Audio culture

Italian filmmaker Leonardo Dalessandri spent a year making a three-minute video, which took the world by storm and transformed his career.

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The emails arrived from all over the world—Egypt, Dubai, Catalonia, Portugal, Panama, Greece. The question was the same: “We’ll fly you here. Will you make a video for our country?”

It was October 2014, and Leonardo Dalessandri had just uploaded his annual personal project to his Vimeo channel. This year, he’d made a short video about the month he’d spent wandering around Turkey filming everyday life. He’d thought it might make a cool follow-up to his first travel video, Watchtower of Morocco, which he’d made a year earlier. But the response to this new work was quite different. It took a week to rocket around the world, its energy and breathless progression of scenes—more than 280 shots in three minutes—leaving millions of viewers astonished and delighted.

Watchtower of Turkey accomplishes what every piece of travel media yearns to achieve: it depicts a country in a completely fresh way. Sure, there are familiar sights: whirling dervishes, the Blue Mosque, bazaars, balloons over Cappadoccia—but they’re interspersed with robots, rosary beads, playgrounds, washing lines, men greeting on the street, women glancing out bus windows, builders at work, a couple dancing at their wedding, children riding on the back of streetcars. “Usually I fall in love with people, with some story about people,” says Dalessandri. “I don’t usually go to tourist places because these are something that everybody can find.

I want to tell a story about how Turkish people live, what they do. I don’t want to shoot beautiful moments, just real moments. I started to talk with families—they made me really welcome, they explained what Turkey is to me. It’s like a postcard for me—this is how I spent my time in Turkey.”

He teamed up with a Turkish musician, Meryam Aboulouafa, whose voice features in the video, to introduce him to locals, and he travelled light—most of the video was filmed on a Lumix GH3, with the occasional shot from a GoPro or his iPhone 4. You don’t want to miss the moment, he points out. Along the way, he recorded ambient sound on a Tascam microphone—snippets of conversation, street noise, the beating of wings, running water, the call to prayer.

Despite the dizzying progression of scenes in Watchtower of Turkey—more than one per second, on average—there hardly seem to be cuts between shots. This is because Dalessandri painstakingly matched each scene to the next, piecing together similar movements, colours and shapes to create a seamless flow of images. “I want the viewer to perceive my edit as one continuous flow of impressions, cut on the rhythm of the movements and emphasised by the ambient sounds,” he wrote online.

Watchtower of Morocco doesn’t have the same sense of flow, because he’d filmed it primarily as a series of static shots. But in Turkey, he started adding camera movements, and kept an eye out for potential transitions—panning behind walls, fences or lattices, people walking in front of the shot, a boy covering the lens with his hand.

The key was getting the tempo of the video right, he says. He spent most of the editing process on sound design, and since it was his first foray into audio post-production, he had to teach himself how to layer sounds from scratch. He couldn’t start work on the video properly until he’d found the right score—an instrumental track by Italian film composer Ludovico Einaudi, which he edited to the length and tempo that he wanted.

It took him a year’s worth of late nights and weekends to finish Watchtower of Turkey. Sometimes he had to leave it and come back, not touching the video for a month or more, in order to look at it with fresh eyes.

There’s no way of scripting this style of video. In Turkey, and earlier, in Morocco, Dalessandri filmed whatever struck his eye at the time, and introduced a sense of narrative and flow through the editing process and the addition of music. “New ideas come to you while you shoot,” he says. “They come out of what you find on your trip—the rhythm of life in each country is different.”
Dalessandri filmed Watchtower of Turkey on several different cameras. To ensure his footage had the same look, he exported all of it as PNG image files so that he could colour-grade them with VSCO presets. This was extremely time-consuming, he admits, but he's pleased with the result.
Dalessandri filmed Watchtower of Turkey on several different cameras. To ensure his footage had the same look, he exported all of it as PNG image files so that he could colour-grade them with VSCO presets. This was extremely time-consuming, he admits, but he’s pleased with the result.

He wasn’t expecting the flood of job offers that ensued. He turned them all down—partly for logistical reasons, partly for artistic ones. “This kind of project is really time-consuming—at least one or two months for shooting, editing, colour grading,” he says. “It’s complicated to do, and I want to change something in each video that I produce.”

But within the deluge of emails that arrived in the wake of Watchtower of Turkey’s success was an invitation from David Bates, the founder of San Francisco creative agency Bokeh—a start-up specialising in video and new media production. By chance, one of Bokeh’s clients had a relationship with Turkey, so after a few months of cross-Atlantic collaboration, Dalessandri and Bates flew to Istanbul to meet—and shoot together for the first time. “I was struck by the emotionality of Watchtower despite its fast pace, its kinetic energy,” Bates told me. “What makes the piece such a unique story of a location is its ability to dive into the culture in the way that other travel videos just stay on the surface.”

Dalessandri originally studied film and theatre at the University of Parma, then taught himself how to use Final Cut and After Effects through online tutorials. He spent his early career assisting renowned Italian DOP Filippo Chiesa, and has been freelance since, travelling the world to shoot commercials and music videos. Now, he has joined Bokeh in San Francisco to work on a major video project for Google. “We’re looking at different ways to apply Leo’s style and aesthetic,” says Bates. “We’re interested in exploring ways that are product-focused rather than experience-focused.”

That suits Dalessandri just fine. His primary creative goal, he says, is to find new ways to tell stories, and to accomplish that, he’s on a constant quest for ideas. He likes cinema from the 1940s and 1950s, and family videos on YouTube, the kind that only have three or four views, but which capture genuine emotions.

“The other day we spent four hours watching videos on YouTube and Vimeo,” he laughs. “We take something from everything that is able to capture our attention.”

Dalessandri spent a lot of time thinking about how Watchtower of Turkey might capture the attention of different kinds of people. He had two audience members in his mind, a young girl and an old man, and he wanted each to find something within it that delighted them. “I am taking three minutes of the life of the person watching my work, so I have to give them something back.”

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