Character-driven storytelling with a purpose

Reflections on Getting Real

October 11th, 2014 by Owner

About a week following the IDA Getting Real, Documentary Film Conference 2014, I find myself continuing to reflect on a fairly charged experience. From the first session GETTING REAL About the Doc Career, to the last I attended, From Distribution to Sustainability: Four Doc Filmmaker Case Studies, frank participation by both panelists and audience, was what made this conference a much needed call to action for filmmakers and the industry at large.

IMG_3892Thom Powers moderated the doc careers panel and opened by saying that when his students ask about sustainable professional lives as documentary filmmakers, he tells them that if he asked 50 doc filmmakers how they make a living, there would be 50 different answers. That pretty much was right on the money, as all panelists (huge panel) make their careers sustainable by balancing media making with other related work, such as teaching, commercial, work-for-hire as DP or editor, advertising, research, etc. Most love what they do, both filmmaking and otherwise, but all talked about sacrifice. Whether it was juggling a personal life/family by only working at odd hours and living off less sleep (i.e. Nina Gilden Seavey, a terrific panelist at multiple sessions) or accepting that a project will take much longer since it’s impossible to work on it full time, it was confirmed that the life of an independent filmmaker isn’t easy. Granted that it never really was, but once upon a time existed a clearer and realistic career path that was much less complicated.

Panelist Tina DiFeliciantonio is part of the newly formed Independent Documentary Sustainability Task Force, which is gathering data for a quantitative analysis of the industry. The Task Force is looking at how the music industry adjusted to the drastic change in their industry. Maybe independent filmmakers can learn from what musicians have already dealt with. DiFeliciantonio boldly pointed out what she called the elephant in the room, and that is, we participate in our own exploitation by exploiting those who work for us. Hard to hear, and easier said than done in terms of fixing the issues, when budgets are beyond thin, but how can we create a living wage for ourselves when we’re not paying one to our colleagues?

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Post brings the usual questions, and some new ones

September 20th, 2014 by Owner

John-Margo3It’s that time in a production’s life when primary photography has been completed and it’s time to devote almost all one’s hours toward the edit. Beginning post production is exciting, but also daunting. Hopefully footage has been brought into the project and logged, and interviews transcribed as the shoots have taken place. Hopefully the spreadsheets and budgets are updated, you’ve been reviewing footage as you’ve shot, and gotten into some cutting already. These are ‘hopefully’ scenarios, however, as more often than not (in my experience), these tasks are ideally done during the shooting phase, but sometimes they are just partially completed by the real edit time.

In my case, most of the above is complete, but not all, and although I’ve watched the footage after each shoot, I now need to sit down and review everything again beforeJohn_Jane_TimesSquare digging in for the long editing haul. It can be tedious, but also exciting when gems you didn’t realize (or remembered) existed in the footage materialize, even though you were there when it was recorded. Seemingly unimportant comments, behaviors or imagery can suddenly reveal themselves as insightful and telling. These are the essential moments for any sort of storytelling, big or small. After all, when it comes to most nonfiction narratives, post is when the story is crafted. Although this phase is my favorite, and I’ve been on enough productions now to know the nuts and bolts of how to tackle it, there are new questions on the horizon. For instance, once this story is complete, there are a number of traditional ways of getting it out into the world, but also a few new choices which are as confusing as they are thrilling to consider. New venues, new models, new avenues for impact – there are a lot of decisions to be made and each one seems to be on a case-by-case basis. What is one’s story most suited for?

This particular project will be a short, but never-the-less, it required scanning many-a still images (over 1,000) and shooting many hours of happenings. In my case (any many other filmmakers) this is done in tandem with other documentary and commercial freelance jobs, and therefore takes twice as long to finish. The project has yet to go through various phases and versions with feedback, recuts and consultations. As the post production phase begins, thoughts about the end plan (and budget) continue to change and morph as I consider the footage I have and the story I believe will come of it.

LQ_Luncheon2014With the landscape of documentary distribution in such flux (more opportunity in many ways, yet more competition), who knows what distribution will look like next year, or even 6 to 8 months from now. Documentary storytellers are on the rise, but with the market saturated with content, how will smaller projects, such as this one, get seen? How will it be monetized and how will its lifespan be maximized? These are questions I’m still kicking around, even at this point in the production, and one that will of course inform the end cut.

The International Documentary Association will put on their annual conference in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks and will be addressing some of these questions for mid-career documentary media makers. The Documentary Film Conference 2014, Getting Real three day event boasts keynote speakers Morgan Spurlock, Tabitha Jackson, Cara Mertes, Dawn Porter and Lucy Walker (notice the ratio of women to men. Thank you, IDA!). Panels includes Getting Real About The Doc Career, Let’s Make This Perfectly Clear (on digital distribution), When Impact Meets Distribution, Creative Money Balance: A Hands-on Workshop on Career Sustainability and Personal Finance, From Distribution to Sustainability: Four Doc Filmmaker Case Studies. Also included are forums, screenings and case studies. With the state of documentary growing in leaps and bounds, but documentary making as a viable, full time sustainable career at risk, the Getting Real 2014 should prove to be an informative one. See you there.

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Documentary Fundamentals’ Shooting & Directing

May 17th, 2014 by Owner

This spring the Brooklyn based resource for all things documentary, UnionDocs, offers its second round of Documentary Fundamentals. The six part series gives filmmakers a step-by step, how-to for tackling the art form. From practical application to creative, Fundamentals brings experts in the field into a conversational panel setting for a jam packed house.

Last night’s third installment, Documentary Shooting & Directing, was hosted by UnionDocs’ partner AbelCine at its Greenwich St. studio. The three person panel consisted of Zachary Heinzerling (Cutie And The Boxer), Ross Kauffman (Born into Brothels) and Malika Zouhali-Worrall (Call Me Kuchu). Each presented clips and/or trailers of their work to illustrate various approaches to shooting and directing.

Cutie-+-the-Boxer_sized-620x348Zachary Heinzerling spoke about non-verbal storytelling, where the visuals tell audiences what is happening and not just the dialogue, or even instead of. His example from Cutie And The Boxer was a dinner scene, where the husband and wife’s behavior during a meal reveals insights into their relationship as much as what they’re talking about. This kind of relaxed intimacy is something earned, however. Each speaker addressed the importance of fostering trust between filmmaker and subject. Heinzerling’s emphasized the idea of collaboration between himself and the people he’s filming. He tries to spend a lot of time with his documentary characters in advance to bring an ease to his presence. Even then people are hyper aware of the camera at first, he said, and want to know what’s going on. He makes it clear that he feels all aspects of their lives are of equal importance. This is something new to me as most of my experience is in post-production. I am green to shooting and directing and have recently discovered how much people skills it requires. I’ve found some subjects get caught up in wanting to know details, such as why something as mundane as making their bed or walking to work needs to be shot. I think that is about trust, and building it takes time and patience on the part of everyone involved. If the relationship isn’t developed, the subject may never open up, forget about the camera’s presence, or even believe that if it’s being recorded, it could be relevant or imporant. [Read more →]

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Multi-platform Storytelling at Women Make Movies

April 12th, 2014 by Owner

There is still a level of uncertainty in regard to new media, but it seems more related to understanding the term, than anything else. One point many agree on, however, is that it’s only going to continue to grow, and for media makers this means opportunity. For independent artists, it opens up possibilities at a time when theatrical venues for the non-blockbuster  (and even for mainstream films in some cases) are shrinking.IMG_2672

This past Wednesday night Women Make Movies, a nonprofit feminist media arts organization, hosted From Idea to Implementation: Multi-platform Storytelling with Theresa Loong. The workshop, led by Loong (multi-media artist, founder  of FORM360), explored examples of successful new media stories in both documentary and fiction, as well as new online platforms and resources.

The evening began with Loong asking her audience to introduce themselves and offer a brief description as to what brought them to the workshop. Most were there as documentary filmmakers and a few were in stages of a new media project. Some were just there to learn more about the subject. As one audience member said, ad agencies have been doing this for years. Independent filmmakers have caught on to the potential of multi-platform storytelling more recently.

Loong talked about how she approaches her projects. She collects artifacts, such as music, photos, diaries, finds the setting and the place, and then starts asking questions. She begins with a basic story idea and then looks at the cultural context. Henry Jenkins was brought up several times. Loong quotes him as saying that each medium makes its own unique contribution to the story. This felt like an important point. New media is not just an added venue for the same story put up on a theater screen or watch from Apple TV, but it offers specific ways to consume and interact with stories that are different than passive watching. It’s smart to consider how each story might lend itself to these different arenas, such as whether the audience member will be their own character within the story, or what additional information would be interesting via Easter eggs. [Read more →]

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Documentary Fundraising Trailers

March 29th, 2014 by Owner

This past Wednesday night the New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT) hosted a to capacity panel, Bait Your Hook: Create Your Best Documentary Sample and Trailer. The evening boasted filmmakers and funders, moderated by Marcia Rock. Each panelist not only showed examples of their successfully funded trailers, and discussed what elements they felt were important, but also spent the last half of the night, evaluating audience member trailers.

IMG_2646Filmmaker and The D-Word Founder, Doug Block began the event by speaking about his new film, 112 Weddings (Opening night at Full Frame this year will be shown to a sold out, 1,000 seat theater crowd!). Screening his 4 minute trailer, shown at the HotDocs 2012 pitching forum, Block addressed key elements contained in the piece that created a successful trailer. This particular example was shorter than what he would normally submit for funding, since the hot seat at HotDocs gives each pitch a very short amount of time. He normally considers a fundraising sample or trailer to be between 8 and 10 minutes in length. Block said the trailer should find a balance in showing and telling the viewer what the film is about without giving away too much. When beginning a fundraising trailer, Block said he takes a practical approach by not hiring an editor, who would take time and money to review all the footage. Instead he works on it himself since he is most familiar with what he has. This exercise also helps him find and refine the story, much as grant writing helps filmmakers clarify what their story is.

Editor and filmmaker, Sabrina Schmidt Gordon of Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, 2009, showed a promotional trailer from Documented, and talked about the importance of a viewer’s experience of being invited to be a part of it, rather than hitting someone over the head with the social issue angle. If it’s a social issue piece, the issue will come out organically in the story. Another great point, which I have found challenging, is that often filmmakers try to fit in too much in order to show funders all they have. Sometimes it’s best to focus on a few moments that really matter than to try to squish in all the different kinds of footage or scenes that has been shot, even if all of it is awesome. [Read more →]

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Lessons in new media documentary

February 18th, 2014 by Owner

Hollow’s Elaine McMillion and team talk participatory video, sound and visual design and more in this part II of two part Hallow: Our Lessons Learned, moderated by Opeyemi Olukemi of Tribeca Film Institute. (See Part I, Research, building audience, pre-production)

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Judy Chaikin talks Director/Editor Relationships

January 13th, 2014 by Owner

A great interview clip by Film Courage with The Girls in the Band director, Judy Chaikin, on how she worked with editor, Edward Osei-Gyimah.

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Back to Basics at AMIA

November 9th, 2013 by Owner

This past Tuesday the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) began their preliminary workshops as a precursor to the main annual conference event, which this year took place in historic Richmond, Virginia. I was only able to attend a couple of the workshops this year, but it was well worth the 7 hour train ride (got a lot of work done in transit) from Penn Station to Richmond’s Main Street station.

The A/V Tech Basics for Archivists event was led by Eric Wenocur of Lab Tech Systems. The four hour workshop broke down the types and purpose of what is now largely retro audio/video equipment. This instructional was intended for librarians, archivists, and other preservationists charged with conserving and/or preserving and duplicating their A/V elements.

IMG_0134As an editor, I was familiar with most of the equipment, or at the very least, I had seen it before. When I worked at a post house as an assistant editor, older decks existed for D-2 or D-3 tapes, but weren’t used. In fact I can only remember one instance were we fired one up. The deck actually worked too. When I began post work, decks for formats such as DigiBeta tapes were still in more regular use, however, even DigiBeta is considered an old format these days. Who needs a tape anymore, right?

Well those involved in preservation do and it’s formats like these that are deteriorating faster than film in many cases. This is why a/v equipment understanding is so important. Wenocur had sample equipment set up at the head of the class, as well as a handy camcorder to project close ups of the equipment onto the screen. It was a good overview of video equipment, but from my experience, the real test is practical application. What A/V Tech Basics for Archivists offered was a way to generally familiarize oneself with this equipment and it’s various purposes, be it monitors, patch bays, connector cables or vectorscopes, it can all be overwhelming if it’s new to you, but at least this offered a start.

In my opinion, some of the most valuable information offered was simple troubleshooting tips that might seem pretty obvious, and I can vouch for this, but often get overlooked.

  • Know how things are SUPPOSED to work.
  • Start with known good signals, paths and/or monitoring
  • Change one thing and observe that change before moving on to another
  • Swap things out, such as cable, equipment, software
  • Cut the problem in half
  • Go back to the manuals and hang out to them!

Another point that Wenocur brought up, which I think is one of the more urgent problems in need of solution is that this is old equipment and the number of technicians out there with expertise in servicing this gear is fast dwindling. Many are retired or have moved on to more contemporary skill sets and aren’t actively working on this stuff anymore. The danger of this equipment becoming useless because no one can fix it is very real. That’s why it’s detrimental that new generations learn about this equipment sooner than later, but in reality it’s not a growing career path to service retro equipment, just as the number of film projectionists are fading as DCPs take over cinemas.

Nevertheless, workshops like Wenocur’s offers some expertise sharing and I wish the workshop attendees luck when they get back to their collections and start digitizing analogue style.

Although I was bummed not to have been able to make it for the 2 part workshop, Small Gauge Projection and the Art of Projector Maintenance and Repair, since workshops overlapped, I went with Back to Basics… What You Need to Know When Starting an AV Preservation Project.

Back to Basics brought terrific presenters in Rachael Stoeltje of Indiana University Libraries, Lee Price of Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) and John Walko of Scene Savers. [Read more →]

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NYFF Convergence on Documentary

October 1st, 2013 by Owner

This past weekend was the second year of Convergence, “… an ongoing initiative of the New York Film Festival focused on the intersection of technology and storytelling.”, and the second year I’ve attended some of the panels, presentations and screenings. This time I just focused on Documentary specific events.

Saturday I sat in on the Transmedia Storytelling and Documentary Film panel, which boasted Orlando Bagwell moderating a discussion with representatives from Harmony Institute, Call2Action, along with filmmakers who are all using transmedia to reach and interact with their audiences and even look at what it all means.

Each panelist had the opportunity to present examples of their works and walk through its developments and growths. Bagwell, a documentary filmmaker in his own right, and until just recently, of Ford Foundation’s JustFilms, prompted discussion points.

ttwTia Lessin, Co-Producer/Director of Trouble the Water (2008) presented  various ways she and her film partner, Carl Dean, involved not only audiences beyond the viewing experience, but also the subjects of their film and their community.  In this story about failed government infrastructure and racism in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, told through the personal journeys of two residents, Lessin said they approached the transmedia aspect by building robust website. It ultimately became a go-to resource where visitors could share their story, along with the option to host a screening and access study guides. Other outreach arms included one of the main character’s music, Kimberly Rivers Roberts, who performed along with screenings of Trouble the Water. What was probably most unique was the opportunity of being included in the HBO dramatic series Treme. Not only did protagonists Kimberly River Roberts and her husband, Scott Roberts appear in multiple episodes, but the documentary itself was mentioned and scenes from the film were shown when a Treme character watches it on his laptop. Lessin also discussed Citizen Koch (2013), a documentary on big money influence on elections, which ironically became a subject in itself on big money influence on public media. See related New York Times article here.

Filmmaker and journalist, Tom Jennings, presented his work through his independent film company, 2 Over 10, which mostly produces Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 2.53.57 PMworks for Frontline. Jennings laid out the various ways he’s used transmedia to illustrate investigative storytelling. His examples were Frontline productions, which used video and graphics along with case documents, such as autopsy reports, in a visual compelling timeline on the website. Viewers have the option to just watch video, or to more deeply explore each case. Another example, which I too found equally as engaging (and I’m not a big investigative reporting consumer) was Jennings on camera, telling the story of David Coleman Headley, using graphics that resembled writing on a white board as he explained a case. The graphics were terrific and proved a creative and immersive approach to storytelling of this nature.

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The 90 to 5 Editing Challenge

August 31st, 2013 by Owner

Planet 9 From Outer Space (1959)

“Planet 9 from Outer Space”, recut by Eitan Vardi

Crafting a story is about making choices. What information is essential to the narrative, whether it be for artistic, practical, or emotional reasons, as a storyteller, one has to constantly make choices, cut by cut, frame by frame. Any choice has the potential to drastically change story direction.

With a feature length film, a filmmaker, and often a team of other crafts people, make those choices and hopefully it turns into a powerful and immersive 90 minute experience. Many many hours of footage is brought down to approximately 1.5 hours with much sweat and debate in order to arrive at something that a patron wants to watch, while maintaining a certain momentum and clarity. This speaks above all the position of Editor.

Screen Shot 2013-08-31 at 4.44.19 PMThe 90to5 Editing Challenge asks its editor and filmmaker audience to take a 90 minute film which exists in the public domain, and bring it down to 5 minutes, while staying loyal to the movie’s original story. This is an excellent opportunity to refine one’s cutting skill set, or for first timers, to take the plunge and try their hand at editing. For anyone with a passion for crafting visual storytelling this way, it can also be a heck of a lot of fun too. (Okay, full disclosure, I am thrilled to be on the jury panel for 90to5 this year, but I wouldn’t be on it, if I didn’t believe in its value.)

These type of exercises are great for sharpening one’s abilities because they offer some structure within to work. One can practice editing all they want, but sometimes an assignment, and the promise of awesome prizes for the winners, are a great motivators.

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