Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt, Who Froze New York Street Life on Film, Is Dead at 95
"Helen Levitt, a major photographer of the 20th century who caught fleeting moments of surpassing lyricism, mystery and quiet drama on the streets of her native New York, died in her sleep at her home in Manhattan on Sunday. She was 95."

It's Good To Want Things

Here are a few dates to watch for in April....

April 2: My Seriously Fun Photography class begins

April 8 - 20: Spring Break for my Bronx Community College classes

April 14: Announcement of the Webby Award Nominees

April 18: Our short doc 12th & 3rd in Brooklyn screens at the ASU Art Museum Short Film and Video Festival


Well, we thought it was a good film. Maybe we finished 14th.

The Doc Challenge Results are in.

We'll get 'em next year.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Doc Challenge Results

Just received the email below.... Congratulations to all the finalists. We'll try again next year.
Hello Doc Challenge Filmmakers,

The moment you have all been waiting for: our first round judges have completed their voting which determined the 13 finalists for the 2009 International Documentary Challenge. (Due to a tie there are 13 finalists instead of 12.) There are many, many great films this year. Many more than just 13: in total, 116 films were finished by the deadline and eligible for awards.

This is the hardest part of my job because there are always more disappointed filmmakers than happy ones. As a filmmaker myself, I know exactly how much time, energy and mania went into the creation of your film. And I also know the sting of what feels like rejection (but is really just non-selection.) But please believe me when I reiterate what many have said before: that film selection is subjective, and what's selected by our judges represents a small sliver of the many quality films submitted. I want you to know that many of the films were rated highly and it is a narrow distinction between being a finalist and missing the cut. So if you're not on this list, keep your head up and keep making films.

Also - before I get to the finalists, I want to mention that ALL of the Doc Challenge films, whether finalists or not, will be screened by several broadcasters and distributors. So don't be too discouraged if you aren't a finalist. I will send more information on this later.

Here are the finalists (in alphabetical order by film name):

1."Beautiful Reasons"
Team: Noonday Films
City/State/Country: Vancouver, BC, Canada
Genre: Biography/Character Study
Theme(s): Hope and Fear
Synopsis: An intimate look at one man's struggle with fear and anxiety, and the beautiful reasons that he has to resist them.

2. "Dark Material"
Team: Reel Grrls
City/State/Country: Seattle, Washington, USA
Genre: Art
Theme(s): Hope and Fear
Synopsis: Childhood fears of the dark resurface in the work of three artists.

3. "Forty Foot"
Team: An Lar
City/Country: Dublin, Ireland
Genre: Historical
Theme(s): Hope and Fear
Synopsis: 4ºC at the Forty Foot.

4. "Fragile Ground"
Team: Polar Star Films
City/Country: Barcelona, Spain
Genre: Experimental
Theme(s): Hope and Fear
Synopsis: A visual poem about seeds and their role in the battlefield between variety and uniformity.

5. "Ghosts"
Team: Shed Collective
City/Country: Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Genre: Experimental
Theme(s): Hope and Fear
Synopsis: Every violin has it's own unique voice but only certain instruments have something to say.

6. "The Greasy Pole"
Team: Gloucester to Gloucester Films
City/Country: Gloucester, Massachusetts, USA
Genre: Sports
Theme(s): Hope and Fear
Synopsis: The bravest and the boldest of Gloucester's Fishermen risk all for the glory of a Greasy Pole Championship.

7. "A Healing Art"
Team: Fly on the Wall
City/Country: Seattle, Washington, USA
Genre: Art
Theme(s): Hope and Fear
Synopsis: Artificial eye makers rekindle hope for victims of tragedy.

8. "Lorelei Lee"
Team: First Touch Films
Genre: San Francisco, California, USA
Theme(s): Fear
Synopsis: Porn performer Lorelei Lee challenges common perception of sex workers.

9. "Nagashima"
Team: Takashi Sugimoto
City/Country: Lisbon, Portugal
Genre: Art
Theme(s): Hope
Synopsis: A painter, Nagashima's hope of perfecting his art.

10. "Pipe Dream"
Team: Mirror
City/Country: Portland, Oregon, USA
Genre: Nature
Theme(s): Hope and Fear
Synopsis: We need green energy, but at what cost?

11. "Time Well Spent"
Team: JAGS
City/Country: Poughkeepsie, New York, USA
Genre: Social Issue/Political
Theme(s): Hope and Fear
Synopsis: An antique clock enthusiast expounds on the problems of an increasingly rationalized society, and mourns the lost of human heart and touch involved in daily communication.

12. "The Violin Maker"
Team: Frenetic Productions
City/Country: Seattle, Washington, USA
Genre: Biography/Character Study
Theme(s): Hope
Synopsis: A portrait of Doug Yule, violin maker.

13. "Wu Tang Gran"
Team: Mandarin Film
City/Country: Beijing, China
Genre: Social Issue/Political
Theme(s): Hope and Fear
Synopsis: Wu Tang Gran grew up with the party - the Communist Party - and has lived through some pretty tough times, but will this 70 year old and her crew be able to meet their greatest challenge yet - a break-dance battle against Beijing's finest hip-hop crew?

These 13 finalists will screen on the evening of Saturday, May 9 at 9:00pm at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto where the winners will be announced. All finalists will receive 2 complimentary industry passes to Hot Docs (a $1,200 value), the POV Award Winner will receive $1,000, the DER Award winner will receive $1,000 and the Grand Prize Winner will receive $1,000. In addition, other awards (such as Best Cinematography, Best Editing, etc.) will be announced on May 9.

NOTE: Non-finalists are still eligible for the Best Use of Genre awards. We will announce those awards after Hot Docs.

Congratulations to all of the finalists! And to all of the other filmmakers who finished their films by the deadline – a heroic feat in and of itself.


Doug Whyte
Doc Challenge Producer

Doc Challenge DVD

Our short film Bend & Bow is now available on the International Documentary Challenge DVD, selling through amazon.com.
"This DVD collection features a variety of short non-fiction works from around the globe - from China to New York City; from Seattle to Amsterdam; from Montana to Japan - representing the very best from filmmakers who participated in the first three years of the International Documentary Challenge."

More information at Typecast Films.

Finally in Stock

Our film Bend & Bow is now available on the International Documentary Challenge DVD, along with 16 other great short films. Buy it through amazon.com.
"This DVD collection features a variety of short non-fiction works from around the globe - from China to New York City; from Seattle to Amsterdam; from Montana to Japan - representing the very best from filmmakers who participated in the first three years of the International Documentary Challenge."

There's more info at Typecast Films.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Newspaper Collapse 101

There's been endless speculation on both the short-term and long term future of newspapers. Most of it has been uninformed and ill-considered. (In fact, I ignored the first wave of it, since much of that was politically-fueled "serves 'em right!" posting by morons. Also, as I've said before, I tend to gravitate to the "let it go" stance on any collapse.)

Clearly, though, the crunch is here. I've already lost one major great video production gig because of the downturn -- we made one video out of a planned 32 just as things hit and the project disappeared.

And as someone who has freelanced (a lot) for the New York Times I've kept an eye out for stories on their future as well. For example:

Times Co. Announces Temporary Salary Cuts
"Also on Thursday, The Times laid off 100 people in its business operations, and Mr. Keller said it would make other cuts, like reducing spending on freelancers by 10 to 15 percent and possibly consolidating some sections."
So what do we know, and what's the real deal? Well, the clearest, most level-headed article I've seen on this lately is here, by the excellent writer Donna Trussell:

Newspapers: It’s All Over But the Cryin’
"For years my interest in media’s evolution was tepid at best. Until now. As Samuel Johnson noted, hanging at dawn tends to focus the mind. My husband, a Kansas City Star journalist since 1977, was just cut to part time.

What do you do if, after 32 years on the job, your industry suddenly starts to crater? Do you accept the part-time offer? Leave? Sue? Launch your own website?

For guidance I turned to the Internet."
Go and see what she found....

"12th and 3rd" Screening at ASU

12th and 3rd in Brooklyn, our short film on stickball, is screening at the Thirteenth Annual ASU Art Museum Short Film and Video Festival Saturday, April 18, 2008 at 8 p.m. In Tempe, Arizona, of course.

I notice they've listed me as director, but the film is also co-directed by Iris Lee and Maya Mumma, as you can see here, so I'll send them a note asking to correct that.

Hello, My Name Is

This may be -- technically -- the worst photograph I've ever made. Just pulled out my iPhone and snapped. Still, it's of a famous person and in focus, which Warhol said was enough.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

You Can Call Him Al

Saw Albert Maysles speak today. As always, inspiring.

Al Maysles at AIPAD

Went to the AIPAD Photography Show today to see the exhibition and to attend two panel discussions. Seemed like a bigger turnout than last year.

The first panel was a rather uninspiring discussion on The Art of Fashion Photography. Very few images were shown, and nothing new or interesting was said. To be frank, what was said was vague and at times just factually incorrect. One repeated theme was the strange idea that museums haven't paid enough attention to fashion photography, which is just not true. (I won't bother making a list of shows here, but search for yourself -- every few years there's been a large fashion-related show.) There's been too much attention to fashion as art. How about some art as art?

The second panel, however, was much more to my taste: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Albert Maysles were in attendance for a panel on Photographers as Filmmakers. Both artists made some great points about making documentaries, and both showed some of their stills as well.

Above: Al Maysles arrives.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Lately I've been focused on interview-based films.

One of the best I've seen in the last few years is Jessica Yu's "Protagonist." It's now on Snagfilms, so you can watch it for free, right here. Set aside an hour and give it a chance -- I really like the weaving of the stories, and the subtext of the traditional concerns of Greek drama: character and fate....

Great puppets, also.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Kinda Sutra

I'm a big Jessica Yu fan. So here's a three-minute documentary she made (funded by Cinelan, shown via Snagfilms) on how babies are made. Sorta. I love the setting for the interviews. Enjoy.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Other IMDB Story

There's been a flurry of excitement over the idea of an IMDB category for Web Series (or one-off Web shows).

A few sites are currently reporting that Col Needham, IMDb founder and managing director, has said there will indeed be such a category. For example, Casey McKinnon is reporting exactly that from this year's SXSW fest:

Online Video Categories Coming to IMDb
"The answer is a resounding yes. In the second or third quarter of this year (anytime between April 1st and September 30th), IMDb will roll out the ability to tag a submission as either a web series or an individual (one-off) online video."
I've listened to her audio of the question, though, and it sounds to me as if he says they are "toying with the idea."

I wasn't there, however, and she seems certain -- even presenting that timeline. I do think they'll have to address it, of course -- and I'll be very happy to see it happen. I've got a lot of credits for online work that would be added.

Another discussion of the big picture, written by David Nett, is well worth a read:

IMDB and Web Television

We'll see how this one works out.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


The last time I took a snap of the Reservoir, it was frozen over. The last time I was there at all involved tossing a hula hoop -- and it was still slush covered and cold. Not so today: it was 60 degrees out, so I took a good run around the water. (It's about 3/4 mile to Central park, then 1.5 miles around the reservoir.)

On the way back, I think I passed Kevin Kline in a makeup chair preparing to shoot a scene. I believe it was him, but I didn't have my glasses and I didn't want to stare.

Two Films, Neither A Doc

As we finished watching Synecdoche, New York my wife asked what I thought about it. "It's good," I said. Instantly, though, I started to doubt that it was. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize: I hate this film a lot. A whole lot. It's taken me about a day to realize how much, and why that is.

The first reason I hate it so much is that it is -- and I know this sounds strange -- a bad mimeograph copy of All That Jazz. And perhaps it's a sign for all that's gone wrong with our culture in the thirty years since then. (Don't get me wrong -- I'm not a sentimental type, I never hearken back to any good old day, and I'm all for letting things fade away. But I think there's some interesting specific evidence here of the difference in our society's character, so hear me out.)

It took a while for my unconscious to let me in on this: it's the exact same plot. A Director deals with life, multiple wives and mistresses, his relationship with his daughter, his desire to be immortal through his work, his struggle to mount a show, and all along wrestles with death, personified by a woman. Lines blur between life and theater, health and youth prove fleeting, and time slips back and forth.

The difference: the semi-autobiographical Bob Fosse is passionate, free and brilliant; the semi-autobiographical Charlie Kaufman is joyless, empty and self-important.

I know neither film is a documentary, and I know there are plenty of viewers who will see the reverse: "All That Jazz" as self-serving and contrived, "Synecdoche" as deep and universal. Here's why I bring it up: I have a theory about what has gone wrong with the majority of film production since the 1970s, and I think this is strong evidence for that theory.

I believe that most fiction films today are made by someone whose essential life experience is making films. I believe that before the "film school generation" took over Hollywood, most fiction films were made by people who could be said to be formed by other experiences.

Fosse was a song and dance man, and then a dance man, and then a choreographer, and then a director. There's no question that his essential life experiences were significantly connected to Hollywood -- he wanted to be Fred Astaire, after all, and if his hairline had cooperated he might have been. There's a sense, though, of connection to all of life's experiences.

But Kaufman's experience of life is that of a TV writer -- which is no critique of TV writers, but it does explain why "Adaptation" is about writing, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (which I enjoyed greatly) is about putting on a TV show, and "Synecdoche" is about having a choice between life and theater, and choosing wrong.

What's wrong with "Synecdoche," and so many films that I've seen lately: characters are cleverly sculpted pawns for the writer, and hard to really care for. In his screenwriting tome "Story," Robert McKee -- Kaufman's foil in Adaptation -- says that we should react to a great story with a sense of "Ah, that's what life is like!"

I think we do, in both films. It's just that in "All That Jazz," that reaction is a wry smile. In "Synecdoche" it's an empty stare.

One last note: not everyone will agree with this, but I find a lot of documentary-style approach in "All That Jazz," and none in "Synecdoche." But maybe that's just me.

Speaking of IMDB

I had email from a friend a few days back explaining that he'd been involved with a horror movie.

The director of the film has worked a lot as a visual effects person (on about a dozen major big-budget films) and the way I read the situation was that this film was his attempt to shift to directing. As far as I could tell, there wasn't a large budget behind it -- it was a sort of calling-card film to prove he could direct.

So I wasn't surprised when I heard the film would be posted online -- that seems like a match for the goal of the film. But my friend wrote that if the director saw a lot of online attention for the film, he would then send it to film festivals. My inner voice said "No, no, no, no and no," very quickly -- since I know how much and how explicitly festivals generally hate to screen anything that's already online. Festivals generally thrive on the idea of "World Premiere" and "U.S. Premiere" or even "Arkansas Premiere" and if a film is online they can't make that claim.

There are exceptions, of course, and if you are showing a film because it fits a program, you probably aren't as concerned with online exposure. But in general: film festivals today include a section making it clear in your application where the film has show before, and the basic model is one of exclusivity: buy a ticket and come see our fest, you won't see these films anywhere else for a long while.

In light of that, however, there's been a flurry of interest in imdb.com and the "new model" they seem to be moving toward.

As backstory: amazon.com owns both imdb.com and withoutabox.com -- Amazon being the place you might buy a DVD of a film, IMDB being the place you might look up a film, and Withoutabox being the site a filmmaker would use to submit their film to film festivals.

The Amazon acquisition has already had one interesting change: now, when you submit a film through Withoutabox you can get the film listed on IMDB. (Previously, IMDB had placed the qualification standard as "significance" -- usually meaning that the film had been selected to screen at a film festival that was reasonably choosy or on a "major" television broadcast.) Which is great for filmmakers without a huge distribution apparatus behind them -- while one might still make a Web site for the film, the IMDB page can certainly help with promotion.

The "new model," though, arises because IMDB has made video uploads available. Meaning one can post a clip, a trailer, or the entire film. Which, again, is great for promotion. It may also be great for films that have finished their tour of the festival circuit and not been purchased for distribution -- which is really common for first films and shorts.

The attention of the media, however, has focused on speculation that IMDB wants filmmakers to put their entire feature film online, for free, and then profit from the ads. I don't think that's what their plan is, exactly, but here's what folks are writing:

The 'New Model' of IMDb
Col Needham, the Seattle-based founder of the Internet Movie Database, spoke yesterday at SXSW about the site's highly ambitious plans to radically flesh out its video content. Needham's money quote, which wound up in a CNET headline before the afternoon discussion had even wrapped up, certainly turned heads: "We want a play button on every single page," he said. Needham's ballsy strategy to post video content, including feature-length films and television shows, on all of IMDb's thousands of profiles illustrates the industry's need to adapt. IMDb lies at the center of a new paradigm shift for the film community.
IMDb’s Needham: A Play Button on Every Page
So far, the site has 14,000 full length television shows and “a couple of thousand” full length movies and over 120,000 video items ranging from interviews to trailers and clips. Needham said IMDb will use its Withoutabox unit to give the site a direct connection with filmmakers as well as festivals in its effort to recruit feature length films for that play button. “We’re most excited at the moment with our video component,” said Needham.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

We Prefer The Term "Background Actor"

Wednesday they're filming a movie on my street. It's called The Extra Man and features Katie Holmes, Paul Dano, John C. Reilly, Cathy Moriarty, and a local fellow named Kevin Kline. If I go outside, I may accidently become an extra.

The location scouts made a good choice, since the plot is: "A man who escorts wealthy widows in New York's Upper East Side takes a young aspiring playwright under his wing."

I'm just hoping they're aware they'll have to face these creatures several times during the day.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Prefluence, Profluence, and Postfluence

After a tour of film festival screenings, two films by Profluence Productions have finally made their way to an imdb.com listing.

Bend & Bow (2008)

Blind Faith: A Film About Seeing (2007)

If you happen to have seen them, please give them a "user rating" -- whatever rating you honestly think.

Both were made for the International Documentary Challenge, of course, and this year's entry -- "Hoop Springs Eternal" -- is off to the judges for this years competition. Since we lost three members of the Profluence team -- you know, because we're very hard to work with -- we've called this year's group Postfluence. More on that film soonish....

As well, 12th and 3rd in Brooklyn (2006), made before the Profluence team came together, is now also listed -- so, again, if you've seen it, give it a rating.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Plan for Next Year

Over on my other blog, I've written a few The Doc Challenge: Notes for Next Year

The Doc Challenge: Notes for Next Year

Last year, as soon as we finished our film for the International Documentary Challenge I wrote up a few notes for the 2009 Challenge. You can read the full post here but the three main points were:

1. Finish shooting on Thursday.

2. Team Technical Practice

3. Lighting Gear

Were we able to apply these three ideas?

Well, no. Our last taping session -- and the one that was most important to the edit -- didn't finish until late Saturday afternoon, which meant I didn't get everything logged and captured until about 11 p.m. Saturday. We did no practice before the shoot -- getting by with email communication and one brunch meeting. We did have slightly better lighting gear -- we used a set of lights meant for shooting stills, but not a kit really meant for video. But no video lights or softboxes or anything with plenty of power. We did use a good foldable reflector, though.

So those three recommendations stand, and here are three new ones:

4. Make our kit more transportable. We lugged multiple heavy bags both across town and up five flights of stairs. We should find a way to consolidate our gear and put everything in reasonable rolling cases.

5. We should dedicate a person to the job of sound. We did fine, but made mistakes that cost us time. A person who was thinking only of sound and working to reduce post-production requirements would help a lot.

6. Make a shot list. We shot plenty of material, but at the end of our editing process there was a moment when we realized we hadn't treated enough as a location shoot -- we didn't grab a number of shots you normally would on a verite shoot. We were focused on what we "needed" and didn't get everything as it unfolded.

Great. Now I just need to write four more tips after next year's event and I'll have a full list...

Monday, March 09, 2009

And Boy Are My Arms Tired

Just finished our film for this year's International Doc Challenge.

I'm tired -- but I think we've made a good film.



Well, we've completed our Doc Challenge for the year. I think we've made a good film. Details to come....

Friday, March 06, 2009

Doc Challenge Continues

I was so tired when I tried to make this blog post, that I accidently posted it on my other blog.

More tomorrow....

Second Day of the Doc Challenge

Today: started with some editing. Then I met two of my team members for brunch, and then moved on to shooting in Central Park.

To the man we nearly injured with an errant hula hoop toss: we're deeply, deeply sorry, and we will never throw a hula hoop at you again.

While in Central Park, I got a little good news about a film, then got ready for the last part of the day.

I can't tell you much at this point, except that documentary production can take you to many places in the world. Sometimes the people there aren't wearing much in the way of clothing and don't seem at all shy. (Other times, of course, you have to leave New York.)

Now it's 1:30 a.m. and I'm digitizing footage again. One more tape to capture....

12th and 3rd Goes to ASU

Just found out that the short doc I made with Maya Mumma and Iris Lee -- "12th and 3rd in Brooklyn" -- will be screening at the 13th Annual Arizona State University Art Museum Short Film and Video Festival. The acceptance letter mentioned this: "After viewing the 405 entries from 35 U.S. states and 27 nations, 19 works made the final cut."

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A Challenge, Certainly

Over on my other blog is my first post covering this year's Doc Challenge. Wish us luck.

Doc Challenge 2009 Begins

Well, about 8 Thursday morning, I hit the Doc Challenge site and found out that this year's theme is "Hope" and that we drew the Character Study/Biography or Sports genres. So our team sprung into action. Slowly sprung. Spru ... unge.

Kinda slowly, anyway. Ten hours later we were shooting with our first subject. Tomorrow we shoot more.

I brought our two tapes home and digitized the first. No problems. The room had a lot of background noise, so I knew there would be a sound problem to fix, but I was guessing it was repairable.

Then I tried to digitize the second tape, and realized: the second camera wasn't set to DV format, but SD format. After a fair amount of cussing, I dubbed it to another camera -- in DV. Now, at 1:12 a.m. I'm capturing this dubbed tape. Ah well, time does fly.

We received a text message from Dana Bartle wishing us well today, and I also offer a shout out to Haikugirl up in Toronto, who is also participating in this year's Doc Challenge (genres: 1st Person or Character Study/Biography).

Tomorrow our doc day begins with brunch -- and then some location shooting. Then at night ... well, I won't spill it yet. But it should be fun.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Shifting Gears

It's been slow posting on this blog lately. Maybe that's good -- I'm often tempted to cut way way back on Web-related stuff.

Nonetheless, expect some posting in the week ahead, here and on my other blog. There will be a number of exciting events, I think -- not the least of which is the Doc Challenge. That's right: by this time next week, we should have a new short film done.

At least, if all doesn't go disastrously wrong.

Above: somewhere in The Bronx.