The Story Behind the Story: Mind Over Battle

In the fall of 2015, I got the best phone call. I was in Los Angeles deep into post production on my first documentary film The Pamoja Project when John called with the magic words all producers like to hear. There was a whiff of a story and serious interest from Al Jazeera Witness.

Al Jazeera Witness is an inspiring documentary series that brings world issues into focus through compelling human stories. They’ve produced and acquired incredible films (including our film Leh Wi Tok in 2011) that span continents and transcend language, getting to the core of what people care about. For filmmakers, it’s a dream to distribute a film through Al Jazeera, and the opportunity was heartening.  

In most cases, independent filmmakers either stumble upon, chase, or stalk fascinating stories and subjects. They may follow a subject for a few years, then spend a few more years finishing the film, and then spend even more years trying to find distribution or self-distributing. 

In this case, we were working backwards. The story was about moving beyond gang related trauma and violence. My job? Find the subject, pitch the story, make the film. 

After hitting a dead end in Philadelphia, our Executive Producer from Al Jazeera suggested that we check out Homeboy Industries. I was familiar with Homeboys — not far from where I was living, Homeboy’s was this incredible community for formally gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women. They provided classes, employment, tattoo removal, and most importantly - the Homegirl Cafe where they sold the best cinnamon raison bread in Los Angeles. 

After a few phone calls and some persistent texts, I was able to get a meeting with Hector Verdugo, the Chief Trainee Director at Homeboys, and tell him what we were up to. Hector could not have been more gracious and supportive. After a few conversations, he introduced me to Javier.

I remember walking away from my first coffee with Javier feeling like I had just met a real life Yoda (a very big Yoda with tattoos and a huge smile). I ran to my car and quickly typed up everything I could remember from our conversation. One of those notes read: “Wants people to know we are all the same. That jail or no jail, we’ve all felt pain and fear… This is the question I ask myself every day: ‘If you could wake up and be living the life exactly as you want it, what would it look like? Then I set goals and do it.’”

After that meeting the pitch came together quickly and we secured the green light to start production. Making a film is always challenging, but in working with Javier there was an inherent and welcome ease to the process. Javier was a natural storyteller and was able secure key access to locations and people all over Los Angeles. While in many ways this story was challenging to tell authentically, it was also a complete joy to film. 

Mind Over Battle aired on Al Jazeera in the spring of 2017. It is still available to watch online and recently was chosen to be featured on Al Jazeera Selects. We’ve remained friends with Javier and recently caught up with him this fall. Joking over sushi (his favorite), I remembered how much on an honor it is to tell peoples stories and how grateful I am for this one. 

-Audrey Emerson

Shooting Film
Kate Kelley with her Hasselblad
Kate Kelley Partner Devlo Media

Have you heard the sound of a Hasselblad 501CM shutter as you so delicately and steadily press the button? It makes my heart swell (all photographers reading this are now sighing). It’s the sound of your image forever etched in light. It creates a tangible image, something you can physically hold onto. Well, that being said, you are still going to scan it, retouch it, back it up across a few hard drives, size it down (like, wayyyy down), and throw it up on your website, post to social media… and on it goes.

I graduated from college just before the rise of the digital camera, which meant that when I studied photography I shot on film and I am forever grateful that I did. There is something beautiful about the torture of waiting for your film to come back from the lab... did that amazing shot come out? Did I expose it properly? Did the lab lose power when my film was in the machine?! A lot of these fears may seem irrational to most, but some of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Shooting digitally, you can snap away hundreds of photos in just a few minutes and not think a thing of it. Then you can look at what you are shooting, usually referred to as chimping (not a very endearing term) and check exposure, framing, adjust, and continue shooting. You are limited by the size of your compact flash card and battery. THIS IS GREAT! Well, maybe not so much. Who am I kidding, it is really great.

Shooting film, you don’t have that instant gratification of knowing if the shot came out the way you planned. First, you only have 36 shots, or 12, or even just one. Shooting this way, you really have to take a longer look at the frame and make your editing decisions on the spot - do I keep that tree branch, how much sky does this shot need, ahhh crap I have to remember to leave room for type. And second, it takes 3 hours to run through the developing process, and that would only happen if you shot the film at the lab and handed it directly to the tech. These days it takes 3 days or up to a week to get your film back as labs will do one run a week. Today everything moves so quickly and turnaround times are crazy. We shoot, dump, process, and send - in a day. You can’t move that fast with film, which is why its great to take the time to switch things up, throw a roll in the Hasselblad, and see what happens. Its like hitting option-command-esc on your Mac when you have the spinning wheel of death, but for your brain. For those of you on a PC, well, thats cool.

There is still a time and place for film. I yearn for the days when I could take a week or two to decide what my favorite shot was from a shoot. Look, I’m not knocking technology. As photographers, we can do so much more with so much less (I’m not talking money though, duh). Film is romantic. Film is why most of the photographers working today got into this profession, it is their first love. Most students in photography programs today are not learning on film, they’ve gone straight to digital not ever experiencing the agony of waiting. BUT these students know that they are missing something. They are exploring film in all formats, craving the feeling of suspense in their work. Film is having a comeback. My younger colleagues ask me all kinds of questions about film and its made me realize that I’ve been missing it. I’m currently editing photos that I shot on FILM while on a trip to Norway, Sweden and Iceland this summer. And yes, I’m scanning them, retouching them, backing it all up, and I will size wayyyy down so that I can share with you on social media.

-Kate Kelley

Kate Kelley
Our Drone Journey

There was a time when you needed one of these to get the killer aerial photo or video. Rent one for $1,200 per hr with a gimbal mounted to the bottom of helicopter or $600 per hr for a shaky ride with three of the four doors off while you hang out the side praying the very flimsy seat belt holds! This was the fall of 2013. 

The following spring we planned another aerial shoot and it was time to rent another one - this time with a gimbal  - Then the client said a drone company had sent them a bid and there was no need for a helicopter - What? A drone? A drone company?? So then our aerial journey began… first flight August 2014. 

I found this article and it sold me. I said to Kate  - we “need” this (every guy looking to justify a new toy always starts with the “need” part… well I was right we needed it and we haven’t stoped buying them. We have had 10 drones to date. (One Phantom 1 , One Phantom 2, Two Inspire 1, Two Inspire 1 Pro, One Mavic Pro, Two Mavic Air, One Mavic 2 Pro - so far…)

These drones have given us lots of stories of great video and images, as well as some stories behind the stories - some are tragic, some are funny, some are silly… So, maybe a few vague titles will give you a hint. “Sinking at Sunset” “Lost and Found in LA” “That Shot Was Great - Let’s Try It One More Time…” “The Audrey Emerson Resume” “The Woods Hole Lighthouse Incident - When Prop Locks Don’t Lock”

Our newest drone is the Mavic 2 Pro featuring  a Hasselblad Camera with a 1" CMOS Sensor, Adjustable Aperture, 10-bit HDR Video image quality… the list goes on and on. I look back at out first one with a GoPro (and the process of having to physically turn the GoPro on before flight) the fact that you had to buy special antennas and wireless transmitters and receivers to rig up makeshift monitors, or just fly blindly… it was a challenge for sure plus you had to look at all that footage of the GoPro wide angle footage of your face as you turned on and off the camera! 

Over the last four years and 10 drones we have flown nationally over several states and Internationally in Ireland, England, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Malta, Spain, France, Denmark… and so on.

We have certainly come a long way in a short amount of time and look forward to what comes next - maybe it’s personal drones which can combine the advancement of today’s photographic and cinematic abilities with the thrills of a helicopter flight of the past! Uber’s ‘flying taxis’ will be built by these five aerospace companies.

-John Lavall

Mdina, Malta  - Devlo Media

Mdina, Malta - Devlo Media

John Lavall
Instagram Meetup in Kenya with Photographer Bryan Jaybee

If you’ve worked with us in the recent past, you’ll know that we’re big fans of the ‘Gram. The instagram that is. We love sharing our behind the scenes phots, connecting with cool filmmakers and photographers from around the world, and John loves taking behind-the-scenes photos of our behind-the-scenes Instagram shoots (Instagramception?) 

So it’s not surprising that we connected with Kibera photographer Bryan Jaybee (@KiberaStories) on Instagram when we noticed that some of his photos were in the exact same location in the Kibera Slum that the we’d shot before in 2012.

Fast forward to a 2018 trip to Kenya joined by the amazing photographer Lou Bopp. We found ourselves with a day off and on whim, we messaged Bryan to meet up with him. We’d never met him in person before - and our driver was hesitant to take us to the slum but Brayn told us he’d show us around and to come at daybreak to get the best light — so off we went. 

The morning we met him was a perfect example of the shared language of photography: clashing cultures that came together over a total camera geek-fest with us waving our 5D Mark IV’s around and talking equipment while Bryan led us to the best sunrise spots in Kibera. 

We decided to come back later in the day and do a profile on him and capture how he sees Kirbera and the world around him. We’re working on developing this short documentary now and can’t wait to share it with you. Traveling to new places to explore new stories and make connections with different local filmmakers and photographers is one of our tentpoles as a company. We not only try to capture authentic curiosity, but we live it.

(Photos by Lou Bopp and Devlo Media)