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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Tangerine Conversations

I don’t know what it is, but radio people seem to be the nicest.  It’s one of the biggest plusses about making audio, in my opinion.  I met Philipp Batta while on a StoryCorps stop in Rochester.  And when I moved to Chicago, I learned we lived three blocks from each other.  He incorporates beautiful visuals into his stories, is fighting the freelance fight, and is currently doing a very cool project about the pop-up communities born from the natural gas boom in North Dakota.  I particularly enjoy his tangerine conversations.  You can also see more at his website

Tangerine Conversation 3: Teresa from philipp batta on Vimeo.

Garlic & Greens

Fereshteh Toosi is an interdisciplinary artist based in Chicago.  Last week I attended  a brainstorming brunch she hosted with creative friends and cool people to gather input and share ideas for her latest project, GARLIC & GREENS.  G&G records people’s stories about soul food as a way to explore the intersection of culture and food.  Read more about the project here, in an interview I did with Fereshteh for Turnstyle News.  (And if you’re interested in contributing, help out the G&G kickstarter fund).  Here she shares some additional thoughts on audio just for us.

You said, “I am committed to doing work that addresses multiple senses”…How has sound played into GARLIC & GREENS?

I like art and audio that is complicated, things that have messiness or noise. I also appreciate carefully crafted and layered documentary like Radiolab. It’s highly produced and uses music, special effects, and the soundbed in unexpected ways. But in my own work, I’m still learning to compose. To share the interviews I have collected, simplicity is OK, maybe even preferred. It’s important to allow some voices to stand on their own. The tone of the human voice has so much information in it. The content of the stories and the way they are performed by the speaker are of primary importance. That’s what’s compelling to most listeners. The stories have a complexity that is more powerful than any production tricks I could add to the track.

Getting more comfortable with simplicity also stems from my greater awareness of accessibility for people with disabilities. I owe my understanding of this to the people with low or no vision who’ve assisted with GARLIC & GREENS. These days, because Braille books take up so much physical space, audio tools are really important to people who are blind.  Audio allows a hands free experience of information, and it is maneuverable. At first I was surprised when I heard a person who is blind listening to the audio cues on their iPhone: the text was playing back at triple speed. I hadn’t thought about the fact that when I scan the world with my eyes, time is a factor. How much time do I devote to taking in the information around me? It could be a long, contemplative stare. Or it could be a quick glance. With technology you can skim content more quickly by speeding up and slowing down the audio. This is a factor for a lot of time-based work or digital media that is removed from a controlled environment. Once the sound waves are cast out there, you don’t know exactly how they will be received. Someone could be listening while they are jogging or on the train to work. They might miss the first part, fast forward through something, or repeat parts they like.

Lynn Manning filled me in on the technologies used by people with vision loss. Lynn is a writer and a performer who happens to be blind. I asked him if he had a preferred way of delivering stories and content to his audience. I was thinking of the differences between reading on a screen and reading a traditional bound paper book. He replied that however people want to read is how they should get their information. On the other hand, during a group discussion with people who are low or no vision, I learned that there is a value to the tactile experience in addition to the audio experience. A school teacher who is blind said that strictly auditory learning may hinder the grammar and spelling of children with vision loss. Or for example, if you have to give a talk to a crowd, having your presentation in Braille in front of you can be a big help. Otherwise, it becomes a burden to memorize everything. Hearing from people with vision loss expands my understanding of the limits and possibilities of sound and touch as carriers of information. The structure of how sound is experienced, the phenomenology, is something  that’s of great interest to me.

I’m giving a guest presentation about the project with an audio aesthetics class at UIC. The instructor,  artist Deborah Stratman, is really smart about using sound and other sensation in her projects. I’m a huge fan of her work. For homework she asked her students to read excerpts from Helen Keller’s book, The world I live in. Keller wrote: “Touch brings the blind many sweet certainties which our more fortunate fellows miss, because their sense of touch is uncultivated. When they look at things, they put their hands in their pockets.” This is something to consider with sound too. When we listen, we don’t have to keep our hands in our pockets. It’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in combining touch with other senses for the GARLIC & GREENS book. I’m hoping that engaging other senses will create an opportunity for slow listening, an experience that’s portable but not just about slogging through information.


Mastering Mount Saint Helens

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For some reason, I really enjoyed the simple audio and beautiful images of this story I stumbled upon from the Spokane Review.  The producer, Colin, Mulvaney, wrote about the story on his blog called Mastering Multimedia which gave me some good tips as I reintroduced myself to Final Cut Pro this morning.  He also provides some interesting perspectives on the state of media in newspapers.  I recommend watching this full screen style.

CHIRP

I already mentioned one great radio reason Chicago rules, but hey! Here’s another (and oddly enough, they both have a bird in the logo…).  I heard about Chicago Independent Radio Project, aka CHIRP, the moment I arrived in this city by what feels like osmosis.  And it has certainly been a huge part of connecting to a new life in a new city for me.  Oh, how I love some homegrown radio, run by people.  And for music, there just isn’t a better station in this town.  CHIRP started broadcasting online in January of 2010.  Its many dedicated volunteers were very active in getting the Local Community Radio Act passed, which allowed for more slots on the dial to open up.  They’re now pressuring the FCC to let low-power FM stations apply for those spots, especially in urban areas where dial space is precious.  This is in hopes of getting community voices on air and preventing big, corporate stations from repeating their already-in-existence stations on the newly opened spots.   When they’re not advocating for community-powered radio, they’re broadcasting awesome music online and supporting a ton of local independent shows and goings on around town.  They’re only in their second year of broadcast, and I totally see CHIRP blossoming into a community-run version of KEXP or KCRW.  Also, stay tuned for a new series I produce with the CHIRP news department in the coming weeks!

Listening on the Third Coast

We Recollectors are often spread out in different towns, and I currently find myself in Chicago, city of big shoulders.  A huge benefit to being in Chicago is sharing turf with other people who love radio, including the Third Coast Audio Festival and CHIRP (more on them later).  Third Coast describes itself as the Sundance for audio.   In addition to their audio conference, they also occasionally host listening lounges around town, giving people the opportunity to listen to radio with others!  I recently attended an evening focusing on the power of voice, and heard this great piece from 1989, called The Auctioneer.  It evoked really specific images for me.  The next listening lounge happens July 21 at the Old Town School of Folk Music (a place I would spend a lot of time if I had it) and will feature radio that makes you laugh!

Mission Statement

This weekend, we traveled from our various home bases to reconvene for three short days in New York City.  We wanted to see each other’s smiling faces, hash out the challenges and successes of making Sounds & Echoes: A Musical Portrait of Buffalo, make a plan of action for our next project, AND come to an agreement on a mission statement for The Recollective.  All went well, except after three intensive days of meetings, we could not agree on a mission statement!  We did narrow it down to two possibilities (written below), and we’re stuck.  Leave a comment and help us choose our new mission statement!

We weave our integrity into a human communal fabric of solution to further deepen our understanding of marginalized communities in viscerally investigative audio, video, film, photo, tweeted documentaries through collaborative partnerships by excavating truths with a myriad of unheard communities.

OR

We are five friends collaborating across state lines. We love to learn about people and places, using a variety of media to tell the stories we find.