From Concept to First Day of Shooting

Here’s an encore post, written four (FOUR!) years ago, with the first bit of video we shot for A Life’s Work. I hope you like it.

I was having lunch with my friend and colleague, cinematographer Wolfgang Held (who shot Tango Octogenario), and I told him I was thinking about making a documentary. Wolfgang’s background is in documentary film, so naturally he wanted to hear more. I  pitched him two ideas. The first was a film about cover bands–not the casual kind, but the hardcore cover bands, the groups that think they actually are U2 or Led Zeppelin. He liked this idea.

Then I told him about A Life’s Work and his ears perked up a bit more. He recognized that this would be  a very personal film and that excited him. He has that European cinematic sensibility. He asked me if I had subjects in mind. I told him I did. When I told him about Paolo Soleri and Arcosanti, he told me I needed to make this film and he’d be interested in shooting it. Wolfgang’s belief in the idea meant a great deal to me. Shortly after our conversation, I decided to proceed.

I sent an e-mail to a nameless Arcosanti e-mail address and received the following reply:

David,

Please give me a call any time this week to discuss your proposed film — or better yet e-mail me a brief description of what you’re hoping to do, so I can be educated before we speak.

Looking forward to speaking with you.

Stefan

I e-mailed and he replied that he’d discuss the idea with Soleri and get back to me. Stefan  called a week later. “Hi, David. I’m putting Paolo on the line.”

I didn’t have time to be terrified. I told Soleri the premise and he liked the idea. “Perhaps you’ll come visit the Grand Canyon and maybe stop by here too without your camera?”

I told Soleri I’d like that very much. I met with him in Arcosanti in August, and we arranged an October shoot. Simple, right?

Here’s the first bit of video we shot. To read more about that, click here.

[vimeo]https://vimeo.com/16490190[/vimeo]

A thousand and one thanks to Stefan Grace for making the Arcosanti shoot smooth smooth smooth.

By the way, before you decide to run with the cover band idea, you should be aware of two things. 1. Getting the music rights will make you pull out all your hair, and 2. A documentary on the subject has already been made, Tribute. It received good reviews  and lots of airplay on one of the premium cable stations. I’ve never seen it, but would like to.

Process: A Life’s Work and the Canon 5D by Guest Blogger Andy Bowley

Andy Bowley 5D

Today’s post was written by cinematographer Andy Bowley and originally published in June 2010. I’m putting up this “encore post” because shooting video with the Canon 5D has recently come up several times at my day job. That, plus I just like this post and Andy is an awesome writer.

I know. You’ve been wondering after reading this blog: what’s Licata really like to work with in the field? Sure, he seems measured and nice and all when he’s tapping away in his socks, all warm and cozy in his New York apartment–but what’s he like in the trenches? Is he a screamer?

Well, no–the opposite, actually. He’s a wonderful collaborator. But more importantly for my sake, he is well in touch with his inner geek.

Example: When he invited me to shoot the work being done by the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project in Waco, I suggested we do some macro work with extension tubes and obscure Ukrainian/East German lenses to get close-up shots of needles and grooves.

His initial response? “Ooooh”

I told him it would be tweaky and slow working with these lenses, which would sometimes allow us just a millimeter or two of effective focal range — and that we’d have to mount them to a Canon 5D DSLR and go through a not-yet-tested workflow.

His response? “Great. If you can think of more possibilities, bring ‘em on”

Just what I hoped hear. A director with patience. But more importantly, another geek who understood. I was excited. But time was short.

I began to test my macro set-up the next day. I was training for a trail race at the time, running every morning along the paths that cut through a wooded section of Central Park. Along the way I found a pinecone–perfect for the test–and maybe useful for A Life’ s Work.

My Manhattan pinecone had lots of interesting shapes and exuded its own woodsy charisma, but I needed to make it move for the camera. Not having enough time to construct a motorized turntable, I biked to the hardware store, bought a lazy Susan, plunked it under a metal Ikea filing box (the heaviest thing with a flat surface I could find in my apartment,) mounted my Zeiss Jena 80mm lens on an extension tube and tilt adapter, and shot some test footage with the Canon 5D.

The results?

[vimeo width=”500″ height=”300″]http://vimeo.com/12648502[/vimeo]

I liked what the lenses did that day – but the lazy Susan filing box turntable system was less than optimal. No matter. Much of the macro stuff I hoped to shoot in Waco would be moving–records spinning, needles dropping–and if all else failed I could use my new Kessler pocket dolly to make the moves.

That night, I somehow managed to pack all the gear (lights, grip gear, tripod and dolly) into two checked bags. I was leaving for Waco early the next morning.

Tune in next week for Here’s Andy’s post about the shoot and some beautiful HD footage. If you want to read Andy’s tech notes about the pinecone test, click here.

===

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

 

Panic! Is It a Valuable Part of the Process?

In a previous post (The First Cut Is the Hardest), I mentioned how I edit the sit down interviews first. I go through the transcript and select everything one of the film’s subjects said about a certain theme. I then try to construct some kind of arc from that material.

Right now I’m doing this with the “different successes” section.

How Does the SETI Institute Measure Success?

I was particularly interested in how the SETI Institute measured success, and Jill Tarter spoke eloquently about this. So, I edited and edited and edited and came up with these two-minutes.

[audio:http://alifesworkmovie.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/tarter_jill_other-successes.mp3]

It’s not finished. I’m still ambivalent about “and therefore you take your success incrementally.” And the timing will change once the images are on top of it. But overall, I’m somewhat pleased with audio.

I decided I’d keep the beginning as a talking head because she starts off in this contemplative pose.

Jill Tarter
Jill Tarter contemplates my question: How does the SETI Institute measure success?

But  I wanted show Tarter doing something other than sitting in a chair and talking to me, so it  was time to find the visuals that would go over much of this. But first …

 PANIC!!!

Yes, panic. Panic that I don’t have the right footage. Panic that I used all the good footage already. Panic that I didn’t shoot enough. Panic that I need to fire up the camera and shoot more. Panic that I don’t have a clue what to put over this audio in the first place and therefore I’m a total fraud of a filmmaker and I should just go eat some worms. Panic, panic, panic!!!

 And Then About an Hour Later …

I took a breath, closed my eyes, and listened to what Tarter was saying.

“ …my colleagues and I…” “We…”  (seven times in one minute) “For us…” (her emphasis).

Eureka!

Though A Life’s Work is about these subjects, I also want to show at some point that they are not engaged in these endeavors alone. They stand on the shoulders of giants, and they are all part of a team. This is what I heard Tarter saying and this was my opportunity to show the teamwork.

Did I have the footage?

Yes. I had footage of Tarter’s SETI colleagues working, sometimes together, sometimes on their own.

At the Hat Creek Radio Observatory Allen Telescope Array
SETI Institute offices in Mountain View Frank Drake

 

 

But there is no mini-narrative as there is, for example, in the Searching for Gospel Vinyl clip.

Does This Matter?

No.

But Back to the Panic!

Okay, so maybe I exaggerated a little on how much I panicked. But I did panic.

I don’t think panic is a bad thing, as long as you don’t let it take over and/or paralyze you.

A Life’s Work is not on a deadline. This can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I have plenty of time to think and make decisions. On the other hand, there’s no sense of urgency, and sometimes urgency isn’t such a bad thing. Urgency demands quick and often creative decision making. Panic kind of works the same way for me. Sometimes. Maybe. At least in this case it worked.

And now, back to dealing with images that will cover the second half of the audio above. First order of business: some panic.

Has panic ever worked for you? Or is it just bad, bad, BAD!

 

Editing a Setback Sequence – Process

Previously, on A Life’s Work blog

In a previous post I wrote  about the process of editing a clip from the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project section of A Life’s Work. Since I’ve been working on the subsequent section of the BGMRP story I thought, why not share that process as well?

You don’t need to view the previous clip, but it might put this one in context a bit more. So here’s the clip. Or read on.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxtEO1JGWoQ[/youtube]

So in that previous clip that you may or may not have viewed, Robert Darden lists the numerous challenges the BGMRP faces while the visuals take us part way through the process of archiving some rare vinyl. Audio engineer Tony Tadey role is prominent. What’s not in the clip above, but is in a newly re-edited clip, is Robert expressing his concern about the project’s reliance on the audio engineer position, and how that position is not financially secured.

“… if he’s gone and we don’t have money to hire another audio engineer, then everything comes to a halt,” Darden says.

I wanted to resume showing the archiving process. The newly re-edited clip ends with the needle dropping on the record and the sound of the pre-music scratchiness of stylus on vinyl. I liked the idea of ending that section with some suspense. What are we going to hear? (Note that the clip above starts playing music, a different song than you’ll hear at the start of the clip below.)

Right here’s the new clip.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2dmHvFA-3I[/youtube]

Where to Begin the Editing Process?

As with every section, the editing process begins with the subject telling the story in his or her words. In this section, the narrative was all about the hurdle the BGMRP encountered. There really wasn’t that much editing to do to the spoken word. When Bob described what happened, he did it in his usual articulate manner. Sometimes I’ll ask essentially the same question twice, but rephrase it to see if I can get something new the second time around. Here, it wasn’t necessary.

When I put together the talking head selex, I had three longish sections that were very rich. In fact, I considered using just these three extended interview bits, going to black briefly between them. But I thought better of it. One reason: I wanted to use some music, and this was a perfect opportunity to do that. What you’re hearing is the first minute of a gospel standard, Old Ship of Zion by an ultra-obscure gospel quartet called the Mighty Wonders of Acquasco Maryland. Very little is known about them. If you know something, please let me know.

What Images Shall I Use?

I was picking up where the last section left off, so we’re in the digitization room. But what shot should I start with?

I could have simply resumed with the last shot from the previous clip, that beautiful extreme close up of the stylus riding the grooves of a 45. I dismissed that idea quickly. I wanted to start somewhere new. For the first few versions, I started with what is now the second shot — the tilt down that is a little abstract. But since this section is about Tony, I decided to start on Tony. I liked the medium shot of him at the console. The lighting is bright. The shot looks kind of  … pedestrian, but I liked how this shot would set up the ones that would follow.

Deciding to Go for It

I really liked the idea of this music showing the listener’s world as colorful, fluid, dynamic, maybe even ecstatic.

And layered. (0:33 to 0:53)

Tony Tadey Digitizes Vinyl

When I first looked through footage of Tony at the monitors, the distortion in his glasses grabbed my attention. Then I noticed how prominent his ear was in some of these over the shoulder shots, and I knew I had to use one of those. Audio engineers hear more acutely than most of us.

When I was putting these shots together, I was timidly crossfading them. Then I thought, why not try superimposing. I had seen a few effective instances of this recently, so I decided why not. What did I have to lose?

Right now, I’m very happy with the superimposition. I can hear some film editors I know grumbling, but for now, I’m going with it. I like how expressionistic it is. I lucked out with how the audio waveform seemingly went right into his ear. This bit is a stretch for A Life’s Work. It isn’t really in keeping with the rest of the style of the film, but I think that’s okay. I’m comfortable leaving my comfort zone here.

The waveforms you’re seeing do not correspond to the song you’re hearing, and I know of at least one audio engineer who will bristle, but for now, for this rough cut, these shots work for me. That’s how it is with documentaries. You fudge sometimes. Actually, it could be argued that whenever a cut is made, even the most verite of cinema verite filmmakers is fudging.

 One Very Short Minute Later

A minute in, Robert appears. That minute goes by very quickly to me. The music makes the time fly.

I have a fondness for starting stories, paragraphs, and sentences with the word “and.” It immediately signals that something came before this moment, that this moment is not the beginning. I thought starting with “And” here was a good way to go. I’d like to start the film with one of the subjects saying, “And…”

He’s on screen unedited for 20 seconds, which is actually a relatively long time. But I felt it was warranted because he’s emotional here and I wanted to show his passion.

Cut to the extreme close up, which cinematographer Andy Bowley shot with his Canon DSLR and some exotic lens or other.

Stylus rides vinyl, shot by a Canon DSLR

Back to Reality

As Robert is talking about the setback, so the images leave the ecstatic and return to that pedestrian real world. Tony at the console. Tony listening, no superimposition, no distortion in his glasses.

Back to Robert. Earlier in the film (the first clip above), we saw Robert and Tony going through recently donated records, and I think Andy captured their friendship — it’s a relationship full of respect and admiration for each other. Robert and Tony have nothing but great things to say about each other on camera and off. I wanted to show early that Tony was more than a guy turning knobs and pushing buttons, that he was a beloved part of a team. That way when you heard and saw Robert speaking about Tony’s departure, you knew what that departure meant.

Back to the studio and Tony lifting the needle off the record. I have many shots of the needle being dropped and the needle being lifted. Those were important moments to me. These shots happen all over the 45, beginning, middle, and end. I couldn’t resist using a needle lift in the middle of the song. Just as I like starting with “and,” I also like ending abruptly in the middle of sentences and songs. It was really the only way to go here. The BGMRP’s story was being interrupted.

Full Stop

Then the record stops spinning.

Often with editing, it’s what’s you don’t include that makes the difference. In previous cuts of this clip, this bit included shots of Tony shutting off the monitors, turning off the room lights, and exiting the studio. It was clunky and not working at all. It took me having to go through the pain of editing those in before I realized the record coming to a stop worked much better.

Back to Robert. By the way, Andy shot these interviews with his Letus rig, which gives it that nice, filmic, depth of field. When we discussed using it, I was a little concerned about matching it with the other interview segments, but Andy was very reassuring. Once I started cutting it in, I knew without a doubt it was the right decision. It also gives us a visual cue that something is different from it was back when we saw Robert in the previous sections of the film.

Dark Light Dark

Baylor University's vinyl digitization room

This is where the clip shifts a little, and this shot sets that up. For the next minute, most of the visuals will be about darkness-light-darkness.

The headphones. As I recall, Andy was kind of drawn to these headphones resting on that table like that. If you look very closely you’ll see a little movement in the silver part of the headphone — a reflection, probably mine. I like the idea of rooms containing some kind of ghostly presence, and I thought this was one way to show that. Maybe it’s too subtle, but I like to think this kind of thing is communicated even though we may not consciously register that small a detail.

I’m not totally satisfied with the pans and tilts of the LPs. Those will be worked on. But I think they get the idea across for now.

“I Need More Faith”

Back to Robert on screen for 20 seconds. This bit… my goodness. Often, when you’re conducting an interview, you don’t know what’s precious and what’s not. I don’t know about other people, but I usually only realize it when I’m transcribing or editing. Your attention is divided when you’re interviewing, but the captured footage tells you all. But I remember when Robert said, “Okay, I need more faith,” during the interview, I had to stop myself from crying. Every time I see it tears well up in my eyes. Maybe I relate it to the struggle of making this film, that sometimes “I need more faith” to finish this project, but to me, this is one of the three best lines in the film. Maybe the best outright.

I ended this clip with the tilt down the Mahalia album cover. I chose this album cover when we were shooting because it referred back to Robert talking about the first gospel album he heard. At the time, I didn’t have the darkness-light-darkness motif in mind, but as I was assembling this, it made sense to me. In its own small way, those shots are what the film is about. They say when we embark on long-term projects, we travel through periods of darkness and light, fallow times and productive times, periods when everything is going right, all the stars properly aligned, and periods when everything seems to be not that.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and if you made it this far, thanks for going the distance with me.

If you felt like going a little further, leave a comment or ask a question. I love hearing from you.

 

Lost Gospel Music Clip – Process

Before I get to the clip, some background. My first meeting with Bob Darden of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project was in Chicago, August 2009. During our sit down interviews it became clear very quickly that I would have to go to Baylor University (Waco, TX) to shoot audio engineer Tony Tadey in action. And so I did. The footage with Bob and Tony was shot April 2010, the interview footage is from that Chicago meeting.

Here’s the clip.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxtEO1JGWoQ[/youtube]

First Things First

The first thing I wanted to do was edit the sit down interview. In this section I wanted to present the reasons why so much Black gospel music is lost, so I went through the paper transcripts and selected each bit where Bob spoke about this. I cut and pasted these instances and put them in a separate document and edited and edited and edited this text until I thought it contained the important information, had a narrative flow, and was the right length. But the spoken words and its transcription are very different. Sometimes what works on paper cannot be made to work in the audio. For example, a subject’s sentences may rush into each other, or an intonation might suggest he’s continuing to speak while on paper you can make the sentence come to a full stop. For this clip I was lucky and I was able to make the digital audio work without much hair-pulling.

When to Show What

Great. I have Bob’s sit down stuff strung together. I’m trying to make this film with minimal talking heads, but there are times when I want to show the subject’s face during the interview. So I marked the bits where I thought Bob’s face was especially expressive or telling us something in addition to the words he spoke. I definitely wanted to show Bob deliver the “pool of wax,” and “given them to you!” lines.

While I was editing the audio, I was thinking about what visuals I could put over it. I thought it might be an effective contrast to show the process of the music being preserved as Bob spoke about why it’s lost, so I decided to use the digitization process.

Before we shot anything at Baylor I had a made a few practical decisions. One was we would shoot a couple of 45s as they made their way through the process. The record I chose to focus on for this clip was The Unfolding Book of Life, by Rev. Cleophus Robinson on the Peacock label. I liked the title a lot. You’ll see it throughout the clip.

Establishing shot. I have footage of the Baylor campus and exterior shots of the library where the archiving and digitization takes place, and that will be used — must be used — at some point, but for the purposes of a discrete section like this it wasn’t necessary. So I decided to use the exterior of Tony’s office. I liked the little move (a Canon 5D on a mini dolly). The office nameplate was a simple way to introduce Tony. (In the whole film, we were introduced to Bob long ago.)

Gospel Music, Love, and Money

When I was choosing selex I was struck by how delicately Bob and Tony handled the vinyl, how much they smiled and laughed as they looked at the labels, how much they enjoyed each others company. There was a lot of love in that room.

Bob listed many reasons why so much gospel music is lost; I wasn’t going to order those reasons randomly. What in his litany would work with the love in that room? Collectors, definitely. That’s a special kind of love. And capitalism! In this case, the love of money trumping every other kind of love, including the love of doing the right thing. Showing Bob and Tony’s love for this music was a great contrast to what Bob was saying about corporations interested only in the bottom line. I knew I had to have this “on the fly” exchange during the capitalism bit —

Robert: “Man that is battered.”
Tony: “You can tell that really was loved.”

I was really excited about that one. The first minute came together pretty quickly, the images and spoken words had a nice symbiotic relationship.

Time to get out of Tony’s office and into the scanner room. Cinematographer Andy Bowley and I loved this room, what with that giant scanner and its high contrast dark and light. I liked the idea of contrasting the high tech and very expensive equipment in this room with the picture Bob was painting of mom and pop record labels that had no money for good record keeping, good storage, etc.

The Exciting and the Boring

Editing these shots in the scanner room I wanted to focus on light and the movement of light. You’ll notice the light traversing the bed of the scanner and the light shifting on Darryl Stuhr’s face. I wanted to time this sequence of shots so that we came back to Bob’s sit down interview for his line, “So when we got there it was just a pool of wax.” Light moving like that can evoke revelation and it can evoke the passing of time. I like to think here it evokes both.

On to the next challenge and another step in the process. Inputting of information needed to be shown, and though someone sitting and typing doesn’t usually make for exciting film, I do have a fondness for closeups of words materializing one letter at a time on paper or a monitor. So we shot Amanda Harlan entering the data — “Unfolding Book of Life” — and a closeup of the words “unfolding” on Amanda’s (and your) monitor. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.

The transition from Amanda typing to Tony examining a 45 is my least favorite edit in this clip, and probably will not remain. I tried to make it work based on the tilt up of the camera, but it’s awkward and takes place off the beat during Bob’s audio — too much off the beat. If you watch the entire clip closely, you’ll notice that the edits occur during natural strong breaks in Bob’s speech — at the end of sentences or clauses. This one does not. I did like the contrast of “took them to the dump” and Tony cleaning the 45.

Lies

By the way, this part of the process, the cleaning, took place before the scanning, but I played with the truth a little bit. Us documentary filmmakers do that sometimes, play with the truth. Why did I do that?

I wanted to focus on Tony for an uninterrupted chunk of time. Two reasons: He’s the one who does the technical stuff. Bob is the first to admit that he is not the tech guy and he does not have the super sensitive ears of an audio engineer. Tony is an audio engineer extraordinaire. I also wanted to show that these endeavors, BGMRP, SETI, Arcosanti, Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, are not one-person operations. This is obvious, but up to this point in the film I’ve been focusing on one person per project. (I treat Jared and David Milarch as one person.) In focusing on Tony (and showing other people in the other projects — like the students at SETI) I’m hoping viewers will have an a-ha moment and see that these projects are undertaken by a community and have heirs. There is another reason I decided to spend so much time on Tony here, but I can’t tell you what that is just yet.

Wrapping It Up

We shot a ton of great footage of Tony working. I choose the shots I loved. I have a fetish for those little yellow inserts, so that had to be in there! The care Tony takes centering the 45 shows the attention again, the love. I wanted to draw out the needle dropping on the vinyl as long as I could because I think that moment is magical — a stylus finding its groove, very rich. Andy shot that with his Canon 5D and some bizarre old Eastern European lens and I love the look of it; the depth of field is amazing. (You can watch a clip of the 5D footage, put together by Andy. Gearheads can read about Andy’s equipment here.) And from here I wanted to go to the monitors. I asked Andy to shoot the heck out of the monitors because those lines and bars are mesmerizing. I played with the truth again by using a shot of the monitor that is not from the sound you’re hearing. I think I matched it well enough so that I could sneak it by, unless you are an audio engineer. (Sorry Tony, I know that drives you crazy, but I had to do it.)

And then a simple fade out.

Hope you enjoyed this look at how I put this clip together. In a future post I’ll write about the material that didn’t make it into this clip.

[cross posted on extracriticum.com]

Process: Some Writing

I’m very pleased to announce that a flash fiction piece I wrote, The Wolf Is in the Kitchen, was recently published in Sole Literary Journal.

When Sole notified me they were taking it, I decided to look back at how this piece transformed draft by draft. And since I’m wearing my writer hat at this residency, I thought I might share some writerly process stuff.

The Wolf Is in the Kitchen is based on an experience I had as a child. This event happened at the age when I was realizing that I was an individual. As an adult I recognize it as a key moment in my awareness of my identity as an Italian hyphen American.

How many drafts?

Twelve.

Drafts one (May 2, 2010) through five were written from the point of view of an adult remembering an event in his childhood. The narrator then recounts the different paths the two main characters traveled after the event. I worked on these drafts for 10 days that May. I thought I had completed it with draft five and sent it to a few places. No takers. I put it aside.

October 2010 I was visiting a friend in North Carolina and something about the change of scenery inspired me to revisit the story. After reading it, I decided to make a big change. I kept the first person narrator, but now the event is being told from the point of view of the nine-year-old boy. The story shifted its focus; it had become about knowledge gained and innocence lost. I sent it to a couple of places November 2010. No takers. I put it away. Honestly, at that time, I lost faith in it as a story.

I opened it again one day in October 2011. I liked the story this time. I recast a sentence and decided to send it out. On November 11, 2011 I sent it to Sole.

The first draft is 678 words, the final draft is 576 words. The longest draft was 859 words.
The first sentence changed seven times.
The last sentence changed eight times.
The two most significant edits: changing the narrator from adult to child and adding a semicolon in the final paragraph (draft 12).

When you get down to it, it’s all about making decisions, from start (is this event something I want to transform into a work of fiction) to finish (semicolon or no semicolon).

Directing a film is all about making decisions, too.

I suspect so too are writing and directing one’s life.

What a D.P. Sees

I am always awed by how cinematographers see so much more than I do. We can be looking at exactly the same thing, the same angle, the same  frame, and they’ll register all sorts of details, big and small, on an initial viewing that I won’t see until I’ve viewed the footage they shot several times.

In July, cinematographer Andy Bowley and I went to Arcosanti to shoot some construction and conduct a follow-up interview with Paolo Soleri. Here’s what Andy saw through the viewfinder during the interview.

During David’s last interview with Arcosanti architect Paolo Soleri, I was struck by what I witnessed through the camera – something rare and powerful and surprising. Initially our interview clicked along in the usual way: director asks question, subject answers.

But halfway through, David asked Soleri how he maintained his motivation — and then went on to admit there were times when he had difficulty maintaining his enthusiasm for A Life’s Work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a director show such vulnerability to an interview subject during an interview. It was startling to me – a wonderful moment. But what put it over the top was Paolo’s silent reaction: he leaned forward to listen, smiling and avuncular and compassionate, and then went on to answer the question in the broadest philosophical terms anyone could imagine.

Soleri’s expression said so much to me about the relationship between the filmmaker and subject.  Sure they had been jousting all along – Paolo endlessly skirting David’s more personal questions, David dancing and jabbing as best he could, but underneath it all there was also a kind of artistic connection between them –  clearly (and wordlessly!) established during this one little moment.

It strikes me as such an important thing in any documentary: a nod to the audience, no matter how subtle, that there is a process going on. There are pointed cameras and hovering furry microphones, and most importantly a relationship, often rich and complex, evolving between the subject and the filmmaker.

Andy Bowley is a NYC-based cinematographer whose projects have won many national Emmys and one Peabody.

Andy’s other posts:

Charismatic Manhattan Pinecone Test

This Post Is For You, Gearheads!

Hardest/Easiest Work Environments So Far in 2010

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: What I’m Thinking When I’m Shooting – Clips

Here’s an excerpt from the Redwoods section of the sample of A Life’s Work. Notice the first two shots and the last two shots.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/30638499[/vimeo]

Here’s about five and half minutes of raw footage from the Redwoods shoot. The first two and last two shots from the first clip come from this raw footage.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/30637194[/vimeo]

This was one of the rare shoots I went on solo, so I can tell you what I was going for with that camera in my hand. If you look at the full Redwoods section you’ll see men ascending the trees and cutting clippings, clippings falling to the ground, men descending the trees, more cutting of clippings on the ground, and packing up the clippings. That was the goal: document the process from start to finish.

In the raw footage above the goal was to capture these guys clipping and bagging. I was working hand held, and I moved around a little bit. I wanted to get different angles within a 180 degree arc and different sizes — close ups, medium shots and long shots. I was thinking about how this little sequence might be edited together as I was shooting, so I was conscious of “matching” shots, that is, I was consciously trying to get a long shot of a man with a clipper in his right hand, shoot a close up of the clippers, get a shot of clippings being placed in a bag or cooler. That way the shots could be edit seamlessly together. I kept thinking: different sizes, different angles, give the editor as many options as possible. Frame the shots simply. Nothing distracting or disorienting. In the raw footage you’ll see the tripod as the camera follows the climbers out of the alcove and approach the cooler (4:20 to 4:35). Bad bit of luck there.

As I look at the footage now, I think I did an okay job, and maybe the proof of that is in the excerpt, but I probably should have shot this without engaging the climbers. After all, my aim wasn’t to interview them (they aren’t the subjects, David Milarch is), but to get footage of them packing up the clippings. In my defense, I knew at the time that the footage I would need from this setup would be minimal, and I was confident I was covering that. With that in mind, I felt free to talk to them, because you never know what you might get. Also I wanted to talk to these guys because I really liked them, so I indulged, and I don’t regret that at all. More on that in a future post.

See also Why Do I Keep This in My Wallet? a post about the jitters I felt before this shoot.

This post is dedicated to John Metzdorf, tree lover.

The Other Subject – An Etruscan Expert? A Clip

Etruscans with tree

I had an idea early on that I wanted to include someone trying to decipher an ancient language; code breaking, essentially. I researched and discovered that Etruscan was one of these undeciphered languages. Etruscan. Tuscany. My ancestors. Very exciting stuff. They left behind tombs with spectacular frescos that predate the Roman Empire. A little more research led me to Larissa Bonfante, a Professor of Classics at New York University (convenient), who had written with Giuliano Bonfante, her father (perfect), a book called The Etruscan Language. I imagined stacks of books, parchments, furrowed brows, note taking, paper crumpled up in frustration and thrown in the general of a wastebasket. I imagined shooting in those tombs in Tuscany. I knew this would be a logistical nightmare, but still. Shooting in Tuscany!

In the fall of 2006 Professor Larissa Bonfante agreed to participate. My first interviews were audio only. She then graciously invited me and cinematographer Rob Featherstone into her introductory Classics class for undergrads. There was interesting stuff going on, and her students were very bright, engaged, and photogenic.

But there was a big problem. There really isn’t much Etruscan to decipher. The Etruscans had literature and theater, in fact, they were a highly literate society, but the Romans assimilated them; Etruscan culture slowly died out and the language gave way to Latin. Mostly, the Romans weren’t interested Etruscan things, though the Emperor Claudius was. The most significant surviving Etruscan text was written on linen and preserved by accident, used as a mummy wrapping.

Still, I was determined.

I started putting together one of the first samples back in the spring of 2007, having by that time conducted my first interviews with Soleri, Tarter, and Milarch. I had Bonfante in there, but it just wasn’t working, the connections were nebulous, at best. I didn’t dismiss the Etruscan angle outright, but I put it aside. I found out about Robert Darden and pursued him, decided on four subjects, and so…

It was difficult for me to tell Professor Bonfante that I wasn’t going to be using her in the film. She was, as she had been all along, extremely gracious.

Here’s some footage we shot in the classroom. I love the little vase they’re passing around, and I love the discussion taking place. If you look closely at the wide shots, you’ll see in the mirror Rob operating the camera. I’m holding the boom, obscured. I like this, too.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/24696309[/vimeo]

Enormous thanks to Larissa Bonfante and her students for letting us into their world.

I Can Hear Music

For someone who studied music and plays music, I have a difficult time knowing what music to use with these moving images I capture. So much so that in my first film I didn’t use music at all, but used a multi-layered sound design instead. With Tango Octogenario, I knew I had to use tango music and I listened to a lot of it, but none of it really worked for me. Then on February 4, 2002 I was listening to Irene Trudel’s show on the great WFMU and she played “La Camorra 1” composed and performed by Astor Piazzolla. I knew immediately this was the music for the film; it was a lightening bolt moment. (I am eternally grateful to WFMU and give every year to their fundraising drive, which is going on now through 3/13/11. Consider supporting them.)

Photo by Peter LaMastro.

“La Camorra 1” is a tango, but Piazzolla composed it for the concert hall, not the dance hall. (Piazzolla famously resented people dancing to his music.) “La Camorra 1” perfectly captured the arc of the story and the dance: it began angrily, it mellowed, it became somber, and then ended joyously—all in about three minutes.

When I played it for the stars of the film, Alex and Jean Turney, they told me it was impossible to dance to. But I was convinced they could, but more importantly, the choreographer, Nancy Turano, convinced them they could. The three of them put the dance together. Alex and Jean grew to love “La Camorra 1.” Though I’m proud of Tango, I can no longer watch it, for various reasons. But I never tire of hearing it.

I mention this because the other day I was listening to the great KALX and heard a piece of music that struck me with that same lightening bolt. There’s a long way to go before I start making decisions about music, but I’m very excited now to have discovered … well, I can’t say. But I will say this, why it took me so long to recognize the obvious is beyond me. And I will also say this, the day before hearing said piece, I came across this quote on the Arhoolie website: Psalm 150:4 “praise Him with stringed instruments.”

It looks like I will be eternally grateful, and pledging my support, to two radio stations now.