First-time but well-known documentarian Sebastian Junger, along with photojournalist Tim Hetherington, won the jury award for Best U.S, Documentary for “Restrepo,” besting a lineup that included Academy Award winners Davis Guggenheim and Alex Gibney (although Guggenheim’s film, “Waiting for Superman,” won the audience award). Junger is well-known as a writer, most prominently for “The Perfect Storm.”
The film, about a military unit fighting in Iraq, was done very simply in the face of some more-heavily funded competition. In an interview with Movieline.com, Junger described it this way:
Tim obviously is a still photographer, I’m a writer, and we decided to make a documentary, so we both had a video camera that we used continually. Some trips I was there by myself, some trips Tim was.
In other words, about as simple as it gets. While documentarians keep ranting about the RED and other pricey equipment, these guys shot in HDV, according to Junger:
It was a Sony V1, Tim shot on a Z1. For the most part, I held it at chest-level, autofocus, auto everything. One of the great things Tim told me was, “Hold the camera for ten seconds on everything.” Because we’d get into firefights, and the camera would go everywhere my head did. The footage was totally useless.
Tape! And for good reason – it remains a storage medium that is well suited to long stretches without a chance to get to a workstation for transfers from solid-state memory. A dozen tapes in a bag (and a bunch of batteries) provides lots of opportunity to record.
The news on “Restrepo” should be very encouraging to documentary filmmakers for this reason: Because a writer who had to be told how to use the camcorder has won Sundance, based on the ability to tell what is said to be a haunting story about men at war, something far beyond what TV-news people ever seem to get. One of the great books out of the Vietnam War was Michael Herr’s dispatches, a collection of deeply psychedelic pieces he wrote for Rolling Stone; we’ve thought of “Gunner Palace” as that representation of the war in Iraq. Many may want to add this one to that list. Storytelling, not expensive technology, is the key ingredient of good documentary filmmaking.
It’s also an interesting story of working in multimedia. Junger will publish a book out of this project, and Hetherington already won an important still-photo prize. The World Press Photo of the Year Award, for this work. In the interview, he said he used a separate camera for the stills.
I had two D-Rings, and on one I had the stills camera and on one I had the video camera. Sometimes it was a crazy kind of Western where I’m shooting like this. [He draws both hands.]
Doing a documentary on a living person is often fraught with risk – your saint turns out to be a sinner, your great man goes on to be greater. Even doing documentaries on people deceased has the risk of stunning disclosure after the fact. A new project that’s being touted the last few days seems only more at risk of its story being incomplete.
J.D. Salinger stopped publishing nearly a half-century ago, but “Catcher in the Rye” has stayed in the forefront, most often these days as high-school English class reading. In the time since Salinger lit up the literary sky, the place of books in the culture has steadily declined, and in Salinger’s old age, the internet only furthered that erosion. But, in the last five years, screenwriter Shane Salerno has steadily put together a documentary about the writer that is apparently ready to go, with what may be a missing chapter.
According to Nikke Finke, who calls it a “secret documentary,”
The famous names include Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Cusack, Danny DeVito, John Guare, Martin Sheen, David Milch, Robert Towne, Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow, A. Scott Berg, Elizabeth Frank, Gore Vidal, and others.
What Danny DeVito has to say about Salinger may be debatable, but the film certainly adheres to the “Three Famous People Rule.” Salerno is a well-connected Hollywood writer who has reportedly financed the film out of pocket.
In the days since Salinger’s death Thursday, the primary discussion has been whether Salinger, as rumored, has in a safe or possibly bank safe-deposit boxes a pile of new manuscripts. Whether he does or doesn’t, and whether any of them contain any autobiography, will have much to do with retroactivly assessing his life. Salerno has apparently collaborated with writer David Shields on a 700-page book on Salinger, but with the death of J.D., it may turn out there’s much more to the story.
When the playwright Eugene O’Neill died, he had secreted away a play that his will instructed not be staged for 25 years after his death. Although for a number of reasons the play came out only three years after his passing, that play was “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” not only his greatest work but one that retroactively spilled out the secrets of his difficult family history of alcoholism and drug addiction. No biography of O’Neill would be complete without it; what of the supposed half-century of Salinger writing yet unpublished? Or of what could be the drama of bringing it to publication – if Salinger had decided not to publish, will it go the O’Neill route in which specific detailed instructions become a point of legal wrangling, kind of the heirs against the ghost?
The film — kept under the radar until now — wasn’t done in time for consideration at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. As a result, the filmmaker hoped to present it at a spring film festival, like Cannes. It will be shopped shortly by WME Entertainment and Robert Offer for distribution and remake. The book, also complete, will be shopped by IPG’s Brian Lipson and literary agent Henry Dunow.
The larger question is of the interest level the filmmaker will find for a writer who has mostly hidden for better than 50 years. The reclusiveness has made Salinger’s legend, but for what sounds like an ambitious project, it will remain to be seen what Salerno has that’s worth telling and who wants to hear it.
No sooner was the news out about the iPad that British cinematographer and Zacuto spokesman Phillip Bloom speculated on how, with the iPad “camera connection kit,” whether it might be a great in-your-lap director’s monitor for the EOS cameras and perhaps others.
We have all seen the announcement today of the oversized Apple iphone/ tablet thingy called the “ipad”. It looks the next gadget to have for sure…but what intrigues me is would it be possible to get an adapted version of the Canon live view software for the Mac onto the ipad, connect up a USB lead to the Canon HD-DSLR cameras and we would have a very nice monitor that doesn’t disable the camera’s LCD screen, like we can do with our laptops currently…I know it’s not running OSX but surely it must be possible…?!
Davis Guggenheim, Oscar winner for “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Al Gore vehicle that took on global warming, has scored at Sundance with “Waiting for Superman,” which similarly takes on the poor state of public education in the United States. The world rights for “Waiting for Superman,” directed by Guggenheim and produced by Participant Media, were sold to Paramount Vantage, a unit of the Viacom.
The New York Times noted that “Inconvenient Truth” “made an Oscar-winning moneymaker out of another unsexy topic — the environment” (unless you think Al Gore is sexy). But that’s an understatement, becase each of the films approach the topics with apocalyptic fervor – a “We’re F*cked Documentary,” in the memorable words of blogger named Matt D., “Shockumentary” to others. “Waiting for Superman” has the elements of a good scare, unfortunately for public education.
Alex Gibney interviewed by Tamara Krinsky on Documentary.org:
When “Racing Dreams,” a Marshall Curry-directed documentary about kids racing go-karts with dreams of NASCAR, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, its makers likely had hopes for a good distribution deal and DVD sales. What was likely, but apparently is underway, is a scripted dramatization. Two “Star Trek” writers are developing a project around it.
The larger discussion is if documentaries, particularly those with low budgets and low production values that may keep them from having broad distribution, will become the new pool of “properties” that agents and prospective writers and directors are scouring for ideas. “Grey Gardens,” the HBO film based on the landmark documentary of the same name by the Maysles brothers, is one example, although the film is actually about the documentary being made. But look at a successful documentary such as “Crazy Love” and how rich it is with dramatic possibilities.
The would-be filmmakers are reaching far and wide for optionable properties. While movies have most often been adapted from novels or biographies, “Maybe He’s Not That Into You” was made from a self-help book and “Mean Girls” from an article that became a self-help book.
So why would a documentary filmmaker want his or her film made into a nonfiction film? For the money and for wider exposure. We could see some value to packaging a documentary as an extra on a DVD of the dramatized film.
But: Does the filmmaker “own” the characters in one’s doc, or, since these are real people (note that the “Grey Gardens” protagonists are long dead), do they have some rights to block it? Whose story is it? The legalities shall make for an interesting discussion, should this sort of thing become more widespread.
Traveling to locations can often be the biggest challenge for filmmakers shooting documentaries alone or as two-person crews. Lights are always a part of that, and some filmmakers opt for one-point lighting on the road, a look Ken Bruns still sticks with despite the funding to do more.
But many would not stand for less than a three-point lighting kit, and often a fourth added in to light background. Our friend David at Kino-Eye details a lightweight lighting kit that can be pulled on a cart, doesn’t blow fuses, and gets the job done.
There really is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all lighting kit. I find that most of the commercially available light kits I’ve seen offer too many watts and not enough versatility. After years of creating a variety of make-shift kits from my lighting collection for particular shoots, I’ve settled on one configuration when I’m “traveling light,” and I think the best approach is to put together a custom kit that meets your personal lighting needs.
Brook Barnes, covering Sundance for the New York Times, has a post on filmmakers, and the festival itself, taking the opportunity to use the festival’s platform to get the work out digitally.
- Making five short films available now on YouTube’s new pay option;
- Making some films available as cable on-demand simultaneously with the film’s premiere screening;
- Filmmakers selling downloads and DVDs simultaneously to their Sundance screening;
But, Barnes writes,
Of course, it is easy for (filmmaker Michael Mohan) to take a nontraditional approach. He made “One Too Many Mornings” for just $50,000. While on-demand services and Web sales are becoming a substantial revenue stream, more expensive specialty endeavors continue to need theatrical distribution to have any hope of turning a profit.
Producing short docs at The New York Times: An interview with Ann Derry, editorial director of video
As editorial director of video and television for The New York Times, Ann Derry oversees all the video for the newspaper’s website, as well as its television “partnerships.” Since 2006, she helps produce “original video with every department in the newsroom.”
Before coming to the Times in 1999, Derry held a variety of positions, including serving as vice president and executive producer for Broadway Interactive Group, “where she oversaw documentaries and interactive projects for Broadway Video.” Before this, she shepherded documentary and educational films as vice president at J.C. Crimmins and Company. Derry has also written, produced, and directed documentary projects for “National Geographic Television, ABC News, Turner Broadcasting, and Showtime, among others.” Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/18/business/media/18askthetimes.html?pagewanted=all
LANCASTER: There’s been a lot of shakeups in the newspaper world lately. How do you see the place of video journalism at newspapers. Is it the end of the print reporter and the rise of the video journalist?
DERRY: I don’t think it’s the end of the print reporter and the rise of the video journalist. There’s an increasing demand for and use for video journalism in newspaper websites. What I think is going to happen is people will become more video literate. It’s happening in our newsroom—video’s becoming a language, so I like to say language that reporters are now beginning to speak. There will be stories that lend themselves to video. And so those provide great storytelling opportunities. I think people are going to expect more and more to see video on websites, at newspaper websites.
Print’s not going to go away. And print journalism’s not going to go away. [Video is] like another tool in the toolbox. And what I do think could end up happening, and it probably is already happening in places, is when you have unlimited resources you can do an article, a video, a multimedia presentation, a photo, a graphic. As resources become more constrained, and we become a more multimedia friendly world, I think news organizations—whether they started out as radio or television or print—are going to look at the story and ask, “What’s the best tool, what’s the best medium for telling the story? Is it words? Is it pictures? Is it video? Is it a combination?” But it’s not everything. . . .
Myself and my senior producers all come from television, so we worked in and for image-based organizations, video-based organizations. And it’s different here. The infrastructure alone is enormous if you want to have a video-based organization. You need lines, you need camera people all over the place, you need satellite dishes. We don’t have that to really cover the news. So I think that the Times is going to be a print and a text-based organization for a long time to come, especially in news coverage, and that the job–my job, especially, is to bring video, create this language in the newsroom, bring it forward, find ways to tell video stories, and then look for opportunities in places–in ways where we don’t have a camera.
LANCASTER: Despite that limitation, I find that there’s a distinct style here. I obviously see a lot of newspapers mimicking the conventional short form broadcast news style where the reporters are front and center with heavy narrating. But I’m more interested in the people who are experimenting more with documentary form, the documentary approach. I almost see that weakness being turned into an asset, because when there’s a reporter going solo without the full infrastructure, perhaps they can be more creative. Do you think about that?
DERRY: What you do is you take your weakness and you turn it into a strength. And so, part of it is we all come from–myself and my senior producers–documentary filmmaking television. So actually that’s our first love. We started out doing New York Times television, and we made documentaries in the newsroom with the newsroom first, for five or six or seven years. So there’s already a fair amount of television documentary expertise, both for ourselves and with the reporters. What we did is we took that interest, that expertise, and we said, “Okay. We’re not going to make hour-long documentaries anymore, which is just as well, because those are really hard to do with a breaking news organization.
But we will do seven-minute pieces or five-minute pieces or ten-minute pieces. And they’ll be more—and it’s actually much easier than doing a full documentary. You can do it much more quickly; you can be working very organically—right inside the newsroom—with the reporters. And you do things like write, and you’re sending one video journalist out with a reporter, they have small cameras—it’s that whole kind of format that people have been using for a long time. And it’s perfect for critical web video—it harkens all the way back to 16mm. And the way people started making documentaries and vérité filmmaking that’s what they started with. They started with a camera and a soundman, and you know, very simple packages. And in a way what’s happening is we’re going back to that with just some better equipment.
LANCASTER: Yeah. I call the reporter centered stories the reporter-personality style, even if they’re not on camera that much, their words become the dominant form of storytelling. My test is, “Can I turn off the video and listen to the sound and still get the story?” And it seems like your people tend to be playing with images and audio to tell the story, with narration providing context, rather than the narration telling the story.
[An example of a recent video covering Haiti's earthquake, provides an example of the kinds of short documentaries found on the Times' website, "Saving Lives on the U.S.N.S. Comfort". Click on image to watch video.]
DERRY: Yep, that’s what you always hope for. When you’re working with reporters–they are print people–so they’ve also learned to write for documentary and for video, which is very different. It’s many fewer words, it’s trying to use as much of the organic material that you’ve collected in the field. It’s the reverse of what they do as reporters. As reporters, they write the article, they put in a few sound bites [the quotations from their sources]. What we want to do is have the sound bites carry the piece and then use the reporter’s narration to link things together. But, you’ve also got, in some cases, amazing writers, and so you have that voice. And when you have the great voice it’s fabulous, even if there’s not actually a lot of narration. There can be, depending on what the piece is, but you just have that sense of their storytelling, which is nice to have. . . .
The thing that’s actually very interesting, too, is that when you’ve worked with the Times reporters and the editors, my favorite response is, “Actually the video was better than the article.” Sometimes by the reporter! You’ve got the images. And if it’s the right kind of piece, it can be better because you have something to look at. Not always. There’s plenty of pieces that do not lend themselves to video, but when it is, it’s the perfect thing.
LANCASTER: What fascinates you the most about doing video at The New York Times?
DERRY: The diversity. The variety. When we started doing this, we looked at each other and we said, “Okay, so, we have the whole newspaper.” If you’re a documentary filmmaker, what you do is you sit down in the morning and you look at magazine articles, and you look at newspaper articles and you see what’s been reported. But when you’re here, you see it before it’s reported–you’re in the middle of the process, and so it’s this amazing, rich environment to be in, and you can do a lot of different kinds of things. It’s like running a little, mini TV station, so you do your cooking show with Mark Bittman, you do your technology segment with David Pougue you do your investigative reporting with the investigative unit, you do your movie reviews. You get to do everything. Partly it’s just because of my background, I’ve done a lot of different kinds of things, so you get to use all these different pieces of things that you’ve done before. And you get to try out new ideas. It has to be good, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.
And no one’s really done it before. I mean people have been doing video and television for years, but it’s not like The New York Times has an idea of what New York Times video should be, so you have a lot of freedom as long as you’re strong journalistically and as long as you’re respectful, to try things, and to invent things. And that’s really exciting. I mean, no one gets to do that. No one gets to be able to do that with the content behind it, with these resources. Today we had lunch with the Science editor. We just talked about what kinds of video should we do in science? What are some new ideas? What should we try? Who are the people we should put on camera? What kinds of stories should we be telling? I mean, that’s just a gift to have–to be able to do that. It’s kind of the best job in the world. It is!
The video site for The New York Times can be found here: http://video.nytimes.com/
This interview was excerpted from the book written by Kurt Lancaster, Documentary Journalism: The Art and Craft of Video Journalism for the Web. The interview was conducted in July 2009.