The 163 Freeway: San Diego Study #3

163ScreenGrab I've been working for three weeks now editing a new piece for the San Diego Studies. I'm reorganizing traffic on the 163 freeway by car color. I had no idea how many people drive grey/silver cars and how few drive cars with color. The vast majority are either grey, silver, black or white. It surprised me. It's a challenging piece to put together because of the numbers of cars but it's coming along. It's funny that it only took around three hours to shoot and will take a few hundred hours to edit.

I've found a companion while editing that I have never had before. Since these films have no dialog I can listen to audio books while I work. During this edit I've listened to Revolution 1989 by Victor Sebestyen, How Music Works by David Byrne, 1493 by Charles Mann and Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana. I've found that the better the book is the longer and faster I work. It's a massive improvement over Pandora or my iTunes collection, which I erased recently...on purpose.

Two Years Before the Mast has been of special interest to me since this work I'm doing is about San Diego and much of the book's account of a sailing expedition in the 1830's takes place in San Diego when it was just a bay and a Spanish precidio. I'm amazed by his accounts of Sandwich Islanders, Russians, Italians, Native Americans, Spaniards and Mexicans all interacting in a distant wilderness called California. If they could have only known what the real estate values would be...

Below is a sample of what the final video will look something like. 163 was the city's first freeway.


12 Years Ago Today

I was in the Peace Corps when it happened. I lived on the fifth floor of a block house in rural Lithuania and I didn't have a television. We were seven hours ahead of New York/EST. I finished teaching for the day. Walked home, washed the day off and played guitar for a while. I walked across the square to the grocey store. Tomas was one of my best students. I think I was looking at cornflakes. He said in Lithaunian, "Cy, the towers in New York are on fire." I had no idea what he meant because the word tower doesn't translate to Towers. He kept going on and on, I thought he was joking. He was always joking. Then something about the Pentagon. None of it made sense. "Come to my house."

I rode in the back seat of his father's car. He and Tomas were silent in the front seats. What's the joke I wondered. Tomas was always joking. When we pulled into the driveway I started to think something was really up. The joke would have happened by now?

The living room was dark. Tom's mother and little sister sat silently looking at a small television screen. The screen was indiscernible. After a few moments I realized we were watching dust clear. The second tower had just fallen.

Test Shots at Silver Strand State Beach

photo.silverstrandsept9_2013 I did some more test shots at Silver Strand State Beach today. This is the Bus Stop piece. I had more trouble operating my umbrella than I did the camera.

The story I want to tell with this one is about the numbers of people who use the bus and the number of times/day the bus comes by. The challenges are many. That chain link fence between the camera and the bus stop is just one of many complications. All the detailed geometry created by the wire means the background and foreground shots have to overlap perfectly. That's hard because the foreground will be shot with a video camera on one day and the background will be shot with a still camera on another but the lenses have to sit in the exact same spot at the same focal length. Both shots will take a full day with zero movement. It's a zen challenge.


Bus Stop Study in Coronado, California

photo (1) The longer I do this stuff the more concretely I believe art lies dead center between politics, religion, science and cuckoo. I spent two days this week taking measurements of and staking out a bus stop in Coronado for a composite video I want to attempt.

The bus stop light is eight feet overhead. The bench is 5'11" wide and 1.5' high. Between the hours of 2pm and 4pm today no one got on or got off the bus. That presents a problem for me. If no one comes and goes then what's in the vid? I'll figure it out. In the mean time take a look at the sunset from my first trip down there.

photo (2)

Green Screen Fabrication

I've been working with Mike at Taylor Design & Build for a few weeks to design and fabricate a 40' green screen to shoot The San Diego Studies. One more round of tweaks and I think we'll have it. Looks simple but it has to be big, mobile, stable on sand slopes and safe. The designs steps were: SketchUp 3d drawings - PVC mock up - 1/4 scale steel mock up with a test shoot - full scale set up with test shoot. I think it's amazing how consistent the design process is. No matter how much you try to dial it on paper you still have to go through at least four rounds of prototyping and edits to get to good.

Mike is a wood worker and also the drummer in one of San Diego's best bands The Paragraphs. Check them out.







Four years ago I started working on a doc short about labor abuse inside U.S. military bases in Iraq. The film (10 min) can be viewed on the INDENTURED page above. For any of my old friends from Iraq who may happen by here please look at this Worker's Rights Card and share it with anyone you know who has worked or may work on a U.S. base in the war zones. The document was prepared by Sam W. McCahon who is an attorney and abolitionist in Washington D.C. and outlines the basic rights of foreign workers on U.S. bases in the war zones.

Workers Rights Card for Foreign Laborers (Third Country Nationals) in Iraq and Afghanistan

The San Diego Studies: Mostly, I Thought About Mountain Lions

MOUNTMIGUEL2 I’m looking over the lyrics to the song America and I’m seeing a lot in there about purple mountains but I’m not finding anything about brown desert hills. Mount San Miguel, where I spent the night shooting, is a tough working class kind of Mount that overlooks San Diego. I don’t think anyone would call it majestic but it commanded my respect last night. I went up at 6pm yesterday and came down at 6am this morning humbled. The shot started beautifully; the sun sank slowly behind Point Loma followed closely by a red clipping of the moon. I’d hoped to get a cityscape at the bottom of the frame and a few meteors from the Persied shower at the top intersecting with the airplanes coming into Lindbergh Field.

Around 9pm the temperature dropped and the marine layer did a low altitude wipe on the city and sky. Water collected on the lens. Lens paper was too light to soak it up so I took my shirt off and used it between every shot but that didn’t work either, it was too damp. The camera was soaked. I spent the rest of the night trying to salvage a shot and dry the camera.


The popularity and numbers of time-lapse videos on the web make it easy to dis them but it’s harder than it looks. There are few setups that you have to commit to for hours before you can make any adjustments or get feedback. By midnight the dampness let up, or the lens temperature changed enough to stop collecting moisture so I tried a shot up the hill along a foot trail. At that hour I felt so lonely and the trail looked so forlorn, dark and sad that I sat down with my back to it for the whole three hours cycle. I didn’t want to look. Around 3am the city went silent and very dark. I realized I’ve never in any of my conversations with other filmmakers heard the phrase, “It went exactly how I planned.” Deft compromise...

The hills collect the clouds and an amazing amount of sound from the city. Dog barks, crackling power lines, car and house alarms, freeway traffic, police sirens, garbage trucks, distant voices and jet engines mix with disturbing proximity and clarity. The shutter clicks open. The shutter clicks closed. The shutter clicks open. The shutter clicks closed. I felt scared in the dark. I felt bored, cold, wet and lonely. The higher powers don't hang around foothills and I had no new insights. Mostly, I thought about mountain lions and wondered if they like tuna fish sandwiches. My bag was full of them. You have to fight tooth and nail for every little bit that you're given.

The San Diego Studies: Perseid Meteor Shower from Mount San Miguel


The Perseid Meteor shower will be peaking over the next few nights. I'm going to capture the event with a night (all night?) time-lapse shot from Mount San Miguel. If it comes together I'll use it as a background for one of the videos in the San Diego Studies series.

In short, I'll be spending the night shifting awkwardly in a beach chair pondering the nocturnal habits of mountain lions. If you're busy watching Breaking Bad, feel free to check in with me via twitter for ascetic insights and the local sky report from the great heights of Mount San Miguel.


For the gear heads, my equipment includes: Canon 7D (Av, f2.8, no bracket, RAW) (Turn auto focus and lens stabilization off and tape the eye piece if you're not using Live View) Phottix intervalometer (15 second interval with a 13 second delay)

(Here's a trick: Spin the base plate 180 degrees and mount your camera backwards. That gets the tripod handle away from your body so you won't bump it in the dark and more importantly lets you drop and replace the battery without moving/removing the camera.)

The San Diego Studies: Silver Wing Park

Is San Diego a secret city? Or is it just me? In 1993 I moved from Alaska to live in Imperial Beach. There's a detail in the landscape there that I've been aware of since my first week in town that I've never heard a word about until last month. As you’re leaving IB on Coronado Ave. to get on I-5 (The Five if you watch SNL) you can see an individual silver airplane wing mounted vertically on the mesa just beyond the freeway. The leading edge of the wing faces due west so it’s actually much easier to see from the South in San Ysidro where its broadside shines the most light. It’s a wing on a hill. If you saw it you could easily imagine that it’s a military thing. That makes sense. It could be a memorial or a small aviation museum. Or maybe there was an accident and it’s a reminder? It couldn’t be anything really remarkable because you’d hear about that wouldn’t you? Yes you would, if you lived in any other city. On Earth.


This is San Diego though - a city full of secrets. Many of the secrets are by-products of the city’s official business, one of the largest of which is defense. It makes sense then that much of the activity in town has quietude around it. The other big business is tourism. The tourism board, the hoteliers, the restaurants are dependent on selling this as a destination for travelers but that also requires an extreme narrowing of the cities image and identity. San Diego is far more likely to be described by its weather than it is as part of a massive urban continuum that runs from Los Angeles through Northern Baja. The city has very smartly made a great business of selling the air. I’m all for it. I love that people want to come here and I’m always sure to wave at incoming Southwest jets but…we’re missing something.

I went down to see the wing because I want to shoot a video with a low rider club called The Amigos. One of their leaders said that if I film them, it would be most authentic if it were in their neighborhood near Silver Wing Park. I looked it up and my jaw dropped.

The airplane wing denotes the location of the first flight in the USA. I’m talking about the first time an American flew. The FIRST. This is years before the Wright Bros who were the first to succeed at powered flight. A guy named Montgomery build a glider based on his observations and study of bird wings. His design was counter intuitive to him because the wing curved down to the leading edge but he followed nature's cue nonetheless. He took his glider to the top of the mesa, which catches the onshore breeze and with his brother's help became the first American to fly. He later patented his glider design in 1905

Do a quick thought experiment. Imagine that this event happened in Kansas City instead of San Diego. Do you think people in Kansas City would know that the first American to fly did so in Kansas City? Would there be a T-shirt and a tour? Maybe. What about New York? New Yorkers are always bragging so if you offered them a new brag would they take it and actually use it? Why not. In South Dakota they promote Mount Rushmore, which is on the western edge of the state. The eastern edge has the Corn Palace. I can say with total certainty that if Montgomery had flown in South Dakota there would be at least fifty billboards begging you to come and see. Even Hollywood was down with the Montgomery story. Don't be a pantywaist, take a look at Gallant Journey (1946):

So why isn’t this more broadly known? My theory is that it’s because that particular hill lies on the wrong side of our current identity. If it’s in south bay and it’s east of anything, it probably won’t get talked about much. The monument imagined in the film contrasts sharply with the edgy vibe in the park today. The wing looks neglected but the neighborhood around it is vibrant. We’ll see if I can make the low rider video happen. Step by step. Below is the view down the hill where Montgomery made his not so famous leap.


The San Diego Studies: Politifest

Politifest 2013 It’s Saturday. I was up around six drinking coffee before today’s shoot. My first thought when I woke up was, “Is it really August?” Normally August in San Diego has a specific warmth you can feel at all hours. It holds you. In the evenings it’s a perfect skin and midday you feel like you’re receiving summer in an idealized way. When I stepped out the door this morning wispy clouds hung all around. Here a cool looking sky is often a mirror for a cold ocean. I'm tuned to every changing degree.

For the first time ever as a filmmaker I’m turning my eyes and my attention to this town and it feels good. The working title of my current project is The San Diego Studies; I’m making composite videos about the city. They are little special effect documentaries about our town in our time. I'm very excited and honored that MOPA San Diego and the San Diego Foundation are supporting the project. For the next year I'll be one of a hand full of regional artists lucky enough to be called a Creative Catalyst Fellow.

Beyond the videos, the message I hope to share with the rest of the community is two fold. First and foremost what I've learned about being a filmmaker and an artist of sorts is that this pursuit is above all about work. That's it. There is no look, no book, no body and nobody that can make you successful creatively. You just punch the clock year after year. Learn - work - learn - work. And a caveat, you also have to fail a lot. Most of what you make is not art. Very little of it can be.

My other message is about San Diego. For me, ours is a secret city and our narrative is bland because much of it was formed in marketing offices to promote tourism. The sooner we get down to it and get real, the better off we'll be. We are not LA's backyard as the SD Film Commission marketed us all through the 90s. We are not America's Finest City nor are we the most modest. We also aren't a sleepy beach town. So what are we? Well that's what we've got to work on and that's what I hope to open up a tiny bit with the video series.

Below are a few images from today’s shoot at the Politifest event put on by Voice of San Diego. Many thanks to Scott, Zack and the rest of their team for getting us in to shoot. This particular set up is to create a moving group portrait/moving mural. I’ll layer these portraits into a new background that is in turn created of motion layers. To see the completed videos in the series just click on the San Diego Studies tab at the top of this page.



For the techies who would like to know about the process, this is shot on a C100 in the standard cinema mode (no CLog) with standard AVCHD color. I can get away with that for this shoot because the subjects aren't moving much and I'm framing them horizontally to double or triple their resolution. This means I can choke the matted image and lose a very small portion of the individual. In the final composition each figure will be fairly small against the background so I have a ton of information to produce a well keyed figure. I wouldn't try this in any other situation though. A set up with more motion will need 4:2:2 color at the very least.

A big thanks to everyone that stopped by and endured the incredible awkwardness of being shot this way but your authenticity will speak for itself.