Stuff to do in Seattle

I often get emails and tweets from total strangers asking me: “I’m coming to Seattle! What should I do?”

Initially I thought it might be worth making a list, but I actually think that 7×7’s list of 100 things to do in Seattle before you die is pretty solid. I’ve personally done at least half of these and found these items to be either tasks that I’ve enjoyed, or could easily imagine myself enjoying.

So, if you’re coming to Seattle and you and I have never had an in-person conversation before, please: Just consult the list.

Birthday #3 in Seattle

This photograph was taken two years ago, after I first arrived in Seattle from Boston. I remember when I first got here, often looking out into the city and wondering what the future would hold. What would my life be like? Would I even have a life here?

While Seattle feels a lot like home now, it was never a slam dunk that this move would be a good idea. It’s not an easy thing, to leave everything you’ve ever known and loved, and set out to a different place (with very little in the way of a support network) hoping that you can improve your condition.

 In the past year, I’ve met so many cool people, been to so many beautiful places, seen so many awesome shows, and gotten to create so many exciting things. The ENTIRETY of my concert film project with Stephen Tobolowsky (save post-production) happened all within the past 12 months, including meeting all the talented people that would help make it possible. None of it would’ve happened if I’d stayed in Boston.

 So on this birthday of mine, I’m grateful that I’m here, where I am, at this very moment. And I’m thankful for all the people in my life, whoever/wherever you are, who’ve given me any support of any kind, who have followed and subscribed to my rantings and ramblings, and who have encouraged my wildly implausible dreams.

 Life in Seattle hasn’t all been easy. In fact, more often than not, it’s been really challenging and stressful.

 But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Two Years

Exactly two years ago today, I walked into New Employee Orientation at Microsoft and into a new life (I took the above photo that day). I still remember how nervous I was, surrounded by all these hyper-intelligent people and unsure of of how profoundly everything was about to change.

Starting work at Microsoft was just the precipitating factor that set in motion a massive chain of events, culminating in the recent completion of principal photography for my upcoming concert film with Stephen Tobolowsky. Along the way, I’ve met the most awesome, wonderful, talented people. It’s hard for me to even remember what life was like before Microsoft. As my friend Lisa put it, it simultaneously feels like a lifetime ago, and also like just yesterday that I was checking into my Seattle temporary housing for the first time.

Working at Microsoft can change someone’s life. It can GIVE someone a life. It can enable you to have a career, to work on products that are used by millions of people, to live in an amazing city, to buy a house(!). Getting a job here is transformative. There are few days that go by when I don’t feel gratitude for it, even though there ARE days that are really challenging…

I remain appreciative to my colleagues Audrey and Terri for recommending me for my first job, and KC for giving me an offer when few others would’ve. Sometimes, all someone needs is a chance to prove themselves. If you provide one, then who knows what good things can come of it?

Ten Things I’ve Learned About Seattle

Shortly after I moved to Seattle from Boston, I wrote up a brief “Things I’ve learned so far” post. All that stuff is still true.

That being said, I’ve been living here for nearly two years now. Today, I’d like to supplement that post with a few things I’ve learned about this city, which I have come to love.

1. The traffic is comically terrible – Traffic in Seattle is a Kafkaesque nightmare from which you can scarcely hope to escape. Traffic patterns are almost completely unpredictable; one day you can cruise easily down the 520 bridge, and the next day, during that exact same time period, you can be backed up for hours. It doesn’t help that Seattle drivers seem to be terrified by snow, rain, and mild curves in the road, prompting them to slow to a crawl anytime they encounter any of the above. One of my most maddening Seattle experiences is being stuck in awful traffic for 45 minutes, only to arrive at the origin of that traffic: nothing. No root cause. Just people slowing down because they don’t like to drive too fast on the highway around curves. That being said, the Washington state’s Traffic Twitter account is amusing and useful. It provides a window into the madness that commuters face every day.

2. This place is frickin’ beautiful – Hopefully you can glimpse some of this beauty from my photos, but yeah, the Puget Sound area is gorgeous. I can’t remember any other time in my life, other than my brief trip to New Zealand, during which I could witness postcard-quality images on a daily basis.

3. The income inequality is significant and stark – I don’t think tensions here have grown to San Francisco-esque levels, but in Belltown, the inequality is as obvious as ever. Homeless sleep under storefront awnings every night. As I was leaving my garage last night, I saw some dude foraging in my apartment’s garbage container. Meanwhile, luxury apartments are shooting up left and right. It’ll be interesting to see how the whole thing plays out.

4. The food is still amazing, but… – Spending more time here has definitely made me appreciate the food scene here even more, especially compared to the food scene in Boston, which I can’t help but look back on with disenchantment and disappointment. The food here is just better, and you can get more per dollar than in lesser cities. But it’s not all great. While many styles of food are well-represented, the BBQ is pretty lacking in the city, as is the Chinese and Korean cuisine (although there’s some great Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese to be found). For some quality Chinese/Korean, I often need to head into parts north or to the East Side.

5. Construction is everywhere – From where I sit right now as I type this blog post, I can see (unassisted) no fewer than six construction cranes in my field of view. The real estate market here is about to explode, helped in no small part by Amazon’s plans to dramatically expand its workforce and urban footprint. This place is going to look and feel dramatically different five years from today.

6. There is no infrastructure to handle snow – In Boston, fleets of trucks dispatched by private towing companies would roam the streets at night, making the roads navigable for regular cars. Here, that just doesn’t happen. When it snows, the city shuts down, schools are cancelled, a State of Emergency is declared, etc. Beware snow’s ability to totally mess with your plans. On that note…

7. Seattle makes you soft – I lived in Boston for my whole life, and while it’s not at at all the most challenging weather environment, I went through dozens of brutally harsh winters and scalding hot summers. Seattle, despite its constant spritzy rain, is fairly temperate throughout the year. As a result, experiencing actual extreme temperatures after staying here for awhile can be a more jarring, unpleasant experience than usual.

8. Christmas just doesn’t feel the same – My brother brought this up when he was visiting me in Seattle for Thanksgiving: the one thing you really can’t get on the West Coast is the “feeling” of Christmas. How to define that feeling? I’m not sure. It’s the feeling of freshly fallen snow on the ground outside, silently coating the nearly-empty streets. It’s the warmth of a fire in a brightly lit house with a freshly chopped tree, and some hot soup or hot coffee waiting for you. It’s the smell of pine needles and wreaths and fruitcakes. It’s the sound of expertly-sung Christmas carols echoing through the halls. It’s the feeling I get walking through the white streets of Harvard Square on a December evening. I can’t really fully define the feeling of Christmas. But it’s not the feeling I get when I see families gathered at the Pacific Place mall to enjoy the fake snow that falls from the top floor of the atrium.

9. I love the dress code – People basically wear whatever they want. On the East Coast, if you dress business casual or wear a suit, you are professional and appropriate. Here, that kind of dress is considered formal. It’s fun to work in a part of the country where people are allowed (encouraged?) to wear jeans and flip-flops to work.

10. There’s something happenin’ here. What it is ain’t exactly clear – Between Macklemore being poised to sweep the Grammys, Microsoft making one of the biggest acquisitions in its history, Amazon getting people talking about its drone program, and a bunch of our local/celebrity chefs continuing to gain notoriety and win awards, it feels like Seattle is having a “moment” right now. It’s an amazing city full of entrepreneurial vigor and it’s incredibly exciting to be here during this formative period. While Boston will always be my home, I’m glad to be part of the Seattle during this time of my life.

Here’s hoping that 2014 brings even greater adventures.

The Wedding of Josh and Erin

I was honored to film the wedding of Josh and Erin this weekend (Erin, the bride, was coincidentally also in attendance at the last wedding I shot). The wedding was held at the scenic Kerry Park in Seattle. I did not attend the reception.

This video was shot on a Canon 5D Mark III with a Manfrotto 561BHDV-1 Fluid Video Monopod. Audio was recording separately using the onboard mics on a Zoom H4n. Song is “You Are Mine” (Instrumental) by Spencer Combs, licensed from The Music Bed.

I’m very pleased with how the video turned out, in particular from a color grading perspective. Again, I used FilmConvert while shooting on a Flaat 10 picture style. Every time I use FilmConvert, I feel like I get a better sense of what to expect from it – where I can push the software, and where I need to back off or avoid using it altogether. That being said, from a color/sharpness/composition perspective, there are a few shots in this video that rise to a level of excellence I’m very pleased with.

Also, on the video advice of Philip Bloom, I actually added a sharpening filter to most of the shots in this video. I think it really makes a huge difference; shots are crisper and have a lot more pop to them, only without the aliasing that would come from doing this on almost any of Canon’s other lower-end DSLRs. The lack of moire and aliasing on the 5D Mark III is truly freeing, and makes it difficult for me to want to shoot serious videos with my 60D anymore.

One Year in the Life of David Chen

Here it is. After endless seconds recorded and a dozen hours of editing, I’ve finally completed this video that features one second for every single day of this year of my life. I don’t know how much I have to add beyond the previous blog posts I’ve made on this topic, but a few lessons learned come to mind:

– The biggest challenge is to continue making seconds each day. It becomes exhausting to either a) create interesting moments, or b) find unique images in day-to-day life. As days went by, my motivation started to waver, as did my willingness to pull out a camera whenever something spectacular was happening. In these moments, I had to trust that the final product would be worth it. But to be sure, when I show this to people and they get excited about doing it themselves, the one thing that I warn them about is to make sure they have the commitment and discipline to take this project to its completion.

– On that note, recording food became a huge temptation. The reason for this is because if you think about it, food is one of the few things that is noticeably different from day to day, especially if you work a regular 9-5 job. It was an easy fallback, a crutch. As a result, more shots of food ended up in the final video than I probably would have preferred.

– Storing, organizing, and editing the video snippets became onerous. If you attempt this project, I’d strongly recommend you update the video every few months or so, rather than doing them in one fell swoop at the end. Cesar Kuriyama’s 1 Second Every Day app apparently automates this entire process to a huge extent.

– Watching and editing this video was an emotional experience. I remembered profound moments that I might’ve otherwise forgotten. I re-lived moments of lasting significance. My heart broke while contemplating the connections I’ve lost, and swelled at the relationships gained. More importantly, the project encouraged me to try to live life to its fullest – to find beauty in every day, and in the subtle moments that we might not think of. I might not have always succeeded, but I tried. In the end, the production of the project became as worthwhile as the final product.

– I’m still looking for a way to go beyond this project. One Second Everyday can convey a lot, but I still find it restrictive and wish there were a better way to capture my life and the lives of those around me in a way that will result in a watchable, enjoyable final product. Oftentimes it’s within significant constraints that art is made. I’m just searching and hoping to try out some different constraints in the near future (let me know if you have any ideas!)

– I’ve put together a version of this video that features a no audio except for a soundtrack backing it. I’ll release it later. I’m pretty happy with the version featuring a soundtrack, but I think this version with audio is the definitive version.

– If I were to title the video, I’d go with this: Huge Stretches of Monotony, Punctuated by Moments of Awesomeness. Perhaps that’s an apt description for many of our lives.

On a personal note, it’s been an absolutely crazy year. I changed jobs, changed lives, changed everything I’ve ever known. The least I can do is thank the people who appeared in these seconds or made them possible. They have made my life in Seattle what it is and have inarguably changed it for the better.

Shooting the Pacific Northwest Regionals Yo-Yo Championship

PNWR Yo-Yo Championships 1
I had the privilege of shooting the Pacific Northwest Regionals Yo-Yo Championship this weekend at The Armory in the Seattle Center. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had guessed that it would either be 1) a few guys doing some mediocre yo-yo tricks, or 2) an awesome display of talent from a subculture that I was only barely aware of. It was definitively the latter. Hundreds of people showed up at The Armory (dozens of yo-yo enthusiasts, along with their parents). These people have spent thousands of hours honing their skills and it shows. After watching them do a myriad of yo-yo tricks over the course of two days, I started to realize the appeal: there’s something magical about the ability to make a small, circular device at your fingertips appear to defy gravity.

For the entire shoot, I used only my Canon 5D Mark III and my 50mm f/1.4 lens along with my trusty 70-200mm f/2.8. There are unique challenges to shooting a yo-yo competition that I did not anticipate. You are shooting in a low-light environment, in a situation where both the subject and an object in the subject’s hands are moving rapidly. Thus, I had to shoot with the aperture wide open (f/2.8 or lower) but still be focused on the subject to get some decent bokeh out of it AND have a high shutter speed to freeze the action, lest both subject and his yo-yo become blurred beyond recognition. For most of these shots, I used an ISO of 2000 combined with f/2.8 and a shutter speed of 1/400th to 1/500th of a second. As expected, the Mark III’s high-ISO performance was exceptional.

I took a few hundred shots and only a few dozen were at a sharpness that I’d consider to be usable. There were two failures here: one is the fact that I haven’t mastered all the intricacies of the Mark III’s incredibly complex autofocus system, and the other is the fact that the 50mm f/1.4’s focusing motor just doesn’t feel like it’s well-designed for action. After some experimentation, I realized that all I really needed to make some compelling shots (compelling for me, at least) was to try and capture these performers’ expressions as sharply as possible. If the yo-yo was in focus, that was an added bonus.

Video on the other hand was much easier. I shot at 60 fps and ran the shutter speed fairly constant at 1/125, thus giving me the freedom to close down the aperture significantly. Even so, maintaining focus was challenging on some occasions. Note that I was going hand-held for nearly all of these shots, carrying a very heavy lens with no rig, and trying to focus simultaneously.

Here’s a video I put together of the event:

And here’s video of Zach Gormley, who I believe was this year’s champion. After you watch the mind-blowing things he does in this video, you won’t be surprised: