Filmmaker Feature: Zack Canepari of California Is A Place

California is a place where diversity, excitement, and unique stories emerge everyday. Most of the time, we only hear a small fraction of the peculiar happenings through the news and from our peers. And I would imagine a majority of these stories don’t have a positive twist. But in reality, we are missing a lot of what is going on in this special state. This is where Zack Canepari and Drea Cooper step in.

Emerging as a documentary photographer, Zack Canepari, has traveled the globe, documenting various cultures, events, and people through the lens. Working for a number of clients including The New York Times, The Guardian, Newsweek, TIME Magazine and The Chicago Tribune, Zack is no slouch with the camera. His images are beautiful and more than anything, they tell a story.

In 2009, Zack teamed up with Drea Cooper, a filmmaker and commercial director based in San Francisco, and created California is a place,  a series of short documentaries about California. In doing so, the two have put together some beautiful depictions of some of these unique happenings in California. The series was recently featured as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontiers section and was nominated for the IDFA DocLab award for Digital Storytelling. You’ll understand why when you see their work…

What came first first for you, photo or video? How have you been able to meld the two? What kinds of projects have you worked on?

Photography is my clear cut first love. My background is in documentary photography. I lived in India for 3 years working for international. magazines and newspapers. It was probably a timing thing that led me to shooting video. The quality of video cameras has finally evolved to the point where I felt that shooting video was an extension of shooting stills. There are incredible differences between video and stills but that core of photography is present in both mediums and that is why I feel comfortable in both worlds.

How did you and Drea Cooper come together to make these shorts? What’s his background in filmmaking?

Drea and I have known each other since 2004. We actually PA’d together on a Sega Commercial in the Bay Area. Even back then we discussed working on a project together. But life happens. We went our separate ways. I went forwards with my photo thing. He continued on as a filmmaker. When I came back from India in summer ’09, the time was just right. We went to Fresno on a whim and shot the Cannonball film. The rest is history.

What aspects of California do you think make it such a special place to focus on for your films? How do you try to capture this in your shorts?

California is a unique place. As we said in the description of the project, “if it exists in the world, it exists here and it does so with pizzazz.” Before we started, it just seemed like California was constantly being represented as this large ambiguous entity that had budget issues and an movie-star governor. But California is vast and diverse and has numerous different pockets. It seemed like none of the stories being told were very personal. Telling intimate stories is definitely one of our core motivations for the project. Also, California is our home. At least for me, I wanted to explore it as bit more. I wanted to understand it better and know more about it. That was a personal motivation for me.

You cover some interesting stories. How do you decide what to document?

It’s probably the other way around. Stories choose their storytellers. We just like what we like and the stories just emerge through the Ether. If the story feels right we investigate. If it feels really good, we just attack it. It’s not a very formulaic process. Every single one of our stories emerged a different way. Cannonball was recommended by a friend. Big Vinny was sparked by a sign on a door. Scrapertown came from a Medical Marijuana journal. Bordertown began at a funeral. Luckily Drea and I have similar interests. Otherwise the process would be much more difficult.

What do you think are the advantages of having a small production team as opposed to a large production house?

Coming from a documentary photo background, where you are literally the entire production, larger productions seem so clunky and ineffiecient. Especially for documentary. Too many people standing around or getting in the way. Maybe there will be a day when I appreciate the extra support but right now, we are so much more flexible working small. One of the main reasons I was interested in working with Drea was because we knew we could make great looking and interesting films without all the bells and whistles of traditional filmmaking. Being small allows us to be fast. And I think it makes our subjects far more comfortable. Generally, they are only dealing with Drea and I which is not nearly as overwhelming as the full crew scenario we’ve all come to expect.

What do you hope people take away from watching one of your films?

Good question. Honestly I don’t think about it too much. I really just hope that the films feel honest. That is very important. But besides that, I’m pretty selfish about my work. If the work feels good to me than I am happy.

What kind of equipment are you using?

That’s too personal a question. We use cameras. Ha!

For more on Zack’s work, check out http://www.californiaisaplace.com and http://www.canepariphoto.com