Applause, Applause:
The Platypus Workshop
September 2008

by Susan Sterner

Surrender your egos. That was all Dirck Halstead and PF Bentley asked of us on the first night of the Platypus Workshop in Rockport, Maine. Success would come to those ready to eat some humble pie and go through the frustrations of learning. We also had to applaud a lot: for everything, for everyone. (It seemed pretty hokey that night. Little did I know how much we'd rely on the applause and cheering to break the tension, beat fatigue and endure failure.) Then videos began to roll. Each one set the bar higher. We watched "Nightline" pieces. Applause. David Turnley's video on Kosovo refugees. Applause. They were holding out distant goals: Emmys, broadened horizons, and job security as still photographers mastering video. More applause.

Happy and stuffed Platypi munch on their Friday night
lobster dinner at the Maine Workshop.

Then they showed a few pieces from the previous week's workshop. Applause. "Wow," I thought, "those photogs must have already known video when they came." Dirck assured us they knew nothing just 10 days earlier. The tension in the room went up a few notches. Everyone squirmed and shifted in their seats. How the hell was I going to do that in a week? I didn't even know how to use a video camera. My ego waved the white flag.

We were pushed to think differently. Stills come from the heart. Telling stories with stills is an exercise in judgment. Video is a discipline bound by rules, an intellectual exercise. It was overwhelming – the idea of mastering not only different equipment, but also a new way of thinking in order to tell a story. When I fell into bed that night my head was swimming.

I took PF on faith when he told us to just listen and do what was asked for each assignment. "Stick to your commitment," Dirck kept hammering home all week. Go into a story understanding the beginning, middle and end. Forget about the way it works in stills. Think temporarily. It's a performance. The hardest part was to stay out of my own way – to drop assumptions about video and really absorb what was being offered.

And then there was the 'dunce's stool' poised in the front of the room, right next to the screen. No one got off the stool without feeling a little pain (and earning applause.) The stool was a powerful thing – it had the ability to illuminate the obvious. Comments by Dirck and PF seemed magnified. The learning experience was compressed (once you've been called out for a dumb mistake or poor judgment you tend to avoid doing that again). That was the cycle as we worked our way through a series of deceptively simple exercises: theory, practice, pain, applause, repeat.

The course was so intense that skill sets and understanding evolved daily. I thought differently at dinner than I had at breakfast. Each exercise built on the previous one and adjusted my thinking and workflow and pushed me to stretch the way I see.

We were a mixture of photojournalists, educators, corporate photographers and freelancers all screwing up. We were getting used to being students again – getting comfortable with not knowing all the answers. Motivation was high. On a b-roll assignment we were tasked to shoot 20 b-roll combinations from one place. PF sent us out with the encouragement, "Don't fuck up!" Dirck added, "Anyone who comes back with less than 20 will fail!" Applause.

My breakthrough happened over a latté, or rather a sequence of lattés as I hovered behind the counter of Rock City Coffee and filmed a barista for three hours to get 10 minutes of tape. That was the day I became an addict, a freak of some sort. Sequences are about getting detail, medium and wide shots on every aspect of a moment without breaking some basic rules. PF Bentley calls it "chopping carrots." Chuck Fadely and Battle Vaughan of the Miami Herald did a clever video on the process after becoming Platypi. I watched Fadely's video and thought, "Aha! The key to video is different angles. Not so hard."

Not so much. As I shot the girl steaming milk or tapping grounds I'd get close, medium, wide, high shots and then forget if I'd done the detail. Or wonder if in the first latté, was she using a venti cup or a grande? "Shit. Do I have enough coffee grinding?"… Back in the classroom, PF led us through the basics of Final Cut Pro and we were set free to edit a one-minute piece. I felt insanely obsessive as I cut from the girl wiping grounds off the espresso holder to a shot from the other side of her finger as she finished the swipe and the grounds fell. Such a triumph – Look, Ma! I'm editing!

It was on the screen for three seconds.

Looming over the whole week was the specter of the final project. We were filming or in classes 12 hours per day and using stolen moments to try to find stories. Stories were falling through. Contacts weren't calling back. Everyone was tired. (I noticed PF and Dirck were very zen-like.) I could barely sleep the night before shooting my project. I kept running through the gear and mistakes I needed to avoid. The actual shooting of the project went by in a blur of sequences, b-roll and fussing with wireless microphones and the tripod. By day's end I was certain of only two things: I was exhausted and it was time to edit.

PF remarked that after a shoot he edits the piece in his head on the drive home and, boom, it's done: "I've got a life." Dirck told us the story of a South African cameraman, Rolfe, who paces a "figure-8" as he works out the edit in his head before sitting down to make it happen. Then there's a legendary Italian cameraman, Antonio, who is so effective in the way he thinks about and executes his shoots that editors have exactly what they need to pull a story together.

Editing that night, I felt like I'd put my head in a vise and channeled Medusa with snakes of Final Cut tracks slithering through her hair. As I wrestled with the program and moved my clips around, the mistakes and traps PF and Dirck had warned of became obvious. I made them all: unmotivated pans, too much b-roll, and too many shots off-tripod. If hindsight is 20/20, then editing your own video is 20/10.

As the others trickled in from their shoots the room filled with sounds of relief – the projects were shot; the day had been productive. But relief quickly gave way to cursing and heavy sighs as glitches popped up in the capture and log process, or shots didn't look as great on review as they seemed earlier. Some paced. Some smoked. Others just sat in front of their laptops until PF threw out everyone at midnight. Applause.

As we fanned out into the darkness nearly everyone had the same distant, stressed look. I drove back to my little room with the 1970s bedspread and plywood door and kept running through the edit in my head. I didn't think I would ever get it completed. But by noon Friday it was over. No more chances. Everything needed to be rendered and exported for the critique. Over lunch the war stories and worries came out. We shared regrets, pitfalls … and the bravado of "if I knew then what I know now… ."

Then one last moment on the 'dunce's stool.' As final videos rolled we cheered for each other and listened as Dirck and PF adeptly dismantled the projects one by one. Their critiques were uncannily perceptive and constructive -- though still painful to hear. As my project played I felt like blinders were lifted from my eyes. There was no escaping the power of the stool. My mistakes were glaring though I hadn't seen them just hours earlier.

As I watched my classmates' videos, I again felt as I did on the first night. The stories were strong, with solid ideas, stunning sequences and details – pretty amazing after just one week of shooting video. Bill Putnam, with his piece on a disabled veteran, and Phyllis Graber Jensen, with her story about a family farm, raised the bar for the next workshop. Applause!

When it was all over I was left a little stunned. After nine days of crazed brain stretching I was just getting warmed up. Dirck warned us that everything we'd learned was fungible – in danger of being lost without lots of practice. PF exhorted us to stay connected to resources – including them.

Hard work lies ahead but none of us is alone. We are Platypi, fit for survival. Applause.

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© Susan Sterner

Susan Sterner is an Assistant Professor and the Faculty Coordinator for the Photojournalism BFA program at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. Prior to teaching, Susan held staff photographer positions at the White House and with The Associated Press in Los Angeles and Jackson, Miss. As a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs she spent two years writing and photographing in the Northeast of Brazil.