How Canon’s Connect App Provides Filmmakers with Disabilities Independence
Bob Ness was a college student at Augustana College in early January of 1987, aspiring toward a career in communications. He and his friend Don had just traveled to Cedar Rapids, where they were making arrangements for their fraternity’s spring formal. It was a perfectly mundane road trip. Neither of them could have possibly predicted what would become a defining moment in their lives.
As they headed back to Illinois through West Liberty, Iowa, Don accidentally lost control of the car in a corner, rolling it over as it came to a stop on its roof. Don managed to walk away from the crash unscathed, but Bob had suffered a broken neck as the roof caved in on his head.
First responders raced Bob to University of Iowa Hospital, where he’d spend the next ten weeks in an ICU. He was aspirated and had coded four times, but somehow, he always found a way to come back. And after a grueling, extensive period of rehabilitation and therapy, Bob Ness was able to graduate in 1988, thanks in large part to all the family and friends who supported him in the wake of his accident.
Some might wrongly assume that such a harrowing ordeal would take something away from a person’s personality, but Bob proves that simply isn’t the case. He’s upbeat, funny, humble, and all-around charismatic. He tells jokes adjacent to his disability, even dabbling in stand-up comedy and producing comedic shorts about it in the past.
Today, Bob owns and operates a successful video production company—Sliding Board Productions, named after a tool familiar to those in wheelchairs as a device that helps transition you between items of furniture—with a lengthy list of impressive clientele. And in his off-hours, he shoots video and performs in a 70’s and 80’s cover band, Quadriphonica. His creativity seems boundless; he’s one of those people who can unknowingly and unintentionally inspire you to get work done on your creative passion projects, without those projects even entering your conversation with him.
I sat down with Bob to discuss film production, the evolution of media, music, and the impressive Canon Connect App, which allows Bob to get involved in new avenues of the production process that were previously difficult, if not impossible, for him to experience.
Matt Terzi: So, tell me about Sliding Board Productions and the work you do.
Bob Ness: I started my company about five years ago. I’ve been working in production for twenty years. I started a company in the 90’s with a friend and it was all tape based with beta SP. Non-linear editing had kinda just started. As a quad it was really cumbersome to be dealing with really heavy tapes and popping them in and out of cameras and tape decks.
After we ended our partnership, I kept on going. I worked for Channel 11 here in Chicago and a couple other places, and then in marketing, and then started working again full-on in production when editing gear really started to become digital. There were no more tapes; it became all SD cards, SxS cards, CF [CompactFlash] cards, things like that. So I started to get to know the editing interfaces better while they kept getting better with Final Cut 7.
I started my own company in 2013. I had some clients who were asking for some work. The guy I was working with at the time had moved out to Las Vegas, so I said “Okay, I’ll start my own company and talk to clients and start doing videos for them.” At that point I had plenty of contacts in terms of cameramen and sound—all crew, basically—and if I needed some extra graphics work I could reach out to other people.
I’ve been on my own for five years, working with marketing departments, non-profits, anybody that needs a video. I’ll hire the crews, direct the crews, manage the client, and manage their expectations, which is probably the biggest part of being a producer. And then I’ll do all the editing and deliver the rough cuts to Final Cut.
Terzi: It seems like your company covers every single aspect of production. I’ve seen other companies that won’t, say, help with brainstorming or script writing.
Ness: I’ve seen companies that will only focus on post, there are companies that will focus on coloring. They can be really specific and only focus on one aspect of production. For me it’s kind of more soup to nuts. I like to meet with clients and discuss what hurdles they’re trying to get over. You know, what’s stopping them or what message are they trying to get out, or if they’re having any issues with their messaging. We’ll sit down and talk with them about their needs and what they’d like to express visually, and we’ll do a bit of handholding, because a lot of them don’t know what’s possible now with video and animation. We’ll try and glean as much as we can from a simple conversation and come back to them with a treatment, perhaps even a voice over, and some rough ideas for visuals, and then go from there. We’ll go shoot it, record voice over, and then deliver, and that’s what I think is fun.
Last year I did a video for a nonprofit called The Anixter Center. It’s for adults with developmental disabilities. They just wanted to show people with disabilities interacting, and I thought it would be fun to record a song, and so a friend of mine wrote a song for it. The woman who was the director of development in the marketing department really really loved it. She wanted to shoot it in the style of a video she showed me. And so we put a light on a crane and did a half-rotation around the subject in a dark room, and we shot it all in slow motion. It was a nice way to show their clients literally in a different light. It ended up being a really cool video. I’m really proud of the lyrics, which were written specifically for the client, and I’m a musician so I love music, and it was fun to work as a musician. It was a really fun project I got to sink my teeth into.
Terzi: Let’s talk about Canon’s Camera Connect app. It was a game changer, I take it?
Ness: When I first was introduced to the Canon Connect App, I was at a fundraiser for Backbones, which is a nonprofit out here in Chicago. I went with a friend of mine, a rock photographer, and he’s always got his camera with him. I went to this opening and I thought I’d shoot a little bit, and I brought my GoPro, because, you know, I can’t really use big ass DSLR cameras, which I’d love to be able to do by myself. So I brought the GoPro and hooked it on my chair, and I was getting my own little dolly shots. And my friend Dave said “Hey, this Canon 5D Mark IV, it has an app, and I can hold the camera and you can pull focus.” And I kinda was like, “What!” I had never heard of such a thing. And so he paired his phone with the camera—the camera was set up on the WIFI network—and I was kind of directing him to get the shots, saying “get the painting on the wall, and then point down to the woman at the table.” And I could hit the focus point on the app when I felt that I wanted to move the focus, and you could change the speed of it and everything.
So that was the first time that I used it. I almost fell over with glee. I was so happy that I could be a part of the production. Instead of having to explain everything, I could see it happening. I could see it in my hands. I could see the shot as it’s happening, and I could actually call it and say “Move the camera over here, and I’ll tap the focus when I’m ready to see it move.”
That was the game changer for me. And in the presence of someone who worked for Canon, which couldn’t have been more serendipitous. Elizabeth Pratt, [Canon’s] Director of Global Professional Services was there and saw Dave and I playing like two little ten year olds in a sandbox, and me saying “Do this! Let’s do this! Get a shot of that!” I couldn’t get enough of it.
It was something I’d always wanted to do. I’ve been saying technology finally caught up to me. Cameras used to be gigantic and unwieldy to hold. And I wouldn’t want to hold one and drop it, you know, a $20,000 camera. So now I could take a DSLR with a really good lens on it, and it’s a little bit heavy but it’s not unmanageable, and I could put it on a monopod. I had a custom monopod mount made for my chair, and I can go out by myself now and shoot my own videos, not to mention be my own dolly and get my own dolly shots.
So I started talking to Elizabeth about the gear, and she was kind enough to send me a 5D Mark IV to explore the technology and my skills with the camera, and it really just didn’t disappoint one time. It was intuitive, everything’s a touch screen so I didn’t have to touch dials or push buttons on the camera itself. As a quad without dexterity in my fingers, pushing tiny buttons and doing small adjustments on knobs is tough, but hitting a touch screen is a lot easier. And you can slide everything from the ISO to the aperture to shutter speed, like everything is on a touch screen. It makes everything simple as a person with a disability to use. All of the controls that were there for able-bodied photographers were accessible, literally, to people with disabilities.
Terzi: Had you worked with DSLR cameras before this app came out? What was that like?
Ness: Yeah, my first DSLR I bought was probably in 2011. I bought a Canon Rebel T3i, because a friend of mine had one and he was telling me “you know, the auto-focus is getting pretty fast and you should try it.” So I bought one with probably half a dozen lenses, prime lenses and a couple of zoom and wide angle lenses, and really long lenses as well. It was great for taking pictures. It didn’t have any of the touch screens [of the app] back in 2011. It was pretty much just pointing it at your subject, push the shutter release, and hopefully it was focusing on what you wanted to be in focus. (laughs) You know, if you’re standing ten feet in front of a horse, it doesn’t know if you want the horse or the person. It would just sort of focus on whatever it thought you wanted.
But I did go out and take a lot of photos, and that for me was liberating creatively, because I could never go out and use a DSLR before then. Number one, it was film, and then the second aspect was the auto-focus, I needed to have that, because I can’t turn a focus dial, and I can kind of turn a zoom ring on the lens, but focusing and looking through a tiny viewfinder just wasn’t going to happen. So having the LCD screen was really helpful for photography, but again, that was mostly for stills. With video I just couldn’t use it because the focus was too hard to do, so I didn’t use the T3i for video at all unless someone else could focus it for me.
That’s why when I started using the 5D Mark IV, I could just tell it to follow someone’s face and the camera will just stay in focus. So it was like an evolution from the first easy-to-use digital camera to this incredible technological monster of a camera that does everything. So Canon really upped their game with this, and I don’t even know if they designed the app and all the features for people with disabilities or if it was just for ease of use, but it sure worked out well for people with disabilities and for myself in particular.
The T3i was a great starting place, just for me to kind of learn photography, learn about the lenses, shutter speeds, ISO, aperture, focal length, and everything else. So that was much needed, but then I wanted more.
Terzi: Let’s time-travel a little bit. How did you first get started in film production?
Ness: After college I met a friend who was going to Columbia here in Chicago, and we’d just be putting all these funny ideas together. (laughs) Or what we thought were funny ideas, as you do when you’re a kid in your twenties. So we would end up going out and shooting film on his Bolex; he had a Bolex camera from Columbia. We just sort of hit it off personally and creatively, he was fun to hang out with and we got along, we had similar ideas, and he would use the camera and I would just sort of bark out orders and shots and things that I thought would be funny. And then he and I started the first company together, TEN 8 Productions, that was in the 90’s, I think from ‘94 to ‘99.
I love making videos. I started doing it when I was in college, or high school even, and it was fun to find someone who had the same kind of sense of humor that I did. It was fun, we got some clients, we did some fun work, and then it sort of ran its course, and then we both moved on.
Terzi: So you were around for that whole transition from analog to digital. You saw that whole evolution.
Ness: (Laughs) Yeah.
Terzi: What were some of the pros and cons of cutting analog tape, versus using something like, say, a Final Cut Pro for digital?
Ness: It’s kind of funny because now that I’m older, you kinda see kids’ eyes roll up into their heads—”kids” being younger people in production—listening to some older guy talk about tape, it’s like hearing some guy talking about (funny old man voice) “My radio show used to be so good, and then television ruined everything!”
Ness: I can’t really talk about the glory days of tape because it really wasn’t great to work with. It was hard to cut, you couldn’t see it, it wasn’t a nonlinear editing system, it was linear. And when I first started it was cuts only, you know? You’d literally cut the tape and put it together and just hope you got it at the right time, and that was hard. And for me it was kind of a nonstarter, I couldn’t physically cut tape and then tape it together. I could do it with film, where you’re looking through a scope, but I couldn’t sit there and cut a 16mm Bolex for the rest of my career (laughs).
As soon as it became digital it was great, because you could shoot something and then see it frame-by-frame, in advance. There was a tape and nonlinear hybrid. It was the first time I had set up a timeline that had a clip that referenced a section of tape. It was called the FAT video system if I recall. I haven’t thought about that in a long time. But you’d have two play decks and one record deck, so you could do A/B roll, you could do a dissolve, which was mind-blowing. But you can do that on your phone now, so it’s a yawner for anyone who didn’t have to live through tape.
But when that finally happened and you could visually see a timeline and see your whole project on that timeline, that was really a lightbulb going off and you think “wow, this is really gonna start to get good.”
But then, as you know, there are hundreds of different formats and codecs. Everything had to kind of sort itself out. There were ten years there where it was the Wild West of codecs. Things started to settle down in the last few years, which is good.
Back then it was all 4:3 aspect ratio, and then we started to get up to 16:9, widescreen, which looks a lot nicer. I actually just found an old drive with a project on it somebody asked me about and it was 4:3, and I was like “God, I can’t believe we used to work in that ratio!” But all TV’s were square back then, and that’s the way it was.
But I’m not reminiscing fondly for the days of tape. Like I said, it was hard, they were cumbersome, they were heavy, and they took up a ton of space. We had walls and walls of tape in our studio. It was like asking for help in a grocery store. “Hey, can you grab that tape off the shelf, fourth over from the left, from that one shoot, so I can grab that one shot from it?” So yeah, it’s definitely not on my “want to go back in the time machine” list.
Terzi: There’s a big difference I’ve seen between filmmakers and sound engineers, where filmmakers don’t really want to go back, but some sound engineers want to try and replicate the old analog reel-to-reel tape sounds and use software plugins to do that. Do you ever get clients who want a vintage or a retro style? Is that something that’s easy to do with modern software?
Ness: Nobody has specifically asked, and that’s sort of, I guess, an irony of it, where I don’t miss it, but now there are so many plugins where you can make it look like bad TV from the 70’s or 80’s, and if you want it to look like video, you can make it look like you shot it on a video tape. But as least we’re starting with the highest quality images, and you can correct them as you see fit with effects.
I can see that with audio too, where you’re listening to a record, but the crackle of the needle between songs? That’s music in and of itself, you know? You can feel that there’s a physical connection that makes noise. Everything that’s digital is just zeros and ones. So I can see why audio guys want something that actually vibrates as opposed to a file.
If there is footage that I get that looks marginal, I’ll sometimes make it look worse, like I meant to do that. (laughs) I can put scratches on it and give it a film look, if it fits the theme of the video. It’s nice to have those options, so you don’t have to just take whatever comes out of the camera. So yeah, audio guys, video guys, everybody’s got extra plugins to make it seem like it’s from back in the day when it used to be harder to do things.
Terzi: Actually, speaking of music, I know Sliding Board Productions has done some work with Shure Microphones.
Ness: Yeah yeah, they’re fun.
Terzi: They have the SM57 and SM58, which are so versatile. You find them in the studio, you find them on stage—
Ness: They’re the workhorse of the industry!
Terzi: (laughs) Yeah, they really are. Are those as ubiquitous in the film world as they are in music? Do they have an equivalent in the film world?
Ness: I don’t think so. Those mics have been around fifty years. They’re as relevant and useful today, and indestructible, as they were back then. That’s why people love them. They found a recipe for success and perfection. People love those mics.
I’m in a band that does 70’s and 80’s smooth rock, it’s called Quadriphonica. We play smooth rock, you know, “the AM hits of the 70’s and 80’s.” When I get on stage I’ve got a 58, and it’s great. You see that wire mesh and it’s a very comfortable feeling to look down and see that.
I don’t think there’s a piece of equipment in the film world [that equates]. I don’t work in that upper-caliber of production. A friend of mine just bought some Cooke lenses that Spielberg used, probably to make Jaws. There are companies that have been making the same gear for fifty years, a hundred years, but don’t quote me on that. I’m not at that Spielberg level of production. (laughs)
But yeah, you can buy an SM57 or 58 for a hundred bucks, you know? And it’s gonna to be the mic that’s on stage for The Stones or it’s gonna be in a dingy, dirty club that smells like beer and spit.
Terzi: Yeah, I’m a drummer and pretty much everything on my kit is all 57’s.
Ness: So yeah, you know! They’re everywhere!
Terzi: Yeah, when when someone wants a 57 or a 58, they want a 57 or a 58. They want something they can drop out of a third-story window, and then jam an XLR into it and it’s still going to work.
Ness: Exactly! Yeah, if you go to Shure’s YouTube page, a friend of mine named Mike—his online monicker is Shure Mike—eight or nine years ago he did these stress tests where he’d like, stick them in a barbeque, shoot at them, drop them out of a helicopter—
Ness: On St. Patrick’s Day he dropped one into a beer, pulled it out, and still got sound. Rolled it over with a tour bus, plugged it in and got sound. Yeah, they’re indestructible, and they’re the workhorse of the industry. I use a couple of them for my podcast. I do a podcast called The Quad Podcast. They’ve been very nice and set me up with some SM58’s and some SM7B’s to talk into, to yap, about quad life.
Terzi: So let’s swing things back toward film. What sort of work did you do in film production, professionally, before Sliding Board?
Ness: I worked for Channel 11 at their local PBS station here for a while. I worked in marketing. The guy I worked with at Ten 8 had a film production company and needed some help, so I worked with him for a couple of years. Then I got hired away for marketing by a German company that did videos between Germany and America. Then that company closed up, and I started to work with Brian again at his company MediaVision Productions. Then he moved out to Vegas, so that’s when I started Sliding Board. I kind of have a thread of working with Brian.
Terzi: What made you decide to go for it and start your own company with Sliding Board?
Ness: Well Brian had moved to Vegas, and I said “Well you know, I’ve got clients, and I’ve got people I can call for work. I can’t work with Brian anymore, so I guess I’m just going to start my own company.” So I filed all the paperwork and incorporated with the State, and I had relationships with people who needed video, so I decided I’d just give it a whirl. I bought an iMac with as much RAM and storage as I could get, and I just started rounding up clients. Someone would see something at a fundraiser and say “Hey, who made that?” “Oh, Bob made that.” There was some good word of mouth.
Terzi: Sliding Board does a lot of work with nonprofits and for-profits that cater to people with disabilities and disability advocacy.
Ness: Yeah, I’ve worked with Neumann Family Services, I worked with Anixter. I have a friend whose an executive director and she’s really passionate about working with people with disabilities, and making sure she’s working with people with disabilities to get their message out. And I appreciated that because there’s a large unemployment rate for people with disabilities. It sometimes takes a lot of guts to put faith in people with disabilities and get things done. It’s horrible to say but there’s a lot of discrimination against people with disabilities. But she’s an advocate for people with disabilities, and she’d hire people with disabilities to do the work for these companies. And I appreciate it, and I think we did a great job for her. I think we did four or five videos, and they all look really good as far as I’m concerned.
I also work with other nonprofits like Cabrini Green Legal Aid, telling the stories of people who’ve been incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit. Once they get out of jail, you know, how do you get back into the workforce? How do you get back into the light? So we would profile people who had been through this horrible ordeal and help tell their story. It’s horrible that it happened, but you get to tell a success story which is kind of nice.
I also work with School of Rock. Growing up I was a musician, I played piano and keyboards and drums, anything you could touch with your hands. I love music, so having clients like Shure and School of Rock is just a lot of fun. I’ve done a lot of videos for School of Rock, they’re multi-cam shoots. There are bands playing, and with Shure there’s a lot of music sessions, the MOTIV Sessions, live music sessions and then interviews and stuff. It’s great to be involved with music and video. I’ve got a nice variety of clients.You learn a lot about everything from 3D printing to new microphones.
Terzi: Have you ever worked with a client and thought “Hey, I really want this product!”
Ness: Yeah… Shure!
Ness: I was like “Hey, these microphones are great! How can I get one?” And they were kind enough to send me one of the Shure MOTIV MV88’s. They’re very good people, very generous and very nice, and they make good products as you know.
A lot of the other companies are B2B [Business to Business] so there’s not really anything there. It’s like, “Hey, I really want that 3D printer so I can make, I dunno, a pipe wrench?”
Terzi: In marketing, I’d imagine there are instances where you work with someone who lacks a sort of natural presence in front of a camera. Like me. I’m terrible in front of the camera! (laughter) How do you get someone with little or no camera experience to adapt and become comfortable in front of the camera?
Ness: That happens a lot. We’ll be doing a talking head interview, and the guy can talk a blue streak about a product or a service. There was this guy up in Madison, and he was just talking up a storm about how great this stuff was, but then as soon as he got in the seat in the conference room with the lights on him, he just froze. It was kind of like Michigan J. Frog, he’s singing and dancing, but when someone sees him, he just can’t perform. And so you kind of just need to put people at ease and let them know “don’t worry, no one’s judging you, nobody’s thinking ill thoughts, all you need to do is just tell your story and be yourself.” And a lot of times it is hard because if you’re not well-versed in speaking on camera, it can be tough to edit together. Some people can just nail it and say the right three sentences, and others you need to coach them. And that’s where the fun of editing comes in. You just take the little nuggets that are really good and edit them all together, and then use B-roll to cover up the scenes, and then you’ve got a smooth video.
You really just need to make people comfortable. You need to let them know “Hey, it’s just a video. It’s nothing life or death. No one’s going to get hurt.”
Terzi: Going back to the Canon Camera Connect app, how amateur-friendly would you say it is? If someone went out and picked up a Canon 5D Mark IV and downloaded the app, would they have a good time with it?
Ness: if they know nothing about photography or video? I mean, they’d have to do some studying a little bit. You can give me a fishing rod and a boat and say “go catch a tuna,” but I wouldn’t be able to do it. You can have all the tools, but you won’t catch a fish. Of course there’s going to be a learning curve, but if you want to just take your camera and go shoot, of course you’re going to get some good images. You can just put it on auto and click, and the equipment is so good that it’s going to look fantastic. But if you want to use different lenses, or use some of the features like the wireless features, you’ll have to do some studying. Like if you want to edit, you need to learn the interface, you need to learn Photoshop. Every piece of equipment is different. You need to learn what settings you like. Every person’s settings are going to be different.
But yeah, if you buy a 5D or a 6D, you know, name your camera, and you get a good lens and you point it at something and shoot, you’re going to get a good photo or video. As long as you’ve got good light. That’s where things start to get dicey, when the lighting is low or bad or really high contrast. That’s where you need to know things. Cameras are all about light and speed, so that’s where you need to teach yourself or find a mentor, someone who knows all about that stuff.
Terzi: Is there any advice you’d give to a young filmmaker with disabilities whose just starting out?
Ness: It’s a tricky question, because every disability is different. I’ve explained to a few people I’ve spoken with to explore different mounts if you can’t hold the camera easily. I have a potato peeler I use to hold onto the camera with my left hand, so I can use the app with my right hand. But that’s just me improvising. I needed a handle, so I had a friend cut off a potato peeler and we screwed it into the bottom. Necessity is the mother of invention, so what works for me might not work for somebody else. If you can get the camera held steady in front of you, that’s going to be 90 percent of the game.
If you can afford the gear to get started, that’s a hurdle too I guess. But then having the tenacity to keep going… it’s easy to get frustrated with a disability, to try something new, but you can’t do it, or do it the way it’s designed to be done, so you’re always figuring out workarounds for everything. It’s easy to get frustrated, but you have to find what works for you. Don’t get frustrated. Don’t let a day or two of frustration make you stop. Plow through the frustration, and you’ll be very pleased that you did.
Terzi: This will probably be a pretty abstract question, but what does the future hold for Bob Ness and Sliding Board?
Ness: Ha! (laughs) Well, I’d like to thank the Academy!
Ness: Yeah, I just have no idea. I’m just a day to day guy. For me I like to just continue to cultivate relationships and help them solve problems through video. I’d like to write a script and tell a story, but I’d have to work with other people to do that, it would be a collaborative effort and we’d need to do a crowdfunding project or something like that. I always have funny ideas, like watching an able-bodied person get into a car with a stopwatch running at the bottom of the screen, and for them it’s like 6 seconds, and for me it’s like 8 minutes. (laughs) I have a bunch of half-baked ideas that I never really follow through on.
As a quad it’s hard to think of things months in advance, because I don’t know if my attendant is going to show up tomorrow. My attendant wiped out on his bike back in March and he was gone for seven weeks, and every day was a scramble just to get out of bed, let alone get to work. So if I have any grand plans, it can all be trashed due to something outside of my control.
It’s one of the huge frustrations of being a quad, is having to rely on people for everything. I have to ask for help so much that when I finally don’t have to ask for help I’m so excited. Like this afternoon, I’m going to go out and take some pictures, and I don’t have to ask anybody. I can go create art, and it’s liberating and fantastic.
And that’s what’s great about the app. I can actually go out and shoot stuff without asking for help, and that’s huge for me. I want to be as independent as I can. And Canon’s Connect app is helping me instead of a person.
By Matt Terzi