By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — New Voices School, a Raleigh nonprofit that works to help children with significant communications and mobility problems reach their academic potential in mainstream classrooms in local public schools, is the focus of a one-hour documentary that has been screened at five film festivals from Wilmington, N.C., to Seattle.
The video, “Certain Proof: A Question of Worth,” has been a labor of love for Raleigh filmmakers Ray and Susan Ellis, who wrote, directed and produced it.
The experience also marks a turn in their career, which has evolved from commercial video work to promoting nonprofits to advocating for causes.
The couple, who are married, both graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and worked in the video-production department at SAS Institute in Cary, where they met in 1992.
While they loved their jobs at SAS, which was co-founded by her father, Jim Goodnight, corporate work “doesn’t necessarily feed your soul or the whole of you,” Susan Ellis says.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks “changed our perspective on what was important,” she says. “We thought we could be doing more and make a difference in some way.”
Seven months later, the Ellises took a “volunteer vacation” through CARE International, volunteering for three months at a community center in a small village in Peru, working with kids and elderly people.
Because they did not speak Spanish, the couple suggested to CARE they might produce a video about the organization’s work as a way to encourage volunteers from the U.S. and abroad.
CARE used the 15-minute video the Ellises produced in ways they hadn’t expected.
The organization used the video as a volunteer-recruitment tool on its website, for example, and Delta Air Lines used it as part of its in-flight entertainment.
“It occurred to us that nonprofits don’t always have the resources that are needed to produce really helpful tools,” Susan Ellis says.
So in October 2002, the Ellises founded Footpath Pictures, initially planning to produce short videos for nonprofits to promote volunteerism, fundraising, awareness and education.
Charging below-market rates by keeping overhead low and doing most of the producing, directing, camera work and editing themselves, Ray Ellis says, Footpath now has produced over two-dozen videos of roughly 10 minutes each for groups such as The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Va., Meredith College, North Carolina Children’s Hospital, Salvation Army of Wake County and WUNC North Carolina Public Radio.
In 2006, while working on a video for a capital campaign at Meredith, the Ellises met Elizabeth Benefield, a consultant to the campaign who also was advising New Voices.
Footpath made two short videos for New Voices and also agreed to produce a long-form documentary on the issue that the nonprofit initially agreed to pay for.
But after the economic crash in the fall of 2008, the Ellises realized they would have to fund the project themselves.
Now, while looking for ways to get national broadcast and greater distribution of Certain Proof, they are making another documentary about the breast-cancer gene, and looking for a new cause-related project.
“We started with the mission of trying to reach targeted audiences based on nonprofits we were working with,” Susan Ellis says.
But eventually, Footpath “wanted to get beyond just the fundraising, and take that social message to a broader audience,” she says. “What we’re doing is facilitating advocacy.”