An interview with NYT’s Life on Mars co-producer Niko Koppel (extra grad project by Wasim Ahmad)

An interview with NYT’s Life on Mars co-producer Niko Koppel (extra grad project by Wasim Ahmad)


In this day and age, perhaps one can start to consider me an “old school” video journalists. I was shooting on tapes at newspapers in 2006. While I enjoy video that puts me there, such as this video of Rio Carnival, I’m still all about having some sort of narrative thread behind the video.

So when I saw Life on Mars: Preparing for the Red Planet, and watched as these scientists conducted this interesting NASA-funded social experiment of living in close quarters for 8 months to simulate life on mars, I was captivated. And with their next video, Life on Mars: Get to Know The Crew, it looks like the New York Times has a series on their hands.

The blend of music, interview audio, and text that moved along the narrative thread made the 5-minute video feel like it moved at a quick pace. It never felt like it was dragging. Each scene was perfect – the HI-SEAS habitat in Hawaii was a perfect place to shoot 360 video – it seems like it always works better in close quarters, and this is amongst the closest – the scientists can’t even leave without wearing space suits. It’s this isolation from society that’s the reason the creators of this piece – Niko Koppel and Nick Capezzera – tried a unique approach to documenting the story of these land-bound astronauts-alikes. They’re not documenting them – the scientists are documenting themselves.

“It’s a rare situation, where you have essentially the subjects also being the producers of the content,” said Koppel in a recent interview. “It’s the only way you could really do that story.”

Koppel talked about the compressed time frame he and Capezzera had for the first piece. Essentially, they jumped in during the scientists' one-week training before being immersed into the “Hab” as Koppel put it. They got one morning of shooting at the Hab to get B-roll without the crew, a sunset at the facility, and a shoot with the crew at another location in an afternoon. He said that what the audience saw in “Preparing for the Red Planet” was essentially the scientists themselves trying things like their space suits out for the first time. The piece’s intention was to get a feel about what the crew’s hopes and anxieties were about the months ahead. In the middle of all of this, Koppel and Capezzera had to also show them how to use the cameras so that after they were inside, they could continue to provide dispatches from within.

“Ultimately, the training on how to use the cameras that they would be then shooting and that our whole series hinged on, I think we gave them a three-minute training session at the very end of the day.”

Even though it was only three minutes, it seems to have paid off – Koppel talks about some of the surprising shots he’s seen from the crew members – they’ve placed their 360 cameras inside planters, and next to 3D printers, and have generally been giving them plenty to work with back at the Times. Koppel says that one scientist in particular, Brian Ramos, had an interest in photography from even before going into the Hab and has been really taking to shooting 360 video.

Koppel said that while they were there for the first part – they gave the “astronauts” their own Samsung Gear 360 cameras to continue filming for later pieces inside the habitat. They’ve been quite pleased with what they’ve gotten so far, and it’s clear there are some budding 360 filmmakers in the group.

“They’re just documenting their daily life as if it’s little dispatches from day-to-day, like little moments, almost like it’s a journal of an activity or a personal moment or some sort of discovery,” Koppel said. “I think in a lot of ways we’ll get footage and just be pleasantly surprised with something that we can use or something that we were missing, but it’s also a little nerve-wracking sometimes because you don’t know necessarily how your story structure is going to change based on the footage they’re getting.”

While Koppel and Capezzera didn’t get a chance to go into all of the finer points of journalism with the crew, they did let them know during the training that they weren’t looking for staged scenes or forced shots.

“They treat it almost it’s like part of the mission at this point, and they go at it with astronaut-like attitude. Even if they’re not a journalist or a professional filmmaker, they realize the standard there.”

The scientists aren’t allowed to have contact with the outside world, so Koppel sends them copies of the produced videos and a screenshot of how it played on the New York Times’ site. He says the response has been positive.

“I think from people that watch stuff regularly and from people who I value their opinion quite a bit, I think that one [Life on Mars] stood out as a bit of a model of some way that we can move a little past the one-minute or two-minute long videos with a couple of scenes, and how you can really start inserting some mild drama or tension into these pieces.

That storytelling element – that kind of give and take with a subject - is something Koppel said he thinks is something students should explore as they learn to shoot more 360 video.

“I think there’s a tendency to just place it [the camera] down and have the world kind of passed by it and be kind of anonymous in that scene or that moment,” Koppel said. “I feel like the medium has a ton of potential in immersing people in news events and feature stories, but I think one thing that I try to always remind myself while I’m on a scene shooting and I think I could see more of when people are shooting – you really still have to interact with everyone, or whatever the story is, same way as if you were photographing or reporting it or shooting video.”

Wasim Ahmad is a journalist, educator and photographer. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University's online master's program. He's also worked in the photography industry as a technical specialist at Canon USA. He is currently a Ph.D. student studying Mass Communications at Syracuse University.

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