The fact that iPhones shoot better video than the Canon XL1 that went a long way in 2000 toward launching the digital-film movement doesn’t mean you want to shoot your whole project on one. On the other hand, it’s another tool in the kit, something that can go Stealth in all kinds of situation. When a group of tech-savvy people get together, it’s interesting to see how far they can take that technology.
Notes On Video took an iPhone and a $179 Steadicam Smoothee to the monthly meeting of the Boston Media Makers and put together a video, below. Some tips for shooting with the iPhone are in the post – including restarting your phone before shooting, putting it into “Airplane Mode” so no one will ring you up while you’re recording, and having plenty of free space for your footage.
When Robert Greene, who had been primarily an editor at 4th Row Films in New York, decided to make his first feature documentary, it was an exercise in economy (as he documented in part 1 and 2 of a series last year). Doubling up family road trips with a shooting schedule, mailing cameras to friends who could shoot for him, “Owning The Weather,” about using science to manipulate the climate, had a hands-down payoff: It premiered at Full Frame, made its way to iTunes and Netflix, and has had a wide array of screenings.
Greene is now bringing out two new films in one year that are taking the idea of economical filmmaking further – “Kati with an i” and “Fake It So Real” were feature-length films made with shooting schedules numbering in days, rather than weeks or months, and which have again hit: “Kati” premiered at DocNYC last September, was nominated for a Gotham Film Award, and was called one of the “top undistributed film of 2010” by the Village Voice (although distribution will certainly happen). “Fake It” premiered a few weeks ago at True/False, one of the most interesting emerging film festivals in the country.
Greene has worked this all around his position as producer and head of editing at 4th Row, which has also produced “An Omar Broadway Film” (Tribeca, then HBO) which Greene edited and co-produced.
Busy, indeed. Which is why when he went to Alabama in the week leading up to high-school graduation of his half-sister, Kati Genthner, as she pondered whether she’d leave for North Carolina to join her parents moving from the town in which she grew up, or stay on to be with her boyfriend. Greene knew that in that story was drama.
The way we came to “Kati” was I’d made “Owning The Weather,” which was a much bigger film that involved scientists and experts and big landscape shots, and it took me a year to shoot it. I wanted to do something different with “Kati,” so I went entirely in the opposite direction. When we started the filming we didn’t even know if it was going to become a film; we knew it was going to be in a compressed amount of time, but whether you’re going to get what you need in that amount of time is another thing.
Greene is a professional – making a full-time living in the film business – who’s never been all that enamored with the hardware. As with “Owning The Weather,” he shot “Kati” with a Mini-DV camera he says he’s shot more family vacation footage on that documentary work (although his shooting over the years has yielded lots of family footage with Kati in it). Working with cinematographer Sean Price Williams, he knew going in that it was going to be an intense window of shooting.
The reason you shoot a film in a year is because that’s what you need to do in order to get what you need. We shot this in a way that was an experiment: Keep it very, very direct, and very intimate, and very quick; the end was that we knew her graduation was going to be the end of the film. What we got was something we thought was filmworthy, because of what happened on the days we shot, and also something that was not manipulation in the strongest sense, but the setting up of scenarios we knew would allow us to be able to film stuff.
But as a seasoned editor, he also had clear intention. He gravitated toward the project clearly intending to have a film.
For Kati, it was about her, as a character, in a situation: She was about to graduate. The South, high school, high school girls, high school boys and relationships – they were all pithy things anyway, they were cinematic. That’s why there are so many high-school movies.
I didn’t know the extent of the situation she was in – and it was pretty awful – but we did know that these days were going to be pivotal. She had to decide whether she was going to go or stay, or whether her boyfriend was going to come or stay behind. The movie is, basically, she and her boyfriend deciding whether they were going to stay in Alabama or go to North Carolina. It ended up being about how these days were deeper and harder than they even understood.
Having gathered the footage, the work on the edit began the process of finding its narrative. In a life-situation that can be all around us but for which we might have limited ability to observe, bringing story out of a mass of experiences finds its challenge in edit.
It’s a hard story – meaning hard to find, not difficult. It was hard to find a very clear narrative. The first 25 or 30 minutes are a little bit more impressionistic, and then a narrative kicks in. And that’s how we experienced it. And some people have said it has a feel of a narrative film, rather than a documentary.
When I’m editing, I try to impart some of the experiences I had in making it, because I feel that adds some energy.
We didn’t have a story line. We had a concept, and we wanted to get impressions.
Then there was the thing we didn’t know, which was the whole relationship with James, which we didn’t know about when we went down there. That became a pivotal couples of days her – we got lucky.
One of the ways to make that palatable, and real, is an event. I read somewhere that for the old Italian Neorealist movies of the 1940s, a lot of times they weren’t all that story-driven, but that you often had to end the movie with someone leaving – The Guy Who Left Town. Because something happened, things had changed, and you moved on. It’s a matter of what are the aims of your character or characters, how are they going to experience it, and how are you going to watch them experience it. And then an end point. It’s like, say, three days before a gay person comes out. Those days will build emotionally to what’s going to happen. You’re going to see the before, the during, and then the aftermath.
There were some mild “directing” choices that attempted to find situations that Greene knew were part of Kati’s life – for example, he asked her to go to the mall with her friends, something she did a lot of but might not have done that day. But more often than not it was following her through her week. The fact that Kati has grown up familiar with her older brother’s camera going was probably part of why she was willing to be open to being in the project.
The fact that he could have abandoned the project at fairly low cost is likely one of the reasons he could make the film as he has. Greene says if there is one aspect of filmmaking, it’s the technological changes that have opened up so many possibilities, allowed for so many films, and at times ruined its share of projects because of it.
One of the things we have with the technology, with the light cameras and the way we can edit now, we have infinite choices. Sometimes infinite choices can be really crippling. Especially when you’re starting out, you just don’t have the confidence that you’re making the right choice. Sometimes that can be really self-defeating, and you can end up over-thinking things. I like the idea that you throw yourself in the fire, basically. Hold your camera, see what happens, and see what comes of it.
In Part 2, we’ll look at “Fake It So Real”
There’s an early look at the Sony NEX-FS100, which is supposed to come in at a lower price point than the F3, somewhere in the $4,500 range, according to Crews.TV. It’s said to have a July release date, although the current situation in Japan may have its effect.
The camera also features an fast & slow motion up to 50fps at 1920×1080 HD resolution.
Unfortunately, there appears to be no built in ND filters, instead you’ll need to screw them on the lens or put them in a matte box when you open up the lens aperture outdoors to reduce the depth of field – one of the main reasons to purchase this camera in the first place.
And the other big news – not what we’d like to have heard – is that there’s no HD-SDI output for off-board recording. Instead there will be 4:2:2 HDMI output with a time code signal.
Sony have yet to confirm whether that will be an 8-bit signal like the Panasonic AF-100, but to be fair Sony are positioning this camera below the more expensive F3, which offers 10-bit HD-SDI output with an upgrade option for 4:4:4.
- Exmor™ Super 35mm CMOS image sensor
- E lens mount (and most other popular mounts via adaptor)
- Full HD 1920×1080 AVCHD HD recording / MPEG2-SD recording
- Over- and under-speed recording
- XLR audio inputs (XLR x2)
- Detachable 3.5″ colour viewfinder
- On-board Memory Stick, SD memory card and optional HXR-FMU128 flash memory media
- Uncompressed HDMI output with time code for external 4:2:2 recorders
- NEX-FS100K includes E18-200mm lens, LCD viewfinder, power adapter, lithium battery (NP-F770), microphone (ECM-XM1) and wireless remote
We were cleaning out the equipment closet and pondered our still-in-great-shape Letus Elite cinema adapter, which we bought for $1,800 on the last project and used a lot, mostly on the Sony PMW-EX1 that accounted for 90 percent of the footage on my most recent film. While it still works like a charm, with the addition last year of an EOS 7D to the inventory, I wondered if anyone is buying or selling. A snapshot of eBay this morning revealed this:
- There were 11 Letus adapters offered for sale, and there were 0 bids on any of them.
- There were 9 Red Rock Micros, and only one had any bids – the high bid so far for this pricey item was $202.
- There were no Cinevate Brevises for sale.
The manfacturers are still selling, but prices at Letus’s website are cut $100 to $500, depending on the model. My suspicion is they have stock they will continue to try to place, but they’re probably not making new units (no proof of that, FYI, just a guess).
So, the cinema adapter revolution was brief, but brought about the technology that killed them – DSLRs and large-sensor camcorders. So we thank them.
My own Letus more than paid for itself – my documentary is currently screening around the country, and my co-producer and I have already recovered all our production and equipment costs and are into profit mode (I’ll write a series on that in the next month or so). And on my new films, not having to buy new equipment means it will take less to enter profit mode. Since I have the Letus, I’ll likely still use it at times. It was the right tool at one time, and may still be here and there.
Here’s a lens test I did a while back with the EX1/Letus combo. It still gets excellent footage. And fitting the test shots are of my 1986 racing bike, which still rides wonderfully.
Karen Everett at New Doc Editing has been a proponent for the notion of putting your documentary into a three-act dramatic structure more common in feature films. In the end, the hard part isn’t mastering the technology of the editing software, but rather having to really think through your story.
In a recent post about running a workshop, she said,
“I’ve made five documentaries that have played in more than 150 film festivals,” I told my students, “and with each of them, I hit a low point during the making of the film.” The creative “dark night of the soul” when one despairs if one has a film at all is a stage that they should expect, I told them.
I pointed out that a good story is not easy to find.
As with writing a novel, most people want to tell their own story and they believe their own story is interesting. In most cases, success comes when one decides to look outwardly, using one’s own experiences and perspectives to more fully understand (and empathize with) another’s tale.
But the problem can be that life doesn’t always fit a three-act structure. Some are two-acts, with act three still to come. A more amateurish way is to “create” one’s story resolution, or to think they already have it figured out. It’s easier to manipulate fictional characters than real ones.
But by day two, many of them had hit a roadblock. They were realizing that their film ideas did not stand up to the requirements of dramatic storytelling. In other words, many didn’t have a real story. Now what?
Patience is a lost virtue, and another “dark night” for filmmakers is the notion that taking four or five years to slowly find the story a) doesn’t fit our American notion of self-gratification, and b) is likely to mean the technology you started with will be outdated by the time you finish the project.
But we believe in the need for slow revelation – one of the great documentaries ever made, “Hoop Dreams,” waited four years to see what would come of its basketball-playing subjects. In an era of 16mm film, it was easier to do that, but it’s out belief the story will always trump the pixels.
The Guardian has a nuanced piece that reminds us of why documentaries should matter.
Writing of the many ways in which documentaries are dismissed and attacked ( they “manipulate reality… aren’t really journalistic… … cheaply made… they pander to our worst voyeuristic impulses), Nick Fraser says,
No body of theory exists to legitimise docs and I’m grateful for this. They have come to subsist at a crossroads of contemporary culture, somewhere between journalism, film narrative and television entertainment. They appear to thrive on contradictions, between the stubborn reality they purport to capture and their necessarily limited means, between the impositions of storytelling and the desire to interpret or analyse. They aren’t fictional, ever, but they can seem in their attractiveness more real than reality.
Fraser, editor at the BBC’s Storyville documentary series, notes the perception that with inexpensive technology, “anybody can go out and make a film.”
Will these documentaries – low budget, clever, appealing to small, passionate audiences – be adequately funded in the squeeze on television budgets? I’m starting to worry. I’d like to know how their independent spirit can be conserved and nurtured.
Fraser is a thinker and an advocate when it comes to the documentary form. Here’s an interview he did some years back that is worhy reading. Here’s a rather prescient chunk from that:
Storyville would not have been able to run 40 slots of real quality 10 years ago. Three things have changed. The first is that documentaries now exist independently, or half-independently, of television. Documentaries have become fashionable because there’s been a reaction against the platitudes and stereotypes of television. It’s no coincidence that this movement has got furthest where the platitudes of television are strongest – ie America.
The second reason why documentaries have exploded is the steadily lowering cost of equipment. It’s a transformation. People can now afford to make documentaries. There’s no equivalent form of journalism, or writing or entertainment that’s been changed so totally as the documentary.
The third reason is that if you go to any documentary festival and look around, you will see that the audience consists, not of old farts – though there’s nothing wrong with that – but of people under 30. Twenty years ago people wanted to write novels or lyric poems. That became unfashionable, so then people wanted to write film scripts. Now they want to make documentaries. Everywhere you go in the world there are people who’ve acquired cameras, have a subject they’re interested in – it could be themselves or could be something around them – and want to make a documentary. It has become a very convenient form of self-expression and a contemporary cultural form.
Salon.com writes that using a shaky camera in feature films is “shows how utterly bankrupt a movie technique has become” as films such as “Battle: Los Angeles” try to get a “documentary look” to heighten the sense of reality. Matt Zoller Seitz writes,
Director Jonathan Liebesman and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin shoot most of the action with a very long lens, which gives the images a narrow plane of focus, and they appear to move the camera around more or less at random to make the action feel more “real” or “documentary-like” or something. I say “or something” because the idea that this type of image is “realistic” or “documentary-like” is nonsense. Look at actual documentaries of combat in war zones and you will rarely see any images as chaotic, junky, poorly framed and visually impenetrable as the ones that occupy 90 percent of the running time of “Battle: Los Angeles.”
Our regular commenter, Evan Donn, said this a few days ago regarding a recent post:
…until very recently there was almost always a clear, visible difference between fictional narrative film and documentary or journalistic work. Pieces like this are the flip side of the shaky pseudo-doc style – legitimate documentary work with production values that make it seem more like a narrative film than news or documentary. A significant portion of the audience seems to react negatively to the combination, and the nature of the comments are telling as well – people complain that it’s over-dramatizing the events, or somehow injecting a political theme into the work. I have a feeling it’s just that it exposes the creative aspect inherent in all filmmaking, and makes it difficult for the audience to ignore the filmmaker’s role in shaping even documentary work. It suggests that shooting worse videos may not be just a case of trying to be “hipster legit’ but may simply reflect the audience’s inability to suspend disbelief when the production values mimc those of narrative filmmaking.
Evan mentions this Dan Chung piece from Japan, for the Guardian:
Note the dolly move that gives the piece a feeling of a “produced” drama. We couldn’t help but compare that to this piece from the Haiti disaster, which uses nearly identical technique:
So what feature films tend to copy are an overrealization, often, of documentaries. And most people (teenagers) who go to “Battle: Los Angeles” are unlikely to have a real involvement with documentary film, or its venacular. So, in time, it may be that documentary filmmaker shoot shaky to make their docs look more like features…
James Fair guest posts at Hope for For Film about the difference between being an amateur or a professional. His distinction is both economic and psychic; are we making money, but also:
Within filmmaking the common belief is that you are professional if you are paid and make a living from it, you are amateur if you don’t. But, working in a university, I meet many people who would argue that LITTLE of the film industry is ‘professional’, because it rarely requires examinations or formal training to work in many of the roles, which means that it isn’t strictly a profession at all, it is a ‘job’.
In other words, does it feel like a real job. But the economics of film are changing, especially documentary film, and thinking about what makes a pro is worthwhile. And being a pro, at anything you love, seems a worthy aspiration. Starting strictly on a balance-sheet perspective, and moving to the abstract, the questions might be such:
1) Am I making revenue directly from my films? Two key words here – revenue and directly. Business is a matter of revenue versus cost; if any money is coming into your account by having made the film, then you might make the case you’re a pro, even if it’s modest and the cost far outweighs it. Example: I spend $50,000 on my film and sell $30,000 in DVDs and screenings. I lose $20,000 – am I a pro? Does that change if my film costs $1,000 and I make back $100? On the other hand, if I spend $20,000 on the film, get into five film festivals, but then don’t get distribution, am I an amateur? This last question is moot, it would seem, because everybody can sell their film on DVDs or on the web. But the question remains how direct revenue determines whether you’re a pro.
2) Am I making a profit directly from my films? Profit, of course, is a whole ‘nother ballgame. Profit requires business sense and acumen that might be considered the mark of a true professional. Therefore: Let’s say I use my skills and experience to make a film for $20,000 that makes back $40,000 in revenue. Am I a pro now? I’ve just made $20,000. I must be – I’ll declare income on my tax return and by the IRS’s standards, I’m a pro. Now, let’s say I spend 2,000 hours making the film. That rates out to $10 an hour – babysitter money. Am I less of a pro because my hourly? Well, the fact is that if filmmaking is going to be your real deal, part of being a pro is making a film that has a cost/revenue structure that keeps me in business. On my most recent film, we are solidly in the black, having made the film inexpensively and having found an enthusiastic audience, mostly right now at paid screenings at universities, libraries and museums across the country. In the end, we’ll recover our costs and a healthy hourly rate. But if we’d been more daring and not thought as carefully about how we’d make money, does that make us less professional, even if less profitable?
3) Am I making money because of my films? Does making films that might not directly realize profit still bring in money from other sources? For example, my first documentary filmmaking effort (after years of magazine writing) was done for a budget of $7,000; I got a $3,000 grant during the process, got a $5,000 grant toward the end, and saw it play in a half-dozen festivals. It had a number of paid screenings, and a number of unpaid ones. And then afterwards put the DVD on Amazon’s Createspace for anyone who wanted it. Over four years I’ve sold a couple of hundred DVDs (I consider that OK for something that was a learning effort and for which I no longer spend any active time marketing) and my share of that has been about $2,000 more. So I made money directly. But at the university at which I’m a professor, I got a merit raise based on my non-academic work (the university has that fund to encourage us to do things such as make a film, then to bring that knowledge back to the students). And my teaching job leaves me 22 paid weeks free per year to do as I please, so the case might be made that my filmmaking is compensated at good pay as such (as are the books I’ve published, etc.). But my friends Doug and Susan run a film company in New York City that has an office, equipment, interns and so on. They sold a documentary to HBO and have had others in major film festivals. Are they more pro than I? Undoubtedly so.
4) Am I earning money as a result of my filmmaking? A friend forwarded me, for my opinion, a quote for a corporate-identity video her company was having made. The quote – $3,500 for about three day’s work, seemed reasonable, but also delivered the filmmaker a rather generous fee (about $100 an hour, I guessed). I told my friend that this quote seemed the going rate. “I could get somebody cheaper,” she said, “but these guys make documentary films and they’ve won awards at film festivals.” Therefore, the work that hadn’t likely made them money had gotten them the bid on the corporate work. To borrow some marketing terms, professional filmmakers often use their personal work as a “loss leader” to create a “cash cow” of corporate work that keeps them going. Even if they made nothing on their documentaries, you can make the case they’re pros. The documentaries become their professional calling card (and if their bloodbath/horror/goth film that made the midnight show at the local film festival is their calling card, I doubt they’d get the job – that stuff, to me, screams “amateur”). Now, keep in mind that a “pro” used to be defined as “someone who owns the equipment.” A lot of jobs used to go to less-than-professional characters who had at least invested in the gear. Now anybody can get the gear, so the pro sells skills and outcomes. The results of one’s own filmmaking efforts have a lot to do with sustained income from other sources. That might include being a cinematographer, or editor on somebody else’s project, but it goes toward being a pro. That includes weddings, events and other work that derives from the skills – there’s no shame in honest work, and pros know that.
5) Do I feel, act and talk like a pro? I remember when I was a young reporter at The Denver Post, the top pay rate was referred to as “journeyman” rate. I liked that phrase, the notion of moving past one’s apprenticeship and finding some level of professional knowledge and comportment, of how one “goes about his business.” I think a person becomes a pro when one abandons pipe dreams and best-case daydreams and just does the work, and does so with a level of confidence, control and purpose. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be open to great things resulting, but when the work becomes the value rather than the outcome, it seems to me that this is when you really can call yourself a pro. That, in the end, f goes toward a state of mind and a self-perception, and not strictly toward dollars and cents.
I’ll leave you back with James Fair:
Ultimately, I believe it is our human nature to want to classify things and identify our position within society. It is a way of understanding both others and ourselves. I am a ‘nobody’ filmmaker creates a distinction from a ‘somebody’ filmmaker. Therefore their situations are different. I am a ‘professional’ and you are an ‘amateur’ means you are not qualified to understand me. The titles position us within society and even within this community that Ted has created. Even worse, the connotations of these titles have the potential to divide us – the ‘amateur’ thinks they makes films for the ‘love of the art’ whilst the ‘professional’ is a ‘sell-out’. Andrew Keen’s book ‘The Cult of the Amateur’ attacks amateurism for being sub-par quality, unpaid and unqualified. However, I’ve seen great quality stuff from unpaid people and I’ve seen sub-par quality stuff from qualified people. Our lives are more complex than these labels give us credit for.