4 min read

Q&A: Mike Shum, When All you Need is an iPhone and an Umbrella

Q&A: Mike Shum, When All you Need is an iPhone and an Umbrella
Mike Shum, “taking what comes at him”, shooting broll under his beach umbrella/iPhone rig.

Mike Shum was recently commissioned on Storyhunter by The Weather Channel to cover Tropical Storm Bill in Texas. They were so keen to work with him that they flew him out from Colorado to Texas — where he produced nine stories for weather.com.

We saw this photo of Mike (above) on social media and were intrigued.

Storyhunters: When editors told you they wanted you to shoot a story on an iPhone, what was your reaction?

Mike Shum: The assignment was to cover human interest stories as Tropical Storm Bill made landfall. I generally operate full-kit cinema camera rigs so, initially, I thought they were joking about using an iPhone. Then I realized they were being serious. It made sense though. They were looking for timely stories with a fast turnaround and felt that filing directly from my iPhone would be the best way to do it. The specifications were simple: solid audio, good details, and interesting stories. I welcomed the challenge knowing that the assignment would force me to focus on the story and not worry so much about the tech. There’s no doubt I walked into a storm. People were scared due to flooding, lighting storms, etc. Tropical Storm Bill was no joke.

SH: You basically created a rig attached to a beach umbrella. Tell us how you came up with that.

MS: The rig was definitely a Frankenstein-like creation. I knew I needed an umbrella as well as a way to stabilize the iPhone. With the help of friends in the Houston area, Alex Georgi and Neal Richards, we came up with a number of things that led to this rig. Neal lent me his beach umbrella. Alex donated a piece that served as a camera mount used mainly for GoPro cameras. I knew I needed something to attach to the umbrella so I could interview people while keeping the iPhone dry. We dropped by Walmart not thinking we’d hoping to find something to hold the phone. I credit Alex for spotting a selfie-stick that we eventually took apart to attach to the umbrella. I remember the Walmart employee saying: “I’ve never been proud of selling selfie-sticks until this very moment. Bravo Weather Channel. Bravo”.

We put the pieces together and voila, I had an iPhone rig that I could use in the rain.

Mike Shum takes a selfie with his beach umbrella rig.

SH: You produced in total six short stories about the tropical storm in Texas. How did you come across all those characters?

I went looking for people to talk to whether at the local diner or just people in flooded areas. I talked to people about their troubles and what they were going through. The most difficult part was the actual discovery of stories. I had to talk to enough people to get a good sense of when there was a story and when there wasn’t. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I went in deciding that, “I’m going to do this and I’ll take what comes at me”.

The one story that stopped me in my tracks was a man in El Campo, TX who said his company wanted a letter from the city proving that his street was flooded to the point where he couldn’t make it to work, essentially the equivalent to providing a doctor’s note. That was pretty unreal.

“Texas Man Gets Official Flood Excuse to Save His Job”

SH: How did the assignment go? Was it harder or easier than you thought it would be?

MS: The assignment went well. I was able to produce 6 packages over the course of 3 days. I sent the footage from my phone and they pieced it together at HQ. Surprisingly it was easier than I expected. I attribute that to the quick and efficient workflow the people at The Weather Channel generated. They had a clear line of communication and were very clear about what they needed from me on the ground.

SH: What kind of stories do you usually cover?

MS: I cover a wide range of stories. More recently, stories in and around Colorado, here in the U.S. But I’ve worked abroad, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, e.g. Congo (DRC), Rwanda, West Africa. I was in Libya during the fall of Tripoli and in Iraq during the rise of ISIS.

Mike Shum is a video journalist and documentary filmmaker currently based in his hometown of Denver, Colorado. His first video through Storyhunter was a story about Colorado’s struggle to legalize medical marijuana for The Economist. He is one half of Fox Tale Films, a production company he began in 2013 with the writer and filmmaker Greg Campbell. Their company is producing two feature-length films, one about the photojournalist Chris Hondros and another about warlords in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He also works in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, where he shot the award-winning (and Emmy-nominated) “Surviving an ISIS Massacre”, for The New York Times.