Gawker has a piece written by former Ken Burns assistant Alex Belth, who worked on the original “Baseball” series (the sequel, “Tenth Inning,” has run this week on PBS.
Far from an expose, Belth’s piece is actually a useful look at the process Burns engages in, and one in which “no detail was too small.” One of those is the screening of rough cuts to a variety of people to guage their reactions to certain material. Belth writes,
Baseball was filled with sadness, like Josh Gibson’s tragic end and Curt Flood’s losing fight against the baseball establishment. When visitors came to the studio to screen a particularly mournful scene, Ken would wait for their reaction like a kid in a roomful of wrapped Christmas presents. More often than not, the viewers were left in tears. Ken would beam triumphantly. “We got another one,” he’d say, and then he’d exchange a high-five with the nearest person as he offered tissues to his weeping guests.
All of Burns’ works rest on a certain subtlety and bittersweetness, with nostalgia for things lost, stories of dreams unfulfilled, and stoic stories of people doing the right thing, often unnoticed. When one is working such a fine line, watching carefully for audience reaction before the final cut becomes even more important.
Karen Everett at New Doc Editing has a good post on how to do a rough-cut screening for a documentary, which is more formal, with questionnaires and discussion as possible avenues. A word of warning from her:
Remember that people from whom you solicit feedback can’t help but put most of their energy and attention onto what’s not working. They think that’s their job. Knowing this, you can tell the defensive little voice in your head to cool it and keep mum. Allow 20-40 minutes for discussion. Half way through announce how much time is left and ask to hear from people who haven’t spoken, especially if a few people have been dominating the discussion. Be on the alert for discussion dominators, because they can easily skew the group-think into a certain “take” on the film (fortunately you have their first impressions already documented on the questionnaires). If you feel certain voices are dominating or skewing the discussion, thank them and then change the subject. For example, “I’d really like to know what people thought about the pacing. Did the film move along at a good pace? Were there times where you felt bored? If you haven’t spoken yet, I’d love to hear your thoughts.”
The Independent’s “Doc Doctor” fielded a question in 2003 on test screenings and said,
Test screenings are an American phenomenon, created by Hollywood’s strategy of securing the broadest possible audience for films by appealing to the lowest common denominator. In other parts of the world, filmmakers wait until they are almost ready to lock picture before they show their films, and then they only hold a very small, private screening. Still, some think that compulsive testing is the way to go. I know one filmmaker who held fifteen test screenings before finishing a film.
I advocate the middle path. Don’t constantly show the film at every turn, but don’t shy away from screenings as if the film weren’t intended to ever be seen either. The screening of a rough cut is a great opportunity to test your key assumptions. Is there a character you like and want to know if other people like too? Test. Is the story solid but loaded with information and you want to make sure it is all crystal clear? Test. Is the ending compelling? Test. Test screenings are a tool to help you determine if what you are doing is working, not a manual to tell you how to edit your film. Test what you already know.
Almost simultaneous to the announcement of the RedRock electronic viewfiner for DSLRs, comes Zacuto’s EVF, which is a 3.2″ monitor that can be used with the Zacuto Z-finder to work like a viewfinder.
The evolution of DSLRs to being what camcorders already are has been fascinating. And as new large-sensor camcorders hit the market, we’ll see if DSLRs go the way of the cinema adapters (Cinevate Brevis, Redrock Micro, Letus) the DSLRs have gone a long way to killing off.
The specs for the EVF:
- Actual 16×9 screen
- 800×480 resolution
- .087 dot pitch
- Focus Assist
- Iris Assist
- HDMI loop through
- Operates off Canon LP-E6 Camera battery (1/2 day power)
- Includes a hot shoe mount or optional articulating arm kit.
- Can mount toother manufacturer’s rig (RedRock, Cinevate, Letus, etc.) via 1/4 20 screw, 15mm rod or articulating arm
- All Z-Finder models snap on and off the EVF and can be used interchangeably between the camera screen or EVF screen
- Includes mini HDMI cable
Press Release, September 27:
Redrock Micro, the recognized leader in affordable professional-quality cinema accessories, today announced the new patent-pending Redrock microEVF electronic viewfinder for HDSLR cameras. This is the first electronic viewfinder designed from the ground up specifically for HDSLRs, emphasizing compact lightweight design, superior resolution, and incredible affordability.
The popularity of HDSLRs such as the Canon 5D MKII for video and motion photography has skyrocketed in recent years, but the camera body is not ideal for video. The first generation of solutions for monitoring currently available –attaching an optical viewfinder to the back of the camera’s LCD screen –severely limit placement of the viewfinder and camera body and eliminate possibility of using additional monitors for camera assistants or directors. The new Redrock microEVF is an external electronic viewfinder that connects to the camera body and can be placed anywhere for maximum comfort and stability, and can be part of a multi-monitor solution. The microEVF uses a custom made state-of-the-art backlit LED fitted in an attractive, ergonomic housing.
Key features of the microEVF include:
- A full color HD viewfinder designed specifically for the compact, lightweight needs of HDSLR cameras. The microEVF weighs in at less than 6oz.
- Ultra-high resolution 1.2m dot display that is higher resolution than the Canon EOS cameras’ rear LCD
- LED backlight maintains bright crisp picture with minimal power consumption
- Electronic assist features that will be announced closer to production release
- Infinitely configurable mounting options to position the microEVF exactly where desired
- Low power consumption delivers a full day’s continuous viewing with a self-contained battery
“We feel it’s time for a better approach to HDSLR camera monitoring,” said James Hurd, Chief Revolutionary for Redrock Micro. “The microEVF meets this need with an elegantly designed, compact solution that is not only affordable, but also sets a high standard for features and performance.”
The microEVF also compliments advanced camera crews by working alongside external monitors, such as a monitor for the assistant cameraman, and one for a director or video village. The microEVF is compatible with any HDSLR or video camera that provides HDMI output while recording. HDSLR cameras known to be compatible include the Canon 5D MKII, Canon 7D, Canon 60D, Canon T2i, Canon 1D MKIV, Nikon D3s, Nikon D300s, D3100, and D7000.
PRICING AND AVAILABILITY
microEVF is amazingly priced at $595. Availability has not yet been announced. More information can be found at www.redrockmicro.com/evf
ABOUT REDROCK MICRO
Redrock Micro revolutionized independent film production in the early 2000s with the M2 Encore cinema lens adapter, and reinvented digital filmmaking in 2008 with HDSLR cinema rigs and accessories. Today, Redrock Micro continues to lead the industry in innovation with its award-winning depth-of-field adapters, support rigs, focus controllers, and advanced cinema accessories. More information can always be found at redrockmicro.com.
For documentary film, these days, I’d argue that “success” is a real possibility, due to less-expensive equipment, the ability to shoot with very small crews, and the willingness of the “talent” to participate for no compensation. If you choose carefully, and execute well, you can make your money back, and make some viewers really happy. My view is that you should always nurture a core audience of people truly interested in your topic, and not move outward until you’ve served them well.
But the question of how general an audience to seek is one that involves rising costs and often a shift to expensive diffusion instead of profitable concentration.
There’s a history to all that. At one time, film was so prohibitively expensive, you simply had to go wide. Making a film for $1 million begs a different approach than one you made for $10,000.
In the old environment, getting that broader audience was usually when you secured a distribution deal – when you were acquired by some gatekeeper who had the means to get your film to theaters. That, to a degree, was what allowed some of these gatekeepers to commit what was nearly highway robbery. To get your film out, you had to go through them. Part of that was because theatrical distribution required 35mm film prints, which goes back to “prohibitively expensive.” And getting your film on television was equally daunting – television, with its high productions costs, could not afford to air something they didn’t think would draw mass audiences.
Now, that’s changed. Any of us can “release worldwide,” and make our film available to everyone on the planet, simply by setting up a website from which to sell DVDs. We can sell off Amazon, and potentially through Netflix, or stream for pay off an array of sites.
So the name of the game now is not a method of distribution, it’s a matter of making people aware it exists, and making a case for why they should see it.
That’s where, beyond the obvious quality needed for a film to be a success, effective publicity and marketing are really the keys to success. “Effective” means targeting not the audience, which is economically difficult, but the limited number of influential gatekeepers who can move your work in front of that audience.
In earlier parts of the series, I made a case for the relative clarity with which you can find the “core audience” for the subject your documentary explores (unless your documentary only explores yourself). Those come through associations, Facebook groups and other such self-organizing groups of people.
But when you seek general audiences, you’re going to need both the stamp of approval and the visibility of that stamp to move forward. That generally comes through film festivals (but not only), the interest of an influential distribution gatekeeper, media reviews, articles in large publications, or through mass advertising. You’ll find that all of these are connected. The more you want an audience not directly related to the topic you explore, the more you will spend to get there.
In the graphic I’ve used in this series, the widest audience is also the least connected to your work. This group therefore has the least momentum toward your work: They don’t watch many documentaries, they have no built-in interest in your subject, and they don’t want to pay much. They’ll possibly see it because it’s on TV and nothing else is on, or it’s at their local theater, or it’s all over the news. But finding general audience goes back to finding a narrow one: the gatekeepers who get you to that audience. When you’re trying to break out widely, it’s a given that the work has to be damned good. But beyond that, people understanding how your work goes beyond its topic is really what we’re talking about here.
Why, for example, did “Helvetica,” a film about a typeface, have such success? Because as much as it was about typography (a narrow-interest subject with a deep audience of graphic designers and artists), critics such as the Village Voice’s Julia Wallace understood her own “unsettling awareness of just how much Helvetica surrounds me” – and in that helped the film to reach a wide-but-shallower audience. In essence, the appeal was re-framed by an influential gatekeeper. Non-designers and non-artists were being asked to consider for 90 minutes the way the environment around them, which they take for granted, was carefully designed. Helvetica for them wasn’t the subject, it was the specific example of a more abstract subject: to general audiences, the film’s proposition (clarified by Wallace) was that it might get us thinking about everything from our door hinges to our steering wheel – there’s little we touch anymore that wasn’t designed by somebody.
So, to find a general audience, you fall back to the old methods. You try to squeeze through the narrow hole. And none of it is easy:
1) Get into a great film festival. Toronto, Sundance and Cannes are good places to start. Good luck! Every year a certain number of films are culled from the thousands upon thousands submitted, and therefore have a lottery-prize feel to acceptance. Getting into the festival is that stamp of approval that does further the interest of wider audiences, but the greater advantage is that a select few people capable of changing your film’s fortunes are there looking for product – distributors, television executives, major critics. Just being in such festivals is not a guarantee, sadly. Most films reach their pinnacle there and never find wide audience. And outside of a handful of such prestige festivals, few have that influence. Being in one of the other 5,000 festivals outside of the top 25 is just for fun, mostly.
2) Gain the attention of an influential media gatekeeper. See #1. Top film critics have the ability to put a film on a distributor’s map with a solid review; the best way to get reviewed by someone with influence is to be in a festival, but by the same token, critics are understanding more films are not coming through that traditional gap. Remember you also don’t have to be focusing specifically on film critics. Bob Bowden’s “The Cartel,” about the flaws of the public-education system, probably depended more on getting the attention of education writers and columnists than film critics. If you target people who care about what you’ve done and they can reach large groups of people, it really doesn’t matter.
3) Market yourself to people who have media time and space to fill well. I remember how, when I was a newspaper reporter and columnist in Colorado in the 1980s, I spent my days paradoxically both hoping for a call from someone with a good tip, while simultaneously turning down an awful lot of tips. Why? Because my job was to deliver a certain type of product – to justify my my own position and pay – and most tips I got only justified their own. Think about everything from radio talk shows to newspaper and magazine writers and editors who would cover you, if you didn’t have an intern calling them and throwing ill-formed ideas that waste their time. These people have a product they need to deliver; if you can help them make their product better while helping your own, you’re in.
4) Build wide one day at a time. Another thing I learned in the newspaper phase of my life is that writers, ironically, often feel better covering something that’s already been covered by somebody else (as long as it’s not a direct competitor). As much as you’d think journalists want fresh material, there’s a warm feeling of security knowing you’re not sticking your neck out. So when you get your hometown paper to write about your film (or a blog to post, or a radio show to have you on), make sure the next-highest media outlet in the food chain gets those clippings. And when they cover you, expand your press kit and move up another step. Six or eight clips later you’ve got yourself a phenomenon. By the time you try the big outlets, you should have a solid array of coverage that screams “legitimate.” I’d also suspect that arranging some theatrical showing in art cinemas and the like (which often rent time before their evening shows) builds the same legitimacy by steps, if they go well. The art-cinema owner in Portland may feel better if the art cinema in Cleveland had a nice one-week run there. The pipe dream of “wide national release” is a rarity. Look for smaller “general” opportunities that can build. If PBS won’t take your film, contacting individual, small PBS affiliates can be a way to go. The money won’t be significant, but it gets the foot in the door.
5) Slow is not bad. Remember as well that the nature of documentaries is they are, or should be, far less time-sensitive than other forms of nonfiction media. A slow buildup is perfectly fine, it would seem, if it feels new to that audience. As much as filmmakers obsess about whether footage is 4:2:2 or 4:2:0, or whether you shot on HDV or DVcam, audiences don’t much care if you give them an interesting story. Don’t worry that your film is on a codec that went out way back in the more-innocent days of ‘07. It really doesn’t matter.
6) “Wide” people may like you more if you take up less of their time. Filmmakers think of “feature-length” as having a sweet spot of 70-90 minutes that, frankly, is a notion that serves the theaters they’ll likely never screen in. As a film-festival judge, I saw many a 90-minute film where I thought “that would be so much better if it had been cut in half.” A lesser known law of The Theory of Relativity holds that watching a movie on your laptop slows down the flow of time in comparison to watching the same movie in the theater. With iTunes and other digital platforms, 50 minutes may be the new 90 minutes.
In summary: Wide is harder than narrow. Even if your film is really good. You may end up with “wide/shallow,” meaning a broad cross-section of people but not that many of them. If you have a ten-theater “national” release with thirty people in each theater to see it, is that any better than the same number of venues packed with people deeply enthused about what you’ve done? Wide is not passionate. That’s why it’s better not to forsake your core audience trying to interest people who, to paraphrase, just may not be that into you.
Screenrant’s Christian Toto notes that the now-apparent fake documentary Casey Affleck/Joaquin Phoenix film “I’m Not Here” has only brought in $250,000 in box office in the first two weeks.
Toto worries, though, that we’re in for more of this stuff.
That doesn’t mean this film genre of one is dead. After all, just look at the killing reality shows make on television. Surely, someone out there is thinking of bringing the format – supposedly real situations twisted like pretzels into dramas and comedies – to the big screen. It could appeal to studios for the same reasons it does for TV suits. They’re cheap and the return on investment is occasionally huge.
Boob tube watchers don’t seem to care if The Hills or those Osbourne exploits are real or tweaked by a team of writers.
What seems obvious is that the conventions of documentaries – that they actually be real – no longer seems unassailable. The form seems in for a death-by-a-thousand-cuts shift as filmmakers who cannot afford production value simply use the raw, cheap look that fake-docs are drawn to and muddy the middle. Films like “Catfish,” good or bad, are very much the product of a Facebook generation that spends more time photographing themselves from arm’s length than actually turning the camera on what’s interesting the world. Even “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” the Banksy film, is less a cousin of “Grey Gardens” and more of one to all those teenage boys who set up cameras pointing at themselves as they do lame skateboard tricks.
If a generation of reality-show conditioned viewers stop caring what’s made up and what’s not, the verb “to document” loses its meaning. As Toto notes,
All it will take is one faux documentary like I’m Still Here to strike the zeitgeist and the floodgates will open. Here’s hoping film producers think twice – if not more – before going down the Phoenix trail.
Oliver Peters at digitalfilms goes through his best advice on how to set up an optimum Mac Pro editing configuration, dissecting the importance of processing speed, cores, RAM and storage.
Get the machine that meets your needs today, but don’t overbuy. Pick a basic configuration that can be easily and quickly expanded when the business warrants. That’s what made me pick the somewhat slower eight-core last year. It was fast enough, could be easily expanded and wouldn’t break the bank. Plan on an upgrade every three to four years, if your business supports it. Lastly, invest in the 3-year extended warranty. The same is true for a Dell, HP, Alienware or any other computer. If you lose a motherboard, which can happen, the repair would have easily justified the extended coverage. Lastly, make sure to budget money for plug-ins, professional monitoring, external storage, furniture and a good UPS (uninterruptable power supply).
Leica may not have ever dominated the photojournalism market, but the estimable German brand did, at one time, dominate the imaginations of those who fancied themselves “serious” photographers. Everybody wanted a Leica and few could afford one.
Leica’s front end cameras are still expensive (the M9 titanium body only runs $29,000) and Leica has not included HD video in its offerings – until now.
But maybe not really.
The newly launched Leica V-Lux 2 has 1080/30i video, but Dan Sung at Pocket-Lint is on the case:
Look familiar? It should, because it appears to be the identical twin of the Panasonic Lumix FZ100 that we saw back in July.
The curious part is that not only do they look exactly the same, the have the identical parts as well. Both come with the same high-performance LEICA DC VARIO-ELMARIT 4.5 – 108 mm f/2.8 – 5.2 ASPH. zoom lens, the same 14.1 megapixel CMOS sensor, the same 3-inch swivel screen with 460k dots and the very same chassis all over with all the buttons in the same place. So, they are indeed, the same. They are one – just with different badges. In fact, if there is anything else that separates these two, then it must be incredibly well hidden.
There are worse things than being compared to a Panasonic Lumix, but the big question is whether the prices will be identical (not!). What, indeed, is the price premium for the word “Leica” on your camera? The one list price we saw on the Leica is £675, or more than $1,000. The Panasonic lists at $499.
Alexander Holz writes in a piece in Mashable that social media is changing filmmaking in several ways, and that includes changing the notion of the work as a self-contained media object. The “film” can be an ongoing development. In the project Vaquita.tv by Chris Johnson, which was in seven parts and released on the web,
“Social media is a great ally during the production of a project, the marketing of it, and potentially keeping the issues addressed in your film in the media for a long time after someone has watched it,” Johnson said. “I believe that you never finish making a documentary film.”
Indeed, the way social media can extend a project is something that requires getting out of the traditional mindset about what “film” is. If a seven-part video on the web a “film”? In a way, it doesn’t matter if it achieves purposes.
Further, this sort of film/web work can lead to something not unlike a planet with its satellites, the way “bonus material” on a DVD expands the offering. Outside of the primary “film,” can there be footage broken off as its own piece? The answer, obviously, is yes, as more filmmakers explore how to build that.
Social media also changes the way we interact with the communities of both audience and film. Sheri Candler has a guest column on Truly Free Film that posits the idea of “tribes,” a word that makes a nice fit with the notion of smaller but more appreciative audiences as well as a greater network of filmmakers sharing perspectives and support.
The selection of the word “tribe” does indeed come from Seth Godin. The word “tribe” – as the anthropologists use it – means a society or organized group largely based on kinship that looks to a leader for guidance. This is not to be confused with a “crowd,” a non-organized group with no leader. There are lots of crowds in indie film, very few leaders. Filmmakers must create and cultivate an identity around themselves as artists. This identity will serve as leadership in forming a tribe of passionate supporters who will sustain their artist in order for this person to live and keep making the art the tribe enjoys.