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…

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…

Follow-up on my recent editing post…why I hate dissolves

Posted in Editing, Filmmaking, Uncategorized on March 28th, 2013 by Dave

I try not to use a lot of special effects in my work. I don’t need to generally, because most of what I do is narrative in nature and I find that effects just tend to be distracting to the subject matter. In my younger days yes, I relied on effects to jazz things up, but not so much anymore. Nowadays I prefer lots of cuts in my work even to the point of cutting from black to titles and from titles to black and then cutting to actual video. I like, when I can, to cut out of a sequence, go to black then cut back into the next sequence, which is generally a new thought or transition in content. I like the energy you get when cuts are used…not real fast cutting necessarily, but one image changing to another, to another…

If I’m picking and trimming the clips that I’m editing together just so, the whole sequence moves along with the narrative aiding and abetting the audio part of the production. If the cuts aren’t working, then it almost always comes down to I need to shoot more material, so I schedule another shoot. For me, it seems to work out that I never shoot exactly what I need the first time out. That’s because during editing, when I’m actually creating the story, I start having ideas for shots – and I don’t deny myself when it comes to shooting more and not settling for less, meaning what I have on hand. That’s why I’m returning to New York City in a couple of weeks to pick up shots I’ve been adding to my list while editing my new film, “From Talking To Playing”. I’m not wild about a 7 hour bus ride and the whole lot of gear I’ll need to manhandle and drag around once I get there, but it’s got to be done. I don’t even carry a clothes bag on these trips. My clothes are packed in spaces between my microphones, lights, etc.

I’m digressing.

So what does this have to do with hating dissolves? Well, if I were to rationalize and say, well I can probably use this OK shot if I blend (dissolve) from it to another OK shot, maybe bring up the music and just stretch the footage as much as I can, maybe even freeze the last frame of a clip to stretch it out more, well, yeah, I’ve covered my audio but it’s dull, dull, dull. And any god fearing fellow filmmaker would laugh at the hack moves I was laying on them. They’d know it was just illustrating. So for me, using dissolves this way is the way of the lazy, maybe even the way of the coward… It’s so easy to be swayed by the siren call of dissolves to smooth out the bad cutting. And even worse, I’ve found that once you start dissolving from clip to clip in a sequence, it becomes difficult to return to cuts. So now you’re stuck in the gauzy visual equivalent of elevator music. Lotus eaters.

I don’t really hate dissolves. I just think they can be overused or used inappropriately. If there’s a strong reason to use them, one that amplifies the narrative great. Or to signal a sense that time has passed, well double-great. But if all you’re doing is smearing video together to “cover” your audio, grab your camera and head out for some fresh air, and fresh ideas.

Some additional thoughts on editing – and doing more with less…

Posted in Editing, Filmmaking on March 25th, 2013 by Dave

I’ve been using Sony Vegas Pro 11 for the last two years. I paid $300.00 for it on Amazon. I have worked with Adobe Premiere, ten years ago, and liked it too. I did feel, and still do, that Vegas is faster to work with but a lot of that is because, well, I know it inside out. This is all by way of saying that I don’t think it really matters anymore what you edit with. I’m not talking about Hollywood here, but smaller independent productions doing basic editing. Vegas has it’s strengths, Premiere has its too. So does Avid. They all work. I think you would tend to be really choosy about your editor if one or another had certain strengths that you needed for a particular project. I do a lot of cuts with occasional simple titles. In addition, I wind up doing a fair amount of compositing as well – and even that is on the simple side – three to four layers max. Vegas has been fine for this work so far, but Adobe After Effects is out there and I may need to explore it in the near future for a theme-based long form film I’m contemplating.

One thing that’s a real minus with Vegas is the poor integration between the New Blue Titler that bundles with it. I try to avoid using it as it causes crashes about 1 in 5 times I use it during an edit session, (I’m using an I7 Intel processor, 12 gigs of internal ram, and an AMD Radeon 6700 Series graphics card with a gig of on board ram. This isn’t just me, a lot of people online complain about New Blue Titler crashing Vegas…So I wind up losing a couple of minutes of work, (back to the last auto-save). Like I mentioned, I keep my titles simple so I use the Sony bare-bones titler and if I need anything a bit more tricky I can even open Photoshop and whip up a title or graphic. Then bring it into Vegas and apply motion fx, whatever. Again, if I were doing car commercials or stuff that needed a lot of flash, I’d be into a whole different edit package and titling/graphics add-ons. I like how quickly I can drag and drop clips together to “sketch” a scene. I like the way I can slide together clips for dissolves. I like their pan/crop effect which I use all the time for creating moves when I’m using photographs. I know it’s strengths and weaknesses so I’ll be sticking with it for now. I like the way you can create subclips with descriptive names and then search them out at any time – great for b-roll.

Switching gears,…I was thinking the other day while out walking the dog that if my house burned down and destroyed all my gear and computers and I lost everything and was destitute, (forget about the fact that our house is insured – and destitution is relative:)!), I’d still be able to make films. Let see, I’ve got my smart phone, and a couple of apps, my favorite being Vintage 8mm , I’d scrounge a two year old laptop and edit in Windows Movie Maker. What, no lighting, sound, or other filmmaking paraphernalia? Not if I really went for the “content is king approach” and continued to stick to small productions working within the limitations of my “new” toolset of course. Other’s have done it:

Perhaps this is me telling myself once again, (by way of the Brooklyn Bridge), that the story is everything. In this glorious age of filmmaking, the possibility of making a film on less than a shoestring is a reality. And even if you don’t reach everyone, if your film means something to even a few people that’s something isn’t it?

My Editing Process…

Posted in Editing, Filmmaking on March 21st, 2013 by Dave

I’d like this to be an ongoing post about how I approach editing one of my films. First, all the disclaimers about being an authority…I’m continually learning how to edit. And I’ve come to the conclusion that, like painting a picture, it’s something you have to learn for yourself – by, well, editing a whole lot!…

For me, editing is extremely challenging – with incredible moments when something magical happens. When individual parts of the production come alive, and then larger sections start to coalesce.

It’s one thing to edit a “job”, whether it’s a training film or promo for a business. There are a bag of tricks that anyone with experience can pull out and put together a view-able product assuming well-structured content, writing, and directing. And there are visual and sound effects, flashy editing, what have you, that can jazz up a production – particularly where the production is weak in the aforementioned areas. This kind of editing is to me a craft – no put-down intended. It allows you to get a job done and put bread on the table – and that’s OK.

But, for me, if you’re working on a personal piece you have to dig deeper. You have to edit by the gut. You have to re-invent the editing, story-telling process for every single project. When I say “you” I mean me specifically, but the “you’s” out there I’m sure will understand what I’m saying.

My approach is to look at the footage over and over. I log it of course, but I watch it and re-watch it until it’s in my longer term memory. This gives me the ability to have little flashes, or images pop into my head when I’m taking a shower, taking a walk, etc. I like letting things perk. And, of course, I keep thinking about my subject. What is it that really hits me – what’s that one wonderful thing the film is about.

The film I’m editing now, From “Talking To Playing”, was shot in New York city back in December. For the first month after filming, I looked at the footage and then got drawn into the holidays. The second month I looked at the footage, cut together the narrative, and felt that the project was hopeless. I was thinking about the production all the time, worrying mainly. Not because I didn’t have a wonderful subject or good interviews and footage, but because I couldn’t find a way into the film…I hadn’t boiled down what I wanted to portray that would be the essence of the film. Month 3, I edited the first seven minutes. I was starting to feel good. Then I got on a roll and rough cut fourteen additional minutes in a little over a week. And the momentum continues now because I know what the film needs, the film-subject has seen the draft edit and is behind me, the wind is at my back and I’m inspired…and I think that’s where a person has to be in order for the magic to happen…

I’ll continue this subject from other angles in a future post.

Mike Carroll and “Naked Filmmaking”

Posted in Artist Profile, Filmmaking on November 19th, 2012 by Dave

I found a very interesting filmmaker located out in California online. His name is Mike Carroll and he’s been a news videographer for over 30 years. He’s also completed two feature films and one feature-length documentary basically in his spare time. In addition he’s written two books the first entitled “Naked Filmmaking” and the second “Breaking Into TV News“. The films that he produced are professionally made and look like they cost a sizable amount of money to produce. The amazing thing is that Mike wrote, directed, filmed, edited, and the sound for the films all by himself!

I’ve watched his documentary entitled “Dog Soldiers“, and it is brilliantly shot and edited. I’m watching his feature films out of order chronologically. The film I just finished watching is entitled, “Nightbeats“. It’s a very dark film, noir to be precise. It has a beautiful rich dramatically lit style, that is sustained throughout the movie. Mike uses theater actors for his cast of characters and his wife and daughter-in-law are prominently featured. They do beautiful jobs in portraying lost souls. It is hard to believe looking at this film that you are not looking at a Hollywood production. But the film was made for less than $10,000. And most of that money went for filming equipment. I’ve seen the film a total of four times so I could catch all of the commentaries that were included as extras and my appreciation for the film increases each time I see it. I’ve just begun watching his first feature entitled “Year“. I’ve seen the first 10 minutes and it looks like the work of a mature director with a full production crew behind him. Again, it’s just him and his troop of theatrical actors and a lot of talent and a lot of energy and persistence to pull this project off.

One thing I should’ve mentioned that at least partially explains why, as far as I’m concerned,  he’s hit a home run on each of his feature films  is that he has over 30 years of experience as a news videographer and editor at KCRA in Sacramento, which have no doubt has given him the technique that  has enabled him to produce his artistic filmmaking at such a high level.

Here is Mike’s  website .
there’s a link on his website to his Amazon store where you can rent, or buy a download of his films, or purchase DVDs. His books are also on sale both as Kindle and print versions. Very reasonably priced, and perfect for anyone interested in learning about producing truly personal films.