Archives for August 2011

New Topics Added to Resources Page

I’ve added a section to the “Multimedia Resources” page, covering a variety of websites and blogs of interest to multimedia creatives. I hope to build this out to a rich source of inspiration, technical knowledge, information on trends and gear and people working in this area. Check back periodically for updates.

Living Galapagos

Living Galapagos multimedia project

Here’s a well-crafted multimedia project about the people living on the Galapagos Islands – and how the influx of tourism has created issues for them.

The introductory “splash screen” provides a blend of video, audio and still photography. Despite dual languages, the creators make an effort to capture good, crisp audio. The main multimedia page displays an interactive map of the Galapagos Islands, with links to individual stories and data. Each story is, in itself, a blend of video, audio and still photography, each done by different authors.

This is an example of how multimedia was originaly designed for the web: interactive graphics providing links to data, accented by imagery and audio stories that “brought to life” the factual information. Major newspapers were building things like this as they introduced digital versions of their papers. These types of large-scale interactive multimedia projects on the web have faded. They’re too expensive and too slow to produce.

Book Review: Rebel Without A Crew

I recently read Robert Rodriguez’s 1995 book “Rebel Without A Crew” which chronicles how as a 23-year old struggling student Rodriguez raised $7,000 and made a Hollywood film called “El Mariachi.” The story traces how Rodriguez financed the project (selling himself into a month-long pharmaceutical research project), wrote the script, lined up his gear and crew, shot and edited the video, and navigated the worlds of film distribution, Hollywood agents, and the independent film festival circuit.

Rodriguez brings us into his world of making videos as a kid, and how with very inexpensive gear and existing props he honed his storytelling and technical skills. Using simple video gear taught Rodriguez to plan his shots and shoot as little footage as possible — skills he employed in his first feature “El Mariachi.” “Learning how to make films this way for ten years trained me to see the movie edited in my head beforehand…. That kind of previsualization skill came in extremely useful on my later films. These are skills they could never teach you in film school…” he says. Rodriguez leveraged his earlier experiences making short videos to tackle a full-length action film, ignoring all film school advice that such things were not possible without large crews and big budgets.

This book is inspiring – even if you’re not a filmmaker. Rodriguez takes his idea and pushes into reality, overcoming obstacles with creativity, tenacity and hard work.

How Important Is Good Sound?

Here’s an example of an interesting story brought down by poor audio. Ben Watson’s “Plastic Fantastic” Soundslides project is decent, the images are solid, but the narrator’s voice is poorly recorded. The listener strains to follow along. This is particularly true because the narrator speaks English with a strong accent. The audio is further undermined by background music that sometimes overshelms the narrator’s voice.

Plastic Bag Recycling in Cambodia

Contrast the first Soundslides project above with Kelly Creedon’s “We Shall Not Be Moved” project created using the same Soundslides software. Creedon profiles Ken Tilton’s struggle to maintain his home in light of massive medical bills encurred by his partner. The audio is crystal clear. The audio clarity allows the listener to pick up emotional nuance in Ken’s voice that, along with the images, supports the storyline.

Audio Critique

Condition ONE Beta (iPad App)

Condition ONE Beta

Here’s an interesting innovation that someone’s working on to capture footage in wartime conditions – from a safe location.

War photographer Danfung Dennis is developing an iPad App that will allow war photographers to control a remote camera via their iPad. Users can pan up, down and around (as shown in this beta release sample video). Do you need it? Probably not. But it is cool… Scheduled App release date is mid-2011.

Lauren Greenfield – Thin

 

Lauren Greenfield Thin

Although this is just a preview of a film by Lauren Greenfield, it’s great treatment by an excellent photographer. The story sets quickly: within 10 seconds you know the story thesis. Greenfield packs in a lot of energy, with cuts every 3-5 seconds. She bakes in some shock value images (tubes in stomach, skinny arms) and emotion (crying girl begging, “I want to be thin”). Most importantly, Greenfield REALLY CARES about this topic. You want to know more.

Greenfield started as a stil photographer and much of her work is still in slideshow sequences. Check out a few of her photographic slide shows, “UT Football” for a taste. Caution – You can spend some time here…

Edward Lachman, Cinematographer

I recently listened to American Cinematographer’s Podcast interview of Edward Lachman. His perspective on changes in film technology which “democratize” filmmaking, should encourage each of us to push forward with whatever medium we’re currently working. It’s an exciting time to create and distribute multimedia work. Lachman’s words are worth quoting here:

“…It comes down to this – economics. People want stories. They need stories to understand their own lives. And it’s expensive to make a film. Because of the expense of it, no one is going to give you money to make a personal statement about how you feel about your story. So you have to subterfuge that into, let’s say, a more mainstream way of making a film. I think there’s always been films, through history, that have done
‘something else.’ They’re just fewer and far between because it’s much harder to make a film like that. ‘Howl’ [Lachman’s recent film] was independently financed, but the means of production have become less and less expensive. I mean, anyone can pick up a digital camera today and tell a story. That’s what we have to do. It’s a much more democratic process now to make film. And through the digital world people are much more open to new ways of telling stories. It isn’t that there isn’t an audience for it.”

Interview: Patrick Reis

I found Patrick Reis offering a workshop on HDSLR filmmaking at StudentFilmmakers in New York. Unfortunately, I’m in Denver and NYC trips are hard to fit in, but the workshop sounded interesting, so I contacted Patrick to see if he would participate in an online interview.

Patrick’s career can be traced back to the mid ’90s independent film scene in New York City. He was lucky enough to secure a solid background in film before the digital video revolution exploded and began to dominate the indie market. The majority of his work is commercial but his love of storytelling has drawn him to more narrative projects. Patrick’s clients include ESPN, Nickelodeon, Fox Sports, Canon USA, BETJ, and various independent production companies such as Wonder Wheel Media and Masterlink Films where he is a founding member. A few samples of Patrick’s work can be seen here: Road to Roubaix (shot with Panasonic video cameras); Empire Crush (music video shot with a Panasonic video camera); New York Bartending School (promotional video, shot with a Canon DSLR).

Patrick has shot with 16mm and 35mm cameras as well as myriad video cameras including Canon HDSLRs. Although Patrick has spent the majority of his time behind the camera, he teaches video production workshops at IFP, DCTV, Student Filmmakers and master classes at Frank Sinatra High School.

Q1. How did you get started shooting documentaries?

Reis: My introduction to shooting documentaries was a bit of a surprise. I went to film school and the focus was almost completely on narrative storytelling which is where my interests were (and still are to a large degree). I worked on narrative shorts and features for years with a few TV shows in between. Then in 2006 I was working at the SilverDocs film festival and became friends with the graphic designer, Dave Cooper. He proposed a concept for a movie about a French bike race and we discussed it casually while we were working together. One day he asked me if I had any thoughts or opinions about this project. He liked my ideas so later that week he introduced me to his partner, David Deal, and I was officially on the team. We shot two movies, a short and feature length documentary the following year.

Q2. Apart from exotic destinations, what are your keys to crafting a good documentary?

Reis: My feeling is that most good documentaries are part education and also part entertainment. I often find myself asking the question would anyone pay to watch this for one or two hours? There are many stories that should be told and need to be told but in order to reach an audience you need to have an element of entertainment in them. Two hours of talking heads and stats on the screen aren’t memorable. Intriguing subplots and interesting b-roll help keep the audience invested.

In recent years I’ve noticed a growing interest in voyeuristic style movies. Reality television has tapped into this audience preference to great success. If you look at documentaries from thirty and forty years ago, they were always trying to give the audience the feeling of discrete observation but a 16mm camera with a clap slate and boom operator didn’t allow the subject to relax and actions felt staged (and they probably sometimes were). If you can give your audience an unbiased look into someone’s life, career or tragedy then you’ve got yourself a compelling documentary that will hold the audiences’ attention and stay with them.

Q3. You say you’re going to use DSLRs to shoot these films. Are DSLRs well-suited to that type of work? (This is something I struggle with personally: the DSLR has great capabilities, but it’s a bit finicky. Not as easy to work with as some videocams, for example. If you’ve got just one chance to capture activity – as in documentaries or event coverage – you can miss your chance by using finicky gear. Why are you opting for DSLRs?)

Reis: My opinion is that if you are comfortable shooting with DSLRs then they are well-suited to any type of work. If you want to use a remarkable piece of equipment then you have to know it’s limitations, what it can do and how to use it. The bottom line is DSLRs are real movie cameras. They should be treated with respect and used properly.

I often compare shooting with DSLRs to using film whether it be 16mm or 35mm. Shooting film requires the shooter to be more aware of the camera and therefore it’s more difficult to just “point and shoot”. You are absolutely correct in saying that DSLRs are not as easy to use as some video cameras and if your comfort level isn’t very good with DSLRs and you feel that it could jeopardize your movie by missing shots, etc. then I would suggest using a video camera that you are more comfortable with. I’m not sure that finicky is the right word to use when describing DSLRs but I understand why you use that word. I think formidable could be the word I’m looking for?
I’m very comfortable using DSLRs to record video partly because of my background with film. I’m not the only one choosing to use DSLRs for these documentaries, the producer and director are requesting them.

Regarding these documentaries, my first reason for choosing the DSLR is image quality. They look more cinematic than any other camera that our budget can afford. Second is price and size. I can now bring five or six cameras with me instead of one or two. This will allow me to use multiple camera operators and cover events from many different POVs. I’m also covered if a camera is lost or broken. Third is the footprint. Often these cameras are ignored and by that I mean people don’t see them as video cameras so you’re able to get some uninterrupted, real action. Video cameras tend to attract attention and once people know they are being recorded they tend to change their behavior. Several of these documentaries will feature young children so having a small camera makes them more comfortable. Fourth has to be the low-light capabilities of the camera. If you take the large sensor and put a really fast lens on the body, you can get some well exposed images without introducing too much noise. I am not an advocate of shooting without lights but I know that there will be times in a documentary where you cannot bring lights into the situation.

Q4. What other core gear do you use for documentary work? (e.g., audio, lighting, stabilizing systems for the DSLR, etc)

Reis: First and foremost is an external monitor. The LCD screen on the back of the DSLR isn’t very accurate and I’ve run into trouble a few times when I depended on that LCD screen so an external monitor is key. Some people like using a loupe but I still find exposure and focus difficult to judge. I use the SmallHD monitor because of the false colors option and focus assist. The monitor is compact, durable and loaded with other features so I like using them.

If you can’t get a monitor with exposure assistance, then break out the old light meter. I still have my old analog Sekonic and I am so happy to be using it again.

ND filters are going to save your life. If you have any exterior shots you’ll find yourself stopping down to 11 or 16 or more and sometimes that still won’t be enough. Once you’ve lost your beautiful, cinematic shallow depth of field, you’ll wish you had a ND filter. Still photographers don’t have this issue as much because they can adjust shutter speed to compensate for overexposure.

I try to bring some prime lenses along with my zooms. Zooms are easier in documentary work if you have lots of live action that will require you to be adjusting the focal length while shooting. Primes are important to me because they are always much faster and that extra stop or two can be a life saver in low light situations.

Audio is a tricky subject. I like to have camera mounted shotgun microphones for some of my handheld work but I really prefer my microphones closer to the subject. I find that using a separate recording device is best but if you need a quick turnaround then a XLR adapter like the BeachTek or juicedLink models are best. Make sure you are familiar with them because it’s easy to make mistakes with the XLR adapters.

Using fast compact flash cards or fast SD cards is key to getting that extra hour of sleep. I always go for the faster cards even though they cost more. Every documentary filmmaker knows those evenings that turn into late nights because you’re waiting to empty all of the cards onto a hard drive. Fast cards (and a fast card reader) will shave off those minutes that become hours. Just to clarify, when I say fast cards I mean something faster than the minimum. If you use CF cards, you only need 8 MB/s but I get cards that transfer at 90 MB/s and you see the difference when you’re transferring onto your drive at the end of the day.

It’s been said one too many times but you have to have a solid hard drive. This is where your work will live. After you add up all of the money and time spent on it, not to mention events that sometimes can only happen once, the hard drive has to be a rock. My favorite hard drives are the portable OWC drives. Not only are they durable but their customer service is amazing with a real live human being at the other end of their 800 number. You just can’t beat having a live technical person available to you if something goes wrong.

I could go on and on about gear that I like to bring with me. I’m thinking of doing some small POV style movies of my prep days so people can see what I’m bringing. A couple of filmmakers have asked me to do a double-check of their gear so it’s definitely something documentary filmmakers are interested in.

The most important tool that a filmmaker can bring to a set is patience. Filmmaking, whether it’s a documentary or narrative, never goes as planned and a cool head and good sense of humor is the best way to keep things moving forward at the proper speed for maximum efficiency and eventual success.

New Blogsite Feature: Audio Recording Gear Reviews

I’m starting an area on this website (click the “Multimedia Storytelling Resources” button above) that will house various lists and resources. I’m starting off with a list of sites that review audio recording equipment (microphones, digital recorders, etc). I’ve found this information particularly difficult to locate on the web. Recording equipment can be complicated and expensive. It’s not easy to locate information on gear particularly suited to recording for multimedia projects (most sites covering audio recording are geared toward musicians).