Tim Matsui tells stories. A multimedia journalist by trade, his still photography projects have taken him from native Alaskan villages to Brazilian Air Force training facilities. His latest project documenting the lives of those impacted by sex trafficking in Seattle started life in still photography but when his access grew deeper, turned to video. The final product, called 'The Long Night,' debuts this week online. 

Matsui shares with us his journey in creating the film, from its beginnings in stills to the adaptations he made to turn it into a video production, sharing insights for prospective documentary filmmakers and photographers alike. Watch the trailer above and read our Q&A with the filmmaker. You can find see the full film at thelongnightmovie.com.

Tim Matsui. Photo by Frank Huster

DPR: First, tell us a little bit about your background as a photographer.

Tim Matsui: I’m not exactly sure when I quit my retail day job, but it was around the time of the 1999 WTO riots in Seattle. Then-reuters photographer Anthony Bolante hooked me up with Gamma-Liaison which lead to more assignments and international publication. Since then I’ve shot for various wires, agencies, magazines and corporations, but I’ve always kept at my personal projects. I went so far as to found a non profit and win a few grants to support this work. 

You say that initially this was a still photography project, what made you decide to switch to video?

The Alexia Foundation Women’s Initiative Grant is a photography grant, but they mentioned they’d support multimedia. I think I’ve always seen this as a video project, which was reinforced by my first night out with the cops. From that moment on, I made video the priority. That meant I lost a lot of still photo opportunities, but I think the video results will show the benefit of that sacrifice. 

I love stills, don’t get me wrong, but this story needed to be told on video. It gave the subjects their voice. 

What did you use to shoot? How did you adapt it for video recording?

I use what I have. It’s a typical photojournalist’s kit; two bodies and two zoom lenses. In my case, Canon EOS 5D Mk II’s, an old 28-70 F2.8 L series and a 70-200 F2.8 L. I’ve got other gear, but this is the primary.

For video, I use a Zacuto Z-finder and Gorilla Plate, which I stripped to its minimum. I modified the Z-finder with keeper strings and fastex clips so when I throw it over my shoulder I don’t lose the Z-finder or its eyecup. 

I also have a LockPort HDMI plate sandwiched between the Z-finder and the camera. It requires a custom-cut bolt to attach to the camera. This allows me to use either a Z-finder or a monitor and I don’t have to worry about breaking the camera’s HDMI input. I also found an adjustable shoulder strap from Think Tank to be quite useful with the camera.

For audio, I’m using a system devised by Scott Anger and Bob Sacha that incorporates a Sound Devices 302 Mixer, two Sennheiser lav mics and transmitters, and a shotgun mic on top of the camera. This lets me have three audio sources I monitor and cut down to two channels and lock those to the video file as Left and Right channels. 

I stuff the mixer, receivers, a Zoom H4N for backup audio, 1.4x extender, batteries, cards, etc. into a Think Tank Multimedia waist bag. It’s good, but I’d like to find a solution more like the Newswear vest that keeps the gear close to my body and above my waist and legs. Running and getting in and out of the cop cars was a bit difficult.

I also had the opportunity to use a Canon C100 a few times. It was quite nice, though I was wishing for the ergonomics of the C300 with its viewfinder and attachments. I still carried a 5D Mk II for stills. 

What other equipment did you use that enabled you to capture the footage for the film (e.g. lighting, camera supports, accessories…)?

With the exception of the interviews, I shot mostly handheld and with no supplementary light. I pushed the 5D II to its limits. Most of my filming was done at night, at times shooting in the dark at 3200 ISO, 30/sec, F2.8. It shows in the film, but it’s the gear I had. 

When you started working in video, did you find yourself having to unlearn any lessons from stills? Did your approach to shooting change?

I toyed with video on consumer handicams in Cambodia in 2007 and 2008, some of which was incorporated into my projects. I bought my first 5D II in 2008 and started learning how to use it for video. 

The biggest lessons for me were to hold my shots way longer than I thought, to let action enter and exit the frame, and to block out scenes; wide, medium, tight and to have enough shots and cuts to cover cuts in the audio I’d end up needing. 

You can never have enough b-roll when it comes to editing, so make sure you get as much as you can.

Did the use of a DSLR camera allow you to do things in this film that would have been difficult with a traditional film camera?

The biggest thing is I could shoot video and stills on the same platform. That’s amazing. The hardest part of it though is knowing when to do which. One will inevitably suffer and, in this case, I think it was the stills.

Were there any limitations to using a DSLR for this type of production?

It was pretty cinema verité. You’re there, in the moment, nothing is orchestrated, it’s all unfolding naturally. The DLSR was great for this. So was the C100; the are both compact platforms. One of the biggest benefits of the C100 is that I didn’t have to tote around the audio bag; my overall footprint was smaller. Oh, and the C100 has amazing light sensitivity. I wish I’d been able to use it more, but it was a loaner.

How would you summarize the difference between shooting stills and video from your point of view?

Shooting stills is like a vacation. It’s far less complicated.

With video, ideally you’re working in a team. Camera and audio, or two camera operators with one being the primary audio person. Adding sound and having to block out scenes is complicated. It’s not simply, “Hey, can you shoot some video too?” It requires planning, skill and teamwork. And because of the audio issue, even if you’re a team of two, you can’t shoot video and stills together. The clack of the mirror is too disruptive. 

There are some very sensitive scenes in the film. How did the subjects of the film respond to being filmed?

What allowed me to be with the subjects was the relationships and trust I’d built. I think the sensitive scenes you’re talking about are with Lisa, who is an addict. We talked about what her life is like and what kinds of visuals could represent that. Among other things, seeing her use was important.

On the first opportunity that arose, Lisa chose a fast food bathroom. I’d hired visual journalist Carey Wagner to run second camera that day and made the quick decision to have her shoot the scene in the women’s bathroom. Lisa didn’t know Carey and as I remember, her biggest concern was if Carey could keep it together. Lisa trusted me when I said Carey could. 

Similarly with the cops. A lot of stuff happened that didn’t make it in the film. As it affected the story and my work, I was privy to a lot of it. I don’t think they would’ve shared this with me, much less even worked with me, if I hadn’t been able to build a relationship with them and gain their trust. 

Photo by Tim Matsui.

The dealers and hustlers at the crack motel kind of steered clear when I had the camera out. The gear is a tool that can help you do your job better, but ultimately, it comes down to how you operate, as a person and as a journalist. Why are you there? What is your goal with the story? These things matter, even more so for the people who’ve opened their lives to you. 

Do you feel influenced by any particular filmmaker or style of filmmaking in your work?

I don’t think I’m well versed enough in the film world to speak to this. I certainly enjoy film, and some of it’s pretty mainstream. I like a beautiful and artsy film that challenges me, especially one which leaves me in a daze, pondering what I’ve watched. But at the same time, I’ve realized film is an important escape for me. I can check out, letting my mind spin down and relax. It’s one of the forms of self care I’ve developed over the years. 

What advice do you have for photographers and/or videographers looking to seek funding for a project like this?

Don’t. Not unless you’re prepared for the work. Or prepared to suffer. It’s going to be hard and you’re going to give up a lot. Make sure you have the energy to see it through, and then some. 

 Photo by Tim Matsui.

If you think you can, and want to give it a shot, plan out your story, write some practice grants, tell it to friends, try it out so when you get that 20 floor elevator ride you can say concretely, with conviction and knowledge, “This is the story I want to tell, it’s important to you because, and it’ll make a difference in these ways.”

What advice would you give for photographers looking to step into video?

I’d say rent and borrow and practice and read blogs and do-it-yourself reviews to determine, do you really need to buy whatever it is? You can make videos with a cell phone camera these days, so learn how to make a video, how to tell a visual story. 

Practice this and then when the client hires you, rent the gear (that you’ve already learned how to use). Try not to have the overhead of owning stuff. Though as I write this, I’m looking at a long weekend where the local rental house is completely out of stock on some gear I want for a commercial shoot and I’m left asking friends if I can rent theirs.

Basically, this is about storytelling, not about gear. Learn the skill and practice before you invest. Video requires a lot of stuff, so be strategic in what you own.