That is the question.
I’ve been in love with visual storytelling for as long as I can remember. I love directing. I love editing. And I love shooting. As my career began shifting from editing to directing, I would often shoot my own projects mostly because I hated asking others to give their time and creative resources up for little to no pay. Kia Kiso, a friend and colleague, helped me get over that mindset, convincing me there were DP’s willing to give their time and resources because they believed in my prospect as a director.
And as my directing career progressed, I was given the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented directors of photography including Tyler Allison, Tim Angulo, Salvador Bolivar, Tom Camarda, Johnny Derango, Chuck Ozeas, Byron Shah, & Jake Zortman. There is nothing like creatively gelling with a DP on set, completely in sync with one another as to the final look of the piece.
I still shoot on my smaller, personal projects, not only for budgetary reasons, but because I like to stay knowledgeable of the photographic process, to better help me communicate with the camera department when I’m on larger jobs.
I recently put together a reel of my camera work to send out on the relatively rare occasions I’m called to shoot. I struggled with what to call the reel. In my opinion, my work and skill sets are nowhere near the DP’s I’ve worked with. My lighting skills are limited as I fancy myself more of a documentary style shooter. Initially, I settled on “Shooter’s Reel,” however, a few of my favorite DP’s responded with the note that it should be listed as my DP reel, even if I’m not necessarily pursuing that path.
I’ve gotta say… that felt nice.
I love shooting. But even more, I love collaborating. They both have their place in the future of my work. I’m certain of it.
On that note… here’s my DP reel:
A collection of footage Ric Serena has shot on a few projects over the years. Music by Matt Bowen http://mattbowenmusic.com
It’s often said that there are two kinds of directors: The actor’s director and the technical director. Because I started as an editor, I come by the latter description honestly. I feel most comfortable on set in a technical capacity, knowing what I need in order to construct the story in the edit room. And while I’ve come a long way in the past 2-3 years of directing, the early years were fraught with uncertainty as to how to talk to the actors.
That’s why it’s always fun for me to edit for other directors even as I’m pursuing a directing career of my own. Not only do I love editing and fully intend to hone the craft in the years to come, it allows me the opportunity to see and hear his or her directing styles… what works, what doesn’t work.
I recently edited some commercial spots for the directing team, The Clyde Brothers. The spots were incredibly easy to cut because A) they’re talented and B) they made sure to get plenty of coverage. Editing the spots ultimately came down to having fun with the variety of performances by the main actor from one take to another. Our time together in the edit room was mostly spent finessing the edits to what we all thought the agency would want to see, while still holding firm on their creative decisions.
And what’s the beauty of working with an editor who also directs? Since I’ve been directing more frequently, I’m certainly more understanding of the challenges of production and why we may not have “that shot.”
A few nights ago it was movie night at the Serena house. Izzy has been prone to requesting documentaries as of late, so we headed to itunes on Apple TV for a search. Low and behold, MILE… MILE AND A HALF was featured in the top ten docs that day. We joked with her, asking if she wanted to watch #9 on the list. Her response? “NOOOOO. I’ve seen that movie sooo many times.”
Who can blame her? It was enough to be away from us for the month we were on the trail, but we didn’t anticipate the countless hours that would be spent once we decided to pursue making a feature film out of the footage we gathered from the trail. The film was essentially a sibling during her last year of pre-school and first year of Kindergarten. Between the meetings, traveling for screenings, or just discussions between Jen and me around the house, Izzy was impacted by the film.
This film has had a huge impact on our family, and we’re grateful for it.
I met Gabriel in 2013 when my creative partner, Jen Serena, was shooting some promotional stills in the lead up to his Roll Across America. A month later, he would leave Burbank, California and roll his standard wheelchair across the United States. It was his intention to arrive to his hometown in time for his 25th High School Reunion. We had just announced the premiere of our feature-length documentary, Mile… Mile & A Half, so Gabriel was picking my brain about the process of DIY Film Distribution. Accompanying him on his journey would be a small video crew, documenting his journey, so he was keen to learn what challenges might lay ahead after the roll. I enjoyed keeping up with Gabriel during his trek across the US via Facebook. Always inspired, I couldn’t imagine walking, much less rolling across 13 states. Even had he not completed the journey, it would’ve been admirable to make the attempt.
He did make it.
Fast-forward one year later. I’d been directing a few shoots for Esquire Network with the extremely talented Chuck Ozeas as my Director of Photography. I watched as he and his camera department created some beautiful imagery on the Red EPIC, but the camera intimated me. Yes, I love shooting, but the leap from DSLR’s to a camera like the Epic made me a little nervous.
Jen convinced me to rent an Epic for the weekend to get familiar not only with shooting, but shepherding the footage through the post-production workflow. I needed to allow myself the opportunity to say that this was only a test. If I finished the weekend with only one or two great images, I needed to be okay with it. This was only a test.
I reached out to Gabriel to ask if he’d be interested in being an on-camera subject for my test. As it turned out, he was preparing for his next roll and could use some updated imagery. I rented a basic package from ShadowCast Pictures that included a set of Zeiss CP2 primes. Jay and his team were incredibly helpful, and the gear was in wonderful shape. Another friend & filmmaker, Gaston Carrizo, offered his time and equipment for one jib shot. Friend and collaborator, Sheldon Neill of Project Yosemite lent his time and expertise on the Epic, and Durand Trench volunteered his time and talent for the interview portion of the weekend.
I spent plenty of time familiarizing myself with the camera as I built it (reading manuals and forums, calling camera operator friends with any questions I had), and then it was just a matter of following Gabriel through his normal workout regiments. Throughout the day of shooting, I couldn’t help but be blown away by his energy. We were all tired, but there was Gabriel, working twice as hard to accomplish tasks as simple for us as getting out of the car. During our time at the Burbank YMCA, I found myself tiring while in the pool with Gabriel (operating the GoPro underwater which we never used in the final piece), but there he was staying afloat with only his arms. It was a humble reminder of how much I take my health for granted. The Burbank YMCA has been a big supporter of Gabriel and they were very kind to allow us the opportunity to document his workout at the gym.
The piece practically cut itself. Because we didn’t shoot too much material, there weren’t difficult decisions that needed to be made. It was just important to me that Gabriel’s reasons for doing what he does was clearly conveyed and in his voice. I did challenge myself during the edit in that I did not cut to a piece of temp music. I cut the piece entirely without music and asked the insanely talented Paul Bessenbacher of Emoto Music to see what he could come up with. His beautiful score, accompanied with a sound edit and mix by David Barnaby, color timing by Bruce Goodman and graphic design by Chris Kneller, completed a piece that beautifully communicates Gabriel’s passion.
And thanks to Jen Serena… without her confidence in me and strong belief in the power of investing in oneself, this test might never have happened.
Passion projects are good for my soul. They challenge me. They keep me honest. They force me to be ultimately responsible for every decision that ends up on screen. And so it’s these projects that I’m most proud of and want to represent who I am as an artist and storyteller. Two of my short documentaries on artists Dave Lefner & Jeremy Thomas continue to surprise me with the new audiences they’re reaching.
Dave Lefner was chosen to have his work shown in the lobby of the Laemmle Royal Theater in Santa Monica as part of the Laemmle’s Art in the ArtHouse series. For the duration of his three-month exhibition, my trailer for his documentary played in the lobby as well as a preview before their film screenings. And during the opening night event, the full documentary screened in one of their theaters. Dave Lefner’s piece, with music by Quiet Lights, was also selected as one of the Vimeo Staff Picks.
And my piece on New Mexico sculptor, Jeremy Thomas, was invited to screen on the New Mexico PBS arts program, COLORES. In order to air the program, I had to have the film re-scored, so I reached out to friend and collaborator, Matt Bowen, to compose the new soundtrack. Together with percussionist, Jo Pusateri, and engineer, Will Hampton, they breathed new life into the documentary about inflating metal and polished what had been somewhat of an un-finished piece for three years prior.
And both pieces were responsible in my being chosen to direct a series of short documentaries for Esquire Networks. The short pieces, produced by Moving Parts, Inc., will hopefully be released this summer.
Someone once told me that instead of having the single that shoots to the top of the charts, he’d rather be the song that people continue to sing in shower years down the road. I like that thought.
And I like singing in the shower.
In January of 2014, our friends at Opus Orange approached us about shooting a music video for their single, “Balance,” in anticipation of their upcoming SXSW show. Opus Orange scored the original soundtrack for our feature documentary, MILE… MILE & A HALF, and have been friends/collaborators since.
Over the course of the two days we were in the downtown Los Angeles location, one music video evolved into four as the location was just too gorgeous to not take advantage. In addition to “Balance,” I directed videos for “Artificial Heart” and “Fortress” with Director of Photography, Tyler Allison, on camera. For the single shot concept of “The Next World,” I stepped into the role of DP for very talented Director, Levi Rugg. All four videos have a unique approach to them and thematically match the energy and emotion of the songs their meant to visualize. Jen Serena even took part and shot promotional stills for the band. We couldn’t be more proud of what we were able to colloborate on.
Special thanks to Emoto Music for entrusting their baby to us, Kia Kiso for stepping into the role of Producer, Bernard Chadwick & Levi Rugg for their creative direction on Balance, and to all the many talented hands that helped shape these videos.
We wish Opus Orange the best on their first SXSW show!!
Director: Levi Shrugg, DP: Ric Serena
Last year, I had the chance to direct some quick comedies with Bob Dassie & Stephnie Weir. The two are veterans ofSecond City and currently make up the comedy team, WeirDass. Stephnie was also a regular on the comedy series,MadTV.
The six short films (each around 1 minute in length) explore some of the subtle (and not so subtle) nuiances of living with with your loved one. We shot six, and each one strikes a nerve in different audiences for different reasons. I love that about comedy. It’s rare that you’re going to make EVERYONE laugh ALL the time, so the goal for me is finding the right tone and committing to it. Bob & Steph were so wonderful to work with, and their talent and comedic timing set the stage from the beginning. I found it hard to not laugh out loud on set.
As I was submitting my second [ahr-tuh-zen] documentary on Jeremy Thomas to film festivals, I came across The Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles and thought it was a perfect fit for the series flagship on Dave Lefner. Dave is a native Angeleno, and his art is focused on old signage in the Los Angeles area.
The film had been completed nearly two years ago, but I never sent it to any festivals and the DFFLA didn’t have a completion date requirement, so I sent it off. Why not? A week later, I received a phone call that the film was invited to screen during one of their shorts programs.
If ever there were a project I could be proud to say was my first festival screening, it’s this one. I always have so much fun creating my films, but I hate promoting them once they’re complete. Over the past two years, I’ve been getting much better about it, and it’s led to some success with our upcoming feature documentary, MILE… MILE & A HALF.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen the mindblowingly beautiful first video from Project Yosemite. The project is a creative collaboration between Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty. Yosemite HD has received over 3.5 million views, and the number is growing each day.
Not only are they super talented photographers, but a lot of fun to hike for hours with. And they’re big supporters ofThe Muir Project to boot. They’re working hard to finish their much anticipated follow-up video. Until then, you’ll just have to be content with video #1:
We haven’t been short on footage during our edit of the documentary film, MILE…MILE & A HALF, and for that I’m grateful. But there are certain moments when I lament we didn’t do justice to the beauty and grandeur that surrounded us. Blame it on exhaustion, uncertainty as to what was in store for the remainder of the day’s hike and, occasionally, excessive caution for gear that’s made to withstand at least some weathering.
One such instance of over-protection was our climb of Pinchot Pass. A storm started rolling in during our ascent, and as we rushed to cover our packs filled to the brim with electronics, the thought of getting dumped on (or worse, struck by lightning at the top of the pass) weighed heavy on our group.
Safety trumps artistry in moments like these, but I wish that I would’ve stopped and allowed myself the opportunity to fire off a few shots. There is nothing more impressive…more indicative of this amazing planet’s power…as the storm clouds unleashing their fury on mountain passes.
We rushed up and over the pass as quickly as we could, salvaging a handful of opportunities to snap off a shot, but that pass will not be showcased nearly as impressively in our documentary as it was that day.
In the past few days, I’ve finally come to peace with that.
We set out to capture the trail in the only way we knew how. THAT goal was accomplished. I do hope to return one day and do even more justice to what we saw on the trail. But no matter how many times I return…no matter how many shots I take…they’ll never leave me breathless like seeing it with my own eyes.
And for that, I’m glad mine weren’t always behind the lens.