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  • Jonathan Widran

LIGHTS IN THE FOREST: A Celebration of Art, Music, Dance and the Human Spirit in the Age of COVID-19

Perhaps the most natural and human thing to do during a once in a century global pandemic is to let fear take over. These past few months have been a strange, scary time for millions of people around the world, and it’s all too easy to let constant flow of horrific news and worst-case scenario projections about COVID-19 paralyze us, crush our spirits and make us feel hopeless.

Yet the one thing that the coronavirus cannot stop is human creativity. From Facebook livestream concerts and stay-at-home fundraising TV specials featuring our favorite pop stars to incredibly creative Zoom-rendered videos by TV, film and Broadway stars, this era of social distancing has unleashed some incredible works that testify to the indomitable power of art, music, dance and other forms of self-expression.

One of the most dynamic, soul stirring and emotionally impactful of these recent works is not by media celebrities or rock stars but the powerful tandem of veteran film/TV composer David Raiklen and indie film director, writer and producer Ashley Maria. Their epic four-minute film “Lights in the Forest” is a quick moving visual and musical journey assembled from footage created on three continents by a diverse team of actors, dancers, musicians, cinematographers and regular folks sending in their “made in quarantine” video clips from around the world.

Directed by Ashley with an international team of female filmmakers, the clip features dazzling array of talent coming together in a collective effort to raise spirits, offer hope, bring a smile and show the magic that can happen by building community through art.

"I came to the project with a vision of using this music to pull out the extreme emotion we’re all experiencing during this pandemic,” says Ashley, a DGA Award winner best known for her breakthrough 2020 documentary “Pioneers in Skirts.” “It truly was an experiment in what can be possible under extreme limitations. We called on the creative community to ‘show us what you got’ and the response was beyond what we could have imagined. I’m so proud of this piece, and what we were all able to accomplish together!”

With its fusion of influences ranging from classical music to symphonic rock, the video’s soundtrack music is filled with the trademark fast paced storytelling of creator/co-producer David Raiklen’s signature cinematic sounds. Well-known for his score for the Emmy winning 2014 PBS film “Mia: A Dancer’s Journey,” he co-produced and composed music for the film series “Space Command” and for the Center Theatre Group’s 50th Anniversary celebration, among hundreds of other credits.

“Our orchestration is all acoustic and recorded live,” he says. “Lights in the Forest” is an eight-part augmented reality musical journey through a fantasy world that ranges from tranquil and traditional to experimental and high energy. This amazing video for Part V is subtitled ‘WILD RIDE’ and I strive to give a sense of flying quickly to faraway places with friends.”

Sophia Schwinghammer

An interesting aspect of the project - and not simply because of the pandemic - is that David and Ashley have still yet to meet in person. He originally found her work through the Alliance of Women Directors. He appreciated what she was able to do with music in the various pieces her saw in her reel, and liked the way she captured the levity of certain moments – something “Lights in the Forest” strives to do. David was looking for a director with positive energy and a quick moving modern style.

“I was impressed by her ability to handle tough genres, too,” he says. “We hit it off from our first conversation and I felt she was someone I could trust, a can-do person. The momentum built from there. I’m looking forward to meeting in person, but in the 21st Century it’s common for filmmakers to have teams that never meet yet work in harmony.”

Autumn Palen and Laura-May Abron

Each has a unique perspective on their original vision and how they executed it. According to Ashley, the initial idea was to travel around Los Angeles to capture musicians and our conductor, David, in their individual worlds – whether that be their front lawn, their balcony, a church, or the Griffith Observatory looking out over a beautiful L.A. Their footage, shot by cinematographer Autumn Palen, would exist as a “through-line” as the viewer travels through space and time with the music.

“We really weren't sure what to expect,” she says. “Was this actually going to work? Then, as the footage came in, it was a clear YES. The footage we received was beyond what we could have even imagined - which made it even better. It felt like a true celebration of what we are all experiencing right now. Our editor, Crystal Lentz, then took the footage and built out an entire world with it!”

David adds that the original idea for the music goes a little further back, to an eight-part concept album, also called “Lights In The Forest.” The idea was to imagine a band of musicians on the edge of a mysterious forest. They attract a crowd and as they play, they catch light and begin to fly, transporting themselves, and the audience, on a series of fantasy adventures in faraway places.

“The fifth part, or movement, is especially high energy and fun and is subtitled Wild Ride,” he says. “That was what I brought to Ashley. I knew I wanted the visuals and story to be a journey to far off, wonderful places. Ashley had the brilliant idea of reaching out to other creatives to film themselves all over the country. Eventually we received footage from three continents - more than I could have dreamed of! Actors, musicians, dancers, families…so many good people. Getting Crystal to work with us was another stroke of good fortune. She has incredible skill at flowing material from different sources into a unified whole. Crystal built our world under Ashley's direction.” “Ashley also brought on cinematographer Autumn Palen, whom I got to work with in person, at safe social distance,” David adds. “We traveled to locations in Southern California and photographed artists in their worlds. I took behind the scenes photos that show us wearing masks and the camera 10+ feet away from the performer. Autumn's skill and modern cameras can make that into a clear closeup. Many locations were almost deserted, and the air was so clean you can see for miles. When we did encounter joggers and others, everyone kept a safe distance. The view from Malibu was glorious.”

Another important aspect of creating “Lights in the Forest” was the multi-faceted editing process. David cut his original track down from six to 3 ½ minutes to ensure that the fast-paced concept worked better. Footage-wise, because they had to keep the energy moving forward, the cuts had to be very fast and intentional. It had to be shot in such a way where it quickly tells the eye what to look at – whether that be through lighting or movement. Ashley says, “In a three-minute video someone sent us, there may have been only three shots we could use. This meant that after we did our first cut, we had to go out and get even more footage. I even got my mom to film some shots around her town. Watch out for the rainbow shot!”

“That rainbow is maybe my favorite shot, from 3,000 miles away,” David adds. “The process began with the core team putting out a call for performers among our friends. Many responded quickly. We sent them the track and basic direction. Ashley would review what they had done and give notes. There were hours of material and Ashley was great at directing and finding the most magical shots. Crystal would create a rough build, and as more material came in, selects were made and worked into the timeline. It got better every day. I'm in awe of their talent and dedication.”

As word about “Lights in the Forest” spreads, both Ashley and David are gratified by the overwhelming response. “It’s really exciting hearing people’s interpretations of the various emotions that come across in this short piece – a feeling of loneliness, of longing, of togetherness and survival. Some feel like it’s an ‘Ode to Quarantine’ – and to all of them I say ‘Yes, you are right. It was important to us that this piece be about the human spirit. Sure, quarantine is happening in our world, but we are still living and dancing!” David adds that people often comment that the film makes them feel happy and energized. The two have heard words like “Wow!” “Fabulous” “Glorious” and that it’s unique.

“For me personally,” Ashley says, “it was exciting to make a music video entirely remotely. While my colleagues and I had big discussions about the direction of our industry after this pandemic, I could step away and throw myself into a music video. We had a flexible team that understood our limitations and leaned into them. We would discuss the edit through a share screen video conference, or I would give copiously detailed notes, so there wouldn't be a ton of back and forth in the editing process. Ideally, I would sit next to my cinematographer or editor - but I couldn’t this time. I had to know what I wanted and voice it clearly. I'm very proud of what we were able to do!” Autumn Palen and Lyman Medeiros

David adds, “It’s been gratifying to bring joy and beauty to people, and it was great fun doing the work. The greatest experience is working with this stellar team. Crystal Lentz, Autumn Palen, and Ashley Maria are magical talents and I hope to work with them again. I'm proud of what we accomplished together. Onward!”

For more information about David Raiklen:

For more information about Ashley Maria:

For more information about Autumn Palen:


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