Adventures in food media

Food is everywhere, and now, storytellers are finding the stories behind the food we eat. Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine are the creators of The Perennial Plate, a video series about food and sustainability and the people that work for both.  For their first season, their videos focused on food in their home state of Minnesota.  Their second season documented an American food road trip. The current third season is a round-the-world adventure tour of food and culture and people.  Daniel took a moment out of filming in Italy to answer our questions. (P.S.  If you want to try your hand at making some food media, check out the rules for this year’s audio shortdoc challenge from the great minds at the Third Coast International Audio Festival.)

The Recollective: How did the Perennial Plate grow from an idea into a reality?

Daniel Klein: It was really  just a matter of starting it.  I had an idea and picked up a camera (that I had) and started filming.  After filming for a potential TV pilot, it morphed into a we series.  I wanted to combine my cooking, film and activism into one project.

The Recollective: How do you do your pre-production research and how do you decide who to visit?

Daniel: It depends from country to country and place to place.  The first step is just to think about what interests us in certain areas.  For our international travel, we’ll buy some cookbooks and travel books to gain inspiration.  Then we will do a lot of googling.  We also have an incredible partner Intrepid Travel, who has people on the ground in the countries we visit and can help bridge the language gap and organize a lot of the travel.

The Recollective: Travel brings a lot of the unexpected.  How spontaneous are you?   How many places do you film that ultimately don’t end up working for The Perennial Plate?

Daniel: When we were filming  around the US, we were very spontaneous.  Finding stories the day before or the day of. For the international travel we have to have an pretty solid itinerary.  We only spend two weeks in each country and there is a lot we have to capture.  That being said.  There are times when we film something and half way through realize it would make an amazing story.  There have also been a number of things we don’t end up using, or we combine stories together into one episode.  We are very spontaneous on the editing table and in the actual filming.  We don’t script anything, we let things happen and film.  Then we take the best moments that capture the spirit of our characters.

The Recollective: How much of the story develops in the editing process and how much before?

Daniel: Ahh, I just answered that.  The story develops almost entirely in the editing process.  When we are filming, we know there are some things we need to try and capture so we will ask certain questions.  And sometime a story will be clear, or come out and make itself known and we will follow that lead.  But in general, we see what we have and construct from there.

The Recollective: A video a week is a lot of content.  How do you keep up?

Daniel: We did a video a week for two years, now we are doing every other week.  Our schedule is to film for a month and then edit for a month and a half. Around the US, we were editing in the car.  Traveling the world, we don’t want to be stuck in a hotel editing when we could be out exploring the streets of Mumbai, Rome, Galicia, Hong Kong…

The Recollective: What are some of your tricks for producing on the go?

Daniel: Tricks to producing quickly are letting things go.  You can get the video/product so good, but at some point you have to release it.  Doing these videos regularly makes a big difference.  We are editing for the internet, so we really have to think about what the core of the story is and cut away any extra content.  I use music as an inspiration and that can really help me edit a piece that I ‘m stuck on.

The Recollective: How has finding funding been?

Daniel: We’ve been really lucky with funding.  We had incredible support from our fans the first two years through Kickstarter.  Then we had support from NCGA (National Cooperative Grocers Association) and Stop Global Warming.  And this year we found a dream partner with Intrepid Travel.  They put on responsible and adventurous tours around the globe.  They think food and getting to know people in countries is a great reason to travel and that our content can help get people excited about it.  The partnership is great for us because of their on the ground knowledge in these countries, and of course the financial aspect.  But really, they are just a generous company that is completely respectufl of artistic vision and so many things.  We love them.  And its not in our contract to be so complimentary!

The Recollective: You approached Intrepid Travel to fund your third season of travel and episodes.  How did you develop your pitch?  How does this sort of funding compare to crowd funding (w/ Kickstarter?)

Daniel: Intrepid Travel invited us on one of their trips to Vietnam, and we made a video out of the experience.  That video did extremely well and so we got together to see how we could replicate that situation.  We were amazed and so excited when they wanted to help make this third season happen.  So it was serendipitious to a certain extent.  We pitched them only after a relationship had already started.With Kickstarter it is all about tapping into your network.  We got money from friends and family the first time around, because no one had ever heard of the show.  But after putting out 52 free videos, people were more than happy to support the continuation of the project.  But you have to push.  I think folk think that you can just put up a campaign and people will support.  Not the case.  You have to really ask people over and over again to support your work.  We don’t want to do it anymore for The Perennial Plate because our fans have given so much.  We might consider it for a separate project.

The Recollective: I was blown away by how shiitakes are grown on Sweden Creek Farm in Arkansas.  What food find has blown you away?
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Daniel: We were just in Spain filming with a foie gras producer who doesn’t force feed his animals.  He lets them live in the wild, and because they are raised in the wild, they have all their instincts.  And their instinct is to gorge before they migrate.  So they naturally have huge livers in early winter.  Amazing stuff and so different than mainstream foie gras.
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The Recollective: Have you ever had an expectation about the cuisine/food culture of a particular place and then been surprised by what you actually found?
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Daniel: There are always treats in eating and I learn a lot about food while traveling.  But there aren’t a lot of surprises.  I guess it was a surprise when I realized how bad Spanish bread is (except in Galicia).
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The Recollective: Tell us about collaboration.  How do your (Mira and Daniel) individual experiences and talents compliment each other when producing the series?
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Daniel: Our collaboration works because we like each other and are quite different.  Mirra is a great listener and gets to know people and puts them at ease.  I run around more making sure we get every shot etc.  We’ve been doing it a few years now, so we just kind of operate as a team.  we spend 24 hours together, its pretty crazy, but great.  We both operate the camera, so if one of us is tired, we switch off.  We both do everything.
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The Recollective: You blogged about being surprised that your fans and followers weren’t actually stopping and watching your videos (Not Quite a Sob Story).  What was the impetus to write that post?
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Daniel: I think i was just frustrated by social media in general – the likes and the shares and all the fluff on the internet getting so much attention.  Our fans have been really great, and our viewership continues to grow, so it wasn’t that they weren’t watching.  It was more frustration and needing “likes” to make sure our videos got seen etc.
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The Recollective: How do you see the role of food media in the food sustainability movement?
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Daniel: It seems like it has become quite successful.  You see people getting upset about pink slime and GMOs and obesity and things starting to change.  I really think most of America is on the same page about wanting healthy and real food.  Food media also sensationalizes etc. so it can be tricky.
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The Recollective: Your first season was a year of food in Minnesota.  Your second was a US road trip.  Your third is a round the world adventure.  How has The Perennial Plate evolved?  What’s next?
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Daniel: I think each season we’ve gotten a little more professional.  Our videos used to be more “how to” and now they are mostly about people and the characters and love behind people’s work instead of the work itself.  What’s next? Space!  I have no idea.  Maybe a series on Food justice, or maybe about Animals.  We will see.
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