MiniDVs, Avid Xpress Pro and YouTube Prove to Be a Winning Combination

It is easy to ignore all the news coverage and constant images of war coming out of Iraq on a daily basis. We constantly hear stories about roadside bombs taking the lives or limbs of soldiers, insurgents attacking our troops and families being left behind as a soldier leaves for another tour of duty. What we don’t often hear about are the stories of everyday Iraqis who must attempt to live normal lives in and around the fighting. Hometown Baghdad was brought to the Internet to change that. From the web site: “Hometown Baghdad is an online web series about life in Baghdad. It tells the stories of three young Iraqis struggling to survive during the war.” I spoke with Mike DiBenedetto, the online distribution manager, about the project, how it came to be and about the technical issues and challenges faced during the production, and especially the post-production, when creating a series that was shot so far away.

Production and Online Distribution on Hometown Baghdad
How did this project come to be?
MIKE DiBENEDETTO: We wanted to produce a series that would humanize young Iraqis. We wanted to tell the untold story of the Iraq war ‘ the life of the everyday Iraqi. Regular Iraqis don’t have a voice in the international media and we wanted to change that. So we worked with an Iraqi crew to do just that. The Iraqis we worked with (who we had previously worked with) were also committed to helping their fellow Iraqis tell their stories to the world.

Initially, this was planned as a series for television. We developed an idea that would help Iraqis tell their stories and tried to sell it to American TV networks. But they weren’t having it. We heard every excuse from “Iraq doesn’t fit our brand,” to “Americans are tired of the war,” to “in a year from now when the show is done, Iraq will be over.” But that didn’t stop us. So we raised the money to do it from private philanthropists and produced it ourselves. And even when we finished shooting, we tried again to sell it to a network with no luck. The Iraqi crew we met in 2004 when we produced Chat the Planet’s Baghdad 2 Way for MTV’s Choose or Lose Campaign.

How long have you been shooting and when did the episodes begin to "air" on the web?
We began shooting in July of 2006 and finished in about October or November of that year. And we began airing on March 19, 2007 ‘ the fourth anniversary of the war.

How was the decision made to air the series as a web-based series vs. other distribution outlets?
After we had little luck with the networks, we began to explore our options for self-distributing. And we began to realize that we would have more freedom and a bigger potential audience than we could have ever hoped for on TV. Once we realized that, we never looked back and have been happy that we didn’t go to TV first.

Do you have traditional camera people who shoot or are all the footage shot by cameras in the hands of Iraqis?
Most of the footage was shot by our professional Iraqi crew ‘ Fady Hadid (producer), Ziad Turkey (director), Nezar Hussein (cameraman) and Adel Khalid (sound recordist). These guys are the consummate professionals. They are passionate, talented, brave and probably a bit crazy. But we also gave our participants (Adel, Saif and Ausama) their own personal cameras so they could capture moments when our crews weren’t around.

Who comes up with the stories that are told?
The stories are real. No one came up with them. This is a documentary. After we got all the footage, our senior editor Barrett Hawes is the one who cut them up and arced out the 38 episodes.

Why post the videos to You Tube versus a higher quality option such as your own server?
We posted to YouTube because YouTube was built for viral potential. It also has the biggest audience of any other site. So when one of our videos started getting viewed a lot, it would make it to the Most Viewed of the Day page or the most commented on. And that in turn would result in more views. Also, a few of our videos were featured in certain areas of YouTube ‘ the main page, the music page, the news and politics page ‘ and that would drive a lot of traffic. Getting on the front page of other sites doesn’t always result in the kinds of numbers YouTube can drive. That all being said, we released the series as a video podcast with fairly high quality. It’s also on some other sites like veoh and dailymotion. And lastly, it’s on Joost. So there are high quality alternatives.

Are there any other web-based series that you are using as an example for Hometown Baghdad?
No. Obviously, there are web series and vlogs that have come before us that have broken ground and been inspirational. But we haven’t taken one as an example.

How do you gauge the "success" of the series on the web?
That’s a great question. We believe that we were very successful. We don’t necessarily have same size audience as a Lonelygirl15, but for a series that is about the cold hard reality of Baghdad, we hit a huge audience that numbers in the millions. We were featured on hundreds if not thousands of blogs and we were covered in press outlets in 17 countries. Some of the press we received: CNN, BBC, The Today Show, cover of the LA Times, cover of the Times (of London), the Guardian UK, Le Monde, Rolling Stone Magazine, etc. Due to the success of the series online, we now have deals to air a version of Hometown Baghdad on television. There’s a paradox for you. We had to go online because TV didn’t want us but because we went online, TV wants us now. So at the end of the day, this series will hit millions upon millions of people all around the world. And we started with no PR or marketing budget and no TV deals. Just goes to show you where good content can get you.

How long did the series run?
The series aired its last episode on June 19th, 2007. So we released 38 episodes over the course of exactly three months.

Do you have other distribution plans?
We’re also releasing the episodes on various online video syndicators and mobile video distributors. We’re also airing versions of Hometown Baghdad on mtvU and Current TV. And after we finish up with all of this, we will begin working on our next project.

What video formats are used to shoot the show?
We shot the show on PAL miniDV. However, we knew from the start that our crew would not be able to be with the participants as much as we would have liked. With daily gun battles, hidden snipers, regular terrorist attacks and murderous militias running rampant, our crews simply couldn’t ride over to saif’s house every day to shoot with him. So we gave our participants NTSC miniDV camcorders. The reason we used NTSC for those was simple. We were forced to rush into production very quickly due to the worsening security situation. And while our crew was shooting on PAL, we were not able to buy and ship PAL cameras in time.

What formats are used to edit the show?
We edited the show in PAL on Avid Xpress Pro. We transferred all the necessary shots from the NTSC tapes into PAL and combined that with the professionally shot PAL material. And we edited in 5:1 compression and never went to an online edit or a color correct. When you are producing for the Internet, you don’t have the same broadcast requirements that you do with television.

You mentioned the episodes were cut on Avid Xpress Pro, how did the Xpress Pro version work for you vs. a higher end Media Composer system and were there any limitations that you encountered?

The system runs very slow, particularly with large sequences, but I am hoping that issue will be resolved with a new CPU. Otherwise the Avid is very stable and functions at a high rate; there are, of course, a few Media Composer tools that I miss (two rows of buttons in the "Composer" window, duration of time a clip has moved when dragged on the timeline, etc), but all-in-all I'd say Avid Xpress Pro is pretty impressive.

How much footage do you get per episode or do you even track it what way?
While shooting, we did not plan episodes in advance and so there is no way to say how much footage we had per episode. During the production, we just followed stories. We spoke with the participants in advance about what was going on with their lives so we knew when we should film. For example, we knew that Zaid was going to be leaving Iraq so we made sure that we would have footage of Saif and Zaid saying goodbye. And we shot about 120 hours of footage. And then our editors went through the footage, found the stories and pieced them together. And as you can see, sometimes the stories weren’t so linear. We often found that it was more interesting to show a few different scenes on the theme of losing power in your house than it would have been to just show Adel in his house, losing power and then turning on the generator. When those stories are grouped together as they are in episode four “powerless”, they gain a kind of power.

How many editors and assistants work on the show?
We had two primary editors. One is the senior editor, Barrett Hawes, who determined the whole story structure for each episode. The other editor is Will Gardiner. He would rough cut episodes, and work with translators. I supervised quite a few interns who more or less worked as assistant editors ‘ logging, capturing, transferring, dubbing, etc.

Do you have the footage transcribed?
We have extensive logs but not transcripts.

What kind of edit system do you use to cut the show?
We cut on a Dell Desktop and a HP laptop. Both have Avid Express Pro.

Do you have separate people and workstations to encode and prepare the footage for the web?
We do not have a separate workstation but we did have another guy who prepared the footage for the web. Though it wasn’t all that much work. All he did was run some tests to get some decent settings for the different websites. He then exported the clips from the HP laptop when Will Gardiner was out to eat.

Since many of the people involved are in Iraq, what is the approval process for the edit or do the people in Iraq even see the episodes before they hit the web?
For certain episodes, we made sure that the head producer in Baghdad, Fady Hadid, saw them. We didn’t want any episodes to reveal where people lived, or their last names or where they worked, or studied. So we’d upload them to a private account on YouTube that Fady had access too and he and I would figure out what, if anything, needed changing. A couple of times, Fady would say that you could hear an address mentioned in the background in Arabic, which would be problematic. Or he would say you could see Adel’s house very clearly. One time, we even had Adel take a look beforehand to make sure he was 100 percent OK with everything. But the participants more or less knew what was shot and knew what they revealed. We didn’t have any incidents where anyone felt that their security was compromised because of what was shown in any videos.

Do you send the audio out for mixing or is it done in the editing application?
All the audio mixing was done in Avid on our system by Barrett and Will. We run a lean production machine!

Since the footage could never be re-created; do you have a back-up process for tapes and media and if so what is it?
We have two digital backups for everything. We have everything on VHS as well. And we keep the originals safe. They are not used for anything anymore. I am very interested in making miniDV or Beta backups of everything but we don’t have the facilities or budget at this time. For now, I will just guard the storage closet with extreme vigilance.

Is there a story outline given for the different episodes and does the producer or director or a writer produce that?
Well, as I said, we made sure to follow stories while shooting. And clearly, the Iraqi director Ziad Turkey and the Iraqi producer Fady Hadid were shaping some stories in their minds when they scheduled shoots and did the shooting. The executive producers, Kate Hillis and Laurie Meadoff, and I also spoke with Fady daily during the production so we knew pretty much everything being shot. And we would give recommendations on certain stories that we wanted to see play out. One immediate example: Adel pointed out a graffiti he had done on his campus in one of the tapes. Fady mentioned this to me, and I said that if Adel does graffiti, it’d be great to see him actually doing it and talking about it. So Fady asked him to invite the crew along next time he went writing graffiti. And that is how we ended up with “Anger. Pain. Death. Madness.” Also, an enormous amount of credit should go to Barrett Hawes. He sat there and pored through every tape figuring out the best way to put it together in 2-3 minute segments. So much of it came together in the edit. But much of that of course, was sketched out in advance and discussed among all of us on the American production team.