James Coulson’s Other America is a 12-part series of short but pithy movie snapshots made during a road trip across some of the more out-of-the-way parts of the lower 48 states. Traveling self-funded and solo, it was his chance to see the America that rarely if ever makes it to the silver screen.
Coulson has gained a rare trust from subjects he only just met, putting them at their ease, capturing their innermost thoughts. The result is a modern day digital movie equivalent of Dorothea Lange and other photographers of the Farm Security Administration. These are the sorts of real life travelogues about America that I most want to see. In fact, I would love to see these being done everywhere in the world.
While The Guardian article where I first encountered Other America provides insight into Mr Coulson’s motivations, it doesn’t go into his methods. We can help with that.
He provided me with the list of gear used in this production:
- Canon EOS 7D digital camera
- Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens
- Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens
- Zoom H4n audio recorder
- Sony wireless lavaliere microphone
- Manfrotto tripod
Mr Coulson's decision to use the 7D, he says, was budgetary but he also found that people responded to the DSLR more naturally than if it had been a professional camcorder. He learned how to get the best out of it by taking Philip Bloom’s online course, Learn 2 Shoot Great Video On Your Canon 7D, available at Dan Lennie’s F-Stop Academy.
He worked solo and without the usual research, planning, pre-production and introductions to subjects by local fixers demanded by the traditional approach to documentary moviemaking. Instead he drove, walked up to complete strangers, conversed, asked if they wanted to be interviewed on camera and went ahead. Each shoot took an hour or two then he moved on.
Over-planning, overworking the idea, he says, kills the creativity. That is a lesson he learned first as a designer, training at Ravensbourne College in London, then while earning a Masters in the Netherlands. After that he worked at the BBC in new media, the then-current term for digital media, and afterwards moved into narrative storytelling.
A visit to Mr Coulson’s portfolio website reveals some of what he has been up to since moving to New York some years ago. I was interested to see he has worked for a former client of mine, IBM, for whom he directed an 8-minute movie about IBM Big Data. The project was produced by Nice Shoes Creative Studio. James Coulson is listed under the Who We Are header as one of the studio’s four partners.
Post-production demanded involving other professionals so he called in some favors from colleagues at Nice Shoes for editing and color correcting, music by Machine Head and audio mixing and sound design by Sound Lounge.
The latter came up in discussion with Mr Coulson about his working methods during the making of Other America. He told me how he recorded his audio primarily with the Sony wireless lavaliere and the Zoom H4n but one set-up involving a couple sitting on a bench in Empty Stores required him to point the H4n’s XY stereo mikes directly at both his subjects. Some background noise intruded but Sound Lounge did a great job of cleaning up the audio.
We also discussed how he handled the camerawork. He avoided hand-holding the 7D, mainly, he said, due to the camera’s rolling shutter, preferring to lock it down onto his Manfrotto tripod. Using a static camera for well-designed shots also comes from his design background, he told me.
Mr Coulson’s plan is to release each of the first 11 of his 12 movies every two weeks. Four are already up at his project website and on his Vimeo channel. The twelfth, The Buzzard Eater, is reserved for entry into film festivals and after that will join the rest of the series online.
“Other America” by James Coulson
(cover photo credit: snap from the video)