Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How do you do it?

When students come to bade you goodbye and promise to meet you on the other side of the professional world – different thoughts run through your head!! Are they really prepared – Did we do enough to see them off. How many of them will go on to make promising film careers not to talk about the disappointing world of TV Entertainment.

When Student asks, “How do you do it?” Ken Burns says, “There’s two things, and you’re going to despair me for the platitudes that they are, first, but you’ve got to know who you are – because we’ve seen so many people drawn to film for some perceived glamour that isn’t there. And it’s no shame to say, “You know what? I don’t have something to say.” Because a few of us do, and we’re very lucky, or we’re burdened – cursed. But whatever it is, if you have something to say, then you can still do that.

The other thing is perseverance. Because, I’ve rarely run into bad filmmakers, I rarely ran into bad ideas. So it means that everyone’s got to work that much harder just to make sure it happens. You must overcome not just the obstacles in production, but all the other obstacles. Not enough money, a government not disposed to funding documentary films, competition and mean spiritedness within the community. All these things have to be overcome.

My students working on their final documentary project seemed very confused on the treatment part – what kind of treatment does your documentary need to present the story without any hooch pooch. Is it going to be stylized sequences like TV commercials, narrations component, standard interviews or studio lit interview frames – what is it going to be?

There’s this great conflict between observational documentary ala Cinema Verite’ and some of its strongest opponent Errol Morris – lets get into the argument while discussing one of Errol Morris films –

The Thin Blue Line released in 1998, took up the case of Randall Adams, who was wrongly convicted for murder in Dallas County, Texas. The film, and Morris’s investigation of the case, is credited with Adam’s conviction being overturned.

In The Thin Blue Line you combined traditional interviews with Philip Glass’s mesmerizing scores, and then used 35 mm film and commercial cinematography to illustrate and reillustrate the different character’s contradictory versions of what happened the night of the murder. It’s very controlled approach to the documentary form. Many of your visual techniques – such as the theatrical re-enactment – which are used frequently in nonfiction television today, were first conceived of in this film.

As Errol Morris puts it – the film THE THIN BLUE LINE is a reminder – it’s a reminder that the claims of cinema verite are spurious

Errol Morris:
It shows that style does not guarantee truth. The use of available light and a hand held camera does not mean that what you are doing is any more truthful than anything else. Truth is a pursuit, its’ s a quest. And proof is certainly in the pudding in this particular instance, because the film and the evidence accumulated in making the film, led to this man’s release from prison. And that’s hardly ever happened. If it’s happened at all in any other film that I can think of.

Direct Cinema – as defined by Pennebaker Hegedus Films---“…revolutionized the documentary genre by discarding narration, re-enactments and other staged techniques in favour of direct and uninterrupted observation, creating a fly-on-the-wall sense of immediacy.

The common bone of contention is how re-enactment is something that comes morally to Direct Cinema filmmakers. It goes with the flow and letting things happen before the camera.
As Pennebaker says: “You don’t have to set up an elaborate plan or a script, or tell people what to do. You don’t have to direct anyone. In fact, the less directing you do , the more effective they’ll be. It’s the directing that kills it, and then we get out of here.”

But when they’re involved in putting it together, its creative for them, too. It’s just as interesting for them. More interesting.

Haswell Wexler, Cinematographer talks about fly-on-the-wall documentary:
My definition of cinema verite is use your filmmaking ability. For example, I actually did that with an IMAX camera, shooting behind the scenes for the Rolling Stones IMAX. In the scene, Keith Richards walks into the shot and they start jamming and goofing around and so forth. Well, I knew for a scene that I needed a shot of Richards coming in the door so it would cut better. After I shot all this stuff I said “Keith, would you mind coming in the hotel room door?” So then, bing! I turned the big mother camera on, he comes in the door, walks out of the frame.

All documentary filmmakers, in one way or another, by the very selection of what lens they use, what time of day they shoot, what people are in the shot, what remains in the film, and what remains out of the film. It’s all a creative process, and it is not, as some purist used to maintain, just “recording reality”. There is no “reality”. Once image are recorded by whatever medium, they cease to be reality. It becomes the filmmaker’s reality. All the images we see are images now presented by the people who are able to present them. And they don’t necessarily represent the truth.

What the president makes a speech, he’s had directors tell him how to talk, he has script writers who put stuff on the TelePromTer, he has answers to questions one, two, three or four – which is not unique to the president. It’s true whenever people go public. And this has to do with the subject that I’m very interested in.

When I was young they used to say, “Well, I have photographic proof!” That photograph, it captures that moment. And that meant verite’ – that means truth. Well, certainly, in filmmaking particularly, in motion picture filmmaking, we can alter things – in post or even in camera – to make them look dimaterically different. I guarantee you, from having personal experiences, not only on feature but in documentaries, that the sanctity of the visual image is in the control of the person who owns it, and not in anyone else’s control.

Filming for a documentary is always a challenge, as a cinematographer you need to make sure you get all the relevant shots and cutaways and after you have finished filming and watch your footage – you will always feel may that shot could be done differently, since it is not scripted, the challenge is to present the way you feel when you are filming it. Do you crash zoom in or use the zoom is such a manner that it can be used as a shot itself. How about focus? Shift focus shots – all permutation and combination needs to be worked out when you are shooting it. Quite a challenge!!

Chris Hegedus explains more:
A lot of times shots are framed a particular way just out of practicality. After the film is done somebody could look at a frame and deconstruct it and say, “Oh, he did this and that” but, really, it was shot that way because that was the only spot you could be in to get that shot. As a cameraperson, you try to be in the most interesting, best spot you can, or, you’re where you are because you don’t want to move and interrupt the situation. That’s a lot of what we’re doing – we’re not trying to be flies on the wall, we want life to go on so that we can film it and record it in some way. And if you’re always moving all around the room to get the right picture of a shoe tapping or something, because you think that’s arty, chances are they may not want you there, and you are disrupting what’s going on; and just make such a nuisance of yourself. There are different reasons the film is framed and shot in a certain way, especially in our type of movie.


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