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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Searching for Aptera's Ghost - My 2015 Halloween Project

Spoiler alert: watch the above documentary before reading the essay below.
Check out the Aptera Blog for voiceover transcript

Everyone who works at Aptera has a few traits in common. If you tell one of us we have to perform some task, no matter how complicated, no matter how unfamiliar to us, we’ll immediately start breaking it down and laying out all the steps we need to take, all the resources we need to procure, and all the experts we need to involve. We know intuitively that when people proclaim their ignorance or lack of expertise, it’s seldom because they’re trying to help anyone plan more diligently or set more realistic expectations; more often, it’s because they’re trying to dodge responsibility. Complex projects have multiple moving parts, and no one can be an expert in every aspect of them. So, if you’re not confident in a particular skill set, you reach out to someone who is.

Another trait nearly every Aptera employee shares, one that I saw demonstrated several times over the course of filming our documentary, is an ability to give impromptu presentations that sound perfectly clear and professional. This could be something we develop in the myriad routine meetings we participate in where we take turns filling everyone in on what projects we’re working on, how much progress we’ve made, what obstacles we’re facing, and what the plan is for overcoming them. Alternatively, it may be a skill each of us had to possess before making it through the recruitment process.

Ron "Whitey" Leeuw
Indeed, I was impressed again and again when I showed up in my coworkers’ offices pointing a camera at them to find that it wasn’t just project-related topics they could speak to with such polished cogency. You can just as easily get articulate and compelling answers by posing questions like, “What all have you heard about the history of this building?” or “Has anything strange ever happened to you when you were here after hours?”

            So nearly everyone here is process-oriented, team-minded, and impressively eloquent. None of these traits precludes belief in, or enthusiasm for, the paranormal, but it takes more than a decent ghost story or two to impress most of us. Present us with a mystery, and we start laying out a plan for a systematic investigation. Like every plan, though, the ones we Aptera people come up with almost invariably run into a snag or two—or ten. The trouble we run into stems not just from our readiness to take on unfamiliar kinds of projects, no matter how formidably complex, but also from what I’d argue is an excess of faith in the powers of technology.

            The Aptera Ghost Project began as a melding of two earlier project ideas. Back in August, Raul Perez and I discussed collaborating on a Halloween story. Raul is one of Aptera’s graphic designers, and he showed me an earlier ghost story he’d lain out as a series of photographs posted online. The plan was for us to come up with another story together; I’d provide the text and help with ideas for staging the photos, and he would do the photography and edit the images.

            Not long after agreeing to the project with Raul, I had a conversation with James Swihart, a recently hired project manager, about our favorite Twilight Zone episodes. James had formerly been a DJ for 98.9 The Bear, and he told me he’d originally become interested in radio because he loved Rod Serling’s voice. Shortly after the conversation, he stopped by my office to propose we work together on a short video homage to a classic Twilight Zone episode. I loved the idea.
Raul, James, and Howdy looking for William White's grave

            I try to write a scary story myself for Halloween every year, so now I was left wondering how I could possibly find the time to work on three separate projects. The idea I had, after a few further discussions with Raul and James, was that we’d scrap the photo series and the Twilight Zone projects, along with my annual literary ghost story, and instead collaborate on a documentary about all the ghost sightings we’d heard about in the building where we work. Just like that, we were off and running.

            Originally, we envisioned two basic parts to the video. First, we’d conduct a series of interviews with all of our coworkers who’d experienced something strange in the building. Next, we’d do some research on the building’s history to see who, if anyone, might be haunting the place. James assured me he had plenty of experience with video editing, and Raul showed me a brief documentary he’d put together for a film editing class. I figured I would help with an outline and maybe some phrasing for lines in individual scenes, but since I had no film editing experience myself—and little skill with technology in general—I was relying on my partners to make something of all the footage we ended up with.

            None of us realized what we were getting into. James had the idea of publishing trailers on social media, complete with dates for the documentary’s release—giving us a hard deadline. Our excitement kept being piqued all the while by new discoveries about the building’s history. We were getting great material, and we all looked forward to the final product of our efforts. Then, with the deadline just two weeks away, we had a series of setbacks.

            The first disappoint was the ghost hunt we set up on October 16th. We can’t really blame the team of amateur ghost hunters who volunteered their time and energy to the undertaking. But the fact is we were less than impressed with the tools the team had to work with. The cameras we already had on hand were far better than the ones they brought. They had no night vision. Instead, they relied mostly on flashlights and hand-held recording devices. Of course, Aptera is a tech company, so they would’ve had to show up with some pretty cool gear to impress us. But we also quickly grew impatient with the highly casual nature of their approach, which consisted mainly of sitting around and calling out to the dark.

            After an eventless night in the building, our enthusiasm waned significantly. Things looked even bleaker after the ghost hunters informed us that their review of the video and audio footage had turned up nothing. We still had all the history we’d learned, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in thinking at this point that we needed to come up with some ideas for rescuing the project. It was on the weekend following the ghost hunt that I came up with what would become, after a few discussions with James and Raul, the end sequence of the video which culminates in me getting scared and running out of the building.

            Our excitement returned when we started editing our own footage from that night and discovered the mysterious sounds we cover in the documentary. But we soon ran into another major issue. Originally, we wanted the video to consist of interviews and conversations, developing naturally and informally in a style harking to The Blair Witch Project. The historical material we’d amassed, however, was too complicated and too copious to convey in this manner—at least in a video less than a couple of hours long.

            We were already in our last week before the deadline when it became clear we needed to overhaul our entire outline. Instead of relying on discussions and interviews to relay all the important information, we would have to convey it all through voiceovers. When I first signed on to the project, I imagined that, given my areas of expertise, I’d play my part early on, in the research and outlining stages. At some point, I expected to turn things over to the guys who could use the editing technology.

As it turned out, though, we were all three up to our elbows right to the last—and beyond. Though we were able to show our coworkers the documentary on Friday the 30th as we’d promised, we missed our deadline for going live online. I wrote most of the voiceover copy on Wednesday and Thursday. And I was still providing lines as late as Friday morning, while we all sat in Raul’s office until 3:30 am, sleep being the main casualty of poor planning. We even had to shoot more footage Thursday night.

I don’t think I was alone in being both relieved and delighted after the company viewing in Aptera’s basement. But our struggles weren’t quite over. There were still some issues we needed to address before we broadcasted it online. And we still had to export the file so it could be uploaded to YouTube. This ended up taking until late Saturday night, by which point we were all at the end of our patience and just happy to be done with the thing.

            Personally, I think we overestimated what the technology could do. I’d watched James whip together one of the trailers in about half an hour—and it looked really good. That was using iMovie. With a wizard like Raul sitting at the helm of Premier, I was sure we could turn what at first looked like boring footage into a fascinating documentary. Don’t get me wrong—the technology is amazing. We couldn’t have done much of anything without it. But, at least for now, technology can’t tell much of a story.

            By far the most difficult part of the project was arranging all the facts and information into a logical sequence, one that didn’t just get the historical details across but also told a story. That’s why even though I had no idea how to use the software I still needed to be in the room with the other guys, all of us pitching and evaluating each other’s ideas, right up till the end.

            Raul, James, and I were definitely getting on each other’s nerves by the time we were finished. But, looking back, it’s amazing to realize that there’s very little in the finished product that any of us can attribute to any one person involved. It was a true collaboration—every member of the team was indispensable. However worn out, and however loath we are to ever do anything like this again, I bet three days or three weeks from now, we’re going to look back on this project with pride and chuckle at our own hubris.

            I for one, though I’m painfully aware of every tripping line and every jagged transition, think the damn thing turned out pretty good. Was it worth all the late nights, frustration, tedium, and stress? Ask me again sometime next week. 

Halloween stories from earlier years:

The Fire Hoarder