Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: documentaries

Master Craftsman:Teacher:Sage – Wisdom of the Ox

How do we discover the right path to make our way in the world? What touchstones guide us? We have to find our own answers, but I’d like to share Eric Hollenbeck’s story and how he became a master craftsman, teacher and sage.

At first, Eric drifted as a youth. School was a miserable experience. As Eric tells it:

Because I had a hard time with spelling and reading, I was constantly made to feel stupid by the system. So, I started working in the woods at sixteen.

His auto shop teacher shepherded Eric through high school by arranging for him to spend three hours a day in auto shop and one hour in English class, where Eric wrote poetry.

I got the same grade on every poem I wrote: an A over an F. An ‘A’ for content and creative thought and an ‘F’ for spelling and grammar…which averages out to a C! It was this way that the auto shop teacher got me to graduate.

Eric found refuge in the woods near his northern California home. After serving in Vietnam he developed PTSD. He came back to the forests, pooled his money, and with two friends, $300 and a ramshackle truck, he started a logging business.


Eric and Viviana Hollenbeck

Eric started salvaging antique wood forming equipment and began constructing his own Victorian era mill: Blue Ox Millworks in Eureka, California, which he runs with his wife Viviana. He was fascinated with the craft and became a master woodworker, specializing in recreating 19th century decorative objects to restore historic dwellings.

Levistrauss site

photo from the Levi Strauss website

His Blue Ox Millworks became a successful business and he added blacksmithing, ceramics, letterpress printing and other trades of the Victorian era, recreating a time when every town had local craftsmen that made what people needed to build homes, transport goods and enhance their lives.

Eureka Times-Standard

photo from the Eureka Times-Standard site

Hand work was the key to Eric’s success and rehabilitation and he thought it could help others, too. When a teacher asked if he could help castoff kids from the county schools, Eric and his wife created the Blue Ox Millworks Historical School of Traditional Arts, serving about 25 students each year. The students supplement classroom studies by working alongside Eric and his mill crew two to three days a week.


photo from the 0erichollenbeck site

From the Modern Day Pioneers site:

He’s … giving students a place to learn hands-on skills that can be transferred to many trades. He says they learn critical job skills along the way too, like the importance of quality, problem solving and critical thinking, as well as how to take direction from a boss and collaborate with co-workers.

photo from the solidsmack site

Eric continues:

The thing that worked so well is that little, one-room schoolhouse concept, where you’ve got youngsters of different ages and skill levels mentoring each other. It’s that unit feeling. They become a family, a unit together.


photo from the Blue Ox Millworks site

The two things these kids have got: low self-esteem, and they don’t sit. I didn’t say ADD. I said, ‘They don’t sit.’ I put their fingers an inch away from an electric bandsaw and tell them they mess up and next thing they know their finger will be on the floor. Suddenly they’re paying attention just fine. Maybe the regular classroom was never giving them nothing to pay attention to.


photo from the Blue Ox Millworks site

We live in a world of so many distractions. Perhaps that’s one of the great strengths of hand work – it requires focus, concentration and patience. Plus there’s the excitement of learning and honing a new skill. At the end of the day it’s a great gift to hold that work in your hand and say “I made this.”

breakwater studios site

photo from the breakwater studios site

Canadian Ben Proudfoot was also attracted to handwork, first as a magician and later as a filmmaker. Proudfoot won international awards as a magician – before he turned 18. He took up filmmaking at USC and his student work was nominated for an academy award. He set up Breakwater Studios with backing from SONY to pursue a documentary series on the intersection of craftsmanship and life journey.

His second film brought him to Eureka to spend three days with Eric Hollenbeck and the Blue Ox.

Ben describes Eric, from the Eureka Times-Standard:

He is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. He’s down-to-earth, but philosophically brilliant. I think creating alone so much has given him time to ponder about life, and express himself in many different ways — from woodwork to poetry.

Here’s Ben’s excellent film, The Ox:

The Ox from Breakwater Studios Ltd. on Vimeo.

Eric Hollenbeck sees his life unfolding in many directions at once – he values how woodworking rescued him from PTSD and the emotional caldron of the Vietnam War, he’s mastered a worthy but dying craft, he celebrates the maker movement and the importance of craftsmanship, and he rescues kids at risk – like he was once himself – and uses his skills to teach them self-worth and the value of hard work.

I found Ben Proudfoot’s film joyful and inspiring. You can sense his enthusiasm for Eric Hollenbeck’s wisdom and what he and Viviana have accomplished.

Ben, from a facebook interview


photo from the Lifesworkfilms site

You never know why you feel a tug to tell a story. It’s sort of like falling in love—it just happens without explanation and with overwhelming power—and the only way to get over it is to make the movie. So you never know why. But, after having released the film and getting emails and letters from people who were touched by Eric’s story, it’s clear his experience is something that hits home with a greater audience and reminds people that they are not alone.

You can view Eric as a symbol of the working man, of a period in our nation when “Made in America” stood for a work of high quality and craftsmanship. You can call Eric a homespun philosopher, a self-taught sage who found wisdom through work. I see all that and something else too. Eric found an inner strength – he refused to give up when faced with challenges, he followed his own vision, worked at it, had the drive to keep going and the wisdom to see that progress is made one step at a time.

A writer friend from the old days used to sign his letters “keep going.” Good advice for all of us.


Visual Storytelling

Visual storytelling – that essential ingredient of documentaries – shows you what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. That’s why visual storytelling is so powerful, it incorporates the filmmaker’s golden rule – show, don’t tell.

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From the NYT documentary “The Cancer Divide: Mary’s Story”









Documentaries that focus on people make more of an impact when they rely on visual storytelling. As they open a window into someone’s life, as we learn about the people and their challenges, we learn something about ourselves, too.

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From the NYT documentary “The Cancer Divide: Mary’s Story”










Visual storytelling invites us into the frame and gives us the space to add something of ourselves to the story – we observe and draw our own conclusions.


Mary Singleton

Good storytelling makes us want to find out what’s going to happen next. If we see people grapple with their challenges and the filmmaker shows them in a sympathetic light, their humanity shines through. We root for them as they try to overcome their difficulties.

Recently, I’ve been viewing some of the documentaries featured on the New York Times website. I’d like to share one – it’s beautifully crafted and infused with grace, a quiet dignity and some very touching moments. The 11-minute video finds Mary Singleton and her son George at one of life’s critical junctures.

The video also shows how capturing moments and creating scenes are fundamental to visual storytelling. You can read my previous post about capturing moments here.

High Tech, Low Life

Stephen Maing photo by Tina Rodriquez

Award-winning filmmaker Stephen Maing made this video almost singlehandedly, serving as producer, director, cinematographer and editor. From his website:

His filmmaking merges an interest in underrepresented individuals and communities, and the evolving considerations of identity, visual language and narrative structure.

His video, The Cancer Divide: Mary’s Story, grew out of a NYT article about race and access to medical care and treatment.  Stephen Maing uses visual storytelling to create an intimate portrait of a mother and her son. In it, we see the strong bonds of their relationship, her courage, acceptance and effort to make the most of the time she has left.

I like what Stephen Maing calls his “intimate observational style.” As a filmmaker, he pursues it with a quiet confidence and steely resolve that enables him to capture moments that reveal character and drive the story.

I’ve never met Stephen but there are a few things I can see from this piece. He’s very good at the technical stuff, with an excellent eye for composition. As the piece opens and we see Mary getting her hair cut, the visual framing and editing draw us in by raising questions: where are we, who is this woman, why is she having her hair cut so short? As the scene progresses, in a very economical way it tells us so much about who she is, what she’s facing, her internal resources and economic circumstances. We learn a little about her son George, too.

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From the NYT documentary “The Cancer Divide: Mary’s Story”

Visually, we first see things close up. As Mary has her hair trimmed the camera holds on each shot. There’s a light moment when the razor tickles her and she laughs.


From the NYT documentary “The Cancer Divide: Mary’s Story”

Then we hear her thoughts as she describes what she’s facing:

“The initial fear is that this is it… this is what’s going to take me out. You’re trying to process this whole idea that you’re going to die.”

We hear these words over a slow, gentle pan from her face up to her son’s hands as he gives her a buzz cut. The scene ends as it holds on a wide shot.

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From the NYT documentary “The Cancer Divide: Mary’s Story”

This wider view reveals she’s in her kitchen and then we have a few moments to absorb what we’ve seen and heard as the shot fades into the title. It’s a warm, intimate scene as Mary laughs and her son responds. The visuals with that playful exchange serve to counterpoint her seemingly grim words. The two juxtaposed together show us that we’re hearing from a strong woman, someone who understands her plight and seems ready to face it head on.

Steven Maing likes to frame his lens on a face and hold it there. It’s very effective, especially in a video that is so interior – meaning more about Mary and George’s thoughts than actions. The result is you get to hang out with each person and be there as their feelings float to the surface. So much is revealed in that quiet, steady frame and the gentle pacing lets you absorb their thoughts.

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From the NYT documentary “The Cancer Divide: Mary’s Story”

There’s a shot early in the piece after George comes into the kitchen and we see his mom sitting at the table with family. We hear Mary relating how she learned of her diagnosis. When the filmmaker wants to show us George’s reaction the camera stays on his face, even as he almost moves out of frame. The camera holds steady, then gently drifts to catch George’s sad profile. The quiet little pauses enhance the visual stillness. Together, they evolve into a meditation of quiet grace that helps us feel at one with George and Mary.

Watching the documentary, though, we’re not that aware of the camera work or editing. Everything is unobtrusive and moves the story along without calling attention to itself. Stephen Maing helps us become comfortable with silences, those almost motionless moments where time seems to hold its breath.

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From the NYT documentary “The Cancer Divide: Mary’s Story”

About eight minutes into the piece, we hear Mary’s voice from the Sunday school class trail over a scene of George in the car. George continues his thoughts, starting with “I don’t know how I can survive without her…” Again, the camera holds on his face and stays there even as Mary continues the dialogue.

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From the NYT documentary “The Cancer Divide: Mary’s Story”

In my years editing documentaries I’ve known very few cinematographers who would stay on a face as long. But they miss an opportunity, because the stillness gives us time to see feelings drift to the surface… things develop and evolve… offering a more sensual path to visual storytelling.

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From the NYT documentary “The Cancer Divide: Mary’s Story”

Something else I noticed – Stephen Maing succeeds in making himself invisible. He seems to fade into the woodwork, letting George and Mary forget about the camera and go on with their lives. Maing’s ability to blend in and his sensitive touch make his work all the more powerful.

In just eleven minutes it feels like we’ve traveled a great distance with George and Mary. We’ve been a witness to what they’re facing and how they’re responding to illness and loss. This video is really an emotional portrait of the two of them. You may have noticed that there are very few facts mentioned in the piece, still we spend enough time to feel at one with them. We’ve also gained some wisdom – Mary’s wisdom really – and a new perspective on something so fundamental to the human condition.

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From the NYT documentary “The Cancer Divide: Mary’s Story”

“Life is like a vapor and it don’t last long, so I really don’t have a whole lot of time… in between now and that moment, what is most important for me to be doing? In a way, knowing is a blessing… because you get to say all your good-byes.”


Kudos to Stephen Maing for giving us such a lyrical reflection on Mary’s strength and resolve as she comes to term with her dwindling days. Kudos also to the New York Times for reminding us about the power of thoughtful journalism and for trusting a visual storyteller to bring us their story.

So what are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let me know.