Video Project: Tree of Heaven

Matthew and I have joked about creating a hosted educational nature documentary style video series for years, but you know how life goes… we never got around do it. Our original idea for beginning the video series was a profile of Ailanthus altissima (Tree of Heaven), which he studied for his Masters degree.

When I asked him to choose the one plant we were most likely to find in our hometown of Baltimore AND in our travels to Beijing, Xi’an, and Shenzhen in late July, he surprisingly suggested Tree of Heaven. He remembered seeing the tree in Beijing and Xi’an when collecting Kudzu there four years ago… and lucky for us, the ecosystem remained unchanged when we visited!

To begin, we took a quick walk around our northern Baltimore neighborhood to find the best specimen (our landlord recently removed the Tree of Heaven in our backyard), and found a 20-year old tree growing through a chain-link fence with clonal shoots spreading out for at least 20 meters in either direction. Perfect!

Geared up, we went back to that area during golden hour, only to find the guy across the street mowing his lawn and a storm rolling in overhead. Not wanting to waste any time, Matthew practiced everything he wanted to say and I filmed as much B-Roll as I could think of before the wind became too insane.

We tried again the next evening to find a much quieter atmosphere. With my H4n mounted on the hotshoe of my Nikon D800, I handheld to film.

During our first day in China, we spotted a few Ailanthus individuals. The tree seemed common enough that we agreed to put off filming until we found an individual during golden hour in a quiet area. The moment came as we explored the city wall surrounding Xi’an, China’s ancient capital. One Tree of Heaven grew next to an alcove in the wall that most tourists were passing by, so I grabbed my phone and we spent a few minutes filming before continuing our tour.

Back at home, I brought all of my footage into Premiere. I first layed out all of Baltimore my video files on V1/A1, their corresponding audio files on A2, and sent the sequence to PluralEyes for synchronization. After opening the synced sequence with audio replaced in Premiere, I scrubbed through the timeline and used Cmd+K to cut out just the sections I wanted for my story arc. Since we filmed out of sequence, I had to do a fair bit of rearranging of clips even after cutting the fat.

With the basic arc in place, I opened my Video bin in thumbnail view and scrubbed through all of the B-Roll clips, marking my ins and outs for later use. I chose a wide pan for the intro shot to in each location to establish sense of place. Then I added a couple of close ups when they better illustrated the subject than the A-Roll currently in place, and to cover jump cuts created when I removed pauses in the audio.

Next, I opened Premiere’s Color tab and attempted to give some life to the Nikon footage. Nikons aren’t known for their beauty when it comes to video, and I’m used to editing flat Sony S-Log2 footage, both facts leading to a less than ideal final product. Next, I added some of my favorite Light Leaks, one over each establishing shot to add a bit of depth and magic.

Then I created lower third graphics in Illustrator, using a left aligned version for place names and a right aligned version with background for people & plant names. I used keyframes in the Effects Control panel to animate the graphics sliding on and off screen.

Lastly, I added a music track from Audio Jungle called Beautiful Sky, that I feel ads layers of wonder and positivity to the piece. The Music Standard License is only $19 on Audio Jungle, which is great for a 3-minute piece!

Before exporting, I watched the video several times through, adjusting transitions and the length of onscreen graphics until everything felt just right.

I hope we get to film more together.