Becoming a Platypi
July 2008

by John Gibbins

It was Wednesday evening, May 28, and I was sitting by myself at Eric Ericsson's restaurant on the Ventura pier in Ventura, Calif., after a short walk on the beach to clear my head. It was our dinner break between the afternoon and evening sessions of the Platypus Workshop. I was mulling over my options for the subject of my final project, limited as they seemed to be. I had to start shooting in the designated 24-hour window starting in less than seven hours and I had no subject. I was STRESSED!

Old Hotties by John Gibbins

Along with 11 other photojournalists and photographers, I had come to Ventura to see if we had what it takes to survive this well-known visual boot camp and leave with the basic storytelling skills that will hopefully give us a leg up in our careers by putting another storytelling tool in our visual tool bag. I was also hoping to leave with my sanity.

At 51 years of age, I think I was the oldest person in attendance, at least as a student. Two of the three faculty members are people whose names I have known and whose work I was familiar with: Dirck Halstead and PF Bentley, who have been around this business a lot longer than I have. Roger Richards is the third member of the staff and a great calming and balancing force between Dirck and PF who made no bones about their equal passions for – but sometimes sharp differences about – this evolving world of visual storytelling.

The "Retreat Room" at the Pierpont Inn had been transformed into a full-on media lab. The rich wood-framed windows had been blacked out with duct tape and black plastic sheeting, reminding me of the days of portable darkrooms set up in hotel rooms where we could develop film, make prints and transmit analog (gasp!) signals back to our paper. There was nothing analog going on here.

On the first day of class we came in and each of us had a brand new Canon XH-G1 on our table that was ours for the duration of the class. As lessons progressed we added new equipment each day: Sennheiser microphones, both wireless lavelier and shotgun; Lebec Tripods; Lite Panel LED 1x1 lcd lights; Mac Power Book Pros maxxed out with the latest Final Cut Pro software. There was a Think Tank bag for each of us to keep and store our loose items in. There was also "The Platypus Book," an invaluable collection of articles, instructions, information and musings by our instructors and other leaders in the field.

Besides our equipment, we were introduced to the one of the most important parts of our Platypus Experience: our teaching assistants, all present or former students at Brooks Institute. These are the latest models of professionally trained and schooled visual journalists. All talented, personable and hungry to work and learn. It was amazing that they would take their time to help us learn this new technology and understand the new tools at our disposal. These young people were here to teach us and also to learn from us. We brought experience in the business and they brought enthusiasm and new skills. It was a great combination. They helped us with FCP; they helped us with the exercises and in some cases they were the subjects of our assignments. Michael Eckelkamp, a big young man with a quiet but contagious personality, even went so far as to have a pedicure, complete with green toenail polish, so Sheila Vemmer from the Army Times could record the process for our "cutting carrots" exercise, a lesson in sequencing. They were all simply the best.

Our days were long, but not "bad long" like some of those drag-on assignments that we get from time to time when the clock moves slowly. The minimum length of the day was 12 hours and towards the end the days were about 16 hours long. The time melted away.

We executed three assignments leading up to our final project. VOX pops were basically man-on-the-street interviews and we had five minutes of tape for that one. B-roll techniques was the next assignment. Sequencing was the last one we shot before our project. Ten minutes of tape for each of those. We then edited our sequencing assignment into a 1-minute piece.

After each assignment came a stressful part of the workshop, but one of the best learning tools. There was a big screen in the front of the room with a stool next to it. This was the torture stool where you had to sit while your raw video was reviewed by PF, Dirck and Roger. The good, the bad and the ugly were all pointed out in great detail to each of us. One student, hoping to draw attention away from her video, assumed a yoga position during her review, putting her feet behind her head. Her flexibility impressed them as I'm sure her tape did also.

Learning from each other's tapes was one of the greatest parts of the class. Everyone took the punishment and praise in the spirit in which it was intended and it was a powerful learning tool.

We were also treated to many, many projects done by the instructors and also former workshop participants. They were all incredible in their own ways and helped to illustrate the lesson at hand.

I came in to the seminar knowing that we would need to produce a final project and had done some research on the WWW beforehand. As we talked more and more about the whole storytelling process in class each of my ideas seemed to melt away.

I had hoped that there would be assignments and we would go and shoot them for the final, but that would have been too easy for us. We had to come up with a story that could be coordinated and shot in a 24-hour period and we had to make the arrangements to do that in the scraps of time picked from our daily schedule. The interns were the salvation for some participants, suggesting people who might make good stories and were willing to help a learning student out. There was a lot of rejection from possible subjects.

I hadn't been told no by so many people since I was looking for a prom date in high school. Some possible subjects just didn't want to do it. Some couldn't do it on the day we needed. Some had been photographed before and had a bad experience with the student photographer. Those were some of the reasons that I got for not wanting to help a guy out.

After my dinner at the pier I went back to our night session, then to bed the night before we were to shoot our project, without anything firmed up. About 8 a.m. on the day of the shoot my phone rang; it was Brian Batchley, the owner of a shop that restored old stoves. I had seen it while driving around town and stopped in a few days earlier to see if he would be a willing subject. He wasn't there, but I left a message. He called me back and said he would help me out. I was ecstatic. Cole Eberle, my TA for the day, and I went over and spent several hours there. Brian was great. He had personality and a story to tell. He had been a subject for another student before and was gracious enough to let us interrupt his routine.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday were an explosion of enthusiasm, energy and angst as we all logged our tapes, did pick-up shots we were missing and assembled our final project. In some cases people had to go out and re-shoot entire projects. It was INTENSE.

With an hour to go before deadline on Saturday, PF had all of us students step back from the computers and he unleashed his TAs on our projects to fine-tune and finish them if we were behind schedule. Most of us were on the edge. It was a deadline scene that would have made any editor proud.

We all assembled that Saturday afternoon to watch each other's projects. One by one we took our places on the stool and the projects rolled. A gun shop owner. A rehabilitated gang member. A 90-year-old cocktail bar singer. A model airplane maker. The oldest barber in Ventura. A cowboy. A circus performer. A martial artist. A gamer. My stove guy. A couple who sell angels. Those were the subjects that we shared with each other in three- to five-minute pieces. The work demonstrated the effectiveness of this workshop. They were all good and some great, done by newcomers to the medium.

Throughout the weeklong experience applause was what kept us all going. We applauded anything anyone did, even if it was horrible. It was great encouragement.

On Sunday we all went our separate ways – back to San Diego, Miami, Beirut, Utah, Norway, New York and all of the other places from which we came.

Thanks to Dirck, PF, Roger, the student assistants and each other, we were now "producers," and better yet, we are now Platapai – or are we Platapusses? Whatever we are, we will survive.

Don't hold the applause because we aren't all together; instead, clap away, and whenever you see a piece by another Platypi, keep the applause going.

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© John Gibbins

John Gibbins is a staff photographer at The San Diego Union-Tribune.