Working with a film subject…

Posted in Artist Profile, Captain, Documentary, Filmmaking on April 28th, 2013 by Dave

This will be the first of three posts on lessons learned from three of my films: Captain, and two artist bios…
Many and wondrous are the rewards garnered from working with a film subject. I mean “film subject” as in a person I’m interested in filming – and not a theme or topic per se.

The people I’ve filmed are people I like, find interesting, and who I find inspirational in one way or another. Someone I can learn from, someone who has something to share or who has qualities or traits that are elevated – even virtuous. Richard Updaw, the character I followed in Captain is certainly such a person. After meeting, getting to know, and ultimately making a film with Rich, I can finally say that I’ve met a man’s man, (I’d heard that expression throughout my life, but never really knew what it meant – or maybe I never knew an individual I could apply it to!). Dick is good looking, calm, confident, charming, down to earth, – and a born leader. Those were my impressions of him the day Ann, my wife, and I met him and they still hold true today. Amazing how those first impressions can be so dead-on… He rendered us Good Samaritan assistance by jump-starting our car which had developed a dead battery due to a case of my leaving-the-headlights-on-negligence. He was glad to help out. I noticed his Marine cap, of which he has an amazing assortment, and within moments were were talking about his days as a United States Marine, his time in Vietnam, and his own personal quest to learn more about a dead World War 2 vet that eventually became the basis for the film we made.

We socialized for at least a year (with no thought of making a film on my part), just enjoyable, regular get-togethers, until it finally dawned on me that Dick’s story about a long dead Marine could make a good film. And once I proposed the project, there was complete buy-in from Rich. So the timeline for the film was thus: we became friends, got to know each other pretty well, and then we made a film. I realize now that the trust bank that we had built up prior to making the film was the foundation for the success of the project.

There was never a time that Dick didn’t give complete cooperation to the needs of the film. He was always willing to accommodate my, “just one more shot”, requests. He respected my judgement during the editing/shaping of the story. And I learned to respect his wish that the story be focused on Robert Hodes, the 19-year old killed at Iwo Jima, and not himself. Ironically, in doing so I believe Dick’s character comes through all the stronger.

An example of Dick’s cooperation-and commitment to the project: when he became tearful during one interview, he didn’t pull in and ask me to remove the shot from the film. He realized it was true and authentic and was enough of a man to be easy-going about this private moment going public. Dick’s agenda was simple: to tell this forgotten Marine’s story. To that end he put his own ego a distant second … at least that’s the way I perceived it.

The film has received some good reviews, and our friendship has continued. Rich still comes to dinner regularly even though he’s a busy guy. At 67, he drives school bus everyday AND maintains a 60 acre farm by himself. He has lots of pets. Cats, dogs, horses, goats, and a mule with that lets go, when he thinks he should be fed, with a bray that reminds me of the alien mother ship from Close Encounters of The Third Kind letting loose with that window-shattering volley of notes…(go to 5:58 in this utube clip to understand my rather obscure reference)

Anyway, looking back I know the film benefited from the trust brought about by our prior relationship. We both knew enough about each other to know that we had each other’s best interests at heart – and that ultimately came to include the best interests of the film as well… So the takeaway moral, for me at least from this experience, is do your homework! Develop a relationship with your film subject. Find out who they are and go with your gut about first impressions, but in the words of Ronald Reagan, “trust but verify”. Do it not only to make a better film, in the sense of delving deeply into your subject, but to ensure that you ultimately avoid the disaster of not having a film at all.

My next post will talk about lessons learned from an experience that didn’t turn out so well…

The many qualities of quality…

Posted in Documentary, Editing, Filmmaking, Mira Armij Gill on April 21st, 2013 by Dave

I’m finishing up my film on concert pianist Mira Gill who lives, performs, and teaches in New York City. The film is a little bio/profile of a wonderfully gifted artist with an equally strong artistic spirit. Material for this film has come from a variety of sources; family photos, scrapbook items from Mira’s youth, footage I shot in NYC and Maine, archival footage in the public domain, and finally some low quality footage shot of Mira performing with the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra at age 15.

The footage in the clip below barely approaches VHS quality, (and that’s being kind), and to make matters worse, perhaps in extended play mode which would give it that worst possible quality look that we all love of course. A cave painting shot filmed through a fish bowl – you get the idea. It was a wide shot so Mira, occupies just a small section in the frame. At first, I thought, no way – the footage looks really crappy – it’s going to look even worse surrounded by the HD footage I shot for the film. I can’t use it, can I? Then I played it a couple of more times. Again, the footage was so poor you can just make out that it might be Mira – or not! (trust me, I have a signed affadavit!).

I kept replaying the clip, and each time I looked at it I liked it more. It finally dawned on me that this is the real power of art: that as bad as the picture quality was, the performer and the orchestra surrounding her broke through the quality barrier…to freedom! Once I knew I’d be using it, I blew up the frame in several places, pushing the quality lower and the impact higher. I did this so that I’d be able to punctuate the performance with a couple of cuts. The one at the crescendo of the piece is perfect – the cut from the super close-up of Mira, in all her pixellated glory, to the wide shot as the music finishes. I think it works really well – judge for yourself.

Throughout the editing of this film, I found myself getting caught up in the performance each time I passed it in the film. In fact it became more thrilling each time I played it…the performance of this 15 year old phenomenon and the the community orchestra that rose to the occasion and played for all they were worth. They were like a freight train barreling down the tracks. For me the clip I’d like to share below is one of my all-time favorites in my own mental cinematic archives, …and I’m thrilled to be using it in my film.

Cold, wet and tired…filming in New York City at 60…

Posted in Artist Profile, Filmmaking, From Talking - To Playing, Mira Armij Gill on April 15th, 2013 by Dave

This past Friday was a cold, raw, rainy day in Manhattan. The previous day I had journeyed cross-state from my home in Rochester to New York City. A seven hour bus ride and a $20.00 cab ride later, I arrived at my film subject Mra Armij-Gill’s apartment, where I got a few hours of sleep before jackhammers went off from 7am to 7:15. I was in the city to finish filming for my next film about Mira, a top-tier pianist and teacher.

O.k., I’m cramming a bunch of baggage into the title of this post. I could have added the shoot was exhilarating too, as I tried to find the special wavelength that would help me see the images I needed to see to cover subjective parts of the narrative that needed to be covered. Except that I’m a bit cranky, unwinding my sore back from 16 hours or so of sitting on a bus over a two day period.

My filming was fun, especially shooting B-roll in Times Square. And spending a few special moments with an office assistant, name unknown, in a Physical Therapist’s office Mira had an appointment at. This was a young woman who began asking me a bit about my work and my life. I think she was in that lovely stage somewhere in her early twenties where she was finding herself and, interestingly, looking to learn from others – even old guys like me who are usually completely invisible to people her age. I was flattered and moved by her questions. Then goodbye, good luck; just a couple of people who will never meet again but glad to have connected. It was a sweet experience, then gone in the rear view mirror…

Mira’s appointment with the physical therapist was brought about partly by me I confess. Early on, before we even began filming in December, 2012, I learned that she enjoyed figure skating. In fact she let it be known that she could skate backwards, do spins, perform jumps – all that stuff that always amazes a person like myself who clings to the barrier wall around the rink just trying to survive the “fun”. So I asked her if we could include a trip to the ice skating rink during my December trip. I didn’t know how or even if I would use this footage but, in my mind, there is a poetic common denominator between piano playing and skating. She agreed, and in typical Mira fashion, immediately began taking lessons and practicing so that her skating would be up-to-par. Up-to-par for Mira means no-screwing-around-its-got-to-be-perfect. As it turns out, I’m glad I shot the footage. I’m using about 7 seconds of it in the video and it’s effective.

As it turns out, the skating flame did not die out after filming. Mira continued her lessons and skating until a short while ago when she injured her knee during practice and is now in physical therapy. Will she continue skating, I asked. I might has well have asked her if she’d give up piano…Will I take another Trailways excursion in the future? Not a good time to ask…

8mm Vintage – Oh what a feelin!

Posted in Uncategorized on April 10th, 2013 by Dave

Maybe it’s because I’m a relic from the 60’s but I’ve totally fallen in love with a little piece of software that runs on my Ipod 4. It’s called 8mm Vintage and I learned about it when I was reading about the documentary “Searching for Sugarland” Seems that the filmmaker, Malik Bendjelloul, shot this Oscar winning documentary, which I can’t wait to see, using an actual super 8mm camera to give the film a gritty, retro look, then ran out of money with a couple of shots to go in the production. He found the app mentioned above, loaded it onto his iphone and finished the shooting for the film. Supposedly the shots cut together beautifully with the actually super 8 footage – the director said that audiences could not tell the difference. The app costs $1.99. Can you imagine having shot all that film, having it processed and then realizing that you could have had it all for $1.99?

I can dig that it’s not all about money though. Shooting super 8mm is very different than shooting with an iphone. And the director chose a certain aesthetic and then picked the tool which reflected the time and place of his subject. Very neat and true to the story he was trying to tell; I totally respect that.

I Immediately purchased the app which took approximately one minute. It was snowing outside. I fired up the app and I shot some test clips. Oh my God, they were beautiful. The 8mm look with it’s jitter and strobing and sepia look, which the app defaults to, were gorgeous. Here are a couple of quick clips:

I had the option of shooting in 4:3 aspect ratio or full 1920 x 1080. I went with the 4:3 – I just like that boxy old look, no, the classic proportions, that just put me in the old single, non-multiplexed cinemas I frequented in my youth. It seemed to me that everything I shot with this app felt more like a memory, a feeling, or an evocation of a time or place than what it was objectively. I’m not sure that my reaction wasn’t entirely due to the fact that I grew up with film, and that video was such a horror visually in its early days. I’d like to see what someone in their teens would think. Would they even relate it to the past, or would they just view it as a modern special effect or “theme”.

I found myself wanting to make a film with the starting point being that it had to be made with this app. That a 1.99 cent app would be the muse for a film to me is astonishing…but it could happen. In the meantime, I tried something with the film I’m now editing, “From Talking To Playing”, about the brilliant pianist Mira Gill, (or “Miracle” as I like to think of her!). I had put together titles in Vegas Pro using with just white print on a black background. I also layered in some animated snow flakes. Then I rendered out this section, played it back and recorded the screen playback with my ipod and 8mm Vintage. Here’s what it looks like:

I like it and it’s now the opening to my film…

Mike Carroll’s Revised, “Naked Filmmaking”

Posted in Artist Profile, Documentary, Filmmaking on April 6th, 2013 by Dave

My reward this weekend for finishing taxes is to sit down and go through the newly revised, Naked Filmmaking: How To Make A Feature-Length Film – Without A Crew – For $10,000-$6,000 Or Less Revised & Expanded For DSLR Filmmakers (Volume 1 by Mike Carroll) . Whew! If that title doesen’t pique your interest, I don’t know what will!

I am fortunate, and honored, to have been sent a preview copy of the book earlier this week by Mike who asked me to page through it and share my thoughts about it with him. I’ll be writing up comments for Mike later this weekend…

I don’t know how this guy does it. He works full time as a videographer at Channel KCRA in Sacramento. He’s completed 3 feature length films. “Year” and “Nightbeats” are dramas; Dog Soldiers-A Dogumentary is his one documentary. He’s also written Breaking Into TV News How To Get A Job & Excel As A TV Reporter-Photographer, must reading if you’re a young person contemplating a broadcast journalism career.

Oh, he’s about my age too,maybe a bit younger, (I just turned 60). I imagine that when I’m tucking myself into bed at 8:45pm, Mike, three time zones away, is just getting home from his job and about to begin another workday on his twin passions – writing and filmmaking.
He is ALWAYS thinking out of the box – questioning the conventional wisdom that you need a crew to make a film, or a twenty thousand dollar camera, or a distributor, or a catering budget. The guy, and his terrific wife Bonnie, do it all themselves.
I think the real subtext though in his two books, is what it takes to become a self-made person. It’s not like he has to pound his chest about it; it’s just there. I really like, and am drawn to that Walter Mitty thing he has going…to me it wouldn’t matter what field he was writing about. It could be Naked Shoemaking, and I’d want to read about a guy who has always got his sights on the road ahead…

Additional Editing Workflow Ideas…

Posted in Editing, Filmmaking on April 2nd, 2013 by Dave


As I get close to the end of editing a piece, my practice has been to begin burning DVD’s of the film with time code, (basically a digital clock that is visible on the screen and that tracks the elapsed time of the film). I burn these DVD’s so that I can see a decent size image with all video effects fully rendered. I can can then sit down and view the production in full-motion without any stuttering, and at full resolution. I burn the DVD directly from the timeline of the film, which Sony Vegas Pro 11 allows for, and then grab take a yellow pad, press play, and stop the playback to take notes on the fixes/changes I want to make in the production. Then back up to the edit room to make the changes. I must “burn” through 20 or more DVD’s per production as I comb through and refine the film.

Yesterday, though a minor evolution/breakthrough just seemed to happen all by itself. I needed to render a 1280×720 draft version of the film so that my film subject, Mira Gill could view the progress of the production. I went to spot-check the rendered file to check for problems before uploading it to my video account. I opened the production on top of my Sony Vegas window as seen below.



The rendered video is the upper left window and the editor sits below it.That’s Mira on the left, concert pianist extraordinaire, with her brilliant student Sonam, (wait till you see her play in the finished film!)

I started checking the rendered film and happened to spot a change I knew I wanted to make. So I just toggled my screen to my editor and made it immediately. I put my studio headphones on and made a sound tweak. Then I just kept going. I made another fix, then another. It occurred to me, hey, I’m looking at my film now at twice the resolution that would have been burnt to standard DVD, (720×480). I found this a pleasurable visual experience as well. The picture, so sharp, creamy and three-dimensional. All of this sounds so obvious in hindsight, but when you’re used to doing things a certain way, habit often prevails, even when a better approach is staring you right in the face…I think if my yellow pad had been in front of me I would have logged the fix in, burnt the DVD, and continued trudging along the old well-worn path.

When I had worked my way through the rendered film, making changes in my editor as I went, I re-rendered the film, but this time stopped myself at a quick spot-check. I’ve found that at a certain point of viewing and reviewing a piece, I no longer can see it objectively. I think to myself, my eyes are starting to bleed, I need to do something else, like go walk the dog, clean the grout in the shower – anything but edit. Later on, I come back to it with fresh eyes and recharged motivation.

So, this is just a chronicle of a small change that can evolve in one’s workflow that can have a big impact in productivity – and actual enjoyment of the process… I like the instant feedback and the instant correction that this method makes possible. And I don’t have to decipher the hieroglyphics scrawled on my yellow pad later. I’m sure other editors have been doing this all along, but for some reason I never picked it up…

This little victory is a reminder to me that not all one’s creativity occurs in the storytelling…