I was speaking with one of the cattle drive organizers this week. In the course of the conversation about building our footage into a movie, she said, “It takes an artist…” …to do this. To build the movie. To tell the story. To connect to an audience.
Building this movie is not about stringing a series of video clips together.
Building this movie is about finding that “hook”. What will “hook” a viewer? What will “grab” an audience and make them want to stay along for this journey?
What story do you tell? How do you start? How do you end? What happens in between?
What do you include? What do you discard?
Building this movie is a process that is the complete opposite of any of my other normal work patterns. If I write a mystery, then I know all along what the end will be. If I take an original song and go into the recording studio to build a complete full instrumentation final track, then I have a pretty good idea what I am aiming for. If I am rehearsing a piano performance or a vocal performance, then I have an end result that I already know. The work involved is about getting it “up to snuff” so that the end result is what I want it to be.
On this project…we went in with no expectations. The story evolved as the cattle drive evolved. We were not shooting “to” any particular script.
It is only now…now that the cattle drive is over, that we can start to contemplate what the movie might be once it is done.
And for me…this is so contrary to my normal process, it feels like I am blind. The vastness of the unknown tends to overwhelm.
How do you take this footage that was shot – and build it into a piece of art?
Have you ever watched a movie, and for the entire movie, You Just Don’t Get It? You sit there and kinda stare with a puzzled look on your face, and when it is over, you can go, “I don’t know what happened?” or…”What were they thinking?”
I don’t want that to happen here.
Right now, I am still going over the footage.
On Wednesday, I had a couple of (tiny) ideas about where to take this project and where to go.
We are working with the possibility of using this footage to build three movies. Each will be different. Finally on that Wednesday, I gleaned an idea of how to start Movie #1.
It was about finding that perfect shot. This shot was filmed to the east against a morning sunrise. A cattle drive participant is in the foreground, in silhouette. I have been playing with a guitar line in my head for weeks now. But when I saw that shot, my head automatically played that guitar line.
Then you drop the video of that shot off into a complete fade out to black. Then grab another shot. Hold it for the same amount of time, then do the same fade out. Then a group shot, again in silhouette. Fade to black. Finally, and by complete accident, I have a shot once the sun is up, and it made a beautiful lens flair. The sun is on the horizon. The air is golden, and there is this perfect lens flair. One of the wagon drivers is in the foreground, holding the reigns of two horses, which are not yet hitched to the wagon. I didn’t plan that shot. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
On each shot, you have this same plantive guitar line.
The movie takes off.
If I am going to start it its way, then I will take movie #2 and start it completely different. That is still up in the air, but I thought up how to end movie #2.
Movie #3 will be built to educate and entertain young children – say ages eight and under. We know we can’t keep and hold their attention for long, so this movie will be very short in duration. But we have a great premise, and once we came up with that idea, which was about midpoint through the cattle drive, then we started to look for opportunities to film to that.
On Wednesday, when these ideas are starting to percolate around in my head, I wrote a good bit of the dialog for this children’s movie.
Speaking of how these shots came out (such as the lens flair sunrise shot above)…what is the status of the footage so far?
Well, what blows me away is – of the stuff I shot for the first week – what I thought was good…was probably 90% crap. I knew I was “shaky” on days 1 and 2. I don’t mean shaky camera footage, but I knew that mentally I was not dialed in. On that Wednesday, it felt like I finally “got it”. Out there in the field, it felt like I was finally “on”.
When I looked at that footage. Wow. Not good.
Therefore – what I thought was good – was not.
What has surprised me about the footage? Well…it was when I thought I only had “average” shots and things were rather on the boring side – those are the moments that are leaping up at me, in post production.
In this editing process, what are some of the problems? Well, for starters, I do not possess the face recognition gene. They call it face blindness.
I knew perhaps five of the cattle drive participants before the drive. For the rest, I met them out on the trail. And my head is already full of all the movie details, cinematography, heat exhaustion, sleep deprivation, etc. Under normal circumstances, I can meet someone. When I see them the next time, I am probably not going to recognize them.
On this cattle drive, the problem was amplified. I know that on day twelve, I said to one of the drovers, “I don’t think I have met you yet.”
When I look at the footage…well…now… he and I had a nice conversation on day three!
To all of the drovers, I apologize.
Now that we are editing…it’s the same problem. I am having to vidcap (capture one frame of a video) a still image and email it to find out who is who.
This has become a major problem that I did not foresee.
What else happened out there? On a few occasions, people might take it upon themselves to saddle their horse and ride along. If we filmed this, then we need to be aware of who is who and not edit that person in the movie.
Yes, it’s fun to go out and cowboy. If someone had a horse in a parade, and if that person rode along behind the drive…then …I can maybe comprehend that.
But when people rode their own horses, uninvited, onto private property, and inserted themselves, unauthorized and without permission, into the process…then that offends me.
Another issue: audio.
Yes. I have talked about audio issues for months now. When we were out there, and if the wind was blowing, then I had a “level” of gain at which I would set the microphone.
It turns out that that level worked. We cut the wind noise. But the audio signal was pretty doggone low. I hate it that it is so low. I will have to look at ways to “boost” that audio signal, and then reintroduce that audio line back into the video software. I haven’t worked this problem yet, but I probably don’t have the software nor technology here to do so.
As with everything else in the field of moviemaking, video editing, and audio production…it is all about trial and error. There is no one way to work. There is no one way to do this. There is no one process. There is no one answer.
And to continue along that line…there is no “one” movie. You can take the material we have, and material yet to be acquired (music production, external interviews) and use that data to make a movie. Or a million movies. The choices of possibilities are endless. The permutations are endless.
There is no right. There is no wrong. What you can do…hopefully…is find a way to…tell a story. To connect to a viewer. To capture an audience.
It takes an artist!
The cattle drive is over.
The active filming is “in the can”.
I took (and desperately needed) some down time. (And in truth, I am still not bounced back from that level of fatigue. Wow – that shoot was intense!)
Now comes the really hard part: post production.
If you are a big studio – with funded financial backing, then you have a full staff to execute post production. What happens when you are a tiny, independent film company?
Answer: You do ALL the work yourselves.
So, we log the footage.
We make notes. We see what is viable and what is not – both from a video standpoint and an audio standpoint.
We went into the project without preconceived notions. We did not have a script. We did not have a storyboard. If we had done that, then we would have been shooting “to” a particular story. In this case, we wanted every option to be open. This is a documentary approach to filmmaking. We didn’t want to “affect” the story. We wanted to “capture” the story – as it was happening.
We could have gone in and asked the participants…do this, do that, make this happen, go over here and do that. Instead, we tried to create the least amount of influence as possible. Yes, I did ask participants to do something for the camera. But it was usually something they had just done – of their own accord, and if there was time and if it was convenient, I might ask them to do it again. Usually, if I made that suggestion, it was something that someone said, but I’d say, “Come over here and say that for the camera!”
After we log the footage, then we need to create whatever external audio that we need. We knew, going in, that audio would be our biggest problem. Shooting outdoors, without an external sound crew, without any control over the production, was our biggest challenge. When your “live” audio is not viable, you need other things to lay over the video track.
We can do external interviews with participants (in a controlled environment). We can do narration. We will record music. In that instance, we will either use old time cowboy songs – that are in the public domain, or we will compose and record new songs – that sound old, but would be created just for this production.
Our plan – at least thus far – is to create at least two different movies. We want to create a documentary for the cattle drive participants. They can show it to their families and friends. They can use it as a teaching tool at schools and civic organizations. It is important to remember history and how things used to be. The 2017 Chisholm Trail Cattle Drive is both an illustration of history, as well as a modern event. Both of those aspects will be covered in the documentary.
But, as filmmakers, we intend to create a second movie with a much more artistic approach. This will be for our film company, to enter at film festivals. After all – how many other cattle drive movies are going to be out on the circuit in 2018? Um…I’d guess, not many?
What happens next?
Work. Work. More work. And…then some work. Post production isn’t for the faint of heart. Ah, heck. Expand on that. Moviemaking isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of guts and grit and determination to go do this. We do this because we love it.
Moviemaking does not have to be about: making non-union talent work 20 hours, giving them 5 hours to sleep, and then making them work 20 hours again. It doesn’t have to be about servicing grown adults and their overblown egos. It’s not about treating the latest wunderkind movie star with kid gloves so that you make back your $250,000,000 investment.
No…for us, it is about getting that camera and using that piece of equipment to tell a story. It’s about the satisfaction of arriving at a location, knowing that you have a very limited time to evaluate and set up, making the best plan you can, splitting up, going to your location with your camera, and doing your best to get the shot.
Then after the moment has passed, and after the cattle drive has moved on, you meet up with your partner again, and one of you asks the other, “Did you get the shot?” There is a tremendous satisfaction in hearing the words (regardless of who said them,) “Yes, I got the shot!”
As my partner Don said, “Anybody can make a bad movie with a big budget.”
In the case of a big Hollywood production, you have staff. Each person has their own duties. The director carries the load on his or her shoulders. The producers are responsible for making the production happen. But when you have staff – a significant portion of the work load is divided.
But then Don continued, “It takes somebody with talent to make a good movie with no budget.”
Time to dive in!
And that’s all she wrote!
The 2017 Chisholm Trail Cattle Drive was a huge success!
We loved being a part of this experience. As filmmakers, we tried to stay back and not influence the actions of the participants. We tried to capture the legitimate experience on camera.
The drovers embraced us. They treated us as “one of the family”. I think that – for all of us – this experience is one that enhances and enriches one’s life, in ways that cannot be imagined.
I know that I, personally, have been affected by this cattle drive in profound ways. I have made friendships. I didn’t expect that. As one drover said, “When you make a friend out here, you’ve made a friend for life.”
Things I learned:
- When you just know you have the perfect shot – don’t gloat or pat your own back or congratulate yourself too soon. Someone will come up and ruin your shot.
- People really, really like horses and cattle and cowboys and wagons. Hollywood may have determined that it is not worth the investment to make a western movie, anymore. I will tell you this: Hollywood is wrong. There is a HUGE market for people who like westerns.
- The tops of your ears can get sunburned! The first week, I wore my cowboy hat(s), which cover a lot more area. Therefore your ears are fine! This second week, the wind was up a lot more. I could not keep my cowboy hats on. I switched to a white ball cap – which I could scrunch down on my head. (Even at that – it still blew off more times than I could count.) And how many times did complete strangers go run after my hat? More times than I can count! Lesson learned: people have a lot more courtesy about chasing your hat – than about coming to stand in your shot/driving into your shot/talking during your shot.
- My movie partner, Don, carried me through this movie. I always knew he was an amazing actor. In that configuration – he is in front of the camera, and I am behind it. That works. But when we agreed to take on this project – it is two of us behind the camera(s). His innate talent at cinematography blew me away. The thing is – he does it automatically. He makes all these decisions and computations fast. And he gets the shot. (And when I have the occasional artistic complete and total meltdown – he has been the strong and stable one who carries me through it.)
- Filming this movie was four times more intense than I had anticipated.
- Fatigue has kicked my ass. It started in Oklahoma and it kicked it all the way to Wichita!
- If you have a low wind day (which is a miracle) someone will fly a drone and ruin your audio!
- If you ask a drover what they most liked about the cattle drive – the most common answer you’d get is: “I get to ride my horse!”
What is my takeaway from the experience?
For starters – how did the pioneers do this? How did the drovers on the Chisholm Trail do this?
How did they forge their way into territory with only their horse or only their horses and wagons? In the olden days, there were no grocery stores, nor convenience stores, nor motels, nor feed stores.
What gave a person enough courage to hitch up a wagon and travel to the great unknown?
If I want to go somewhere, I hop in a vehicle, I turn the key and I go. A lot of times, if I have to stop and open a garage door, I resent that level of “slow down”.
What happens when your main mode of travel is equine? If you have to saddle a horse before you go anywhere – that takes time. If you have to hitch a wagon – that takes time.
You always have to take care of your animals first. It doesn’t matter if you are thirsty or tired. You take care of your horse before you take care of yourself.
I am in awe of those men and women – one hundred and fifty years ago – who made this journey up the Chisholm Trail. For months, they worked hard, in brutal weather with no shelter. I don’t know about you – but if there is a storm coming, I find the nearest roof. Those old time trail riders – if there was hail, they’d put their saddles over their shoulders to protect themselves.
If the ground was wet and if there was no way to avoid the muck – they would sleep in a triangle configuration – resting one’s head on another’s knees or lower legs – in order to be able to sleep without having your head in the mud.
Each night of this 2017 cattle drive, I came home. I rested my head on my pillow. I slept in my soft, comfortable bed. Under my own roof. After eating food…a lot of which other people cooked! I did a lot of takeout. Cooking was too much work for the duration of this cattle drive. Every day I’d come home with my brain fried from the level of thinking that doing this gig entails.
The whole time I was coming home to my own bed each night (while driving or riding in a vehicle with the air conditioner on high), those drovers were out there – sleeping on the ground. They had no respite from the heat/wind/bugs.
They ate a lot better than the pioneers did. Those meals cooked over the fire looked wonderful!
But the level of work involved in preparing those meals was astounding!
These drovers taught me what fortitude is. I learned so much about history. I learned a lot about humanity on this drive.
My life is sooo much richer – for having had this experience!
At virtually every corner – observers, crowds, families and friends gathered to watch the cattle drive pass by.
It is such a joy to see the kids out and about – learning about history. Every single one of these drovers took the time to share, to teach, to interact. That’s why they did this.
This cattle drive was more than a ceremonial experience. It connected people.
It connected people.
People from all walks of life would come to see the cattle, the horses, the drovers and the wagons.
Many, many times, I’d film a parade in a town, and when I’d turn around, the people would have a look of awe on their faces.
Imagine the joy, of watching a child get to pet a horse for the first time.
From the past – to the present – to the future, friendships are born. Connections are established.
Joy is shared!
We are lucky, in 2017 to have a lot of modern conveniences to make this journey much easier.
We are so lucky to have escorts along the trail. These law enforcement and highway crews keep us safe.
I personally saw one incident where a driver was not going to obey the law. This driver was going to go around an emergency vehicle and drive – way too fast – into the cattle. That officer stopped that driver and protected us! These good people escorting us have kept us safe! Thank you!
What else do you need for a modern cattle drive?
The cowboys of old ate beans and biscuits, and maybe some dried beef jerky.
But in 2017, we are lucky. One of the support vehicles is a trailer with a refrigerator and freezer. It is powered by a generator. The drovers have had wonderful meals prepared in the open air over a campfire.
No day old beans and stale biscuits here!
What is another essential?
Down in the middle of the picture, you can see porta potties and blue stock tanks.
Each campsite has had these provided on site. They have hauled in hay and feed for the horses, cubes for the cattle and firewood for the fire.
Every single detail on this drive has been planned for and executed. There are a whole bunch of people – behind the scenes – who have made this once-in-a-lifetime event possible.
But who pulls this together, and keeps us all going? Who is the one out there taking care of business?
That’d be the cow boss:
Friend. Neighbor. A True Horsewoman!
Monday night from the trail.
We had such a beautiful sunset!
Then Tuesday morning – on the move:
For most of the drive – two of the wagons drive ahead. Then comes the cattle drive (top of the hill). The rest of the wagons follow behind.
Can I take a moment to give a shout out to the law enforcement and highway workers who have provided escorts to the cattle drive? I have spoken to many, many of these people out on the road (“Hi! I’m the camera crew. I’m following the drive and making a movie!”) Every one has been so helpful. They have provided such a level of safety and assistance. Without this, this cattle drive would not have been possible.
Who are the other unsung heroes of the cattle drive?
The hosts. Property owners, farmers, and ranchers all along the route have allowed the cattle and the drovers to stay on their property. It can be a lot of disruption to have so much traffic on your road. At each stop, cow camp is open from 3 to 6. It is wonderful to have members of the public come out to share in this cattle drive experience. The property owners who have allowed us to stay on their property have been amazing.
I met the owners where the cattle drive camped on Tuesday night, and you could not find more helpful, gracious people. That has been my experience along the whole route.
The owners allowed me to access their private property to go get some amazing footage. And it was nice that the cattle had such a pleasant, comfortable place to stay!
I have had a couple of questions that go, “Where did these cattle…come from?” “Did people volunteer to let their cattle be a part of the drive?”
The answer is: The cattle are rented!
In 2017, for a ceremonial cattle drive – you have to rent cattle.
I’m sure that in the 1870’s, those drovers would have laughed at the concept!
Imagine standing in the middle of the lone prairie.
The only sounds are the wind through the grasses, the bellow of the cattle, and the neigh of the horses.
You see the bright blue sky, and you marvel at the majesty of the vista that is before you.
Imagine the cowboys, on the trail for all those weeks – no shelter, no roof, no bed.
It’s easy to fly by things in the world at seventy miles per hour.
But truly, how many of us have ever slowed down enough to walk – at a horse’s walking pace, and observe the world around us?
History is right in front of us.
That’s why we do this: to show the way that things were.
Much like the passage of time, memories can be erased.
Where were we yesterday? Who can remember?
Much like these tracks that link today’s starting point to today’s ending point…
we ride this trail to stay connected.
Not just to the past – but to the future. Along the way, we connect with each other. We have made friends. One of the riders on the cattle drive said it best, “When you make a friend out here, then you have made a friend for life!”
Come visit the cattle drive!
This is a rare opportunity to see how things were and how things used to be.
The purpose of the 2017 Chisholm Trail Cattle Drive is to educate, celebrate, and commemorate the Chisholm Trail.
This is a chance to see history – live – right before your eyes.
This is the schedule of the Cattle Drive.