There is an adage in the visual communication business. Audio is 70% of the image (or some other high number that changes depending on how bombastic one might be). I’ve said it myself, usually in those filmmaker conversations where each person is trying to outdo the other by making increasingly inane statements. But my confession is that if you examine my filmmaking life, you would think that about 5% of the image is audio – on a good day.

Any filmmaker will gladly spend five, ten or twenty thousand on a new camera every other year but grimaces at dropping a thousand on a new microphone. Audio gear isn’t sexy so we cobble together something that helps us squeak by.

This problem is exacerbated by the style of documentary I prefer – fly-on-the-wall and observational. I purposely keep my crew skeleton thin so that we have a better chance of capturing authentic and real moments. However this past year I began to really feel the limits of minimal audio. It’s not fair for me to expect the director of photography to get great images and monitor audio. He or she is there for one reason, to capture the moment.

So I’ve got one of two choices. The first is to increase the size of my crew. The second is to tackle the audio myself.

I’m unwilling to do the former if it means missing moments where people begin to open up. So it’s time to trust my ability to follow the story and to capture the audio. This means developing skills, building some muscles (have you ever held a boom pole for a couple of hours?) and buying some new gear.

Happy New Year.

Last August I was the director of photography on SHC, a narrative short in the tradition of Twilight Zone. It was a blast to work on and we had an awesome crew.

The good news came down this month that the film will be showing at the Wisconsin Film Festival in the shorts program.  The producers (Alterity Productions) have also released the film on youtube. Check it out and let me know what you think. Pretty good stuff for a weekend of shooting and Robb, the director / editor, did a great job at editing.

Today I had a flashback to 2001 as I sat at my desk experiencing the long forgotten craving of a good smoke. When I was in my early and mid-20’s, I would chain smoke for about two weeks straight two to three times a year. I would get stressed or anxious about something related to work, smoke like a chimney, then freak out at the possibility of addiction and throw out any cigarettes I had. In fact, one good memory of that time was standing on the porch of my house watching the TV through the window as the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup in double overtime.   The butts of Marlboro lights were piled up in an alter to stress relief.

I’ve since learned more healthy ways to cope with stress. I whittle away at the mountain of work in front of me and eventually things return to normal. However this week I’m experiencing a new kind of stress that is out of my control – waiting for rejection or acceptance. Even those words make it sound so epic – as if my very existence as a human being rested on the decisions of someone I have never met.

But that is part of what is so frustrating about the experience – you spend years working on a film project, send it off to someone you’ve never met and await their judgement. You have a rough idea of when you might hear, but for the most part it’s silence. It leads to a vicious cycle of questioning and obsessive searching for any hint online – some tidbit that a festival or other applicant may give away on twitter or Facebook. When that rejection comes you have no idea of why. Was it because my film stunk? Was it screened by a grumpy intern? Or were there 5 other documentaries about wrestling? So I crave the cigarette, choose not to smoke (yes indeed Mother) and remember two truths.

 

1. I have chosen this field and it is part of package. Deal with it and stop complaining.

2. At the end of the day, I return to my greatest vocation – the family and the culture I create at home. Besides how could you stay anxious when this awaits your arrival from work.

When it comes to documentaries, I tend to lean away from the traditionally popular issue-based documentaries.  So Waiting For Superman was not (and is not) high on my list of films to see.  Instead I’m interested in seeing documentaries that find their motivation in storytelling and character development.  I figure that we rarely say, “Let’s make a scripted narrative about war,” (or if we do, they rarely work) so why should we do that with documentaries?  Some of the best documentaries in my list are in fact about war but they are about characters and narrative first.  One more caveat.  There are still three films that I really want to see - The Tillman Story, Big River Man and Waste Land.  Given how documentaries are released with extended film festival runs, it’s often tough to see a doc in the year it was released.  So I look forward to a couple other 2010 docs in 2011.

 

Exit Through the Gift Shop – A great look at the street art scene, an intriguing central character and in the end, a film that is a indictment of the modern art scene.

 

Restrepo and The Oath – These two films deserve a double billing.  Restrepo follows a company of American soldiers in Afghanistan.  We feel the monotony of modern warfare (it’s not like Call of Duty) and experience the anonymity of the enemy.  Which takes us to The Oath, a fascinating look at “the enemy.”  Not all Arab terrorists are the same.

 

Best Worst Movie and Winnebago Man – It’s hard to find an actual story in documentaries that celebrate a culture or curious character.  In fact they usually just migrate from anecdote to anecdote and after 30 minutes leave you saying, “I get the picture.”  Both of these films are exceptional for this sub genre in their ability to tell an interesting story.  Best Worst Movie looks at the surprising cult following of Troll 2 while Winnebago Man is about a filmmaker’s quest to find the Youtube sensation known as the “Angriest Man in America.”

 

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work – Being a celebrity isn’t as easy as it seems.  Even more so, the creative life is full of insecurity.  Every once in a while this film seems to migrate into reality style story telling but then we get a revealing scene that would never make it to television.

 

The Parking Lot Movie – Maybe I liked this one a little more because it was filmed in Charlottesville, a town I called home for a year, but it’s a pretty compelling film that examines the men who work at a small parking lot downtown in a university city.  Parking lot attendants can be philosophers.

 

Three documentaries I saw this year that I loved but were not released this year.

Deep Water – I’ll take this over Man on Wire as far as historical docs are concerned.  A fascinating examination of celebrity and obsession.

Audience of One – It’s like watching a car crash.  I’ve also described it like looking at yourself in one of those fun house mirrors – you see enough that you recognize yourself but it sure doesn’t look like what you know yourself to be.

Art of the Steal – You’ve got to have a film that will make you mad.  This obviously one-sided film will do just that.

 

I posted this over at the Wrestling For Jesus site.  I thought it fit on this blog as well.

Now that Wrestling For Jesus is basically complete (except for color correction and audio editing) I find that I am often asked about the “tone” of the film.  I think people are asking, “Are you sympathetic to your characters or mocking them?”Here’s my (sort of) answer.

Andy Crouch, a close friend of mine, likes to say that one of the things he does as a journalist is, “make complex issues simple.”  (In fairness to Andy, he also writes books and speaks where he is anything but simple.)  When making a documentary, whether it be short or long, this is one of my tasks.  How do I take what is a very complex story with all sorts of characters and life twists and boil it down to a three act structure with major conflicts every thirty minutes, minor conflicts every ten and movement in every scene?  The answer is to simplify.However, when it comes to exploring motivations of characters, I find I do the opposite.  When people hear about Wrestling For Jesus I find they basically fall into two camps.  Camp one are people who are licking their chops at another film that shows the shallowness, hypocrisy, and simpleness of evangelical Christians.  Camp two are people who believe that the best films are those with redemptive themes, which is code in the Christian community for saying, “Christian films but we can’t call them Christian.”With both of these camps, my goal is not simplicity but complexity.  I want to muddy the waters a little bit.  For the past two years, my goal with Wrestling For Jesus is not just to explore the “What,” of my subjects, but also the “Why.”  I find documentaries really sing when you get beyond behaviors and begin to explore motivations.  Those documentaries challenge our assumptions about how we see the world, other people, and even ourselves.  So what is the tone of Wrestling For Jesus?  How about meddling?

I wrote in a recent post about how we began to develop the narrative structure of Wrestling For Jesus.  But getting something that looks good on paper is VERY different than creating something that people will want to give a hour of their life to.

I have a theory about editing – a good editor makes the narrative sing.  Think about a great melody.  There are moments of fast paced runs where the virtuosity of the musician is in full display.  There are subtle and quiet moments that draw the listener in.  There are dramatic high points where the performer holds a note with just the right touch of vibrato.  A good editor brings this to a narrative.  At the right moment there is a montage of quick cuts with unpredictable syncopation that builds tension.  There are quiet moments that invite the viewer to ponder what they are seeing.  And when the viewers are ready and primed the editor belts out a high note that makes the audience gasp.

This has been the task in editing Wrestling For Jesus – how do we take a narrative structure that is defined by real life events (and limited by what we shot) and turn it into a melody.

The Wrestling For Jesus narrative - seems so simple. If only it was so.

There is an adage in documentary filmmaking that the film is created in the editing suite.  Of course what you shoot does matter but during production you try to cover a variety of potential story lines and in post you figure out if those story lines actually can be massaged into something that people will want to watch.

That’s what we are doing right now with Wrestling For Jesus.  We’re working our way through about 50 hours of footage (not an awful lot for a documentary) to unearth the story that I hope is waiting to be discovered.  This process began with two steps – transcribing the interviews and logging and capturing the footage.  Because I like options, we captured all the footage and logged it by event.  Next I sat down and watched everything, taking careful notes based on clip names.  This process helped me decide where scene breaks might happen.

After all the footage was watched and all my notes were printed, I used CeltX (free production software) to write out all the potential scenes that I thought the footage could handle.  I recorded three things for each scene – the name, a description, and a reason why this scene was important.  You can’t construct a narrative out of a series of scenes that are just “interesting.”  Each scene has to accomplish something narratively.  Some scenes were about foreshadowing conflict, some scenes reveal insecurity, and some other scenes reveal inner character.  But each scene should start at one place and end at another – or that is the hope.

A Wrestling For Jesus Scene Card - "salture" should read "salute"

Once I had all my scenes on nice little cards, I printed those out and began to arrange a narrative flow.  My editing assistant then took that narrative flow along with my copious notes and in Final Cut Pro, she began editing each scene into a sequence.  We are now in a groove where each day she spends about 6 hours roughing out scenes and then I spend 2 hours polishing them into the overall narrative.  It’s been a good workflow that has led to some serious momentum in getting a rough draft finished.

Earlier, I began a series of posts about a narrative short I shot in late July.  I will continue that by taking two blog posts to talk about the two primary scenes we set up (once again, props to Randy and Brian, ACs and Grips, who helped tremendously to make this happen).  This first scene took place in a psychic parlor between a young hipster and a finely aged psychic.  The film is basically built around the question of whether the woman is a fraud or the real deal.

We were fortunate to have a great space to shoot in (about a 15 x 15 room) where we had full control of the light.

The parlor built into a nook of a vacant office

The art direction was great and the crew did an awesome job dressing the set.  For me, the challenge was getting a soft light on the actors (who were talking around a table) yet keeping the set dark and mysterious.  The light also couldn’t wrap completely around the actors’ faces – there needed to be some mystery here.  So we went to the old stand by, China Balls (2 x 60 w) that I bought for about $17 each at World Market.  These along with a ratty old chandelier provided all the light we needed on our actors.

Because there were no shots that went from one actor to the other, I didn’t have to work at lighting both faces at the same time.  This meant that we could easily flag off the lights so they didn’t hit the wall the camera was pointed at.  I then used a mixture of fresnels, LED lights and antique fixtures on dimmers to give the set (particularly the walls behind the actors) a good mood.

The China Balls flagged off allowing for pools of light on the far wall

This relatively minimal setup was possible because the 7d could perform so well in low light.  It also meant that we didn’t need to set up a bunch of kinos on c-stands, leaving more room for dolly moves and even a couple of jib shots.

An HDMI signal came out of the camera into a splitter that fed the on camera monitor and a larger monitor for the director.

The following are stills from the raw footage (not color corrected and probably in need of a little sharpening)

We had nice soft light on the psychic but it fell off fast, particularly on the right side of her face giving the shot some mystery

Enough light to give some definition to the foreground actor and soft light with fast fall off on Sweeney, the male actor. Also, nice pools of light on the far wall

We added a jib to get an upward movement to mimic the escalation in the conflict between the two actors.

(Over the next couple of blog posts, I’ll be writing about my recent experience shooting a narrative short, SHC.  I’ll cover camera, lighting and grip considerations.)

First things first – as Director of Photography, I worked with two amazing ACs / Grips (you’ve got to do it all on a small / no budget film).  Randy Lee and Brian Alberth were great collaborators and put in long hours (in some stifling heat).  It’s always nice to have the kind of working situation where it’s not about egos but rather about getting the best ideas out there that will get the director the best looking shots.  Randy and Brian worked hard, but even more importantly, they brought good ideas to the set that really helped.

Randy preps the camera

Brian at the jib

I was hired for the shoot in part because of my experience shooting with DSLRs.  I told the producer and director (Melissa Schaefer and Robb Thompson respectively) that my forte was shooting documentaries, but they had seen my work and that’s the style they wanted.  So we agreed to collaborate.  Since they connected most to the DSLR work I had done, we decided that we were going to shoot this on either a Canon 5d or a 7d.  Ultimately I ended up using the 7d in 98% of the shots (I’ll get to why I used the 5d in 2 shots).  I made this decision for two reasons.

1.  Monitoring.  With the 7d I could send out an HD signal to two monitors and have them stay in HD through the recording process (the 5d down converts the monitor signal to SD when recording.)  Since Randy would be pulling focus with a shallow depth of field, it was important to give him the best monitoring options.  Also, the 5d can be sketchy when going to multiple monitor sources.

2.  Depth of Field.  I really like the depth of field of the 5d, but sometimes it can be a little ridiculous, especially at 1.4, 1.8 and 2.8.  I wanted to have a little less depth without stopping the lens down to f8.  The 7d allowed that.

(I shot with the 5d on two shots when I needed to be really wide – once to fit in a stairwell and once to distort faces by getting really close with a wide lens.)

So we shot with a 7d.  We had two rigs for it, one that mounted to a tripod, dolly and jib and another for hand held work.  While sometimes I just hold the camera for hand held work, it’s important to have a rig to help stabilize the camera a little more and limit rolling shutter skew (which can kill a shot.)

Nate sets up a jib shot

Randy sets up a dolly shot

Nate and Robb (director) with the cam mounted to a tripod

Randy preps a hand held shot

In terms of lenses we primarily used Contax / Zeiss primes with an EOS adapter (a 28 2.0, a 35 1.4, and an 85 .1.4).  For wide angle hand held stuff I used a Canon 16-35 2.8L and for closeups we used a Tamron 70-200 2.8 (the 85 had a 3 foot minimum focus meaning it was fairly useless for closeups).  I think a Canon 50mm 1.4 might have appeared on the camera once, but other than that it was the lenses above.  The great thing about the primes is that the focus ring has hard stops so repeating focus pulls is (in theory) a lot easier.  Randy ended up doing a good amount by eye, but at times, these hard stops were essential.

Finally, we used a doorway dolly for some tracking shots and to add a little interesting movement to dialogue heavy scenes and a jib at a couple of key moments (like when a conflict escalates.)

All in all I was really happy with the gear we chose.

Over at the Wrestling For Jesus website, I just posted the official trailer for Wrestling For Jesus.  Head on over there to check it out and then hit up the kickstarter page for more info.

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