Interview with Chris Ambolino

Chris Ambolino is a filmmaker and president of 7.31 Productions & The Dream Alliance.

WG: Chris, your work as a filmmaker is unusual in its focus on working with people with physical disabilities. Can you describe how you got involved in this kind of work?

CA: What initially got me involved with educating individuals with physical disabilities about my industry (film and video production), was the obvious void I detected of a hands-on and nurturing environment where each could learn the various production skill sets & exciting aspects of production. But I didn't want to merely showcase it all. Rather, empower them to want to learn and adopt these aptitudes and create their own films and videos, born from their own visions and creative energy. What led me here, I would say, was my own personal experience growing up caring for a father who was disabled. My sensitivity to this issue had, and continues to be, something I am very fervid about. I have always worked with underserved populations in this capacity, but knew my focus needed to be on the disabled, because it was a world I understood from intense personal experience. I always have, and continue to believe, that one way to make ambulatory or non-disabled people NOT see the disability before the person, is through art and wildly creative expression. Video and film production is certainly just one way to do this. And I must say, looking at the host of award winning, successful productions I have had the privilege to collaborate on with Inglis House and many other organizations, we have without a doubt succeeded in making an impact.

WG: Can you walk us through a sample film project that you have done with a group of people who have physical disabilities?

CA: I'm assuming that you are referring to my process, which is different depending on population, time frame, budget, etc...using Inglis House as a guide I will work form that. However, at the risk of losing sight of exercising some brevity here, I will do my best to lay it out.

My approach to any film/video program begins with one simple question I have for the group I am working with....what story do you want to tell? Does the student want to make a film and if so, what genre? A commercial? If so, what is the product? A visual art piece? I could go on..but you get the idea. Once it's identified what the student wants to make, then the process begins of how to guide them and empower them with the proper disciplines on how to create it. Physical ability is normally not a factor for me. It's certainly a consideration, but never viewed as a detriment or an obstacle that could potentially undermine the project or hinder the student from execution of the piece. It is merely part of the person, of the artist, so it may or may not become part of the final product. Often times, it does not. Each piece is simply defined as an artist / filmmaker who wants to tell their story..cut and dry.

As for process, I apply a linear approach. A student cannot initiate a script without an outline, cannot begin casting without identifying characters, cannot call "Action!" until they understand the basics of camerawork, lighting and audio. So that is where we start. Here is a quick breakdown....

  1. Identify the creative desires and visions of the group
  2. Decide if the group will collaborate on a single film/video or create a series of them
  3. Determine project length
  4. Brainstorm, collaborate, get all the ideas, likes and dislikes out on the table
  5. Create a solid outline
  6. Write the script
  7. Determine locations to film in, props needed, actors
  8. Cast actors
  9. Create Production Schedule
  10. Hold technical workshops (ie. Teach about camera, lighting, audio, camera
  11. framing and different types of shots and techniques)
  12. Begin production
  13. Post Production / Editing

This is obviously a very rudimentary explanation of it but hopefully enough that you can get started and interpolate as needed.

WG: Chris, I'm sure that in the actual process of filming you have to make adaptations for people who have limited use of hands or may have visual issues. What are some of the adaptations that you have had to make in order to allow members of group to be an active part of the filming process.

CA: Yes, I've had to make quite a few over the years and cater it specifically to the populations I am working with. The process I currently employ works but I am consistently refining it b/c no two people or disabilities are alike. What I am currently doing is making use of some tools of my trade to adapt the video cameras to wheel chairs. I accomplish this but using two heavy duty, adjustable grip heads that can accommodate the weight of the camera, plus the addition of other occasionally used pieces of equipment such as on-board microphone, monitors and remote pan / tilt heads. As for the remote pan/tilt heads, as it is a key piece to make it easier for the residents to "move" the camera, I have decided as of late, to have the individual use their wheelchair pan and tilt functionality. I do for this for a few reasons. First and foremost, it keeps them engaged and committed to what's happening. They can't rely on just pushing a button and letting the remote system do the work for them...they have to do it. By allowing them to use their chairs, the process becomes one of experience rather than observation. The entire person and chair become the mechanism by which the camera is controlled. If they want the camera to pan to the right, then they need to turn the wheelchair to the right. If they want to tilt up to re-frame a shot, then the entire chair and person must tilt. It makes them more responsible to what is seen in the viewfinder and captured.

As for those with visual issues, depending on the severity, I generally make sure to have different size monitors for each to watch the action as well as have them wear headphones so that the experience is more visceral and therefore, keeps them more engaged in what is happening around them.

One thing I would like to craft or explore to see if it works, is a voice activated pan/tilt system for the camera as well as the ability to tell it when to record and how one would like to frame the shot. The technology is there for it, but I am not aware of any resources or beta testing that may exist for one. Definitely a gap that myself and my colleagues could fill.

WG: I think it is interesting, though not surprising, that you find some gaps in the technology that you use in as much as it is geared for able-body people. Have you found that other filmmakers are interested in using the adaptations that you’ve made in your work with people with disabilities.

CA: The short answer to this question is no. I wish I could say that I get flooded with calls and emails of people inquiring how to augment equipment so that people with disabilities can do what it is I am doing, but unfortunately I don't. I think part of that is to be blamed on the lack of promotion around the technological aspect of what I do with the populations so I take much of the responsibility for that lack of self-promotion. It has always been about the work and end project and that is truly all that people see. They know that the individuals behind the creation and it's execution are individuals with physical disabilities and the work stands as a great testament to their fortitude, creative drive and willingness to prevail, but it is and should be equally important to see HOW they do it. Thankfully, the project that I am doing for PATF, with help from the Inglis House residents film group, we are creating a behind the scenes video to coincide with a promo I am making for PATF. This will be the first video (other then the, The Dream Alliance promo video) that showcases the resident artists / filmmakers in action. It is going to be exceptional and an important story to what we are all trying to accomplish.

WG: What exactly is PATF and what is the project that you are doing for them?

CA: PATF stands for, Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation and they provide, among many things, financial opportunities for older Pennsylvanians and people with disabilities, to help them acquire assistive technology devices and services that improve their lives. They are based out of King of Prussia and I met them while filming interviews of the winners of Inglis Houses' ACE Award, of which they were a nominee and winner. The Executive Director, Susan Tachau, witnessed the work I was doing with residents, filming the award ceremony last year. She was so impressed at the level and skill that the residents possessed and were executing with the camera systems affixed to their chairs, and immediately insisted that this was in fact a type of assistive technology. She was so excited at the prospect of what was happening that she not only desired more info on The Dream Alliance/Inglis House collaboration, but wanted PATF to be part of it too. Initially she hired me thru my personal video production company, 7.31 Productions, LLC, to create a promotional video for PATF and the launch of their new website. But then we brainstormed to discover a way to showcase the involvement of people with disabilities who were to assist me on the project. The best way to do this was thru a behind-the-scenes video that will accompany the PATF promo video. I also choose one of the Inglis residents to serve as an apprentice to me on the promo and thru the help of my assistant, Jeremy, also coordinating about 6 resident s to serve as crew and production team for the BTS video. Both are currently in production.

WG: Can you describe a few of the films that you have made and talk about the receptions that they have had by the public or other film makers?

CA: The last few films were as different from one another as the welcomed differences between my fellow filmmakers. The last three programs I directed were a compilation video series, a comedy with a twist, and a documentary film. The first was a delightful mix of pieces containing a visual arts message, a commercial and an infomercial. They were shorter pieces, but more manageable and the class was able to really able to sink their proverbial teeth into all aspects of production. This endeavor and the work each performed laid the foundation for them to take on a project more substantial. This was a film, not just a video. It was a tale that taught them 3 act story arch structure. It had narrative, comedy and suspense. It was an intellectual film that never strayed too far from being light hearted. After providing the students a taste of visual art, commercial and narrative structure, it was time to take on an entire new beast...the documentary. Definitely our most ambitious work to date. The time commitment, research required, material gathering, focus, scheduling and logistics of interviews and scripts were by far made this film the most demanding by far. It was a new frontier for all involved, and being that I come from a background in making documentaries, I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about the prospect of the class taking something like this on. But despite the huge time commitment of over a year, the amount of materials we need to gather and film / photograph, and the interviews we had to was a huge success.

To answer the second part of that, all the projects have always been well received and in fact, have been recognized regionally for their artist value. Almost all have garnered some sort of filmmaking award and all have been featured on Comcast On Demand as well as being featured on local television stations. The reception to the films has been a very positive one and we have had the pleasure of experiencing this upon accompanying the work to area screenings and festival on occasion. The best part for me is directly at the end of the film, after the applause, were other filmmakers come up to us and ask questions about what they've just witnessed. It is thru their questioning that I feel their respect and appreciation for what the resident's have done. And it has NOTHING to do with their disability, but EVERYTHING to do with the decisions they made as an artist.

WG: You spoke of one of your projects as "a new frontier for those involved"? What other frontiers to you see out there for people with disabilities who want to work in film production? What are some of your own future plans?

CA: This is a question that is posed to me often, and something I have been considering myself for quite some time as I believe that much of the work that I have been doing is providing some robust foundations for exploring this question and proving that the answer to it is contrary to what many people may think in part to their own ignorance and stereotypical beliefs. All of the work that we have created and produced thus far, especially the latest work I am doing, provides definitive proof that given the opportunity, education and proper tools, anyone with a physical disability can carry out a number of relevant film / video capacities. There are some limitations to what a person with a major physical disability can do, and I realize that. One may not be able to climb a ladder and hang a light, but they can serve as a Director of Photography and dictate the design and look of a scene, and ultimately decide how a scene should be lit. Disability or not, a production is not an individual or isolated affair. It demands a tremendous degree of collaboration and team work. This is predicated not just on physical ability to execute it, but more then that, mental and creative functionality. I believe that if a disabled person wants to work a camera, then a device outfitted properly, can enable a person to work a camera and capture an event, film an interview....tell a story. The frontier right now is empty as it pertains to this. But should be seen as a good thing, not a negative commentary and reflection on people's perception of the disabled. Because this is a moment of great opportunity. But don't be dejected by this. This is a time to ignite new ideas, embrace change, and realize the truth....that any person can do this. ANY PERSON. Whether they do it or not should not be dictated by a societal standard, but rather, individual desire. Again, with the right guidance, equipment augmentation, and proper direction, a person can learn the craft, just like anyone who desires learning something new and being able to take command of it. The behind the scenes video currently in production will undoubtedly extinguish any speculation that film and video production is a spectator sport for the disabled.

WG: Chris, I want to thank you for an interesting and informative interview.