Documentary production can take you to some strange places at odd times. In this case, midnight on Lake Erie on a sailboat.
Here’s the inside story….
In September 1864, John Yates Beall, our Virginia pirate, and his band of compatriots sailed out onto Lake Erie, intent on liberating the Confederate officers imprisoned on Johnson’s Island.
On board the ferryboat they commandeered, Beall and his band reached Marblehead Lighthouse, which marks the rocky shores along the narrow entrance into Sandusky Bay, where Johnson’s Island is located.
In the documentary our expert observes, “it was dark; it was very dark.”
So how could you show this dramatic moment without going out on Lake Erie in the dead of night?
Even I wasn’t willing to take the chance in the fall, when the treacherous narrow entrance into Sandusky Bay is especially shallow.
But nothing could stop us from doing it at midnight one night in July 2011.
The problem was finding someone willing to take us out in a sailboat.
I made lots of calls. Some politely declined; a couple laughed, and one just grumbled and hung up.
Finally Capt. Jim of Erie Spirit Sailing agreed.
There were five of us that night – experienced videographer Chris Collins and his wife, University of Akron Communication major Ryan Keeper, UA Communication graduate student Gabor Smith and me.
We were all eager for this new adventure – although a few of us (the passengers over the age of 30) were a little apprehensive.
Capt. Jim seemed like a nice enough guy and a competent, experience seaman — and his 33-foot sailboat gave us all a lot of confidence.
After Capt. Jim went over all the safety instructions, we were ready to sail.
It was a warm, beautiful night. Quiet. Dark.
It took about an hour to reach the lighthouse. (That’s just a guess. It was so dark that you couldn’t really see anything, except the lights along the shoreline and the stars in the sky. No one wanted to pull out a cell phone to check the time, lest it ruin the mood – or fall overboard.)
Chris started shooting; then Ryan, more sure footed on the boat, tried his hand.
Shooting at night takes a special skill and good equipment. The University of Akron’s School of Communication has three JVC 700 HD cameras, which are used by the advanced undergraduate and graduate students. As one of the top shooters in the school, Ryan was used to “Alfred,” the camera we took out that evening. Ryan opened “Alfred’s” aperture to its widest and cranked up the shutter speed. Then Ryan climbed over everyone, stabilized the camera and went to work.
When you watch the documentary, you’ll see the dark waters of Lake Erie at midnight, the strange glow from the Marblehead Lighthouse and the twinkling stars in the heavens above. Those set the mood for a mutiny on Lake Erie.
Not to be outdone, Gabor, our audio specialist, recorded all the sounds that night. The ambient sounds that accompany the video are not effects purchased on the internet; they are Gabor’s work.
We spent so much time along the Marblehead Peninsula shoreline, our sailboat must have looked like it was in distress. Another boater pulled alongside and asked if we were all right. Capt. Jim assured him of our safety and we continued with the shoot.
That dark, quiet night on Lake Erie, I wondered about Beall’s trip on Lake Erie. He and his men had been sailing all day. They must have been exhausted by the time they saw the light of the Marblehead Lighthouse.
If you want to know what happened next, you’ll just need to tune in to the “Rebels on Lake Erie” broadcast on Western Reserve Public Media on April 23 — or come to the free public preview on April 19 at the old Quaker Inn in Akron