Labors of love: Ben Hess and Dan Janos are creating "Volunteer Nation: Stories of Service" one short segment at a time.

Hess, Janos and the Volunteers of America

Michael Fox August 25, 2009

Look what’s happening out in the streets: 65 million Americans volunteer every year. That may not be what Paul, Grace and Marty had in mind, but there is a revolutionary aspect to community participation these days. Via Volunteer Nation: Stories of Service, veteran producer-directors Ben Hess and Dan Janos are using the latest technology to mobilize the millennials (18-35). "That demographic consumes content online and on mobile devices, but not on traditional television sets," Hess notes. "We’re looking at the convergence of activism, social awareness and digital media."

Hess describes Volunteer Nation as a potentially transmedia project consisting of profiles distributed through podcasts, online and cable TV. "We look at what KQED has done with ‘Quest’ as an example, and a model," Hess says. "Short segments that live online that are also packaged into a 30-minute program and a radio show."

At this point in broadband evolution and multi-platform strategies, audiences seem to be demanding pieces no longer than 15 minutes (if that). The San Francisco-based Hess and Janos recognize the impatience of contemporary attention spans, and employ a shooting style, pace and editing style in sync with younger viewers.

"The short form media has its requirements, or its own sensibility," Hess says. "We enter production knowing the end result—we have a strong idea of our finished webisode. We also know the target audience we’re going for."

Of course, countless other filmmakers and Web sites are shooting for the same demographic. "We’re certainly challenged on a lot of fronts because they’re so much content available for people to consume," Hess admits. "We’re constantly watching other people’s work. It’s a really exciting time to be creating media because of the changing landscape. We are shooting all of our content in HD knowing we may need to up-res at some point [for projection or cable]."

The fact that shorts thrive on the Internet has led some to the conclusion that that’s their best and only outlet. Hess anticipates, however, that the venues and market for short pieces will expand in the next few years. "I see a future where more and more short-form content appear on screens large and small," he declares.

Meanwhile, Hess and Janos are keeping their eyes open for long-form opportunities. "Someone who is engaged in a year-long volunteer commitment, that could be AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, we would have the opportunity to follow that volunteer to a given program location throughout their entire year of service," Hess explains. "That’s very compelling to us, and we think to the viewer. As we are telling these stories in an episodic form or short form, we strongly believe we will uncover individuals whose situations warrant a feature-length treatment."

The downside of traditional long-form films, Hess notes, is the four-to-five-year window from concept through the festival circuit through distribution. The Internet provides a way to accelerate and short-cut the process, and to get the work out into the world sooner where it can have an impact.

That impact can be summed up by one of the taglines that Hess and Janos considered: Sign Up, Show Up, Get Involved. Check out their work at

Notes from the Underground
The dismal economy is exacerbating the deleterious effects of DVDs on the second-run theatrical market, and the Red Vic is feeling the pinch. The Mercury Café (201 Octavia at Page) hosts a benefit for the beloved theater with live music, a raffle and a silent auction Thursday, Sept. 10 beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10-$30; go to for more details.

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