Editing for Social Impact: How I Saved the San Gabriel Mountains

(You can also read and comment on this at CreativeCOW.net)

(Okay, maybe the headline is a LITTLE strong, but I HELPED.)

In the world of corporate video, the opportunity to make a positive impact on the world didn’t come around often for me. I know that’s not true for many people in the “corporate video” world, which is a general term I could use to mean anything from industrial how-toe or non-profit event highlight reels. But in my little piece of that land, my videos were generally not going to make a change that would last for future generations. At least, not a positive one.

When I started working on the PBS series This American Land, I finally got the opportunity to see what it was like to work on content with consequences in the real world, specifically the natural world and everything in it. The two seasons I’ve spent on it have been focused on the angle of people working toward a greater good to solve an issue — an endangered species, shrinking wild land, or polluted river.

In 2013, I edited a segment about the San Gabriel Mountains in southern California. The San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign was trying to get the area designated as a national monument so it would be protected from development in the same way other natural lands are in the United States, and with its proximity to Los Angeles, the conservation of the area for providing drinking water and green space is important. It was kind of a tough edit because, to put it delicately, the field producing wasn’t tops. The executive producer (who did not produce the segment) was worried we wouldn’t have what we needed because it was pretty rough, but he gave it to over to me with the hopes I could find the story. We emailed back and forth a couple of times about the mission of the piece and what they hoped to accomplish, and I dug in without a script or guide or notes and came back with a six minute piece called Backyard Wilderness. The EP was so glad I did what I did with it, he gave me the producer credit for the story.

Late last year (in 2014), I got a news alert on my phone that President Obama was going to designate the San Gabriel Mountains a national monument. I was like hey, whoa dude, I edited a thing about that and now it happened. Not to say my editorial work had any impact (or maybe it did, for the right people — it’s on the campaign’s main page and was broadcast nationally and all) but I’ve never felt that kind of connection between cutting a video and then seeing the direct outcome of that. I felt a smidgen of ownership in that because I had dived so deep in the material to draw out pieces of the story that would make the best case for the campaign.

People have been working on this for over a decade, and I’m sure it’s been hugely rewarding to finally see it come to fruition. My part of it coming in the final year before the designation was given is pretty cool too. I hope everyone in post-production gets the opportunity to edit something that has meaning beyond the half hour its broadcast to the world. It certainly gives you a new perspective when you’re still working on it.

Another edit I really enjoyed was about an area of West Virginia that contains the beginning of six watersheds that feed into bigger rivers downstream. Birthplace of Rivers is a campaign to designate this area a national monument, so the quality of drinking water can’t be affected by oil and gas development or other industries. This edit was another where I was given a bunch of stuff and a loose guide — not out of necessity but rather to see what I’d make with it — so it was another I’ve grown attached to. I hope Birthplace of Rivers will see the same kind of success as the San Gabriel Mountains.

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