January 20th 2017 will be a big day for President Barack Obama. This day will mark the end of his 8 years in office as President of the United States of America and see him leave the Whitehouse. For 6 of those 8 years, Hope Hall has been his Principal Presidential Videographer, recording behind the scenes during his time in office at the Whitehouse and on presidential visits. In our interview, Hope tells us about her career, how she landed the job in the Whitehouse, her work with the President and as Hope's time in the Whitehouse is also at an end, what she plans to do next.
How did you get in to filmmaking?
My path to becoming a filmmaker was certainly circuitous! It makes a bit more sense in retrospect than it did as it was unspooling in front of me, though. I have been reorganizing visual space in order to tell the story from a new angle since I was a kid, and am still very compelled by what it means to rearrange a view or move a viewer in space and shift the pools of light and darkness. My mother was at times an interior designer and composer, and my father was part of a long line of storytellers through music and writing, with a strong foothold in advertising. I took off down a path of physical movement, first through gymnastics, then through classical and then modern dance, which led me to dance theater. As a company member of a dance theater group, everyone pitches in on everything, and I most often found myself drawn to helping out with the lighting design. This was right at the moment when projection design was becoming a central aspect of theater, and I started taking photographs and shooting films to project as part of the set and lighting design to contribute to the storytelling endeavor. It was immediate, and once I found my way in to auditing a film class, it turned out it was a documentary video class. I went with it, and after having been a photojournalist for a while then, adding motion to the still frame was thrilling, and felt like dance. Then once I got in to the edit room, I felt like I was moving things around the proscenium stage of the screen, and choreographing, except with total control instead of dancers showing up late or not at all! Add to it that Iíve had an activist bent for as long as I can remember, so the social justice aspect of documentary really appealed. And soÖI was hooked.
Did film or photography come first?
Photography came first, although whenever I could get my hands on a Bolex or a Super 8 camera while I was a photographer, I would grab it and excitedly and judiciously make an in-camera edited, single reel movie, because it was all I could justifiably afford. I learned on a Pentax K2, then on a field camera, and loved my time in the darkroom, but the chemicals ended up being too much for me. I still love taking photos and have really taken to Instagram, in particular because it draws on my lifelong love of making postcards and writing in that limited space to accompany, complement, and provide counterpoint to the visuals.
Why did you do a degree in History and French?
I loved my time as a History and French major, and was following the path of my interests wherever they led, as an idealistic undergrad named Hope is wont to do! I studied in Paris my junior year, and that experience not only change my life, but formed the shape of my major. In Paris, I was enrolled in a Critical Studies program, and the best fit for a descriptor for the range of courses I took there was History. The French credits were a result of my universityís strong language requirements for study abroad and for taking courses at foreign universities instead of in English language centers. I now use my critical thinking skills and love of language of any kind, more than I ever could have imagined I would during those heady days!
At what point did you decide you wanted to make a career as a filmmaker?
I would say it was back in that first class I audited, the documentary video class at the University of Oregon, when adding time and movement to still photography to become cinematography felt like the best kind of dance ever and choreography was rendered totally gleeful in the edit room. I had heard tell of this moment, this kind of a-ha moment, the proverbial Italian thunderbolt, when all of a sudden work feels like play and the road leading up to that moment makes perfect sense, but had honestly never pictured a way in which my wide-ranging interests and proclivities would ever actually synch up. And there it was. And as much as we humans normalize even the most extraordinary of circumstances, which of course I fall prey to often enough, I can honestly say that it still feels like play, and like the honor of a lifetime, of which it is both.
How did your Master's degree in Communication fit in?
I had moved to LA to work in documentary, and got a job at Behind the Music at VH1 as a researcher. It was a ridiculously fantastic experience all around, getting to be a third team member on a number of hour-long episodes and was exposed to every aspect of production along the way. But the big surprise was that I found mentors, who continue to guide me to this day. And with their encouragement I made good on a long-standing interest in continuing my education. I wanted to study documentary filmmaking, but film schools that replicated the structure of commerce, with its inherent exclusion and competition, were hard fits for me. So I looked at art schools that might welcome creative non-fiction filmmaking, and found the singular program that fit, at Stanford. So I got my Masters in Documentary Film & Video, which at the time lived in their Department of Communications, but has since migrated to the Art & Art History Department. The experience was singular, and a highlight of my life (so far), from my incredible cohort and professors to making the hardest work possible with all the support I could imagine. I am still grateful, all these years later!
Have you always freelanced or did you spend some time working as an employee?
This is my first full-time job! I have been freelance my whole working life, up until this job. This is my first business card. I did briefly take a full-time job in NYC after September 11th. In light of that experience, I signed up to teach at an incredible, alternative public high school. I loved it, but after a semester I realized that I should return to doing what I really loved, and that it would truly be the best way to contribute to my community with a full and healthy spirit. But I wouldnít have learned that lesson without that very humbling stint teaching Algebra II and Senior Science, and am so grateful to the faculty, staff and students of that incredible school for inviting me in and supporting me in that venture. And although the deal was that I was to come on full-time, I ended up only being paid when another teacher was absent, even though I wasnít a substitute, so on some accounting level this is still my first full-time job!
How did you land such an exciting role at the White House?
Honestly, just about every day on the job I have a moment where I get goosebumps and have to have a little freak out in a quiet corner, I still canít believe itís real.
So I was living in downtown Manhattan on September 11th, and like so many, my life has a before and an after that day. I had always had an activist bent, growing up keenly aware of and mobilized by staggering inequality and injustice around me. So when it came time to organize around and advocate for a compassionate response to the attacks, and to march for peace, I was all in. I had become a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, and began working within the confusing landscape of the blended marriage of creative non-fiction with activism. I organized for the í04 election cycle. I marched and marched, and documented those marches on 16mm film. I started a community garden, taught algebra, and shot feature docs and music videos. I was trying out projects on every front, with the through line of advocating for a society that works to alleviate suffering, inequality and injustice face first and head on. Then came Barack Obama. Hope and change. In 2006, a dear friend started making a documentary on then-Senator Obama, with the idea that he might run in 2012. I came on as a second camera, every once in a while, and signed up as a field organizer in New York. You know the story well by now: Everything changed, he won Iowa. I was there and now filming every month or so, as things and events took off and the doc needed more coverage. Then came the call to join the campaignís New Media team, and suddenly the most intense and magical five months of my life rolled out before me. It all felt like the strangest dream.
Grant Park (editor's note: Is in Chicago and it's at this location that Barack Obama gave his victory speech after winning the presidential election in 2008) is the best night of my life, so far. So then came transition, which was incredibly interesting, in that eight of us from New Media took on creating the initial reworking of whitehouse.gov. But by Inauguration Day I was ready to return home, to my life, to my own work, while one of my colleagues on the campaign, Arun Chaudhary, was ready to stay on and help create the position of Presidential Videographer. Two years later, I had been hired to travel the country alongside some of my campaign colleagues and make the reelection announcement video, which culminated in filming the President, in the White House, announcing his official candidacy for reelection. I couldnít believe it, setting foot in the White House? Me? And then two months later, I came on as the new Presidential Videographer. That was almost six years ago, and every day still feels like a dream. (Editor's note: Part of Hope's reply to this question was taken from another article here. These were Hope's words and have been included in this article at Hope's suggestion).
"I have the best job ever, by a margin of a zillion." Please tell us about your work with the President.
Simply put, I have the best job ever, by a margin of a zillion. I am the Principal Presidential Videographer, and when I came on to the job, the position moved from the Photo Office into the Office of Digital Strategy. So my job is to try to contribute video of the President to the mission of the team I work with: connecting people with purpose and meeting people where they are, which is online. Every public event the President participates in is already documented by the White House Communications Agency, so they are the ones who make sure that complete footage of every one of his public events is documented and made available online, through the public domain and at times, livestreamed. My job is more editorial in that my work is more often handheld and behind the scenes rather than on a tripod from a riser.
How much of your own filmmaker's vision are you allowed to apply to your work or are there media guidelines that manage your output?
I liken my frame to be akin to that of an artist in residence, or a foreign exchange student, in that I am trusted to use my very specific craft, tone, skills, and perspective within an unlikely setting. Every frame is presidential records and everything we release is public domain, so I work in tandem with and rely heavily on my colleagues in order to make sure my work fits within the bigger picture.
Do you edit your own footage or is there a media team to do that?
Team Video, of which I am a proud member, in our Office of Digital Strategy is now up to four people, plus our dedicated and heavily-relied-upon intern. We all do everything and help each other with every step of the process, which is ideal.
How is your work used by the White House?
Referring to my earlier answer and add that what online means is every social platform that the White House and President is represented on. That means we contribute video to the following, but not comprehensive, list: wh.gov, Youtube, Vimeo, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr and Medium.
What have been the highs and lows of your time with President Obama?
I will honestly say that there are moments of each day where I am overwhelmed by the honor that is being in this job, and other moments when I am deeply frustrated by its limitations. The way that I have moved through the world, in this capacity, is unlike anything I could have ever imagined I would experience, so the overarching highlights include access to spaces like the private areas of the Vatican, or being at Stonehenge and the Acropolis and Yosemite, with the President of the United States. But of course itís the smaller moments, the kindnesses Iíve experienced here, the camaraderie, and the honor that it is to work alongside such outstandingly incredible people. I hear so many of my colleagues here say the same thing, itís just such an exceptional experience that it bears repeating! The lows are a direct result of the fatigue, and often include sickness and accidents. Itís an untenable pace, but because itís finite, we all just go for it with the time that we have here. I will include my mindset sheet Iíve come up with during my time here, which has been one of the big surprises of this best job ever: Iíve figured out how to take care of myself, both my inner and outer life, all because I didnít want to burn out! I will use these mindset life-lessons for the rest of my life, of that Iím sure.
Tell us about the equipment you're using to capture the footage of the President.
Hereís the progression:
Sony EX3 for run and gun, Canon 5d for produced settings like the weekly address.
Then the EX3 got replaced by a Canon FX205, much to the relief of my muscular and skeletal structure.
Then we moved everything over to the Sony A7 and even have a Ronin to go with!
Facebook Lives started on the iPhone then moved to A7s once we had the capability.
Do you get to use different equipment to suit a specific event/scenario?
Absolutely, see the list above, makes such a big difference to be able to adjust the gear to the situation!
Has the ever-evolving technology in the video world changed the way you work?
I have fun playing with and adapting to the strengths and weaknesses of each camera and kit. From a one-take on an iPhone to a zillion re-takes while riding a crane, it feels like play. I have been told by the President and others that while I work Iím often both smiling and deeply focused, which reflects how I feel in that moment! Iíve been dubbed Ďthe human tripodí and I was recently told by a photographer I work alongside that there is a confident patience in my movements and approach. I say all these things because I think it is my approach that has adapted as the landscape and technology has changed.
Is there a piece of work of which you're most proud?
I think Iíll be considering how to answer this question for many years to come, and that my response may evolve over time in light of the beauty of hindsight. But I have so many favorites, and will narrow them down to a few here!
Fifth Anniversary of West Wing Week.
Our single most successful piece of content in office of digital strategy history for reach and engagement is The Secret to Still Dancing at 106.
Now that President Obama's term is coming to an end, what happens next for you?
Iím so sad, of course, about the end of this dreamy chapter, but I am looking forward to a change of pace and the freshness and openness that comes with a new chapter! In the immediate future Iím going to take a mini-sabbatical, am going to press pause, and am calling it ďVisit the Visionaries.Ē Iíve got a running list of folks I admire, not just in film but across all mediums, from whose lives in the intersection of art, social justice, and tech I draw great strength. So I am going to track them down, thank them for the inspiration, and just have a visit. I love that work life is poised to become office-free, and a sideline of this project is to check out the range of visions for studio- and work-spaces. I want to take the time to reacquaint myself with whatís going on and whoís doing what in the world outside this glorious and strange bubble Iíve been in. And yes, absolutely, in addition to researching during the mini-sabbatical that is ďVisit the VisionariesĒ, this pause time to go lateral will include lots of deep rest and restorative practices. While itís the best job ever, the pace is taxing.
How do you find time to pursue the many other projects you have on-going such as your cinematography on the documentary about the victim mediation at Pennsylvania prisons?
This is my first full-time job, so I had to adjust to being unable to say yes to any outside projects after doing the freelance juggle for 11 years. It was a big adjustment!
What was the best career advice you were ever given?
I have collected pieces of advice that I use on various, differing occasions, especially when faced with conundrums along the career path. (See below).
What advice would you give to someone who wishes to become a filmmaker?
Please refer to the previous question!
Hope's mindset sheet and collection of advice for others:
When I feel overwhelmed or stressed or lose my center, I draw on one or all of these things:
Be kind & be useful.
Slow way, way down.
Let the world speak to you.
Rest your mind on your breath.
I am only as good as the company I keep.
How can I best support my own vulnerability?
Compassion is the highest form of critical thinking.
My life, which includes my work, is only as good as I feel.
Try to put how you want to feel ahead of what you want to be or even do.
This is what I'm doing, this thing, right now; drop the words, stick with the feeling.
Be ready for opportunities & openings as they come along; change is the only constant.
Go toward the good, the good people, the good moments and let the rest of the static, noise and drama fall away.
Follow your interests, wherever they lead will be somewhere that lights up your eyes, or floats your cork; notice when you get excited and/or confused by things, write down these moments and let them guide you.
When I realize I am distracted, I ask: What is standing between me and being present right now?
When Iím confused by someone elseís behavior: I try to imagine what it feels like to do or say what theyíre doing or saying & feel that it is good, correct, right, justified, chosen, the way I typically feel about my own choices. More often than not, we believe weíre right. Everyone makes sense to themselves. Sometimes I call this personal logic.
When Iím humbled by a moment when Iím fumbling: I smile & wave at the world and say, ďThis is me learning, right here & right now,Ē & to myself, gently, trying to remember to laugh while I say it, ďChallenges are opportunities for growth.Ē
When I feel myself shutting down in a stressful situation, proverbially clenching my fist: I imagine what it would be like to open my hand, gently, so that a feather or a bird could land on it (I know how cheesy that sounds, but I say it anyway). I dial down the seven inputs of experience (five sense, thoughts, and feelings) and tune in to the constant current of my witnessing consciousness. I notice my heart when it closes, then let the waves of feelings flow through my heart, unstuck.
The gifts my father left me:
I refuse to be insulted;
The trick is to be ready;
How lucky are we to live in this beautiful place?
Hope on Instagram: instagram.com/hopiehall
Hope's website: www.hopehall.com
All images used with permission.
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