The Upward Spiral and Finding the Perfect Voice Talent - TBT to 2007!

Capturing the Essence

By Randy Murray

Welcome to 2016! Everyone at RMP and Postal hopes you had a wonderful holiday break; we certainly did. While I love the images of snowy lanes, I am not a fan of shoveling or driving in the snow. I am a fan of these beautiful Arizona days with a little nip in the morning air and the sun shining on my face. In my opinion, Arizona is the winter wonderland.

Shoveling Sunshine

Weather like what we are enjoying now is one of the reasons why so many people down on their luck come to Arizona every winter. If you are struggling, you stand a much better chance of getting back on your feet in a community where jobs are being created, the cost of living is lower, and if worse comes to worse, you won’t freeze to death at night if you can’t find a place.

Railroad Tracks

Fortunately, here in the Valley of the Sun, we have United Way helping to lead what is considered our nation’s very best, most comprehensive human services effort to help people get back on their feet. Looking back at the twenty years of working with United Way, it is the 2007 campaign that sticks in my mind as the year that we really captured this story.

As we were doing research to tell this year’s story, we toured the Lodestar Human Services Campus in downtown Phoenix. This place is a perfect example of what can happen when we come together as a community under the guidance of smart leadership. So how do we best tell the story of a smart strategy that is working? We use a smart storytelling strategy to engage the viewer, of course! Before I spoil it with the creative “how and why,” check out the 2007 campaign video, Sam’s Story. Only three minutes long, it does a great job of explaining both the effectiveness of United Way and our effort to help the homeless.

Sam Is The Man

When creating a video, we work hard to evaluate every decision based on its impact on the viewer. We always ask: is there a way to make this aspect of the production drive the story better? I try to look for these opportunities under every stone, particularly during the creative development process. For this video, I found several. Because the streets are a filthy place to live, we gave the first part of the video a dark, grainy look with sharp obstacles and a sad emptiness. And because the human services campus offers hope, the shots there are stable, the compositions flowing and the colors bright. We used snap zooms to create a feeling of instability, even after Sam started to turn his life around. Instead of shooting this up close and intimately, we used long lenses to give the viewer a feeling of ‘peeking’ into a world they do not want to visit.

I didn’t have this idea straight out of the gate. It wasn’t until we walked onto the campus and met Sam that the idea of Sam’s Story came to me. Sam was working out front when we pulled up. It was not part of his job; he just greeted us with a warm smile and asked if we knew where we were going. We didn’t and he gladly showed us. He was like the local welcoming committee.

Sam Smiling Behind Gate

The first thing I noticed was the quality of his voice. His deep-throated delivery was wonderful. As we went along, it became clear that he was someone that everyone used as an example of a success story. I knew I had found our guy. Within the hour, I had asked Sam if he would let us use his story and voice for our video. And he agreed! Sam was our man.

Worth The Work

Being a janitor and having lived on the streets does not prepare a person to do narration work. While the quality of his voice was great, his diction and his ability to pronounce certain words were not. I may have been overly optimistic in my ability to direct him past his lack of announcer skills. It’s true, I am relentlessly optimistic. So I had to use a very heavy hand at some points. To get some words right, I made him repeat after me up to twenty times. There are long stretches in the narration where every single word was recorded one at a time and then cut together. Sam was a real trooper though, and worked hard to get every word just right. In the end, there were a few words he just couldn’t do, yet it is the realness of his voice and delivery that draws many viewers in and helps with the twist at the end.

That ‘realness’ is a common commodity in the storytelling business. In fact, Sam’s narration track is not the most edited narration track I have worked on. When we were looking for the voice of our education documentary Mitchell 20, we wanted a voice that brought gravitas to our film. We were thrilled when Edward James Olmos agreed to be the voice of this feature documentary. He has a history of playing pro-educational roles in his projects, he is active in pro-education efforts, he is Hispanic and, like Sam, he has an amazing voice. Unfortunately, like Sam, he struggles to enunciate certain words. Audio mixer Abbott Miller, co-director Andrew Benson and I spent hours editing Mr. Olmos’ narration track. Fortunately, both Mitchell 20 and Sam’s Story are greatly enhanced by the quality of narrated tracks, not to mention the quality of the gentlemen who did them.

These Streets

RMP was back shooting near the Lodestar Campus again just recently for the Catholic Diocese’s Charity & Development Appeal 2016 campaign video. In this video, we used children to deliver the words of the Pope. Again, my optimistic view of my directing skills, with kids in this case, almost bit me in the ass. I encourage you to watch the video on Vimeo and you can judge if the risk was worth the reward. The experience certainly was.

It is always a grounding experience to be around so much desperation, yet I always feel uplifted by the courageous spirit of those faced with such great challenges. It is immediately evident that many of the people living on these streets are struggling with deep mental issues. It is also equally clear that just as many of them are simply going through a rough patch in their otherwise stable life. Side by side are those who built windmills and those chasing them. When working in this most complex meshing of humanity, one constant stands above all issues: the inherent kindness of humanity. Standing in a line on the street to get a coffee as the sun rises in front of you, it is clear that we are all equal. We are all just humans struggling to do the best we can with what we have been given.

Sam in His Apartment

Wisdom Over Fear

There is a train of thought that contends we should not help those new arrivals that show up at our doorstep in desperate straits, or even those among us who fall into troubled times. The contention is that helping a few leads to more undesirables coming to the trough of our goodwill, creating a problem beyond our capabilities. It is a sad and frightening thought that our good intentions could make things worse, creating a downward spiral of fear and misunderstanding. For me, however, it is sadder and more frightening to think that fear of what might happen would prevent us from working toward a better world that can happen.  And has happened.

Over the past twenty years of telling the stories of United Way and our caring community, two key things I learned about the homeless provided clarity and filled me with hope. First, the vast majority of people who need our help are not looking for a handout. Just like Sam and the rest of us, they are working the best they can to create a healthy and productive life for their families. So while they will gratefully accept a sandwich, they are really seeking solutions.

Second, in the Phoenix metro area, a well-crafted strategy and consistent teamwork have created real paths for individuals and families to get back on their feet and become contributing members of our community. Our small individual donations have been brought together to create larger investments, and these investments have been smartly managed by United Way, creating years and years of positive return that build on our ability to help.

This upward spiral is something to be very proud of.

Sam Proud of His Job

Randy is an award-winning director and producer with a passion for helping others through the power of storytelling. He’s also a political junkie, loves college football, and enjoys performing random magic tricks for children he meets in the street.