NFB playlists

28 02 2011

NFB playlists1
I recently spent a morning browsing the NFB’s excellent resource of film playlists. The playlists have been a feature of the new www.nfb.ca website since it launched in January 2009. Invited guests and their own staff have grouped together films around themes ranging from the powerful to the whimsical, the obvious to the obscure.

I have one conclusion…. You can get lost in there! The only way I can justify spending hours watching ten of these films at a time, is by rationalizing that it’s the duty of every young filmmaker to see the work of filmmakers that have gone before them.

Thanks to the playlists, it becomes a delightful chore. They are a useful tool for whittling down the wonderful selection of films available on the website. They also provide insight into the making-of certain films and in some cases, the historical context that otherwise would be lost to someone of my generation.

NFB Roche playlist
The NFB’s Guest Playlists include film groupings by the following people, some of whom are in-house producers and filmmakers:

* Douglas Roche: The Strength of Peace (Magnus’ film Uranium, Terry Nash’s If You Love This Planet, and Martin Duckworth’s Return to Dresden are included in this list)

* Tre Armstrong: Dance, Music and Passion

* Donald McWilliams: Norman McLaren: Hands-on Animation

* Colin Low: Recollections from a Distinguished Career

* Alanis Obomsawin: a Retrospective

* Gil Cardinal: The Aboriginal Voice

* Katerina Cizek: Manifesto for interventionist Media

* Thomas Waugh, Ezra Winton and Michael Baker: Challenge for Change

* Adam Symansky: Donald Brittain

The guest authors of their collections take one of two approaches in their selections: either they focus on a theme or a particular filmmaker. Cizek’s playlist brings together 11 films on “the philosophy and practice of ‘Art as a Hammer’.” Her picks range from 1944’s short Democracy at Work to 2008’s RiP! A Remix Manifesto.

NFB symansky playlist

Symansky’s collection brings together eight Donald Brittain films, each written up with a personal recollection of Symansky’s about the “making of” of the film. The writing alone is an invaluable resource for younger filmmakers like myself.

In the NFB’s Expert Playlists, their resident collections expert, Albert Ohayon, put together six useful lists:

* 10 Great Films from the last decade you may not have seen

* The 1960s: An Explosion of Creativity

* The 1950s: Television and the Move to Montreal

* Canada’s Diverse Cultures

* Bill Mason: Beyond the wild, beyond the paddle

And finally, the Thematic Playlists comprise almost sixty collections of films and clips, intriguing because there’s such a huge variety. Where else can you access groupings ranging from ‘Winter Sports Movies” to “Canada’s got Treasures!”?

Treasures indeed.





Blue Cyrus Media presents…

12 01 2011

Charlotte and I recently registered our new partnership – Blue Cyrus Media – and we’re going through all the honeymoon tumult that you can expect with a startup. Our chosen passions are an interesting mix: Charlotte loves documenting horses and orphans in hot sunny climes (see the trailer in previous post)

and while I’m totally into it, I’m always running back to snowbound northeastern BC to capture the life and tribulations of a trapper who “manages animal populations” (ie kills them when necessary).

We’re an interesting duo to say the least. But the dynamics of a partnership aren’t what I want to explore here.

Starting out a career as a documentary filmmaker sounds great… but HOW exactly do you get there?

For answers, I look to my friend and mentor Magnus Isacsson, whose brain I get to pick on a regular basis. He got his start after producing radio (8 years) and television (6 years) for Radio-Canada and CBC in both French and English – can you imagine? – before he decided to strike out on his own as a filmmaker. Four years after he left public broadcasting he released his first film Uranium (1990), available on the National Film Board’s website (where you can access most, if not all, of the films they’ve ever produced online.) His most recent film Les Super Mémés premiered on the closing night of the Festival de Films sur les Droits de la Personne de Montréal.

And Barry Lazar, the man who actually got me into this medium of telling stories with his class on documentary filmmaking. Barry has also been the route of the working professional – for CBC, on various productions for other broadcasters, and even as a writer for the Montreal Gazette. His latest film won many accolades at last year’s Hot Docs – the fantastic The Socalled Movie – and is now touring the world and out on DVD.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I was sitting in Barry’s class at Concordia University, digesting the fact that I had found a career that would fulfill my passion for telling real-life stories in a format I can live with.

Outside Concordia University Jan 2010: A shopping cart that hasn't yet found its passion.

A year! It sounds like a long time… and it is if you’re measuring your progress by how much others seemingly can accomplish in a year. When I compare myself to these two and other filmmakers, I’m overwhelmed by how far I have to go. I’m tempted to make excuses: “But they’re more experienced than I.” “They already have networks.” “They know what the heck a production schedule looks like!” I think I can excuse their success and momentum of filmmaking by saying they’ve been “in the industry” and they “know people.” But does that really make a difference?

In today’s media-saturated world, in order to get someone to pay attention to your idea, and even more crucially to trust you with funding, you need more than a CV that includes university, stints on other people’s shoots and even a host of films to your name. You need connections.

One filmmaker I’m in touch with who has grasped that idea intuitively is Claudia Pelz, a producer who lives and works in Italy. After 14 years producing for television and doing a few documentaries of her own, she has seen the television market change drastically in the last two years. Most European broadcasters are no longer as interested in funding “one-offs”. They are looking for series and to fill slots in “theme days” with several documentaries at a time.

Claudia says she is keen to network with other producers and directors around the world because “networking is a possibility to serve the market requests… and will help small production companies and film makers with only one or two films about one topic.”

While her advice is crucial for the age we’re living in, some advice remains timeless. Magnus wrote an excellent document with just that: “Letter to a Young Filmmaker” (bottom of the page on left – click to download). I’d like to quote everything but here are a few choice tidbits:

  • It’s gonna be tough: “The most important… is to have something to say, or a story to tell, and a real urge to do it. Because this is not an area of work you’re going to enjoy if you’re not strongly motivated: the conditions are too difficult, and the competition for limited resources too stiff. If you feel like working in the field but you don’t have that drive for getting your own story or your own vision across, you might be better off working as a cinematographer, a sound recordist or an editor. These are all important and very creative jobs, all very challenging and indispensable to good filmmaking.”
  • But if you are determined to go ahead… first get your own experience: “Getting experience doesn’t necessarily mean directing your own film right away. It means doing things, hands on, which will help hone your skills and test your instincts. It could be writing for the student newspaper or doing stories for the community radio, making an activist video or even just a home movie.”
  • Five essential ingredients: “a good story”, “important issues”, “a point of view”, “good characters” and “emotion and drama”.
  • MOMENTUM: “to find all the resources needed to make the film… you need to create a momentum. You need to give your subjects, and the people who will give you the resources the feeling that your film has to be made, and that it will be made, because you are determined to make it. You need to make people feel that while, of course, you’re still a nice person (at least most of the time), respectful of others, saying no to you is not really an option. To quote Luc Jacquet, the director of March of the Penguins (the biggest grossing documentary ever in North America) “Even if you have no money, if you give energy to a film, it will eventually seduce a financial partner.”
  • Talk to the end-users at the start: “The smarter you can be about designing your film so that it will work for your intended audience, the more successful film you will end up with.”

See Magnus’ blog this week for some excellent suggestions on docs to watch about the reconstruction effort in Haiti.

International Support

From the series 'Inside Disaster'. Photo by Nicolas Jolliet. http://insidedisaster.com/haiti/

 





Logging lessons

24 10 2010

My partner Charlotte and I have a similar penchant for thoroughness. And perfectionism. Not that it’s a bad thing. Those are very good qualities to have when you’re researching a story or checking out facts. However I’ve learned it can become a bit of a problem when you’re stuck for days (weeks! months!) doing something detail-oriented like… logging.

We’ve learned the hard way that one can put too much work into a preparation stage of production.

One of those lessons is that when going through 60 hours of video, you do not need to notate certain things. Such as:

1. Bad clips. We started off by marking V (video) and A (audio) as ‘OK’ or ‘bad’. The reasoning was that it would make it easier as we searched through Sony’s XD-CAM transfer software, which lets you enter metadata like ins and outs, comments, and mark a clip ‘OK’, ‘Keep’ or ‘No Good’. It has a handy Search box that will pull up any text you associate with a clip, so we thought it would be useful to mark when we had good or bad audio and video.

However, it’s not. Logic prevailed a few weeks later as we realized you really don’t need to search for bad clips. If it’s bad, don’t mark it OK. You’re not going to need to search for it if you can’t use it.

2. Marking every single clip. I thought I was doing us a service by writing something for every clip (out of 2,500) like this:

  • 1011 – no good
    1014 – Inge rubbing foal.  next to Katy holding bay mare.
    1015 – not a great angle.  of MS Inge rubbing on foal (after working on it with a rope.)
    1016 – MS of Inge rubbing on foal.  not a great angle
    1017 – not good
    1018 – shot of boy sitting on fence watching.  not real compelling shot.
    1019 – no good
    1020 – nice shot of Inge working with lead rope and getting foal to back up all next to her mother.  end shot of foal drinking from momma.  also mom tries to bite Inge.
    1021 – nice MCU shot of Inge stroking foals head/neck while drinking.  also she successfully approaches foal’s hind quarters while its drinking.
    1022 – Inge and Katy walk away from bay foal and mom “excellent we’ve done them all.”

But it slows me down way too much as I get wrapped up in trying to find a place for every little piece of media. It’s like I don’t want to leave anything out. Everything looks useable for something. But in doing this painstaking note-taking, I found I would lose sight of the big picture. What is essential to the plot? What images and sounds will advance the storyline? Which clips can we abandon because they’re not perfect quality? Only the very best needs to be marked up, and even then, don’t take too much time with it because you’ll end up coming back to it again and again anyway.

3. Transcribing every interview. This was a harder lesson to learn. Again, our tendencies to thoroughness dictated that we needed write down every detail of every interview – some of which were two hours long – in order to get a sense of how to write the story. We thought we couldn’t write until we knew what every character had to say.

While that is true, we also learned a far greater truth: it doesn’t make sense to write everything out until you have screened every clip at least once, so you don’t waste your time writing something out from day 4 when a better one on the same topic comes up again in day 8. We wouldn’t be in this situation if we’d logged every night as we filmed, but this shoot was a unique one. Charlotte was working alone as shooter and producer, and she often had 12 hour days in the fields with the camera. At that point we didn’t have enough equipment and were borrowing someone else’s MacBook to upload the clips to multiple drives for storage, and there wasn’t time or battery power to go through every clip at night.

Also, our main character and the leader of the project, Ingela Larsson-Smith, is a unique individual with almost perfect recall, someone who could talk about any aspect of the project in endless, fascinating detail, while using as many variations as one could ever wish. Every day, Charlotte had her debrief about what had happened that day and what she anticipated for the following day, so we ended up with a lot of similar-but-not-identical clips.

If I could do this logging marathon over again, I would take my great friend and mentor, Magnus Isacsson‘s, advice, and mark in a very general way the interview clips I want to come back to, and listen to them ALL before I start transcribing. It’s simply a huge waste of time and energy to notate everything before you’ve heard the rest of the interviews.

However, it has been a very good learning curve and I don’t regret how painstakingly we’ve learned it. We are precise. We are thorough. We just need to take shortcuts.

And get ergonomic office chairs…

PS: here’s an interesting journal from a first-time documentary filmmaker, Caleb Clark. I’m considering doing the same thing as a general sum-up after this project is done, hoping it would be useful for someone else.





Stories to come..

26 06 2010

I have been extremely remiss in keeping this blog up to date. Not because nothing has been happening, but because… because…

I don’t know.

I guess I’m working on other people’s blogs more than my own! Ha! More on that to come.

I hereby promise to write more regularly and be faithful to my reading public...

In the month+ since the last update I have managed to:

– attend a fancy dinner at Rideau Hall to witness the awarding of the Michener prize for journalism [Linda Gyulai of The Montreal Gazette won for her coverage of corruption in Montreal’s civic politics.] Pics to come.

– finish my three year degree at Concordia University, which took a really circutiuous 5 years, and sit through the correspondingly long convocation ceremony. [The President of Concordia managed to fit into her address a justification for the perpetually broken escalators in the 12-storey Hall building. Something to do with, “We built a brand-new building for the business school, c’mon.” Which is great for business students but not so much for the poli sci and the rest of the student population stuck walking up those escalator stairs in the Hall building.]

Pomp and Circumstance, which I endured fairly well thanks to texting and Twitter.

– assist documentary filmmaker Magnus Isacsson put together proposals seeking funding for some of his upcoming projects. [Learning the art of pitching, writing one-sheets, and arguing the merits of a story you need to know inside and out before you shoot or write a frame.]

– interview documentary filmmaker Kevin McMahon about interactive online docs vs. traditional longform films. [Managed to insult him mildly by referring to his work-in-progress as having to do with nuclear energy, instead of nuclear weapons. The interview will appear on Magnus’ blog Documentary Fieldnotes and Flashpoints.]

– host and entertain three members of my family, visiting Montreal for their first time, from Abbotsford, B.C.

Longtime friends David and Charmaine Hicks on the left, and sibs Sharla Vanderwoude and Matthew Elliott on the right, enjoying a pitcher in the Old Port.

[In which the Elliott family, who possess at least 10 cars between them back on the Ranch, are shocked to learn how far one can go using only public transit and bicycles.]

Here we are in all our Polarized glory: sisters Sharla and Tobi, and my bro Matthew Elliott, together on the metro for first time.

One of the STM's 'green' bus shelters with leafy things growing out of the top.

– pack up 12 years worth of stuff acquired while “out east” and ship it “out west”. [I own 2 articles of furniture: a solid wood coffeetable from Brazil, and a bookshelf, and waaaay more books than I can afford to ship. This is the sum of my valued (non-electronic) goods. Electronic goods and software have a value of approx 10,000 times the rest of the stuff. And my people are worth a million times the value of my electronic goods. Below, Matte Downey, aka Martha, and Charmaine Hicks, two of the people I would like to pack back west with me.]

– and now I’m en route to Quebec City for more wine and dining, more sights and pastoral landscapes, and the beginning of a family bonding road trip that promises to be fairly congenial, perhaps to the point of actually enjoyable.

Matt meets Kim, our escort around Montreal’s Old Port.

So. Many stories to come.

After all, there’s not much else I’ll have to do in an air-conditioned RV for ten hours per day on the 6+ days it will take to reach Vancouver.