Sunday, April 26, 2009

Is "Dektol" Danny Lyon?

Danny Lyon fans may also wish to glance at:

Dektol's Weblog

Photography in the News: Danny Lyon

Good article on Danny Lyon at The New York Times this weekend:

Stubbornly Practicing His Principles of Photography
"Mr. Lyon, who has been awarded two Guggenheim fellowships, one for his film work, has called his work advocacy journalism and does not deny that it purveys ideas — if only the idea that everyone should be more aware of the pain and struggle around them in a consumerist, media-saturated world that tends to encourage isolation and apathy. “I think I try to hide it,” he said of his worldview in his work. “But I’m a highly politicized person, and it’s in my blood.”"
I hadn't known about his film work, so I had to go and look it up. Turns out you can find reviews of his significant work in documentary filmmaking going back into the early 1970s. I'm not sure how to see these today, however.

Screen: By Danny Lyon: The Program
"The Films of Danny Lyon," the new program at the Film Forum, is a collection of three documentary films by the 31-year-old Brooklyn-born still photographer turned film-maker. The two best films in the collection, "Llanito" (61 minutes) and "Soc. Sci. 127" (21 minutes) are defined less by a developed cinematic style than by compassion for the subjects.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

HD from Still Cameras?

There's been a lot of interest in shooting video with still cameras in the last year. I don't mean stop-motion, but rather the HD capabilities that have shown up in a few of the newer DSLR cameras. It's certainly an interesting development, but there's a downside or two.

For one: crappy audio. None of the current DSLR cams allow quality sound recording, so if you are aiming to do something with reasonable quality you'll need to work "dual-system" -- meaning you need a separate sound recorder, and you have to somehow synchronize it with your video.

For two: there are some technical issues. Filmmaker magazine has a nice mini-article on the phenomenon, and it's the first time I've seen some of those technical concerns made clear.

Filmmakers disclose how they are shooting movies with still cameras.
“I was very afraid about the sensitivity of the camera to movement. I’d read a lot about how the rolling shutter in the Canon 5D can sometimes give a jelly effect. If you look at the focus push at the second mark, (26 seconds into the trailer at you’ll see what a lot of people are having problems with. We stayed away from handheld shots, more as a stylistic choice. We did a test before the shoot with handheld, some parts were a little too shaky. I think it’ll be a new camera technique to master. On the dolly, we used sandbags to weigh down the tripod. But even with a nice dolly with good track, we had to rehearse the shot over and over again. Every little bump could be seen on camera."

Tom Quinn had similar concerns. "These cameras are really meant to be operated on a tripod — the handheld has a few issues. For one, there is no optical image stabilizer for the video, so the small vibrations that a video camera would neutralize are present. Also the CMOS sensor creates a slight waver to the image on fast horizontal movement when shooting telephoto. For these two reasons we’ve been using a mix of monopods and tripods.”

And Sarah Palin is in Fourth

Just checked the Webby Awards "People's Voice" standings. Currently the Frugal Traveler: Budget Europe is in third.

Did I mention Your Vote is Appreciated?

Have a huge Twitter audience or fans who read your blog? Have them check out the series -- it was 14 solid episodes of Euro travel, and I'm not sure that's reflected in the link people who arrive cold at the Webbys get. Voting ends April 30th, so it's not over yet....

And On My Other Blog

On Actualities recently I've had posts about: flowers, strippers, stalkers, bloggers, and editors, posted a link for a doc I edited and requested your vote for The Webbys.

You know, the usual.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Bernie, Elliot, Madge

Sure, my neighborhood has one or two unsavory characters in it, like anywhere else. And questionable newcomers move in from time to time. That's fine.

Despite the downsides, you can't beat the tulips on Park Avenue when Spring decides to show up.

Above: iPhone snap from yesterday, taken while walking over to teach a photography class.

A Good Day for Manual Mode

It's time to try working in Manual Mode on your DSLR.

Turn the big knob on top of the camera to M, point the camera at your subject and press the shutter halfway down. You'll see in your viewfinder if the camera thinks you are underexposing or overexposing -- there's a little indicator that will let you know. Then you can change your settings -- I recommend changing one at time -- to get the exposure you want.

A good way to learn to estimate light levels is to try the "Sunny f/16" system -- and see if our guess at the light level matches what our camera meter thinks. It's sunny outside today, so we can practice working this way...

1. Set your ISO to 400.

2. The "Sunny F16 Rule" tells us that on a sunny day we can set the shutter speed to match the ISO setting. Your camera probably won't have a 1/400th of a second setting, so round off to 1/500th of a second. Close enough for a first attempt.

3. Look at the shadows the sun is casting. If it is clear and bright, you'll probably see hard shadows, but as it gets more overcast the shadows will get softer or disappear. So:

a. if you see hard shadows, set your aperture to f/16
b. if you see soft shadows, set your aperture to f/11
c. if you see no shadows, set your aperture to f/8
d. if the light level seems even lower, set your aperture to f/5.6

That's all. Set your camera to M. Set your ISO to 400. Look at the shadows and set your aperture. Point your camera at your subject, press the shutter halfway down. Your camera may have a little triangle, or a light or another indicator that lets you know if it thinks you are over or under on your exposure. Adjust if you agree, or go with your guess. Take the shot.

Look on your viewscreen, and see if you've got it right -- and then act superior to anyone using automatic modes.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

But I've Never Been To Me

What type of news story would I like to read? Well, anything Ted-centric would be fine. And they say journalism's dead....

Indie Filmmakers Q&A Series: Part I

Ah, Vanity

Now here's the type of article I like. It's all about me, me, me and me. (At one point, two other people are mentioned, but then luckily the story gets back on track, returning to being completely about me. Perfect.)

Actually, it's a good read, even beyond being entirely all about moi.

Indie Filmmakers Q&A Series: Part I

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Now I Have to Look Up If He Won

Did I mention that Webby nomination, and how you should go vote for Frugal Traveler: Budget Europe immediately? I guess it slipped my mind. In any case, go vote now, it's going to be very close.

Your vote is needed. I'll wait.

Okay, now that you're back, a little humor at Slate. It's not necessarily accurate, and the article is a year old, but it's still pretty funny....

What? You've Not Been Honored by the Webbys?


Profluence shows up in the darndest places.

This time it's in a story on filmmaking contests -- a topic we know well -- and where they might fit into the future of filmmaking.

The future of storytelling - from Soderbergh to YouTube
"I used to roll my eyes … how could this serious life pursuit be reduced to a contest? Why would makers play directly in to the hands of needy promotional types? But years later, I’m starting to see the opportunities, and how it’s grown far beyond simple commercialization. In posing story as game, isn’t there value in simply inviting broader creativity? Aren’t there new types of opportunities for collaboration?"
Check out the full post, as it's the first column by Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson on Sundance Channel's new "SUNfiltered" blog.

Annie at Work

Annie Leibovitz and her approach to portraiture came up in my Thursday night class last week, so I wanted to link to some good "behind-the-scenes" video from Vanity Fair. I think her use of lighting in these is well worth the view, especially the episode with Nicole Kidman and Baz Luhrman.

The 2009 Hollywood Portfolio Shoots

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Documentaries in the News, Stripper Edition

This might be a good doc. Or not. It definitely needs a better title, though. Really, there have to be a couple dozen double-entendres just ready to go, and no end of possible puns.

Stripper Impersonates High School Alum: Classmates Learn About Reunion Prank on YouTube
So, rather than attend her reunion, Wachner, 31, sent someone else in her place, a stripper, and made a documentary about it. "I Remember Andrea" wasn't picked up by the film festivals this go-around, but Wachner did find a manager who took interest in her project. They are shopping it around as a reality TV show or a narrative feature.

Pulling Into Second Place

Hey, did I mention that the Frugal Traveler: Grand Tour series is nominated for a 2009 Webby Award? It must have slipped my mind.

Okay, okay, I've mentioned it....

In any case, I just checked, and while we won't have a result from the Judges for a few weeks, in the People's Voice voting the show is currently in second place.

So go vote for it. Have your friends check it out, then vote for it, too.

Details, and link to the series episodes at Your Vote is Appreciated.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Followup to the Followup

A nice overview of the ASU screening by Cassandra Nicholson, the Phoenix Film Examiner.

ASU Art Museum Film Festival Showcases National, International Talent
"The second of two New York City submissions came from Ted Fisher in his light-hearted documentary, “12th & 3rd in Brooklyn,” which focused on a group of men known as “Brooklyn’s Best.” Their annual stickball match holds historical, cultural and familial connections for them, as it is held every year on the same street where they played the game as young children."
The first New York submission? Bill Plympton's "Santa: The Fascist Years." I just love Plympton's films, so it's an honor to be in the same program.

(Of course, please note, it's not just my film -- it's co-directed by Maya Mumma and Iris Lee also.)

ASU Screening Followup

I've screened films for small audiences before, and that's fine. I can think of a few times when there were only 30 people in the audience. No problem. So it's nice to see 1,300 turn out for the screening at ASU Art Museum. That's a good-sized audience.

ASU museum’s reel deal

1300 Attend ASU Screening

There's a nice article on Saturday night's screening at ASU. Fun photo with the story, so follow the link....

Short film and video festival draws more than a thousand people
"ASU Art Museum’s courtyard was packed with lawn chairs, picnic blankets and a sea of people watching social commentaries and silly cartoons on a big screen on Saturday night. About 1,300 people were reeled in to watch film reels at the 13th annual ASU Art Museum Short Film and Video Festival, held outside the museum. The free festival showed 19 selections made by a globe-spanning collection of independent directors, hailing everywhere from Germany to New York to Arizona. The films represented an array of genres from confessional documentary to campy video animation."

Pogue on Flash

This week in my Thursday night class there was discussion and demo that included using on-camera flash. There's a good related article by David Pogue here, with some good basics to review....

Controlling Your Camera’s Flash

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Your Vote is Appreciated

The web series I produced / edited last summer -- Frugal Traveler: The Grand Tour -- is nominated for a 2009 Webby Award.

Please vote for the show at the People's Voice site.

It would be much appreciated.
How it works: click on "sign up now" and give an email address (you can opt out of receiving anything) and make up a password. They email you a link, then you follow that to a ballot.

"Frugal" is under "Online Film / Video" in the "Travel" category.
If you haven't seen it, here's the series:

2008: Frugal Traveler: The Grand Tour (14 Episodes)
Week 1: Dover to Calais
Week 2: Paris, France
Week 3: Southwestern France
Week 4: French Riviera
Week 5: Rome
Week 6: Malta
Week 7: Cyprus
Week 8: Bucharest
Week 9: Vilnius, Lithuania
Week 10: Gdansk, Poland
Week 11: Germany
Week 12: Dutch-Belgian Border
Week 13: Frugal Edinburgh
Frugal Traveler: Looking Back

Editing by the Numbers

I've been grading papers by my students this week, and as usual there are many references to how editing has changed in the digital era. It makes sense: while the basic concepts are the same, editing on a computer can be significantly faster and allows a lot of room for quick experimentation.

I think they miss the bigger, more significant point, however.

Compare the same editor working in 1979 and 2009 and of course you'll see the power of computer-assisted editing. On some tasks, the digital editor will be amazingly faster, and will likely have less need of multiple assistants to sort the material.

On other tasks, though, they may in fact work at about the same pace. A decent film editor on a working pre-digital system is not inherently slow, and a digital system includes no magic wand.

The significance of digital technology is not found in comparing one editor (1979 version) to one editor (2009 version). The real change is this: the number of people with training in editing and a reasonable amount of practice is way, way up. The shift to computer-based editing has given the individual editor potentially more speed and power -- but it has also made it a more competitive field, with a much larger talent pool. How many 19-year-olds had edited a short film in 1979, compared to the number today?

The real effect, then, is that in our one-to-one comparison that 2009 editor would probably be better. Not because of the function of the tools, but because of the amount of practice and competition allowed by the tools.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Paparazzi + Hamptons + Madonna = Fail

Ah, the paparazzi.

I think the horse may have mistaken them for zombies.

Madonna falls from horse in Hamptons after paparazzi spook animal
"Madonna was tossed to the ground Saturday when her horse was startled by photographers while riding on a Hamptons estate. The Material Mom was rushed to Southampton Hospital with minor injuries and bruises after a fall while riding at the Bridgehampton farm of celebrity photographer Steven Klein."

Could Use Your Vote, Please

The web series I produced / edited last summer -- Frugal Traveler: The Grand Tour -- is nominated for a 2009 Webby Award.

We'll see what the judges decide, but you can vote for the show at the People's Voice site.

Please do. It would be much appreciated.
How it works: click on "sign up now" and give an email address (you can opt out of receiving anything) and make up a password. They email you a link, then you follow that to a ballot.

"Frugal" is under "Online Film / Video" in the "Travel" category.
If you haven't seen it, here's the series:

2008: Frugal Traveler: The Grand Tour (14 Episodes)
Week 1: Dover to Calais
Week 2: Paris, France
Week 3: Southwestern France
Week 4: French Riviera
Week 5: Rome
Week 6: Malta
Week 7: Cyprus
Week 8: Bucharest
Week 9: Vilnius, Lithuania
Week 10: Gdansk, Poland
Week 11: Germany
Week 12: Dutch-Belgian Border
Week 13: Frugal Edinburgh
Frugal Traveler: Looking Back

Anthony Goicolea Documentary

Here's a short documentary on artist Anthony Goicolea I edited last year. It was directed and photographed by Richard Giles. It's done in a very slow, contemplative style that I really enjoy. We spend a lot of time experiencing his process of making art, and we get a sense of what it's like to hang out in his studio. It's 8 minutes and 30 seconds.

(It was done for Haunch of Venison, and you can see more about the artist on their site.)

Tempe Time

One day, I'm going to be able to go to all of my screenings. I look forward to it.

For now, some of them happen without me....

12th and 3rd in Brooklyn, our short film on stickball, is screening at the Thirteenth Annual ASU Art Museum Short Film and Video Festival tonight at 8 p.m.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Screening Tonight

Tonight at 8 p.m. our film 12th and 3rd in Brooklyn (by Ted Fisher, Iris Lee and Maya Mumma) will screen at the Thirteenth Annual ASU Art Museum Short Film and Video Festival in Tempe, Arizona.

I've seen the film with a number of audiences, and it usually goes over well, with one particular moment that gets a laugh / cheer. The ASU event looks like fun -- it's outdoors at night in Arizona -- so I wish I could be there to see how it plays....

Always Bring An Attorney

Ah, documentary production. Camera? Check. Tape? Check. Allegedly peering through Britney Spears windows? Check.

Just a ‘joke’ says woman caught at Britney’s
"The whole thing — it was all a joke in the beginning, everybody knew about it," the woman, who claims to be a student at the Art Institute of California, told Billy Bush for Access Hollywood and "The Billy Bush Show" on Friday. "It was supposed to be like a 'Paparazzi 101' documentary type deal."
At least she didn't get egged by Lindsay Lohan.

Or mistaken for a Zombie by Woody Harrelson.

Tony Mendoza's Ernie

More often than you'd expect, the topic turns to cat photography. In my Thursday night class, I mentioned Tony Mendoza's Ernie: A Photographer's Memoir -- so I'm posting the link to it.

If you like it you can purchase via Amazon as well:

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Besides Depends commercials, what is Errol Morris making next? Variety knows.

Errol Morris tries icy tale
Documentarian Errol Morris is taking on a narrative feature for his next project. The "Fog of War" helmer will direct the Untitled Cryonics Project, which Zach Helm is writing. Mandate Pictures and Steve Zaillian's Film Rites are producing the dark comedy, which was inspired by both Robert F. Nelson's memoir "We Froze the First Man" and a story that aired on "This American Life" this week titled "You're as Cold as Ice."

Eye Placement in Portraiture

I often talk to my students about the placement of the eyes when framing a photograph or video image. For example, I tend to lead them toward a starting composition that places the eyes about 1/3 from the top of the frame. Usually, if one attempts that first, you can naturally slide into a composition that works well.

But what about the horizontal placement?

Two papers by Christopher W. Tyler address the "hypothesis of a consistent positioning of one eye relative to the center of the portrait" in a way I haven't seen done before.


Eye Placement Principles In Portraits And Figure Studies Over The Past Two Millennia
"Is there a consistent placement of the eyes relative to the canvas frame, based on the horizontal position of the eyes in portraits? Data from portraits over the past 2000 years quantify that one eye is centered with a standard deviation of less than + 5%. Classical texts on composition do not seem to mention the idea that the eyes as such should be positioned relative to the frame of the picture; the typical emphasis is on the placement of centers of mass in the frame or relative to the vanishing point in cases of central perspective. If such a compositional principle is not discussed in art analysis, it seems that its manifestation throughout the centuries and varieties of artistic styles (including the extreme styles of the 20th century) must be guided by unconscious perceptual processes."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Webby Voting Is Open

If you enjoyed the Frugal Traveler: The Grand Tour series from last summer, you can vote for it at the Webby Awards People's Voice site.

It takes two minutes. Click on "sign up now" and give an email address (you can opt out of receiving anything) and make up a password. They email you a link, then you follow that to a ballot.

Pick the shows you like. "Frugal" is under "Online Film / Video" in the "Travel" category.


Heddy Honigmann

One of my favorite documentaries is Heddy Honigmann's Forever. So I'm glad to see that her new film is out.... Indiewire has a good interview about the film and her process.

Interview | “Oblivion” Director Heddy Honigmann: “I need more than one lifetime…”
Some years ago, I visited my mother in Lima. We went to a chic restaurant. When the waiter came, I recognized him. He was still working in the same restaurant after forty years. “So,” I asked him, “have you seen many coups, have you served presidents and ministers, and have you suffered because of the continuos corruption, inflation and violence in Peru?” The waiter nodded smilingly and every time he served us he told us bits of what he remembered. And although I was on a vacation, a “film idea” was conceived.

Photography in the News

If I've told you once... Photography is simply dangerous.

Is Lindsay cracking up? Now wild-eyed Miss Lohan hurls eggs at photographers

Webby "People's Voice" Voting Open

If you enjoyed the Frugal Traveler: The Grand Tour series, you can vote for it at the People's Voice site.

How it works: click on "sign up now" and give an email address (you can opt out of receiving anything) and make up a password. They email you a link, then you follow that to a ballot.

Pick the shows you like. "Frugal" is under "Online Film / Video" in the "Travel" category.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Various News

Over on my other blog, there are two bits of news: The Frugal Traveler "Grand Tour" series I worked on is nominated for a Webby Award and our film "12th and 3rd in Brooklyn" is screening this Saturday in Arizona.

Frugal Traveler Webby Nomination, 2009

It looks like last year's Frugal Traveler: The Grand Tour series is nominated for a 2009 Webby Award.

I notice the Webby Awards site has it listed as "Budget Europe," which it is, sorta, though that's not the official title. As well, it currently links to the "send off" episode (an episode I was not involved in -- I served as Producer and Editor on the 13 weekly episodes and the "Looking Back" episode) without really guiding you to the episodes of the series. I'm sure they'll update. (I'll post the series links in order below, so if you want to watch the series you can.)

Webby Awards, Online Film / Video, Travel Category

I'm glad to see it nominated -- I think it was a very good series and shows that organizations other than the big networks can produce high-quality shows.

(I believe there will be "People's Voice" voting enabled, also, and I will link to that later. I hope you'll give it a vote.)

2008: Frugal Traveler: The Grand Tour (14 Episodes)
Week 1: Dover to Calais
Week 2: Paris, France
Week 3: Southwestern France
Week 4: French Riviera
Week 5: Rome
Week 6: Malta
Week 7: Cyprus
Week 8: Bucharest
Week 9: Vilnius, Lithuania
Week 10: Gdansk, Poland
Week 11: Germany
Week 12: Dutch-Belgian Border
Week 13: Frugal Edinburgh
Frugal Traveler: Looking Back

Monday, April 13, 2009

Zombie Edition: Photography in The News

I don't know which is worse: roughing up a photographer or making a zombie movie in 2009. Both seem a touch passé, don't you think?

Woody Harrelson claims he mistook photographer for zombie
"I wrapped a movie called 'Zombieland,' in which I was constantly under assault by zombies, then flew to New York, still very much in character," Harrelson said in a statement issued Friday by his publicist.

"With my daughter at the airport I was startled by a paparazzo, who I quite understandably mistook for a zombie," he said.

This Saturday

On Saturday, April 18, 2009 at 8 p.m. our film 12th and 3rd in Brooklyn (by Ted Fisher, Iris Lee and Maya Mumma) will screen at the Thirteenth Annual ASU Art Museum Short Film and Video Festival in Tempe, Arizona. It's a very diverse program drawn from all over -- looks like great fun.

We won't be able to attend, but if you do (and happen to find this blog post) please give the film a rating at or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Went to Film Forum to see the new documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor. Excellent production values, seamless editing, strong cinematography, remarkable access. Very polished and entertaining.

After some reflection, my only complaint: there are no surprises. Everything is as it seems, and there's no particular transformation or moment where a challenge is overcome.

Still: the film is at least a match for the other four or five fashion docs that have come out in the last few years, and avoids the pitfalls so common to the genre. The filmmakers seem to realize that at a certain point, heroicizing a fashion designer becomes a little silly -- and they walk it right up to the limit, but no further.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Beer Wars

I can't drink. Well, not until Tuesday.

I went to the doctor a while back, and all the tests seemed fine except one. Probably nothing, I was told -- but don't drink anything until you come in for your physical, as that will throw the test off. It's taken a long time to schedule that physical, though, so I've been drier than a small town in Utah. For weeks and weeks and weeks.

Which makes a documentary on beer seem really appealing right now.

Small brewers battle ‘evil empire’ in ‘Beer Wars’ film
Though “Beer Wars” is Baron’s first documentary feature, she brings a unique perspective to the subject, with a background as both a beverage business executive and a Hollywood producer. And while “Beer Wars” might seem to be targeted at beer drinkers (something Baron is not), it’s ultimately a David and Goliath story about big beer companies vs. smaller beer companies and the current economic climate.

David Hemmings Just Shrugs

Ah, news from London. Clearly a world capital of photography -- after all, "Thomas" from "Blowup" took a few snaps there -- but lately so confused on the role of photographers.

Should they be feared or feted? It's a city saturated in surveillance cams, but lately on the edge of making public photography a crime, or at least a warning sign that you must be a terrorist.

The unstoppable rise of the citizen cameraman
"The social impact of this revolution has still to be fully understood. Usually its consequences have been written about rather darkly, in terms of CCTV cameras and the surveillance state, but recent events in Britain offer a different verdict. The digital camera is an egalitarian piece of technology - cheap (most mobile phones have them), easy to use, convenient to carry and quick to produce images that can be spread throughout cyberspace in seconds. What we are witnessing, as any professional photojournalist will tell you, is the unstoppable rise of the citizen-photographer. Last Thursday, at the demonstration outside the G20 summit in east London, I saw them at work. A small war of cameras. Police were stopping, searching and photographing demonstrators at Canning Town tube station; the demonstrators photographed the police as they took their photographs; sometimes - a third viewpoint - a video maker turned up to get both sides in the same shot. It seemed to me then that the camera, so often accused of spreading violence by its fixation with physical aggression, could also be one of violent behaviour's great restraints."

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Hello Dad ... I'm In Jail

Ah, wedding photography. You never know when those skills may come in handy. You know, like in jail.

Couple threatens to sue over wedding night DUI arrest
"The couple filed a complaint with the Harris County Precinct 8 Constable's Office and plans to file another with the federal government over the way [the bride] was allegedly treated while in jail. The couple said a photographer was allowed to take a picture of her in her wedding dress. The photograph appeared on the Internet and on television."

Speaking of "Dig!"

It turns out you can watch "Dig!" for free, via snagfilms. Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Derbyshire Dales District Dippers Disturbed? Definitely

It's tough being a photographer these days. You might get shot, or get hassled, or get smoked.

So you'll probably decide to get away from it all, head out into nature and maybe take a few bird pictures. What could go wrong?

"Photographers' behaviour has been blamed for a fall in the survival rates of nesting dipper birds in the Derbyshire Peak District, prompting an appeal by conservationists.

'Unfortunately, disturbances at one or two of the key dipper sites has had a direct and negative impact on their nesting success in recent years,' said Phil Bowler, senior reserve manager at the Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve."

Ondi Timoner

I'm a big fan of Dig! -- and I'm definitely looking forward to We Live in Public. In fact, I'm slowly beginning to think the "available same day as theatrical release" model will win out -- when I hear about a film I want to see, I'm ready to see it immediately.

The "Public" Life of Ondi Timoner
So I set out to document all of life. I shot 2500 hours of footage [for “Dig!”]. I didn’t realize that would make me be in the edit bay for three and a half years. I was more economical with “We Live in Public,” only this time, my subject was obsessed with documentation -- he documented thousands of hours of footage. Suddenly, I’m with 5000 hours of footage again. And thank God because it’s all viscerally told and when I wasn’t filming, Josh [started] with his girlfriend. I should give surveillance cameras main [cinematography] credit on the film.

And On My Other Blog

This week on Actualities -- my other blog -- I discussed Malcolm Gladwell, the Supreme Court, and the future of IMDB. Somehow, it all relates to making documentaries.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Thought of the Week

The amusing thing about documentary filmmakers? In a field that's always dogged by the perception of being boring, they're generally certain that you'll find their work captivating. In fact, I'm starting to realize that's a prerequisite for making docs -- the ability to convince yourself that whatever topic you are dealing with is fascinating.

The reason I'm thinking about this?

Well, in 2007 and 2008 we participated in the International Documentary Challenge and made it into the finals. This year, unfortunately, our film didn't make it. It was a tiny bit of a shock -- after all, we thought it was a very good film. Of course, having been through a lot of judging, and occasionally serving as a judge, I know that this sort of thing is just bananas -- there are many many many reasons why a person scores one film higher than another, and that's just the way it goes. We had two lucky breaks, and one unlucky one. Fine.

But I laughed out loud when I received a note from the event organizer. Apparently, so many of the non-finalists were emailing him that he just had to respond.

What were they writing? They were sure their films must have been disqualified somehow, and they wanted to know why. Because otherwise, of course, their film would have won. Obviously.

Last Book Read: Outliers

I've just finished Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. (The Kindle version, actually, read on my iPhone.)

I went through it with an eye to documentary production -- which makes it a very strange read. Some of his main points -- mastery of a craft will take 10,000 hours of work, practical intelligence is more important than I.Q., timing is critical regarding opportunities -- are fairly common-sense-based if we think about fields like music or computer programming or math.

But filmmaking?

A good argument can be made that he's wrong: the people with the "most" experience are often hacks, doing drudgery-work. The most "practical" folk end up making lowest-common-denominator work. The right-time-right-place filmmakers invariably fail on their second effort.

Clearly, his argument doesn't apply directly. Can we adapt it, though? It seems valuable, so can we filter it to work for doc production?


First, 10,000 hours isn't a figure to use when thinking about editing. Walter Murch seems to do about 1,000 hours of serious feature film editing a year, if we make a guess based on his books. That's probably the highest figure in the field -- I just don't think someone's hours cutting wedding videos, pre-structured television shows or anything that doesn't require high-level problem solving really count toward mastery. My guess is that someone like Murch could be said to get close to mastery after cutting three features -- 3,000 hours of work, give or take. I expect, though, that we're talking about a practice where pure hours don't matter above a certain point. Rather, Gladwell's 10,000 hours probably translates -- for those with the opportunity to work extended hours at the high levels of the craft -- into somewhere between 5 and 10 years of intense work. And that does seem to match reality, as far as I can tell.

Second, practical intelligence does seem to be more important than any raw I.Q. Making a documentary is dependent, in most cases, on one's ability to work with people -- whether a documentary subject or a crew. And the ability to get people to help you get what you need -- something Gladwell stresses -- is clearly more important than pure knowledge. So here Gladwell's notion is probably on target.

Gladwell's idea of being born to the right time and place for big success, however, is a little hard to apply to the field. Pick any doc maker with at least 2 big hits -- Barbara Kopple or Ondi Timoner, Al Maysles or Michael Moore -- and you'd be hard pressed to see a reason that success couldn't have happened in another time and place. There are always waves rising and falling: television supporting documentary production, then letting it go, film festivals rising, then falling, then rising again, DVD sales climbing then falling, and now the Web. There's been no "lucky elevator" to catch -- just films that are good enough to jump out of the box marked "documentary" onto the shelf for "new releases."

So why bother with Gladwell if he's just giving us common sense, and if it isn't a perfect match for documentary production?

My answer is that what he's really done in his book is to go against "common sense" -- the popular idea that success is a product of genius, that brilliance translates to productivity, that lightning can strike anywhere. He's instead pushed a very pragmatic take: put in long hours, find ways to work with people, and wait for a hittable pitch. There's nothing wrong with any of that advice, and nothing very surprising about it. His bigger point -- that if we as a society recognized these principles, we could produce twice as many "successful" students as our current "genius will out" model -- is the real value of this book.

Think about the current model: students go to film school, and those that do well earliest get the most access to higher training and resources. Everyone else is expected to bow to that glimmer of genius they've shown, and perhaps move toward "craft" -- serving those "natural Directors" as lighting crew, or as a camera loader. Just fantastic.

The main dent in that model came when computers became powerful enough to edit at home. Suddenly, a DV-camcorder and a copy of Final Cut Pro was a bit of an equalizer. But there's been a constant pushback since that revolution: the shift to HD production, the idea that "Dude, you've got to shoot on the Red camera!" and the idea of "production values" has returned us to that old-school model: get to USC, make the best short in your first class, and you're a "Director" with everyone else supporting your feature production and the school paying your way.

I'm with Gladwell: I think that existing model is the reason we get "The Fast and the Furious 18" as the tentpole of our culture. I'd rather have twenty of the people from the crew making their own shorts, and I think our culture would benefit more from that.

The takeaway? "Outliers" deflation of our expectation that "success comes from innate talent" is a perfect message for these times. We've lost our veneration for merit -- expecting instead that success will come from oversinging on a television reality show. All the hype in the world can't match what can be done with hard work -- and as a culture we don't seem to want to believe that.

What Gladwell does is pile up the evidence for it. I think it's worth considering.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Ah, Politics: Documentaries in the News

I enjoyed "Religulous." It was entertaining.

I consider it more of an essay, though, than a documentary. Even if I agree with it, I don't appreciate one-sided films. Reality is messy, and that's my favorite thing about documentaries -- they struggle within that messiness.

Which is why I hate most advocacy films. Doubly so those that one could fairly consider expanded political ads.

It's interesting to see the Supreme Court get involved in a decision relating to documentary films, of course, and it will be very interesting to see what they decide.

Justices Seem Skeptical of Scope of Campaign Law
“Hillary: The Movie,” a documentary with elements of polemic and advocacy journalism, was produced by Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit corporation. It was released during the Democratic presidential primaries last year, and a lower court said it could not be broadcast within 30 days of those elections.
It's a bit disheartening, however, to know what we're in for....

Anti-Obama Film On the Way
A conservative group -– Citizens United -– that has produced a film now in distribution attacking Hillary Clinton called “Hillary, the Movie,” has its sights set on a new target: Barack Obama. The group has budgeted about $1 million to produce a documentary film about Mr. Obama that is set to be distributed this summer.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

"Extremely Ambivalent"

The relationship between filmmaker and subject in making a documentary is always a tricky one. Usually, there's a balance between exploitation and value: by definition, the filmmaker is "using" the subject, but usually it's in a benign way, and often to the subject's benefit.

But not always.

I'm eager to see Guest of Cindy Sherman -- since I love both photography and documentaries about photographers -- but I have to admit any film made by an "ex-boyfriend" has a lot to prove....

Camera Shy
While her depiction in the film is overwhelmingly positive, Sherman’s enthusiasm for the film has waned since the relationship ended. “I was and still am extremely ambivalent about the film, not that I don't think Paul will do a great job, but that I'm in it,” she told The Financial Times in 2006. “I wish he could tell the story without mentioning me.” And though she had given her blessing for friends, colleagues, and staff—among them, John Waters, Carol Kane, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Ingrid Sischy—to speak on camera, Sherman sent a mass e-mail before the Tribeca Film Festival premiere to disavow the project, labeling it a “big mistake.”

Friday, April 03, 2009

Seriously Fun Photography Review, Week 1

This week was the first class of my six-week "Seriously Fun Photography" class. So what did we cover?

We learned that to control exposure, we need to work with three related elements:

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.

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.

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, April 01, 2009

Errol Morris, Greatest Ever? Depends

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IMDB Web Series Credits

I know a few of you Web producers will be interested in a comment received yesterday from Casey McKinnon (of Galacticast, A Comicbook Orange and Kitkast fame).

She makes it clear: it's time to dust off your Web Series resume and get ready to go through that IMDB submission process. If you recall, she asked Col Needham, IMDb founder and managing director, about this issue and -- to the relief of a zillion video makers -- the answer was yes.
Hi Ted,

The audio file I provided is really only half the story since I went to talk with him one-on-one after the Q&A. He confirmed that it's happening and said that it would roll out in the 2nd or 3rd quarter of this year (anytime between April 1-September 30).

We've been waiting a LONG time for this... looking forward to it.

Not yet known, however, is how IMDB will deal with its qualification requirements. I would expect factors will be the size of a program's audience, media coverage, and maybe awards.

So will the Webbys and the Streamys be competing to be the "official" award for Web shows? Will we see credits for daily web shows that list "412 episodes" and will there be a debate about what counts as a "significant" media source? Certainly.

It should be an interesting year....