felt were really important.  When editing I just go with my instincts and let it breathe and then usually by the time it gets to review leadership is so excited about it that they don’t want to change anything.

When I was editing The Whittles one day I called one of my teammates into my office and had him watch a rough cut.  I was about 3/4 done and it was already six minutes long and had him watch it to tell me if he thought there was any useless information or anything that could be cut and he only had some really minor notes.  Then I brought my creative director in who is in charge of Sunday content and it showed it to him and he was like “I don’t know, I don’t know.  There’s nothing I would cut out of it.” So I think involving other people in the process and setting up as “Hey, I don’t know how to get this to 5 minutes, can you think of a way to help me cut it down.”

That’s really smart to take a collaborative approach and ask for help instead of just making a defense for why you think it should be this long.  Also, as filmmakers we know how hard it is to make decisions when you’re emotionally connected to the content and often times the people who’s making the call “It needs to be 5 minutes” is completely removed from the process so it’s easy for them to make that call, but by inviting them into the process to watch the film and feel like more of a collaborator or partner kind of sucks them into the emotional side of things…..and then it makes it harder for them to cut down our runtimes! Haha.

A lot of times I’m given a specific time slot that a video has to fit in, like even as short as 2 minutes to fit into an announcement slot.

That’s one of the biggest problems I see with church stories, when it’s just stacked and stacked and stacked on top of itself and it’s hard for the audience to absorb anything because you just feel like you’re getting whipped around. The church I’m heading to does a lot of stories that are much shorter and have tighter runtimes, but luckily they said they’re open to us cutting a longer version of a story and then trying to pitch it to stay that long for the service.

Getting back to the film, how did you land on shooting for a 2.35 aspect ratio?

Man, I wish I could tell you a good reason other than I just like the way it looked (laughter). We’ve done most of our bigger stories in that wider aspect ratio for a long time now.  I just like the way it looks and I think it makes it look a touch more cinematic, but I could be wrong.  I want to try some other things soon though, like 4×3.  I think aspect ratios are super fun to utilize.

What was your camera package for this project?

We shot the project on a Red with Canon cinema primes and we went back and forth between an Easy Rig and a shoulder rig for all the handheld footage.  I had an AC (camera assistant) pulling focus on the DJI Wireless Remote Follow Focus and for the price it works really good which is really funny cause you can literally buy it on walmart.com.

How big was your crew?

There was five of us for the interviews – me, AC, a grip, the interviewer, and audio and then on the B-roll shoots we ran leaner.

How did you guys handle the B-Roll filming?

So everything in the film was real life except for his B-Roll that was supposed to be in a prison cell.  I actually just shot that in a nook in his house that I lit dramatically and intercut with some footage that I was able to shoot at a local detention center down the road and it cut together really nicely surprisingly.  We have a producer that is one of those people that knows everyone and she knew that the guy that runs the detention center goes to church here so we were able to get access to get in there to film and we actually filmed those shots and the courthouse stuff a week before the film was supposed to play.

How did you do the lighting gag with the prison bars if you were just shooting at his house?

(laughter) Ok, so the prison bars at his house….. that was not planned.  Sometimes I just try things just to see what happens on the day of and I think that’s good to build into your schedule, a little flexibility to play.  So I grabbed the oven rack out of his oven and put it in front of the lens.

Hilarious. So funny, but it worked!  Since that little sequence wasn’t “real life” how did you go about directing Adam during that scene?

So a lot of times when you do stories with people they’re kind of awkward on camera, but Adam wasn’t one of those people.  He understood what we were trying to communicate in that scene and could naturally go there.  By that point we had already filmed his interview so I knew where this part would go in his storyline so I just basically painted the picture for him, “This is where you’re at, this is what’s happening” and he was able to go there mentally.  And then for the pacing and stuff, I wanted something other than him just sitting there so I was just like “Hey, just get up and walk back and forth”, but he remembered doing that in his tiny cell, just pacing back and forth running his hands against the wall.  That was something I asked him to do, but it was something he was familiar with. As soon as we cut he said “I remember doing that.”

When did you guys film the going to church stuff?

So that was after his release.  We filmed that, but then in the edit used that footage to represent the good times they were having before his incarceration.

That’s good.  Often times when I’m working with newer filmmakers they don’t realize you can take that type of creative license and sometimes I even have to remind myself of that.  Just because you weren’t there when it actually happened doesn’t mean you can’t film something today that can be an honest representation of a past event.  Obviously you don’t want to recreate something that didn’t happen, but something like going to church together is a great example of something that can be picked up later if you need to.

Watching that release scene made me think about how much pressure you’re probably under to capture such a special, once in a lifetime moment.

The release scene was really special to film because to have two married people live that kind of life for almost three years and to see the emotion come out on camera was one of the most special moments I’ve ever captured.

It was funny, he was at a transitional center where he was released from and we did all of our due diligence, sent emails, getting confirmations that it was ok for us to film and then as soon as we get there this lady comes outta there yelling “Get those cameras off of the grounds! You’re not allowed to be out here!” and we’re like “We have permission” but she made us get off of the grounds until she could go back in and talk to the guy that had given us permission, but by the time she was able to get a hold of that guy Adam had already been released, so we had pulled everyone on our side out onto the street because I wanted us to be as close as possible to the grounds and that was the only solution I could think of and that’s why Adam’s walk to his wife is so long and then as soon as it was all over the lady came back out and was like “You guys are safe to film out here now” and we were like “….thanks” (laughter).

How did you handle the technical logistics of capturing that scene?

We had rented an Ursa Mini Pro to try out because we were thinking about upgrading from our C100s and so we had one of those that week just by chance and then I had a Red Dragon.  She was wearing a mic, but we couldn’t get in to put a mic on Adam so our audio guy was also running a boom and we jammed timecode sync to the Red Dragon so we could sync the audio back up in post. 

As we were standing there she was texting him like “Hey when are you getting out?” because we stood there for 25 minutes waiting for him to walk out the doors because he was in the lobby, but he had to sign some papers and this whole time they’re letting other people out in front of him and basically the facility didn’t care about our production at all.  We had several false alarms where we thought he was coming out so we’d start recording and then wait and I was like “Ugh, we’re burning through all these cards for no reason”, but we knew he should be out any minute and then as soon as she said “I see him” we sped on the cameras.  I knew I wanted to be able to see both of their faces so I had a wide over the shoulder for his angle and then I wanted to be as close as I could be to her with the other camera without being in the other shot and then we both kind of moved in as they began to hug and everything.  The goal was just to get emotions in the faces really.

For that scene it was me and another cinematographer, the audio guy, and our guy that does the interviewing and story vetting, he’s kind of like a co-director almost.

That’s awesome, that’s one thing I’m always interested in when watching other people’s documentaries or documentary based films – how much is intentional planning, how much is scripted or shaped, and how much is just winging it and letting it play out in front of the camera and then just react to it in the moment.  I know for me I tend to err on the side of keeping my distance and giving the people enough room to really be in the moment without worrying about cameras being all in their space, but on the flip side of that I’m not always happy with the footage I get because of that.

Yea, a lot of it comes down to instinct because you don’t know where everyone is going to be and you just try to get what you can get.

Were you guys using zoom lenses for that scene?

No, for that scene my other cinematographer was on a Canon CN-E 24mm prime and I was on the 35mm prime if I remember correctly.

Wow, I’m impressed, haha.  In those types of situations I almost always play it safe and use zoom lenses because I don’t know what’s going to happen or where people are going to be so I try to stay as flexible as possible.

Yea, I mean it’s not really the wisest decision to shoot with on a Red with prime lenses, it’s more cumbersome, but this was a decision I made early on.  I was going to film the entire project on the same camera, so even on the interviews I shot with the Red and that’s not super efficient either. I knew I wanted to film the interviews hand held with the Easy Rig and in order to do that I sometimes rely on the ability to punch into the image in editing and we either have the Red or C100s which only shoot 1080 and although you can scale up the C100s a little bit, I didn’t want to rely on doing that.  There were certainly some drawbacks to doing it the way we did it though, like having to stop every 12 minutes to let the camera cool down and have the internal fans turn off during the interviews.

So overall with your equipment decisions for the film, were those motivated by the content or the workflow or how did you make those decisions?

Ummm, I think what it really comes down to is what I like (laughter).  I like a certain setup and get comfortable with that and then I know what I can get out of that setup and that’s why I usually choose it.  Honestly, the way I told this story, and when I watch other stories, that style of storytelling is what I’m really excited about – you have some cinematic elements but goes into the documentary side of things. 

That kind of touches on something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, making decisions based on personal excitement and passion instead of always trying to make the most efficient or logical choices, even when it comes to gear and technical decisions.  Maybe it’s just me trying to justify some upcoming purchases I want to make…

I do think there’s a lot of opportunities in the church world to just become OK with what’s always been done and to not ever want to figure out how to raise the bar and for me I’ve just never been OK with trying to do the same thing over and over again. Like when you’re in a situation where you have two stories due in four weeks and you’ve got tight deadlines it’s easy to go to your default and go “Ok, we need to do it this way and this way because we know this way and this way works every time” or “I need to do it in the studio because it’s safe”.  There’s always this temptation to lean into those things that you think streamlines things because you always do it that way.  We were in a situation like that last summer with a series of videos and I wanted to push our team to do something different and I was really excited about it so I put these rules in place of how we’re going to shoot the films and how we were going to tell the stories and we even rented some anamorphic lenses and we all got really excited about that.  I think it’s important to push through those restraints and do something that you can get excited about personally because if you can get excited about it personally your project is going to be better.

So let’s talk about the interviews, what was that process like?

Adam’s interview was about an hour and twenty minutes of actual filmed content, so that means it was probably about an hour forty five minutes with all the breaks and stuff.    Their house was actually extremely small and there were a lot of half done projects in the house because he’s been gone for so long so if you turn the camera the other way you’re going to see all of that. I wasn’t super stoked on the location for his interview, but we went with it because of the lack of options, so I felt a bit cornered with his interview and his wife’s second interview because I wanted it to feel different than her original one.

On the technical side we lit both interviews with the Kino Flo Gaffer Kit going through an 8’ x 8’ grid cloth and I think I flagged off the windows off camera that the sun was blasting through and I think I put a scrim outside one of the windows behind him to knock the light down a little, but the light was starting to give us some problems after a while because it was a pretty inconsistent day.  Also, I don’t think I did any fill on either of the interviews, I just let the light fall off.  I don’t always use that lighting setup, but I use it a lot.

How did you approach taking breaks during interviews?

We tried to do 12 minute takes because the camera gets really hot, so we try to take it sections at a time, like we kind of have an arc kind of built before we go out there with chapters essentially, so it’s like “Hey we’re talking about this section, try to get as much of that section done before we cut” but if we don’t we’ll get into another take and then when we finish a chapter we’ll take a little break and let the camera cool down and use that time to be preparing him or her of where we’re heading in the story so the interviewer can make sure that they’re on the same page, trying to limit how much time is just conversation while the camera is rolling basically, so like when we start the camera it’s right into the next question, it’s not a bunch of small talk.

That’s interesting, so it sounds like by this point you guys have a fairly structured game plan going into the interview.

We’ve tried several different ways and we’re always trying different ways of doing interviews, but our interviewer is someone who works at the church and he used to be a journalist and really understands storytelling and has been doing it so long & I’ve learned a ton from him, but throughout the time I’ve been at the church we’ve tried several different routes, like “Let’s go in without preparing anything” ya know, like we kinda know their story but let’s see what we get and then we’ve also been super structured, but I think we’ve kind of found a happy medium where there’s definitely structure but we’re also willing to go into sections that we didn’t initially plan to go into.  We just keep our ears open and see what seems interesting sometimes.

That’s awesome man.  Well I’ll let you go, but congrats on the new kiddo and the new job and we’ll have to catch up once you get all settled in.

Thanks, things will be interesting, no doubt.  Glad to chat with you man.


To follow more of Allen’s work you can check out his Vimeo page and Instagram.