Branch Valley Productions

I have worked at video production since 1985, almost all my adult life. A “selected” list of my work includes 82 titles ranging from 4 to 120 minutes, about 35 hours worth, plus many more I haven’t kept a record of other than through old invoices. Much of my work has been of a “documentary” nature, with a focus on history, church, community, identity, and storytelling. It’s not hard to see why, as I look back at the way I began.

I never studied, anticipated, or really even thought about film or video before taking it up. I got a still camera when I was 15 and set up a darkroom, then my parents gave me a Super8 movie camera. My brother and I made a comedic film series based on parental ridicule, still a crowd pleaser at family gatherings. When I was a senior in high school my father got involved in film, making a historical drama based on the life of schoolmaster Christopher Dock. I had a bit part, and heard about “work prints,” “out-takes,” “sync,” and of course, “the cutting room floor.” I was the only Goshen College student to bring a movie camera to Belize for my Study Service Trimester. (On YouTube, that film has become a forum for Belizeans and Guatemalans to “discuss” territorial issues.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9e3zo1laew&feature=channel&list=UL) That same year, my father first partnered with cinematographer Burton Buller to make an acclaimed documentary on the Amish. But I never thought of film (this was pre-video) as a vocation.

I spent one year as a graduate English student at the University of Virginia, but, though I loved to read and think, decided I didn’t want to be an academic. My father and Burton were then making a film about the Mennonites of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley for the local PBS affiliate, and I acted as soundman. It was in that TV studio that I first saw any kind of video operation, including editing done by physically cutting and splicing videotape.

The first real step on my present path was actually a book project. A local bank, in celebration of its 75th anniversary, paid me for a year’s work creating what I called a “visual history” of our township. This was really my father’s idea, and his way of giving me a push, while having someone hunt down, secure, and offer to the public the imagery and story of our community. There were many parallels with what I would do in video. I had to tackle every aspect of the project; making contacts, tracking down leads, interviewing people, understanding a story, piecing together a narrative, and conceiving and creating a form for expression. These were things I was to some degree familiar with. It was the physical, technical elements I had to learn that really concerned me. Most of my work involved copying and reproducing old photographs in a form for publication. I researched equipment, learned about macro lenses, polarized light, and film stock, and spent hours in the darkroom experimenting with ways to enhance contrast. I gathered a file of hundreds of archivally processed negatives and prints, some from historical societies and archives, but mostly from shoeboxes and family albums. It’s a resource few communities have, and one I have often drawn from in my documentary video work. And that experience promoted in me a need and the means to see the landscape around me in more than the present tense.

The mechanics of designing, laying out, and seeing the book through the printer were as much a part of the process as were conceptualizing, creating and writing. It’s like being a composer, or a violinist, or both. But the violin doesn’t change, and the means of video production have, dramatically, changing the parameters of the creative possibilities.

That work with local historical imagery led to my start in video production, again with my father’s collaboration. After presenting a public slideshow commemorating Montgomery County’s 250th anniversary, representatives of the local Chamber of Commerce asked if he could make his presentation more permanent. Why not a video? Those were magical words at the time, so yes, but could we also help raise the money? (On this note, other than the work I have donated, all but two of the videos I have produced have been paid for by clients or sponsors.) At the time, many of the most substantial businesses in the area had deep roots in the community, particularly, in the case of the food industry, the Mennonite community. We arranged a meeting with this Chamber historical committee and a few people from the Mennonite business community. We had proposed a substantial budget, and the committee anticipated a prolonged campaign to piece funding together. They were floored when the response, after a brief pitch, was “OK, we’ll pay for that.”

I’m not kidding myself; it was my father’s reputation rather than my track record that got them to write a check. But there was evident here a combination of elements that came in to play over and over again in my work; a concern, sometimes nebulous, sometimes more well-focused, that something of value, which might not even be defined, might be lost if not expressed, people motivated enough to both push and provide resources, a trust that I could understand what was of value and express it with integrity, and the technical capacity and facility to make it happen.

It was that last part where I was really shaky to begin with. I had a budget for entry-level pro video equipment, but I didn’t know how to spend it. The cost of entry to serious video production is today a fraction of what it was in 1985, and allows you to do things a network TV studio couldn’t have done. But economic considerations, of what clients demand, whether or not an investment would pay for itself before it became obsolete, gambles on where the technology was headed, and balancing the desire to expand creative possibilities against the cost, have always shaped my work. Fortunately, I got in at the right place. If I had started a step lower I don’t know that people in the market for video would have seen me as legitimate, but my equipment said I was. I had a 3-tube, shoulder-mounted camera, linked to a big U-matic recorder with pro-level inputs, a tripod, some decent mics, and a light kit. Tape was bulky ¾” cassettes at $10.00 for 20 minutes.

I ran all over the countryside; every old homestead and historic site, did interviews, staged some re-enactments, found and transferred old film, and spent hours capturing historic still imagery, complete with camera moves. I didn’t know yet how I would use it, but I thought that’s what I would need.

I had as yet no editing capacity, so I arranged to use a basic cuts-only system at a local pharmaceutical’s in-house production studio. The first great lesson I learned, as I began to string my imagery together, is how fundamentally linear film or video is; it’s a timeline. This was imprinted on me as I learned the mechanics of editing. Point A, a blank screen, is at the beginning of the tape, and point Z, another blank screen, is at the end. Something happens at every moment along the way (in the case of video, every 1/30th of a second), and you create those moments by inserting elements on the video and audio tracks of your tape. This was a linear editing process, which became non-linear when computer-based systems removed the tape-based constraints, like the difference between a typewriter and a word-processor. But the effect and experience created for the viewer is always linear. You lead the viewer along a timeline of experience, of emotional and intellectual involvement, created by the interaction of sound, music, exposition, suggestion, thought, and image. Sometime your intent is to inform, sometime to expose, sometime to offer. But what you do is contained in those moments you have with the viewer.

Have I made the point that I was learning to think like this, and at the same time, trying to keep tape from jamming in the recorders and compensating for bad audio levels? My “artistic vision” was limited by what I knew how to get out of my equipment.

Halfway through the project I had to invest in my own editing system. More trauma, but now I was fully self-contained. The finished product was “A North Penn Portrait” in four one-half hour segments. It was crude, clumsy and clunky, but the content was there, and it was powerful for a community to see themselves up on the screen.

In the course of working on this project I became visible as a video producer, and people who might not have before, began to think of video as a possibility for communication. I didn’t know what kind of a video producer I was, but I had a reputation for knowing the community and its history, particularly the business and church community. And that’s where my clients came from. First was “The Brotherhood Idea” for the Franconia Mennonite Aid Plan, expressing the traditional biblical understanding of communality in a new business model. Then a local meatpacker with Mennonite roots needed to show that it was “A Good Neighbor on the Skippack” to a community where they wanted to build a plant. The borough of Souderton, celebrating its centennial, actually wanted a book like I had done earlier, but I sold them on a video, “Souderton in Time.” I worked on “These People That Are Ours” for an organization begun by Mennonites for the mentally handicapped. Our Mennonite retirement communities, which had become the largest church institutions in the area, wanted to show how they had grown from the old impulse that created a deacon’s fund for widows and orphans, and at the same time, sell cottages. The Clayton Kratz Fellowship, at that time the local chapter of the Mennonite Economic Development Agency, commissioned “May We Depend on You,” the story of Clayton Kratz, a young Mennonite man who answered the church’s call to relief work and lost his life in Russia. This was something of a milestone; a historical documentary on a Mennonite theme with no commercial subtext. Then came the first of many videos, collaborating with my father, for the Mennonite Historians of Eastern Pennsylvania, a group he helped to found. We made “Songs of Hope” as an introduction to local Mennonite identity for their new visitors center.

By now I’m about five years in to my video career. When I needed a company name, I chose “Branch Valley Produce,” reflecting what had come from the family farm where I lived. I succumbed to the inevitable “Productions” after I grew tired of fielding calls from restaurants. Along the way I had bought a turnkey editing suite and installed it in a converted barn at home. It was for me a huge investment, with huge new technical possibilities and challenges. Now I was dealing with audio and video patch-bays, mixers, waveform monitors and vectorscopes, time-base correctors and character generators. I was working toward a project deadline at the time, and felt like 90% of my attention was focused on how to make this apparatus work. Today I deal with file formats, software upgrades, compression and delivery options, but it’s still the same need to stay current and proficient, and have command of the technology you need to express your vision. It’s not uncommon for these roles of producer, videographer and editor to be separate, but I’ve always done everything.

My work continued along the lines established by these early projects. Of the 82 videos I mention, 54 are from what I would call a Mennonite or Anabaptist perspective, whether it be church, church related organization, Mennonite history or identity, or businesses with Mennonite roots. Let me mention some specific categories and examples.

The largest group is Mennonite Church affiliated businesses and organizations; retirement homes, insurance, church conference, mental health, thrift shop, prison ministry, and schools. These are often to promote ministry and express values. In fact, I produced a video for the area church schools titled “Value the Difference,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03403tM_tDw&feature=channel&list=UL presenting what is distinctive about a Christ-centered, Mennonite approach to education. On a project like this, I feel I can make up for what I may lack in production capability by my connection with what the “difference” is.

I have worked for many area businesses with Mennonite roots, often family owned. This work is often of a historical, documentary nature; stories of hard work, stewardship, the integration of family, work, community, and church. These companies are often making the transition to a larger, contemporary business model, and want to preserve and express what they stand for in a way more tangible and intimate than a “mission statement.” A common feeling is that “we’re one generation away from losing who we are”, and they look to me to help make a statement that a new generation, that didn’t live the history, can own as well. Even businesses like banks want me to tell the story of their roots in the community, and help them to know their own identity. And economic history is communal, church, and values history as well.

I have produced four Mennonite congregational histories. These often start with a historical committee wanting “a slideshow on video”, but become a vital congregational document and experience. Each one, aside from budgetary limitations, has perhaps been more perceptive than the last, as I’ve seen how events, personalities, tendencies and dynamics have played out with different variations in a relatively small geographic area. This can offer a very rewarding perspective on my own life and congregation.

In the same vein, I have made some full-blown Mennonite family histories. These have the community, church, and business elements as well, and have been some of the most intimate portraits of my community’s ethos I have created. For a family or family organization to want to commit the resources needed to make this happen says a great deal about what they value. They don’t want to be glorified, but to know why they are who they are. I have sat with a large family reunion as their story “premiered”, and they felt the line connecting them with then. Every few years, with a new generation, I’ll get a call for a new batch of copies.

I have produced denominational histories or forms of identity statements for both the Bible Fellowship Church and the Schwenkfelders, groups with historic links to my Mennonite community. For the Schwenkfelders, I first made a capital campaign video in support of a new heritage center that appealed to a sense of historic identity in a way that took my audience completely by surprise. They had expected to sit down to a spreadsheet, and instead got a faith story.http://www.schwenkfelder.com/aboutus/AboutUs.htm I worked with a two-person historical committee from the Bible Fellowship Church, which grew out of an evangelistic impulse that the larger Mennonite church at the time was not ready to accept. “According to the Holy Spirit” premiered part way through an annual denominational conference, and delegates were introduced to a genealogy of belief most of them had never heard, and that gave new context to the work of the day.

I mention work done for MHEP, most in collaboration with my father, and on topics of particular interest to him, or to accompany exhibits; “As the Land, So the People”- the interplay of land, identity and stewardship; “Symbols of Peace”- how area Mennonites have heard and lived the call to be peacemakers; “Natural Born Market People”- the role of food production and “going to market” in Mennonite life; “The Earth is the Lord’s”- the current orientation video. I am truly grateful for these opportunities and the supporters who made them possible. These were dollars spent that could have done other good work as well.

A welcome interlude in my usual routine came when I worked with my brother and his company, which provides “cultural heritage resource services”, on a “mitigation project” funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. This basically means that if a landscape or community will be affected by development, some form of cultural or heritage resource must be offered in return. We produced “Silver Cinders: The Legacy of Coal & Coke in Southwestern Pennsylvania” http://www.fe.psu.edu/Information/Community/31543.htm. It was a relief to have a substantial budget, and for him to take the producers role, allowing me to focus on videography and editing. He is also talented musically, and produced probably the best music score I have ever used.

One final category; my work in mental health and mental retardation. I was draw in to this through the vision of a Mennonite man who spent his life involving church and community in support of people with mental disabilities. He had an idea; using the song “Wade in the Water”, about a sick man needing help to enter the pool of Bethesda, to accompany the life of a non-verbal man as he went through his day. It’s the only video I ever made with no dialogue or voiceover. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Pd_MlvPl2A http://www.peacefulliving.org/learning-to-love

Out of that came work for other mental health organizations. An agency in Japan wanted to introduce their people to the idea of “recovery” that has developed here in the field of mental health treatment and services. I worked with a liaison at a center in Vermont, videotaping seminars and training sessions, interviewing experts and care providers, having the whole concept explained. But I knew better. I convinced the center, at the very end of the week, to let me visit four clients on their jobs in the community; a parking lot attendant, a hospital courier, a recycling and composting worker, and a groundskeeper. I was with each for about half an hour, watched them at their work, and asked them what it meant to them. I got home, put one of these segments together, and showed it to the client in Japan. I ended up making “Work & Recovery”, four chapters about these four people, dropping every bit of the seminars and interviews, but using every scrap of video I grabbed at those work sites. That’s where the real story was. And the emotional content, which is where the viewer will really connect, is right there on the surface; all I have to do is expose it.

Coming to the present. One of my latest projects was “Remembering Annie Funk (and the Titanic)” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmQ53ysq6VQ&feature=plcp, the story of a local woman who went to India in 1906 as one of the first Mennonite missionaries, and died returning home on the Titanic. I got to explore the idea of call, the beginnings and power of the Mennonite mission movement, and the impulse to remember. It’s a story I wanted to tell, and one of the few videos I have produced without financial backing. Now, if only I had more enthusiasm for marketing.

I could say a lot about how I think about and create these videos; how I immediately begin to see and feel a new video when I talk about it with a client, the structure inherent in some topics or themes, the way component pieces are gathered, organized, refined, and held at the ready, what it means to write for video, the role of music (15 of my titles are taken from hymns). But I’ve gotten too caught up in looking back at how I came to where I am, the theme of much of what I have done.

Where am I now? I have pieced together a career making video. I have told stories I care about, and there are still more I’d like to tell. I’d like to make a video about fraktur; about beauty, humility, piety, and expression. I’d like to work with the Hutterites, since my daughter has developed relationships there, and in light of the shameful treatment they’ve gotten from National Geographic; I’m especially interested in the story of the CO’s who lost their lives. I’d like to make a video of my father’s European Anabaptist heritage tours. If you’re interested, give me a call; Branch Valley Productions.

About the Author

Jay Ruth

Jay Ruth owns a video production company, Branch Valley Productions, with studios in Lederach, Pennsylvania, one mile from the Ruth ancestral farm where he lives with other members of his extended family. He and his wife Jane are the parents of Anna, a Goshen College graduate now working with Connexus in South Korea; Emma, a Goshen College junior; and John, a high school junior. Jay graduated from Goshen College with an English major. He enjoys reading, woodworking, traveling with his family, and restoring old motorcycles. He attends the Salford Mennonite Church.