A Father of Eagles

I meet a lot of interesting people: Inventors, basketball players, presidents, deep ocean explorers — the list goes on forever. But recently, I met my first eagle hunter. 75-year-old Sulantanbi. And yes, eagle hunter is an actual job in some parts of the world.

“The eagle is like my son. He only recognizes the person who raises him,” the tall man with the small hat says to me.

I was in Xinjiang, China’s wild west. Sulantanbi is nationally Chinese, but he is ethnically Kazakh. About 200-years-ago Kazakhs started to flee Russia into far western China. Their goal: to preserve their culture and identity. Some say the migration has kept some traditions, like eagle hunting, better preserved in China than in Kazakhstan.

“They were living under pressure form the Russians in Kazakhstan. The Russians had an assimilation policy, so my ancestors migrated here,” Sulantanbi tells me over tea in his house near the Nalati grasslands.


“At that time Russian men married Kazakhstani women. They forbid them from speaking Kazakh.”

Sulantanbi is the 7th generation of his blood line to be born in China and he is in fact proud of his Chinese nationality. Afterall, he’s 75-years old and grew up in a much different China. While his family was able to hold on to some of their traditions, like eagle hunting, their path in China has been far from easy.

“We grew up eating millet and wearing clothes made of sheep’s wool and skin. We had to eat from the same big pot during the Great Leap Forward. All of my family did. At that time they gave us 200 ml corn flour and that’s all we ate for several years. But after the Great Leap Forward, our life became better. It was Deng Xiaoping’s time.”

Today, Sulantanbi raises eagles on the grasslands. Its an ancient tradition that allows Sulantanbi to get food and exotic furs during the long winter months. Sulantanbi tells me, when his eagle is fully trained he will be able to snatch a fox in less than 5-minutes during winter months.

“Eagle hunting started during the times of the emperors. The emperors often went hunting, bringing their eagles and hounds. The emperor’s hunt would last for days and this hunting tradition spread to Kazakh folk life,” he explains to me.

The largest ethnic population in Xinjiang are the Uighur people, the original inhabitants of much of the region. While China’s Kazakhs and the Xinjiang’s Uighur people follow two separate blood lines and cultural paths — they do share some things in common, including their religion. But a growing Uighur insurgency has caused China to tighten their control of the Muslim population. New rules have banned Islamic dress and religious practices.

Rights’ groups say these policies create widespread discrimination and politically marginalize the population.

While the Kazakhs have not been part of violent clashes in the region, China’s anti-Muslim policies have started to effect China’s Kazakhs, causing some to ironically leave China for the same reason their ancestors migrated here.

But not Sulantanbi.

“I was born in China. This is my home. I want to be buried in Chinese soil.”

Chi Yin Sim | 2014 Her World Young Woman Achiever Award

I make many dozens of videos every year, about dozens of different people. However, very rarely are these people my friends. This fall, that changed.

Both my current contract and schedule don’t allow me to do too much work outside of The New York Times. However, recently my friend and colleague Chi Yin Sim won an award and I took a day off to help film a short vignette which was played during the award ceremony held in Singapore.

The Her World Young Woman Achiever award was launched in 1999. The annual award recognizes a young woman who aims higher and reaches further to achieve more. Her achievements have surpassed existing boundaries, inspiring those around her and paving the way for others in the future. She has also demonstrated the potential for attaining a higher level of success in her chosen field.

The Her World Young Woman Achiever 2014 goes to Sim Chi Yin, 35, an award-winning freelance photojournalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times,
The New Yorker, TIME and Le Monde.

See Chi Yin Sim’s web site
Meet your new Her World Young Woman Achiever 2014 | herworldPLUS

Movidiam: The Facebook for Filmmakers, Will Do Much More than Just Connect

A new social media infused project management platform has opened its digital doors for preregistration. Its called Movidiam and if you’re an independent filmmaker, production company or even brand — I think you have a lot to be excited about.

We’re seeing multiple sites offering creative collaboration project management systems pop up these days, such as Frame.io and Arc 9. I believe this shows a real hole in the market — a product that’s missing. And based on my work flow which is largely based on email and Google Docs, I see why.

Before you brush this off as “yet another creative collaboration site,” pay close attention to the description above — this is much more than a site to improve workflow. Movidiam is both a social network as well as an interactive project management system made for filmmakers (by filmmakers). Think of it as Vimeo + Linkedin + Facebook + WordPress + Mandy + a project management system.

“We are living in a connected and mobile world where the traditional agency model is challenged, where remote freelancing is becoming the norm and where the demand for brands to create a constant stream of quality films has dramatically increased,” says co-founder George Olver.

“Movidiam was created to address these challenges by providing a streamlined and collaborative production process from concept to completion.”

So: What is Movidiam, how does it work and what can it do for me?” I had these same questions and while I had seen some talk of the upcoming system at IBC it wasn’t until I sat down with George Olver to take a tour of the preproduction system where I truly got a better understanding of its potential power.

On a the most basic level Movidiam connects content creators, agencies and companies. A brand looking for a filmmaker can search the system’s geobased database and see filmmaker profiles, complete with embedded videos, a free blog custom designed for the site and see the filmmakers credentials, history, awards and collaborations.


Down the line, the metadata of your films, projects and credentials will also be searchable. So a company could put out a brief and have it sent to only people or agencies who are actually qualified. Alternatively, a freelancer, producer or agency would only receive the brief, if that brief meets their set financial quantifications and profesional qualifications.

For all parties involved, this can make posting or responding to a brief much more efficient. Instead of having an enormous list of poorly paid jobs, like we mostly see on Mandy, this could potentially cut some of the bullshit out.


From within a project on the site, one can also search production team members. You might see a video with great lighting but a poor story and want to track down the gaffer. This system connects production team members digitally, much like Facebook or Vimeo’s credits. However, you’ll be able to find out a lot more professional information about those crew members with this system.

This is a quick over view of the social side of Movidiam.

While this is great, it’s the production side of Movidiam which I’m more excited about.


The project management system has many of the tools we really need in a single location, in a clean and simply designed user interface. Things like production timelines, budgets, storyboards, crew locations and contact details are all in one place.

One feature I’m personally interested in comes in the form of revisions. Unfortunately, most of my revisions happen via email. Ill send a draft of a video to an editor and they will send back a long list of time codes with comments or issues. And when you get 500+ emails a day and a working on multiple projects you can really waste a lot of time trying to simply update videos and find the information you need, when you need it.

Movidiam allows editors or clients to view videos and add comments in real time and on specific areas of the video. This might be a comment such as “can we get a different grade on the lamp here” where a user would then see these comments come up in real time and on a specific X/Y coordinate, on the video.

Users can then scroll through or navigate through a video via the comments and simply move directly from one comment point to the next.


Furthermore, if you’re like me and usually have 10-20 projects going on at any given time, this system can give you an overview of all of them. A user can see all of their projects and quickly see at what stage in the process they are all at, how the budget is holding up or where deadlines are across many videos.

This is where I see huge potential for video newsrooms. Potentially, an editor or director of a newsroom of 50 video journalists could see an overview of where all of the projects are, see storyboards, scripts, budgets, deadlines or story ID information which might correspondent to other parts of the newsroom. That editor could see current drafts of each of those projects and without having to send a mass email out to all of those 50 journalists, would be completely up to date on where each project was at and what each employee was doing.

This is a basic outline of what the site aims to do. Its a bit hard to tell what place it could have in the industry, but I see huge potential in it from getting gigs to connecting with other filmmakers to simply having more organized and streamlined productions.

Movidiam will have two main options for users: a free site and a paid subscription. The free account allows users to profile themselves, create portfolios and blogs, be searchable and work on any existing project that they have been invited into. The pay wall unlocks all the production management tools and will be on a subscription basis of $25 a month. Its great to note here that even free users can use paid services, if they are invited by a member who has subscription services. Multiple user accounts, corporate, agency and enterprise group accounts will also be available.

I do think the site will be more powerful with a bigger user base. If there’s more filmmakers on it, it will be a more realistic place for agencies and brands to search find creators. Movidiam is offering two free months of full access to those who preregister for the beta site, so I encourage everyone to sign up here, as more users can actually benefit us all, across the industry.

Formula E, Carbon Free

The first carbon free, fully-electric racing championship was held in Beijing on September 13, 2014. The race aims to promote electric vehicles and clean energy technologies. Beijing was the first to host one of ten, Formula One style races around the world. Races take place in city centers of major destinations throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas.

See “Beijing Hosts Debut of Formula E as Engines Whir Rather Than Roar.”

Surrogacy: ‘Better than Prostitution’

The executive at Baby Plan Medical Technology Company Knows the camera is on.

“Working as a surrogate mother is better than being a prostitute, right?”

He says to a 30-year-old farmer turned surrogate mother in Wuhan. The comparison gives a small glimpse about how the surrogacy industry see’s itself: better than prostitution.

The woman listening, a 30-year-old divorcee, surnamed Kong is renting her womb to the surrogacy agency for roughly $24,000.

While it is illegal in China to implant a fertilized egg into another woman’s womb, Baby Plan Medical Technology Company avoids the issue by sending its surrogates to Thailand for the medical procedure. “All is permissible unless prohibited,” says CEO Zenan Yang. While the company exists in a legally gray area, opinions about surrogacy on the street seem less gray.

In “China Experiences a Booming Underground Market in Child Surrogacy” Ian Johnson explores the murky world of surrogacy in China.

Web Video Beats Broadcasters in Journalism Contest Category Called “Broadcast”

I’m very happy to announce Promise and Peril, a documentary I made last year with Patrick Winn has won the The Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. The award given by The National Press Club recognizes excellence in reporting “on diplomatic and foreign policy issues. Entrants must demonstrate an understanding of American foreign policy and how foreign affairs affect those policies.”

The award is given in two categories: print and broadcast. To me, the award symbolizes the increasingly roll video made exclusively for web is playing in the changing news industry. If web based video operations with small budgets can compete with major broadcast operations spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on production, then video technology has become accessible to the point of leveling the playing field, between news outlets.

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The People’s Religion

“Buddhism and Daoism are embedded in Chinese traditional culture,” the Rev. Matthew Zhen said after an early morning mass in Latin at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. “But Islam, Christianity and Catholicism have a relatively short history in China. People need time to accept them.”

Although Christianity entered China well over a thousand years ago, the recent destruction of the Sanjiang Church in the eastern city of Wenzhou underscored Father Zhen’s point — more time may be needed. Whether it is primarily a question of time or ideology, however, is debatable.

“The government feels more comfortable with the so-called traditional religions in China — Buddhism, Daoism and folk religion,” said Ian Johnson of The Times’s Beijing bureau, who has reported on religion in China for more than 20 years. “They think those are less threatening than those that have more outer-world links such as Christianity, including Catholicism with ties to the Vatican, or Islam. Overall the government is a little uneasy about the growth of Christianity. It sees it as something that is a little bit out of control.”

In “Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire,” Mr. Johnson explores the current state of religion in China and what conclusions can be drawn from the destruction of the $5.5 million, year-old church in “China’s Jerusalem.”

A Restoration Puzzle

It was 1974 when a provincial archaeology institute was doing an excavation in a small village in the heart of China’s coal country. The team had lost a cap to one of its measuring tools. They asked a local resident, Zhang Juncai, if he could make another.

He did, and it fit perfectly.

This was the beginning of Mr. Zhang’s career as a restoration technician. Forty years later, without any formal education, he has become a master of piecing together ancient Chinese artifacts that have been damaged and buried in China’s rough past.

One day last month, Mr. Zhang was piecing together a 900-year-old ceramic pot from the Liao dynasty at the archaeology and restoration department of the Yungang Grottoes Research Institute, in Datong, Shanxi Province. The pot, discovered 12 years ago in front of Grotto No. 22, was once used to store food.

“When I first came here, they asked me to change the plaster color,” he said. “I said I would rather quit than do that.”

While restoration efforts in China often involve making old things look new, Mr. Zhang, 65, believes the principles of archaeology require relics to stay true to the form they are found in.

“You need to separate the real parts and fake ones,” he said, a cigarette holder in the style of Hunter S. Thompson dangling from his mouth, as he held the pot together. “You can’t color the plastered parts brown. Those parts should remain white so people can tell it’s been restored. If you change the color, you’re faking it.”

Edward Wong’s full story on how Chinese officials and preservationists like Mr. Zhang have embarked on an ambitious effort to protect historic sites from industrial pollution is published here.

A Portrait of Luo Changping

Transparency International Integrity Award: Luo Changping from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

This video portrait of Luo Changping, an anti-corruption fighting journalist in China was commissioned by Transparency International to be played at the 2013 awards ceremony in Berlin. Luo along with Angola based journalist Rafael Marques de Morais received the annual award.

I’ve really grown to love this form of video. In my opinion it is the video equivalent of a still portrait where the photographer takes control of the elements from lighting to where the subject is photographed. In the video world, we have room to create sequences that build an environment and an atmosphere around a subject’s voice.

However, if we were to put narration in, I believe the format changes dramatically to become something different.

Working on projects like this is meaningful to me because I supply the creative architecture to let the character speak. And this character should be commended by what he says. Fighting corruption in China is an uphill battle and very few are brave enough to even try.

Transparency International Integrity Awards recognise the courage and determination of the many individuals and organisations fighting corruption around the world.Winners are a source of inspiration to the anti-corruption movement because their actions echo a common message: that corruption can be challenged.

Working in an environment of media censorship, Chinese journalist Luo Changping summoned the courage to expose corruption via his personal blog.

When the respected financial magazine Luo works for was reluctant to print the name of a high-ranking official accused of illegal financial dealings, he bravely decided to publish the full allegations, including the official’s name, himself. His naming of the official, Liu Tienan, eventually led to a government investigation resulting in Liu’s dismissal from the party and removal from public office in 2013.

The road to accountability was not an easy one. After the investigation was announced by Chinese authorities, Luo’s internet account was deleted before he could release further information on the story. But were it not for Luo’s courage and tenacity, the official’s conduct would have continued unchallenged. Luo’s success was a rare victory in the struggle for transparency in China. His actions have demonstrated the important role for investigative journalism and social media in the fight against corruption.

The response from the Chinese government to Luo’s award is not a surprising one. Before the award was released the central Propaganda Department told Chinese media outlets (via China Digital Times):

“Regarding Transparency International’s intention to give Caijing Deputy Editor Luo Changping [this year’s] Integrity Award, the media must downplay the story. Do not report or comment on it. (November 2, 2013)”


Transparency International
Get involved – Integrity awards http://buff.ly/I6rqzn

NYT: China to Investigate Top Economic Policy Maker
CNN: How Chinese journalist Luo Changping took on a corrupt official
BBC News – How a Chinese journalist took on a top official
China Digital Times: Minitrue: Luo Changping May Win Integrity Award
SCMP: Luo Changping on the state of Chinese media | South China Morning Post

Ebb and Flow: Commercial Video Fueling Editorial Possibilities

How Lili Learned How to Travel Smart from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

It was the moment that I got my first payment from a newspaper that I realized I would have to supplement my income as a freelancer with more commercially oriented work.

What I didn’t realize then was that the financial necessity fueling my venture into the commercial video world, would not only change how I view the online video landscape, but also elevate my ability as a video journalist dramatically.

In the commercial world — I am in control of the elements. I want all of my frames to be planned out and perfectly composed. I want light, sound and the technical side of my videos to be precise and fine-tuned.

A hidden gaffer in our opening shot.
A hidden gaffer in our opening shot.

However, as I‘ve developed my skills as a commercial cinematographer I’ve been noticing a philosophical ebb and flow between the two worlds I exist in (editorial and commercial video). I know what type of quality I can create in a controlled environment, but I want to create the same quality level in a world where the elements are out of my control.

At the same time, my skills as a real world storyteller have become intrinsically important in creating powerful commercial work. A technically perfect brand video without a sense of story or authenticity is meaningless.

In many ways, my audience is the same. It’s the 21st century media consumer who is over-saturated with content and exists in a world of tabbed web browsing and 15-second video bursts on their phones.

Whether I’m making a corporate video or a newspaper doc, the reality is it’s the same impatient and distracted viewer. If my commercial videos feel false, people might click off. If my newspaper videos don’t have production value that matches the standards that these people have come to expect in online entertainment and cinema, people might click off.

Left, lighting for Mr. Gong and Lili's tea scene. Right, The Canon C100 on Kessler Crane Cineslider.
Left, lighting for Mr. Gong and Lili’s tea scene. Right, The Canon C100 on Kessler Crane Cineslider.

In a recent project for Chinese travel company Qunar.com I had a chance to create a story that became a really fun example in my portfolio of combining two skill sets.

This video was storyboarded out per every shot you see in the video (except the opening shot which was unplanned). It’s the work of over 20-people and it took about a month to conceptualize, write and produce. Shooting time was three days.

However, the 12-scene video is shot completely in real world environments and in many cases, in public places where the elements are certainly not in my control. But this is where I thrive. This is the environment where I produce news videos by the dozens annually. I love this environment.

Left: Lighting a yoga studio. Right, DOP Jonah Kessel on an apple box with Miller 2020 Compass15 at full height.
Left: Lighting a yoga studio. Right, DOP Jonah Kessel on an apple box with Miller 2020 Compass15 at full height.

The return of investment for doing jobs like this has impacted me far beyond my bank account.

First and foremost: commercial video production has pushed me to demand higher quality of myself in video journalism. I can’t say that I can achieve the same quality working by myself as I can with a small or medium sized team, but just aspiring to it has made my news and documentary video better. While commercial jobs don’t necessarily have the same ethical backbone that I strive for in my editorial work, I do view each job as a new chance to push my ability with technology and cinema.

Second: commercial work has given me the financial backing to take lower paying documentary jobs that I feel passionate about, without having to worry about how to get food on the table.

Throughout the year, I’ve been writing about my experience shooting in Burma on this blog (see here and here). But guess what? No one pays me too much to spend months of time wrapping my head around complicated stories in the middle of nowhere: arguing with a Chinese state-owned mine undermining democracy outside of their own borders.

Director Jim Fields from Studio Output attempting to clear people long enough for a three shot sequence on a busy bridge in beijing.
Director Jim Fields from Studio Output attempting to clear people long enough for a three shot sequence on a busy bridge in beijing.

While no budget or quote will reflect this on paper, jobs like the one above pay for those more meaningful jobs, or newspaper video in general who don’t really have budgets. Without the commercial work, these more meaningful videos might not be possible, at least in the same capacity.

Its also hard to ignore that commercial work has transformed my backpack full of gear into a very large room full of gear. The tools I use to create commercial work with are now at my fingertips to create more powerful editorial work. Having options on different sets of glass, cameras, jibs, motorized dollies and a plethora of stabilization devices is quite the novelty for some newspaper video journalists.

Now when I look at creating a doc, I think about it with the eyes of a cinematographer but the mind of a journalist. This is a shift compared to some years ago where my entire income was editorial based.

While trying to integrate cinematic technology and philosophy into my editorial work has brought up lots of interesting ethical questions, I do believe that the greatest benefactor of my commercial work is my editorial audience. Simultaneously, I believe a lot of the commercial work I do I get because of my skills as a real world storyteller.

This is the ebb and flow between editorial and commercial video in my business and creative equation. They fuel each other and in many ways live a symbiotic relationship. Without one, the other couldn’t exist.

Visual Journalism | 视频记者 Cinematography