What It's Like to Be Filmmaker to the President


In his new book, former Obama staffer Arun Chaudhary dishes about his experiences as the first official White House videographer.

With good reason, 2008 came to be known as the YouTube election. But it was a video that ran while we were all waiting to see if the world's most famous first-term senator would make a go at the White House that was the most consequential, according to Arun Chaudhary's new book, First Cameraman: Documenting the Obama Presidency in Real Time.

This was in December of 2006. The Bears were playing the Rams on Monday Night Football. Before programming, Obama broke in, sitting in front of a desk, formal-like, in front of a flag and family pictures. "Good Evening," he began, "I'm Senator Barack Obama. I'm here tonight to answer some questions about a very important contest that's been weighing on the minds of the American people." Does the new guy coming out of Chicago have the right experience? Is his record all that formidable, wonder the folks on the other side? "Let me tell you, I'm all too familiar with these questions. So tonight, I'd like to put all the doubts to rest. I'd like to announce to my hometown of Chicago and all of America that I am ready ... for the Bears to go all the way, baby." Big grin.

"Try as I might," writes Chaudhary, "I simply cannot imagine this year's batch of Republican candidates -- to say nothing of perennial non-runners like Sarah Palin -- pulling off a fun spot like this; they simply don't have the foundation." The NFL spot made the young filmmaker eager to back a guy willing to make a video like that. His hunch paid off. "It's his naturalness, his comfort in his own skin," Chaudhary writes of Obama, "that made a filmed presidency possible."

Chaudhary traveled with Obama and made videos. His body of work ran the gamut. A "trailer" for an early campaign rally in New York's Washington Square Park cast Obama in the role of superhero. One old-timey comic spot called Iowa Democrats to the Jefferson Jackson Dinner. Chaudhary and the rest of the campaign's video staff experimented with all sorts of things. They posted video of Obama dropping into Chicago HQ to chat with staffers, livestreamed his big speech in Berlin, tracked down and filmed the now-grownup girl from Hillary Clinton's famous "3 a.m." ad. They pioneered a surprisingly powerful new form they called "walkouts" that tracked Obama out to meet an adoring crowd. In the wake of the Reverend Wright mess, a video of making a speech on race in Philadelphia nearly instantly reset the contest.

YouTube helped solidify the idea that Obama was playing a different game. On YouTube, Obama was a considered visionary, a movement leader, the hope of a new generation, a skilled practitioner of the political arts, the master of the long-form answer, and kind of a cool guy.

At some point, Chaudhary writes, he came around to the wisdom of Kate Albright-Hanna, the former CNN producer who led the video team at Obama headquarters. Drop the film-school acrobatics; let the documentary footage speak for itself. "Nothing," he writes, "could be as effective as watching the man doing his thing." The goal wasn't to score a big hit. It was to accumulate lots of singles. Over the course of the campaign, they pulled in some 120 million YouTube views.

Chaudhary writes with the looseness of someone whose political experience consists of being told to tell stories, which means there's plenty of gossipy bits for campaign enthusiasts. Chaudhary was often in the room telling Obama and Joe Biden to turn to the camera just a little bit while sharing an election night hug. There are fun dispatches from the "deeply bizarro" world of political campaigning. It's fun to hear about Usher chiding Leonard DiCaprio for yelling out "Barack, buddy!" on a handshaking line. ("It's 'senator.'") We're told of footage that never made it online, like Obama talking to a robotics worker while doing the robot dance and saying in a robotic voice, "There are no red states, there are no blue states." Please, your country begs you to someday let us see that one.

But mostly, it's a first-hand account of what it means to run for president in the era of abundant video. There's a ready audience hungry for content, the tools are cheap, and web technologies make it easy. To Chaudhary, it's a terrific time. "If there's one thing I learned over those years," he writes, "it's that videos don't lie -- on the contrary, they are the most reliable gauge of truth we have." Obama had it, that leading man thing, and the campaign set out to use it.

The central role that Chaudhary, a film guy and political newbie, played for the campaign might have seemed improbable, but it was part of a strategy. In an effort to play the game at a higher level, digital director Joe Rospars believed, you bring in the people who are the best at what they do. "You can learn the politics," Chaudhary has said. "You can learn how to navigate these worlds. But you can't really learn the trades very quickly." Programmers, graphic designers, animators, and social-network creators (hello, Chris Hughes) were hired from outside the political world.

"Video," Chaudhary quotes senior Obama strategist David Axelrod saying, "could be the life of the campaign online, an authentic mirror of the campaign." There would have to be a lot of it. The campaign brought on two expert post-production people before hiring Chaudhary to shoot. That's how powerful the belief was that the man was meeting the medium was meeting the moment.

Still, there was a lot of making it up as they went along. That livestreaming of Obama's Berlin speech, for example, involved a lot of restarting the old Dell laptop they were using to serve the video out to the world. Obama's Grant Park acceptance speech was uploaded to YouTube from the bathroom floor of Chaudhary houseguest-packed Chicago apartment. Axelrod, writes Chaudhary, thought their first attempt at a weekly address video made the president-elect look like the star of his very own hostage tape.

Indeed, because the documenting of Obama was so cheap, easy, and unobtrusive, it could continue on at the margins. After some back and forth of where Chaudhary would fit into official White House operations, the floppy-haired guy in suits and New Balances became a West Wing fixture as the official White House videographer. He worked on perfecting those weekly addresses, filmed video messages to the Iranian people on the occasion of the Persian New Year holiday of Nowruz, and invented West Wing Week, a recap reel. His fellow staffers came to crave the validation of being included in the weekly film. He would get in-house emails consisting of sad-faced emoticons when something didn't make it into that week's production.

But things got hugely more complicated when he went on the government payroll. He was, Chaudhary writes, a documentarian peering out from within a very small bubble. There are questions now about whether projects like West Wing Week are an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, especially given their small audience; to pick a random example, the episode from a year ago this time has just 19,000 views. The cost, Chaudhary contended in a recent phone interview, was minimal -- nothing more, really, than his time. That said, he did fly the world over, making it to Sudan, the Gulf Coast, Haiti, to capture the critical moments of the Obama presidency. In one head-whipping scene, he writes of the strangeness of having a flight to Iraq chartered just for him so that he could capture the last moments of U.S. combat missions there. ("'Oh, great, when are we leaving?' I asked, setting my camera for very low-light situations we'd encounter between Kuwait City and Iraq. 'Whenever you want, sir. This is your flight.'")

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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