It was a field that had its issues. The Academy Award nominees for Best Feature Documentary included a film that may not have been real, one that may have stretched its premise with some pyrotechnics, and another that was an attack on a financial industry that in many ways had created the money that funded the film. And this field was notable for the film left out.
But in the end, the choices said a lot about where documentary film is going. The award to Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job” has its lessons.
1. Thank God Banksy didn’t win. The nomination of “Exit Through The Gift Shop” capped a year in which people actually debated whether a documentary film really has to be real, or whether is has to be all real. The blurring of lines of fact and fiction is not good for documentary film, and from its launch at Sundance in early 2010 to its Oscar nomination, it seemed the darling of people who had a hipsterish love of pranks that did not speak well to the tradition of documentary. Fake documentaries, even those based on truth, belong in the fiction category, and we worried what hell a win for Banksy would have unleashed on the idea of documentary-as-the-truth.
2. Money does buy happiness. Charles Ferguson took his millions he made in the tech financial bubble and went after the people who he believed to be responsible for the housing financial bubble. Ferguson sold his company, Vermeer, in 1996 to Microsoft for $133 million at the height of the Wall Street-fueled, free-spending Clinton-era technology bubble that burst in 2000. While Ferguson’s Academy speech last night correctly railed against the Wall Street types for their greed and avarice (and, we suppose, what they’ve done to his portfolio), many a technology millionaire was made by the same Wall Street machinations – but that must be different. Ferguson’s win is part of a wave in which rich people from Johnny Depp to Sarah Palin do documentary work as sort of a hobby, or image builder (see Banksy) or political saw. Ferguson has the brains and guile to make more of it than most would have (obviously!), but we’d hate to see documentary become either a (self-) promotional device or a retirement hobby for people who used to invest in indie films.
3. The interview is back. The wave of live-action documentaries that has swept the festivals, and by extension the awards season, had nearly made us think the traditional interview-based film was a dead duck. But Ferguson shone in his interviewing – even if some subjects felt he never gave them a chance – and shows the interview can have its own dramatic arc. That’s good for the tradition. The inherent drama of the sit-down interview (we think of Errol Morris toe-to-toe with Robert McNamara in 2004’s “Fog of War”) has been brushed too easily aside by the inclination of filmmakers to train the camera on themselves (“Super Size Me,” “The Cove” “Catfish”) or to follow the reality-TV trend. People expressing ideas, revealing truths and making amazing disclosures should not be lost.
4. The war may have already had its Hollywood ending. Do you believe that “Restrepo” was saddled with being “another war film” because last year’s surprise winner of Best Picture was a fictional treatment of same? “The Hurt Locker,” like most fictional films, was able to package its truths far more neatly than the deeply complicated truths of the documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. Cheers to them, despite it, for having risked their lives to bring home a meaningful and troubling documentary.
5. Was “Waste Land” just too messy? Remember that the Academy Awards, for most people, are about gowns and speeches and people waving gold statues. “Waste Land,” about the world’s biggest trash city, may never had a chance. We never thought “127 hours” could succeed in the dramatic film category – a guy cutting his own arm off doesn’t go well with the popcorn and Sno-Caps. “Waste Land” had that liability, as well as that of the audacity to co-opt a T.S. Eliot title, even if dropping the “The.”
6. Preachy is holding steady. The last decade has spawned the preachy documentary, with do-gooder filmmakers telling you what to think instead of letting you just see the facts. Environmental films have led the charge, but the spate of films on the education system, gun control, sustainability and the food supply have all made documentary audiences sometimes feel they’re at a sermon. Ferguson’s acceptance speech had its share of fire and brimstone, meaning that the notion of documentary filmmakers as people out to push a view, rather than “document,” lives on.
7. One step too far is still too far. Josh Fox’s set piece for “Gasland” was the stream of tap water being lighted in a veil of flames, but it may have been that visual that got the gas industry railing against the film. The gas industry went after the inaccuracies and stretches of truth in a film that The New York Times called “sloppily executed.” No matter how much truth may have been in the film, it might have been undermined by its own overreach. Largely true isn’t true, and that may have flamed Fox’s Oscar chances.
8. Sundance’s documentary programmers are still the main Oscar players. “Gasland,” “Waste Land,” “Restrepo” and “Exit Through The Gift Shop” all premiered at Sundance (“Inside Job” premiered at Toronto), meaning that the route to the Oscars still runs through Park City. That’s well and good, but we do wonder if that concentration of power means that the Sundance crew is really creating the aesthetic for documentary film… and the answer is of course they are. The Sundance slate becomes a de facto Oscar short list. But that power renders other festivals as little more than also-rans – the festivals that get the films Sundance didn’t want. We’d love to see different festivals help shape the sense of where documentary film goes from here. We’d love to see one of the “prestige” doc-only festivals (Full Frame, True/False, Silverdocs, Hot Docs) articulate a notion of what documentaries might otherwise be. If not, every film they premiere is seen as no more than a Sundance reject. Part of that may be to try not to copy Sundance (hip, live-action, politically correct, preachy on issues), but rather to set a counterpoint and create an alternate school of documentary filmmaking. It would be healthy, and fun.
We’ve brought this up before, but on Oscar Night morning perhaps it’s worthy again. Two of the films up for an Academy Award in Documentary Feature are distinguished by their raw video that is “unprofessional” as some might define it. The irony, of course, is that with the equipment available today, there’s not really a reason not to shoot good video.
But Time’s Bryan Wlash writes of Josh Fox’s “Gasland“:
Shot in a shaky handheld style in washed-out or hyperbright colors—think of an entire documentary shot through a Hipstamatic lens—and overlaid with Fox’s foreboding narration, GasLand becomes a savage attack on shale gas. Fox finds homeowners in Pennsylvania and later in Colorado and Wyoming who claim that wells drilled near their land have poisoned their water. (At one point, Fox shows drinking water at a house near a well catching fire—the result, he says, of methane contamination from drilling.) He alleges that the industry has covered up the potential environmental risks of hydrofracking, with the willing assistance of state and federal regulators. This is a muckraking environmental documentary in the style of Michael Moore—if Moore were a skinny New York artist in fashionable black-frame glasses.
A certain select group of industry types got to See The Wizard this week, viewing the new Final Cut Pro version moving toward market, and in the last 24 hours eyewitness testimony has been trickling onto the ‘net.
TechCrunch calls the new FCP “spectacular,” saying,
One source described the new release as encompassing everything from low level architectural changes to a complete redesign of the user interface. It’s safe to say the newest version will be 64 bit as that’s what users have clamored the most for.
Early reports from people who have demo’d the new Final Cut Pro (FCP 8?) say that the changes are “dramatic and ambitious” and should alleviate concerns that Apple has shifted its video editing focus from the professional to the consumer space, shutting down work on FCP . Apple plans on releasing the new product in Spring 2011 according to our source, in a launch possibly coinciding with the National Association of Broadcasters conference.
One Who Was There, Larry Jordan of Edit Smarter, says,
I’ve seen the new version of Final Cut Pro… and it’s a jaw-dropper.
One guy emailed Steve Jobs himself and got back the following:
Do not listen to that man behind the curtain Stay tuned and buckle up.
Sent from my iPhone
A few months ago, in an interview, documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit said he was funding his new film, “Urbanized,” with proceeds from his previous two documentaries, “Helvetica” and “Objectified.” Well, he’s now on Kickstarter looking for $85,000 in donations.
We’re not sure how to feel about that, despite our admiration for Hustwit and his work. Kickstarter and such other crowdfunding devices seemed to be for projects that lacked commercial appeal or didn’t seem profit motivated. Since as far as we know Hustwit is not a nonprofit filmmaker, the idea of asking people to give you money in order for you to turn a profit (one which, given his audience base that includes 107,000 Twitter followers, seems fairly well-assured) might seem a reach.
He says in his Kickstarter appeal,
Urbanized is a totally independent project: we don’t get government funding or grants. And while we’ve been honored to have PBS and the BBC broadcast our films, they don’t produce them or help us make them, they license broadcast rights to the films after we finish them. So Urbanized is being funded mainly by revenue from my previous two films. Please join us in helping to finish Urbanized, and you’ll get some nice goodies as a reward. I’m especially excited about The Design Trilogy limited-edition box set, which will include the debut of Helvetica Neue. It’s the director’s cut of Helvetica (this time Arial shoots first).
So, by routing the appeal through the donation channel, we can buy his work but write it off as a charitable donation? Hmm. Still thinking about that. And instead of attracting investors who participate in your profits (and require SEC paperwork), crowdfunding is a one-way money flow. Hmmm. We’d feel better as well if Hustwit crowdfunded the film and released it for free on the web.
Hustwit’s films have been, in many ways, a model of economy. By focusing on visual elements that don’t require archival or licensed materials, he saved a bundle of money. His films seemed simple and free of fancy (and expensive) gimmicks, and are squarely interview-based. By turning the camera on the world of typography, product design and now urban design, he has ready material for the film. Travel seems to be the primary cost, as well as paying himself, which is certainly deserved, within limit.
The notion of crowdfunding will only last as long as people a) see the value of donating, and b) believe the project/artist really needs the money, and c) understand that the artist/filmmaker doesn’t have the traction to get investors or grants. We must admit that we like the Kickstarter model best when newbies, asking for limited amounts of money, throw themselves on the mercy of the crowd. Given that most big grant opportunities often go to people who really don’t need grant, crowdfunding seemed to have a sweetness to it.
We’ll be staying tuned on this….
Pro Video Coalition has a detailed list of the many iPhone/iPod apps available to filmmakers.
They include director’s finders to see lens cropping, color corrections aids, sun position finders, depth of field calculators, and storage calculators that tell you how much each minute in a particular codec will cost your hard drive.
PVC’s Art Adams lists 19 apps, and notes,
Apple used to be in the business of selling computers, but these days they really sell on life appliances. The iPhone is a handy tool not just for business but for life. I’ve only had it for a week and I don’t know how I did without it.
“Life in a Day” has made its Sundance debut, and now has a sleek YouTube channel that offers a variety of clips for the viewing. Given, of course, that the Ridley Scott/Kevin MacDonald crowdsourcing project is not a standard linear film but rather more of a mosaic, means that any clip it shows would seem to be both an excerpt of the larger project and an artifact in itself.
YouTube began as the ultimate amateur venue, the idea of turning the camera on yourself and putting the result out into the void, and with that it also helped reconfigure the way people watch video, why they watch it, and how they do (or don’t) distinguish between professional and amateur. A video 0f Egyptian protests caught on a cell phone camera can have the power of the most highly produced news content; a video of a guy doing dance moves can get 160 million views and not make him any money.
Where does that leave documentary filmmakers?
Monetizing gets harder in a world of free content, but linear gets harder, too. Television adapted to the invention of the remote control by often collapsing down story into something with smaller reward cycles – be it sitcoms with a stream of lame one liners, or a new “challenge” every three minutes.
In essence, online viewing may turn audience habits into the same dynamic in which iTunes destroyed the concept of an “album” by selling off individual songs like car parts. The notion of a record as being a larger entity, which had evolved in a way that had done away largely with 45 singles, was deconstructed.
So, is YouTube, online viewing and a world in which there are always multiple distractions mean that documentaries will become more component-driven? To some degree, the movement in documentary toward reality “plots” may be part of a response.
But if documentary “film” is really going to be a web-based phenomena, thinking about websites such as “Life’s” is worthy exploration. The website is often seen as the extended content, but to a lot of people, it’s the content itself, in an age of quick movement through digital space.
When newspapers began grudgingly putting up websites in the mid-1990s, they saw it as no more than a promotional device for the paper-and-ink product. We can all see where that went. So a web presence we think of as publicity may become, in many ways, the product itself, in which the film is the “extended” media. Some filmmakers, like some newspapers a decade ago, are beginning to get ahead of the curve.
Avid has rolled out updates of three programs, which include Media Composer 5.5, NewsCutter 9.5 and Symphony 5.5, the first of these aimed at Final Cut Pro users, according to DigitalArtsOnline.
The new versions of Media Composer and NewsCutter add support for AJA’s Io Express, a low-cost video input and output interface. This adds to the support for Matrox MX02 Mini monitoring hardware added in Media Composer 5. Editors can also now leverage Artist Mix, Artist Control and Artist Transport control surfaces (formerly from Euphonix).
The growing support for third-party hardware from a company that has traditionally focussed on its own boards and devices shows that Avid is trying to win over current users of other editing software, especially Apple Final Cut Pro, by allowing Media Composer to work with the hardware they already own.
There have been rumors rolling around the last year or so that Apple is less committed to continuing FCP in the future, and Avid’s Mac version of Composer sells in the $2,400 range, as compared to FCP at $999.
According to Avid’s segment marketing manager for consumer audio/video, Andreas Panizza, “Avid Studio introduces a brand-new editing interface, and really a new editing paradigm and workflow. It’s more sophisticated and professional looking than Pinnacle Studio. It’s not pro, but it’s more high-end. It’s for people that want to take their project to the next level.”
According to PCMag, Studio is outside the Pinnacle line Avid set up on its lower price end – kind of an iMovie for PC users.