Two different news stories came together this past week, one from a far, and one more local. Both underline the notion of risk in doing the work of a documentary filmmaker.
Widely publicized was the April 20 death of Tim Hetherington, co-director of the Academy-Award-nominated documentary “Restrepo.” Hetherington was working as a photojournalist in Libya, covering the struggles to topple the government, when he and another photographer, Chris Hondros, were killed by incoming fire.
Less-publicized was the death of Justin Amorratanasuchad, a student at Emerson College in Boston, who fell off the roof of a four-story building while shooting footage of the Boston skyline on the morning of Sunday, April 17. He appears to have simply taken a misstep.
In each case, it was a matter of person taking a certain calculated risk to do the work, and ending up on the wrong side of the calculation.
Hetherington had been risking his life for years to do his work, something that has been viewed very differently by his colleagues.
In a remembrance in Vanity Fair by his “Restrepo” co-director Sebastian Junger, that author says, “You and I were always talking about risk because she was the beautiful woman we were both in love with, right? The one who made us feel the most special, the most alive?”
But in a piece in yesterday’s New York Times, Michael Kamber reflects on Hetherington and Hondros and says, “They were not thrill-seekers,” speaking of their assessment of risk versus outcome.
In truth, there was probably a bit of both at work.
I watched “Restrepo” again Friday evening, a film now informed by the fate of its co-director. In truth, each of the anonymous soldiers in the film has taken on as much or more risk as the filmmakers, not for Oscar nominations but maybe just for a way out of a small-town life, or the youthful sense of testing oneself. They go home mostly to obscurity, if they get to go home at all. A spate of films on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – “Gunner Palace” and “Battle for Hearts and Minds” as well – highlight the dangerous work of ground troops who then return to obscurity afterwards.
I remember a decade ago spending some time on the set of “The Perfect Storm,” where a couple of friends were working in production capacities. I saw both George Clooney, who I’d met once before, and Junger, who at one time had been the client of my own book agent. Both were movie-star-good-looking, but only one was a movie star. Clooney has probably never been in a remotely dangerous situation in his life, but works in a world of illusion in which he risks all to beat the bad guys. He’s been “Batman,” but when anything got dicey, his stunt man Brad stepped in to take over.
Junger, on the other hand, was a writer who could have enjoyed the money he made from the “Perfect Storm” book and movie and led the conventional life, but instead he was traveling to, and writing from, war zones – at that time Kosovo and Sierra Leone. He was an inveterate risk-taker. “Perfect Storm” was written from the safety of shore, but in one interview he noted that this “wasn’t me; it was the exception. I stepped out of my life to write that book, and then stepped back into my life, and most people don’t realize that.”
For documentary work, the assessment of risk, and its undertaking, does two things: By taking greater risk, one further reduces the number of competitors one faces. Only so many people want to risk their well-being. Two decades ago, filmmakers were limited by fund-raising – the money it cost to make a documentary was beyond most people’s means – but in this era of cheap filmmaking risk is part of the new attrition (as well, of course, as creative thinking, technical skill and smart production). Risk helps separate one from the pack, a pack that is only getting bigger.
Some filmmakers take limited risks: Morgan Spurlock risked his waistline and liver functions to gorge fast food in “Super Size Me,” and lived to tell the tale to great rewards. Werner Herzog steps out of the comfort zone when he makes documentaries such as “Encounters at the End of the World,” when he goes to Antarctica, but not so much as is taken by a filmmaker such as Louie Psihoyos in “The Cove,” in which again risk equaled reward as it won an Academy Award.
And, of course, a legion of relatively anonymous filmmakers risk health and physical safety climbing mountains, tramping across tundras and crawling on jungle floors to make films such as “Life” and “March of the Penguins.” The Emerson College film student Justin was on the roof with a purpose, unlike another student who the next day fell five stories and lived, partying on a roof to watch Monday’s Boston Marathon.
For most of us, our risk is relative. We risk thousands of hours of our time toward projects that may go nowhere. We risk in how far we may want to engage in a topic or cause (if you’re one of those). We risk making distance between ourselves and our loved ones in the name of some indistinct outcome – if you’re Ken Burns, the risk is small in a relative sense; the rest of us have to think harder about that.
But the risk of devoting long hours of work that may lead to a film lost in the ocean of new films is one that both creates this attrition (so many so-called filmmakers are infatuated with the toys but not of the long process) and can benefit those who persevere.
All good work involves some risk. But all risk involves knowing when to step back.
Tragic news comes out that Tim Hetherington, the photojournalist who co-directed “Restrepo” with Sebastian Junger, was killed.
According to reports,
American photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed Wednesday in Libya, where they were covering the ongoing conflict.
The news was first reported by photographer Andre Liohn, as he posted and updated the news on Facebook from the hospital where he, Hetherington and Hondros, were brought after suffering injuries while covering the fighting in Misrata.
Posting on his Twitter account yesterday, Hetherington updated his followers: “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.”
Canon Rumors is reporting that a Canon EOS 5D Mk III is coming by mid-year. According to the site, it will have:
- 26.4 million effective pixels
- ISO expandable to 102,400
- 19 point AF system, 3 cross-type points
- DIGIC 5
- 4.9 fps continuous shooting
- 63-zone iFCL metering
- 1.04 million dot LCD
- Improved camera grip
- Improved pentaprism, approximately 100% frame coverage
- released mid-year
Given that the newly released Rebel T3i has audio controls, we wonder if the rumored MkIII will have more audio controls that will keep it filmmaker friendly. The Magic Lantern firmware hacks have done a lot to improve the Canons for shooting video, so perhaps such features as focus-assist peaking and changeable bit rate might be possible. We’ll see…
Final Cut Pro X is getting previewed at NAB this week, with a release date set for June.
HD Warrior got some information, and shots, saying,
“Apple this evening provided a “sneak peek” at the next version of Final Cut Pro – now called “Final Cut Pro X” at the NAB SuperMeet in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The new Final Cut Pro is a bold move – a totally redesigned interface, 64-bit memory addressing, multi-processor support, tight integration of metadata in the project file with metadata stored in the clip not just in the project, heavy use of automation to simplify tedious tasks, and a rethinking of the entire concept of what it means to edit.
I can’t think of any other company that could so totally redefine what a non-linear video editor is than Apple. Since the release of Final Cut Pro 1, each version of FCP has contained incremental improvements. This is a complete restatement at every possible level.
Based on tonight’s presentation several long-standing irritants with Final Cut Pro disappear:
* Rendering is now in the background and much faster because it harnesses the power of the GPU.
* The 4 GB memory limit is gone – FCP will use as much RAM as you have installed on your system.
* FCP X now uses all the processors on your system, not just one and a half.
In addition, a flock of new features were added:
* It supports editing video image sizes from standard definition up to 4K.
* It uses fewer tools from the Tool palette (which is no longer there, by the way) by making the cursor smarter. WHERE you click something determines WHAT you can do with it.
* A lot of existing features are jazzed up (linking and grouping are replaced by the much more elegant Clip Connection and Compound Clips)
* While new features like the magnetic timeline, permanent audio sync and auto-metadata generation are flat-out stunning.
The Flip Mino has come and gone. Officially declared “dead,” which is the buzzword of the moment. Flip cameras came forward a few years ago and put simple video shooting in the hands of people who would not have otherwise, launching millions of awful YouTube videos, and a few damn good pieces of work as well.
Yes, 2008 seems like a long time ago, and the scary thing is that technology is changing too fast to afford. We just bought a Canon T2i, what seemed like 48 hours later, a T3i comes out. We’re afraid to send it back because rumors are of a T4i by Thursday morning.
Fact is, the Flip Mino shot better video than the “Pro” camcorders of 1990. But now your phone can do that. But in the arms race of camcorders, we’ve also bought into the idea that sharper video makes, somehow, for a better story. Like Hamlet with less eloquence but more sequins.
The Flip found us in some “real” films, including the Academy-Award nominated documentary “The Last Truck.” It mostly served as a “gateway” device for people who moved up to better stuff.
All we can imagine to say is, tell better stories (said looking in mirror). The technology at out hands is a great gift. Embrace it. The Flip and everything like it spoke toward the democratization of “film.” With a video camera in virtually everyone’s pockets, it can feel as if the world is being broadcast live, from government overthrow to fast-food-joint brawls, and these little cameras seem to have had something to do with it.
Robert Greene has scored two recent successes with his documentary films “Kati With An I” and “Fake It So Real,” both of which depended on very intense, short shooting windows. In the former, he followed his younger half-sister Kati Geithner toward high-school graduation and what lay beyond (as we covered in Part I). In “Fake It,” Greene followed a group of independent pro wrestlers and the week leading up to the big show they hope will be a ticket to the big time.
Greene, who is a producer and senior editor at 4th Row Films in New York City, made his directing debut with “Owning The Weather,” an interview-driven film about the science of manipulating weather. With “Kati,” he focused on live action, and intimate moments at a crucial time. He says,
So for the wresting film I wanted to do the same thing. That was shot in a week with an end result. For Kati it was graduation; for the wrestlers it was one big show. We essentially did it the same way except we had many more characters.
Like with “Kati,” one of the people in the film is a family member. That’s the easy part– find weirdo family members. My cousin is one of the characters, and when you don’t have much money, and you have a lot of ideas, sometimes keeping it close really does pay off. I got very close to the guys without having met them, because they new there was some sort of connection, and protection, from there being a family relationship. The man character, or at least the guy a little bit out in front of everybody else, is a guy named Gabe. I didn’t even know him until the second day of shooting, but we figured out on the fly that he was going to be the man character. But going into the shooting, I had talked to everyone who would be in the film, and they knew I wasn’t going to make them look stupid, because as they said later, they could come beat me up. I’m not stupid enough to make my cousin’s wrestler friends look bad.
Any documentary filmmaker who asks family or friends to reveal themselves to the camera and the world, the implicit promises can be complex. Family connections can make for wonderful films (such as Alexandra Codina’s “Monica & David”) , but in some ways building the trust of subjects to feel familial is as important. It’s harder to do that in a week of shooting. “There has to be a talent to get people to trust you while you’re filming them,” Greene says. “In some ways, that is the key talent of making a documentary.”
But, Greene says, promising to show someone “objectively” is another matter. While the camera records moments that cannot be denied, the filmmaker always makes choices about what the story seems to be.
I don’t subscribe to the “objective” thing. I would never say I’m objective. I’m not objective. The goal is not to be objective. But in the style of filmmaking I’m doing, there is “distance.” For me, it’s not about saying a specific thing, it’s about seeing complexity. To me, it’s about letting things be complicated. Fir example, one of the characters casually, in the middle of one of the best interview segments where he’s talking about his life, and how he got to where he was, made a comment some people might consider to be racist. What was interesting was that he didn’t think he’d offended anybody in the room. But when he saw the film he said, “You have to take that out – I have African-American people in my family.” But I think in the film he’s a character who you like and respect and grow to love. I think the complexity of someone you’re rooting for saying this terrible thing, and also what that says about the South, it’s super-important to let things be complicated in a movie in that way. Now if he were my main character, I may have cut that line. You need your main character to be at a different level. I also know I was OK not cutting the line because another, bigger wrestler said, “You better not cut that line.”
It’s intimate in a different way because you meet five people on this week leading up to the show. It doesn’t get as intensely personal, but I think they’re very much in line. They’re something I’m enjoying going forward: Compress time, and see what you come up with. It puts a lot of pressure on you as a director or filmmaker, and as an editor eventually, to find something from it that can make a movie.
I’m always interested in the fact that Greene began as an editor. At 4th Row Films (where Susan Bedusa, a former journalism student of mine, is director of development), Greene has edited a variety of documentaries produced by himself, Bedusa, and the company’s principal, Doug Tirola). Moving into directing after establishing himself as an editor gives him a way of looking at what he’s doing that might be different from someone coming to editing from directing (both “Kati” and “Fake It” were shot by both Greene and cinematographer Sean Price Williams). Where one might expect an editor-turned-director to have a more compartmentalized view of both the shooting and story itself, Greene says,
In these kinds of films, we’re looking for more of a story and less coverage. We’re exploring with a camera. The person shooting has to have the courage, and the safety, to feel they can go far. I once heard an expression, “Go deep into the water.” Don’t go halfway, go all the way. That means a whole lot of things. It means get beautiful shots, and beautiful not just pretty, but explanatory. And also to find the moment, and to find the details in that moment that will illuminate for an audience what it was like to be there at that time. For shooting and editing, you’ve got to get some coverage, you’ve got to get some cut-aways, you’ve got to move – you’ve got to get lots of options but don’t overthink the idea of shooting for editing. I’ve seen so many young filmmakers feeling they need to get shot-shot-shot-shot-shot, and they end up getting nothing that matters, or is substantial enough to build the scene. Whereas if they really hold on to or three things, they may not think it’s enough, but it’s often enough.
The shooting style of so many live-action documentaries try to balance between technical perfection (generally achieved by set-up shots and static positioning, such as people sitting down) and in-the-moment action (which can result in missed focus, zooming in the shot, and lesser composition. Greene says,
Getting close is absolutely necessary. For “Kati” and “Fake It,” getting people right up close to them is important. For the wrestlers, it’s getting right up close to them and their bodies, to feel some of the pain. It works well sometimes when you’re a little bit far back and then you zoom in. Technically, the image also gets somewhat compressed while you’re using the zoom. I like that look and I think it’s more cinematic.
I like to get back a moderate distance and zoon in. I say, “Don’t worry.” I don’t think clarity is energy in terms of what you’re letting happen in the frame. Sometimes I think there’s too much clarity, and not enough energy, not enough abstraction, not enough movement across the screen – you may not know exactly just went on, but you can feel it.
As for using a tripod versus hand-held, Green says “I think that totally depends on the story you’re telling. Part of what you want to think about is how to use the camera to create different tones – close-ups, medium shots, wide shots, coverage, movement. They all communicate an idea about seeing the world in a certain way. The first thing you have to figure out is, “How do you want to see the world, and how do you want your audience to see this world?”
Weaving two different stories together here, in that rumors are afoot from Pro Video Coalition that Apple is about to make a major announcement about a new Final Cut Pro that will represent a quantum leap.
At the same time, a Wall Street Journal piece lists “Video Postproduction Services” as one of the “Top Ten Dying Industries,” along with record stores, photofinishing services, and formalwear rentals. Postproduction services are tagged with 43 percent negative growth from 2000 to 2010, and forecast for the same in the next five years.
Remember postproduction houses, those nerve centers for local filmmaking, with their unattainably expensive equipment that even renting by the hour would put you into hock? Apple, Avid, Sony and others have made video editing accessible, both in terms of the size of the package and the cost at which it comes.
And, perhaps sadly, all those college students learning to edit video on laptops, who may have set their sights on the postproduction jobs their laptops and FCP have both prepared them for and diminished.
As we discussed with a commenter a few posts back, we wonder if there is a place in the field to take the place of postproduction houses in one crucial area – wisdom. Editing on laptops means we all work in our different rooms; the social and educational nature of the postproduction environment was at a time not unlike what Matthew B. Crawford writes about in his excellent book “Shop Class As Soulcraft,” as it related to so-called “speed shops” for car and motorcycle enthusiasts – the notion of initiates. When the 16-year-old kid who bought the muffler in the front of the shop got to go around back and install with a grizzled mechanic’s gruff supervision, wisdom was passed on.
Saving the community moments of postproduction houses while losing the equipment/software aspect seems a bit stalled. We’ll see if something new emerges on the WSJ’s top ten growth industries.