The Dark Days

If you’ve read a few of these posts, you’ve probably noticed that they are upbeat and positive. “I was thrilled…,”  “I am forever grateful…,” “The shoot went well…” It seems A Life’s Work and my life are skipping hand in hand down a carefree path where only good things happen. In bringing this to your attention you might wonder, “Is David on happy pills or is he lying?” Neither.

One reason for all the positivity is, though this is a blog about the process of making a documentary, it also exists to promote the film, so it’s not really in my interest to be a negative Nancy. Another reason is that I am optimistic by nature. But make no mistake, the dark days are there, I just haven’t written about them. And even though the dark days haven’t crept up on me in a while, I’ve been feeling like I should share this experience, so here you go.

This photo was not taken on a dark day. It just looks like it was.

The darkness can descend for any number of reasons: A shoot didn’t go as planned, a grant or story rejection, a nightmare, a flare up in my creaky lower back, perceived indifference, looking at a pile of laundry that needs to be done. Whatever the reason, great or small, real or imagined, the darkness can grab hold and drag me into a downward spiral.

So how do I manage it?

I do a few different things. I list things I have to be grateful for, and this list is embarrassingly long. If it’s one of the dark days where I’m less than thrilled with A Life’s Work I step away from it and don’t work on it. I don’t try to force it. On those dark days it’s easy to make bad decisions, and though it’s easy enough to go back to a version that was saved before the dark day, dark-day decisions sometimes just make me feel worse. I try to go outside, walk or bike along my beloved Hudson River. I visit with friends who, even though we may not talk about the darkness, have a way alleviating the gloom. I avoid alcohol on the dark days (I’m renowned for my moderation anyway) because for me, after the giddiness of initial consumption the alcohol will exacerbate the darkness to a frightening degree. Often I clean my apartment like a fiend. The sense of accomplishment is significant and the physical activity must get some of those good endorphins flowing. I play guitar A LOT on the dark days. It seems like it’s the one creative thing I can do. When I am playing music that is all I am doing; I am not remembering or regretting, projecting or expecting. I am present. I play all manner of songs, from If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will) to Girl from Ipanema to Back in Your Life to Back in Black to a Villa Lobos Prelude.

If the darkness is particularly stubborn and lingers into the evening, I’ll watch a film, something I know is inspiring or soothing or engrossing. This can mean a film by Yasujiro Ozu, a Japanese samurai film like one of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, or a documentary by the Maysles. Depends, I suppose. Then I read myself to sleep.

What I’m doing is shifting my focus from dark to light.

More often than not the darkness is gone in the morning. If not, I keep battling it the same way. Eventually the darkness leaves; I know now after many years, and thanks to the help of friends and others, that the light I possess is brighter and more powerful than the darkest darkness.

I believe we become stronger when we share our stories; “we” being the teller and the listener/reader, and that is why I’m sharing this with you.

For a harrowing and enlightening book about one man’s battle with depression, check out Darkness Visible by William Styron. I’ve found comfort in this book more than once.

[Cross-posted on]

Arcosanti – City on the Edge of Forever by Nathan Koren

Nathan Koren, a resident at Arcosanti in the mid 90s, happened upon the blog and sent me a wonderful e-mail.

I’ve written a lot about the experience, but kept most of it unpublished… there’s a passage from a longer piece I wrote  (called ‘A Place Undefined’) which I thought you’d appreciate, so I might as well share it with you. I think it seems to hit the spirit of what you’re getting at in your film.”

I asked him if I could post the passage to the blog and he graciously agreed. The photo was taken by Nathan as well.

Beneath a full moon, when all is quiet, the site takes on an otherworldly presence. The mysterious, softly illuminated geometric forms seem to imply a mute cosmic order that the modern world knows too little of. More striking, and awe-inspiring, is the incompleteness of it. Concrete tunnels run underground and giant piers reach into the sky, waiting to support structures that might not be built for decades.

Arcosanti is a generational project: I won’t live to see it completed. Neither will my great-grandchildren. It’s difficult to come to terms with this: you want to see it complete, at first. You want it now. When someone moves to Arcosanti, it takes them months to accept that it is being built so slowly. But then, among some, a kind of rapture sets in – an appreciation for the fact that in such a fast-paced world, a project like this exists at all. Today, people wonder how the medieval cathedrals could have possibly been built. We usually assume that sheer religious devotion, with promises of kickbacks in the afterlife, kept the workers in line through their centuries of toil. I don’t believe that this was the case. Like raising a child, there is a deep satisfaction in working on something that you will never see to completion. When it comes to architecture and the urban landscape, our modern world has quite forgotten this very primal feeling.

Imagine a ruin: walls strain to support roofs which are no longer there; barely perceptible pathways trace the habits of people long gone. You sense the vertiginous chasm of ages between you and these stones, and you wonder when the roof collapsed, and who the people were that once lived their lives beneath it. In your gut, you feel a greater sense of history, of your own place in the arc of time, and thus a deeper connection to your own humanity.

A construction site is a kind of ruin, too. Doorways open upon paths that do not yet exist, columns strain to support roofs that have not yet been built. Like a ruin, a construction site can give you a visceral bridge across the gap of time — but into the future instead of the past. With modern financing and construction techniques this bridge has grown incredibly short — a few months or years — and we are unspeakably poorer for it. At Arcosanti, the bridge to the future stretches for centuries — a city on the edge of forever.


I’d say it hit the spirit of the film dead center. Thanks, Nathan.

About Nathan Koren

Nathan first visited Arcosanti as a tourist in 1988, at age 11. Arcosanti and Soleri’s ‘Arcology Theory’ made a deep impression on him, and he decided on the spot to work towards finding better ways to build cities. He later lived at Arcosanti from 1992 until 1996, with occasional brief stays thereafter. In 2001 he received his architecture degree from Arizona State University, and pursued an architecture career in Portland, Oregon, focusing on green, mixed-use, transit-oriented design. Becoming dissatisfied with the limitations of conventional architecture and urban planning, he then decided to pursue a career in transportation, which he believes to be the root cause of urban form. Receiving an MBA from the University in Oxford in 2008, he began working for ULTra PRT, a company that makes a zero-carbon, space-efficient public transport system which he believes will be the key technology for enabling car-free cities. Nathan spends the vast majority of his time flying between various countries in Asia, consulting for governments and developers, living out of hotels, and generally wracking up a bigger personal carbon footprint than anybody he knows. But he remains committed to implementing something akin to Soleri’s arcologies, and idealistic enough to believe that will happen not only within his lifetime, but within the decade.

E-mail Nathan: n k o r e n [ a t ] g m a i l [ d o t ] c o m

Why Do I Keep This in My Wallet?

Jens_LekmanWhat does this ticket stub from a concert I saw in 2007  have to do with A Life’s Work? Before I get to that, let me tell you that I’m a huge Jens Lekman fan. In case you don’t know, Lekman is a Swedish pop musician. To call him “indie” seems not right. He’s got the gift of melody, a lovely voice, a fondness for both pared down home recording and over the top production, and a sentimental side that’s often tinged a little dark. Just go on Youtube and watch and listen to him after you read this.

Why do I keep this stub in my wallet along with my driver’s license, health insurance card, and select fortunes from fortune cookies? Because I saw this show the night before I traveled to Northern California alone to shoot David Milarch in the redwoods.

I was nervous because I’m always nervous the day before a shoot, but I was doubly nervous because I was going on this one solo. But seeing Lekman with my friend and fellow Lekmanhead RWC was a great distraction. But more than that, I had a little epiphany watching him that night. He was performing with a large band and everyone on the stage seemed to be having a great time. And it occurred to me that he was working and he was having a great time because he was doing something he clearly loved. And I thought, yeah, I’m going to the redwoods tomorrow, to one of the most magnificent places on the planet, and I’m going to be doing the thing I love more than anything else. Don’t be anxious. Be happy.

Well, honestly, I was still a little nervous, but I wasn’t anxious. And having this stub in my wallet is a reminder that when I’m filming, I’m doing the thing I love.

“How Do You Find These People?” Paolo Soleri

Paolo Soleri at Dome House

It had to be early 2005. I was catching up with a friend, Carol T., and telling her about a couple of film ideas I had, including the idea for A Life’s Work. It was my great fortune that Carol had just came back from a vacation in Arizona, and one of the places she visited was Arcosanti.

“Arco what?” I said.

“Arcosanti. It means healthy arc.”

Arcology-City in the Image of Man by Paolo SoleriShe told me what she had learned from the tour she went on and I was intrigued. I went online and was impressed. I checked out Arcology – The City in the Image of Man and was blown away. I read more and more about Paolo Soleri and by Paolo Soleri, and the more I read, the more excited I became about the possibility of including him and Arcosanti in the film. I committed to making A Life’s Work shortly after this bit of research and Soleri was the first person I reached out to.

For that story, read From Concept to First Day of Shooting.

See also: “How Do You Find These People?” Jill Tarter, Robert Darden, David and Jared Milarch.

Hardest/Easiest Work Environments So Far in 2010 – by Andy Bowley

Today’s post was written by cinematographer Andy Bowley.

Hardest? That’s easy. I was in Monrovia’s largest cemetery, documenting “Decoration Day,” a Liberian national celebration devoted to cleaning up gravesites and (it must be said) drinking. It was unbearably hot, a storm was gathering, and I was stepping very, very carefully for two reasons: 1) Much of the graveyard serves as an impromptu latrine. 2) The graves are built above ground – so if you step too close to the middle of one, there’s a fair chance it will collapse. Imagine hundreds and hundreds of folks, tiptoeing around the edges of graves, avoiding broken glass and poo and overgrowth, carrying hoes, machetes, babies, little homemade buckets of paint, brushes and beer – kind of like a massive game of graveyard twister. Now imagine me in the middle, just trying to float my camera and tripod into place without bumping anyone, or spilling beer or paint, or God forbid, collapsing a grave.

I finally settled in and photographed a woman gently re-painting the name of a relative onto a gravestone. It was a touching scene. As she re-painted the date, I wondered how many interred here died as a result of the 20-year civil war that had ripped through the country.

I was very focused on this scene until I heard a KATHUNK behind me.

I turned to see three sheepish looking men standing in a collapsed grave. One of them was a radio reporter – his microphone was dented and his headphones were hanging sideways on his head.  The unspeakable had happened.

It was quiet at first  . . . and then  HA HA HA HA! Everyone, including the woman I had been photographing started to laugh.  The whole cemetery was busting up. Someone elbowed me and said “Hey – you should go and photograph them! HA HA HA HA HA . . .”

Easiest environment?  No question. It was the Ray I.Riley Digitization Center – tucked into a glassed-off section of the lower level of a library on the Baylor University Campus in Waco, Texas – home of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project.

Pin-drop quiet. Climate-controlled. Spacious. Lots of visually interesting machinery and lighting and (unbroken) glass. I could step around (my boots still flecked with Liberian cemetery paint) and plant my camera just about anywhere.

Great room.  But what overwhelmed me was the attitude of the librarians. I didn’t get it at first. They were so damned patient with us–with our lights and questions and endless requests and adjustments. But then I looked around and began to understand. One guy was leaning over a flatbed scanner the size of a store window, fastidiously laying out a gigantic civil war map book. Another was optimizing the angle of a phonograph stylus to align perfectly with the groove of an old 45. They worked so silently, so intently – like acolytes.  And then it hit me.  These folks were archivists — people who take ultimate care and patience in recording things as well as humanly/technologically possible.

Kindred spirits.

Thank you Robert Darden, Pattie Orr, Tony Tadey, Tim Logan, Darryl Stuhr, Eric Ames, Denyse Rodgers,  and Amanda Harlan. Thank you for your patience and hospitality. We had a beautiful time working together with you in your perfect little workspace in Waco, Texas.


Andy shot this footage with a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR and some funky Eastern Bloc lenses. See his two other posts for more on working with that camera and those lenses, Charismatic Manhattan Pinecone Test and This Post Is for You, Gearheads! Andy also edited this clip.

[vimeo width=”500″ height=”300″][/vimeo]


Andy Bowley is a NYC-based cinematographer whose projects have won many national Emmys and one Peabody. E-mail Andy: a b o w l e y at  e a r t h l i n k d o t n e t

Process – This Post Is For You, Gearheads!

By Guest Blogger Andy Bowley. This post is best read in conjunction with Andy’s piece about testing his Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera and various lens for our shoot in Waco, Texas.

I can probably blame Philip Bloom for getting me interested in these behind-the-iron-curtain lenses. A while back he wrote about using the Hartblei Super Rotator, a Ukranian-built lens that could tilt and shift and rotate 360 degrees, very useful for selectively expanding and limiting areas of focus in frame. I was obsessed with finding one, and very happy to land a 40mm f3.5 at a photo shop in Barcelona. Only trouble was, when I got it home I discovered that it would not mount to the Contax ring of my Letus adapter–not being a still photographer, I failed to realize there were two kinds of Contax mounts.

After some research I decided to go down a different path to getting a tilt lens setup (I had no need for shift, really). I discovered that there were lots of very fine medium format lenses manufactured, like the Hartblei, with Pentacon Six mounts (a now-obscure  mount popular with the Eastern Bloc set) that could be mounted to a tilt adapter. Best among them were the Zeiss lenses manufactured at the original Jena factory.

Excuse me Buckminster Fuller, but that’s the world’s first geodesic dome getting itself built for the roof of the Zeiss factory in 1928.



During the American withdrawal in 1945, the town of Jena (and the Zeiss factory) increasingly fell under Soviet influence. After “firm encouragement” from the Americans, some Zeiss technology and engineering staff were spirited out to a new site in Oberkochen–the site of the legendary Zeiss lens factory most of us Western folks know today. The two factories collaborated for a while, but as time went on, they began to innovate and manufacture independently. The Zeiss Oberkochen factory made lenses for western cameras; the Zeiss Jena factory, lenses for Eastern Bloc cameras, like the tankish Pentacon Six.

The Pentacon Six camera was manufactured at the Arsenal factory in Kiev. Arsenal also produced some nice lenses (though the quality control has often been described as hit-or-miss). I particularly like the Mir 26B 45mm f3.5, the lens is built from same elements as old Hartblei Super Rotator. I also like the Zeiss Jena 80mm f2.8, which tests well against the very best western primes. I used both lenses with Pentacon Six extension tubes and a Pentacon Six to Nikon tilt adapter. (These are manufactured by both Arsenal and Hartblei.)

Best source for the Pentacon Six stuff is still Ebay – German Ebay is even better/cheaper if you can manage the language barrier and ultra-slow shipping.

Zeiss Jena lenses were manufactured well into the eighties, or at least as long as the last season of Charlie’s Angels television series.

Using this setup requires lots of light. The extension tubes have a heavy exposure factor (roughly two stops in the configuration I used), and with such a tiny depth of field, it’s not advisable to shoot anywhere near wide open. I used a Rifa 66 softlight, hovering just out of frame with a 1k globe inside, giving me enough light to stop down to a f5.6 or more. I also made use of a tilt adapter, selectively adding depth of field on one axis when I could.

Working with macro is tweaky. With a depth of focus of just a millimeter or two, it is hugely helpful to have the ability to move the subject easily, or better, to move camera along focal axis on some kind of sliding device, like a macro rail — or in my case, a Kessler pocket dolly.

Equipment List for Macro Test

Canon 5D Mark II DSLR

Zacuto Pro Finder

Fotodiox Nikon to Canon adapter ring

Zeiss 80mm f2.8 Biometar

Arsenal Mir 26B 45mm f3.5

Arsenal Pentacon Six to Nikon tilt adapter

Arsenal Pentacon Six “automatic” extension tubes

Lowell Rifa 66 with 1k globe.

Miller Solo DV legs.

Manfrotto 75mm half-ball adapter (great for quickly leveling Pocket Dolly)

Kessler Traveler Pocket Dolly with Giottos MH-621 quick release

Velbon PH-368 fluid head.

*if you use the Manfrotto ball adapter with Miller legs and Pocket Dolly, put a big washer between the dolly and adapter – this will allow slider to get past top edge of legs.

If you want to read more about the Pentacon Six system, check out the superb website.



Philip Bloom

pentacon six

hartblei super rotator

tests well

extension tubes


Andy Bowley is a NYC-based cinematographer whose projects have won many national Emmys and one Peabody, but he considers the coolest thing on his mantle to be an old Pentacon six medium format camera, which now sits next to his beloved Manhattan pinecone. He has found a lot of other things while running through wooded sections of Central Park, but doesn’t want to talk about it.

E-mail Andy: a b o w l e y at  e a r t h l i n k d o t n e t


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What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

Happy Birthday, Blog!

On June 20, 2009, I uploaded the first post on this blog.

Highlights since then? Interviewed the fourth subject twice. Incorporated him into the sample at VCCA,  laid out the framework for the rest of the film at the MacDowell Colony.

Highlights on the blog? Great comments from you, readers! Especially nice to read comments from Jill Tarter of SETI and Robert Darden of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. A wonderful exchange on the value of artist residencies with Suny Monk, Executive Director of VCCA. Big gold stars to frequent commenters Haroon Butt and Jane Waggoner Deschner. Two contests, two separate winners.

I’m looking forward to the upcoming year and the exciting events and the posts they will inspire. Some things to look forward to: at least two more contests, more reports from another artist residency (thank you, BMC), a conversation/interview with another documentary filmmaker, and  guest bloggers. (If you’re interested in writing a post, contact me. The only condition is it has to be related to A Life’s Work in some way, thematically or to the subjects. E-mail me; I’m sure we can come up with something.)

So, to quote a notorious New York City mayor, “How am I doing?” What would you like to see here? What would you like to see more of, or less of? What can I do better? Seriously, tell me.

The Stats
Posts (including this one): 98.
Comments: 165
Video from A Life’s Work: 25 minutes and 42 seconds. That’s 1,542 seconds, or 36,971 frames.
Spams vaporized: 1,242
Total Views: 3,563*
Badly bruised finger tips: 1

* This does not include the first month of the blog’s existence, when it was at a different URL.

Photo: The filmmaker’s eldest brother, Joe, and their father, Jersey Joe, celebrating Joe’s fourth birthday. Taken by unknown, 1956.

World Science Festival Recap

I went to the World Science Festival’s Cool Jobs event early and had the opportunity to spend a few minutes catching up with Jill Tarter. Topics of conversation included the status of the Allen Telescope Array, the status of A Life’s Work, space junk, unemployed theater folk, robotics, the necessity for a support team on your project, whether that project is making a documentary or searching for extraterrestrial life, and the importance of making time to catch the last dance at your spouse’s high school reunion. And she brought me a white chocolate chip and macadamia nut cookie from the green room. Sweet!

It was nice to see some of A Life’s Work on the biggish screen. The radio telescopes looked fantastic, and they also included a snippet of me riding a bike through the ATA. (You can’t tell it’s me.) I was honored that they used some of my work, but mostly I was thrilled to see so many parents who brought their children to be inspired by four brilliant scientists.

Some stats:
Music while the audience found their seats: She Blinded Me with Science (Thomas Dolby), Weird Science (Oingo Boingo), Space Oddity (David Bowie), Atomic (Blondie).
Number of talking robots: 1.
Number of penguin wetsuits: 1.
Number of strange red skull caps that measured brainwave activity: 1.
Number of astronomers who held an audience of children and parents rapt while she discussed the search for an engineered signal from beyond earth: 1.

Thanks again to the World Science Festival, and a super special thank you to Dr. Tarter for taking the time to share a few minutes and a cookie with me.

Note: Select WSF events are streaming online.

“What the Hey Were You Doing in Waco?” Part 2

Here’s a slideshow of images lifted from the recent shoot in Waco. It’s going to be a while before I have a sequence edited, but I may put up some footage DP Andy Bowley shot with his Canon 5D DSLR (see the close up of the needle). But until then, I hope this will do.

The Images of the Sounds of A Life’s Work

Last week I posted some sounds of A Life’s Work. Here now are the matching images.

Please remember that I was selecting sounds for the contest and wasn’t too concerned with the quality of the captured images, so if you see some flaws in the shots, a little unsteadiness or a focus issue, be forgiving.


Locations: Arcosanti, Cordes Junction, AZ; The Allen Telescope Array, Hat Creek, CA; Hyde Park Records, Chicago, IL; The Riley Digitization Center, Baylor University, Waco, TX; Interlochen, MI; Buckley, MI.