Q&A: Carlos P. Beltran, On Eating Ants And Successful Freelancing
Q&A: Carlos P. Beltran, On Venezuela And Successful Freelancing
As the economic and political crisis intensified in Venezuela in 2014, demand for commercial video dried up. Filmmaker Carlos P. Beltran saw his most lucrative gigs with Venezuelan ad agencies disappear.
So he joined Storyhunter and took his first foray into journalism with a commission by Fusion to cover the anti-government street protests. His true passion is for documentary-style storytelling, but he didn’t think he would have enough clients to do it regularly.
Thanks to a great review on his first assignment, Carlos has since completed eight projects on Storyhunter for publishers such as AJ+, Streemfire, Discovery Digital Networks, Shift by MSNBC, and, most recently, National Geographic.
Storyhunter: Describe the different approaches you take when producing something lighter, like a video portrait of Miami, versus covering illegal beer smuggling or street protests in Caracas.
Carlos P. Beltran: I began my career as a photographer (when owning a 35mm analog camera wasn’t just a hipster thing), and I learned the difference between form and content from the get-go. When I’m producing lighter stories, I make it all about composition and rhythm. If it looks nice and feels nice, I can call it a good light cheerful piece, like the one I shot in Miami. In those cases, form comes first.
When I’m going for something gritty and underground, content trumps all. I pay more attention to my interviews, always looking for those perfect soundbites that will cause an impact paired up with footage that I might’ve recorded with a crappy cellphone or a shaky camera. It’s like a switch I flip, I can go from delicate to morbid depending on how I want to tell a story.
SH: You’ve jumped around from place to place, pitching stories in different countries. How do you plan these trips?
CPB: I move around a lot because I love experiencing new places (and because I don’t have children or other grown-up responsibilities which would prevent me from doing so). Even though I plan my trips at least a couple of months in advance, I find it better to just get to the place, meet people, hear stories from locals and then pitch the interesting ones. Working with Storyhunter has allowed me to travel and work in a more convenient way. If I’m not in the U.S., I usually look for “global” assignments on the platform and pitch away. I want to keep doing so for at least another two to three years. I don’t want to settle down yet.
SH: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of working as a freelance filmmaker?
CPB: One word: deadlines. I’ve spent a year working solely on mini docs for networks such as Discovery, Al Jazeera, Univision, and they all have strict deadlines. The real challenge has been to find a point where I can produce a visually stunning and compelling documentary-style piece, AND deliver it promptly. These are not run-and-gun, quick turnaround breaking news pieces. They’re fully-produced videos that need to tell the story, entertain and do it in under 5 minutes. With practice, you learn how to manage pre-production more efficiently, and shoot a story in a day or two instead of spending a week on the field. I’ve learned how to get what I need from interviews faster, which has saved me from hours of worthless yapping on camera and thus, my turnaround times have been shortened significantly.
SH: Cool. What’s your secret for getting the best soundbites?
CPB: I find that spending 2–3 minutes having a light conversation with the person I’m interviewing can significantly relax him or her. Also, I never use the word “interview.” If the interviewee hasn’t had much experience being on camera, that word alone can be intimidating. I merely call it “having a conversation.” I also explain to them that the sit-down will only take 10 to 15 minutes (unless you’re interviewing the Pope and asking him about the meaning of life, 15 minutes should be enough to get the soundbites you need). If the person goes on a tangent but manages to hit on something interesting meanwhile, I just kindly, and firmly, tell them that I’d like to focus on that specific issue. I also reassure them that it is perfectly fine to sound conversational — specially if I’m talking with a field expert (they love throwing numbers and statistics every chance they get!). So basically I push myself to get what I need in 15 minutes. It’s a self-imposed rule that’s proven to work well and has saved me hours of editing time.
SH: Your latest piece was for National Geographic. We heard you’re a big fan.
CPB: I remember falling asleep watching NatGeo’s nature shows on TV when I was just a kid. That logo, the yellowish rectangle, has always represented the most iconic sense of adventure for me. Naturally, when my story got the green light, I was quite intimidated, despite of all my years of experience shooting for several other national and international networks. Luckily, National Geographic’s editors were very kind, receptive and guided me throughout the editing process with some detailed feedback. I always go the extra mile to produce great content for every network I work for, but it’d be accurate to say that I tried to go an 5 extra miles for this piece. I’m happy to know they were quite pleased with the end product.
SH: How did you pitch this story — what elements did you include to make your case on this competitive assignment?
CPB: I felt the story had many elements that NatGeo represents: adventure, nature… and close-ups of weird looking critters. In my pitch I was very specific about the visuals I could get. I talked about drone footage of wonderful waterfalls and open forests, the exotic community we would visit and the fact that I would of course have someone try the kumache sauce on camera. I figured audiences would either be intrigued by the process of making this aboriginal delicacy, or they would love watching someone else make funny faces while eating insects. Two weeks later, I was flying to the Amazon with a drone operator, my producer, and a friend that had asked to tag along… she would be the one to try kumache on camera. (In the end, both of them made me try the thing!).
SH: Tell us about the production process. Did you work by yourself or with producers? How many days was the shoot?
Traveling logistics are not my “forte,” let alone trying to do it in Venezuela. It can be quite difficult to get around in this country, there are frequent flight shortages and other transportation hassles. So I worked with a wonderful producer who was quite experienced in scheduling flights/transportation and organizing the shoot throughout. I also hired a drone operator for aerial shots. In total, we shot for three quick days within the indigenous community of Kumarakapay, plus two days worth of traveling. Five production days total.
SH: What was the most difficult aspect of shooting this piece?
We’d heard that it had been raining a lot in the Amazon. Our budget only allowed us to shoot for three days within the Kumarakapay community, and we had already booked our flights and vans. Just to give you an idea, it takes a flight and 7 hours on the road to get to the community and it had all been set up and scheduled for our return. So we couldn’t reschedule. Once we were down there and ready to shoot, it rained. For two days! So, we had to shoot basically twice as fast. We got the aerial shots done in one day, and managed to do the interviews within the brief span of good weather that we had. We hustled. But I was lucky to have a great team and interviewee who was cooperative. Plus, the community treated us very well (the kids loved the camera and the drone), so stress wasn’t always a problem. I survived. It was worth it!
SH: What is your best advice for other freelance video journalists?
Sometimes you’ll produce stories for the money. Sometimes you’ll produce them just for the sake of telling the story. Even though we all need to make a living and eat (and buy that pretentious boat that’s on my bucket list), I find the best stories are done simply for the passion of storytelling. Find and pitch the stories you’re most passionate about!
Want to see Carlos’ gear kit? Check it out here.
Want to watch other stories that Carlos has produced through Storyhunter? Here are a few…