Spotlight – New York: 1,000 Feet to Victory
A school project gets wheels and a film crew to document how success can inspire even more success.
By Miles Weston
It might be hard to believe that a youngster can enhance his or her self-image and develop a new set of goals in just 1,000 feet, but photojournalist/video editor Steve Eisen saw it again and again working on the 1,000 Feet Project.
Eisen first heard about the project a few years ago from a New York-based director friend, Chris Gale. Gale called him and asked for his creative assistance on a nonprofit film project. It was going to be a documentary on how participating in the annual Soapbox Derby was helping youngsters in one of the city’s rougher neighborhoods.
The local time trials, measured in tenths of a second, determined which were the best machines and drivers.
Teachers at PS 57 in New York’s Staten Island wanted to make classes, especially science, technology, engineering, and math, more interesting to their students. What they did was launch a year-long project to produce a vehicle and compete in the annual Soapbox Derby in Akron, Ohio. Five teams of students designed, engineered, produced, and raced their vehicles locally. The top racers then competed in the Derby.
“As a photojournalist, working for all of the major networks for more than 20 years, I’ve covered the darker side of neighborhoods such as the one the kids were growing up in,” Eisen noted. “And I’ve also covered how competitive sports can make a big difference in their lives. So when Chris explained what he had seen with his own eyes, I thought I really had to be a part of the project and help get the story out to the world. I just didn’t realize how it would impact me as well.”
Once Gale had convinced Eisen to handle the double duties of the crew’s DIT (data wrangler and off-loader) and B camera, he focused on bringing together the rest of the crew. Key members included two respected DPs, Steven Smith and Jeffrey Clark, with Barry Rubinow signing on as editor for the 1,000 Feet Project.
Early this year, the complete 20-person crew finalized the script and shot list and gathered the cameras, lighting, and special equipment for the project. By spring, the crew had visited the school more than a dozen times to get video background from the teachers and the kids and to document the various stages of preparing the racers.
Patricia Lockhart, a teacher at Staten Island’s PS 57, came up with the program to make STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—interesting, fun and important to her students. “We provided a lot of assistance and advice,” said Lockhart. “But the project was all theirs and they quickly became very serious about producing the best racers possible.”
What she didn’t tell the students was that her goal was to let them learn from each other how important the STEM courses were in their everyday lives and how they could put that education to practical use. “I’m not sure who had more fun with the project, the kids or the production crew,” Eisen recalls. “While capturing the expressions on the kids’ faces, all of us on the crew wanted to set the cameras and equipment down and give them a hand. But we resisted and at the end of each day of shooting, we knew we had great content—but we were exhausted.”
Eisen explains that the main cameras were two AJA 4K CIONs, while as second unit DP he shot with a Panasonic Lumix GH4, format ProRes 4444 23.98. As DIT (digital imaging tech) on the project, the director emphasized it was Eisen’s task to ensure they saved every byte of the content they were creating at 4GB/min. At the end of each day of shooting, Eisen moved the content from the cameras to an Other World Computing (OWC) 32Tb ThunderBay 4 storage system. “Because it was a zero-budget project, we accumulated ten different hard drives full of great video that I needed to save and protect,” Eisen says. “I couldn’t take any chances. I did what any smart data wrangler would do; I moved everything to a RAID storage solution.”
Next, he had to turn to the tough, unglamorous job of logistics. The crew had tons of gear (lenses, tripods, lights, sound equipment, filters, SteadiCam, and associated equipment) that had to be taken to the location, packed up, and secured every day. Eisen remembers numerous days he would rack up 150 miles on his car just driving people back and forth to the hotel, grocery store, or other locations.
After a week of timed trials, the crew took a break during which they edited and posted their first preview video to YouTube and prepared for the national competition in Akron. At the end of the local trials, Eisen loaded up his vehicle with all of the equipment, storage, and gear and drove to meet the rest of the crew. While the competition was all about the kids, the crew was cheering almost as loud as the parents.
“I’ve always been attracted to feel-good-from-the-heart productions,” Eisen admits, “and I’ve done a few documentaries in that genre. But this project was really special to me because I was able to help show that underprivileged youth can have the same opportunities as other youngsters if they’re given the right guidance and assistance.”
The crew worked with teachers and school staff as well as the kids (Left) and at the end of a long day Bob Bettis (Right) takes a quick break to rejuvenate himself.
Students put all of the creativity possible into the design and production of their soapbox racers. Eisen won’t say whether one of the PS 57 contestants won this year’s National Soapbox Derby because he doesn’t want to spoil the film’s ending. “But I will tell you, each kid looked and acted different at the end of the 1,000-foot run,” he acknowledges. “Whether they came in first or second on their run, they were changed. It was a competition, but every one of them genuinely congratulated each other. They worked together on the racers. They shared ideas and information. They are looking toward tomorrow and I know it’s going to have a lasting, positive impact on their lives. It’s the kind of project every photojournalist and filmmaker wants to be a part of.”
Miles Weston has spent more than 30 years in the storage, software, and video industry.