That One’s Mine: A Clip

Someone else shoots and someone else edits. So what exactly do I do on A Life’s Work besides sit opposite these amazing people and ask them a bunch of questions?

I make a lot of decisions. Who, what, where, when? I decide those. I come to a location with a shot list, knowing that in a documentary it may be useless since so much is determined by what’s available and not what I can set up, block, or stage. So I decide how to adjust. In post-production, I talk with the editor a lot and review the progress of the edit and I say, “Yes, I like this. No, I don’t like this.” “Can we go in this direction?” “Can we find a way to include this shot?”

But I do sometimes shoot, and I do construct a rough edit, and it’s a running joke with this director, and I suspect others, that when one of my shots or edits makes it into a finished film, I note the shot or edit with cheeky pride. “Yeah, that’s my shot.” “Yeah, that’s my edit.”

Our egos are fragile, you see. And so much of what we do is a mystery, that we really do need to let the world know when we did some tangible part of the finished film.

So here, this one is mine. (The banter doesn’t start until 30 seconds in.)


See also: How Do You Write a Documentary?

The Year in Review, Part 2

What were the most viewed posts on the A Life’s Work blog? Glad you asked.

The list is a little misleading, because some posts have been up for a lot longer than others, and so naturally will have more views. Still, a few posts are telling, like 2 and 13,  which lit up the stats because they were so timely.

  1. Paolo Soleri at Dome House: A Clip
  2. “The definition of life has just expanded”
  3. Unquantifiability of a Place, Part 1: A Clip
  4. The Redwoods: A Longer Clip
  5. Images from the MacDowell Colony
  6. It Was 50 Years Ago Today: A Clip
  7. This Post Is For You, Gearheads! (by Andy Bowley)
  8. Hardest/Easiest Work Environments So Far in 2010 (by Andy Bowley)
  9. Thank You
  10. About the Filmmaker
  11. Mike Disfarmer and A Life’s Work
  12. 10 Ways to Support A Life’s Work
  13. Top 10 Gospel Christmas Songs (by Robert Darden)
  14. Sunset and Sunrise in Arcosanti, AZ: 24 Hours Amidst a Sea of Arcology (by Niall David)
  15. SETI’s Jill Tarter on Gender Bias in the 1950s: A Clip

Apparently, you like clips (1, 3, 4, 6, 15) and you like guest bloggers (7, 8, 13, 14). You also like to be thanked or you like to Google names (9) and you like photos taken at a mysterious artist residency (5).

Why should you care? Because I want to make this blog an interesting experience for you, Dear Reader. And this is one way of figuring out how to do that. But the best way is if you actually tell me. So go ahead, tell me! What do you like? What would you like to see more of? Less of? What would you like that isn’t up there?

And what were my favorite posts? Well, they’re all my children, so I don’t have favorites. But I would add to the above list these (in no particular order):

I like guest bloggers, too (2, 4, 5, and 6). If you’d like to be one, contact me and we’ll work something out.

I also like posts that generate comments, whether that’s on the blog or Facebook or my personal e-mail. So drop me a line.

And Happy New Year. All the best to you and yours in 2011.

Why Is This Pinned to My Corkboard? Part 1

Cinematographers travel with a lot of equipment, and it all looks scary when viewed through an airport x-ray machine. That’s why every time they fly somewhere and unpack the gear bag that’s been checked, they’ll pull out one of these:

I don’t consider myself a cinematographer, though I’ve done a fair amount of shooting for A Life’s Work and for other people’s films, but on my last solo shoot it was with great pleasure that I found the above in my tripod case. Thank you, Transportation Security Administration, for making feel, if not secure, at least like I’ve arrived.

Process – This Is How I Look: A Clip

Here are the first few images shot for A Life’s Work (fall 2006). It’s a distillation of the first twenty minutes of footage.


It’s only after twenty minutes of tape that the fifth shot, the one of Arcosanti, appears, which is to say cinematographer Wolfgang Held shot the landscape around Arcosanti before we attempted to capture the structure.

One of the huge things I’ve learned from the fine cinematographers I’ve been blessed to work with is this: whenever you can, look at the big picture before you get into the details. The big picture in this case was dawn at Arcosanti so we shot the sunrise, and the way we were oriented that morning, Arcosanti was behind us.

Sometimes you can’t look at the big picture. Sometimes, like when you’re following a person in a real-life situation, you need to run and gun. Maybe you walk into a room and a construction meeting is in progress, architectural plans are about to be unfurled. You need to capture that moment before you get a wide shot of the office. You don’t have the luxury of shooting long, wide shots of the office first. But when you’re shooting a place like Arcosanti or static objects like Bristlecone Pine trees you can take your time, concentrate on wide shots, pans, and tilts. I find when I’m doing this, and because I’m doing this, I am learning how to see what is in front of me. The details, the things that will become close ups, slowly make themselves known to me.

So, for me, it’s important to take in the big first and then ease into the details. This seems to be true in A Life’s Work and in life.

One Beginning, Many Starts?

October 30, 2006, cinematographer Wolfgang Held and I landed in Phoenix and drove north to Cordes Junction, where we’d spend the next three days shooting Arcosanti, Cosanti, Dome House, and interview Paolo Soleri. November 3, 2006 we left Cordes Junction and drove to Santa Fe to shoot the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater. November 5th, 2006 we were back in NYC. It seems both like a long time ago and not so long ago.

I had flown out to AZ in August of that year to meet with Soleri and discuss the possibility of his participation in the film (see, From Concept to First Day of Shooting), and Wolfgang and I had shot a lecture Soleri gave at the New School in NYC earlier in October, but for me, this was beginning of the shoot. I suppose that’s because this was the first of the interviews.

Before I started writing this post, I had an idea it would be about how we perceive the passing of time, but it seems this entry wants to be about the semantic differences of “begin” and “start,” so that’s what I’m going with. It occurs to me that the film had a beginning sometime, though when exactly I can’t say, and throughout the process of making it there have been many starts—for example, the start of production, and within that when we started filming each of the subjects, and within those when we started shooting in Cordes Junction and Cave Creek, or Chicago and Waco, or Copemish and Roys Redwood Preserve, or Mountainview and Hat Creek. And within those when we pressed the Record button. And now, the start of post-production.

I suppose there are many finishes, too, and maybe only one end?

Next post: a clip of the first things we shot at Arcosanti and some ruminations on the art of easing in to things.

Photo by Niall David.  Niall contributed a wonderful post that contains a slideshow of his great photos of Arcosanti. Make sure to give it a looksee.

Shoot Journal 08.18.2010

August 18, 2010 – Inyo National Forest: Patriarch Grove

I had an idea that I’d capture the sunrise, which meant getting out of bed around 3am. But insomnia, exhaustion from the day before, and mostly not having spotted a good sunrise location on the 17th kept me in bed until 7am.

Glutes burned most of the morning, thankfully my back kept it together. Lunched on a rock overlooking Patriarch Grove – tuna from a pouch, almonds, banana, water, same as yesterday. I can’t say it was delicious, but it was satisfying.

Yesterday, early into the trek, I realized I needed to not just shoot interesting details of trees, but treat each tree like a character. Today I’ve taken this further and I’ve decided to name the individual trees when I log the footage. Clawhand. Halfdead. Coney. Gorgon. Skyscraper.

Altitude at  Patriarch Grove is 11,000 feet, and to my amazement, I didn’t get altitude sickness. Labored breathing when I had to walk up hill with the gear, but nothing beyond that.

I was going to pull some stills and create a slideshow for this page, but I decided instead to edit together a little sequence. Look for that in the next day or two.

But there should be images and sound, so I’ll share this. On heavy rotation in my head during this shoot day was All Flowers in Time Bend Toward the Sun, a duet  by Jeff Buckley and Elizabeth Fraser. Oh, Elizabeth Fraser, I don’t understand one word you sing, but what is it about your voice that makes my inner most being quiver? (The video isn’t much to look at; the song rips me to shreds every time.)


Shoot Journal 08.17.2010

August 17, 2010 – Schulman Grove, Inyo National Forest, CA

I did not die on the mountain.

Too busy working to be wowed by the trees. Or maybe I was in a constant state of wow?

Don’t think I worked my body this hard ever. Lots of trees. Four and 1/4 mile trail but backtracked to Methuselah Grove, location of the oldest living tree on the planet. (Not picture here.) Physically strenuous with all the stop-and-go, the rough terrain, the heavy and bulky gear, and mentally strenuous with all the looking and mental framing of shots. Thankfully, it wasn’t 100 degrees, more like 70, but the sun was strong at 10,000 feet.

When I made it back to the car after 10 hours on the desolate trail there was a bottle of warm water and an apple waiting for me. I downed the water. I bit into the apple. It was the most delicious apple I had ever tasted and I savored every bite. The fish and chips I ate at a restaurant in Bishop, however…

Here are some stills pulled from the video.

Next installment:  August 18, 2010 – Inyo National Forest: Patriarch Grove

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.

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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