Q&A: Jessica Sherry, “Lawn Painting” and Going Viral
Portland-based Storyhunter Jessica Sherry wanted to find a unique way to cover the drought in California. She pitched several stories to an AJ+ assignment on Storyhunter, and one idea stood out.
The resulting video “Drought Hacking: Lawn Painting” went viral on AJ+’s Facebook page, racking up over nearly 500,000 shares (at the time this post was written).
Jessica has since been commissioned through Storyhunter to produce two more stories about the drought: another video for AJ+, and a longer video for MSNBC.
We caught up with Jessica to learn more about the making of this viral success.
Storyhunter: How did you come across this story?
Jessica Sherry: This story idea actually came from AJ+ originally. I was really interested in the California drought, especially untold perspectives on it. I approached AJ+ with several drought stories and after discussing my pitches, the commissioning editor Geoff mentioned that he had seen some people painting their brown lawns green in San Francisco and how weird it was. I thought it was weird too. AJ+ wanted to capture a smaller slice of big news stories, told with a smile, and lawn painting fitted well with that idea. I did some research on the story and pitched a more developed version through the Storyhunter website.
SH: How did you find a character to shoot?
JS: I got in touch with pretty much every lawn painting company in Southern California and I got a few responses. I was particularly interested in Fresno, because I knew they had been hit hard with the drought and the city had a lot of water restrictions. When I spoke to Josh Cox, I thought he was a great charter for this, He was naturally down-to-earth, young and friendly, so he was perfect.
SH: What was your thought process for shooting this story?
JS: I thought the most important part of this video would be to show the brown lawn turning to green in the most obvious way possible. I knew we wanted to have a time lapse in the final video because this would really show the lawn before and after, and I wanted closeups to emphasize the lawn’s transformation on the blade by blade level. I also wanted some active, handheld, point of view shots, to keep the story moving. I focused on these three elements and tied them together with the sit down interview.
SH: Was it tough to shoot this, and get the results you wanted?
JS: It was very hot when we shot the video — about 100 degrees — so that was an issue. I also really wanted to get some close-ups of the paint dramatically changing the lawn color but the wind kept blowing the paint towards the camera so I was a bit worried the paint would get on the lens. Josh is also a fast painter, so there wasn’t much time to get all the shots I wanted to make a dynamic video.
SH: Your video did extremely well on Facebook! Why do you think it went viral?
JS: I think a lot of people have brown lawns now so they can relate. I also think the story has a really simple premise, but is still something that people haven’t heard about and is fun to watch. AJ+ chose the music and text design, both of which I think really add to the fun and energetic tone of the piece. Mostly though, I think this video just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
SH: You’re based in Portland but got commissioned for several stories about the drought in California. What was your strategy?
I like to travel and sometimes I find interesting stories that are near-ish, but would require some travel expenses. In this case, I was really interested in the California drought and I found a variety of drought stories that I pitched to several different publications on Storyhunter. I wanted to get a few stories commissioned, so I could pay for the travel costs and still make a profit. AJ+ greenlit two stories about the drought, MSNBC greenlight one, and I shot another story on my own that I hope to put together into a piece for acquisition. It’s always complicated planning a shoot like this, with several stories to balance, because it doesn’t leave you much flexibility to change anything. I try to leave a little wiggle room in case things don’t go as planned, but I also want to be on location for as short of a time as possible to keep costs down. For me, the most complicated time comes when I return home, because I have several stories to edit and all the publishers want them as soon as possible, so that’s a balancing act as well.
SH: Lastly, tell us about your gear kit.
JS: I have a Canon 5D Mark II camera with a few different lenses (24–105mm, 70–200mm, 16,35mm). I love my handheld rig that I shoot everything with, the Redrock Micro theEvent and I also have a lightweight Manfrotto tripod. Essential to this piece was a GoPro Hero4 Silver, which I stuck on a light stand and set to time lapse (and from which I pulled my #storyhunting photos). I also have a Zoom H4N wireless mic for recording the interview and a small Rode shotgun mic mounted on the camera for nat sound.
Jessica has been working in the documentary industry for over a decade, for clients including National Geographic, Discovery Channel, PBS, and MSNBC. Through Storyhunter, she’s completed over 10 assignments for some of those partners.
In addition, she’s directed the feature documentary, Waiting for John, about America’s extraordinary impact on a remote South Pacific island and the last surviving Cargo Cult, funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The film is scheduled to screen in festivals and air on PBS. She likes elephants, snails, and the color blue.