Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Three Test Patterns

Three Test Patterns from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

When I first started editing, I self-assigned all sorts of experiments. This one was about taking some simple raw material -- color bars -- and applying three different "strategies" to that material.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Long View

Looking ahead to 2010, I'm considering participating in both the International Documentary Challenge in March and the 48 Hour Film Project -- which I think will hit New York in June.

I've been in the Doc Challenge three times, making it to the finals twice. I think I can give it another try, though I'm aware it makes for a tough five days.

I'm thinking I might enjoy playing a role with a narrative film project for the 48HFP, also, maybe as editor. I'll need to form a team, though. Know anyone?

Above: an iPhone snap of a poster in the subway. Taken with the camera not exactly parallel to the poster.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bend & Bow Via Netflix

For those of you running out of entertainment ideas while you're taking a little time off, here's an easy documentary-related notion. The International Documentary Challenge DVD is now available on Netflix. It's got 17 great short films, including our short documentary Bend & Bow.

You can buy the DVD on Amazon also:

If those two ideas don't help... I don't know, maybe watch some cartoons, I've done what I can.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction

I wanted to mention Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction by Patricia Aufderheide again as it has now gone on sale at Amazon. Great intro / refresher text for documentary basics, focusing on issues that are essential -- but not production techniques.

It has a good overview of the standard approaches to documentary filmmaking as well as a helpful critique for these approaches. Its main virtue is that it is very, very clear in handling complicated issues, and not afraid to point out what a problematic field documentary can be. I highly recommend it to any one starting out in the field or re-thinking how they'd like to work.

A good time of year to reconsider the ethics of the practice, no?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

So Far In The Past

I've posted a few times about the Roman Polanski case. More specifically, about the directors and actors and producers who signed the "release Polanski" petition being held accountable for signing.

Facts Matter
Polanski Update
“The director of the documentary told me..."
Less Hypothetically
My position is that the arguments being used to support Polanski are stupid and dangerous and need to be debunked, more for the sake of our culture's morals than specifically for Polanski's fate. The most idiotic points:

1. Minimization of the crime
A number of people bought Polanski's spin that the crime involved a slightly-underaged woman involved in consensual sex. If you read the court testimony it's clear that's not what is at issue, but the purposeful rape of a 13-year-old girl.

2. That the victim doesn't want Polanski prosecuted
It's important to understand that crimes of this nature are prosecuted as "the People of the State of California versus" rather than as an individual versus the accused. It's not that uncommon for a victim to decide prosecution shouldn't be pursued -- but it isn't relevant, since the reason for the prosecution is to punish or prevent crime in the state. To be fair, anyone using this position should also have to precede it with "after receiving a huge financial settlement that hasn't been fully disclosed but is likely to be the most significant income in the victim's entire life, the victim doesn't think the case should be prosecuted."

3. That there's some "clear" problem with the case, the judge or the state
The appropriate action against any of these is to go to court. I understand that impression of mishandling of the case -- it's heavily fueled by the documentary, but now seems to be debunked at least to a degree -- and if it is true it can be settled in a court of law. Not by remaining a fugitive. When you are on the run from the law, you don't really get to nitpick the details of how your case was handled.

Since the first wave of interest in the Polanski apprehension, much has happened. He's now under house arrest at a luxury chalet. At least one petition-signer has realized she's on the wrong side of the case and changed her position. And there's been some movement in the courts which will likely resume after the holidays.

But the thing about being a celebrity is no one ever tells you you're wrong. So a director I otherwise respect is tut-tutting everyone for being so darn strict about rape, law, fleeing jail and other stuff that's just, you know, from a long time ago.

Terry Gilliam's Three-Reel Circus
MJ: Speaking of blowback, why'd you sign the petition supporting Roman Polanski?

TG: I think the whole thing is so far in the past. Roman isn't a difficult fugitive. He could have been picked up any time. When he won the [2003] Oscar for The Pianist, I don't remember the public demanding his extradition—because it didn't happen! The way people are behaving now, I don't even think they know the difference between extradition and execution. Here is a 76-year-old guy. The girl involved, everyone involved, has said, Forgive, forget, it's over and done with—until suddenly the long arm of the law decides now is the time to strike. His behavior was not right, but I think what is going on is even more suspect.

MJ: Hmm. Okay.
One reason the public didn't strongly call for Polanski's extradition in 2003 was that very few understood the facts -- instead believing the case to be similar to that of a rock star who is "shocked" to discover a groupie was only 17 1/2. In part, that's because Polanski's memoirs imply that, and because his lawyers and others have tried to popularize that view in opposition to the facts.

There's nothing suspect in being anti-rape or opposing someone who is able to flee and avoid punishment because they are wealthy. There is something suspect in those who use weasel-words like "his behavior was not right" in place of "raped a 13-year-old girl."

Facts matter, words matter.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Scan from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

"Scan" was made in 2003, and showed at Rooftop Films that year in the "Home Movies" program. In a way, it's a documentary.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Above: Times Square on Thursday night.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Interviewed by Chris Corradino

I think you may have heard plenty about me by this point.

That won't stop me from posting: an interview Chris Corradino just blogged.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Notebook on Santas and Elves

Notebook on Santas and Elves from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

Here's an 18-minute documentary I made in 2007. Please give it a rating at IMDB.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Larry in Relation to the Ground

Larry in Relation to the Ground from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

This is a short documentary I made in 2002. Please give it a rating at IMDB.


Zeno from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

This was made back in 2001, I believe. Screened in a few places. Enjoy.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


You never know how a schedule might change, but I'm hoping I'll be teaching a television production class again next term. I've been thinking about some ways to refine the projects I've given in past classes, and I have a few ideas that might be fun. We'll see.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Like The Boomtown Rats Said

It's a venerable tradition: the in-camera edit assignment.

Students in production classes all over the country do it, and it's been assigned for decades. A production team is asked to shoot a subject, but with no post-production: they shoot exactly what they'll show. It forces you to plan ahead, to know your story before charging in, and to get the essential shots.

Today, I was the subject of one of these. I had a reasonably good time. I'm generally a willing subject, and will usually do what the director suggests (unless it goes against my nature or ethics). Someone gives me a cue, I talk. Tell me to, and I walk. Pretend to teach someone here. Okay.

In a way, it was a good reminder how forced and acted documentary can be: I gave the crew what they wanted, I attempted to project my idea of myself, and it went the way it went. Nothing surprising will be revealed, I expect, and nothing outside the plan will emerge.

A good exercise, but a view into what is often the essential problem of documentary work: the mechanism includes a camera or two, a small crew, and an expectation of what will happen. Often, that's really a strange and ineffective tool -- if your goal is to find subtle insights into human nature.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Documentaries In The News

Two fascinating tales of terror. One: the Academy Award short list for feature-length documentaries. Two: an account of a few ... um ... alleged irregularities at the Queens International Film Festival. (Keep in mind, anyone can allege anything. I'm linking to the story as it has been published online -- but you'll definitely want to check out the facts for yourself.)

Ah, what a tangled web we weave, when we try not to deceive. Two somewhat shocking stories....

Oscar Short List of Documentaries Draws Controversy

Pressed for details, Mr. Toback said only that he had experienced something connected with the selections process, “which I put fully in the category of extortion that I did not go along with.” Mr. Toback added that he was “furious” at himself for “having chosen to be passive and quiet in the face of that extortion.”

Film fest head a fraud, many say
A New York filmmaker who served on the advisory board of the first QIFF and has worked with Castaldo on and off for the past several years, said he was conned out of $20,000 this summer. The filmmaker, who wished to remain anonymous as he is negotiating a big movie deal, said Castaldo offered to distribute a film he and his partner had made earlier this year. According to their agreement, the filmmaker allegedly paid Castaldo $20,000, with the understanding that she would take the film to Cannes. “She never went to Cannes,” he said. “It was one total ripoff. ... Everything was phony.” Castaldo allegedly tried to convince him that she had been to Cannes, showing him a website with video footage of her there. The filmmaker said he soon discovered that the footage was doctored. The website offers to Photoshop anyone into Cannes, he said.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nothing To See There

My students are cutting a scene from a cancelled TV show. It's straightforward: a character walks into an office, talks to two other characters, is introduced to a guest, delivers a few key lines. It's shot in "single-camera" style, meaning the camera is generally on one character in one framing while all the characters run the scene. Next framing, repeat.

So the idea is fairly clear: assemble meaning from shots that are generally ready to cut together, but watch out for the inevitable small problems. Then find ways to keep the scene flowing nicely, to have it hit its key emotional points, and -- in this case -- to make the editing essentially invisible.

They seem to be enjoying it.

Above: my students are amused that I photograph banal details, like the floor.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Further Persistent Idiocy

The concept of "persistence of vision" was discredited decades ago. People who write about it are dumb. So, in the interest of public service I call people out on it.

To understand how long this has been discredited as an idea read THE MYTH OF PERSISTENCE OF VISION REVISITED from 1993 (a followup to a 1978 paper) which points out the idea has been proven wrong SINCE 1912.

So, who's "teaching" about the importance of "persistence of vision" today?

Filmsite by Tim Dirks

This ridiculous page cites the discredited idea five times to start its history of film. Is that surprising? No. Because if you randomly check ANY of the facts Tim Dirks publishes under his name, you'll find the level of research scholarship here isn't acceptable for a sixth-grade book report. Let's try a couple....

Hmmm. Right here on that same page he says "1860 The zoetrope, another animation toy, was invented by French inventor Pierre Desvignes."

Huh. Interesting. Let's check that. Oh, it was actually invented in 1834 by William George Horner, according to reputable sources.

Wait ... doesn't it also say that just above the 1860 entry? Strange. Confusing. Unclear.

Pick any other page. You'll find errors, misunderstandings, and generally an emphasis on the wrong things (for example, Dirks pushes an attempt to understand film history through a decade-by-decade approach, which is extremely ineffective). How do I know this? Because my students, despite my best warnings, often resort to searching Google for "film history" and Dirks' site shows up. So for years I've been correcting papers based on his "facts" -- and you'd be surprised how much I've learned from doing the fact-checking he can't be bothered with.

So, take care, people, and do some factchecking -- Tim Dirks isn't going to do that for you.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hoop Springs Eternal

Above, a doc produced in five days. Watch it, give it a vote.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Olympian Effort

Our short film Hoop Springs Eternal will screen tonight at Olympia Film Festival. (It's made with Chris Corradino, Linda Goldman, and Maya Mumma, featuring Loren Bidner and Jenny McGowan.)

I think it's scheduled after Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth and before Sissyboy -- about 9:45 p.m. or so -- but there's no love for us on a schedule listing, however. Maybe they figure it's so good it should remain secret, thereby avoiding a stampede for tickets.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Me, Me, Me, And Then Stuff About Me

There's a lot going on, but in overly self-important news, read Part One and Part Two of an interview on doc production. Featuring me. Based on Actual Events.

More significant news soon.

Monday, November 09, 2009

That's Not Lake Minnetonka

A little interview on What goes into making a documentary? in which I detail some of the process involved in our short documentaries. Part two tomorrow.

Just what you need, more words from me.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Wiseman's "La Danse"

I've mentioned Frederick Wiseman as an influence a few times previously. I was fortunate enough to see him speak in 2006, and I think his body of work is monumental.

Great short article on his latest in today's NYT:

Creating Dialogue From Body Language

In “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet,” his 36th documentary in more than 40 years, Frederick Wiseman takes his camera into the stately and elegant Palais Garnier in Paris, observing rehearsals, staff meetings and, finally, performances of seven dances, including classics like “The Nutcracker” and spiky new work by younger choreographers. To say that the film, sumptuous in its length and graceful in its rhythm, is a feast for ballet lovers is to state the obvious and also to sell Mr. Wiseman’s achievement a bit short. Yes, this is one of the finest dance films ever made, but there’s more to it than that.

Monday, November 02, 2009

In A World Something Something, One Man Stands Alone

Today I'm giving a lecture on editing structure in film trailers. There's more to it than the text below, with lots of examples and ideas and such, but here are the basic background notes. For what they're worth.

Editing Film Trailers

A film trailer combines storytelling with persuasion.

Editing a film is about story structure.

There's a beginning, that brings us into a new world. It usually starts with a hook -- a short, very interesting part, like a well-told joke, that sets the tone for the film and shows us it will be good. Then we meet the characters, and learn about this world and begin to care about it. The beginning usually ends by revealing a big problem.

The middle usually involves the characters trying to solve this problem. Usually their struggles pull us into greater complications -- and usually raise the stakes or lead to even more critical problems.

The end is usually a showdown: we move toward the moment when a character's struggle -- internal or external -- reaches a major test or confrontation or decision. Usually there's some resolution after this, as the world settles after all the upset.

A trailer, however, has a different goal and different rules. The goal is to get people to buy a ticket to a film (or buy the DVD, or order the film on-demand) so we can't use "pure" story structure -- that would give away the ending -- and we have to use persuasion techniques to “sell” the film to the audience.

Persuasion techniques go back thousands of years. Aristotle identified three basic persuasion techniques:

  • Appeal based on authority.
  • Appeal based on reason.
  • Appeal based on emotion.

There are others that work -- and you've seen all types of them in commercials. These three are still the main persuasive appeals, though, and show up in film trailers.

When you see elements that tell us who the actors, director or producers are -- this is persuasion based on the authority of the filmmakers.

When you see lists of awards a film has won, or quotes from great reviews, that's an appeal to your reason.

When the trailer itself makes you feel a certain way, that's a persuasive appeal.

A typical trailer structure:

  • A hook - gets our interest, reveals the style of the film.
  • Reveal a new world. Now show us the big problem.
  • Show us the characters -- and the problem gets deeper.
  • 60 percent in, there’s a big reveal, often character motivation.
  • Then we drive toward a big showdown.
  • We end on a “final note.”

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mile Seventeenish

Tomorrow I'll be shooting some footage as the New York Marathon goes along First Avenue, near my apartment. I have a few ideas on what might make an interesting microdocumentary, but it's tough to say what will happen or if a story will emerge.

I'm likely to shoot a combination of stills and HDV (at 720p30), and to also drag a small audio recorder around. This is similar to how Notebook on Santas and Elves was made. I learned a lot from that process, and I'm guessing it can be a workable way to make something about 5 minutes long.

I'm jotting this down because, as always, when I start a film (no matter how short or casual) it seems rather imaginary. It takes a while for anything to be gathered, anything to be put together, and for it to be shaped into anything at all. And then, if it is made into something watchable, there's a huge lag for it to go somewhere.

I have a list of festivals that seem like a match for this type of film, or for what I imagine the film will be. In any case, it will be interesting to check back in a few months and see where this went.

If you are running in the event, smile as you go by.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Little Eisenstein

As in past years, I'm having my editing class take the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin -- 7 minutes and 19 seconds long -- and work to cut 30 seconds out of it without ruining it. (Try it yourself: grab the Eisenstein film over at

Some students just make shots shorter, and some completely remove elements you or I might say are essential to the story. Every time I do this exercise, at least one student misunderstands: "Here it is," they proudly say, "I cut it down to 30 seconds."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Final Cut Pro Without A Mouse, Part One

Want to work fast in Final Cut Pro? Learn to work without the mouse.

Oh, you'll need the mouse sooner or later. Some tasks are best done with the mouse. If you want to edit fast, however, you may want to learn a few useful key commands that will speed up your editing process. Besides: it's cold and flu season, and who knows what's on that thing. So let's try a little mouse-free editing.

Get prepped:
Let's do the basics first so you'll be ready for this adventure. (In fact, you'll probably do this step with the mouse, just to keep things simple, but that's okay.) Start Final Cut Pro.

First, you'll need some sort of video clip to work with. You should have your "easy setup" set to match -- so if the clip is in DV-NTSC format, set your "easy setup" (located under the Final Cut Pro menu) to the same format. Close any project that's open, choose New > Project and then save it somewhere using an easily-understood filename and keeping the .fcp suffix.

Now choose New > Sequence and give it a name you'll understand -- like "tedshandsfreeedit01" or something appropriate. You don't want "Sequence01" or anything default or unclear.

Now, let's import your video file: choose File > Import and select your file. Set that mouse aside and let's practice. Hit Control-u to change to the standard interface. That will arrange your windows in a way that's good for the type of work we'll be doing.

Now let's work.
  • Hit Apple-4 to activate the Browser window.
  • Use the Up-arrow and Down-arrow keys to select what file is active. When you are on the video file you want to work with, hit the the return key and that will "load" the video clip into the Viewer window and activates the Viewer window.
  • Now you can use the j, k and l keys to move the playhead around. Tap "l" and the playhead will move forward at normal speed, tap it more and it will move forward faster. Hitting "k" will pause. Hitting "j" will move the playhead backwards; hitting it more will move the playhead backwards faster. The spacebar can also be used: it toggles "play" and "pause." To move by single frames, use the leftarrow and rightarrow keys. To move in one-second intervals, hit shift-leftarrow or shift-rightarrow.
  • Move to where you think a useful part of the clip starts. Once you have your playhead there, hit the "i" key to mark your inpoint.
  • Move to where you think a useful part of the clip ends. Once you have your playhead there, hit the "o" key to mark your outpoint.
  • Now, let's preview if you have the right inpoint and outpoint. Hit shift-\ and you'll see the clip play from the inpoint to the outpoint. If it is wrong, move the playhead to a better point and hit "i" or "o" to set a new better point.
  • Once you have the clip like you want it, hit apple-u to make a subclip.
  • You will see this new clip appear in the Browser. It will have jagged edges (note that the main clip has smooth edges) and it will have the text selected -- it's ready for you to type in an appropriate name. Like "Moe pokes Larry in the eyes" or something that will later help you identify the clip.
Now, repeat these steps and you can make subclips out of your single video clip, all ready to edit or to hand over to another editor. How do you get those on the timeline and edit them? That will be in our next edition of "Final Cut Pro Without A Mouse."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

But First, Arm Wrestling And A Slap Fight

I really enjoyed this post by Maria Lokken. One of the reasons I have my students read books by both Walter Murch and Ralph Rosenblum is to give them a sense that often the relationship between director and editor is more important than just knowing how to edit. No matter which role you are playing -- or if you are both -- the process of moving from production phase to editing phase can make or break a film. If the wrong goal is set, or if the wrong parameters are drawn, the editing process will not lead to a great outcome.

So how can a director make that process work?

Working with an editor

"Once I hand everything over I walk away. Yes, walk away. Let him or her work with it like a sculptor with clay. Let them put their creative stamp on it, and see where it takes the piece. You can always pull back. But it takes longer to get something out of an editor if you’ve shut them down from the beginning by saying this is the way it has to be, no changes, no exceptions."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Rock Followup: Hair Still Good

News from the world of documentary lawsuits.

Woman Declares Chris Rock's Documentary 'rip-off', Case Dropped

A judge in Los Angeles District Court dismissed a plagiarism lawsuit against Chris Rock that claimed the comedian lifted a woman's ideas when he filmed a documentary about African-American hairstyles.

Ted's Ideas On Editing Chase Scenes

On Wednesday I'm giving a lecture in one of my classes on editing chase scenes. I've given it a few times before, and it's usually a pretty big hit -- it seems to really help students get a handle on some basic editing concepts.

They may never edit a chase scene, but the bigger point is that they learn to develop a rational plan to make an otherwise complicated and confusing set of shots seem completely coherent, comprehensible, and clear.

We look at clips from about a dozen films, and illustrate the ideas below.


How do we know which character is which? Does one wear a white cowboy hat and the other a black one? Does one have a red car and the other blue? Is the pickup basketball game shirts versus skins?

If we see the leader pass the big red building, then ten seconds later the other, we know how far apart the characters are. Often, a camera will stay at a landmark position, and pan from one character to another.

If a car is chasing a moped, the car has a clear advantage. But when the moped goes into the subway and the car driver follows on foot, now the moped has the advantage.

Is a character gaining or falling behind? A shot where the camera is pulling away, or where the character is catching up to the camera may tell us. A shot with both characters in it might reveal the relative status as well.

We want to know what the character is thinking, feeling and doing -- so a cut to a shot through the windshield might reveal the character's expression. Or a cut to the foot on the brake might tell us what's happening. Or a closeup on the gear shift. Make careful note of where the character looks -- the next shot might be their "point of view."

A camera can be low in the front of a car, can look out the rear window, can sit in the passenger seat, can look down at the brake pedal -- and all of these shots are useful. It can run alongside the moped as it plunges down the stairs. It can turn to watch the car streak by. It can shake, float, or fly.

If a car goes from screen left to screen right, we expect it to keep doing that unless we some change -- a shot where it turns, or where we "move" into the car before coming back out. And we expect the car chasing to also maintain consistent screen direction -- unless we see a change happen.

If we cut from the big black car to the little red sports car -- should the sound change right on that cut? Or should it change in other ways? Do we want to hear the sound of the car coming toward us, then going away?

Even in a short chase, all go-go-go action wears thin. It's usually more exciting to have a lot of action, then a tiny pacing "deep breath" before the big finish.

That tank chasing the laser-guided skateboard just knocked over every fruit stand in aisle 19. Maybe we could cut back to see what happened, and the angry manager shaking her fist at us? Or maybe our wheel can't take much more and is starting to wobble -- maybe a closeup to reveal that?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Party Like It's 1993

Is it just me, or is a lot of the current conversation about the future of film distribution very similar to the discussions folks had in the early 90s about the future of the Web?

I have a book about the "future of art" on my shelf, printed just as the World Wide Web came along. Its predictions are completely wrong. I remember all the excitement about media moving to CD-R. That's faded away, though you could certainly do that today easily -- but no one wants to. And I remember many people who were very adamant that they would never read on a computer screen or buy online. Others said they'd never visit a page with advertising.

I streamed a live video conference in 1997, put streaming video online not that long after that, and have made a lot of work for the Web -- so I'm not surprised by the changes that have happened.

What I don't get, the part that is surprising to me, is how flat-footed people in the film production world have been caught by the changes. I think it's being explained in the wrong terms: it's not that you can't make a film, and it's not that you can't distribute a film. Those things are actually easier than ever. The problem is that they no longer make financial sense. The financial system in place works fine at a certain scale, but doesn't work under the new conditions. There's pressure to make Transformers 8 or a YouTube video of your hamster.

The stuff in the middle -- the good stuff -- needs a new model.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

He Told Them To Rush, More

Does Wes Anderson's Director of Photography really think he's a butthead, or is this a planned P.R. stunt? Either way, today's Los Angeles Times article on the retro stop-motion process behind The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a very interesting read.

Fur flies on 'Mr. Fox'

Not everyone could muster a magnanimous word for Anderson's M.O. -- especially his on-set absence. "I think he's a little sociopathic," cinematographer Oliver said. "I think he's a little O.C.D. Contact with people disturbs him. This way, he can spend an entire day locked inside an empty room with a computer. He's a bit like the Wizard of Oz. Behind the curtain."

Informed of Oliver's discontent, Anderson said: "I would say that kind of crosses the line for what's appropriate for the director of photography to say behind the director's back while he's working on the movie. So I don't even want to respond to it."

IMDB Web Series Credits Update

A while back -- on April Fool's Day, unfortunately -- I posted about IMDB Web Series Credits. Casey McKinnon had just announced the result of her conversation with Col Needham, IMDb founder and managing director: IMDB would be creating a Web series category.

She's still waiting, and has an update....

I want my… I want my… I want my Web TV!

"How much longer do we need to wait? How much longer must we submit our web series as “TV Series” or (straight to DVD) “Video” titles? I sent Needham an email the other day asking for an update, and just sent an email through the IMDb contact page last night. If you’re a producer with the same concerns, I suggest trying to touch base with them through your own networking channels. Let’s get this pushed through!!!"
Of course, maybe IMDB has been busy. They did, after all, add Twitter.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Long Enough To Reach The Ground

What's the right length for a film? Esquire Magazine makes one argument:

The 90-Minute Movie: Because 80 Minutes Is Too Short, and 100 Is Too Long

They could have cut out the entire China subplot from The Dark Knight — easily 20 of that movie's 152 convoluted minutes — with no effect on your enjoyment or comprehension of the film. And was it me, or did the fifth hour of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button start to drag?
Also, the list of films shortlisted in the Academy Awards short documentary category was released this week: almost all of them, as usual, 39 minutes long. Many are really films made for the 52-minute television hour, but cut down to 39 to take a shot at Oscar recognition. No nomination? Put 13 minutes back in, go to cable. (There have been a few exceptions over the years, notably the 17-minute Two Hands: The Leon Fleisher Story (2006) by Nathaniel Kahn.)

Oscar short documentary contenders named
Thirty-seven films were submitted in the short doc category and on Friday the Academy's documentary branch released a list of the eight films that have been short-listed. Three to five of them will be nominated when the nominations are announced on Feb. 2.
Above: The Quad, on 13th Street.

Marathon Women

Many of the films from the International Documentary Challenge can now be viewed on Snagfilms. Above: Marathon Women, a 5-minute doc made by two friends of this blog for the 2007 competition. Enjoy, and remember you can "snag" the film and embed it anywhere.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Documentaries In The News

With all the talk of documentary distribution, I guess one tried-and-true plan hasn't been discussed enough. That's right: suing the heck out of somebody.

Chris Rock sued over Good Hair film

Kimbell said she screened the film for Rock back in 2007 on the set of Everyone Hates Chris. Like Good Hair, My Nappy Roots traces the business and cultural history of black hair care and interviews celebrities about their hair stories. It has been shown at colleges and film festivals since its completion in 2006.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Parallel Eye-Jabbing Action

Today I taught my editing class, emphasizing smart and fast technique. When the students came in, each computer was ready to edit -- but the mouse was hanging off the desk, useless.

"Don't touch it," I told them. "The mouse is for weak-minded people. Today we edit like adults."

Which was true, and by the end of the class even the most hesitant students were able to make subclips and perform insert and overwrite edits with keys-only technique. It was very .... grown up.

Except for one thing: we were editing clips from a Three Stooges movie.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Pointing And Laughing At "Persistence Of Vision"

Look, here's the deal: the concept of "persistence of vision" was discredited decades ago. People who write about it and tell me it's a very important concept are dumb. It's not even a coherent idea, which tells me these "writers" are just taking the ideas handed down to them from other people and pretending to understand them -- and then they are "teaching" those ideas as if they were true. Makes one wonder what else they are teaching.

So, in the interest of public service I'm going to start calling people out on it. I'm going to start pointing and laughing at people who write about "persistence of vision" as if it were still a valid idea.

Just so you understand how long this has been discredited as an idea:


That paper was published in the Journal of Film and Video in 1993, and it complains that a previous paper -- published in 1978 -- hasn't put a dent in the constant renewal of this discredited notion. They point out it really has been proved wrong SINCE 1912, yet keeps returning.

So, who's "teaching" about the importance of "persistence of vision" today?

Understanding Video: A Video Primer for Photographers
by The Luminous Landscape.

"Because of something called the "persistence of vision" (the human eye hangs onto what it sees for a small while) these two fields merge in our brains. Incidentally, it's this persistence of vision that allows us to see a 24 frame per second movie as continuous motion rather than a series of flickering still images."
That's simply not true. Stop it, please. Ask yourself: why do I think this is true? Has anyone ever shown me that it's true? Or have I just heard it or read it somewhere -- and believed it? If you can't verify it, why are you teaching it? What do you mean by images "merging" in our brain? How do you know that? What evidence do you have for it? If there's none, please stop publishing it.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Doc On A Stick

One swallow does not make a summer, but two documentaries on USB flash drives? I think that marks a trend.

Mann releases mushroom doc on USB stick

Canadian director Ron Mann is testing a new method of movie distribution, releasing his documentary Know Your Mushrooms on a customized USB stick. The Toronto-based filmmaker was in the U.S. promoting his new doc — which follows mushroom-hunting gurus and explores mushroom culture — when he discovered a company that creates these flash drives in different shapes, including that of a mushroom.
Limited Editions and Blu-ray Disc!
We’re pleased to announce two limited-edition versions of Objectified designed by our friends over at Build, and the Blu-ray disc edition of the film. Available for pre-order now! USB Limited Edition: Fixed media? Meh. We’ve put a digital copy of the DVD on a tiny, custom-printed 16gb USB drive. Copy the file to your hard drive, watch the movie, and then use the nice little USB stick for all the things you normally use a USB stick.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Less Hypothetically

indieWIRE has more on an incident that will surely appear in future textbooks on documentary ethics: what happens when the subject of your film says they lied?

“Desired” Director Zenovich Responds To Polanski Prosecutor’s “Lies”

Zenovich said that the day she filmed Mr. Wells at the Malibu Courthouse, he gave her a one-hour interview. “He signed a release like all my other interviewees, giving me permission to use his interview in the documentary worldwide,” she said. “At no time did I tell him that the film would not air in the United States.”

She went on to say she is “astonished” that Wells has changed his story. “Mr. Wells was always friendly and open with me,” she said. “At no point in the four years since our interview has he ever raised any issues about its content. In fact, in a July 2008 story in The New York Times, Mr. Wells corroborated the account of events that he gave in my film… It is a sad day for documentary filmmakers when something like this happens.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ah, Documentary Ethics Is Always In The News

A little documentary ethics question: if you make a documentary, and many people cite it as evidence in an international legal battle, and then your interview subject admits that he lied about a key piece of information that became central to the film -- just made up the story -- what's the next step?

I ask this hypothetically, of course.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mornington Crescent?

On my other blog, some ranting about the news.

Above: a much less unpleasant snapshot from a subway station. You guess which one.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sony's Secret Lab, Somewhere Off The Jersey Shore

So Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Pentax all have useable HD modes in their DSLRs now.

All have problems, the Panasonic GH1 being the smartest of the bunch so far -- and the closest to useable for documentary video. (The Canon 7D is also creating a lot of excitement among doc makers -- but the Panasonic still has the best implementation to date. It's just that people love their Canons, and associate it with "professional" and Panasonic with "consumer" cameras -- even though Panasonic has done wonderful things in video camcorders.)

Yet Sony -- which has pushed forward some very smart, very price-savvy products very quickly in its DSLR offerings but not gotten the respect it deserves -- says they won't implement video until it is fully cooked.

That's fine, just get cooking soon, Sony.

Above: an iPhone snap from last night's class.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Currently Reading

My current train reading -- read in 20 minute bursts via my iPhone -- is Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction by Patricia Aufderheide. I'll write something on it when I'm finished. That will take a few more train rides.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Congrats James Longley

A new round of geniuses. Don't have to put that in quotes, really.

For MacArthur Grants, Another Set of ‘Geniuses’

...other winners in the arts who have received public recognition are the documentary maker James Longley, 37, who explores Middle East conflicts with portraits of communities under stress;...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Linear Schminear

Today was the last day teaching linear editing. We're moving on to those newfangled computer thingies. Now the real fun begins.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Shoemaker's Children

Just gave an update to my site. It's a first draft.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

First, Check Her IMDB Page

One of the most common questions my students ask is about rates for video production. I tell them it can vary greatly, depending on many factors.

For example, are you sleeping with a presidential candidate?

For John Edwards, the Drama Builds Toward a Denouement

"The prosecutors are also examining some $114,000 paid by the Edwards campaign to Ms. Hunter for a series of short campaign videos she produced. About $14,000 of that money was paid to her well after the videos were produced, some through transfers from accounts and listed as for furniture purchases."
Maybe it really is A Golden Age For Shorts

Friday, September 18, 2009

Docunomics, Part Three

Many years ago, I took an unexpected trip to Las Vegas. No big deal, since I lived in California and visited Vegas often. (I think we had a new friend who had never been, so we piled in the car around sunset and planned to stay overnight.)

In an effort to be cheap -- I was in college -- I decided to play a nickel video poker machine. I tried it a few times, and realized after a few hands that it was broken: it was paying back my bet on a tie, when it should have kept my nickel. That was the built in house advantage, and somehow the machine was broken and not taking that advantage. I stopped when I realized this, did some quick math and quickly understood there was a tiny but real angle there. I couldn't lose if I played a certain system.

At the same time, though, it was tiny advantage. If everything ran in a normal way, even betting five nickels each round, I could expect to win an extra nickel every few hands.

So I played for hours, and that's what happened: each hour, I made about $3. After a couple of hours, I realized it was ridiculous: this was less than minimum wage. Still, with five nickels in the machine, I was eligible for a huge jackpot if I happened to draw one of those extremely rare hands. So I played, realizing my earnings were small, but that I couldn't lose and had hope of hitting a big win.

My friends busy elsewhere, I played about 5 hours, and made about $15. Never hit a big jackpot.

I keep thinking of that night as I read people speculating on the future of documentary. Often, in discussions, my students tell me they want to see films on their computer, not on television. When I point out that online video distribution doesn't pay much per view -- one calculation on some venues is about 2-cents-per-view on short films, 10-cents per view on features -- and ask them how filmmakers will make money, they say that the films will just have to be very popular.

Fair enough. But 100,000 views -- kinda popular for a documentary -- at 2-cents-per view is $2,000. Not exactly vast riches, if that's over one year. One million views? Rare, but plausible, like a jackpot. $20,000. More substantial, a good addition to a day job, but not 10% of a realistic film budget for many documentary filmmakers.

So, who knows how this will all develop. I think, though, that it is important to run the numbers when people keep telling me the current collapsing distribution model will just move online. It will, of course, but if the scale is off -- the equivalent of $3-per-hour pay -- making a living from it might be rarer than it is now.

On that note, let's revisit the how the Doc Challenge DVD is doing at Amazon. (It includes one of our short films.)

In May, it was ranked #48,323 in sales in Movies and TV, moving up to #35,590 in June. Great. A "long-tail" dream come true, as it slowly climbs to the top of the list.

Maybe not. Just checked: it's down to #137,717.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cory Kelly on POV Blog

We enjoyed seeing "Ars Magna" at the 2008 International Documentary Challenge finals in Toronto. The film has since gone on to an Emmy nomination, and now PBS has a good interview with its director, Cory Kelley.

Interview with "Ars Magna" Director Cory Kelley

There are some upsides to only having five days. It is much easier to get talented people to commit themselves wholeheartedly to a five-day production as opposed to a documentary schedule that goes on and on. We had a great team of very dedicated people and most people filled multiple roles. Another benefit of the short time period is how quickly decisions have to be made. There is little time to deliberate and dwell on ideas. This creates a certain energy and spontaneity that can come through in the final work if you harness it.
You can see the film here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Documentary on Women With H4 Visas

My friend Meghna Damani is interviewed on To The Contrary about her documentary on women with H4 visas. Embedded video below.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Post 300

Well, we've hit a milestone. Post number 300. (Yes, over on my other blog I've made about 600 or so posts. But I'm talking about posts here on Actualities.) So let's see where things stand with the whole documentary filmmaking thing. How has the last year gone?

One year ago, in September 2008, my short film Notebook on Santas and Elves screened at Antimatter Underground Film Festival. In November, Detroit Docs screened our co-directed short doc Bend & Bow. In December, our co-directed film 12th & 3rd in Brooklyn screened at the Brooklyn Film & Arts Festival.

Then in February, 2009, Bend & Bow went to the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival In March, we participated in the International Doc Challenge with a four person team, producing the film Hoop Springs Eternal in 5 days. We didn't make it into the finals this time (after two successful years).

Later in March, Bend & Bow was included on the International Documentary Challenge DVD. In April, 12th & 3rd in Brooklyn showed to a huge audience at the ASU Art Museum Short Film and Video Fest. In May, the Frugal Traveler series won a second Webby Award. And in September 2009 Rooftop Films screened Notebook on Santas and Elves

Coming up, Olympia Film Festival will show Hoop Springs Eternal on November 12th, and we're hoping Blind Faith: A Film About Seeing will go to the Picture This Film Festival in 2010. We'll see.

So how's it going? It's time to move up to longer films. I've learned a lot in doing short works, they're manageable and they can go out into the world. But I think it's time to make films with more ability to stand on their own. There are a number of major obstacles in the way of that right now -- but let's see where things are a year from now.

Documentary Ethics. Who Knew?

The New York Times has an article on “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work," a report from the Center for Social Media at American University.

At Toronto Film Festival, Cautions on Documentaries

Based on anonymous interviews with 45 long-form documentary filmmakers, the study came to some conclusions that could shock those schooled in conventional journalistic ethics. (A few comments from the likes of Ken Burns, whose credits include “Jazz,” and Gordon Quinn, of “Hoop Dreams,” were included for the record, pointing toward the prominence of the participants.) The report found that documentarians, while they generally aspire to act honorably, often operate under ad hoc ethical codes. The craft tends to see itself as being bound less by the need to be accurate and fair than by a desire for social justice, to level the playing field between those who are perceived to be powerful and those who are not.
I promise: I have never broken my subject's legs in the making of a doc. (Read the article, that will make sense once you do.)

Until They Say You Need Super Duper HD

Here's the thing about documentary production and camcorders: like some sort of circus performer spinning plates and juggling chainsaws, the idea of "enough" has been unstable for a long time.

That is, we went through a period pre-DV where one was either a professional -- shooting on film was the ideal -- or one struggled with video products that ranged from broadcast quality down to toys. When DV arrived, there were a flurry of articles showing why it wasn't good enough, then this was silenced when people did in fact make films using DV camcorders, and DV became acceptable for television production.

There was a brief period when DV camcorders were "enough" -- usable by professionals and amateurs alike, and somewhat standardized. You could buy a cheap one-CCD for $300, or a three-CCD for $2500, but they both plugged in via firewire cable and they produced DV files that you could edit in any standard editing software.

HD showed up, first only at a professional level and then in a messy variety of possiblities. Articles showed up detailing how independent filmmakers worked on systems that limited recording time to 11 minutes, followed by dumping a file to computer in a three-step process. Complicated, and not great for documentary style shooting.

Then came HD products aimed at prosumers -- able to technically record in HD, but in compressed and problematic formats like AVCHD. These things could work fine for taping your friend's birthday party, but had limitations when it came to producing easily-edited files. Editors began transcoding -- reprocessing the files into more standard formats, eating up hours of production time.

Then came additional pressure on the HD format: was 720p enough? 1080i? Full HD at 1920 by 1080p?

And the RED camera appeared -- complete with editors-turned-bloggers detailing the 20 secret steps they've discovered to make the workflow, um, work. Followed by discussion of why HD wasn't enough -- 3K, 4K, whatever was actually the future of digital production. Anything less was unacceptable.

And now: DSLRs that shoot HD. Multiple formats. "Jelly" caused by rolling shutter. 12 minute clips. AVCHD and AVCHD lite. 720p, 1080i, 1080p. 24, 25, 30, 50 or 60 frames-per-second. Confusion, new workflows, and extremely long import / transcoding times.

Still, when it all works out, it's going to get very interesting.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hoop Springs Eternal At Olympia Film Festival

Back in 1996, IndieWIRE had an interesting take on a film festival set in the Northwest:

Going to the Olympia Film Festival is like stepping onto the crossroads of cool. Everyone is interesting, doing their own music/zine/film/writing and the nice guy sitting next to you just happened to write a book you really loved or the girl who runs the movie theater is a singer whose albums you have in your collection. It's the kind of town where you can lose your wallet twice and get it back with everything intact each time. The festival organizers give back rubs and the best bar in town is in the projection booth! I've never seen so many happy volunteers. This is a festival that you put in on your 'fun' list, where the organizers, volunteers and audiences love film for the sake of film and know how to appreciate it.
Well, I've just learned that our short film "Hoop Springs Eternal" will screen at the Olympia Film Festival. I don't think we'll be able to attend, but I think it's a good place for "Hoop" to show, and I expect it will play well there. So, good news.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sign Up, Seriously

My six-week Seriously Fun Photography class starts at Hunter Continuing Education September 17th. That's this upcoming week, so sign up today. Tell your friends.

Go to this interface and type "photography" into the search box. (That will also reveal the advanced class I'll be teaching later in the season.)

Build on the basics and master the skills and ideas advanced photographers use in a fun, low-pressure class. Open to anyone able to shoot a photo and import it into a computer (and welcoming advanced students as well), in this class we'll use the digital camera as a fast way to learn the essentials of photography. We'll learn-by-doing, exploring professional techniques while creating a portfolio project (on any topic of your choice) to show your advanced skills. If you've always been interested in photography, but have put off becoming great at it, this is your chance.

6 Session(s) 12 Hour(s) Tuition: $250.00 Meet: Thursday
Date: 09/17/09-10/22/09 Time: 06:00PM-08:00PM
Location: CS, 71 E 94 ST./ Instructor(s): FISHER, TED"
Above: an iPhone snap.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Distribution and Other Disasters

No one is certain how documentaries will be distributed in the future, or how documentarians will pay the rent. We seem to be in a period of competing possibilities. Obviously, I'm watching this very closely. It's like a science fair experiment.

You can get the International Documentary Challenge DVD on Netflix, and it includes our short documentary Bend & Bow -- as well as sixteen other great documentary shorts.

You can buy that DVD on Amazon as well:

Or you can watch our short Blind Faith: A Film About Seeing on SnagFilms.

I don't know where any of it leads, or how much it adds up to. It's interesting to see it develop, though.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Killers: Editing Made Hard

When I teach, my main goal is to take complex ideas and make them much more difficult.

Oh, don't get me wrong. I try to demystify, and I try to clarify, and I try to put things into a framework people can work with and understand. I want to deliver a comprehensible version of difficult material. I just don't think the idea of "making things simple" is very helpful, especially in editing.

Tomorrow I have to teach my editing class at Bronx Community College. I'm going to be looking into how the same scene can be shot and edited in completely different ways. I'm showing three scenes from films that use Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" as basic source material:

The Killers (1946)
Ubiytsy (1958)
The Killers (1964)

It's a great opportunity to demonstrate that the mechanics of filmmaking -- shot selection, camera movement and editing -- are malleable in the hands of artists. The same scene, made into three very different experiences by the choices of the director and editor.

(These are all available on the Criterion Collection disk below.)

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Last Note on Santas

Now that "Notebook on Santas and Elves" has had its screening at Rooftop Films I'll be done talking about it -- for a while. Maybe when we get near the holidays it will return. I want to mention, though, the answer to a question no one ever asks me: what's with the title?

The answer is I'm a huge fan of Wim Wenders' Notebook on Cities and Clothes and wanted to play off of that film's approach. Also, my memory of the narration in that film is that it is primarily first person but wanders into second person or perhaps the more complicated "we" at times. And since I was interested in making a film from the Second Person Singular viewpoint, I was reminded of Wenders' conflation of his own viewpoint with that of designer Yohji Yamamoto and that of an imagined "creative person" all in one voice.

1493, or Have You Considered Online Funding?

Everyone seems to be giving away free advice these days. I guess that's nothing new.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Notebook on Santas and Elves

Did I mention Notebook on Santas and Elves screens Saturday night in the Storms Expected program at Rooftop Films?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

And On My Other Blog

Some good advice for once. Depending on your point of view.

Saturday Night: Go See "Notebook" at Rooftop

I remember that when I was editing "Notebook on Santas and Elves" it occurred to me how good a match it could be for Rooftop Films. This Saturday night it will in fact screen there, as the closing film in the program Storms Expected.

Despite the program title, the weather will be just fine. There will be live music and seven films under the stars on a Lower East Side rooftop. There's also an open bar after.

Saturday, September 5
STORMS EXPECTED (short films)
Venue: On the Open Road Rooftop above New Design High School
Address: 350 Grand St. @ Essex (Lower East Side, Manhattan)
Directions: F/J/M/Z to Essex/Delancey
Rain: In the event of rain the show will be held indoors at the same location
8:00PM: Doors open
8:30PM: Live music presented by Sound Fix Records
9:00PM: Films
11:30PM-1:00AM: After-party: Open Bar at Fontana’s (105 Eldridge St. @ Grand) Courtesy of Radeberger Pilsner
Tickets: $9 at the door or online at

Happy 10th

Happy 10th Anniversary to documentary forum The D-Word.

I've only become a member recently, but so far it seems incredibly valuable. My brief experience with the site has given me the impression of a very positive, generous community, so I'm looking forward to the next 10.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Update on Books on Editing

It turns out there's a new edition for "Grammar of the Edit" so I want to update my list of the editing books I'm teaching from. The change means my students have to read more. They were quite upset to hear that, but I think they'll be okay.

Ted's 10 Ideas on Editing

A new term has started, and while things are cut way back this year, it is again the time to think about the ideas behind editing. So here's a short list I use with my students to discuss the main concepts.

Ted's 10 Ideas on Editing

At each edit in a work, an editor should consider the following checklist. Not every edit can fulfill each "check," so part of the editor's job is to weigh the importance of each concern and decide what "works."


1. New Information
The main concern at any single cut, if one is really going to use the language of moving images, is that the cut give the viewer new information. Otherwise, why cut?

2. 3-D Continuity (Matching)
To create a believable action, a cut must "match." That is, if one cuts from a wide shot of a baseball pitcher to a close up during a pitch, the position of the throwing arm at the cut must "match" between the two shots, even if the shots are filmed months apart.

3. 2-D Continuity (Eye Trace)
No one takes in a frame all at once; the eye moves around the screen. Take this attention into account when making a cut -- one may wish to cut so that the focus of attention is at the same place on the screen, or at a different place, moving the same direction or moving in opposition, depending on the effect desired.

4. Composition
It is generally less jarring to the eye and brain when a cut is made from a well-composed shot to a well-composed shot.

5. Camera Angle
It usually helps if one is cutting to a camera angle that is different enough from the current one so as to be easily understood as a new shot; also it is generally better to cut from a good camera angle to a good camera angle rather than when at a "messier" point in a shot.

6. Audio
Cut in such a way that visuals work with audio and vice versa. Also, maintain sensible audio continuity (e.g., if we cut from a shot inside a speeding car to a close up of a helicopter following it, the audio may need to change with the cut based on where we "are" in relation to the sources of sounds).

THE "R.E.S.T."

7. Rhythm
We can set up "expectations" in a viewers mind by setting up a rhythm; this can also mean making edits work with the beat of a piece of music or with a certain pace of action.

8. Emotion
If a character is in a certain state of mind, editing may reflect their perception, or if the viewer is expected to feel a certain way then editing may amplify that state of mind, sometimes purposefully breaking the "rules" of the six continuity checks. For example, it may make sense to cut a fight scene in a discontinous manner.

9. Story
Each edit ultimately serves the telling of a story; the idea here is that one may cut on a certain frame or to a certain shot to serve that story rather than the conventional continuity concerns.

10. Timing
Sometimes an edit is motivated by that intangible idea of timing -- the point where it just feels right.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Editing Books

I'm teaching an editing class this term and we're using three good books for editors. Which means I'll be rereading all three....

Friday, August 28, 2009

Blind Faith: A Film About Seeing

Now on Snagfilms.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Screening at Rooftop in September

Some news: my short "Notebook on Santas and Elves" will screen September 5 in the Rooftop Films program Storms Expected at a venue on the Lower East Side. Did I mention there's an open bar?

Saturday, September 5
STORMS EXPECTED (short films)
Venue: On the Open Road Rooftop above New Design High School
Address: 350 Grand St. @ Essex (Lower East Side, Manhattan)
Directions: F/J/M/Z to Essex/Delancey
Rain: In the event of rain the show will be held indoors at the same location
8:00PM: Doors open
8:30PM: Live music presented by Sound Fix Records
9:00PM: Films
11:30PM-1:00AM: After-party: Open Bar at Fontana’s (105 Eldridge St. @ Grand) Courtesy of Radeberger Pilsner
Tickets: $9 at the door or online at

Monday, July 20, 2009

Doc Challenge Film Up For Emmy

Some news from the International Doc Challenge:


Believe it or not, but a Doc Challenge film has been nominated for an Emmy! "Ars Magna", made as part of the 2008 International Documentary Challenge, has received a nomination in the 30th Annual News & Documentary Emmy® Awards, announced July 14 by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS). The film, directed by Cory Kelley and produced by Sean Roach of Team Juicebox in Seattle, qualified for the Emmy's by receiving a national broadcast on PBS' POV series, a presenting partner of the Doc Challenge.

"Ars Magna," which means "great art" in Latin, is an anagram of the word "anagrams." Enter into the obsessive and fascinating world of anagrams with Cory Calhoun, who took the first three lines of Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy and made them into what's been called the "world's greatest anagram." Congratulations to Cory, Sean and all of Team Juicebox - what an accomplishment for a film made in 5 days!
You can see the film here.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Last Book Read: Ralph Rosenblum

Sure, I've been away from the blog. It's true. I've been busy, sick, swamped and just plain away. And it's been quite a while. Now I'm back.

Usually, when I read, I try to do so in big chunks. I'd rather experience a book, live with it, rather than just chip away at it. That hasn't been possible, lately, though, so my reading has consisted of 10 minutes here, 5 minutes there, between and around tasks. Still, eventually you get to the end.

I've just finished Ralph Rosenblum's When The Shooting Stops ... The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor's Story.

I'm adding it to my fall curriculum -- I'll be teaching a basic editing class -- so I thought I'd re-read it. It's really a delight. As a person's life story, it's a sharply-told account that details Rosenblum's career as one of the most significant editors of his time. From the standpoint of editing, a few highlights not to miss:

  • his invention of flashback techniques in "The Pawnbroker"
  • his nightmares working with first-time directors -- and their egos
  • his account of the changing conception of what an editor does
  • his collaboration with Woody Allen, remaking the films in the edit
Best of all, at least from the viewpoint of my students: it's a theory-free glimpse over a feature editor's shoulder, letting you spend time in the cutting room of one of the pioneers of contemporary editing. A great read.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Access + Bad Times = Theatrical Doc

A while back I mentioned Guest of Cindy Sherman.

In the midst of some recent computer issues -- and then the attempt to catch up on all my work -- I've neglected to report: I've seen it, and liked it a lot.

It does open a great documentary question, though: if you tell a story from your own life, what do you do for a followup?

Okay, now back to work....

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


I watched and enjoyed Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary last night. The documentarians interviewed formed a serious A-list, and the material covered was just great.

You know, of course, I do have a few contrarian gripes.

1. There's a huge mismatch between the title and the content. Why use the word "Reality" in a doc about docs, in which much of the first section of the film is centered on filmmakers who use re-creations? Why use a word that's slid in meaning into "Reality TV"? Why confuse us that we're "capturing reality" when so many thoughtful books on documentary theory start with the assertion that it's a silly notion and that documentary practice is more complex than that?

2. Stop saying "It's good for you." I think the documentary field will be mature when it escapes the "boring-but-good-for-you" model of production. For one, while there are plenty of specific examples of docs "doing good" I personally would not stand by the field's record of "saving the world." (I'd choose the invention of birth control pills over documentaries on women's rights for example -- since one has had real effect and the other still can't get equal-pay-for-equal-work legislation passed.)

I think Dave Hickey's take on the art world -- that it needs to portray itself as like rock and roll or cocaine, rather than castor oil or wheat germ -- applies doubly to the doc world. So why, when interviewing so many documentarians -- with a wide range of work -- use mainly questions that emphasize the effect of serious social issue docs?

The director's statement: "I think of documentary as a highly undervalued tool at humanity's disposal — by shining light on a subject that isn’t well understood, by addressing an injustice, or by simply revealing the better part of who we are or who we can be." If we apply that thinking to painting and we imagine someone telling artists "paint! it's a tool to benefit humanity" we can imagine most artists quickly walking out of the room. Whether or not humanity can use what's produced, great artists always always always work for themselves. Don't believe any press release that says otherwise -- it's just impossible to obsess for someone else. Research Picasso's "Guernica" and you'll find it makes sense once you get past the gloss that's been put on top -- that it's "a tool to benefit humanity" -- as fueled by Picasso's usual energies, desire to prove himself a genius, obsessions, depth of visual understanding and above all else ego. The result may be universal, but the path to the production of the work is exactly the opposite.

Personally, I like works of art that complicate a subject that is well understood, or that reveal the worst part of who we can be as well. So leave off the sugar water, and let the docs be art rather than social programs.

3. Hooray, production methods? I found myself confused in the last third of the doc when the emphasis shifted to the technical production of films. I'm a perfect audience for great documentarians talking about editing, working with sound, and cinematography. But I wasn't sure how this followed from the first part of the film, or how it moved us to the ending.

As the film was wrapping up, I wondered: what if you had a set of interviews about gathering visuals, gathering sounds, and editing it all together and from that there emerged a discussion on what it means to "capture reality"? In other words, you could invert the structure of this film and make something that really would be an investigation into the subject, rather than imposing a conclusion from the beginning....

In any case, go and see the film if you are at all interested in documentary production. It's a fast and informative 90-plus minutes.

Remember, though, that in music the idea of musique concrete -- that somehow real recorded sounds were a different category than just "sounds" -- became problematic when technology brought sampling to anyone with a computer. In the age of computers and inexpensive camcorders, do we really think the essence of doc production is that we "capture reality"?

With A Bullet, Kinda

I posted previously about Docunomics.

As a followup, I'm happy to report that the International Documentary Challenge DVD (which includes one of our short films) has moved from #48,323 in sales in Movies and TV to #35,590.

That's right. It's 12,733 better.

Which, I suppose, is not bad. (I'm a little afraid to compare it to other items, because I'm sure with some careful searching you could find it's being outsold by ... well, I'm sure there's a lot of embarrassing possibilities.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Twitter Quitter

Well, there's a lot going on. I don't have time to write it all up just now. But I thought I'd mention:

It's Not You, It's Me

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Soderbergh Speaks

I posted previously about Stephen Soderbergh use of the RED camera in "The Girlfriend Experience", so here's the word from the horse's mouth in an NYT audio slideshow.

I think the slideshow makes the movie feel darker than it reads on a television screen, but it's very interesting from the viewpoint of cinematography. As well, Soderbergh's approach here is very similar to that used in documentary production.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Know anyone looking for an intermediate photo class in NYC? My Seriously Fun Photography begins Thursday. I believe you can still register today.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Now on Netflix: Bend & Bow

The International Documentary Challenge DVD is now available on Netflix. So check it out. It's got 17 great short films, including our short documentary Bend & Bow.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

RIP, Sid Laverents

I'm fascinated by the NYT obit for Sid Laverents -- a film "hobbyist" whose work is in the National Film Registry.

Sid Laverents, Auteur of Homemade Films, Dies at 100

Nine minutes long, “Multiple SIDosis” stars Mr. Laverents himself, and it begins as he opens a Christmas gift from his wife at the time, Adelaide: a recording device. For the rest of the film, Mr. Laverents puts to use not just the recorder but also his background as a one-man band, knitting together a soundtrack of several separate recordings of himself performing a jaunty Felix Arndt tune called “Nola.” He whistles, hums, blows across bottlenecks and plays instruments, including a banjo, a jew’s-harp and an ocarina.

It’s a witty performance, but what is really unusual is the imagery that accompanies the music. Using repeated exposures of the same piece of film, Mr. Laverents kept adding different shots of himself playing the different musical lines. By the end, there are 11 different Sids on the screen, including a couple wearing Mickey Mouse ears and fake whiskers.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Like Salinger, Except Reclusive

That last post on the Death of Indie Film got me thinking about those indie filmmakers who make a great low-budget film, hit it semi-big ... then disappear.

I'm thinking, for one, of Whit Stillman, maker of the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie trio: Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. While there are rumors he'll be surfacing soon with a new film (currently listed as in pre-production), ten years is a long time away.

And I'm thinking also of Shane Carruth, who made Primer in 2004, did a few interviews, and then vanished. He surfaced a few times after -- one mention claims he was planning to make a "coming-of-age romance between an oceanography prodigy and the daughter of a commodities trader" -- but is seemingly hidden away today.

Filmmaker Magazine even wrote: SHANE CARRUTH, PHONE HOME.

Of course, they'll probably both be back. In 1998, I saw The Cruise and showed it to all my students. In fact, I did so for years -- and remember quite clearly wondering, circa 2004, where the hell Bennett Miller had disappeared to.

Death of the Indie Film?

I generally hate to point folks to Fox -- lest they begin to think torture isn't torture, the WMDs were found, and that ACORN is trying to kill Glenn Beck -- but I think it's safe to view this segment on Death of the Indie Film? featuring Ted Hope, Marina Zenovich and Reed Martin.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fiction, Non?

One of the problems that has plagued photography since the 1980s has been the idea that celebrity photographs need to be publicist-approved.

It's made a lot of the practice of photographing famous people a joke. Or, perhaps, made it a process of "getting away with" making something that's actually better than a publicist could envision. It's turned a lot of great photographers out of the field, and led others to make making weaker work.

Can the same hold true in documentary production?

A few months ago, I watched Shine a Light -- Martin Scorsese's "documentary" on the Rolling Stones -- and was left with two reasons why I'd rather call it a "concert film" than a doc:

1. The interview material was completely safe, and completely in the well-polished control of the Stones.

2. The concert was changed by the filmmaking process -- which to me is the opposite of a "documentary" process.

I'm more excited to see what Scorcese will do with the added freedom he'll clearly have on his next -- non-documentary -- picture. I don't think there'll be any need to please the subject or a publicist or any limits put on access....

Martin Scorsese Set to Direct Frank Sinatra Biopic

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Limited Time Offer

Today marked the last show for the term in my TV production class. We've done several somewhat sophisticated, timing-critical, multiple-camera setups.

With Summer in the air, however, the class decided to do a "home shopping channel" style show. Fairly simple, kinda fun. It was still three-camera, but really easy.

Above: iPhone snap of a runthrough.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Seeing With Photography Collective in New Exhibition

Our short documentary Blind Faith: A Film About Seeing featured Victorine Floyd Fludd and the Seeing with Photography Collective back in 2007. Now work by these photographers is getting a lot of coverage.

Both are included in my friend Doug McCulloh's exhibition Sight Unseen, and now that's being covered in Time Magazine.

Glad this is going well, and I wish I could make it to the exhibition.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Since I'm not 12, I skipped right past the idea of seeing "Star Trek" in a theater this weekend. (Yeah, yeah, I'm sure it's good. I just think we're smothering all the new ideas by rehashing the old ones that seem comfortable and fun. I understand why people wanted that in the 1950s, after a few really tough decades, but I don't think that's where we should be now. I think we should be looking to the new.)

Instead, we took advantage of the fact that Stephen Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience is released on pay-per-view while it's still in theaters.

I'm not a reviewer, so I'll leave that to others. What I did want to mention, though, is that it's shot with the RED camera in a style that loosely connects to documentary: working in available light and going handheld. And it looks great, at least on television.

As Soderbergh told Filmmaker Magazine:

You know, I shot The Informant [with the Red] last spring, but I wasn’t really in a situation where sensitivity was as much of an issue as it was on GFE. So for me that [heightened sensitivity to light] was a big plus because we were shooting anamorphic and I was kind of restricted to shooting stuff at 2.8. Basically I can’t go much wider than that, stop-wise, and so I really needed that extra sensitivity. It meant I could go out on the street or be in a car, still be able to shoot available light and be really pleased with what we were getting. So, [the Red] just keeps getting better. ... There are only two shots in the film where I pulled out a light. ... And frankly I wish I hadn’t. They’re my two least favorite shots.
Above: Soderbergh talks about his experiences with the Red.