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.”