About one year ago to this day, myself Paul Morris and Kit Gillet made the video above. Right before we made the video, I wrote a cold (i.e. I didn’t know the people I was writing to) pitch to the New York Times. It read:
Every year the skies around China explode in fireworks that continue almost around-the-clock for two weeks. As part of a long-held Chinese tradition to use fireworks as a way to ward off evil spirits, firework sellers pop up across China in the weeks leading up to New Year, arming Chinese citizens for the days and nights ahead.
Unlike in the West, where firework safety is paramount, safety is far from people’s minds in China, where fireworks are set off within high-rise compounds, tossed on the floor, set off in narrow alleys, and even thrown at friends in the spirit of good humor. Back in 2008 a giant unfinished hotel building turned into a flaming torch after officials ignored police warnings and used a nearby rooftop as the platform for a firework display. Tens of thousands of Beijingers took to the streets to watch it burn.
While adding a level of danger, the ubiquitous presence of fireworks creates strong visuals. We are proposing a 3-minute video that would combine footage taken from a strategic height that would allow panoramic views over the whole of the Beijing skyline and on-the-street footage taken between the historic Drum and Bell Towers – one of the main areas revelers congregate. We would also cut it with footage of the fly-by-night firework stores and other night-time elements of the festivities. We can turn this over in less than 12 hours and have it to you by Chinese New Year, New York time.
Jonah M. Kessel
Needless to say, I received no response. At this time, this was quite normal. A year ago, a cold call to an editor usually came back either with a ‘no’ or it didn’t come back at all. And to be more fair – at the time of that email, I was just transitioning from a still shooter to a video shooter.
Regardless of the no reply, myself and filmmakers Kit Gillet and Paul Morris went ahead and made the short film anyway. It was one of our first group efforts using DSLRs. There is no post production on this stuff. Its all direct out of camera, and there’s not much of a story — just some fun visuals in a chronological order.
From that point to today, I finished 75 videos — and have more that are unfinished works in progress. To say the least — last year I dove into the video world and didn’t come up for air. I spent every day watching videos, studying gear, looking at video journalism, how its perceived, where its failing and where I feel its succeeding. Over the course of 75 videos, I learned new lessons from each — in shooting, editing and storytelling.
At some point this year, after making many of those videos I was approached by the New York Times to start producing videos for them. And then over the past six months, I started working for the same source that once ignored a pitch of mine. Now I’m both editing and shooting videos and my work with the The Time’s thus far has been nothing but exceptionally interesting, fun, educational — and inspiring. If you’ve missed some of these videos, here are some of my favorites:
- A Date with the Censors
- Wukan Video Journal
- Word Crimes
- Filming China’s Darkside
- The Reddest Village in China
While the stories I do for the Times accompany articles, as Chinese New Year came up again, I decided to send the pitch out one more time — as a stand alone video piece. 75 videos and one year later — they took the pitch. And in some small way, this gives me hope for the year of the dragon. That hard work, dedication and persistences can lead to good things. And the hope that the year of the dragon — will have more opportunities to tell more important stories that the world needs to see.
Now, the task is to “one up” myself from last year. A chance to show what difference a year can make. A chance to tell a story better than I could a year ago. A chance to go big. Filming for “2012: The Year of the Dragon” begins tomorrow. Check back in the next couple days on nytimes.com or here to see this year’s pyrotechniques spectacular and the result of my plan to — go bigger. After all — the dragon is not a quiet symbol.
Happy New Year – 新年快乐！