A Lot with a Little

I was going through my closet the other day and came across a flat file that contained this:

This poster, designed by Heidi Fener, is for my first film, 8 1/2 x 11. (Heidi also designed the poster, postcards and DVD cover for Tango Octogenario.)

8 1/2 x 11 was an exercise in economy, from script to publicity materials.

I love what Heidi did here. She knew I had limited resources, so she designed something I could duplicate in any b&w copier that would make 11 x 14 inch copies (such as the copier at the job I had then) and left space for me to put date and venue information. The graphic elements worked well together–the highlighter is black and white, but I colored it in pink along with the stars names* and the job listings (they are of the jobs the interviewee in the film is up for). The date and venue info was printed as needed on a label sheet using a standard ink jet printer (such as the printer at the job I had then). For the film’s premiere in Taos, NM, I ordered a bunch of pink highlighters with the film’s title and tag line on it and handed those out to the viewers. Pretty cohesive for a first, short film.

I love the challenge of working with limitations and turning them into assets. It’s actually the kind of thing I live for, maybe because I never have had unlimited resources.  Certainly production of A Life’s Work was conducted that way,** and now, as I head into post, the real challenge of doing a lot with very little will ramp up.

* The font may be too small in this image to read her name, but if you watch the film you may recognize a certain Meredith Grey. Yeah, that Ellen Pompeo. If you want to know what she was like on the set, go here.

** Just to be clear, there is a world of difference between doing a lot with a little and cutting corners. I don’t believe in cutting corners, and I don’t believe people should work for free. I respect a person’s time and talent. I may not pay the folks I work with what they make on a union gig, but I don’t insult them, either.

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.

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

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.

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.)

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8T3EI4PgEA[/youtube]

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

Shoot Journal – 08.16.2010

I don’t keep a daily journal, but I do keep shoot journals and editing journals. Here is an excerpt from the recent Bristlecone Pine Pine Forest shoot journal.

August 16, 2010

Travel day. Six hour flight to San Francisco, six hour drive to Bishop. I had done the math abstractly. Leave JFK at 8:15, arrive SFO  before noon. Arrive in Bishop, CA before sundown. But I hadn’t done the math plus the reality.

Now, on the plane, on this seemingly interminable flight (infant in front of me that won’t stop yammering the same sentence: “It’s pretty, mama!”) I’m beginning to wonder if my scheduling was sound. Should I have planned on spending the first night in SF and driving to Bishop the next morning? I’m beginning to wonder about the shoot. Expected highs in Bishop of 100 degrees. Altitude of 10,000 feet. Going solo and lugging the gear – tripod, camera, pack full of accessories and lunch and water. What was I thinking? I’m going to die on that mountain. Were all those jokes about not finishing the film in my lifetime more than jokes, were they prophetic?

I drive the rental car out of the lot and my mood shifts. Half way through the drive on 108 I hit Stanislaus National Forest and then Toiyabe National Forest. I’m driving on nausea-inducing winding roads through Ansel Adams photographs, but I’m not feeling sick. I’m excited again. I stop the car and take some photos. I drive by Mono Lake and then through Inyo National Forest as the sun sets. There is no time to scout.  I arrive in Bishop, check into my motel, get some Mexican food, and plan tomorrow’s day.

This will be a good shoot.

Next installment, Shoot Journal – 08.17.2010: The first day of shooting.

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 pentaconsix.com website.

Links

focus

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]

What Was I Thinking?

David Milarch, Paolo Soleri, Jill Cornell Tarter, Robert Darden.
David Milarch, Paolo Soleri, Jill Tarter, Robert Darden.

I recently watched “The Making of Touch the Sound,” one of the extras on Thomas Riedelsheimer’s film about percussionist Evelyn Glennie. In it Riedelsheimer reveals that he envisioned the staged improvisational musical segments between Glennie and composer Fred Frith to be the spine of the film. The director planned on showing them footage of the film with the idea that the musicians would then improvise based on those images. But the musicians balked.

Frith tells the filmmaker, “I think the danger is when you give an idea which has got too much information and therefore whatever we do tends to become descriptive and I think descriptive music is not good. It fails. It doesn’t describe anything.”

Cut to the director addressing the camera–

“My idea was to give them ideas to which they could improvise. At the time I didn’t know that this is a contradiction in terms, as improvising requires the liberation from any conception or idea.”

And so Glennie and Frith let the space, the moment, and each other inspire them, not the footage. Riedelsheimer was clearly not pleased. At the time, he saw what he imagined as the entire structure of his film fall apart.

This struck a chord. Before filming began, I had many ideas about what A Life’s Work was going to be and not going to be. I am sticking with many of these ideas, but I have jettisoned just as many if not more. Some because they were impractial, some because they were incompatible, and some because they were just stinker ideas.

For instance: No talking heads. I was going to use just the subject’s voices over images of their work and images of them working. Talking heads, I convinced myself, were a crutch. I carried this idea to an extreme and conducted my first interview with Arcosanti architect Paolo Soleri audio only. Not surprisingly, this did not please Wolfgang Held, the cinematographer. We had an animated discussion about it the day of the first interview and I won that battle. The next day we interviewed Soleri in front of the camera.

Look at these faces. I can’t believe I thought my audio only idea was a good one. And the thing is, I love the human face and find it a fascinating subject to photograph. There is no living thing on the planet more expressive. Since that interview, I conduct all interviews in front of the camera. So, what was I thinking? In my defense I can only say that I have a tendency to be reactionary. And you know, the idea isn’t always a terrible one. It worked brilliantly in Al Reinert’s For All Mankind, a wonderful documentary composed of NASA Apollo footage and audio only interviews with Apollo astronauts. But Reinert’s film is a special case and that approach wouldn’t work for A Life’s Work.

Thankfully, I was saved from this idea very quickly. I’m awfully glad I have people around me who will call me on stuff, because in the end, it’s not about implementing all of my ideas, it’s about what works best for the film.

From Concept to First Day of Shooting

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?

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.

The Inspiration for the Film

I can usually pinpoint the moment one of my works was conceived. With A Life’s Work, I cannot precisely state day and date, but I can say with certainty the events that inspired it. When I was nine years old or so I remember being told by my teacher that medieval cathedrals took hundreds of years to construct, that their architects would not see them completed, that generations of stonemasons would work on them. This bit of information made quite an impression on my young mind. To this day, whenever I see a cathedral I become that awestruck nine-year-old.

After completing my previous film, Tango Octogenario, I had decided I wanted to make a documentary. I had several ideas and was researching them. In September of 2004 my mother died after a lengthy battle with cancer. Sometime during my grief, this time of sorrow and contemplation about purpose, mortality, time, and legacy, I thought about the cathedrals, and the idea for A Life’s Work was born–a documentary about people doing work they may not see completed.

But going from conception to actualization is an enormous step, one I’ll write about in another post.