Dan Bihn: Crew of One

I love hearing about the fascinating things my readers are doing. Case in point, Dan Bihn. I had the opportunity to ask Dan about his work, his involvement in clean energy, and his thoughts on what’s next for the production industry, and all of us. I hope you find the conversation as fascinating as I did!

 

Dan Bihn, Tell us a bit about your business. How does video production help you provide value to your clients?

I am a one-man company that helps organizations tell complex scientific and technical stories to nontechnical audiences. Sustainable technologies are my beat. I focus on new energy topics including smart grid and renewable energy.

Many of my clients are government agencies with amazing stories – but they need some help in the communications department.

My approach is not to dumb-down the content (people are much too smart for that). On the contrary, I strive to brighten up the story: distilling the essence of a topic and then making it interesting, relevant – and fun.

A well-crafted video is a very, very powerful tool to do that. Something people want to engage with and share – exactly what my clients want.

Some of my favorite projects aren’t public, but this one is:

 

You are a bit of a Renaissance man, being a writer, designer, lecturer, filmmaker and scientist. How does video production integrate with your other creative disciplines?

Effective storytelling is a multidimensional activity. It begins with a deep understanding of the topic and ends with an impression left in the viewer’s mind.

To leave a meaningful impression I believe you have to connect to the soul of your audience. That sounds a bit funny – explaining smart grids by connecting to the soul. But that’s what it takes.

A beautiful, meaningful video can make that connection.

The iBook is an amazing platform for communicating ideas. A mix of text, photos, diagrams, and embedded videos, that can really bring a story to life.

Video is truly transformative. Something that would take pages of text to only partially describe can be completely explained in a few seconds of video.

Case in point, I’m producing an iBook for a federal land management agency on using wood chips to heat buildings. The trucks that deliver the chips often have a “walking floor” that automatically pushes the chips out the back – how? I don’t think I can explain that, but the video we shot can. It’s amazing – and fun. Everyone loves that part.

Video interviews are great, too. They give the viewer an immediate sense of who a person is far better than any other media. Are they trustworthy? Are they competent? Are they like me?

I think the Internet has democratized information, but it has yet to democratize understanding. These integrated storytelling packages might really, really help.

I just can’t wait until there is a device-independent format…

 

It seems as though you are truly a “crew of one.” What are the most valuable lessons have you learned through doing such large, multifaceted projects by yourself?

Well, I think we can all learn a lot from Tom Sawyers – get the folks around you to help paint your fence. When I show up on site, that’s often the first thing I do – find a few people who want to help out. It makes the whole process more fun for everyone. And that feeling shows up in the videos and images.

My stories used to have just still photographs. From a production perspective, that meant a camera bag and some flash equipment. Easy to carry. Quick to set-up.

And getting enough coverage to tell the story was pretty straightforward, too. Photograph everything.

Video requires a lot more planning and a lot more stuff. That means a lot more schlepping of hardware and time consuming set-up. It’s a lot slower. So the only way I can bring back the clips I need is to have a very good idea of what the story is AND how I want to tell it.

Most of my projects are multi-media, so I need stills, too. My little brain has a lot of trouble switching between video and stills. Same machine – different mind.

So, when possible, I visit the site or project twice: once to understand – taking notes and taking lots of stills. Then, after I’ve internalized the concepts and sketched out the storyline, I go back to do the video – and just the video.

That’s the ideal case, anyway. I’m still trying to figure it out.

 

When it comes to gear, what are the essential items in your equipment kit?

Most of [the video above] was filmed on a Canon 5Dm2 — but recently I’ve been playing with the Canon EOS M I picked up in Japan (the only thing I found over there that was cheaper than here) — really amazing image quality. I think it could become my main interview camera when I’m traveling light — though it looks kind of funny with a big lens on it.

I have lots of Canon glass (too much!).

16-35mm f/2.8 (mark 1) – is my go-to lens for environmental portraits, and my establishing shot video lens

24-70 f/2.8 (mark 1) — is rather boring for stills, but has become my go-to lens for video.

80mm f/1.2 is getting a lot of use for interviews.

I have a 180mm f/3.5 macro that I used to hate because of the crappy autofocus, but in video land, it is absolutely amazing (which might explain why the price almost doubled since I bought it 5 years ago).

I have a Singh-Ray vari-ND. A must in 2013, but I can’t wait until that functionality is integrated into the camera.

I almost never use my longer lenses. I think people want to feel as though they are in the middle of what’s being shown — and that means wide.

I just got a Tascam DR-60D — haven’t used it much yet, but having meters and knobs right next to my camera sounds ideal for a crew of one — the digital pots kind of suck, but at least they won’t get noisy as they wear.

I have a couple of DPA lav mics that I also use for environmental sounds.

I have a Kessler slider — too heavy and troublesome for a crew of one, but it works really well.

I have nice Gitzo Series 3 Systematic that is wonderful — I use it for still and video. No need for a special video tripod.

I think that’s about it for my regular kit …

 

Our industry is very dependent on a fragile and aging electrical grid. Will we inevitably face blackouts and power interruptions, or will solutions like “micro-grids” and renewable energy sources be the wave of the future?

I was invited to northern Japan this past March – on the second anniversary of the great earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown – to talk about just that.

I talked about Superstorm Sandy and how fragile the US power grid has become. I also talked about the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant in Nebraska that has been offline for the past 2 years due to flooding on the Missouri River (Google it – very interesting). The connection to Japan was obvious and appreciated.

I then introduced some of the smart grid technology being developed in the US that will make our grid much more resilient to disasters – and much more accommodating of large amounts of wind and solar energy. It’s just beginning, but I think we’re at the proverbial tipping point.

And I think the Japanese consumer might wind up leading this revolution with their emerging Smart House concepts – homes that can not only work without the grid, but can make the grid work better and be greener. Very cool stuff – just beginning.

It’s a fascinating time to be on the planet.

 

Your work brings you into contact with the cutting edge of renewable energy and scientific advances. The film industry is already reaping the benefits of LED lighting technology and advanced microprocessors. What do you see as the “next big things” that will have a positive impact on our professional and/or personal lives?

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but, yes, there is a striking similarity between our transition to a 21st Century energy system and the transition happening in video production. We’re moving from a world of large centralized power plants to a world of massively distributed energy sources. Just like your industry.

The “next big thing” in the world of video? I think it will be the blending together of many things – amazingly affordable cinema tools at the frontend, high-performance workstations in the middle, and beautiful tablets and projectors at the end.

But maybe the most amazing thing is that all of this can be very effectively done by, as you say, a Crew of One. It’s very exciting.

Dan adds, “Alex, you didn’t ask, but I have to tell you how important your 5D Film School was in my transition into video. You’ve done what I try to do in my work: distill the essence, and then make it interesting, relevant – and fun!”

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