The Nicest People in the World

Laboratory for Tree Ring Research U of AZ

Many years ago, when A Life’s Work was granted fiscal sponsorship by the New York Foundation for the Arts, I met with a NYFA advisor. She was a wonderful woman, a filmmaker, with positive energy emanating from every pore. She looked at the people I had lined up to work on the film and commended me on my choices. I told her a few of them had agreed to work for rates well below what they usually charged, below the friend rate, even. The advisor said, “It always amazes me. In the film business, you meet with the nicest people in the world, and the … not nicest people in the world.”

I interacted with both recently. And in a previous draft of this post I included the latter but I’ve cut it because there’s more than enough negativity going around. So here, the latest instance of dealing with the nicest people.

Laboratory for Tree Ring Research U of AZ
Matthew Salzer in front of a 1,407 year-old giant sequoia from California.

In January I went to Tucson, AZ, for a pick up shoot at the Laboratory for Tree Ring Research; they have a couple of crosscuts of the Prometheus tree there and I needed those shots for the film. I had been using a placeholder, a couple of stylized shots taken from a Nova episode I digitize from a VHS. When I reached out to license that footage, the company that owned it wanted an obscene amount for 10 seconds. So obscene that flying out to AZ, renting a car, buying meals and gas, all of it, would be significantly cheaper. And I’d get the footage I wanted.

Canon 5D on slider

I lined up the logistics of the shoot with Professor Matthew Salzer of the University of Arizona’s Laboratory for Tree Ring Research and needed only one thing. A camera. (My camera is obsolete.) I considered renting one and looked at prices, and they were reasonable, but being the poor, cheapskate that I am, I asked filmmaker, collaborator, and dear friend Wolfgang Held if he had a camera he didn’t need that week and would he consider renting it to me. He offered me his Canon 5D, two lenses, some other accessories, and a traveling bag. And he would not rent it, but he would lend it to me. I was  deeply moved by my friend’s generosity.

I paid him back with lunch and a thousand thank yous. But I like to think I paid him back in another way, too.  Enter my colleague at the education factory, Sam Richman.

When I was about 13 and developing an interest in photography, my father brought home a camera bag with an old Pentax 35mm and some lenses; apparently, “they had fallen off a truck.” Inspired by cinematographer Andy Bowley’s use of funky lenses, I brought them into work for possible use with our 7D. Sam and I played with them a bit, and then into the factory’s camera bag they went.

About a month later, Sam asked if he could borrow my 35mm lens (the one in the foreground) for a personal project.  I didn’t ask about the project or how long he’d need it, but said yes without hesitation. He borrowed it for a weekend and on Monday he showed me why he needed a slightly wide lens.

Here is the result: a video he made with his band for NPR’s Tiny Desk competition. Sam is on drums.

Sam paid me back with enchiladas. Later he told me he finds himself helping out his friends’ film projects just to help them out.

And so it goes. You’ve got to  keep the giving in circulation.

Do you have a favorite pay-it-forward story? How about sharing it in the comments below!

Big shout out to Matt, who made the shoot stress-free.

If you’d like to pay it forward by helping out A Life’s Work, you can do so by clicking the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute. All we need is $10,000 for color correcting and sound mixing and then the film will be ready to go into the world!  Pretty exciting, right?

Click the button, 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, too!


Learning to See

I subscribe to the American Society of Landscape Architect‘s newsletter, The Dirt.  Recently Nate Wooten covered a lecture delivered by landscape architect Shane Coen, ASLA, founder of Coen + Partners, who started off by asking:

Who Taught You How to See?

For Coen, the answer is his father, the painter Don Coen. After I read the piece I wondered about the idea of learning to see. Most of us with unimpaired vision just see, there’s no learning involved. It’s like breathing, right? Well, no. There’s seeing and there’s seeing! (And anyone who is serious about meditation or yoga will tell you there’s breathing and there’s breathing!)

So, how did I learn to see?  Who taught me? Thinking back, there have been a few people who taught me different aspects of  this skill.

When I was in college, I was visiting my friend Meg at the University of Delaware. It was a late spring afternoon and we sat on a bench. Meg was a graphic design major with a fondness for David Hockney. Somehow we got to talking about color and she directed my attention to a tree . “I mean, look at that tree. Look at all those greens!”Greens

Yes, I knew there were different greens, as a child I had the big box of Crayola crayons with all its shades of green. But this was different. That tree showed me hundreds, maybe thousands of greens. It was positively eye-opening, and no, there were no mind-altering substances involved.

About twenty years later I took a figure drawing class at the New School. I enrolled because I wanted to use a part of my brain I felt I wasn’t using and I wanted to challenge myself, do something I had convinced myself I couldn’t do. The teacher was, Simon Dinnerstein, a very fine artist. I would leave his class and take the train home and stare at faces for more time than subway decorum dictates. I wasn’t seeing “faces,” I was seeing lines, tracing them with the pencil in  mind’s eye, trying to figure out how I’d draw that nose, that chin, that hair. I had never looked at the human body like this before.

8th Month and 9th Month
Simon Dinnerstein beside his drawings “8th Month” and “9th Month.” Photo by Jeffrey Wiener.

Several years later I was in Michigan with cinematographer Wolfgang Held. We were shooting David Milarch as he walked through a forest. It was snowing and windy. We were looking around for some b-roll footage. I became mesmerized by tree tops swaying. I told Wolfgang I wanted that shot and he said the camera wouldn’t capture it the way I was seeing it.  He was correct.  Before he said that I knew cameras didn’t “see” like eyes, but it wasn’t until he said that that I apprehended it.  Despite this display of ignorance Wolfgang, whenever he saw that something caught my attention, would ask,  “What are you seeing?”

David Licata and Wolfgang Held in Arizona during the first shoot.
David Licata and Wolfgang Held in Arizona during the first shoot.

I was flattered the first time he asked that but I also understood that, yes, cinematographers see better than I do, but sometimes (rarely)  I see things they don’t.

And that’s why now that I act as a cinematographer at my day job at the education factory,  I ask my assistant (when I have one), “What are you seeing?”

There are many other people who taught me how to see. How to see buildings, stars, art, gestures, acting, edits, birds, rocks, lichen, fire, emotions and more. And of course there are many people who taught me how to hear and taste and …

Who taught you how to see?

For more about seeing color check out this episode of RadioLab.

Want to help A Life’s Work?

Donate Now!


Record Store Day

Happy Record Store Day

Many many years ago I worked in a record store in Hackensack, NJ with a whole mess of great people, many of whom I’m still in touch with. (Hi Rita, Sam, Bob, Jack, Helen, and Wayne.) Though it was a chain store and not an independently owned shop, it was still very High Fidelity. Oh, the lists…

A certain kind of person works in a record store, then and now. Then the customers ran the gamut, from Kenny G. fans to people who couldn’t wait to get the latest Ministry 12″. Now, it seems the only people who visit record stores are more apt to dig for that Ministry 12″. Well, maybe not Ministry.

Certain things have been gained with the digital revolution where music is concerned. But some things have been lost, too. I miss two things. 1) That tactile sense of holding an LP, reading the liner notes, staring at album cover art groovy enough for framing. 2) As the number of record stores continue to dwindle, the face-to-face interaction with other folks interested in music is disappearing. And I think that’s a shame. (Yeah, I know, you can find folks with similar musical tastes online, but it isn’t the same, really, than, you know, leaving your house and talking to someone.)

So, to honor Record Store Day and the interactions that happen in such establishments, I put together the following blog-only clip from footage Wolfgang Held shot at Hyde Park Records in Chicago, when we first met Robert Darden. Mine is the low voice you hear in the beginning, talking about the Redd Foxx LP being displayed above the gospel section, “the sacred and profane in one eyeful.”

Big thanks to Redd Foxx and the wonderful customer for making this pretty special. I hope you like it. And why not celebrate the day by going to your local record store and taking part in the festivities. I understand many of you ditched your turntables, so maybe you can buy a cd while you’re there. [Do people still have CD players.]


So, what was the last CD/LP/45 you bought?

Click here to view a clip from the documentary, A Life’s Work (work in progress), featuring more footage shot in HPR.

Artist Rita Flores, who was one of my co-workers all those years ago, today coincidentally posted a piece about the joys of record stores on her blog, Through the Lava Lamp.

Birds of A Life’s Work

Like most people, birds fascinate me. I’m not a birder, not even close, but I enjoy listening to and looking at them. I also enjoy filming them, when they’ll cooperate, which isn’t often. Working with cats and kids are a cakewalk compared to birds.

Here are some shots the cinematographers of A Life’s Work captured. The first two minutes were shot by Wolfgang Held in Copemish and Manistee, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, and Cordes Junction (Arcosanti), Arizona. I shot the next thirty seconds at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.* Andy Bowley shot the remainder of the clip at the Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, California. There is sound throughout, but it’s very quiet. The first shots were taken from inside looking out, so you won’t hear any chirping or squawking or feather-rustling or nothing.


It was fun putting this clip together and I find it very soothing to watch. I tried to tell a little story with the SETI footage.

What do you make of it? Do you have a favorite shot?

And if any of you birders out there would care to identify some of these beauties, please leave a comment here or on Facebook or send me a direct message. Thanks.

* My lame shots have no business being sandwiched between such fine work, but I like the sound of grackles, so I decided to use that footage.

In addition to monetary help, there are many ways you can support A Life’s Work. Why not consider being a part of  the film’s growing community.

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:


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.


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.

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.

Finding My Voice (Over)

I remember an early meeting with cinematographer Wolfgang Held about A Life’s Work. He liked the idea, but he thought since it was such a personal story, that I should be in it. I objected. “My fingerprints will be all over it. I don’t need to be in it,” I remember telling him.

Slowly I came around to the idea of perhaps, at a crucial point toward the end of the film, my voice asking a question, and in the 36-minute sample, that’s what happens.

But before I continue, let me back up…

1999. Soon after 8 1/2 x 11 wrapped, I saw Sherman’s March by Ross McElwee and boy did I not like it. It was not McElwee’s fault, I was watching his film at the wrong time in my life. I saw it again on a whim ten years later, while in production with A Life’s Work, and that time I loved it. I found the film insightful, funny and charming.

Back to the Near-Present

Triumph of the Wall
Triumph of the Wall

Last week I watched a documentary called Triumph of the Wall, directed by Bill Stone. I was impressed with his use of voice over. It showed a vulnerability you don’t often see in documentary films. (Stone’s v.o. was clearly inspired by McElwee, and he admits this in the mini-interview I did with him for Filmmaker Magazine.) I enjoyed this film immensely and felt that there were more than a few thematic similarities between it and A Life’s Work.

Let Me Back Up Again to About 40 Years Ago

I remember the first time I heard my voice played back on a tape recorder. Like most people I was stunned to discover it sounded nothing like what I heard as I spoke. I didn’t hate the sound of my voice, it just didn’t sound like “me” and I found that unsettling.

Back to the Almost Near Present

David Licata, Gerard Mignone, Yvonne Delet on The Unknown Zone.
David Licata, Gerard Mignone, Yvonne Delet on The Unknown Zone.

A few weeks ago I was on Yvonne Delet’s podcast, The Unknown Zone (episode 17). When she emailed me the link to the show, I didn’t want to listen to it, but eventually decided to because why not?  And lo! I wasn’t horrified by the sound of my voice. In fact, I thought it had a kind of mellow quality. Soothing almost.

Let Me Back Up Again, But Not Too Far Back, Only to Few Months Ago

After I showed the 36-minute sample of A Life’s Work at Ucross back in March, I did a little q&a. One question asked: where did the idea come from? I recounted the two events that inspired it: hearing  as an eight-year-old in Catholic grammar school about how long medieval cathedrals took to build and grieving my mother’s death 35 years later. One fellow suggested I find a way to incorporate that into the film. It wasn’t the first time I had heard this (Wolfgang said it as well when he heard the story), and my reaction has always been negative: I told another fellow privately that I should not reveal what inspired me because everyone seems to think that story belongs in the film.

And All This Leads To…

Coming around slowly to the personal documentary genre, watching Triumph of the Wall, hearing my voice and not hating it, hearing for the umpteenth time that I should include some personal details in the film, these things, and probably a few more I’m not even aware of, converged, and at this juncture the idea of using some voice over narration for A Life’s Work seems like an option.

I don’t always listen to advice and I don’t always heed signs. Often it takes a while for me to admit that an idea regarding the film, posed by someone other than me, is a good one.

I don’t know that I will actually go the personal voice over route, but it feels kind of liberating to have opened up a door that I have, for so many years, so stubbornly locked and bolted.

Related links and posts:

In Search of Lost Time with Ross McElwee on Extra Criticum

Five Question for Photographic Memory Director Ross McElwee on Filmmaker Magazine

First Person Singular: top ten directors as participants by Eddie Cockrell



How to Shoot an Interview, Father Roderick Style

A Life's Work by David Licata

As I was writing the How to Conduct an Interview posts (pt. 1 &  pt. 2), someone posted a link on a documentary listserv I belong to, a link with tips on how to shoot an interview.

The tips are from Father Roderick, a Dutch Catholic priest with an interest in media new and old. Father Roderick is a blogger and podcaster and not that familiar with digital video. What inspired him to write his how-to was a trip to Rome where he was interviewing some folks in front of a camera. So his post is really from the point of view of a novice. And that’s fine. Seasoned cinematographer’s won’t find anything of use in it, but if you’re picking up a camera and interviewing someone for the first time, or if you’re doing some kind of  project and want it to look “professional,” you might find some useful information here.

One of his tips brought a smile to my face.

Always look for depth in the image you are filming. Never place someone in front of a wall. Look for perspective. You want your images to have as much depth as possible.

Yes, this is what they tell you to do. But I happen to love the choice we (Wolfgang Held and I) made for the first on-camera interview with Paolo Soleri for A Life’s Work.

Paolo Soleri in A Life's Work

I love the background, the texture of the concrete, and the colors, all those browns and then Soleri’s white hair. I love that he seems to blend in with his structure, as if he and his building material of choice are inseparable. I couldn’t have planned a better looking shot.

And honestly, we didn’t. We wanted to shoot outside but many locations were too noisy or too trafficked. We settled for a bench near the amphitheater. We didn’t have much time and I had to make a quick  decision. If I had the time to think about it and if we had other options, I would have nixed this spot. All of the reasons I love the shot would have been the reasons not to shoot there, including the lack of depth of field.

But I doubt those other options would have said as much as Soleri against that background — “in front of a wall” — does.

I guess the moral of this post is all how-tos and tips are guidelines. Learn them, employ them, but don’t be afraid to deviate from them.

So endeth today’s reading.

Hello? Anyone out there want to share their “how to shoot an interview” tips?


How to Hug a Tree: A Clip

The Best Way to Hug a Tree

I was in a patch of Michigan forest admiring a pine tree, one tree among thousands. I stopped and stared at it. “There’s something about that tree,” I said. “That tree speaks to me.” I felt a little embarrassed that I said such a New Agey thing. David Milarch then instructed me how to hug a tree.

It was like a dream, or a memory of a dream, but the video below tells me that it did in fact happen.


When Milarch started schooling me, I told Wolfgang Held he could turn off the camera , but he kept rolling. I’m so glad he did because this is one of my favorite bits. I suspect it won’t make it into the film, but I’m so glad I have it. And I’m glad I can share it with you.

The other shots: writer Jim Robbins (The Man Who Planted Trees) relaxing against a giant redwood tree in Roy’s Redwood Preserve, California (where I’m told they shot the speeder bikes scene in Return of the Jedi), David and Jared Milarch visiting some of their friends in a forest in Michigan, me among the Bristlecone Pine trees in the White Mountains of California.

Also see: Jim Robbin’s guest blog post.

Why You Workin’ So Hard?

Recently, I read an interview with ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons in Fretboard Journal. Like all interviews with guitarists, the geeky gear questions were inevitably asked. It seems Gibbons likes very thin strings, which are easier to press down and bend.

Well, the luxury of them slinky seven’s is an out-and-out oddity to many, yet the notion of using a light gauge string was directed to me by none other than B.B. King, who happened to pick up an axe I stuck in the corner strung up with some gnarly, heavy wire, and asked, “Why you workin’ so hard?” Following that interesting lead, we went for the lean string thing.

The “seven” he’s referring to is the diameter of the high E string, the thinnest string. An .008  E is consider “extra super light.” I don’t know what you’d call .007. Superduper extra light?

And then there’s Jack White. I can’t recall for certain, but I think in It Might Get Loud White mentions how he had heard Kurt Cobain used piano string on his guitars — those would make for very thick strings — because he wanted a heavy, full sound. White prefers thick beefy strings. He believes it shouldn’t be easy, playing the guitar. It should be a struggle. Always. (Personally, I think you can’t believe anything that comes out of his mouth. Still, let’s go with this for the sake of this post.)

I like the sounds B.B. King, Gibbons and White produce.

Here’s a photo of me at Arcosanti, taken by cinematographer Wolfgang Held.

I think this photo sums up my approach to … well, everything. Here we see the easy way: a promising path with evenly paved stones, a gentle incline wrapping around the hill, from darkness into light. Notice that I am not interested in that path. No. I gaze up a steep, rugged hill, a hill that is mysterious and not too inviting. I must conquer that hill the hard way.

I have theories about why this is my inclination, but I won’t bore you with those. I think though, at this point in my life, I have convinced myself that the more difficult the struggle, the more satisfying the victory. And surely, if the difficult path scared me, I wouldn’t have undertaken A Life’s Work. Or decided to be an artist, for that matter.

I can’t possibly be alone in thinking this, right? Care to share your easy-hard theories and experiences?

And for the record, the strings on my electric guitar are .013, “extra heavy.”