Dan Green’s website WorkflowJunkies is an unabashed place for people who are really into codecs, compression and serious I/O junk. In this podcast episode, Dan and his guest Noah Kadner, the author of “RED: The Ultimate Guide to Using the Revolutionary Camera” talk about the workflow for the RED camera. Dan wants to know why when a RED shows up on the scene, “People gather around it like the Christ child.”
Noah points out, among other things, that RED is seen as a camera that gives 35mm film quality for a fraction of the cost, that the RED, with its many controls, “looks like the codex in “The Da Vince Code,” but also that digital quality will soon eclipse the best analog (film) technology.
Rock, on Dan! Rock on, Noah!
This is the trailer for the 2008 film on the Roman Polanski case.
Ken Burns is one of the monster successes of documentary filmmaking, and in many ways he remains the resolute antithesis to Michael Moore’s antic-driven work (which I think has value as well).
Watching these nights of the National Parks series has driven home some points about documentary filmmaking that pull back from the tech-driven realities of filmmaking these days. Would this film have been better on a RED camera? Could the lighting have been different? What about titles?
The answer, to me, is no. Burns has developed an amazingly simple signature style that is worthy of examination. Yes, his work is well-funded and costly, but for all the reasons that make sense.
A deconstruction of the Burns interview style yields some simple and obvious facts:
1) The interviews, shot on daylight-balanced film in tungsten light, yields a rich, warm look. In video, that would involve cranking the gamma or white-balancing with a green card. Of the two interview photos here (the first from “The War,” the second of Shelby Foote in “The Civil War”), we see how much warmer his color has become, almost overstated in a way (A post house would fix that for you without even asking!). But old still photographers will see that here is the affect of shooting a roll of daylight film of someone sitting in their living room, by the reading lamp, or in front of a book case. The look is warm, and homey; we don’t know these subjects are speaking from the relaxed confines of their own homes; they just appear to.
2) Burns uses a single light, rather than a three (or more) light package. It is a softened light, and it appears to be from nearly straight on, not far above the subject. In most interviews, one side of the subject’s head may be completely black.
3) Backgrounds nearly do not matter, and aren’t lighted with additional lights or scrims. Usually, there’s some object in the background, such as a lamp, that gives sense of scale, place or dimension. In “The Civil War,” the Foote material has the historian sitting right in front of his bookcases (see photo); that seems absent in “National Parks.” You could, with a well-placed table lamp in the background, reproduce the look of a cozy living room on a sterile sound stage.
4) Framing is very tight. The typical frame has as its top the crown of the subject’s head, and as its bottom the subject’s collarbone.
All this is as it was in earlier films such as “The Civil War” and “The War.” Given that “The Civil War” was first broadcast in 1990, when the average size of a TV was around 21 inches. The tight framing was right for small screens, and even in this age of 60-inch flat screens his subjects fill up the screen. The effect is also one of intimacy. We sit in the evening in our living-room chair, hearing the observation of someone speaking in a very similar setting. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s emergence as a popular figure, and one viewed as being utterly without airs, was helped greatly by the way Burns composed his shots.
5) Titles are simple white in a serif font. Elegant and informative. No After Effects, no razzle-dazzle and no attention-getting. Old-school stuff that does its work unobtrusively.
But Burns’ successes have come as well from the careful, exhaustive journeys through archival material (much of it public domain), and by what seems like the Zen-like willingness to simply wait for the light to show him what to do. “National Parks” is an amazing succession of incredible images: A lake under flaming sunset clouds, with only the sway of tall grass as a key that we’re seeing film footage; just the right vantage point to emulate a century-old view-camera shot.
Burns, by all appearances, has eschewed the big-movie caravan that has befallen some doc makers. The film appears to be made by a handful of people, not by a humongous crew bearing case after case of equipment.
The question of whether an emerging filmmaker could succeed with such a simple approach is a complicated one, as film-festival judges and distributors look for more bells and whistles. But Burns work – the look of which could be replicated by very simple video equipment – is inspiring in its own way.
Again, Burns’ work exhibits the patience and craftsmanship that has made him so successful. And he has stayed wisely true to the simplicity of his earlier projects, even as technology allows for so many variations.
RAID storage was supposed to provide a better, more dependable form of storage, something that’s become more crucial in the tapeless world in which everyone should back up everything but often doesn’t. Henry Newman writes a fairly technical article on its shortcomings; John Landman helps us understand Newman.
The Polanski situation is turning into reality TV, with “X-men” director Brett Ratner announcing he’s getting involved in a sequel to Marina Zenovich’s documentary that Newser Michael Wolff, among others, believes prompted Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland. Whew!
The Roman Polanski documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” may have presumed to have put a final word on a long-ago legal case, but the arrest of Polanski in Switzerland this weekend, at the request of U.S. authorities, guarantees us a postscript.
It had come to a point at which it seemed all was past: Polanski had re-emerged as an esteemed figure in France, and even in the U.S., where the film “The Pianist” had done much to recoup favor; the woman who was 13 when he he had sex with her went public, saying in the film that all was forgiven; the filmmaker Marina Zenovich raised serious and substantive questions about the way the judge in the case, now dead, handled the plea bargain.
The film also reminded us who had vague, or little recollection, that Polanski had indeed forced sex on a child (and that this wasn’t a disputed accusation), that the case was still open in Los Angeles County (and waiting for an enterprising prosecutor to have the resume-enhancing honor of closing it out) and that whatever presumed purgatory Polanski had occupied since fleeing the U.S. really wasn’t very awful.
Regardless of how people feel about the case, it seems hard to ignore how soon the arrest came after the documentary made its mark. Polanski had traveled often to Switzerland and even owned a house there, according to news reports.
Polanski did not cooperate with the documentary, but didn’t seem vigilant about its effects. And the filmmaker Zenovich, while possibly wanting to clear a three-decade-old matter, did succeed in knocking the dust off an old controversy that seems ready to play out late in Polanski’s twisting life. Such is the effect of a well-made documentary.
UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times reports there had been near-misses in the past.
WNYC’s “On The Media” program has an interview with Patricia Aufderheide, a professor at American University’s Center for Social Media and one of the authors of the new study on ethics (or lack thereof) in documentary filmmaking.
Here’s the audio:
Here’s an interesting take by Phil Hodgetts on whether HDV will retain validity as a format. From a few months back but making the rounds. Phil says,
HDV is based on MPEG-2. (As are XDCAM HD and XDCAM EX.) Encoders improve over time so inevitably models fall behind the latest releases. For that reason I had to drop from consideration – for a new camera - Canon’s XL-H1, A1, and G1; Sony’s diminutive HVR-A1U ; and JVC’s KY-110U. These were all released in 2006 or earlier and while Canon claimed the “best” encode quality at the time, that is no longer even remotely true. JVC themselves claim that the MPEG-2 encoders in the HD200 and HD250 cameras are “100% better than the year before” (the year the 110U was released)!
The gy-HM700 already records to SxS cards, but can now put files on this less-expensive format. Techshout has an article with more details.
A short doc shot entirely on the Canon DSLR.