Travel Photo Thursday: Great Vacation Videos

Travel Photo Thursday: Great Vacation Videos

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Movie ReelA great vacation photo can be worth a thousand words about the sense of the place.

A great vacation video can tell the story of the place.

But while most travelers can, with a little effort and the use of photo editing software, capture a great vacation photo, producing a great vacation video takes much more thought and skill.

To divine the techniques  for making mini-movie masterpieces, we’re going to analyze four of these twenty one-minute films by Christopher Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times.


Cacophony and Serenity in New York City

Of all of the places he might have chosen to film within “The Big Apple,” why did Reynolds pick the main branch of the New York Public Library?

NYC Library(Photo credit: melanzane1013 Flickr Photostream)

To depict contrasting scenes at a single location within the city: The hub-bub  of the madding crowd on a big-city street outside and the oasis of quietness inside of the library.

Reynolds uses some interesting tricks to emphasize the chaos of the street. He’s speeded up the playback and mirrored the action so pedestrians and vehicles move at a frenetic pace from the center of the film toward opposite edges of it.

The ambient audio from the initial twenty-five seconds or so is mixed with the rap music in the hip-hop dancing scene that follows, underscoring the rapidity with which life takes place in New York.

The film then cuts away to the inside of the library, where everyone moves at “normal” speed, and you hear only footsteps and the scraping of chair legs across the library’s floor, or people speaking in hushed tones.


A Black and White James Dean

Like a meteor that careens across the night sky, burning brightly and then dying a quick and spectacular death, from 1955 to 1956 actor James Dean’s flashed across the big screen in three Hollywood movies: East of Eden, Rebels Without a Cause, and Giant.

Dean never saw himself in the last of that trilogy: He died on September 30, 1955 when the Porsche he was driving crashed where California Highway 466 (now 46) and Highway 41 meet near Blackwells Corner.

Reynolds filmed “James Dean’s last highway” in black and white, lending a more somber tone to the site of the actor’s final road trip than would have been the case if it had been done in color.

“So what happened to the car?” is the question you hear asked, but not answered, while the camera pans back and forth between the memorial plaque to Dean the parking lot where drivers have pulled off the road to see it.

You see and hear traffic making its way along Highway 46 in front of the Jack Ranch Café where the memorial is located. Then the camera moves inside of the café where it zooms in on James Dean’s likeness on a “Get Kist Kola” poster and signs that read “Stuff for Sale Here” and “This business has the right to refuse service to anyone – Y’all have a nice day.”


“Ken Burns” in Russia

In “Pelting snow, downtown Moscow,” Reynolds incorporates still photos with video, using a method which has been dubbed the “Ken Burns Effect,” named for the well-know filmmaker whose documentaries have frequently aired on PBS TV stations.

Beginning at about the 37 second mark in this film, there appears to be movement when there’s actually none. Reynolds inserted a short “slideshow” into the middle of the film, and used a video editing program to “zoom in on” and “pan across” still photos, creating an illusion of motion.


Setting the Mood: June Lake

June Lake lies at the foot of the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range about 325 miles and a five and a half hour drive northeast of Los Angeles.

In the video’s description on YouTube, Reynolds says

“Nothing much happens in this idyllic minute on June Lake near Mammoth. But it makes a nice brain-cleanser.”

And that’s exactly what you’ll get from watching this film which he shot in April, as winter was departing and before summer, and its throngs of visitors, arrived. With people neither seen nor heard, June Lake looks like a ghost town inhabited only by ducks.



It’s clear from these clips that Christopher Reynolds is an accomplished videographer. But you’d be wrong if you think “I could never do that!”

Camera Gear

“What kind of camera did you use?” That’s a question both professional and rank-amateur photographers are asked by someone who assumes that it was the camera rather than the photographer who produced a great photo.

We could make a similar inquiry of Reynolds: “Your ‘A Minute Away’ videos are amazing! What video camera did you use?”

But the answer is: It doesn’t really matter.

If you own a fairly recent DSLR, point-and-shoot digital camera, or smartphone (like my iPhone 5), you have the equipment that will let you shoot sharp, high-definition video.

Audio Makes the Movie

Great video with lousy audio makes for an unwatchable movie.

The microphone built into your camera may not be sensitive enough to record an audio source that is not close to the camera. But it will pick up anything it hears, where or not you want it to do so.

Video editing software might be able to tune out background noise from your video clips. But its best to try to avoid recording unwanted audio in the first place.

So if your camera has a microphone-input, consider purchasing a separate, off-camera microphone to use when recording video. The best option would be a “shotgun” microphone that can be pointed in the same direction that you are filming.

Wired lavalier mikes are relatively cheap and work well for recording on-location narration, although you’ll have be careful not to allow the mike’s cord to show up on video.

Wind blowing across the camera will be picked up by a built-in mike, perhaps drowning out the ambient sounds or voices that you wanted to record.  So if possible, place a windscreen or wind “muff” over the microphone to

You can also use video editing software to “detach” audio from the original video clip, and then “attach” it to more than one video clip, or t0 still photos that you’ve added to your film, or both. That technique was used by Christopher Reynolds in the New York Public Library and James Dean videos.

Back “in the studio,” you can use a video editing program to add narration and music to the film. And that software will let you “mix” multiple audio tracks, or have one track fade out while the other fades in. Even the smartphone app, Ptch, will let you mix music with the audio that you recorded simultaneously with the video.

Video Editing Software

Pick your favorite Hollywood movie. Regardless of whether it’s one from our list of “Best Travel Movies,” such as In Bruges, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, or Transsiberian, you know that a lot of footage shot during filming ended up “on the cutting room floor.”

Unless you are satisfied with the 6 to 15 second “movies” that you can create using smartphone apps like Vine and Instagram, recording vacation video clips will only be one step in the process of movies.

Christopher Reynolds didn’t just point his camera and shoot video. He undoubtedly sat down in from of a computer and used a video editing program to select and trim the clips he wanted to use, arrange them in the right order for storytelling, and match the audio recorded on-location with the video and still photos.

You can so the same thing with software such as Apple’s Final Cut Pro X or its lower-priced cousin, iMovie (versions of which are also available for iPhone and iPad), or the counterparts from Adobe, Premiere and Premiere Elements (which is often sold bundled with Adobe’s “lighter” version of Photoshop, Photoshop Elements).

Tricks of The Trade

Watch a movie or TV show with the sound turned off so that you can focus your entire attention on how it was edited. You’ll be surprised to see that scenes don’t last very long, and that even within a single scene, camera angles shift frequently, often every five to ten seconds, and sometimes after only a second.

Hollywood may film a scene with multiple cameras simultaneously. You’ll probably use only one, held in your hand. But if you can, re-shoot the same scene from different angles, just as you might do when taking still photos.

Since you’ll be making a “documentary,” incorporate photos into your film, using the “Ken Burns Effect” to make the viewer’s eye move across, and closer into and way, from those still shots.

Just like a stage play, a movie is composed of several “acts” and “scenes.” Sometimes the story line moves forward, sometimes in jumps back and forth in time. If your vacation video follows this approach, it will be more effective in telling the story of the place that you visited.

(You can view all Christopher Reynolds’ “A Minute Away” videos on either the Los Angeles Times Website or on YouTube. Purchases made from or iTunes through links on this page helps Tales Told From The Road continue to bring you a wide range of travel-related stories. Dick Jordan learned video and TV production at the Community Media Center of Marin. His first mini-documentary, “Making Book,” aired on MarinTV earlier this year.)

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