Thursday, December 31, 2009

Credit Where Credit's Due, And Other Places Too

New Year's Eve tends to bring out best-of-year (or best-of-decade) lists, resolutions, goals, and self-appraisals. I'm not big on reading any of those, so I won't write them. I do want to note something that occurs to me when I look back at the year, however, and its implications.

One year ago, despite having made a lot of short films that were juried into festivals, I did not appear on at all. In part, this was because I was (and remain) anti-Hollywood. As often as my films appeared in festivals, they also showed in museum or gallery exhibitions (and sometimes in public art works) and to my mind, that was a more prestigious venue. I liked reading pages, but didn't want to be part of it. I felt choosing not to participate made sense.

This year, however, as more of my films made it out to the festival circuit (and one onto DVD and others to other types of distribution) it occurred to me that it was probably the best way to give these films a bit of respect. I honestly couldn't remember when some had been made, or where they'd shown, and realized imdb made sense simply as a public record.

So, now I'm on, and my upcoming films and credits will show there. I'm participating.

Here's the weird part, though: where I previously ignored it, I now notice if someone posts a link to their credits and I read them. I don't judge anyone by that, I just find it interesting.

The upshot: I find myself knowing a bit more about what people do. If they focus on directing, or cinematography, or writing, or editing, or if they work with others or alone. And it's put me into an oddly collaborative mood. Where I've tended to think of filmmaking as all one piece, I now see some virtue in taking a role. I find myself thinking "I should send a screenplay" to this person, or "I'd edit something" for someone else.

I don't know if anything will come of that thought, but it is one noticeable change over the last year. And it will be interesting to look back in a year and see where things are when 2011 approaches.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Photography in the News, Polanski Edition

Are there any stories about photography in the news? Do these stories involve a famous director and underage teenagers? Well, sort of, yes.

Roman Polanski is finally going to trial. Except, not for rape or fleeing jail time. Not for being friends with Bernard-Henri Lévy. (Apparently that's legal, if ill-advised.) Before any of that can make it to court, the French judicial system will be asked to determine if photographers penetrated a special area, or repeatedly inserted their long lenses into a very sensitive zone.

Roman Polanski sues photographers for 'invading privacy' during Swiss house arrest
"In a test case which will have worldwide implications, Polanksi's lawyers will argue that even a self-confessed sex offender on bail has a right to privacy, especially as he is staying with his wife and their two teenage children. The pictures were all taken on public land outside the chalet, which has been used regularly by Polanski since he fled to Europe in 1978 after admitting unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl."
We'll see how this turns out. If they lose the case, should the photographers simply flee the country?

Three Test Patterns

Three Test Patterns from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

When I first started editing, I self-assigned all sorts of experiments. This one was about taking some simple raw material -- color bars -- and applying three different "strategies" to that material.

Twenty Thousand Portraits

20,558 (Twenty Thousand Portraits) from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

Back in 2001, I was involved in a photography project that involved gathering thousands of portraits at the Los Angeles County Fair. Later, the images were databased and became part of several photography installation pieces and public art videos. I'll post the full story sometime in the new year, but for now, here's the video, made in 2002.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Goodbye, Less-Than-Zeros

Well, that was quite a decade.

I hold a lot of unpopular opinions. I don't think any of the Star Wars films are good. I think Hip Hop has been boring since Kool Moe Dee's "Go See The Doctor" fell off the charts. I think "The Hero's Journey" is a pointless structural form. I've never watched "American Idol." I think greed is bad.

That doesn't mean we can't all get along. Perhaps we can agree that this decade didn't go well, overall.

Now, we might disagree on the reasons. I mean, I might blame things on unending and ineffective war, de-emphasis of education as a national value, a refusal to regulate or prosecute corporations and an expansion of business interests into war profiteering, the dismantling of both human rights and personal freedoms, an increased sense of entitlement and infantilism in youth culture and the collapse of reasoned argument.

You might blame other things.

Still, we can agree things haven't been exactly perfect, right? That the false assurances given loudly over those with sensible reservations, maybe, haven't proven true and that failure has had serious consequences and costs?

I mean, there weren't any Weapons of Mass Destruction found. The market didn't self-correct. Cutting the top layer of taxes never trickled down. Letting big pharma advertise and teaching to the test left an overmedicated generation that can't pay attention, can't think clearly, doesn't know when the Civil War happened, and thinks "loose" means to not win. People are telling me Reagan was great, I should steal music and movies, sell harder, cut corners wherever possible. They are telling me various places should be turned into glass parking lots and that we're number one. That health insurance is communism, that religion adds up to more than a fantasy, that an argument for denying people equal rights is right here, in this book.

I disagree.

I mean, even Karl Rove's wife has figured it out. Lies aren't likely to turn into anything good. There's a limit.

At the same time, other people seemingly on another side of the spectrum are telling me that wishing will make it so. There's this law of attraction, and the universe is a hologram, and there are no coincidences, and we make our own reality, OMMMMMM, and fixing ourselves spiritually will make things ... right.

I disagree.

Fantasy is as sad on the left as on the right, demonization and irrationality are even sadder when worn by that "team." Stop with the Chopra quotes -- the man doesn't even believe in evolution, don't look to him for advice. Stop with the pretend-corporatization. The Huffington Post is not a newspaper, has no editorial standards, and just wants you to click on the ads. They are quite happy to post an article about an actress who lifts her leg over her head -- content is just a tool to page views. Stop with the pretend-political "movements" -- Move-On soaked up your donations and energy, tried an ineffective strategy, and hasn't shortened our time at war by a single day.

People are telling me Clinton was great, that this is now the "right" war, that you can't have health care or rights for everyone because there's only ... a 60-40 supermajority vote split ... and we'll have to wait until ... a date to be named later.

I disagree.

I'm rooting for the best newspapers over the blogs. I'm rooting for things not to be "free" by default -- if maybe sometimes free by choice. I'm hoping people get past their sense that down-to-earth is better than smart or effective. Elite is a good thing, not a bad thing, and Bush never could finish that line about getting fooled again with a straight face. I'm rooting against pretend-tough and for real strength. Against cartoons and for books.

That's a hard sell, I know.

I went to lunch with a group of fellow students right after the Berlin Wall fell. The sense of excitement was palpable. I slowly noticed, though, as I listened to people tell me what they expected would happen, that they were generally uninformed. I was for the enthusiasm, but ... you can tell when someone is talking about something they don't really understand in any real sense. My opinion -- that the world would quickly become more complicated and that the concept of "An End To History" was foolish -- was very unpopular.

My sense is that we're at a similar moment as we approach 2010. There's a sense of a bad time passing; everyone seems to agree. I'm hoping to see a sense of willingness to work toward something. I don't see it yet, but maybe I'll be surprised.

(With apologies to Bret Easton Ellis.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Long View

Looking ahead to 2010, I'm considering participating in both the International Documentary Challenge in March and the 48 Hour Film Project -- which I think will hit New York in June.

I've been in the Doc Challenge three times, making it to the finals twice. I think I can give it another try, though I'm aware it makes for a tough five days.

I'm thinking I might enjoy playing a role with a narrative film project for the 48HFP, also, maybe as editor. I'll need to form a team, though. Know anyone?

Above: an iPhone snap of a poster in the subway. Taken with the camera not exactly parallel to the poster.

Who and Where, but Why is Still Pending

I sometimes forget that my various online outlets aren't always connected, and that it isn't always obvious that I post in more than one place. So a quick bit of linkage:

My other blog is Actualities and I usually make documentary-related posts there.

My main site is, and that includes my filmography and c.v. and a way to contact me. I'll be adding some new material and a new section in 2010.

My IMDB page includes links to my films and other projects I've worked on.

Some of my films are on also.

You can find me on Twitter as well.

No, I'm not on Facebook, or LinkedIn, and no, I'm not this guy, even though thinks so.

Above: an iPhone snap taken at Hunter College last week, looking uptown in Manhattan.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Bend & Bow Via Netflix

For those of you running out of entertainment ideas while you're taking a little time off, here's an easy documentary-related notion. The International Documentary Challenge DVD is now available on Netflix. It's got 17 great short films, including our short documentary Bend & Bow.

You can buy the DVD on Amazon also:

If those two ideas don't help... I don't know, maybe watch some cartoons, I've done what I can.

Photography in the News

It's been a while since I've done a "Photography in the News" update. That's because 2009 really got into a rut with three repeating stories:

  1. celebrity beats paparazzi for taking photos
  2. police arrest photographer for taking photos
  3. photographer dies

A bit depressing, really. So, what might cheer us up? Are there any stories on Photography in the recent news, maybe something involving exotic animals? Why yes, yes there are:

Orangutan becomes hit snapper
"Nonja's handiwork has been viewed by tens of thousands of fans after keepers at Vienna's Schoenbrunn zoo in Austria gave her a digital camera and set up a Facebook page for her. Snaps from the digital camera, which issues fruit treats whenever a picture is taken, are uploaded instantly over a WiFi link."
Spanish artist in hot water over fake photo claims
"Jose Luis Rodriguez's stunning image of a wolf leaping a gate, entitled Storybook Wolf, won first prize in the prestigious Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer Of The Year competition but has supposedly broken competition rules as the wolf in question lived in captivity."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction

I wanted to mention Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction by Patricia Aufderheide again as it has now gone on sale at Amazon. Great intro / refresher text for documentary basics, focusing on issues that are essential -- but not production techniques.

It has a good overview of the standard approaches to documentary filmmaking as well as a helpful critique for these approaches. Its main virtue is that it is very, very clear in handling complicated issues, and not afraid to point out what a problematic field documentary can be. I highly recommend it to any one starting out in the field or re-thinking how they'd like to work.

A good time of year to reconsider the ethics of the practice, no?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Scan (2003)

Scan from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

"Scan" (2003) screened at Rooftop Films in the "Home Movies" program.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

So Far In The Past

I've posted a few times about the Roman Polanski case. More specifically, about the directors and actors and producers who signed the "release Polanski" petition being held accountable for signing.
Facts Matter
Polanski Update
“The director of the documentary told me..."
Less Hypothetically
My position is that the arguments being used to support Polanski are stupid and dangerous and need to be debunked, more for the sake of our culture's morals than specifically for Polanski's fate. The most idiotic points:

1. Minimization of the crime
A number of people bought Polanski's spin that the crime involved a slightly-underaged woman involved in consensual sex. If you read the court testimony it's clear that's not what is at issue, but the purposeful rape of a 13-year-old girl.

2. That the victim doesn't want Polanski prosecuted
It's important to understand that crimes of this nature are prosecuted as "the People of the State of California versus" rather than as an individual versus the accused. It's not that uncommon for a victim to decide prosecution shouldn't be pursued -- but it isn't relevant, since the reason for the prosecution is to punish or prevent crime in the state. To be fair, anyone using this position should also have to precede it with "after receiving a huge financial settlement that hasn't been fully disclosed but is likely to be the most significant income in the victim's entire life, the victim doesn't think the case should be prosecuted."

3. That there's some "clear" problem with the case, the judge or the state
The appropriate action against any of these is to go to court. I understand that impression of mishandling of the case -- it's heavily fueled by the documentary, but now seems to be debunked at least to a degree -- and if it is true it can be settled in a court of law. Not by remaining a fugitive. When you are on the run from the law, you don't really get to nitpick the details of how your case was handled.

Since the first wave of interest in the Polanski apprehension, much has happened. He's now under house arrest at a luxury chalet. At least one petition-signer has realized she's on the wrong side of the case and changed her position. And there's been some movement in the courts which will likely resume after the holidays.

But the thing about being a celebrity is no one ever tells you you're wrong. So a director I otherwise respect is tut-tutting everyone for being so darn strict about rape, law, fleeing jail and other stuff that's just, you know, from a long time ago.

Terry Gilliam's Three-Reel Circus
MJ: Speaking of blowback, why'd you sign the petition supporting Roman Polanski?

TG: I think the whole thing is so far in the past. Roman isn't a difficult fugitive. He could have been picked up any time. When he won the [2003] Oscar for The Pianist, I don't remember the public demanding his extradition—because it didn't happen! The way people are behaving now, I don't even think they know the difference between extradition and execution. Here is a 76-year-old guy. The girl involved, everyone involved, has said, Forgive, forget, it's over and done with—until suddenly the long arm of the law decides now is the time to strike. His behavior was not right, but I think what is going on is even more suspect.

MJ: Hmm. Okay.
One reason the public didn't strongly call for Polanski's extradition in 2003 was that very few understood the facts -- instead believing the case to be similar to that of a rock star who is "shocked" to discover a groupie was only 17 1/2. In part, that's because Polanski's memoirs imply that, and because his lawyers and others have tried to popularize that view in opposition to the facts.

There's nothing suspect in being anti-rape or opposing someone who is able to flee and avoid punishment because they are wealthy. There is something suspect in those who use weasel-words like "his behavior was not right" in place of "raped a 13-year-old girl."

Facts matter, words matter.

Notebook on Santas and Elves (2007)

Notebook on Santas and Elves from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

Here's an 18-minute documentary I made in 2007. Please give it a rating at IMDB. The title is inspired by Wim Wenders film "Notebook on Cities and Clothes."

12th and 3rd in Brooklyn (2006)

12th and 3rd in Brooklyn from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

Here's a short doc, made with Iris Lee and Maya Mumma. Please give it a rating at IMDB.

Scan (2003)

Scan from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

"Scan" screened at Rooftop Films in the 2003 "Home Movies" program. It uses documentary materials.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009


Scan from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

"Scan" was made in 2003, and showed at Rooftop Films that year in the "Home Movies" program. In a way, it's a documentary.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Winding Down, Frantically

I'm trying to finish ... everything. Edit: done. Then another edit. Then my last editing class. Then my last online classes, grades turned in. Very little sleep.

Tonight I taught my last photo class for the year. For the decade, if you think that 2009 is the last year of the decade. (Which I don't, but that post will have to wait....)

Monday, December 14, 2009

12th and 3rd in Brooklyn

12th and 3rd in Brooklyn from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

I made this short documentary with Iris Lee and Maya Mumma in 2006. Please rate it at IMDB.

Free To Good Home

Here are some things I think you should watch, online and free. But, you know, it's a free country. Did I mention free?

Zeno (2001)
Larry in Relation to the Ground (2002)
12th and 3rd in Brooklyn (2006)
Notebook on Santas and Elves (2007)

Or, you know, just bookmark them for later. Or embed the Vimeo player somewhere. Or give them a vote, at IMDB or at Vimeo. Or something. Whatever. Free.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Zeno from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

A short film I made in 2001, shot at the elementary school I attended.

Discarded Santa Suit, Upper East Side

Did SantaCon roll up York Avenue, or did someone have a Christmas disaster? I don't know.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bryant Park

Actual DSLR photos soon, but for now, here's an iPhone snap from tonight's photo class visit to Bryant Park. It's like a mini photo-lab -- you can experiment with shutter speed, depth of field, panning, exposure.... Next week: students bring their final portfolios.

Interviewed by Chris Corradino

I think you may have heard plenty about me by this point.

That won't stop me from posting: an interview Chris Corradino just blogged.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


You never know how a schedule might change, but I'm hoping I'll be teaching a television production class again next term. I've been thinking about some ways to refine the projects I've given in past classes, and I have a few ideas that might be fun. We'll see.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Check Back In Two Weeks

Sometimes subway images are an ongoing process. On the left, November 18th. On the right, today.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Revealing Form, Texture And Shape

At the end of my photo class last week we finished a session on lighting people, then tried a quick experiment to see how light can be used to create texture.

My students worked with a medium softbox and a reflector and explored ways to reveal an interesting space around three small rings, and to reveal the detail in the rings. One of the keys was to realise how important directionality is as a property of light. We wanted soft light, but we still wanted to create shape and reveal form.

Le Beaujolais Nouveau Est Bon

It pairs well with tofurkey, actually. (Above shot with a 90mm f/2.8 today.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Like The Boomtown Rats Said

It's a venerable tradition: the in-camera edit assignment.

Students in production classes all over the country do it, and it's been assigned for decades. A production team is asked to shoot a subject, but with no post-production: they shoot exactly what they'll show. It forces you to plan ahead, to know your story before charging in, and to get the essential shots.

Today, I was the subject of one of these. I had a reasonably good time. I'm generally a willing subject, and will usually do what the director suggests (unless it goes against my nature or ethics). Someone gives me a cue, I talk. Tell me to, and I walk. Pretend to teach someone here. Okay.

In a way, it was a good reminder how forced and acted documentary can be: I gave the crew what they wanted, I attempted to project my idea of myself, and it went the way it went. Nothing surprising will be revealed, I expect, and nothing outside the plan will emerge.

A good exercise, but a view into what is often the essential problem of documentary work: the mechanism includes a camera or two, a small crew, and an expectation of what will happen. Often, that's really a strange and ineffective tool -- if your goal is to find subtle insights into human nature.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Documentaries In The News

Two fascinating tales of terror. One: the Academy Award short list for feature-length documentaries. Two: an account of a few ... um ... alleged irregularities at the Queens International Film Festival. (Keep in mind, anyone can allege anything. I'm linking to the story as it has been published online -- but you'll definitely want to check out the facts for yourself.)

Ah, what a tangled web we weave, when we try not to deceive. Two somewhat shocking stories....

Oscar Short List of Documentaries Draws Controversy
Pressed for details, Mr. Toback said only that he had experienced something connected with the selections process, “which I put fully in the category of extortion that I did not go along with.” Mr. Toback added that he was “furious” at himself for “having chosen to be passive and quiet in the face of that extortion.”

Film fest head a fraud, many say
A New York filmmaker who served on the advisory board of the first QIFF and has worked with Castaldo on and off for the past several years, said he was conned out of $20,000 this summer. The filmmaker, who wished to remain anonymous as he is negotiating a big movie deal, said Castaldo offered to distribute a film he and his partner had made earlier this year. According to their agreement, the filmmaker allegedly paid Castaldo $20,000, with the understanding that she would take the film to Cannes. “She never went to Cannes,” he said. “It was one total ripoff. ... Everything was phony.” Castaldo allegedly tried to convince him that she had been to Cannes, showing him a website with video footage of her there. The filmmaker said he soon discovered that the footage was doctored. The website offers to Photoshop anyone into Cannes, he said.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nothing To See There

My students are cutting a scene from a cancelled TV show. It's straightforward: a character walks into an office, talks to two other characters, is introduced to a guest, delivers a few key lines. It's shot in "single-camera" style, meaning the camera is generally on one character in one framing while all the characters run the scene. Next framing, repeat.

So the idea is fairly clear: assemble meaning from shots that are generally ready to cut together, but watch out for the inevitable small problems. Then find ways to keep the scene flowing nicely, to have it hit its key emotional points, and -- in this case -- to make the editing essentially invisible.

They seem to be enjoying it.

Above: my students are amused that I photograph banal details, like the floor.

From The Mailbox

Got a pleasant note from the folks at Olympia Film Festival tonight. It said:

Everyone had a ton of fun with Hoop Springs Eternal. Thanks for letting us show it!


Monday, November 16, 2009

Good Work, New York

First, the subway stairwell handrail was broken, then a few days later it was repaired. Great.

See how easy that was? If someone knocks something over, consider putting the exact same thing back up in its place, and fast. Don't wait a decade, have meetings, politicize the process, and leave an open hole. Better yet: go ahead with putting up something significantly better -- but do it fast, like when the Pre-Parthenon was destroyed.

See? Art history has valuable lessons in it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Change and Turnover

I haven't really paid attention to the many people who say the decade is ending. I tend to think that since we start counting with "one" and not "zero" the first year of the millennium was 2001. Meaning 2010 is part of the decade, not the start of the next one.

As 2000 approached, I kept telling people: "Nope. Not the start of the millennium. That will be 2001." I said it a lot. Then I won a photography contest, and the prize was a "Kodak Millennium 2000" camera.

New Friends Are Silver, Old Friends Are Phallic

I tend to snap away with the iPhone. Anything on the ground or wall is fair game. Sometimes, however, I'm not sure what to do with these images. Today, a pairing: an image in gold found on a Manhattan wall, an image in silver from The Bronx.

Soap Opera Ending

Above, an iPhone snapshot from The Bronx.

Hoop Springs Eternal

Hoop Springs Eternal is now available to watch free, online at SnagFilms. The film follows professional hula hoopers Loren Bidner and Jenny McGowan. There's more about the film on Be sure and give it a vote on Snag or IMDB.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Further Persistent Idiocy

The concept of "persistence of vision" was discredited decades ago. People who write about it are dumb. So, in the interest of public service I call people out on it.

To understand how long this has been discredited as an idea read THE MYTH OF PERSISTENCE OF VISION REVISITED from 1993 (a followup to a 1978 paper) which points out the idea has been proven wrong SINCE 1912.

So, who's "teaching" about the importance of "persistence of vision" today?

Filmsite by Tim Dirks

This ridiculous page cites the discredited idea five times to start its history of film. Is that surprising? No. Because if you randomly check ANY of the facts Tim Dirks publishes under his name, you'll find the level of research scholarship here isn't acceptable for a sixth-grade book report. Let's try a couple....

Hmmm. Right here on that same page he says "1860 The zoetrope, another animation toy, was invented by French inventor Pierre Desvignes."

Huh. Interesting. Let's check that. Oh, it was actually invented in 1834 by William George Horner, according to reputable sources.

Wait ... doesn't it also say that just above the 1860 entry? Strange. Confusing. Unclear.

Pick any other page. You'll find errors, misunderstandings, and generally an emphasis on the wrong things (for example, Dirks pushes an attempt to understand film history through a decade-by-decade approach, which is extremely ineffective). How do I know this? Because my students, despite my best warnings, often resort to searching Google for "film history" and Dirks' site shows up. So for years I've been correcting papers based on his "facts" -- and you'd be surprised how much I've learned from doing the fact-checking he can't be bothered with.

So, take care, people, and do some factchecking -- Tim Dirks isn't going to do that for you.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Advanced Seriously Fun Photography, Week 2

In last night's Advanced Seriously Fun Photography class our main goal was to really tune in and see light. We looked at the qualities of light, then tried to apply that to how the camera sees light. A few ideas became obvious right away: because the eye opens up when it looks at dark areas and closes down when it looks at bright areas, usually the camera records a more contrasty version of a scene than our eye sees. Dark tones become darker, falling into solid black, and light areas may burn out in a photograph even though our eye can preserve detail in the same scene.

We started our exploration by making a purposefully "bad" shot -- taking a person into tricky or unflattering light and trying a photograph there. We noticed where light falls on the human face, and it creates a shape (for better or worse). We then followed that up by trying to "repair" the light in that spot. We added a reflector to fill in shadow areas, or used fill flash to try to better light the subject.

Fill flash can be tough, and we struggled with it. That's not a problem: it's tough for photographers at every level. We again practiced methods of balancing ambient light and on-camera flash, and we looked at what happens when we're able to bounce light off a ceiling or wall. We also tried bouncing off a reflector or using a reflector as diffusion material.

We attempted to understand the qualities of light: hard light versus soft light, the directionality of light, the color of light, and then tried an experiment in seeing how we could "short" light a person's face. Our basic technique here was to put the subject in a position where they turned slightly to the right or left. We then looked at which cheek was "leading" (toward the camera) and experimented in giving that cheek more light or deemphasizing it by letting shadow fall on it. This clearly changed the shape of the face as read in the photograph.

We also looked a bit at how focal length effects the face: we compared the same framing of a face at medium and telephoto focal lengths and realizing that longer focal lengths appear to compress or flatten the features.

We also tried to put all these elements together for a casual portrait, trying to train our eyes to see the light, while still choosing a good framing, appropriate focal length and maintaining a relationship with our portrait subject.

In the end, however, our goal was to stop projecting our expectations of what we'd see and really see the light present. As well, this was a lead in to next week, when we will be using studio lighting and trying to really see and control light.

Our homework was to shoot one portrait of this type, using natural light or adding flash as needed.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Watch, Vote, Comment

Follow the above video to SnagFilms, if you're in the mood. You're votes and comments are appreciated.

Hoop Springs Eternal

Above, a doc produced in five days. Watch it, give it a vote.

Olympian Effort

Our short film Hoop Springs Eternal will screen tonight at Olympia Film Festival. (It's made with Chris Corradino, Linda Goldman, and Maya Mumma, featuring Loren Bidner and Jenny McGowan.)

I think it's scheduled after Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth and before Sissyboy -- about 9:45 p.m. or so -- but there's no love for us on a schedule listing, however. Maybe they figure it's so good it should remain secret, thereby avoiding a stampede for tickets.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How About No?

I find that people project their own ideas on me all the time. Perhaps I make that easy: they figure I want whatever it is that they want. Generally I don't.

Above: an overhead mirror at Hunter on Monday.

Connecting A Sony To Studio Lighting

Studio lighting is generally triggered by a cable that has a "PC" connector on one end -- the end that connects to your camera -- and a guitar-plug connector on the other that connects to a monolight or the power pack for a studio lighting kit. At one time, that "PC" connector was fairly universal, provided on even entry-level SLR cameras.

In the era of digital cameras, the PC connector -- not anything to do with personal computers, just an older electrical connector used for decades in camera equipment -- has become a "pro" feature and is not usually available on entry-level DSLR cameras, and not even on some of the midline cameras.

You can compensate by putting a radio trigger on your camera's hotshoe, or triggering the studio lights by using your on-camera flash in a way that hits the lighting kits sensor.

It's best, however, to get an adaptor that will let you work directly with the PC cable. And it isn't expensive. For Sony DSLR's the way to go is the Seagull SC-5 Hot Shoe Flash Adapter to PC and Standard Hot Shoes for Sony Alpha / Minolta Maxxum Cameras. You slide it onto your flash hot shoe, and it has a PC connector on the side. Plug in the PC cable there and you can use studio strobes anywhere.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Me, Me, Me, And Then Stuff About Me

There's a lot going on, but in overly self-important news, read Part One and Part Two of an interview on doc production. Featuring me. Based on Actual Events.

More significant news soon.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Words, Words, Words

Here are two links about the documentary process. Also something or other about me in there as well. (You can read it as a drinking game, if you like: every time I go on too long about a point, take a drink. When I say something overserious about the documentary process, take a drink.)

What goes into making a documentary?

Honesty and documentary film making

That's Not Lake Minnetonka

A little interview on What goes into making a documentary? in which I detail some of the process involved in our short documentaries. Part two tomorrow.

Just what you need, more words from me.

Prose On Park Avenue Purple Post

A long while back I was walking to a meeting on Park Avenue when I ended up behind a nice couple. The woman had purple hair, so out of reflex I snapped a photo with my iPhone. There wasn't much to it, just a snap.

Today, again on Park, I found myself behind the same couple. "No need to take a picture," I thought. "I've already got one."

That's when a woman walked toward us, also with purple hair.

So I whipped my phone up near eye level and took the shot.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Advanced Photography, Week One

Last night I taught the first session of Advanced Seriously Fun Photography.

We started by developing our goals for the class. I tailor the class to the people taking it, so we have some freedom with choosing topics and how we learn those. After some review of technical basics (I'll put that at the end of this post) we explored a range of possibilities using shutter speed. We worked at figuring out the correct exposure in our dimly lit classroom, and then realized that for a still life we could overcome that by using longer shutter speeds. Of course, below 1/60th of a second we found that handheld shots can soften or blur, so we started using a tripod. By using slower shutter speeds, we were able to shoot a still life even at f/16 or f/22.

Then we explored how much blur a pen falling off a desk would have at various slow shutter speeds. We then figured out how fast we could push the shutter speed to freeze the pen -- under the existing available light conditions. In our dark classroom, we found the limit on one of our cameras was an exposure of 1/500th of a second at f/5.6 and ISO 3200.

We then learned that this control over shutter speed was very helpful if we were going to try to balance on-camera flash with an exposure for the background. So we went through a process of determining a good manual exposure for a background, then adding flash to a shot to light our subject. After a bit, we were able to control both: we could make our ambient exposure one stop dark and adjust flash compensation, and that gave us good control over both our subject and the ambient background.

We later tried "dragging the flash" -- holding the exposure lock button in a dim situation and letting the camera use a slower shutter speed. This helped us to quickly get a balance between the background exposure and our subject.

Next we explored the amount of blurring that shutter speeds allow. We started with exploring someone walking as we tried 1/30th of a second and 1/15th of a second. We then added flash to this and discovered how a trail was created, and then how we could control where the trail was by using second-curtain or rear-curtain sync.

Then we spun umbrellas at varying speeds and explored slower shutter speeds in relation to the amount of blur. We also explored using fill flash on a person to fill-in areas where ambient lighting was leaving heavy shadows.

After clarifying the techniques available to us changing shutter speed, and a few basics on adding flash, as a last technical experiment, we lined everyone up in the hallway and explored how we could use aperture to control depth-of-field, taking a range of shots from f/5.6 to f/22.

The homework for this week is to explore that ambient / flash balance. You can hear Ted talking about this subject here: Ted explaining matching flash and ambient lighting.

Also, try out your own version of our Depth-of-Field experiment.

The photographers to research this week are Mary Ellen Mark and Elliott Erwitt.


We learned that to control exposure, we need to work with three related elements: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and Sensitivity.

The f/stops to memorize are f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22. If you forget these, make two columns, and at the top of the left one write 1.4 and at the top of the right one write 2.0. Now double each number as you go down the column (rounding off when needed). Changing one stop lets in twice as much light (or half as much, depending on which direction you go. f/2 lets in a lot of light, f/22 lets in very little light. So if you took a picture using f/8 and it seemed a little too dark, you would switch to f/5.6. If you took a picture using f/8 and it seemed a little too bright, you'd switch to f/11.

Shutter Speed:
The common shutter speeds are:
1/1000th of a second
1 second.

-- As a rule of thumb, if you are moving and you're subject is moving, you'll want to be shooting at 1/1000th of a second to get a sharp picture.

-- If you are still but the subject is moving along, it would be good to be at 1/250th or faster.

-- If you and the subject are both relatively still, you can probably handhold the camera as slow as 1/60th, but slower than that and you'll get a soft picture because of camera shake caused by pressing the shutter.

-- At speeds that are slower, you'll need a tripod to steady the camera, and probably want to trigger it using the self-timer or a release.

-- Many decent cameras have higher shutter speeds, and these are very useful for action or sports.

Notice that the relationship of these shutter speed settings is also doubling (or halving) the amount of light that hits your sensor.

This is the ISO "speed" of a digital sensor or of film. ISO 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and 3200 are available on many cameras (but not all), and you should take some test shots with yours to find out if the higher ISO settings are usable or not. Figure out the fastest ISO speed you find produces acceptable shots on your camera -- you'll need to switch to it sooner or later. Notice that each ISO speed is twice as sensitive (or half as sensitive) as the next.

Then we decided to start applying our general knowledge about the relationship between apertures and depth of field. While we start to get the idea when we say "f/2 -- shallow depth of field and f/22 - deep depth of field" actually trying this out in with some real world shots is always a good experiment.

So we set up an experiment that can be repeated at home: set your camera on a table or a tripod, and in front of it arrange people or objects in a receding line. Put the first person or thing just 3 feet away from the lens, and have the furthest be at least 12 feet away. Now set the widest aperture you can -- I use a lens that goes to f/1.4 for this -- and focus on the closest person or object. You'll probably find that the people / objects behind that are out of focus. Now run through the whole series of aperture settings you have available (you'll probably want to be in "aperture priority mode" so that the camera sets the corresponding shutter speed for an acceptable exposure. Or you can set that yourself). Try this and compare each shot -- more and more will be in focus until you should be able to get everyone in focus.

Now, keep in mind there's one other factor here -- the focal length you shoot with. Usually the effect of getting a main subject in focus and the background out of focus is much easier to achieve if you use a lens of at least 50mm or set as zoom to 50mm focal length or a more telephoto setting.

Many photographers think that "telephoto lenses have shallow depth of field and wide angle lenses have deep depth of field" -- it turns out that isn't exactly true, but for pragmatic purposes it isn't a bad way to think. If the goal is a sharp subject and a blurry background -- grab a 90mm or set your zoom lens about there.

(For a discussion on why the wide focal lens = deep depth of field idea isn't precisely true, read Do wide-angle lenses give you greater depth of field than long lenses?.)

Another thing that comes up at this point: some lenses allow your camera to reach to f/1.4 or f/2 or f/2.8, but many times the "kit lens" zoom that comes with a DSLR or the zoom lens built into a compact camera will not go to that wide-open an aperture. And to further add to the confusion: many common lenses that go from 18mm to 55mm (or 70mm) let you go to f/3.5 when using the widest focal length (18mm) but only to f/5.6 when you are using the long end of the lens (55mm or 70mm). That's just how those lenses are built.

Now, once we know a technique to control depth of field -- go towards f/2 to get a sharp person, blurry background or toward f/22 to get subject and background both focuses -- we want to think about why we would do it. Well, it's that kind of control that lets us emphasize or deemphasize what a viewer sees in a photograph, so we want to master it so we can control our images. Need to photograph a person against a cluttered, distracting background? Use selective focus. Need to show that a person has kids but keep the emphasis on the person? Use selective focus to make the kids visible but de-emphasized.

So, from a technical standpoint, as we approach any photo situation we'll want to decide on an ISO setting, a shutter speed and an aperture. The three are interrelated and all use a doubling / halving system so it is easy to calculate how to change them when needed.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Wiseman's "La Danse"

I've mentioned Frederick Wiseman as an influence a few times previously. I was fortunate enough to see him speak in 2006, and I think his body of work is monumental.

Great short article on his latest in today's NYT:

Creating Dialogue From Body Language
In “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet,” his 36th documentary in more than 40 years, Frederick Wiseman takes his camera into the stately and elegant Palais Garnier in Paris, observing rehearsals, staff meetings and, finally, performances of seven dances, including classics like “The Nutcracker” and spiky new work by younger choreographers. To say that the film, sumptuous in its length and graceful in its rhythm, is a feast for ballet lovers is to state the obvious and also to sell Mr. Wiseman’s achievement a bit short. Yes, this is one of the finest dance films ever made, but there’s more to it than that.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

News Flash

Our short film Hoop Springs Eternal will be screening at Olympia Film Festival on Thursday, November 12th, sometime around 9:45 p.m.

And I've just learned our documentary short Blind Faith: A Film About Seeing will screen at Picture This Film Festival in February 2010 in Calgary. Apparently the film won Honourable Mention in the Documentary under 10 minutes category.

Any good news is appreciated these days.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Last Call, 6-Week Advanced Photo Class

Sorry to be all commercial-like, but this is probably the last chance to register for my Advanced Seriously Fun Photography class at Hunter Continuing Education. It's scheduled to start November 5th, and held at 94th Street and Park Avenue, fairly close to the 6 train.

The way to see the listing and register is to go to this interface and type "photography" into the search box.
Ready to stretch your creativity, and master the techniques you need for your photography? In this advanced photography class, we will address three topic areas of intermediate / advanced photography technique -- chosen by the students during our first session -- and we will have three special class photography sessions. (These sessions may include a class photo shoot, a museum / gallery / auction house visit, and a studio lighting shoot.) Students will also prepare a small portfolio project over the six weeks of the course, with a critique session in our last week.

Course/Section: SERFUNII/1 6 Session(s) 12 Hour(s) Tuition: $250.00
Day(s) Meet: Thursday Date: 11/05/09-12/17/09 Time: 06:00PM-08:00PM
Location: CS, 71 E 94 ST./
Instructor(s): FISHER, TED

In A World Something Something, One Man Stands Alone

Today I'm giving a lecture on editing structure in film trailers. There's more to it than the text below, with lots of examples and ideas and such, but here are the basic background notes. For what they're worth.

Editing Film Trailers

A film trailer combines storytelling with persuasion.

Editing a film is about story structure.

There's a beginning, that brings us into a new world. It usually starts with a hook -- a short, very interesting part, like a well-told joke, that sets the tone for the film and shows us it will be good. Then we meet the characters, and learn about this world and begin to care about it. The beginning usually ends by revealing a big problem.

The middle usually involves the characters trying to solve this problem. Usually their struggles pull us into greater complications -- and usually raise the stakes or lead to even more critical problems.

The end is usually a showdown: we move toward the moment when a character's struggle -- internal or external -- reaches a major test or confrontation or decision. Usually there's some resolution after this, as the world settles after all the upset.

A trailer, however, has a different goal and different rules. The goal is to get people to buy a ticket to a film (or buy the DVD, or order the film on-demand) so we can't use "pure" story structure -- that would give away the ending -- and we have to use persuasion techniques to “sell” the film to the audience.

Persuasion techniques go back thousands of years. Aristotle identified three basic persuasion techniques:

  • Appeal based on authority.
  • Appeal based on reason.
  • Appeal based on emotion.

There are others that work -- and you've seen all types of them in commercials. These three are still the main persuasive appeals, though, and show up in film trailers.

When you see elements that tell us who the actors, director or producers are -- this is persuasion based on the authority of the filmmakers.

When you see lists of awards a film has won, or quotes from great reviews, that's an appeal to your reason.

When the trailer itself makes you feel a certain way, that's a persuasive appeal.

A typical trailer structure:

  • A hook - gets our interest, reveals the style of the film.
  • Reveal a new world. Now show us the big problem.
  • Show us the characters -- and the problem gets deeper.
  • 60 percent in, there’s a big reveal, often character motivation.
  • Then we drive toward a big showdown.
  • We end on a “final note.”

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Meanwhile, On Actualities

On my Actualities blog, a few new posts: on a new project, an editing lesson, some editing skills and some editing ideas.

It's all about editing, I suppose.

Mile Seventeenish

Tomorrow I'll be shooting some footage as the New York Marathon goes along First Avenue, near my apartment. I have a few ideas on what might make an interesting microdocumentary, but it's tough to say what will happen or if a story will emerge.

I'm likely to shoot a combination of stills and HDV (at 720p30), and to also drag a small audio recorder around. This is similar to how Notebook on Santas and Elves was made. I learned a lot from that process, and I'm guessing it can be a workable way to make something about 5 minutes long.

I'm jotting this down because, as always, when I start a film (no matter how short or casual) it seems rather imaginary. It takes a while for anything to be gathered, anything to be put together, and for it to be shaped into anything at all. And then, if it is made into something watchable, there's a huge lag for it to go somewhere.

I have a list of festivals that seem like a match for this type of film, or for what I imagine the film will be. In any case, it will be interesting to check back in a few months and see where this went.

If you are running in the event, smile as you go by.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Little Eisenstein

As in past years, I'm having my editing class take the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin -- 7 minutes and 19 seconds long -- and work to cut 30 seconds out of it without ruining it. (Try it yourself: grab the Eisenstein film over at

Some students just make shots shorter, and some completely remove elements you or I might say are essential to the story. Every time I do this exercise, at least one student misunderstands: "Here it is," they proudly say, "I cut it down to 30 seconds."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Advanced Photo Class, Register Now

My Advanced Seriously Fun Photography class starts at Hunter Continuing Education starts November 5th. So, register now.

They've changed the Web site, so the way to see the listing and register is to go to this interface and type "photography" into the search box.
Ready to stretch your creativity, and master the techniques you need for your photography? In this advanced photography class, we will address three topic areas of intermediate / advanced photography technique -- chosen by the students during our first session -- and we will have three special class photography sessions. (These sessions may include a class photo shoot, a museum / gallery / auction house visit, and a studio lighting shoot.) Students will also prepare a small portfolio project over the six weeks of the course, with a critique session in our last week.

Course/Section: SERFUNII/1 6 Session(s) 12 Hour(s) Tuition: $250.00
Day(s) Meet: Thursday Date: 11/05/09-12/17/09 Time: 06:00PM-08:00PM
Location: CS, 71 E 94 ST./
Instructor(s): FISHER, TED

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday At The Met: The Americans

I've taken many of my photo classes through Robert Frank's The Americans over the years, page by page. We look at it for sequencing concepts, for ideas on a documentary approach, and just because it's a good book.

So, nothing shocking to me in the Met's installation. But it's great nonetheless.

The highlight: one of the contact sheets reveals Frank shot four times when he saw a combination of the American flag, the front of a building, and women in the windows. He then shot a few attempts at something else, and came back for one last shot: and that final shot is the iconic image that's first in the book.

Quick Note On Balancing Flash and Ambient Exposure

Last night in my Seriously Fun Photography class we tried balancing on-camera flash and ambient light. A few notes on that:

1. First, let's set a manual exposure based on the ambient light available. For example, in the low-light conditions of a classroom at night, we found a reasonable exposure was around a sensitivity setting of ISO 1600, a shutter speed of 1/60th and an aperture of F/5.6. I tend to recommend dropping this exposure one stop -- after all, you may want your main subject to "pop" and the background to be a little darker. So switch to manual mode, and set an exposure that is about one stop underexposed.

2. Now pop up your on camera flash. Check the flash mode: "fill flash" will give you the best balance between subject and background. There's also a "flash compensation" setting, so if you are finding your flash is overexposing the subject, set the flash compensation to -1 or -2. Take the shot, and look how the subject and background are balancing.

3. For a more sophisticated take, consider "dragging the shutter" -- using a shutter speed that's a bit slower (for example, try 1/15th of a second). The flash will freeze the main subject, and the slow shutter may create a more interesting background to the shot. You can even purposefully move the camera to create a little bit more interest in the background -- you might get streaking lights or an overall warmly lit look.

In general, good compact cameras and good DSLR cameras do a reasonable job of balancing subject and background when handled this way, but usually you'll want to dial that flash compensation down a stop.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Advanced Relief On 88th Street

I saw that someone had left a bottle of "Advanced Relief" on the iron gate of the church, and it struck me as a strange thing. You would have to reach up to put something there.

Ten hours later, it was still there. Not moved in the slightest.

I'll look the next time I go past.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Bronx, Looking Toward Manhattan

That light-grey speck in the distance? The Chrysler Building. Or have they changed the name, now that it's been sold?

A Tree Grows In Not Exactly Brooklyn

I snapped this while walking in The Bronx because it's unusual to see a tree branch growing out of a building, but also because it reminded me of:

Nature Photography, More or Less.

Photographer, Upper East Side

I'm generally not a fan of shots taken from behind people. It tends toward the exploitive, and tends to feel unconnected as well. Still, once in a while there's one I think works. Maybe it's the light streaming past.

For some reason, I thought this guy was a tourist. Maybe not. What was he so intent on photographing, up in the sky? I don't know: I snapped this with my iPhone and continued home. I'm usually fairly tuned in, but this time I just never thought to look.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Final Cut Pro Without A Mouse, Part One

Want to work fast in Final Cut Pro? Learn to work without the mouse.

Oh, you'll need the mouse sooner or later. Some tasks are best done with the mouse. If you want to edit fast, however, you may want to learn a few useful key commands that will speed up your editing process. Besides: it's cold and flu season, and who knows what's on that thing. So let's try a little mouse-free editing.

Get prepped:
Let's do the basics first so you'll be ready for this adventure. (In fact, you'll probably do this step with the mouse, just to keep things simple, but that's okay.) Start Final Cut Pro.

First, you'll need some sort of video clip to work with. You should have your "easy setup" set to match -- so if the clip is in DV-NTSC format, set your "easy setup" (located under the Final Cut Pro menu) to the same format. Close any project that's open, choose New > Project and then save it somewhere using an easily-understood filename and keeping the .fcp suffix.

Now choose New > Sequence and give it a name you'll understand -- like "tedshandsfreeedit01" or something appropriate. You don't want "Sequence01" or anything default or unclear.

Now, let's import your video file: choose File > Import and select your file. Set that mouse aside and let's practice. Hit Control-u to change to the standard interface. That will arrange your windows in a way that's good for the type of work we'll be doing.

Now let's work.
  • Hit Apple-4 to activate the Browser window.
  • Use the Up-arrow and Down-arrow keys to select what file is active. When you are on the video file you want to work with, hit the the return key and that will "load" the video clip into the Viewer window and activates the Viewer window.
  • Now you can use the j, k and l keys to move the playhead around. Tap "l" and the playhead will move forward at normal speed, tap it more and it will move forward faster. Hitting "k" will pause. Hitting "j" will move the playhead backwards; hitting it more will move the playhead backwards faster. The spacebar can also be used: it toggles "play" and "pause." To move by single frames, use the leftarrow and rightarrow keys. To move in one-second intervals, hit shift-leftarrow or shift-rightarrow.
  • Move to where you think a useful part of the clip starts. Once you have your playhead there, hit the "i" key to mark your inpoint.
  • Move to where you think a useful part of the clip ends. Once you have your playhead there, hit the "o" key to mark your outpoint.
  • Now, let's preview if you have the right inpoint and outpoint. Hit shift-\ and you'll see the clip play from the inpoint to the outpoint. If it is wrong, move the playhead to a better point and hit "i" or "o" to set a new better point.
  • Once you have the clip like you want it, hit apple-u to make a subclip.
  • You will see this new clip appear in the Browser. It will have jagged edges (note that the main clip has smooth edges) and it will have the text selected -- it's ready for you to type in an appropriate name. Like "Moe pokes Larry in the eyes" or something that will later help you identify the clip.
Now, repeat these steps and you can make subclips out of your single video clip, all ready to edit or to hand over to another editor. How do you get those on the timeline and edit them? That will be in our next edition of "Final Cut Pro Without A Mouse."

Saturday, October 17, 2009


My friend Doug McCulloh was in town for a few days. You should probably buy his books:

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Oh, Snap

Had a good studio lighting session in Seriously Fun Photography. Above: what happens when a strobe fires while taking an iPhone snapshot.

But First, Arm Wrestling And A Slap Fight

I really enjoyed this post by Maria Lokken. One of the reasons I have my students read books by both Walter Murch and Ralph Rosenblum is to give them a sense that often the relationship between director and editor is more important than just knowing how to edit. No matter which role you are playing -- or if you are both -- the process of moving from production phase to editing phase can make or break a film. If the wrong goal is set, or if the wrong parameters are drawn, the editing process will not lead to a great outcome.

So how can a director make that process work?

Working with an editor
"Once I hand everything over I walk away. Yes, walk away. Let him or her work with it like a sculptor with clay. Let them put their creative stamp on it, and see where it takes the piece. You can always pull back. But it takes longer to get something out of an editor if you’ve shut them down from the beginning by saying this is the way it has to be, no changes, no exceptions."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Adobe Photoshop For iPhone

Above: I took a snap of a micro pumpkin patch on 89th Street this evening. It was a great opportunity to test out Adobe's Photoshop for iPhone.

Here's the process: I clicked on the Photoshop icon, and it asked if I wanted to take a photo or use an existing image. I chose the image, then used the crop tool to take out some unneeded detail, turned the saturation slider to plus 10, turned the exposure adjustment up a little, and chose to exit and save. That's it. The photo appeared in my phone's photo library and was ready to post. The original is at left.

It's a very simple app, it's free, and it does the basics. Not bad at all.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sunday In The Park With Joel

Is there any news from the world of photography? Tons of it. Joel Meyerowitz in NYC parks, for one.

Documentary Photographer Turns His Lens on City Parks
In the latest phase of his career, Mr. Meyerowitz, 71, has turned his lens onto nature and wildlife in city parks, in a project evocative of the work of the artists and writers hired by the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal. The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation has commissioned a series of expansive photographs of city green spaces from Mr. Meyerowitz. The resulting works — 90 photographs — are now on view in an exhibition, “Legacy: The Preservation of Wilderness in New York City Parks,” that opened on Friday at the Museum of the City of New York."

Rock Followup: Hair Still Good

News from the world of documentary lawsuits.

Woman Declares Chris Rock's Documentary 'rip-off', Case Dropped
A judge in Los Angeles District Court dismissed a plagiarism lawsuit against Chris Rock that claimed the comedian lifted a woman's ideas when he filmed a documentary about African-American hairstyles.

Ted's Ideas On Editing Chase Scenes

On Wednesday I'm giving a lecture in one of my classes on editing chase scenes. I've given it a few times before, and it's usually a pretty big hit -- it seems to really help students get a handle on some basic editing concepts.

They may never edit a chase scene, but the bigger point is that they learn to develop a rational plan to make an otherwise complicated and confusing set of shots seem completely coherent, comprehensible, and clear.

We look at clips from about a dozen films, and illustrate the ideas below.


How do we know which character is which? Does one wear a white cowboy hat and the other a black one? Does one have a red car and the other blue? Is the pickup basketball game shirts versus skins?

If we see the leader pass the big red building, then ten seconds later the other, we know how far apart the characters are. Often, a camera will stay at a landmark position, and pan from one character to another.

If a car is chasing a moped, the car has a clear advantage. But when the moped goes into the subway and the car driver follows on foot, now the moped has the advantage.

Is a character gaining or falling behind? A shot where the camera is pulling away, or where the character is catching up to the camera may tell us. A shot with both characters in it might reveal the relative status as well.

We want to know what the character is thinking, feeling and doing -- so a cut to a shot through the windshield might reveal the character's expression. Or a cut to the foot on the brake might tell us what's happening. Or a closeup on the gear shift. Make careful note of where the character looks -- the next shot might be their "point of view."

A camera can be low in the front of a car, can look out the rear window, can sit in the passenger seat, can look down at the brake pedal -- and all of these shots are useful. It can run alongside the moped as it plunges down the stairs. It can turn to watch the car streak by. It can shake, float, or fly.

If a car goes from screen left to screen right, we expect it to keep doing that unless we some change -- a shot where it turns, or where we "move" into the car before coming back out. And we expect the car chasing to also maintain consistent screen direction -- unless we see a change happen.

If we cut from the big black car to the little red sports car -- should the sound change right on that cut? Or should it change in other ways? Do we want to hear the sound of the car coming toward us, then going away?

Even in a short chase, all go-go-go action wears thin. It's usually more exciting to have a lot of action, then a tiny pacing "deep breath" before the big finish.

That tank chasing the laser-guided skateboard just knocked over every fruit stand in aisle 19. Maybe we could cut back to see what happened, and the angry manager shaking her fist at us? Or maybe our wheel can't take much more and is starting to wobble -- maybe a closeup to reveal that?

Touching Retouching

Great article about students in Baltimore who salvage photographs, then use Photoshop to restore them. I think there's something in my eye.

High school students try to save neighbors' memories
"The Patapsco photography class was spending part of Monday afternoon examining their first batch of work: photos from the flooded basement of Jane Haines. Haines lives in Logan Village, one of the communities affected last month by a main break that sent water gushing into more than 100 homes in the Dundalk area. Throughout this month, the students are offering to digitally restore photographs ruined in the deluge."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Party Like It's 1993

Is it just me, or is a lot of the current conversation about the future of film distribution very similar to the discussions folks had in the early 90s about the future of the Web?

I have a book about the "future of art" on my shelf, printed just as the World Wide Web came along. Its predictions are completely wrong. I remember all the excitement about media moving to CD-R. That's faded away, though you could certainly do that today easily -- but no one wants to. And I remember many people who were very adamant that they would never read on a computer screen or buy online. Others said they'd never visit a page with advertising.

I streamed a live video conference in 1997, put streaming video online not that long after that, and have made a lot of work for the Web -- so I'm not surprised by the changes that have happened.

What I don't get, the part that is surprising to me, is how flat-footed people in the film production world have been caught by the changes. I think it's being explained in the wrong terms: it's not that you can't make a film, and it's not that you can't distribute a film. Those things are actually easier than ever. The problem is that they no longer make financial sense. The financial system in place works fine at a certain scale, but doesn't work under the new conditions. There's pressure to make Transformers 8 or a YouTube video of your hamster.

The stuff in the middle -- the good stuff -- needs a new model.

Eggnog All Around

As of this weekend, stores were ready. Break out the Santa suits.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

He Told Them To Rush, More

Does Wes Anderson's Director of Photography really think he's a butthead, or is this a planned P.R. stunt? Either way, today's Los Angeles Times article on the retro stop-motion process behind The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a very interesting read.

Fur flies on 'Mr. Fox'
Not everyone could muster a magnanimous word for Anderson's M.O. -- especially his on-set absence. "I think he's a little sociopathic," cinematographer Oliver said. "I think he's a little O.C.D. Contact with people disturbs him. This way, he can spend an entire day locked inside an empty room with a computer. He's a bit like the Wizard of Oz. Behind the curtain."

Informed of Oliver's discontent, Anderson said: "I would say that kind of crosses the line for what's appropriate for the director of photography to say behind the director's back while he's working on the movie. So I don't even want to respond to it."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

IMDB Web Series Credits Update

A while back -- on April Fool's Day, unfortunately -- I posted about IMDB Web Series Credits. Casey McKinnon had just announced the result of her conversation with Col Needham, IMDb founder and managing director: IMDB would be creating a Web series category.

She's still waiting, and has an update....

I want my… I want my… I want my Web TV!
"How much longer do we need to wait? How much longer must we submit our web series as “TV Series” or (straight to DVD) “Video” titles? I sent Needham an email the other day asking for an update, and just sent an email through the IMDb contact page last night. If you’re a producer with the same concerns, I suggest trying to touch base with them through your own networking channels. Let’s get this pushed through!!!"
Of course, maybe IMDB has been busy. They did, after all, add Twitter.

Long Enough To Reach The Ground

What's the right length for a film? Esquire Magazine makes one argument:

The 90-Minute Movie: Because 80 Minutes Is Too Short, and 100 Is Too Long
They could have cut out the entire China subplot from The Dark Knight — easily 20 of that movie's 152 convoluted minutes — with no effect on your enjoyment or comprehension of the film. And was it me, or did the fifth hour of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button start to drag?
Also, the list of films shortlisted in the Academy Awards short documentary category was released this week: almost all of them, as usual, 39 minutes long. Many are really films made for the 52-minute television hour, but cut down to 39 to take a shot at Oscar recognition. No nomination? Put 13 minutes back in, go to cable. (There have been a few exceptions over the years, notably the 17-minute Two Hands: The Leon Fleisher Story (2006) by Nathaniel Kahn.)

Oscar short documentary contenders named
Thirty-seven films were submitted in the short doc category and on Friday the Academy's documentary branch released a list of the eight films that have been short-listed. Three to five of them will be nominated when the nominations are announced on Feb. 2.
Above: The Quad, on 13th Street.