Nathaniel Hansen – Filmmaker Blog

Everybody Is A Story: Exploring the Role Story and Narrative Play in Real Life

Everybody Is a Story: Exploring the Role Story and Narrative Play in Real Life

Life is a series of moments strung together over time. A scientist might call these moments a “cognitive event.” I call them stories. We compress thousands of stories/moments/events into a meta narrative that defines who we are. The most meaningful, memorable moments are packaged into self-contained stories that give shape to our personal story arc and mark plot points along life’s journey. We use these moments, these stories, as a way to understand and make sense of world around us. These moments are powerful because they deliver all at once “information, knowledge, context and emotion.” (Norman, Don Things that Make us Smart)

Cognitive scientist Roger Schank observed that “Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.”

Ursula Le Guin, one of my favorite science fiction authors, once noted that “The Story – from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace – is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

In the ICS program, I spent most of my time trying to figure out the academic world around me. It was overwhelming, to the point where I would cry myself to sleep feeling it was utterly impossible to succeed in the program. I wasn’t the smartest student in the program. I wasn’t the best writer, I’m terrible at debate and new concepts take me 3 times as long to wrap my head around than my colleagues. It was frustrating.
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Posted in Teaching | 1 Response

Manhattan Prep School Promo Documentary

We filmed and edited this piece over the last two weeks for Leman Manhattan Preparatory school in NYC. Very cool school, and we were thrilled to take on the challenge of “telling their story” to a broader audience of prospective parents and students.

We filmed on location, in the school’s art room, on the 22nd floor, overlooking Ellis Island.

This was shot on 3 Canon 5D cameras with Carl Zeiss CP.2 lenses, and the Kessler Cineslider. On sticks we had the 85 prime and the 35 prime, at f4, and on the kessler cineslider we opted for the Canon 70-200 f2.8 IS. The IS makes a HUGE difference when trying to get smooth shots. It’s tough work for the operator running on the slider though, as they’re working the entire time!

Color correction was a snap, as we used the cinestyle technicolor setting on all three cameras, and simply had to boost saturation and lower the blacks in post.

The CP.2 lenses were a JOY to work with, and I’d rent them again in a heartbeat.

Special thanks to for an affordable service, and to my crew: Shaun Clarke (DP), Matthew Hashiguchi, Ian Wexler, Lee Strauss and Kristal Williams.

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Brazil – Short Documentary for

Matthew Hashiguchi and I spent 6 weeks on the road through June and July, traveling to a variety of places around the world filming for The Joseph Campbell Foundation and the UN Global Partnership Forum. This is our film from Brazil. Be sure to turn on CC.

Posted in Documentary Film, DSLR Filmmaking | 3 Responses

The Elders: It’s starting to happen!

While I was gone filming for the last 6 weeks, something pretty awesome happened for my first feature-length film The Elders: Kickstarter selected it to be shown in their 2nd annual film festival! Check out the poster:

They showed a short segment from the film along with 11 other projects that were successfully funded during 2010. What’s so amazing about this for me is that the quality of the other projects that were up there AND the shear volume of succesfully funded projects that were passed over. Something like 3000 film/video projects were funded last year – which makes it even more of an honor for my project to have stood out. Thanks Kickstarter – I only wish I could have been there.

Posted in Documentary Film, Kickstarter | 3 Responses

Storytelling Around the World

Everyone has a story – and it doesn’t matter where on this planet you reside! I recently returned from a 6.5 week round the world shooting project that still has my head spinning and has left my heart racing. It’s impossible for me to recount what I’ve experienced in that time while visiting Venezuela, Brazil, India, China and South Africa, but below are a couple of videos my colleague Matthew and I shot for fun while we were on the road. Enjoy:

Posted in Documentary Film | 2 Responses

The Ultimate Crowdfunding TO-DO list: BEFORE YOU LAUNCH


7 Things to Consider BEFORE you Launch your Kickstarter Project

I get A LOT of requests to help with kickstarter campaigns. Through trial and error on over a dozen kickstarter projects, hours of lectures at Emerson College, and countless meet ups, phone calls and emails with artists and innovators, I’ve refined a “best practices” list that I share when I decide to get involved with a project. I’ve been fortunate to run my own successful campaigns, but also have helped out on over a dozen innovative artistic endeavors all of which have been successful in some way. What you’ll read here, and hopefully in the future, is what I’ve found to work (to the tune of almost $350k and counting). But at the end of the day, two things are really all that’s required: a good idea and A LOT OF HARD WORK. Ok, maybe three – a decent network that supports what you do.

This list is not definitive. In fact, it barely scratches the surface, but it’s a start. I don’t claim to be an expert. The word guru makes me throw up in my mouth a little and every project is different and strategy and tweaking are critical depending on audience, budget, content, fanbase, etc. These sections are just a snippet to get you rolling – I could talk for an hour on each – but who’d listen 😉

1. Story: What’s your story? Craft and tell the story of your story.

Story is everything. Let me back up. Your story is everything. People aren’t so much getting behind the idea as they are getting behind your passion to produce it – be it a book, film, album, live event, business, it makes no difference. I’ve been lucky enough (or dumb enough?) to have smart people with means give me money for various projects over the years. I used to think it was all based on the merits of my “great” ideas – but what these folks quickly chastened was that they were investing in me, my spirit and passion, and my drive to make something happen. Of course they were investing in the project, but they’re won over by YOU! In my experience, and my opinion, this is the very heart and soul of an effective kickstarter campaign (or any crowdfunding campaign). It HAS to have heart. Kickstarter isn’t a place people come to make an investment expecting a financial return. They come to engage with other interesting people and to help along artistic projects they believe add value to the world in which we live. I’ll stop there for now (I have an hour long lecture about the role story plays in our lives), but for the record: Story is everything.
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Posted in Film Fundraising, Kickstarter | 125 Responses

Feature Documentary Utilizes Zeiss ZF.2 Lenses to Maximize Look on Minimum Budget Documentary

Zeiss ZF.2 Lenses Take Low Budget Feature Documentary to the Next Level

In May 2010, I set out to make a low-budget-high-quality documentary feature film about elderly Americans. I raised the funds on kickstarter ($12,500), got an unsolicited and very generous donation from an LA based non-profit, and by mid June found myself on a journey that would take me over 13,000 miles by car all over the United States. It was a thrilling adventure and for two months I sat across from some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know, some 22 interviews in all.

In my mind’s eye, I had always conceived of the project in a very specific and stylized way. I wanted desperately to move past the “shallow-depth-of-field equals-quality” plague that seems to have struck the indie film world. While I very much appreciate the ability to obtain shallow depth of field on video, especially in interviews, I often ride the focus with the aperture wide open to follow a character as they move during an interview. Essentially I was trying to create my own style and look for this project that wasn’t only relying on the technical convention of shallow depth of field. It was clear that I’d need a suite of high quality still lenses and a lighting strategy to accomplish this effectively.

I had experimented with Carl Zeiss prime lenses in fall of 2009 in a series of naturally lit portrait interviews (of which Pat the shop-owner was a part), which have screened internationally in several festivals. Those “test” shorts allowed me to hone in on the style I wanted, and I became very adept at shooting alone. For that portrait series, I relied entirely on a 50mm f1.4 and a 85mm f1.4, mounted to a Sony EX1 via the Letus 35mm lens adapter.

Pat – (Sony EX1, Letus Extreme, 50mm Nikkor f1.4 and Zeiss ZF.2 85mm f1.4)

The Glass:
My primary camera was/is a Sony EX1 with a Letus Extreme 35mm Lens adapter on the front, supported on aluminum Letus rails. There is something very organic about the EX/Letus setup that current DSLRs just can’t seem to match (IMHO). I think it’s the ground glass the EX imager is focused on that takes the edge off. Regardless, I have owned the Zeiss (ZF.2) 85mm f1.4 for three years now, and it’s a very, very high quality lens for about $1,200 (over at Zacuto where I grabbed mine). You feel it when you pick it up because it’s built like a tank – it feels worth its weight – and I don’t feel like it’s going to shatter into a billion pieces if it were (heaven forbid) dropped. Dented and scratched maybe – but not broken.

Hands down, on the EX1/Letus, the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 is my favorite lens. It’s sharp edge to edge with no obvious need to find a “sweet spot” and because of the low aperture, I am able to shoot dimly-lit interiors that would otherwise not have been possible. In my portrait series, and in The Elders, I wanted the focus to be on the person’s face. I ride the focus ring pretty hard, so if they’re moving I’m right there with the eyes. For me, the shallow depth of field isn’t what makes it look good – for me it provides frame after frame of attention to a particular part of the frame, usually the eyes.

Lilah – (Sony EX1, Letus Extreme, 50mm Nikkor f1.4 and Zeiss ZF.2 85mm f1.4)

My secondary camera is the Canon 7D and I own the Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L Series that I use often as a master-wide, although with the 1.6x crop factor is more like 38mm. The telephoto is handy but when I’m rolling with two cameras alone, it usually stays wide at 24mm and wide open at 2.8.

For The Elders, I was desperately searching for a lens solution that would give me a more creative range of options. This wasn’t “run-and-gun” filmmaking, so having an assortment of primes on hand was an option, and I didn’t “really” need a zoom lens on the 7D, as it wasn’t my primary lens. What I really wanted was the option to lock the 7D down with a much wider prime lens that could make up for the 1.6x crop factor (what’s great about the EX/Letus setup with a prime lens is you can still “zoom” through the range of the EX1 turning that 85mm into something close to a 120mm!).

DSLR Crop Factor:

In my digging around to find a solution, I turned to Richard Schleuning of Carl Zeiss USA for some suggestions on a lens set that wouldn’t completely break the budget of my already low budget documentary. He suggested (as had Philip Bloom) that I seriously check out the ZF.2 lenses that had just been upgraded to the now very popular CP.2 (Compact Prime) lenses. I asked about the difference between the two sets and to my delight he said they’re the same glass but the CP.2 have a “cine” exterior (markings, follow focus grips, stopless physical aperture rings, etc), designed from the ground up for use on professional projects but also for use with DSLR cameras and on cameras with PL (positive lock) mounting option, as is common with 35mm cinema cameras.

ZF.2 Carl Zeiss Lenses:
As the ZF.2 lens sets are cheaper to rent (and buy) – they retail for about $1,200-$1,800 per lens, versus +/- $3,500 each for the CP.2 – I opted to go for the ZF.2 lenses and was extended a sponsorship by Carl Zeiss and given a complete set for the duration of my project.

What was amazing about this lens set, is that I had SO MUCH choice, and wasn’t relying ONLY on my 85mm Zeiss, but had a veritable army of glass at my disposal. Even better – I could pop anyone of these lenses on my EX1/Letus OR on the 7D.

I was pretty stoked to be on the road with such an amazing lens set! But what I discovered was that many of the ZF.2 lenses in the set would have been more useful to me on a full frame camera (5D) but on the 7D (APC-S), after some playing around, I settled in to five of the lenses that accomplished everything I needed: 28mm 2.0, 35mm 2.0, 50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.4, and the 100mm Macro (!!). The wider 18mm I only ended up using in one shot, outside, in Elko Nevada. On the 7D (remember the crop factor!) it’s really more in the 28mm range – so not “that” wide.

Still from The Elders:

The Look:
When I started thinking about how I would shoot The Elders, and what “look” I wanted to achieve, I decided I would stick to my “focus riding” method and keep the aperture open in the interviews. I devised a lighting scenario that would be easy to set up, but would give me a dramatic look specifically intended to make the interviewees’ facial features “pop.” Working alone for much of the shoot, it took some trial and error. I was lucky enough to have some help from Matthew Hashiguchi for the first 12 days of the shoot, and we dialed in what would become the standard setup. I also decided that the EX1/Letus would be my primary camera and would handle most of the close ups, and that I’d leave my Canon 7D fairly wide and untouched for the bulk of the interviews.

I also decided that I would need the ability to get pretty wide in close spaces but still have my subject fill the frame. 50mm didn’t do it. 35mm was a little better, but on the EX/Letus and on the 7D there’s the crop factor so a 35mm is really more like 56mm.

In my preproduction research, I was also trying to determine if I would shoot the interviews contextually, or with an isolated background (black).

In the end, I decided to go with a hybrid approach, where the interviewee was contextualized in their environment but the background was soft, and the the lighting was high contrast, as you can tell in these photos of “Coach” and “Doy.” We interviewed Doy inside his shop. His interview is EXACTLY what I wanted to achieve on every interview – and out of 22 in all, we came pretty close.

EX1 with Letus Extreme and Zeiss 85mm f1.4

The Elders Documentary Film - Doy

I lit the interviews with one KinoFlo Diva 401 from directly overhead with their built in dimmer and soft box (which is really more like a soft bag that you pull tight on either end), and when space permitted, I had a keylight (a 200 watt mole richardson on a dimmer) just out of frame – also high contrast but with a chimera softbox – and finally another 200w backlight (mole richardson) on a dimmer to give them a tiny glow.

This turned out to be a really great set up, although the interiors weren’t always space permitting, I came out the other end with a lighting set up that I believe helped achieve a more filmic and dramatic look. Below are some of the only behind the scenes photos I have of this project due to the fact that for most of the shoot I was solo.


What I would have done differently
There are a few things I would have changed, but foremost, I would have spent more time refining my camera and lighting set up before I left. The first interview once I was officially “on the road” was wonderful, but from a lighting and color balance standpoint, a total disaster. We were somewhat rushed (which turned out to be a fairly common occurrence throughout the film), as we were just a 3 hour block on someone’s surprisingly busy schedule. The tight time frame had us rushing during set up and I wasn’t very meticulous in calibrating the two cameras, which caused serious headaches in post-production. Making sure the 7D was recording a FLAT color should have been at the forefront of my setup from the begining. It’ll get fixed in post – but not without some talented color correction. Had time permitted, I would have blocked out a full week to test various light and camera set ups and I would have calibrated the cameras before ever leaving Boston. This is my only major regret, as some of the best interviews suffer in the image.

Overall, I’m very pleased with how The Elders has turned out, and I think you will be too. Below is the official “trailer” for the film. Enjoy, and thanks for watching/reading.

The Elders – Official Trailer)

Directed by: Nathaniel Hansen
Produced by: Nathaniel Hansen, Maria Menounos, and Keven Undergaro
Original Score by: Lee Strauss
Lens Set provided by: Richard Schleuning – Carl Zeiss USA
DV SOLO 20 Tripod provided by: Gus Harilaou – Miller Tripod
Crowdfunded via:

Special Thanks to Chris Hurd, Philip Bloom, Mitch Aunger, Miller Tripods, Carl Zeiss USA, and

More clips at

Posted in Documentary Film, DSLR Filmmaking | 9 Responses

The Elders documentary project lands on Kickstarter’s 2010 Award list!

I was thrilled to see that my documentary film project The Elders was listed as one of two other honorable mentions under the category of “Best Short Film” projects on kickstarter this year (2010). What an honor! With thousands of projects to choose from, it’s a pretty awesome feeling to have my work recognized in this way by a community that I have really grown to admire and love. That community has allowed my project to flourish, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.

I’m also delighted that people make the connection to The Elders as a “short” film project. I suppose, technically, that’s accurate as it is a collection of short films that make up a feature-length film (70 minutes). And that was my intent from the beginning: Could I create a feature-length documentary film built entirely on short portraits of mostly talking heads? It worked, and it’s working as support continues to pour in!

Thanks Kickstarter!

Posted in Documentary Film, Film Fundraising, Kickstarter | Leave a comment

The Price on Kickstarter: A Rallying Cry

The Price on Kickstarter: A Rallying Cry

It’s been an emotional roller-coaster over the last two weeks as I’ve worked comfortably behind the scenes to spread the word about our animated film project The Price. The outpouring of support has been liberating for me as a maker and producer, and it has been especially satisfying to watch people rally around Christopher and his vision for this beautiful story by Neil Gaiman. I’m excited about what the success of this project, and others like it, could mean for independent artists the world over. The arts and technology landscape is changing so dramatically, Christopher and I both feel we’re peering off the edge of a vast precipice, staring in to an uncertain but limitless future. As my friend Richard Smyth once told me, we are, right now, in the middle of our own renaissance, our own “printing press” revolution, and with this project in particular, I can feel it.

Support has poured in from fans and converts alike. Popular sites like Wired Magazine, io9, CNN, Mashable, and many others have rallied around this project and what it stands for.

From the first time I viewed the animatic (on an iPod when Christopher was in town visiting 3 years ago), to where we are today, I can’t help but get a little worked up and excited. Today we made the home page again. I was pretty chuffed to see that at 9am this morning.

But this post isn’t about why the project is so great – Christopher’s art speaks for itself – this is a rallying cry about why this project, and others like it, will define truly independent media and art.

There are a lot of reasons this project is important in the history of crowd funded films, and I’ll list a few of them here for your viewing pleasure:

1) For a talented but unknown filmmaker to raise $150,000 for an animated short film via an army of strangers is practically unheard of in Hollywood. Kickstarter and other fundraising sites, are empowering artists and fans everywhere to choose for themselves the art they want to consume. One commenter and backer, Rudolf Momjian Pettersen, put it perfectly:

Art, technology and creativity will no longer be hostage to a few large companies. The “small” people will be able to get their ideas and products through with the support of other “small” people. No more monopoly!

2) Christopher’s version of The Price has and will continue to foster a robust and compassionate community. Humans crave community, attention, affection, and sharing. Despite what the news tells us, we like to be inspired and moved. We like to come together for common goals, and if kickstarter doesn’t allow this to happen in a most unique and marvelous way, I’m not sure what does. Hollywood builds and creates audience, and it does it well> But rarely does it build community. I told Christopher on the phone tonight that there are a lot of things that came together to make this project a success, but I believe that his passion, humility, and the merits of his art have made this project successful from the beginning – people LOVE the idea because they know Christopher LOVES the idea and is totally passionate about Neil’s beautiful story.

3) Christopher’s animated film of The Price is doing exactly what art is intended to do: Inspire. Over the last 4 weeks, we have witnessed an unprecidented outpouring of support for this project. People have written to Christopher to tell him of their experience with this story, or how they went out and mowed lawns to make this project happen, or how what he is doing inspired them to quit their job and go after what they always wanted to do. Pledges from $10 – $10,000 have poured in and each are every bit as meaningful to making this project a reality. As a documentary filmmaker, I’m fascinated by the story behind the pledge!

I keep refreshing the kickstarter project page for The Price, and just about every time I do we get closer to our goal of $150,000 – the most anyone has asked for on kickstarter. As Dylan once sang,”the times, they are a changin'” and I really believe this is the start of a new wave of innovation in technology and the arts. Keep a watch over the next 24 hours, and into the coming months. As a producer, I have my sights set on helping Christopher realize his creative vision, but we’ll be working hard to maintain the production blog which we believe is the best way to build and foster this new community of fans. Lets hope that first “official” post is just a day away, and that The Price is just one of many projects that buck against the Hollywood trend!

I’ll catch you on the flip side of $150k – and then we can set our sights on where we’ll gather next … Cannes? Sundance? Tribecca? The Academy? We’ve dreamed this far, and I’m looking forward to the next destination. And Christopher, thanks for taking us along with you on this wonderful journey.

Posted in Kickstarter | 4 Responses

Kickstarter. Going for Broke with The Price

Over the last 2.5 years, I’ve been working closely with my good friend Christopher Salmon to try and find a way to bring an animated version of Neil Gaiman’s short story “The Price” to life. Deals came and went, and we muscled through the ups and downs – him more-so than me – as this project is his baby. Mostly, we struggled to find the right fit for this project in terms of funding (relatively low budget, and short length) and where it could play out as a commercial entity beyond a festival run.

When we discovered kickstarter last year, I decided to dip my toe in the crowdfunding waters with a project of my own, The Elders, and have since assisted on a variety of other successfully funded and produced projects. It was kind of a revelatory experience, seeing what the future of truly independent fundraising was all about. When Christopher asked if I would co-produce this film project with him, I jumped at the chance and I knew kickstarter would be the vehicle to bring this project in.

Well fast forward to today, and we’re 11 days (19 days to go!) in to our kickstarter project for The Price – and we’ve had a remarkable run so far. For starters, this project represents the largest budget ever on the popular website, although other projects have earned much more. We’ve had an incredible show of support from nearly 800 fans and counting. Neil Gaiman himself has blogged and tweeted about the project, and the news media have been all over this thing from – to newsarama, yahoo movies, and everything in between.

I couldn’t be more pleased with how things are going. The real trick will be to actually make this a successful run to prove to larger studios that fans CAN fund films, and they will. We’ll see a million dollars raised on kickstarter within the next 18 months.

To date, we’ve raised $56,208 – which means we have to raise almost 4700 a day for the next 20 days to meet our goal. It’s possible, and I believe this is going to happen, but wow, does that every sound like a mammoth task. Hopefully in a few weeks I’ll look back and smile on this whole experience.

Until then… Spread the word! and

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