Spotlight: The Last of the Trap Fishers in Rhode Island

By David Schonauer   Wednesday October 25, 2017

Corey Wheeler Forrest knows from fresh fish.

She is a third-generation fish trapper and fish dealer from Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island, working alongside her brother, Luke Wheeler, and father, Alan Wheeler, on their trap boat, the Maria Mendonsa. Sometimes, she notes, when she delivers fish to the Fulton Fish Market in New York, they’re still alive.

“You can’t get fresher than that,” she says in a short documentary from Rhode Island-based photographer and filmmaker David Wells, who has an abiding interest in locally sourced food. We have previously featured his short film about a small Rhode Island farming operation, as well as a documentary he made about a Providence granola maker  who employs refugees from other countries. Today we take to the sea with the Wheelers, one of the last trap fishing families in Rhode Island.

“This project started as an assignment for one of my favorite clients, a magazine and web site called edibleRhody,” Wells says. “My editor has limited budgets (duh) so we meet periodically to discuss which of her needs align with with my interests. There once were hundreds of such trap fishing operations in Rhode Island, but there are only three left now and that is the motivation for the story.”

The assignment included a purely photographic version, which Wells also shot. Go here  to see it. Below is Wells’s video Trap Fishing with the Wheelers, followed by his account of making the film.

David Wells on Trap Fishing with the Wheelers

I was given the assignment in June of 2016 and I did my first shoot with the initial interviews in July of 2016.  That morning, the boat had just returned from a day of fishing, so I met the Wheelers, interviewed the father and the daughter, watched them unload and generally learned about the process. The following September I did a short sunrise shoot of the men repairing the nets. In May of 2017, I went out fishing with them during their spring-time busy season. So in total, I did only three shoots for the assignment, spread out over a year.  

I can get motion sick, so I took my Dramamine when I went out on the water and kept my eyes on the horizon. I did fine.

I use Olympus OM-D Micro Four-Thirds cameras exclusively. This film was shot with two Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II cameras. I always use two cameras of the exact same model so switching between them is easy. I recently upgraded to the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II cameras for the 4K capability. The setup for shooting stills and video on the Olympus OMD Micro Four-Thirds cameras is pretty easy to use and not disruptive to video shooting, so, as I often do, I was shooting still images and videos more or less simultaneously.

The opening and closing shot was made with an Olympus Tough camera, which is waterproof. At first, I envisioned that shot with the camera half in the water and half out. The first time I tried that I realized that the splashing fish made the shot impossible.  So I settled on the idea of shooting with the camera just above the mass of splashing fish.

For the shot, I used a monopod hanging over the edge of the boat, holding the camera at the end with a bracket so the camera was inverted. The articulated screen on the Olympus Tough camera enabled me to roughly see my composition and to keep my horizon line relatively straight.

The opening and closing video of the splashing fish was very important since the opening of any short is vital to setting the mood for the movie and drawing the viewer in. After a couple takes of that shot I knew I had it, so I was happy that I had my opening.

I laid down the interviews first into Final Cut Pro X, then chopped out the the “ums" and “ahs" as well as the background noise. I kept cutting and cutting to get down from an hour of interviews to about a 15 minute audio track.

That audio was initially in the order of the actual capture. I had it transcribed and printed out, then cut up the paper with the various blocks of interviews into small strips. I laid those out on my dining room table and kept moving them around until I got the order that I wanted, roughly. This process is called a “paper edit“ in the world of filmmaking. Once I had that, I arranged the audio clips in that order in Final Cut Pro X. Then I refined the audio, cutting the sound further down to about 10 minutes. And then I started putting b-roll of the actual process over the narration.

My background in magazine photojournalism makes me something of an expert at b-roll. In the photojournalism world, it is all about getting different coverage with varying angles, focal lengths, qualities of light, etc. So I usually do pretty well in that realm. The one ongoing challenge in video is the fact that I cannot shoot verticals, as I used to do when magazines were my primary market.

After that, it was just sharing the rough cut with a few friends to get feedback, tweaks, revisions, etc. The GREAT thing about having such a long lead time is that I can review the piece over and over, hearing and seeing new things that need fixing. While a piece is never finished, I had enough time to make something that I am proud of and something that has garnered a lot of praise since it was posted. I am starting to submit it to film festivals as well.


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