August 2011

by Elizabeth Nakahara

I want my epitaph to read: "Elizabeth Nakahara, Survived Platypus Florence 2011." In Florence, Italy, at Dirck Halstead's heralded Platypus Workshop, I leaped into a trial-by-fire learning experience, produced results beyond my normal limits and lived to tell about it. From August 20 to 28, three other adventurers and I assembled at Florence University of the Arts, learned effective storytelling from Dirck, and learned editing on state-of-the-art equipment from the master himself, Tom Wolsky, author of the books on Final Cut Pro.

The Florence Platypus class picture at the Florence University of the Arts, Italy.
From left: FCP Instructor Tom Wolsky, Elizabeth Nakahara, Platypus Director Dirck Halstead, Olav Njaastad, Instructor Beth Corwin, Chung Ky, Peter Dedi. Photograph by Gary Keifer

A motley crew, we four arrived from different countries. A former newspaper reporter, I temporarily left fundraising at a legal aid society in San Francisco and flew directly to Florence. Ky (pronounced "key") is a Korean-American freelance photographer who came from France. Olav Njaastad, a Norwegian TV producer, came from Norway. And Peter Dedi, a Canadian newspaper editor, came from Hong Kong. We all fit the Platypus profile: we're middle-aged, mid-career professionals wanting expanded media opportunities.

The introductory evening session was the only easy day of the program. Dirck talked about industry changes necessitating broader media training. He also talked about equipment and sometimes induced cringes from Beth, his assistant and a longtime ABC camerawoman. "I liked the discussions among among Beth, Dirck and Tom,’ says Olav; "it was state-of-the-art (equipment) being debated." On the second day, we each merged our own equipment with pieces from Dirck and from the school. Then, we paired-up and trotted out to shoot "A Roll" or live interviews. Luckily, English-speaking tourists pack the streets of Florence during August, so we easily found willing interviewees. Unlike my partner Ky, I can barely use a point-and-shoot. I didn't know how to focus my DSLR, so Ky, a self-described camera geek, showed me how.

Platypus Workshop director Dirck Halstead demonstrates interview and Litepanel lighting technique with edit instructor Tom Wolsky for the Florence Platypus Workshop. Photograph by Gary Keifer

Later, we returned to the school for critiques. Nervous that my footage might be out-of-focus, I wanted to be first. But I ended up in the middle. Much to my surprise, my film was in focus. Even more to my surprise, Dirck liked the way my talking heads filled the screen. He even complimented a well-placed background sign, something I didn't even realize I had done.

My beginner's luck didn't last long. The next day,we had to shoot "B Roll," the interviewee's activities and environment. My footage of a tripe sandwich stand lacked action, so Dirck sent me out a second time. I edited my shots to tell a little story that ladies-who-lunch, as well as tatooed bikers, like eating tripe sandwiches at this popular stand. During the critique, Beth told me I incorrectly conceptualized the story. The narrative should have been, "This is the process of making a tripe sandwich." I received a mixed review.

Ky, Peter, Olav and I often ate lunch and dinner together, and we discussed our developing story ideas, how we would apply our new skills, the most salacious industry gossip we could think of, and does Beth know more than Dirck. When you work intensively, you need some respites and some laughs.

Next, we had to conceptualize a class project, something we all struggled to do. Two Italian employees at Florence University of the Arts helped us. Sylvia and Enrico made phone calls for us, did translations and referred us to possible subjects. I favor beefing up this portion of the workshop. I think faculty should brainstorm with participants and help them conceptualize storylines.

I liked my story, but it was a lightweight idea requiring heavyweight technical ability. My subject spoke very little English, so I brought a translator to the interview. During editing, I had to synchronize the translation to the interviewee's speaking time. Because I bit off more than I could chew, I ended up parading technical deficiencies. But I graduated.

I think all four of us experienced low points, when we doubted our abilities and felt embarrassed by our missteps. Beth kept reminding us mistakes boost the learning process. Olav remembers he incorrectly set his sound equipment and returned from an interview with inaudible sound. "I felt like an idiot," he recalls. But "without the low points, the results get duller. I always experience these low points and I call them "creative production crises."

Ky said he wanted his deficiencies pointed out so he could overcome them. Although sometimes overwhelmed by the volume of information given us, Ky remained confident he would succeed, because "the course was laid out to reinforce theory with practical exercises, one building upon the next." It was a no-Platypus-left-behind guarantee.

Mid way into the course, Dirck's friend Gary Kiefer, a longtime war photographer, supplemented the faculty. We loved hearing Dircks Monica Lewinsky tale, Beths camera babe stories and Gary's dogs-of-war anecdotes. And we hugely appreciated that we were learning Final Cut Pro X from the man who wrote the book on it. "The faculty knew their stuff," says Ky, "and always made themselves available during the course."

Ky says he came to the workshop to make himself more marketable in multimedia. He is leaving, he says, not only more skilled, but also more infused with creativity, "something I have not felt for a while." I remember Peter and Ky laughing because we were not only learning from top pros, but also enjoying a faculty-to-student ratio of one-to-one. Even if you paid Stanford University’s sky-high tuition, you could not get a better learning situation. We sat at the Cafeteria, sipped our drinks in Florence’s 100-plus degree weather and felt awestruck by our good fortune.

The next Platypus Workshop will be held at the Maine Media Workshop, in Rockport from October 16-22. Spaces are limited. Apply Now!

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