Thursday, December 02, 2010

Meet the New Blog, Same as the Old Blog

Well, not really the same. The new blog I've started is focused on documentary photography -- but is really meant to cover the merging of the tradition with new approaches to documentary filmmaking and new media. The first two posts:

What Would Walker Evans Do?


Statement of Purpose

Friday, November 19, 2010

Shoot The Moon



Previously, I wrote about the new Panasonic GH2 using its new "tele conversion" feature for video: Panasonic GH2 Tele Conversion: Bagful of Primes?

Well, above is a video that purports to show the feature in action. Essentially, using the new Panasonic 100-300mm and a Canon 400mm the videographer gets amazing shots. The feature seems to allow a 3.6 multiplying effect if one shoots at 1080p or a 3.9 multiplier if shooting at 720p -- essentially turning the 300mm focal length to near 1200m and the 400mm length to almost 1600mm. When you translate that to 35mm equivalent, it is essentially double -- meaning you can essentially shoot as if you had a 2000mm or 3000mm lens.

Kinda amazing.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

I Would ... But I Need The Eggs



People behave in somewhat disheartening ways, sometimes. Okay: most of the time.

That's kind of a problem when your main interest is human nature. On the plus side: there's no shortage of subjects to make a film about.

I've been posting over on San Francisco Portraits a bit. It's amazing, if a cliche, how fast the weather changes in this city. Above: after one outbreak of sunshine and before the next.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Future of Photojournalism



On Friday afternoon, Mrs. Actualities and I went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to hear a panel on The Future of Investigative Reporting. On the panel were:

David Cohn, who founded http://spot.us -- essentially a "citizen journalism" site with a model based on bringing together freelancers, publishing venues and the public. In short: the public can support stories they feel are important, freelance journalists can get a little extra financial support to develop and research stories, and editors can get stories they can't support with their own publication / site resources.

Robert Rosenthal, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and journalism professor who is interested in the transition from traditional journalism to new models. He's connected to http://centerforinvestigativereporting.org but obviously well-versed in the existing models.

A.C. Thompson, who has worked with various San Francisco publications but is now associated with http://propublica.org and has received a Polk Award.

Lola Vollen, a physician who has shifted her work toward social justice and human rights, working with http://exonerated.org.

And, central to the panel: famed documentary photographer Susan Meiselas. If you don't know her work, look it up, and spend some time with it. http://susanmeiselas.com/. The important thing, for my discussion here, is to consider how Meiselas' model of going to a place, getting deeply invested in a story, and allowing a point of view to develop is purely documentary photography rather than photojournalism. Now, read that clearly: it isn't a critique, but praise. As well, it's an important distinction between the two fields.

The panel shifted a bit early on from what I expected -- after all, the context was an art museum, a show of Henri Cartier Bresson's work and the title "Future of Investigative Reporting" -- to more of a discussion of new models for supporting journalism. (Now, I'm quite aware of why this is on everyone's minds -- I've done a lot of freelance work in this realm and understand that it's clear the old models will change. Yet everyone seems unclear on how that change will stabilize or what models can be sustainable.)

So there was discussion noting that old support structures like "full time work" and "expense accounts" and "go to Central America for eight weeks, here's your ticket" were clearly gone, and that the new replacements are still developing -- and quite different in nature. Think of a blend between crowdfunding and NPR and you'll have part of the picture. Add YouTube, Digg and Twitter and you'll get a hint of the rest. But just a hint.

To my mind, this missed an important point.

Beyond the financial issues, the development of the Internet is important not just as a killer of the printed daily newspaper, but as a killer of one aspect of photojournalism.

That is, imagine an event happens. It's quite likely that a half-dozen civilians with cellphone cameras are there long before your contract photojournalist gets an alert email, and it's no surprise if there's a shaky video clip from a passerby on CNN immediately. Spot news? It's covered by a cell phone cam.

I'm not negating the value of a PJ here -- I just think the game has changed and that the role of the photojournalist has shifted toward documentary work. By this I mean that if there's a glut of "just okay shots" out there, and we can hand a DSLR to the reporter and have them come back with acceptable stills and video, then the role of photojournalist becomes about quality.

The role of the photojournalist becomes more like the role of the documentary photographer. Speed becomes less critical -- you've already been beat to the punch. But that leaves a ton of room for quality, depth, beauty, humor, accuracy -- all the elements the practice of documentary allows.

I want to see that first glance picture, yes, and I don't care that it's a sloppy picture without context. But I'm going to get much more out of a smart, deep, significant presentation later -- something only the best photojournalists can do.

So, for me, the question I see is not "how does investigative reporting survive?" but "how does an unknown Susan Meiselas find a way to do the work today?"

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Panasonic GH2 Tele Conversion: Bagful of Primes?


Panasonic GH1 1080p Camera Test from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

I have a hacked Panasonic GH1. It works great, and it's great to be able to work with a camera that's so small and light. The Panasonic GH2 is shipping soon, and it has a few key improvements -- it should be better for low light video, for example.

There's one advanced feature that's really intrigued me, though, that might end up a fantastic bonus for documentary shooters: the Tele Conversion feature.

The idea is that video on a DSLR is recorded at either 1920 pixels by 1080 pixels (1080p) or 1280 pixels by 720 pixels (720p) -- but the camera's sensor is really closer to 5000 pixels wide. So these type of cameras are reading the 5000 pixels and doing some number-crunching to downsize and output a frame 1920 wide or 1280 wide.

The Tele Conversion, however, seems to mean essentially cropping to a 1:1 ratio -- grabbing the center 1920 pixels by 1080 pixels rectangle -- and using that for the recorded frame. This results in a lens acting as if it were had a focal length 2.6 times longer (if you are recording 1080p) or 3.9 times longer (if you are recording 720p).

Well, this has been mentioned in the previews of the camera, and generally the reaction is "Great. That will provide amazing telephoto reach." That's true: the long end of the HD zoom is 140mm, and that would now act (in 1080p) as if it were a 364mm focal length. (The equivalent, on a fullframe 35mm camera would be a 728mm lens.) Or the Tele Conversion results in your 14-140mm now acting like a 546mm lens if you shoot at 720p/60 (typical for sports shooting), which is equivalent to a 35mm fullframe camera with a 1092mm lens. Hmm.

That's all well and good. But here's what I think is exciting:

You get your Panasonic GH2. Tiny, light, ready to travel. Now, buy the Panasonic LUMIX G 20mm f/1.7 Aspherical Pancake Lens and the Panasonic Lumix 14mm f/2.5 G Aspherical Lens for Micro Four Thirds Interchangeable Lens Cameras.

The 20mm goes for about $333 these days, the 14mm is about $400.

They are both tiny tiny tiny, light light light. The camera and these two lenses will fit in a very very small bag and will hardly weigh anything at all.

Here's what happens if you use the Tele Conversion feature, assuming it works well.

Put on the 14mm f/2.5 lens. This is great for wide shots -- equivalent to a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera. But if you turn on the Tele Conversion while you are shooting 1080p / 24, suddenly the lens acts like a 36.4 mm lens (72.8mm in 35mm equivalent).

Put on the 20mm f/1.7 lens. This is great for "standard" shots -- equivalent to a 40mm lens on a 35mm camera. But if you turn on the Tele Conversion while you are shooting 1080p / 24, suddenly the lens acts like a 52 mm lens (104mm 35mm equivalent).

So that means you could travel with a tiny camera and two pancake lenses, and have the equivalent of these prime lenses (considered in 35mm equivalent focal length).

  • 28mm f/2.5
  • 40mm f/1.7
  • 72.8mm f/2.5
  • 104 mm f/1.7
So: a bright wide, a very bright standard, a bright medium portrait, a very bright long portrait.

Check out Elliott Erwitt's Camera Case, Circa 1974 and you'll find out what he carried:
"Inside the case: two Canon F1s, a complete set of prime lenses (17mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 35mm tilt/shift, 50mm, 100mm, 135mm, 200mm and 300mm), a cable release, a Minolta light meter and an Eastman Kodak "Pocket Guide to Photography."
Hmm. Getting there, with just two tiny pancake lenses. (Erwitt's case must have weighed a ton, no?)

So add a Olympus 17mm f/2.8 Lens. These are going for about $260 right now, and again: tiny and light.

So the Olympus is 17mm, which acts on a Micro Four Thirds sensor about the same as a 34mm lens on a fullframe 35mm format camera. Hit the Tele Conversion button, and it acts 2.6 times longer, or as if it were a 88.4mm lens. This brings your range of primes to:
  • 28mm f/2.5
  • 34mm f/2.8
  • 40mm f/1.7
  • 72.8mm f/2.5
  • 88.4mm f/2.8
  • 104 mm f/1.7
So: with two Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2's and three tiny pancake lenses -- all extremely small and lightweight -- you can get a broad range of focal lengths in bright, high-quality prime lenses.

Now, Erwitt's got some longer lenses there as well, but so consider adding Panny's new Panasonic Lumix 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 G Vario Aspherical MEGA OIS Lens for Micro Four Thirds Interchangeable Lens Cameras. That provides a range, including a 100mm / f/4 end (the 35mm equivalent is 200mm) that Tele Converts to 260mm / f/4 (in 35mm equivalent, that's 520mm).

Now, remember: this Tele Conversion feature is brand new. No one has reported on the quality yet, though in theory there's no reason it might not actually be better than "regular" video recording. And that's the key factor: it works on video, not stills.

Still, it's fairly amazing to think of what a documentarian today could pack into a small case or backpack. And when the new Voigtlander 25mm / f0.95 ships....

Monday, October 25, 2010

Zoom H1 Lavalier Test with Audio Technica ATR-3350



I had to record a voiceover, so I dragged out three lavalier microphones for a quick test, plugging each into a Zoom H1 and recording a snippet of normal speaking. The results? While the audio quality won't match a high-end microphone, the recording is fine for use in documentary interviews on location.

(By the way, for those times when your wireless mic is likely to run into interference, this could be interesting: clip the lav on your subject, stick the Zoom H1 in their pocket. Hit record, then lock the buttons on the H1.)

Comparing the three microphones, I believe the Audio Technica ATR-3350 Lavalier Omnidirectional Condenser Microphone has a more pleasant, natural sound than the Audio Technica ATR-35s and is significantly higher in quality than a cheap Radio Shack 33-3013. (I'd post a sample, but Blogger is not exactly cooperative with my attempt to do that....)

That's not a surprise -- the 3350 is basically the updated replacement for the 35s. It's also essentially the same as the mic included in Audio Technica PRO88W-R35 Wireless Lavalier System with ATR3350mW Omnidirectional Mic, 170 MHz

So, the ATR-3350 works fine. And it's ultracheap now:

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Film Courage



It's Sunday. I'm in San Francisco. That doesn't mean I can't listen to a radio show in Los Angeles. In fact, I recommend that -- if you are interested in film -- you do exactly that:

Today at noon PST, check out Film Courage on LA Talk Radio. You can listen live, or check out the archived shows. Definitely look through the archive list -- there's some great stuff there, including a session with John Sayles.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that our short doc 12th and 3rd in Brooklyn is tentatively set to screen at an upcoming "Film Courage Interactive" on October 11. Details on that soon. No connection, really, it just reminded me to mention the radio show.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday



When I was growing up, I lived close to Pomona, home to drag racing events of all kinds. (Well, the kinds with cars, nothing involving cross-dressing. As far as I know.) During the season, there were endless ads promoting the big events -- and that darn "Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!" announcer about every 15 minutes.

I feel a bit like that, as I've been promoting our next screening a bit heavily. Hey, I just want the tickets to sell out.

So, here's the spiel:

This Sunday, 1 p.m., our short documentary Hoop Springs Eternal will screen at the Coney Island Film Festival in Program 12. A fun time will be had by all. Advance-sales tickets are available for $6 so buy them now.

Don't make me come over to your house and act out the TV commercial version of this post.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Dowser Interview Edits, Part Three

Dowser Video: Joan Sullivan, Bronx Academy of Letters from Dowser on Vimeo.

A while back, I edited four interview-based pieces for Dowser. Three are now online, so here's the third one.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Dowser Interview Edits, Part Two

Dowser Video: Elizabeth Scharpf, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) from Dowser on Vimeo.

A while back, I edited four interview-based pieces for Dowser. Three are now online, so here's the second piece.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Dowser Interview Edits, Part One

Dowser Video: Maura Minsky, Scenarios USA from Dowser on Vimeo.

A while back, I edited four interview-based pieces for Dowser. Three are now online, so here's the first one.

Friday, September 03, 2010

GH1 1080p Camera Test (After Firmware Hack)

Panasonic GH1 1080p Camera Test from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

Previously, I posted a one-minute video showing a "Stress Test" of the Panasonic GH1 in video mode.

For that, I shot 720p / 60 footage in Central Park -- and found generally great results, but that the camera clearly had its limits. A sharply-focused shot of highly-detailed trees combined with camera motion could hit the limit of the codec -- resulting in "mud" in the shot. (That is, poorly-resolved digital smearing. Think of a low-resolution JPEG.)

On the plus side: most footage turned out great, and if you planned your shooting you could get excellent HD video without some of the issues (moire, for example, and false detail) that the Canon HDSLR cameras were reported to be experiencing. (And the Panasonic allowed twice as much footage per gigabyte of memory, had no need for a specialized add-on viewfinder, could autofocus during video, presented a live histogram -- and so on.)

Since moving to Los Angeles I've applied the supersecret firmware hack to the camera. (Google it. I'll post more on the details soon.) So I decided it was time to test out the 1080p / 24 mode as well.

For this shoot -- purposefully handheld, shaky, and shooting subjects that tended to bring out "mud" in the stock GH1 -- I used lpowell's "40Mbps AVCHD High Reliability Patch" settings, recording 1080p/24 AVCHD clips. I then processed the MTS files using Voltaic and edited those transcoded clips with Final Cut Pro. I exported a 1080p QuickTime file, then used compressor to create the 1280 by 720 file I uploaded to Vimeo.

My thoughts: the "40 reliability" settings are excellent in quality and stable enough for documentary shooting. As well, all clips play back in camera. Follow the link to Vimeo if you want to download the 720p version -- but trust me that the full 1080p file is even better.

Friday, August 27, 2010

But What I Really Want To Do Is...

Are documentarians the new cool kids?

I dunno. But the Los Angeles Times, once again my hometown newspaper, seems to think so.

Word of Mouth: Documentaries are proving grounds for feature film directors

Every filmmaker stepping up from a different background brings unique skills, but documentary directors may be better equipped than most to deliver something that's frequently missing from narrative movies: emotional truthfulness. What's more, nonfiction storytellers directing narrative features are comfortable shooting in the increasingly popular verité style that mashes extemporaneous camera moves with scripted action and dialogue.
Of course, one could ask: "What happened to 'dance with who brung ya'?"

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Take the D Train



Our short documentary Hoop Springs Eternal -- made with Linda Goldman, Chris Corradino, Maya Mumma -- is scheduled to screen at the Coney Island Film Festival September 24 - 26.

More details soon.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Where the Heck I Am



You may be wondering where the heck I am.

I've been posting on another blog. Don't worry, I'll still be posting here.

I know: you weren't wondering, and weren't worried. In any case, here's a link to help you catch you up:

Los Angeles Portraits

Above: an iPhone snapshot from the Mission Inn, in Riverside, California.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tools



I'm puzzled by the way the pejorative "tool" migrated from "working for the man, part of the problem" to "easily used fool" to "penis."

I know the Boomers were full of crap. Still, at least they recognized that some types of achievement were, in the end, at the service of corrupt interests with a hugely negative impact on our world. Getting an advanced degree in Chemistry: amazing and good; working for Dow to make Napalm: horrifying and bad.

This is how I first, at a fairly young age, heard the phrase "You're a Tool" used.

It colored my academic experience: one should be loose and cool. The uptight bastards obsessing their way to a perfect score would win, but the prize was a corporate deskjob making some widget that would kill / poison / numb the masses.

Of course, as a teacher I know that concepts, ideas and facts tend to devolve. For example, I recently had to look up the biography of a filmmaker, and after some research found that the site ranked first on Google said:

"Mr. X was born in the City of Y." Which is not true. A few sites had published:

"Mr. X was born in Z, outside the City of Y." This was repeated as:

"Mr. X was born near the City of Y." Then corrupted as:

"Mr. X was born in Y."

The same thing happens with subtle insults. Not understanding the accusation "Tool" made against those who would be a cog in support of a mainstream culture that funded endless war, allowed corporations to poison the environment on a massive scale, celebrated sexism, racism, courseness and overconsumption, my generation began to use it in blunter and less-nuanced ways.

"He's such a Tool" might be said when someone was used or fooled, thickheadedly unobservant of the game. And it began a slow gloss toward:

"Tool!" Meaning: Penis! More precisely: Dick!

Which is, at a base level, somewhat accurate. Except the implication now was that the "Tool" didn't understand the subtle, finer points of the accuser's standards for social success. The "Tool" was not comprehending or able to achieve what was expected in the accuser's society.

Unfortunately, that's the Society of Corruption, the original target of the insult.

In other words:

"You're a Tool!" = You think you are achieving something great, but you're serving the Mainstream's interests. I'm rebelling against that culture, I think it is corrupt and destroys lives, souls and the planet. Playing in the background: the LP version of "Masters of War."

Became:

"You're a Tool!" = You are the person Fooled, Conned, Taken, instead of the one smart enough to do the Fooling, Conning, Taking. (Playing in the background: the VHS version of "Wall Street" with Gordon Gekko saying "Greed is Good" while Napster downloads "Down with OPP" in the background.)

Became:

"You're a Tool!" = There's no way you are going to win this Reality TV Show without gaming everyone, and if they're too dumb to know that they're being played it's their own fault. Read: my only obligation is to the Stockholders.

I realize that's a bit of a Rant, but here's why I'm thinking about this: filmmakers love to talk about Tools. The very concept is at the heart of Independent Filmmaking -- or any kind of filmmaking. The "Tools" are ALWAYS about to give new abilities to anyone / everyone / an entire generation.

And then they don't.

Above is a photo of Super 8 camera, aimed at high-end consumers, that included features low-budget filmmakers embraced. Many were purchased with that in mind.

The current fascination with Hybrid DSLRs -- now able to make 1080p HD video, allowing the use of interchangeable lenses for a film-like depth of field -- isn't that different.

Cue the voices saying that better Tools empower filmmakers. Sure. That's true.

But ... not if the filmmakers simply want to rehash the same sexist, corrupt, greedy, needy, self-centered pointlessness. It can be done at a profit, yes. But it makes you a Tool.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Subdivisions



Above: a snapshot from The Whitney, taken Friday night.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

At Least Until The Next Time



Above: Baldessari revisited at The Whitney.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival



Our documentary short Hoop Springs Eternal will screen at the All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival on Saturday, July 10th at Raleigh Studios' Fairbanks Theater. It's showing in "Short Series A" which starts at 11 a.m.

I won't be able to attend, but just for fun I'm going to move to Los Angeles a few weeks after the screening. It seems like a nice place.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wall Street and Broad Street



Christie's Auction House is selling off a little bit of New York history. (The replacement signs are shown above, as snapped on Saturday).

Vintage Wall Street Sign To Hit Auction Block

Wall St. and Broad St. Original post-top style intersection street sign. Late-19th to early-20th Century.

Monday, June 21, 2010

You Can Do It



Now that's supportive.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Merman



Over on my other blog I've posted a snapshot from this year's Mermaid Parade. Above: the King of the Sea.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

BCC Film Fest 2010



Student films tend to be .... student films. So how do you make a better experience for both filmmaker and audience? The answer: a five minute time limit. Takes away the chance to drag on. Forces the student to get to the point. Watchable, makeable. Perfect.

The films last night went beyond that, though: it was actually a good, tight set of styles, ideas and approaches. I was proud of the students I knew, and glad to see the work by the students I haven't worked with yet as well.

A fun time.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lavalier Fail



By the end of a term in my TV Production class, everyone is able to successfully put a lavalier on an interview subject. We did 13 shows this semester, and used lavs in most of those, meaning there was a chance for everyone to get some practice.

So I was really surprised to see the above disaster during our skills test. I'm still not sure what happened. People get nervous, I guess.

I refrained from making any Viagra jokes, but had to take a snapshot for the "don't" file. Unless your subject is on the show for the ability to speak through his nipple, you might want that microphone aiming at his mouth, not hanging limply toward the ground.

(The student in question passed everything else, but clearly lost points here. Of course, the ironic thing is always that when a student makes a mistake like this and gets corrected, they end up never forgetting the right way.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

In Case You Missed It

Watch more free documentaries
In case you weren't at today's screening at the Limelight Film Showcase, you can see Blind Faith: A Film About Seeing online. Give it a "like" or "Snag" the player and put it on your blog. See more about the film on IMDB and give it a rating.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Back in Town




Left the city for a documentary shoot over the weekend, but I'm back now. Details soon. Above: a view from 34th Street.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Camera Test A

Panasonic GH1 "Stress Test" A from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

My first session with the Panasonic GH1. The goal of the shoot was to find the camera's limits. Everything was shot handheld, seeking out conditions which might prove difficult on this type of hybrid system.

So I shot quite differently than one normally would. Rather than panning smoothly, avoiding shots with extreme or complex detail or aiming for the often-recommended shallow-depth-of-field look, I aimed to make the camera struggle.

I think it performed very well. The next test will include quite varied conditions and a different style of shooting. I'm hoping to do a low-light test as well.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE)

Dowser Video: Elizabeth Scharpf, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) from Dowser on Vimeo.

The video above is the second piece I've edited for Dowser, a media organization that reports on "creative approaches to social change in order to help people understand how to build better communities and a better world."

If social change is your thing, then be sure and check out Maura Minsky, Scenarios USA as well.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Creative Approaches to Social Change

Maura Minsky, Scenarios USA from Dowser on Vimeo.

Dowser is a media organization that reports on "creative approaches to social change in order to help people understand how to build better communities and a better world." You can't go wrong with that.

Today is the soft launch of their new Web site, so I hope you'll visit them. I edited four short videos for them this year, and the movie above is the first posted online. More soon. Enjoy.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

TV or not TV



I've enjoyed teaching TV production this term. Today, we did our fourth show for the term: an interview show. Essentially we were doing a copy version of "The Charlie Rose Show." It looks very simple, but I think by the second run-through many members of the class realized we weren't quite hitting it. The simplicity is deceiving, and pulling this off requires focus on every detail from the director and every member of the crew. As Director Ferrand says in Day for Night:

What is a film director? A man who's asked questions about everything. Sometimes he knows the answer.
Ah well: a very good learning experience for everyone. Above: an iPhone snap of today's Television Studio class.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"Other Side" Screening at ASU Art Museum in April



Some good news just in via email: my documentary short To Get to the Other Side will be screening at the ASU Art Museum Fourteenth Annual Short Film and Video Festival on Saturday, April 17th.

I screened a film there last year, and in my opinion it's one of the best-run and most filmmaker-friendly festivals I've been in. They handled everything very well both before and after the fest. Also, for last year's event over 1,300 people attended.

I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Sunday, February 28, 2010

What's My Line Again?



I was hoping to get one short documentary out into the world each month during 2010. Ambitious, I know... but I did get To Get to the Other Side out the door in January and screened, and now it has been submitted to a few other festivals.

We're at the end of February, however, and I'm officially behind on that schedule. Also, I'm not going to be participating in this year's International Documentary Challenge -- so can I get anywhere near that goal?

We'll see. Some projects are in fact moving forward, so maybe there won't be 12 new films this year, but ... well, just check back soon.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Snow Day



Today is a snow day -- no teaching in The Bronx -- so I'm trying to catch up on several projects.

One decision I wanted to note, however: after three years of participating in the International Documentary Challenge I won't be part of it this year. The timing just wasn't going to work out, and while we will be making a film with one of the subjects we met in planning for the event, we won't get the excitement of trying to make a documentary in five days. Good luck to everyone who participates. Maybe next year.

Above: Old Yankee Stadium yesterday, as seen from the 4 train.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Winter Blunderland



Finished grading about 3 a.m. last night, as the snow started to fall. Today: it's pretty. Until the wind drives it, like tiny flying shurikens, directly into your eyes.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Two Upcoming Screenings

February? Already? Unbelievable.

This weekend Blind Faith: A Film About Seeing -- a film I co-directed in a sort of co-op approach -- will be screening at the Picture This Film Festival in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I really really really wanted to go, but with so much going on will have to watch from afar. The film received an Honourable Mention, and if you visit the festival's site you can see the festival jury provided some lovely comments.

February 20th, my brand new film To Get to the Other Side will screen at EgoFest Short Video Film Festival in Brainerd, Minnesota.

I love the way EgoFest has developed -- it features 40 shorts by 30 directors, and has shown a truly indie approach: many of the filmmakers became aware of the festival on Twitter thanks to the efforts of festival director Phillip Holbrook. With a no-application-fee / filmmaker-friendly approach (including a smart deadline extension), the festival has set the bar high for openness. I was able to get questions answered about the fest almost instantly, and the tone has been all about the fun of independent film.

I won't be able to join any road trip to Brainerd this time, but you can bet I'll be watching for next year's fest.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Color Coded Keys



A little pre-term session today.

Those little color-coded-keyboards? I don't like them.

For one: no little fingerbumps on the "f" and "j" keys.

Secondly, if the idea is that I'm going to look down at the keys, find the right color and the right symbol, click it, then look back up at my screen ... then I'm going to work much much slower than by getting used to thinking in terms of letters and working by touch. I mean, I think "tap j" and -- since I know how to type -- I don't look down.

The other reason: if you moved to a station with a normal keyboard you'd be lost. Maybe you could bring highlighters, and color code it yourself?

Documentaries in the News, ChimpCam Edition

Sure, you can trace the physiological basis of editing to the fact that we see the world in blinks. That's no big surprise, when you realize that Chimps can edit.

Of course, first they need to settle a typical Producer / Director on-set squabble. You know how that goes.

Movie made by chimpanzees to be broadcast on television

On top of the box was a video screen that showed live images of whatever the camera was pointing at. Initially, the chimps were more interested in each other than the video technology, as two male chimps within the study group vied to become the alpha male, disrupting the experiment. But over time, some of the chimps learned how to select different videos to watch.
I'm just curious if they'll get the IMDB credit.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Polanski Petition Update

I've shared my opinion on the Polanski Petition -- signed by a number of people in the film industry -- previously:

Facts Matter
Polanski Update
“The director of the documentary told me..."
Less Hypothetically
So Far In The Past
Now there's a little new news:

Judge: Polanski must come to L.A. to be sentenced in child-sex case
A judge has rejected director Roman Polanski's bid to be sentenced in absentia in a three-decade-old child-sex case. Judge Peter Espinoza ruled that Polanski, 76, will have to come back to Los Angeles to be sentenced. "I have made it clear he needs to surrender," the judge said.
So, do the signers of the Polanski Petition feel strongly enough to stand behind the director as the proceedings move to the courts?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

To Get to the Other Side

Back on Halloween, I made this post about preparing to shoot a mini-documentary on the New York City Marathon as it passes through my neighborhood.

Well, I've been in the midst of a lot of other work, some of it quite uncooperative and confusing. But...

It's done. It's six minutes and ten seconds long, and sort of quirky. I'm sending it off to a few festivals in tomorrow's mail. I'll post more details soon, and we'll see how it goes.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Canon Files

Over on my other blog, I've made a few posts giving a little background information as we go through the process of shooting a short interview-based documentary using a Canon 7D. For example:

First Canon 7D Test
Second Canon 7D Test
Working with the Canon 7D
Thursday the first interview session was completed, so I'm going to give some details on the technical specifics in case anyone finds that useful.

The 7D records H.264 format files onto memory cards and those files should be transcoded to a format that works better in your nonlinear editing software. The H.264 QuickTime files that come straight out of the camera can be imported into most editing packages, but don't seem to perform well unless transcoded to a format like Apple ProRes. This results in larger files, but the new files work well for the editing process.

The specifics for our shoot:
1. the session resulted in 5 gigabytes of files.

2. when these files were transcoded to ProRes, the total expanded to 14 gigabytes.

3. that means transcoding to ProRes format expanded them to about 3 times larger (in filesize).

4. one file, shot at 1920 by 1080 dimensions and 24 progressive frames per second, was 9 minutes long and resulted in a 3 gigabyte file. So, for an interview, we saw 3 minutes equal about 1 gigabyte of filesize (as an H.264 QuickTime).
So, our first rule-of-thumb estimation:

In camera, you might get about 3 minutes of shooting time for each gigabyte of storage.

After transcoding to ProRes, your files may blow up about 3 times larger.

So: 3 minutes a gigabyte in camera. 1 minute a gigabyte after the transcoding to ProRes.

Easy to remember. We'll see if that holds up through the next interviews.

Next time: transcoding time.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Please Help Me Identify These Runners




These two stills are from a video I'm editing, shot at the 2009 New York Marathon. If you can help me identify the runners, please post a comment or give me a message on Twitter at http://twitter.com/theodorefisher. The names on the front of each shirt should help, but I'm struggling with the woman wearing red and any help is appreciated.

UPDATE! Thanks to a very nice person on Twitter, I now know Salina Kosgei, Derartu Tulu, Ludmila Petrova, and Paula Radcliffe.

But who is that in red?

Update: it's Christelle Daunay.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Social Advocacy Documentaries, Part Four

This is Part Four of the series Do Social Advocacy Documentaries "Work"? You may want to start with Part One.

In comparison a “documentary” story also presented in 1990 meets some of Godmilow's criteria, and certainly led to action:

...the most emotionally moving testimony on October 10 came from a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only by her first name of Nayirah. According to the Caucus, Nayirah's full name was being kept confidential to prevent Iraqi reprisals against her family in occupied Kuwait. Sobbing, she described what she had seen with her own eyes in a hospital in Kuwait City. Her written testimony was passed out in a media kit prepared by Citizens for a Free Kuwait. “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital,” Nayirah said. “While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where . . . babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.” Three months passed between Nayirah's testimony and the start of the war. During those months, the story of babies torn from their incubators was repeated over and over again. President Bush told the story. It was recited as fact in Congressional testimony, on TV and radio talk shows, and at the UN Security Council. “Of all the accusations made against the dictator,” MacArthur observed, “none had more impact on American public opinion than the one about Iraqi soldiers removing 312 babies from their incubators and leaving them to die on the cold hospital floors of Kuwait City.”

Of course, in fact Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family, daughter of Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait's Ambassador to the US, and had been coached by public relations firm H&K’s vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado to deliver false testimony.
 It is likely that the false story quite effectively shifted public opinion enough to have a decisive effect on the January 12, the U.S. Senate vote–– decided by a five-vote margin––to support the Bush administration in a declaration of war.

It is precisely the absolutism with which a lie is presented that makes it effective––something nuanced presentation lacks. Godmilow’s critiques arise from a postmodern viewpoint fueled by the knowledge that what seems like a search for “the truth” may often be deception in the service of a dominant discourse. This idea is explained well by Robert A. Rosenstone in his book Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History:
The heart of postmodernism, all theorists agree, is a struggle against History. With a capital H. A denial of its narratives, findings, and truth claims. A view of it as the great enemy, the oedipal father, the metanarrative of metanarratives, the last and greatest of the white mythologies used to legitimate Western hegemony, a false and outworn discourse that fosters nationalism, racism, ethnocentricism, colonialism, sexims––and all the other evils of contemporary society.
One (unusually) clear statement of the case against history has postmodernism questioning (1) the idea that there is a real, knowable past, a record of evolutionary progress of human ideas, institutions, or action, (2) the view that historians should be objective, (3) that reason enables historians to explain the past, and (4) that the role of history is to interpret and transmit human cultural and intellectual tradition from generation to generation.

Rosenstone details how Godmilow’s film Far From Poland (1984) works in light of this distrust of documentary / history and its traditional claims: the film makes clear her specific inability to access the events of the story, and makes just as clear that the documentary form itself shares this inability––quite possibly with any story. Why then would Godmilow choose to participate in documentary production?
What’s essential to me, also, is to produce an audience of individuals (not a ‘community’) who become active intellectual participants in a discussion of the social conditions and relationships represented. I want to produce an audience of individuals who can learn some conceptual tools with which to articulate a critique––a critique applicable to all kinds of social and historical situations, not just to the materials at hand. That involves breaking up comfortable and class contract arrangements that the documentary film usually proffers its audience. Structured into most traditional documentaries is an unspoken promise to audiences that they can have a particular feeling about themselves. The audience is invited to believe: ‘I learn from this film because I care about the issues and people involved and want to understand them better; therefore, I am a compassionate member of society, not part of the problem described, but part of the solution.
It is ironic then that the filmmakers behind Czech Dream––in some ways inheritors to Farocki and Godmilow’s issue of ethical use of labor––manage to form a community in their film: those who are fooled by the film’s “prank” and later those who react for or against what it reveals. And certainly they “break up” the “contract arrangements” with their audience––acting as instigators “for” us, but doing something we might not choose to do or think “fair.” As well, when the film is seen against the context of the Czech debate on entry into the European Union––and its promise of even more commercialism, marketing and advertising––it does open the question of whether the social documentary may have its greatest value as a “conceptual tool” rather than as a script for specific action which will “solve” the problem addressed. One realizes Czech Dream is unlikely to somehow stop the “hard sell” of existing public relations / marketing / advertising forces or even the specific rise of hypermarkets––but those seeing the film are probably better prepared to understand the same techniques applied when the government campaigns for a political change, or marches out “witnesses” with no last name. (In the words of George W. Bush: “There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.”)

Walker Evans, the documentary photographer, was happy to proclaim what he called “documentary-style” photography as “useless.” Separating photography from items or actions of “use” left it free to serve an aesthetic purpose, which Evans claimed to be a more important and valuable one.

John Cage, as well, was happy to call his music “purposeless play,” but considered it a sort of “training” for life, where one’s perception might be sharpened, then turned to life itself. While any social advocacy documentary may have specific value as either a campaign related to an issue or as a text to raise consciousness about an issue, it may also be that it has a significant value as a model for understanding or confronting future issues. Picasso’s Guernica no longer endangers Franco, and never did to begin with. Still, it seems to trouble those who would stand in front of it to announce other aerial bombing. Is it fair to claim Wide Awake as valuable for anyone who confronts a personal issue, or My Country, My Country for those who wonder about family and community in the midst of chaos, or Czech Dream as important for anyone who expects to be sold their own reified desire? The effectiveness of these films is as debateable as that of the best novels. Interestingly, the rise in the number of significant social advocacy documentaries produced in the last five years may indicate that the social role once held by novels and nonfiction books has shifted to documentary work. Today, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring would surely be a documentary film, with a corresponding Web site detailing how one could get involved after the film.

When I saw Jason Kohn’s Manda Bala (2007) at a film festival, I could not help but take its study of the strange interconnections radiating out from a single act of political corruption as working in a way similar to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: the specifics of corruption and social policy may have happened somewhere else, to someone else––and Godmilow would see this film as about “the other”––but the form and character of corruption and social madness could be carried away home, and an understanding taken from the film could be used as a tool, ready for use on specifics arising anywhere, anytime.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Social Advocacy Documentaries, Part Three

This is Part Three of the series Do Social Advocacy Documentaries "Work"? You may want to start with Part One.

One expects it is easy enough to call the film “soft,” however, and to wonder if there are other contemporary films that “live up” to Godmilow’s critique (and possibly the more difficult critique of a “totalizing” position as brought up in Renov, Winston and Trinh T. Minh-ha’s writings) with a harder stance. To put films to such a test, however, requires a clearer picture of what Godmilow hopes for. What would such a documentary look like? Does Godmilow clearly define it? Godmilow’s piece claims “This essay will consider new forms of documentary which challenge non-fiction film practice and which link the documentary form more closely with political action.”

Oddly like Dick Cheney in 2000, leading George W. Bush’s Vice Presidential Search Committee only to discover the best vice presidential candidate would be ... Dick Cheney, Godmilow follows this statement with analysis of only two films: Harun Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire (1969) and her own shot-for-shot recreation of that film, What Farocki Taught (1998). Her primary assertions: that by using low production values and avoiding traditional narrative form, these films avoid “entertaining;” that by using (nonprofessional) actors these films avoid observing “the other;” and that by clarifying specific ethical / political choices (in this case the ethical use of one’s labor), the film can lead to direct political / social change.

What then of contemporary social advocacy documentaries? How do they fare in effectiveness, and can one appraise them against those four points of critique?

Laura Poitras’ My Country, My Country (2006), nominated for the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, is in the tradition of observational documentary. Taped in Iraq in the period leading up to the January, 2005 elections, the film’s main story arc follows political candidate Dr. Riyadh and his family in this period, culminating in their own decisions about voting. Other threads, however, intersect with this story as Poitras follows security contractors involved in transporting ballots, U.S. military briefings about the changing security situation, the Kurdish militia, and Riyadh’s connection to the prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Here we may address Godmilow’s first point of critique: does the film compromise to comply with the audience’s expectation of entertainment and clarity? If we avoid the oversimplification that anything “entertaining” is made so at the expense of edification, this is best decided if we ask: what is the key story of this film? Is it the process of the election, or the human experience of Iraqis during the U.S. occupation and the possibilities left after its end? The access to Dr. Rihadh’s family that the filmmaker has secured leads us to the second story as the central aim of the film. And if this is the case, it would seem that the film’s “obligations” are simply the normal ones: to make the story concise enough to tell in a watchable length, and in coherent form.

Godmilow’s second critique is the most interesting regarding this film. One may fairly consider an Iraqi family living in an occupied zone as “distressed social actors.” But since the film follows a medical professional (and certainly many members of Documentary’s “elitist audience” would be doctors) and one who reads as fairly Western in dress, the situation is more complicated. As well, when one looks at the “implications” of the film, it may be that the social issue it addresses––life during occupation, democracy enforced at gunpoint––may very well implicate the U.S. audience of this film. Dr. Riyadh’s “problem” may be defined as the bombs that fall on his street and the impending civil war in his city, rather than as his own “social issue.”

Still, Godmilow’s third critique does seem to hit accurately. An epilogue that suggested how one might vote or a letter writing campaign would be completely out of place at the end of this film. As well, the action that has led to the “problem” of the film occurred two years before the film starts. Still, if one defines the political issue the film addresses in “big picture” terms––what role should the United States play in the world?––it is not one where a specific political action can be called for. Rather, edification is an ideal strategy, preparing viewers for related political decisions that cannot yet be foreseen but will be better addressed with a deep understanding of past actions.

As well, My Country, My Country eludes the critique of a totalizing viewpoint in its complexity. There are mixed results, mixed signals and mixed ideas throughout, and this complicated understanding of the situation (not unlike that of Kopple’s American Dream) leaves one uncertain. It can certainly be considered as a series of questions, rather than as a totalizing answer.

Alan Berliner’s Wide Awake (2006) addresses directly the social issue of sleep disorders and sleep deprivation, though its larger indirect target––the relationship of individual to family––may be its more important topic. In one sense, the film is a contemporary update of the problem-solution model, albeit with a much more sophisticated structure. Its first half delineates Berliner’s personal struggle with sleep, and details the specifics of the issue (and its prevalence in society) through a series of conversations with doctors. In the second half, however, connections between Berliner’s personal life and his issues with sleep begin to be revealed: his late-night filmmaking practice, his childhood practice of staying awake to monitor his parents’ fights, and his need to find a schedule that will allow him to connect with his new baby’s life.

Godmilow’s three critiques are quite informative when used to interrogate this film. The film is endlessly entertaining, from overall story arc to music-like edited sequences exploring ideas that arise in Berliner’s exploration, ranging from his dreams to illustrations of his emotional state. There seems to be little need to compromise in individual elements, but one wonders if the resolution of the film isn’t constructed for an audience’s sake––a simplification of a complicated reality, presenting answers that can’t be known yet or that can’t yield simple results. (One thinks of the “Are you happy?” question that begins the exploration of Morin and Rouch’s Chronique d'un été and realizes that the presentation of simple answers, upon deeper cinematic interrogation, tends to lead to the revelation of complexity––and ambiguity.) Berliner is in fact a “distressed social actor” here, but also in complete control of the film, and certainly not of a lower social class than the filmmaker or audience (as Godmilow’s critique implies). As well, Berliner does present clear (if open) ideas for a “solution” to this problem, though he ultimately leaves open key parts of this solution to individual choice–– thus avoiding a totalizing approach. The film is clearly most effective as edification, but this is to be expected of any film that addresses problems that may be best solved with information and medical or therapeutic help. No call for sleep legislation would be sensible here, but a clear argument for the importance of the issue seems quite effective from the standpoint of “raising consciousness.”

Czech Dream (2004), made by Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda could be said to be the far end of a path started by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch in Chronique d'un été (1961). While the “provocation” in that film––the prototype for French Cinéma Vérité––was simply a question, for Czech Dream most of the film is the development of an elaborate provocation. Studying social attitudes on the newly-introduced “hypermarts” (in a country previously known for food queues for plain items, and at best rare availability of “exotics” like tropical fruit) and the promotion techniques of advertising, marketing and public relations, the filmmakers conduct their experiment, allowing the existing mechanism to work its magic, and the desires of the public to become clearly visible in their film.

It is interesting that Czech Dream connects in its study of promotion techniques to issues similar to the “ethical use of labor” concern found in Inextinguishable Fire and restated in What Farocki Taught. In arguments with marketing researchers and advertising staff, the directors find a similar “building block” mentality as pointed out in those films: we can combine our abilities in any order you like, but we are not responsible. In one sense, it can be said that the film goes further, revealing the “demand” more clearly than is done in the Farocki / Godmilow studies of napalm production. After all, in the same way that consumers wish for well-packaged and inexpensive foods, and are manipulated by media to see this as a need rather than a want (one jingle stating: “if you don’t have cash, take out a loan...”), consensus for the Vietnam war was maintained for years, “sold” to the American public in a similar manner. One can ask, at this point, if the most politically “effective” possibility for documentary film wouldn't be the complete lie. That is, where Barbara Kopple's American Dream is ultimately sympathetic to the workers and their plight, it presents a complicated situation and one expects it will leave audiences more aware but not necessarily charged to vote a certain way or to take to the streets.

Next: Conclusion

Social Advocacy Documentaries, Part Two

This is Part Two of the series Do Social Advocacy Documentaries "Work"? You may want to start with Part One.

One can also study Godmilow’s critique to see if it is applicable to “traditional” social advocacy documentary models such as those considered “journalistic,” “agit-prop,” or “problem-solution.” (While she cites in her essay “...the humiliated tenants in Grierson's 1932 film Housing Problems, who are asked to point to the rats and other vermin that inhabit their living spaces” as an example of the social documentary form’s ethical dilemma in depicting “the other,” she does not make it clear whether this is simply to the detriment of the film or makes it “fail” entirely. She cites no films she sees as successful, beyond her own and that of Harun Farocki, so we are left to guess whether her critique is of all social advocacy films or of the state of the field when she writes.)

For this purpose, let us consider as an example of “journalistic” social advocacy Peter Davis’ Selling of the Pentagon. How does it fare in Godmilow’s critique?

It does seem equitable to consider it constrained by the “matrix of obligations” Godmilow cites: it is, after all, an evening’s televison program, originally sandwiched between commercials for laundry detergent. It may be even more constrained in the sense that it was made to comply with the style of news programming of the time. There is a nod to entertainment thoughout (opening with a display of military firepower, for example) and certainly an attempt to “achieve closure.” Yet Godmilow’s other points may be said to fail here: there is no “other” implicated here: it is a story in which the expected audience is both implicated and “wronged” –– the funder of its own deception. As well, an implied political solution is obvious, as the film was made in relation to existing Senate debate and while CBS News would argue for the film’s objectivity, from the perspective of three decades later the film’s conclusion clearly argues for political action.

As an “agit-prop” film, consider 1982’s The Atomic Cafe. Clearly using the appeal of humor and the fascination of footage of atomic testing and “educational” films filled with misinformation, the film does fail against Godmilow’s critique of “obligations” (though one might ask what would not?). But can the film be said to use “distressed social actors” when, as in Davis’ film, those who are “victims” in the film may have been the audience itself or their parents? And if a political solution is not directly called for, with an active and growing anti-nuclear movement in 1982, action certainly is implied.

So-called “problem-solution” documentaries seem like the most exact target for the Godmilow critique, and other theorists have addressed this. Michael Renov, for example, picks up on a critique by Brian Winston (in which Winston includes the work of Leni Riefenstahl in relation to the “Griesonian realist documentary project”) and runs with it:

“It could certainly be argued that the Griersonians, working mostly for Tory governments, helped to put a friendly face on British imperialism in Song of Ceylon (1934) or sell a lukewarm reformism in response to pressing slum clearance questions (Housing Problems, 1935). In this sense, Grierson is to be faulted for espousing progressive views while delivering social integrationism and upbeat nation-building rhetoric for conservative British regimes between the wars. But my own concern is for tracking the development of documentary film as a potent and highly persuasive vehicle of social engineering, selling rhetorical arguments as truths, visions of the world as objective accounts of history. From this perspective, the problem of Vertov and Grierson (and, by extension, the documentary film tradition they helped to launch) was their aggressive––indeed, pulverizing––self-assurance in the pursuit of Truth, Soviet-style or Tory.
It is notable here that Renov’s critique is not one of ineffectiveness, as Godmilow’s is. Rather, he claims for some social advocacy documentary a misguided effectiveness: the ability to make a convincing and coherent argument even of an “incorrect” viewpoint.

Trinh T. Minh-ha goes further in the essay The Totalizing Quest for Meaning, using a quote from Roland Barthes: “The West moistens everything with meaning, like an authoritarian religion which imposes baptism on entire peoples.” She continues: “Yet such illusion is real; it has its own reality, one in which the subject of Knowledge, the subject of Vision, or the subject of Meaning continues to deploy established power relations, assuming Himself to be the basic reserve of reference in the totalistic quest for the referent, the true referent that lies out there in nature, in the dark, waiting patiently to be unveiled and deciphered correctly. To be redeemed.” Thus beyond Godmilow’s list of key failings of the social advocacy documentary (a need to entertain, exploitation of the other / nonimplication of the audience as part of the existing power structure, “soft” solutions or none at all)––which seem to apply to some documentaries but certainly not all––we may also consider the critique of presenting one interpretation as the only one possible, of a closed answer over an open question. It may be an issue inherent in the form, a problem to address in all attempts at social advocacy.

It is clear that Godmilow gives her critique because she does recognize the commonly accepted measure of success in advocacy films: “To change peoples’ minds or ways of seeing is always there at the basis of all non-fiction. But the notion of ‘exercising power’ sounds a bit heavy for most documentaries, unless we can agree that we mean that these films exercise power by changing consciousness, by their deliberate attempt to alter their viewers’ relationship to a subject by recontextualizing it in the proffered time, space, and intellectual field of the film.” In the eight years since her essay, through her efforts and those of many other theorists, the critical notions contained in that piece have become common self-critique for documentarians and often serve as background to the shaping of contemporary films. For example, a mainstream documentary like An Inconvenient Truth (2006) might be acceptable as social advocacy in Godmilow’s view in that it calls for specific political action (if mostly in text during the closing credits) and implicates specifically the audience watching the film (if quite gently, and only partially). Whether it is compromised by its “obligation” to entertain is more of a judgement call.

Next: Contemporary Social Advocacy Documentaries.

Do Social Advocacy Documentaries "Work"?

This is Part One of a series intended as an examination of the effectiveness of social advocacy documentaries.

In her 1999 essay What's Wrong with the Liberal Documentary, Jill Godmilow takes to task the “progressive or liberal documentary” as an “inadequate form––a relatively useless cultural product, especially for political change.” Her critiques of what she sees as a “soft form” include:

that this type of documentary film is still trapped in the same “matrix of obligations” as fiction film: to entertain, produce fascination, achieve closure, and to satisfy.


that this method of presentation tends toward an examination of one or more “distressed social actors” rather than the audience's situation: “There is nothing to learn about our activities or ourselves here. There is everything to learn about the other.”


that a typical film in this form “rarely proposes solutions” and while they may implicitly or explicitly “propose legislation” this type of film “never implicates the class activities of its audience as central contributors to the situation depicted in the film.”

If one examines the list of films receiving the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary in the years before Godmilow's essay, one could (at least for purposes of argument) reevaluate these films in light of Godmilow’s position:

1990: American Dream
While this film is traditionally considered in the “socially-concerned” genre, does it not follow the distress of working-class social actors and imply corruption among corporate and union leaders––all presented as “other” to the film's generally urban / elite / educated audience? Does it not complicate rather than clarify a pro-labor position?

1994: Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision
When this film contrasts the artist's vision for a Vietnam War Memorial against the expected heroic statuary traditional to public art memorials, does it not position art practice as a tool for post-war healing rather than opposition to war? Why is its primary argument about the best way to patch a wound, dissociating from the audience's recent support of the 1991 Gulf War?

1996: When We Were Kings
Since many of the film's interviews bring up social issues such as race relations in the United States, why does the film ignore the related issues that arise when a U.S. promoter (Don King) imports a fight spectacle and music festival (featuring James Brown, among others) into a country run on a one-party political system, secured by forces charged with human rights abuses? As with Godmilow's critique of Hoop Dreams (1994), does the film not also ignore the question of why Ali grew up with boxing as his only promising occupational option?

Next: applying Godmilow's critique to "traditional" social advocacy documentaries.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Narration and Titling, Part Seven

(This is part of a series. Start with Narration and Titling, Part One.)

Conclusion

The worst intertitles in the world belong to Len Cella, the filmmaker known for 1985’s Moron Movies and the inevitable 1986 sequel More Moron Movies. Seemingly just plastic letters on a board, they spell out the titles of his shorts––such as “Animals Should Wear Underwear” and “Jello Makes a Lousy Doorstop”––and may look uglier than any other title ever has.

Still, they function perfectly, setting up Cella’s visual jokes exactly as needed. Sometimes they are themselves more than half of the joke, delivering the punchline in the first second of the film, and setting up our expectation of action to come (not unlike Flaherty’s titles in Nanook). As well, they set our expectations exactly right for the humor of these films: they instantly create an expectation of the lowbrow, and the poorly-made (yet pitch-perfect) strivings of Cella.

As Stella Bruzzi points out in her essay “Narration: The Film and its Voice” in New Documentary: A Critical Introduction, much of the disparagement of narration and titling in the documentary field may derive from the taste of Cinéma Vérité and Direct Cinema filmmakers who saw resorting to narration as a failure of a film to achieve its desired results through picture-logic rather than word-logic. Yet to abandon a key tool of filmmaking––and clearly one necessary to a range of essential documentaries––would be foolhardy.

It may be that alternative strategies (such as Chris Marker’s use of a female voice in 1983’s Sans Soleil) and minimization (as in the use of text in 2004’s Darwin’s Nightmare) may be necessary to avoid the known pitfalls inherent in intertitles and narration. Photographs of circa-1976 leisure suits do not stop clothing designers from making suits, after all, but may serve instead to force questions on the function and message clothing delivers. It may be the same for documentary filmmakers.

Narration and Titling, Part Six

(This is part of a series. Start with Narration and Titling, Part One.)

The Computer-Based Diary Film: Tarnation

As Lev Manovich has pointed out, computers are omnivorous and anything that can be brought into a computer can become part of a video or film presentation. Still images, moving images, animations and most significantly text are all easily brought into a motion picture created in a computer-based editing program.

The art of motion graphics has finally come of age when a relatively inexpensive program like Adobe After Effects offers more power than the best artists of the film world had into the 1970s. Opening credits––once of minimal importance, but increasingly valued since the time of designer Saul Bass––have become a tool in the service of a film’s story and mood.

Jonathan Caouette's 2003 Tarnation uses the computer-editing aesthetic intrinsic to Apple’s iMovie software. Titles are easily created in the midst of cross-dissolved stills, and the movie is heavily dependent on these textual elements. Key moments in the story are revealed through these titles, something that would have been incomprehensible in Flaherty’s Nanook: “Nanook builds an ice window” would not have served the film in the same manner the visual revelation does.

Yet in Caouette’s film the text can be perceived more as a personal letter. It is assumed it is his writing of the tale, and the non-visual moments can be interpreted as his revelations, rather than as patches over missing material.

Next: Conclusion

Friday, January 08, 2010

Narration and Titling, Part Five

(This is part of a series. Start with Narration and Titling, Part One.)

Informal Versus Formal: Dogtown and Z-Boys

The narration by Sean Penn in Stacy Peralta’s 2001 Dogtown and Z-Boys reflects the informal, anti-establishment approach of the filmmakers through a strange mix of formal “storytelling” narrative combined with the inclusion of Penn’s informal throat clearings and restatements.

Selected in part for his fame and credibility as an actor, Penn’s real connection to the story of the film is his history as a Southern California youth and his infamous role as Jeff Spicoli, the ludicrous surfer character from 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Penn’s metamorphosis from this stereotypical surfer into a serious actor parallels the development of the film’s director, Peralta, from a long-haired surfer (physically resembling the Spicoli character) into a serious documentarian.

The film also plays with the fact that its director also serves as the main “informant” for its ethnography of circa-1982 Southern California, appearing on camera as needed as a sort of second narrator, often supplying crucial information to clarify the story where no clear visual exists.

A key element of how both narrators function in this film is that, while both are white males, they have voices that vary in timbre and style from that of a traditional “voice of god” narrator. While Penn’s omniscient text is written in a manner matching that model, it is offset by his delivery: his seriousness is perceived as striving to present the story of the rise and fall of a sport not taken seriously, and thus avoids an authoritarian tone.

Next: The Computer-Based Diary Film: Tarnation

Narration and Titling, Part Four

(This is part of a series. Start with Narration and Titling, Part One.)

Necessary Revelations in Social Documentary

The practitioners of Cinéma Vérité and Direct Cinema eschewed narration as an admission of failure in a film. Drew Associates proudly notes on its Web site its 1960 film Primary uses less than two minutes of narration, noting further that this was the reason the broadcast networks of the time declined it.

Yet the filmmakers who would follow would find that social documentary films often needed both intertitles and narration to allow a coherent story to be shaped. Since these films are often shot with a single camera at unrepeatable events, and since access is often denied or minimized, often the footage gathered requires context and explanation.

Barbara Kopple’s 1990 American Dream, for example, uses intertitles as well as Kopple’s voice as narrator to move the story forward at key junctures. The result of contract negotiations, key to the narrative of the film, does not occur on camera and thus requires either text or statement to clarify the positions of the key players of the film. Titles or statements specify the offer given by the negotiating company or the response of the labor union as needed.

As well, the progress of time is structured by these imposed elements, as footage of meetings does not give a clear sense of the progression of events in the story.

It is notable that the use of titling in the film––basic and simple text which does not call attention to itself––may function differently than Kopple’s voice, which comes as a surprise for many viewers after so many minutes of an approach derived from Direct Cinema. Announcing a key development in the plot, the addition of the voice comes approximately at the point in the film where the effect of the larger story on individuals is revealed, and where the crisis becomes personal.

Here, the use of a female narrator may avoid the connotations of the “voice of god” narration technique and the impositions it might bring to the film.

Next: Informal Versus Formal: Dogtown and Z-Boys

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Narration and Titling, Part Three

(This is part of a series. Start with Narration and Titling, Part One.)

Evidence and Drama in Early Sound Films

Housing Problems (1935) by Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey deals with the “problem of the slums” and uses audio narration to set up sequences of evidence in support of its message. Introducing segments of images with phrases such as “here are some pictures of ...” and the more specifically negative “here are examples of sheer neglect...” in a male upper-middle-class voice that seems to fit the bill for delivering an official viewpoint, the film begins with this “voice of God” style narration. Yet this is counterpointed with the working class dialect of the film’s subjects, who give the details of their situation (and their feelings about that situation) in their own words decades before this would become common practice in documentary film.

Night Mail (1936) by Harry Watt and Basil Wright can be taken as celebrating efficiency and the British worker. Its poetic narration, by W.H. Auden, seems specifically designed to add a sense of dignity to the simple story of the delivery of the mail. Referencing the rhythms of the trains depicted in the film, this narration positions the importance of the image sequences we see into the unseen lives of those who depend on the mail. A second layer of sound consisting of the overdubbed voices of the workers serves to dramatize the process, asking questions such as “can we do it?” and counting down to the critical shots of netting the mail in the dramatic manner of a feature film.

Both of these films proved early on that audio narration could solve “problem areas” in a film by communicating needed information that was not provided in the visuals gathered or in interviews. This technique, however, would quickly become a crutch for many documentaries and the hallmark of the “educational film” as it was seeming easier and less expensive to script and record a “voice of god” narrator than to provide for the process needed to gather certain materials.

As well, propagandists would discover that such a technique would allow precise control of a desired message, and that where images could be misinterpreted or not show what was intended, narration could be crafted to present any message as true.

Next: Necessary Revelations in Social Documentary

Narration and Titling, Part Two

(This is part of a series. Start with Narration and Titling, Part One.)

Intertitles in the Silent Era

Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook, considered by many the earliest documentary of significance after the actuality films of the Lumieres, uses intertitles for purposes of establishing facts and situations a viewer will need to understand to comprehend visual sequences in the film.

Throughout the film, with one notable exception, these intertitles are presented title-first and then action, describing the sequence ahead (to some degree) before we see a depiction (and occasionally extension) of the detailed progress of that action. One of the film’s ostensible functions is to explain an “alien” culture in an unfamiliar setting to its domestic audience, so cues that explain the significance of the visuals would have been welcomed. As well, these intertitles seem to be used to provide a pacing element for the film, at times allowing a “breathing space” and controlling the presentation of time in the most dramatic sequences.

The notable exception to this title/action pattern comes at the end of the sequence where Nanook builds an igloo. As Eric Barnouw details in Documentary:

“Now only one thing more is needed,” a subtitle tells us as Nanook, having apparently completed an igloo, starts to cut a block of ice. Audiences do not know, for the moment, the purpose of the “one thing more.” They soon discover: a square of snow is cut from the igloo, and the ice becomes a window. It is even equipped with a snow reflector, to catch the low sun. The sequence has often brought applause. Part of the satisfaction lies in the fact that the audience has been permitted to be, like Flaherty himself, explorer and discoverer.

Here, the reward Flaherty has in mind for the audience is one where Nanook exceeds their expectations in ingenuity in his work, and the subtitle must hold off its description until the appropriate moment.

Next: Evidence and Drama in Early Sound Films

Narration and Titling, Part One

I find that again and again the idea of voiceover and narration arises in discussions on film, and that there's almost always a knee-jerk reaction detailing how terrible it is. Certainly, there are plenty of bad examples. Still, if it's such a common practice, isn't it likely that there are good uses for it? A while back I wrote a short paper on this topic, focusing specifically on narration and titling in documentary film. I've decided to put this online as a short series. Here's Part One.

The Accidental Narration of the Radio

I grew up in the shadow of a college radio station. One of the best, in fact, and at a small school that supported it and let the student disc jockeys alone. In summer, when the students were mostly away from the campus and there were very few requests, it was easy for my friends and I to call and name anything we liked and to hear it within moments. We memorized the request line and the disc jockey’s names and schedules, and took to turning the sound down on the omnipresent suburban televisions that dominated our lives. We began to leave KSPC 88.7 FM playing as soundtrack. Inevitably, sound and picture would synchronize into new meanings for us. We found that certain types of music went well with certain programs, which is no surprise.

What was a surprise was that new meanings would emerge when public service announcements were read by the disc jockeys. The college deejays were a diverse group, from an 18-year-old freshman to the man who had hosted the Sunday Polka Music Show for decades. They were female and male, and from many states and several countries. There were no commercials, so they played about 8 songs and then read the news or the PSAs in various voices and accents, with varying reading and announcing skills.

These PSAs proved not only as associative as music, but more so. The collision of pictures and words was always fertile, and filled with patterns anyone might sit and decode, if they had as much free time as we did. We interpreted some statements as opposing the pictures they were juxtaposed with, and others as his supporting images on screen. We took some readings as ironic, and some as heartfelt, and we perceived different voices as holding varying amounts of authority or friendliness. We found some to imply we must take action, and others that seemed to reassure us.

In this series I will examine in brief a variety of narration / titling strategies used in documentaries, noting the key functions of the relation of this “imposed” text over the film’s images and audio. My main interest in doing this will be to explore the functional purpose of this read / heard text, as opposed to its use as language.

Next: Intertitles in the Silent Era