Monthly Archives: July 2010

HD vs. FILM (imagining documentaries from ‘back in the day’)

Shooting in digital HD has it’s definite advantages when doing a documentary like ours.  First of all, it’s economical — somewhat (many network ready HD cameras remain pretty expensive).  When everyone and their grandmother out there is shooting documentaries and YouTube clips on digital HD cameras, it’s hard not to get depressed about the glutunous glob of content being produced and thrown onto YouTube.  I started thinking about who out there, besides maybe Nick Broomfield, is still shooting on film for feature length documentaries.  I still have yet to come across any true indie filmmakers who are shooting documentaries this way.  

It’s easy to apprecitae the beauty of film and it’s role in the legacy of motion pictures.  After all, in the short history of cinema most of the great works in narrative and documentary film have been and continue to be shot on film.  

I started thinking about what it must have been like to have shot and edited all the material which documentary filmmakers collected when making their films in an era before the digital revolution.  In times such as the 60′s or 70′s when everyone was armed with a film camera of some sort, not a flipcam or HD camcorder. 

One of the best documentaries ever made — “Harlan County, USA” was made by Barbara Kopple in 1976 and examines something “Fit to Print” is examing, an American industry in peril.  I could never compare myself or my documenatary with “Harlan County”, that would just be laughable. But at the same time, I was originally inspired by the film and it has remained a constant source of inspiraration during this entire process.  In other words, if I could completely rip it off, I would.  Fortunately for Barbara I can’t, nor won’t.  But what I will continue to do is rack my mind over how the hell she managed to not drive herself crazy in having on-board playback capabilites which digital cameras have today.  It’s easy for me to simply rewind a tape and look at the interview I have just filmed right on the spot. But back in the day, it wasn’t even imaginable.  

Stepping back I realize, racking my brain over whether film or digital is the ‘correct’ way to produce the feature is the wrong way of thinking.  Every medium has something great to offer, even VHS (in fact, someday I’d like to do a VHS project).  Even Super 8 is still used today (mainly in commercials like Lars Von Trier’s), 16 and 35 millameter obviously remain the prefered medium to those who have the finances.  Overall, I could care less about the medium filmmakers shoot on.  What’s important is that they understand why.   

In my opinion, many of the videos shot with the best HD cameras (whether in a phone, flipcam or camcorder) by amatures will remain amaturish until general users figure out that it’s not the camera which you use, it’s the sound and lighting which matters most.

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Public relations colliding with the truth

There is a strange line between the work of public relations staffers and journalists within the newspaper industry and certainly within the media as a whole. This boundary is often present when we examine both the way in which the media reports on itself (which most of the time is very little), and the actual interviews that are conducted with newsroom staffers outside their respected companies.

Newspaper reporters traditionally like to ask the questions, not have to answer them. Most of the time they are forced into defending their work against savage naysayers, so I can’t really blame them.

So, when I set out to begin “Fit to Print”, I imagined it would have been next to impossible for any of these reporters to open up to me about their experiences (positive or negative) within their newsrooms.

…Not so…

In fact, up to this point it has been quite the opposite.  Several influential newspaper reporters, staffers and media experts have provided me with in-depth accounts of their experiences within their industry.  A great deal of it is positive.  A great deal of it is negative.  A good majority of these people still work for these newspapers.  Some of the details don’t exactly paint the best picture for the institutions in which they work.

I have often asked reporters why they have felt compelled to talk on camera with me (other than my request for them to do so).  Many of them share a common response — they are deeply concerned about the current state and future of the business they are in.

Each one of the reporters and newspaper staffers I have interviewed thus far has my deep respect.  They are doing something that is often rare in their line of work — explaining what is happening behind the scenes.  Most likely this is a reaction from the many ways in which newspapers are now essentially forced into being transparent (take the New York Times’ taped editorial conferences available on their website, for example).  But I think it’s more than that.

I recently spent a few years working at The New York Times.  The idea for “Fit to Print” came well over a year ago when I was still employed there.  I was the lowest man on the totem-pole that you could actually be — a backfield copy-editor (Note:  my copy-editing skills still suck!). I was, however, lucky enough to have had the opportunity to sit down with several reporters and staffers for coffee in the Times’ gigantic 14th floor dining hall. Overall, it was an eye-opening experience because of the concerns I was hearing over pending layoffs and the rapidly changing nature of the newspaper industry.  An idea immediately sprang into my head — Document this right away!

My first step in doing that was to reach out to the Times’ public relations team to receive an okay to proceed.  About a month later I received a phone call from one of the P.R. staffers who was positive about my endeavor.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t up to her to green-light.  The go-ahead on my project was left up to one person — the head of the P.R. department. Not a committee or board, but one person.

A few more Times reporters had agreed to be interviewed for the film during the month which passed in my waiting for a response back from the head of P.R..  I imagined this was a good thing, after all, these reporters each expressed a deep desire to get this story out there.  A feature-length documentary film seemed an ideal way to tackle this subject.  This was a new way to express themselves and defend the field in which they love. I certainly do not have the interviewing skills of Charlie Rose, but maybe it was to my advantage that I could actually sit down face-to-face with these people well beforehand and talk (not just about the newspaper business, but about life in general).  The most important thing for them was to get an idea of who the hell I was …after all, I could have just been some snot-nosed punk kid looking for another quick YouTube clip.

But apparently the rules of the company still apply to a punk with a camera and a Times reporter sitting down for an interview in a cramped living room far away from The New York Times’ headquarters (I was aware that filming inside the Times building was prohibited, so a few reporters proposed locations elsewhere).  Or so I was later informed by the woman in charge of the P.R. department.  The one ‘gatekeeper’ over all that is said and done at The New York Times (save for Bill Keller, Janet Robinson and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger — Yet I even have my doubts about that).

I was informed via e-mail by the head of P.R., that I was “not allowed to talk to anyone within the company at any point for the film” — anywhere.

…okay…well, to be fair, I did work there.  Perhaps there was definite conflict of interest.  But even after I had left, I was informed that I couldn’t talk to ANY Times staffers.

This hasn’t stopped Times staffers from agreeing to speak on camera I’m happy to report. Once you see the film you will understand the importance of actually seeing a reporter express their concerns and hopefulness for the industry on camera, not just reading about it.  Facial expressions seem to say it all.

In looking back, pursuing this story instead of backing down to public relations policies was the best move I could have made.  After all, what is the true meaning of public relations when it comes to journalism?  A company like The New York Times is just that — a company.  I’m glad that newsroom staffers have the balls to talk to a nobody like me, because the mastheads of the business side certainly do not (yes, I have tried to interview a few).  CNN or Charlie Rose will always be the favored route for journalists to speak to first, but in a hyper-transparent news environment, public relations should be reevaluated completely. 

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The challenges of feature-length documentary filmmaking

Over the course of making “Fit to Print” (now well over a year in the making), I have come realize just how much we take the genre for granted.  By this I refer to several things.  As of right now I have collected over 80 hours worth of footage which has been shot out in the field with working reporters and sit down interviews with various media experts.  On top of this, my team and I (now thinning out due to …um… budget constraints) have been hit with some low points.  I made a deal with my primary editor to pay a pro-rated fee of $75 a day for a 5 minute promotional spot for presentation to Reynolds Journalism Institute.  A member of the institute was in contact with one of our team members.  He was excited about the project and suggested we submit a proposal, budget and demo reel for fiscal sponsorship consideration.  This would have been great because it would have allowed me to pay my crew what they deserve (unless I can pay my editing team, this project simply will never be seen by anyone).   Not to mention the ridiculously expensive stock footage fees we will be hit with in the near future.

Long story short, Reynolds Journalism Institute turned us down. They never even watched the 5-minute promo.  It wasn’t over the proposal.  It wasn’t over the budget.  Rather, it was because we didn’t know who would be distributing the film and where it would air (sort of a catch 22 there).

In making any film, whether it’s a documentary or narrative, you learn to collaborate very quickly with as many people as you can in order to reach completion.  Over the course of filming “Fit to Print”, I have sat down with roughly 18 different people who were all interested in helping with the project, from transcribing to helping arrange locations for sit down interviews, to other tasks.  Of those 18 people, only 4 of them have ‘stayed on’ (probably because they are friends of mine).  The other 14 people were respondents to my various Craigslist postings seeking assistants.  All were great.  All of them understood my friends and I are flat broke (no joke there — I recently had my cell phone turned off, had to move into a smaller apartment and told my student loan officer that higher education should be set up like it is in France — free! …I’m still waiting to hear back on the official response from that).

Regardless of my petty needs to have a cell-phone in order to call people for the project, what concerns me most is what has concerned me all along:  if we can’t pay people what they are worth for the jobs they perform, what chance will we have to maintain quality content in any form, whether it be films, music, or journalism? Whether it be Hollywood or Bollywood, indie or mainstream, everyone who works in ANY form of media must band together and demand that their content has value.  YouTube is great, but unless it can lead to financing for our next project, you won’t be seeing the feature film on there!

I could give a shit about tightening my belt in order to keep the film afloat.  After all, I’m an indie filmmaker.  Struggle is what we do.  Period.  But if a guy like Albert Maysles can’t find financing for his next film, or if Oliver Stone is barely able to find an audience to see “South of the Border” because HBO and Showtime won’t air it, then what are viewers supposed to do?  The answer has been to roll the dice and hope the algorithms associated with Netflix browsing will help you land on a rare find.

As for helping finance these filmmakers next works …this has been thrown to the wayside.  As for my team and I …well, I will have to continue to eat Top Ramen and add more debt to the credit cards in order to create a film, which I hope you (whichever crazy person out there is actually reading this) the viewer will find informative and useful as you attempt to sort out, not just the newspaper crises, but the crisis within media as well.

On a less depressing note, I would like to share a great quote from Martin Scorsese, who’s work I turn to often in order to keep the fuel on the fire.

SCORSESE ON DOCUMENTARY FILMS:

I do tend to get more of a satisfaction with documentaries almost because it’s not necessarily me directing actors and framing and working with writers, but instead seems to be in the moment …or…is a compilation of images that were created over the years by other people and edited together in a certain order.  The documentary has fueled my work, because in a way, it’s what we aspire to create when we do [narrative] movies .  Even when it’s highly stylized you can get a sense of documentary.”Martin Scorsese

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Reevaluating “Objectivity”

The meaning of “Objectivity” should be reevaluated. Every reporter is a human being, and every human being has personal opinions. Sharing personal opinions in a constructive way can be much more powerful than hiding them behind a corporate wall to maintain legacy media standards. After all, this is why we now have the blogging and tweeting revolution. “Fit to Print” certainly isn’t ‘objective’ in the text book sense. We have a personal opinion to share. Should you care for our personal opinion? That’s up to you. 

Documentary filmmaking is actually one of the least objective forms of storytelling.  More so than narrative filmmaking even.  Legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris provides the following statement on his personal blog:

“There’s a common belief that documentary films have to be objective and impartial, presenting an unbiased picture of reality: just the facts, ma’am. Of course, this is a load of garbage. While documentaries can be mere journalism, the best ones ascend to the level of art, and by definition art expresses the personal viewpoint of the artist. The very act of editing film footage alters reality into a subjective expression, even in a humdrum report on a city council referendum airing on the local news.”

‘Subjectivity’ can be a very interesting form of communication.  I know, I know, you’re wondering why I would dare tell you up front that I’m going to provide you with a ‘subjective’ film on the newspaper industry (a business so entrenched in non-biased storytelling).  I’m telling you this so you understand that my choices in interview subjects, from David Barstow to Sibel Edmonds, my editing decisions, right down to the music I choose to put in the film is all a part of my personal vision for the film.  It’s simply one guy’s perspective.  No more.  No less. 

I suppose the popularity with blogging, tweeting and facbooking is a part of an overall movement away from the force-fed ‘objective’ viewpoints from legacy media such as Fox News, CNN, The New York Times and other outlets.  

Why is it then, that reporters such as Octavia Nasr from CNN are viewed as traitors to their industry?  Is it because they actually have first-hand experience in reporting on a subject which conflicts with the overall motivations of an institution such as CNN?   Why is it that Octavia is fired for being subjective in a tweet, while its permissible for Peter Jennings to make statements such as the following:

‎”I’m not a slave to objectivity. I’m never quite sure what it means. And it means different things to different people.”

CNN ‘spokesperson’ on Octavia Nasr: “[She] did not meet CNN editorial standards.” — maybe CNN didn’t meet the standards of a true journalist! 

(Oddly enough we actually agree with Jay Rosen on something …probably the only time)

Read more on Octavia: 

http://gigaom.com/2010/07/08/twitter-forces-media-to-confront-the-myth-of-objectivity/

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