"You know, not everything you do is going to be like the 9/11 series."
In past nine months, my Yahoo! colleagues and I who worked on the 9/11 Remembered mini-documentaries have heard this wisdom often, from different bosses in different cities with differing levels of sympathy, bemusement and frustration.
And no matter how much we wish otherwise, they’re absolutely right.
In today’s video marketplace, it’s rare for a big media company to say, ‘Here’s a chunk of money. Go make something really good. We’ll support you and we won’t even put any ads in front of it.’
(I heart ads. They’re pretty, sometimes funny and there are less of them on the internet than on your tele-whatsis.)
It sounds like a producer’s fever dream, but that’s what happened last year, when Yahoo partnered with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum to create a memorial site for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The goal: tell thirty stories (print, video, slideshow) in thirty days leading up to September 11, 2012.
Empowered by the head of Yahoo Studios Anna Robertson, two people in particular jumped at the chance to create these stories. Up in Sunnyvale, with very little fuss or input, Ricky Montalvo and Brad Williams produced, filmed and edited two amazing videos—the story of Jack Grandcolas, who lost his wife Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas on United Flight 93, and the story of Harold Schapelhouman, a 9/11 first responder from Menlo Park, CA who fights for his every breath, and the rights of his fellow first responders.
These two pieces were the blueprint for all that followed; beautifully shot, simply told, from the first rough cut it felt like I was sitting in the living room with Jack, and riding bikes with Harold.
Actually, I was in Santa Monica, exhibiting my standard producing behavior: procrastination. I had signed up to produce a video piece about the September 11 memorial itself, but I wanted, more than anything, to tell a story about 9/11 and baseball.
One problem: there was no way to tell that story better than HBO had already done with 'Nine Innings From Ground Zero.' I tried. I wrote sample scripts, but nothing stuck. I went to New York and interviewed Joe Daniels, the 9/11 memorial president, and met Michael Frazier, director of communications.
(Were there any two New Yorkers who were more stressed out that summer? Shaking their hands, it was impossible not to be enveloped by the weight and responsibility and sheer exhaustion they and their co-workers carried.)
I left New York with great interviews, and Brad’s amazing footage of the memorial site, but felt I had missed something.
Fortunately, Yahoo! Studios New York is staffed by some dedicated people. Jonathan Light agreed to go down to the 911 Cross dedication on his day off to film more footage, do some interviews, and search for a baseball in a haystack, armed only with vague instructions from a producer on the West Coast.
"Umm…Jon," I said, knowing how stupid I sounded, "should you happen to be there, and see anyone in a Mets or Yankees cap, if it’s not too much trouble, do you think maybe you could, like, ask them why they’re there?"
And that’s how we met the Williams family.
They’d come to lower Manhattan to revisit the baseball they’d placed at the center of the 9/11 cross back in 2001, when it was stood on what was known as ‘the pile’. The baseball honored their son, Kevin Williams. Kevin worked on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower as a bond salesman for investment firm Sandler O’Neill.
X marked the spot. With a baseball.
I thanked Jon, gathered my courage and picked up the phone. In August of 2011, I arrived at the Williams home with a style guide created by Ricky and Brad, accompanied by Josh Simmons, Ricky Stauder and Gary Millus, who were ready to get down in the dirt (literally) to create stunning visuals.
Pat and Mike and their children Jamie and Kelly are a ‘baseball family’.
(Actually, they love many other sports, especially golf. But give a producer a narrative…)
The family has spent the last ten years honoring Kevin’s memory through a foundation that sends kids to baseball and softball camps, and through their care for one special baseball field. Their house is a museum of baseball memories and memories of Kevin.
I was absolutely terrified. How could we ask about something so personal? What could we ask that hadn’t been asked before?
But, like so many families of 9/11 victims, the Williams family graciously invited us in, let us set up our heavy gear in their pristine living room, and waited patiently while the guys adjusted the lighting until it was just right. And then, with painful honestly, they gave us everything.
And I do mean everything. In the end, editor Rob Page and sound editor James Kelly produced a brief glimpse at the life of Kevin Williams and his family. We left out some of the most compelling parts of their journey in order to keep the piece to eight minutes—which in internet attention span units is about six hours. We agonized about every frame, but ultimately finished the piece, and focus shifted to the next group of videos.
(My other personal favorites? The one about the financier turned tango dancer produced by Jeff Girion; the story of the WTC shoe maker produced by the NY Studios team; and the one about the the guy who curses a lot but does nice things for firefighters—that one was edited in less than 24 hours by the indomitable Matt Weglian.)
The Williams family hunkered down and rode out a hurricane that landed shortly before our piece about them went online. No one slept easy that night.
(Least of all the folks at the September 11 memorial, who had to wonder what else the universe would be throwing at as the anniversary neared.)
When morning came the Williams family was without power, but safe. And I thought about what Mike Williams had told us about his son:
"Kevin was a do-er. He had a dream and he would follow it through…every morning before I get up out of bed, I remember that he was a do-er, and I’m going to do the same thing."
I’ve thought about that quote a lot in the months since the anniversary, and I thought about it yesterday, when the video we created won a National Edward R. Murrow award for video feature reporting. As someone who started her career at CBS News, this is like receiving an award named after..well, Ed Murrow.
The award is a tribute to everyone at Yahoo! who worked so hard on the 9/11 series; not just the people who filmed the videos, but the ones who set aside the budget, guided the process, defined the style, licensed the images, forked over their corporate credit cards to buy those images, did the invisible work of moving the video from hard drive to web; those who painstakingly edited our scripts and gave good notes on the rough cuts, and those who gently reminded us that we did, indeed, have to stop editing, and publish. And that’s just the video side—I’m still in awe of the stunning 9/11 profiles page, so beautifully animated with purpose and life and filled with words and images from incredibly talented writers.
The Murrow Award is also a tribute to the Williams family: their honesty and generosity in sharing their journey shines through every frame of footage. I often tell people that the best videos are ones where you can see a small piece of the soul of the people who created it, but in this case the soul that shines through the clearest is Kevin’s, and that is a wonderful thing.
Everyone who worked on the 9/11 series has a story like this. And while we’ve all moved on to other work, good work, these stories have stayed with us, prompting our bosses to remind us again that “not everything you do is going to be like the 9/11 series.”
In the end, they’re still right. Not everything we do can be like the best thing we’ve ever done. But every now and then, I hope we can try. I hope we can produce more videos where the only goal is to tell stories because they should be told. The stories are out there, and the talent to tell them is here, and ready.
We could even put some ads in front of it.
Jennie Josephson works on the video programming team at Yahoo! and is a proud Yahoo! Studios alumna.