Shooting Star

A playful approach has served this producer well

by Will Lindner

videosyn0112Since the mid-1980s, Paul Gittelsohn has produced hundreds of instructional, promotional, and educational videos, duplicated CDs and DVDs, and transferred images and sound to CDs and DVDs from aging media like VHS, 8-millimeter film, and reel-to-reel audio tape. He is the owner of VIDEOsyncracies Production & Duplication in Burlington.

You gotta have fun,” says videographer Paul Gittelsohn, proprietor of VIDEOsyncracies Production & Duplication in Burlington.

Gittelsohn’s characteristic expression is a wry smile, and when he’s telling stories — obviously a favorite pastime — he’s apt to interrupt himself and rewind his tale to the beginning so he can add a funny detail he’d forgotten. It’s pretty clear that having fun is not a challenge for him.

His company’s website, www.vidsync.com, features The Super Duper, a caped cartoon crusader with a rectangular VHS tape for a head, and Betty Dupe, with big, round, DVD-shaped eyes and a curvaceous Betty Boop–style body.

The characters flash around the home page with word balloons advertising the company’s services, which, in the cases of The Super Duper and Betty Dupe, allude primarily to CD and DVD duplication, and to transferring images and sound from old media (such as VHS, 8-millimeter film, and reel-to-reel audio tape) to new (CDs and DVDs).

Gittelsohn has spent years accumulating equipment that enables him to provide these services efficiently and with high quality. He recalls stringing VCRs together in a “daisy chain,” laboriously duplicating video products five at a time.

Now, though, he has modern duplicating equipment and 25-plus years’ worth of work — 24 metal drawers of DVD and CD masters; a wall 12 feet wide and 8 feet high filled with videotape masters; and 1,000 or more mini DV video tapes stored in former library card catalog boxes.

“It’s my life’s work,” he says, “like the warehouse archives.” For example, in 1991 a New York state woman with an affinity for camelids had written a book on llama and alpaca training and handling, and wanted to make an instructional video to sell as another product. She had no budget, but Gittelsohn journeyed to her farm and launched a partnership with her that has lasted through seven videos and more than 20 years.

She’s still selling those videos from her website, and Gittelsohn gets 35 percent of each sale. He can reproduce them at will from the masters he has saved.

That’s how the business works, integrating video production and duplication. There’s also a market in people who want their old home movies and other keepsakes transferred to DVD. It’s more than enough work to keep Gittelsohn’s duplication assistant (and sole employee), Doug Ryan, out of trouble.

Primarily, though, the fun for Gittelsohn is in video production, a creative outlet that keeps him constantly learning new things as he works with his clients to figure out how to convey their specialized information. Fun does not preclude long, hard, meticulous work at editing.

“Paul is like a mad scientist,” says Francis (Rich) Finigan, a sometimes resident of Randolph and the founder of Environmental Safeguard Professionals. Finigan has hired VIDEOSyncracies to produce training videos for contractors, home inspectors, Realtors, and others on such subjects as safe work practices around lead-based paint, and the dangers of mold in homes. “Paul’s a highly intelligent guy with a dry sense of humor that he can use to break the tension during those long hours of editing.”

In projects like these, viewers’ health, jobs, and legal liability can rest with getting the details right, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is ever watchful.

“There’s a high level of responsibility when you start translating regulatory compliance into video documents,” says Finigan. “When I wanted to make Mold: A Growing Concern, I had access to the best minds and people all over the country. All this accessibility, and Paul was really, always, my first choice.”

Since starting VIDEOsyncracies in 1987, Gittelsohn has produced hundreds of instructional, promotional, and educational videos. His projects fall into three categories: videos he is paid to produce; videos he produces on spec (llama training was one of these); and “event” videos for hire, such as a dance recitals and performances. “Never, ever, a wedding!” he exclaims.

The common thread is that his videos are generally not produced for broadcast. “You won’t see them channel surfing at two in the morning,” he says. “My philosophy has always been to get the content of the VHS, and now DVD, directly into the hands of people who want or need to know that information, and I think that’s a very cool thing.”

Topics have ranged from the obscure to the esoteric: bagel baking, knot tying, auto detailing, fireplace construction, installing radiant-floor heating systems, and the three skills required for the Boy Scout merit badge in archery. He is currently editing a production for Circus Smirkus, and shooting one on spec about chainsaw sharpening.

For some projects, he hires assistants, to help with lighting or to run a second camera. But the editing is pure Gittelsohn, and it’s painstaking and precise.

“Editing is selective copying,” he explains. “You copy segments from the tapes you shot onto another tape in the order you want them to appear.”

If it were that simple, anyone could edit. But it takes imagination to put sequences together, and an editor’s real skill resides in making the transitions appear seamless.

In 2004 another (formerly Vermont) videographer, Fred Levine, was hired by screenwriter and director Cameron Crowe to produce a one-minute scene, featuring a large explosion, for the Hollywood movie Elizabethtown. Levine shot the footage, but hired Gittelsohn for the editing.

The verdict from Crowe? “‘Genius!’” Gittelsohn exclaims, “with 10 exclamation points!”

Now 54, Gittelsohn spent most of his youth in a residential neighborhood in Baltimore, but his ties to Vermont formed early. His father, Alan, was a professor of biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, where he formed a personal and professional relationship with renowned healthcare researcher Jack Wennberg.

The Wennbergs moved to Waterbury in the mid-1960s, and the Gittelsohns began spending summers here. In the early 1970s Dr. Gittelsohn and Dr. Wennberg formed a private health-statistics office in Burlington. From then on, young Gittelsohn had one foot in Baltimore and the other in Burlington. He attended high schools in both cities.

Playing with the Wennbergs’ children at their 50 acres in Waterbury Center planted the seeds of Gittelsohn’s future career. “Someone had a super-8 camera,” he recalls. “We would make tons of corny kid films — jumping out of the barn, making chickens disappear.”

In 1974, still in high school, he landed a summer job in Burlington as a projectionist for a college film study class and took a course in basic filmmaking, which gave him an opportunity to make his own movie. He elected to animate his kitchen.

“I made everything come to life,” he says. “It was stop-motion animation. You take two frames, ‘click-click,’ then move the object a quarter of an inch and go ‘click-click.’ Very painstaking. The kitchen objects had a little funeral around a broken glass, and then there was a revolt. I emptied the cupboard and the refrigerator and had them marching out the door.”

Next stop was the University of Vermont, where Gittelsohn pursued a parallel interest in folk and bluegrass music. “That was extracurricular,” he says.

He had a radio show on the college station, WRUV, and in selecting records from the station’s vast library, he stumbled upon The Cats & the Fiddle, a black jive/swing vocal quartet from the ’30s and ’40s who accompanied themselves on guitar, bass, and tiple. That sent Gittelsohn over the edge. He bought a tiple (an obscure, 10-string instrument) and moved to San Francisco to play on the streets.

“I did that for eight months,” he says, “and then got into this trio doing Cats & the Fiddle songs. I earned my living doing that for a year.”

He enrolled at San Francisco State film school, earning, he says, “about a year’s worth of credits,” but returned to UVM to finish his bachelor’s degree in mass communication.

His first real job behind a camera was with WCAX-TV as a news videographer and editor for a year and a half. He left to teach video production at Harwood Union High School and Middle School in South Duxbury.

Then one day Chris Curtis, an acquaintance from Stowe, approached him with the idea of making a video about pressure-washing the exhaust systems in restaurant kitchens.

Restaurants are legally required to do this cleaning twice a year, and Curtis figured there could be a market in teaching people how to provide that service, because he was already selling the systems. Gittelsohn found himself shooting from rooftops at two in the morning and editing with borrowed equipment when he could steal the time.

This seems an unlikely beginning for a successful company, but it was a harbinger of the varied and unusual projects VIDEOsyncracies has taken on since then.

Gittelsohn lives in Queen City Park in Burlington with his wife, Ellen, a part-time librarian who helps with marketing at VIDEOsyncracies.

Their son, Isaac, is in 10th grade, and Gittelsohn has two grown children from a previous marriage: Claire, 22, who recently graduated from UVM, and Elliott, 24, a — drum roll, please! — professional contortionist in San Francisco.

Gittelsohn collects oddball instruments like tiple, tenor banjos, and banjo-mandolins, and has played with the Onion River Dixieland Jazz Band since the ’80s.

Things are changing in the video world. “Everything’s being put on the Internet,” he says, “and people are used to getting things for free.”

Someone of a different personality might feel threatened, but Gittelsohn is taking it in stride.

“The whole industry is going toward the Web. It will be an interesting thing to make that transition. I think it will be fun.” •