THE ADVENTURES OF A DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER
Multi-award-winning documentary filmmaker and editor Carolyn Voss says “I refuse to ever miss a good adventure.”
And adventures she has certainly experienced: travelling to all seven continents, over 40 countries, many of them third-world countries. All for the love of documentary film.
One of Voss’ most memorable adventures took her to Ethiopia for a month shooting a documentary on the African country. Ethiopia as a dynasty dates back to the second century B.C. It currently has a population of over 82 million. While most of its history saw monarchical rule, it now is fragile politically.
Voss, partnered with her cameraman, toured that world in a 50-year old MI-17 helicopter, shooting in cities, villages and rugged terrain. The helicopter had been built in the 1960s in Russia, spent years in Cuba, and now is in service based in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Abbaba. Ethiopia has 38 MI-17s. Voss travelled in one of the only two now functional.
Asked to describe her MI-17 flights, she says, “Many of the wires were disconnected… the cockpit instructions were in Cyrillic… there was no radio (and no one to call if it did work)… and we had to keep the equipment off the floors as they were awash in jet fuel.”
Voss describes her trip as a day-by-day challenge. There were local politicians expecting bribes (even with an authorization letter from the nation’s President). At one location an angry mob hundreds strong threw spears at them. Wild boars chased them. Their helicopter broke down, leaving them stranded hundreds of miles from help.
For third-world country assignments, she usually teams with a single cameraman. That allows them to travel with a low profile, looking more like tourists and getting access to unique stories and exceptional footage. But she always hires locals to help with baggage and translating.
Her cameraman must also be expert with sound and lighting, as well as technically adept at equipment repair in the field. And be up for the adventure!
The most persistent threat for Voss in Ethiopia came in the form of sickness: high fevers, stomach illnesses, intestinal disorders. “I remember early in the trip,” she says, “talking to the toilet in Gondar (a city in Ethiopia) trembling with chills and fever, and looking up at the lizards on the wall, and just wanting to go home.”
As sick and discouraged as she was, she realized to her dismay, getting home would be an even greater ordeal: a 12-hour ride over treacherous mountain roads, then back in the “death-trap” helicopter, then change to a Twin Otter to fly over 15,000 foot mountain peaks with no oxygen, then a 10-hour flight to Frankfurt, another 10-hour flight to San Francisco, and finally a three-hour drive to her home.
“I’ve never felt so stuck and hopeless and really, really sorry for myself,” she says.
With doses of Imodium and Cipro she managed to shake the worst of the sickness. By morning she was ready for the next adventure.
Voss finds that if she inventories all her afflictions when she’s feeling dejected, she gains perspective. Sometimes the list gets shorter. Sometimes the process helps her realize it isn’t really all that bad. And she says that in spite of her troubles, she still loves what she’s doing. “And I always keep Imodium and Cipro in my pocket, and bottles of water at my side.”
Facing up to these challenges, she discovers her strength. “That night in Gondar was the turning point… of being so sick and so far from home… feeling so utterly distraught… but it taught me that I actually had the stuff to carry on.”
For the average documentary project – a corporate assignment, for example – Voss will hire a full crew: two camera persons, a sound person, a lighting person. She does a lot of work for broadcast manufacturers, the ones that create HD equipment. “They still want their programs shot in SD,” she says, “because they want the DVDs they send out to be viewed by everyone, and not everyone has a Blu-ray player.”
When filming in another country, Voss logs all the material from each day of shooting, and incorporates it into a diary of what occurred that day. She’s also the scriptwriter and editor on each project, so being the videographer on location gives her a true feeling of what a country or culture is all about.
“I’m always given a rough outline for the projects in other countries,” she says. “But they always just want me to ‘do my thing.’” That’s the only way to go, she feels. Trying to follow a detailed outline or a predetermined shot list will cause her to miss things and end up with what she terms a very non-creative result. The shot list works for a movie, she admits, but not for documentary work. “Out in a third-world country every single day is a new adventure, a new story, a new life-changing moment, a new miracle.” She believes the only way to find stories for potential projects is to be out there. “The world is full of amazing stories,” she says.
In the middle of a shoot, when things go wrong, she will fight to maintain focus. “It’s the only way to make sense out of chaos.” She goes on to say, “If I’m in another country, I’m so thrilled about the adventure of it, anything negative looks like an opportunity.” A great attitude for any filmmaker.
Back home after each project shoot, Voss dons her editor’s cap. “Every story has a theme,” she says. “The theme is the way script is written; it’s in the footage; it’s in the music; it’s in the effects; it’s in the graphics; it’s in the editing style.” She says that if all the elements are on-theme, then it all comes together “… to make a very emotional, enlightening, memorable story like no other.”
“When I’m editing,” she says, “I enter another world. I just know and feel how that program needs to be. Something just flows through me, most of it totally surprising me, as if it comes from somewhere else… I think it does.”
Voss runs a full service production and post-production studio, PostImpressions, based in Northern California.