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....