June 14, 2022

Work Continues on Back-to-the-Land Documentary

Now that I’m back from my trip to Portugal (see my personal project on becoming an expat), I’m back to work on the back-to-the-land documentary being directed by Denise Vaughn. I’m the cinematographer and doing some project consulting. Many of the interviews with members of the original 1970s movement into the Missouri Ozarks will be housed in the Special Collections at Meyer Library at Missouri State University.

June 12, 2022

Playing Around With Bumpers

A bumper in the film business is a form of studio branding. You’ll generally see two or three at the start of almost every film. Here’s a list of famous ones you’ve seen dozens of times (sadly, an old list with a few gaps).

Sometimes bumpers are simply visually striking with little attempt to create meaning. The best ones, I think, try to say something about the studio. Here’s the bumper for Carbon Trace Productions, the non-profit documentary studio I co-founded in Springfield, Missouri.

Carbon Trace Bumper with Audio.mp4 from Carbon Trace Productions on Vimeo.

We thought we might be making films about broadly environmental issues of all sorts. Our first film — Downtown: A New American Dream — was a new urbanist film examining the movement back to cities by boomers and millennials. We ended up focusing more on humanitarian service. But the bumper was designed to indicate a cleansing of the earth through our documentary efforts. Hence the smoke cleared away as the moon sweeps by and the name is revealed.

Here’s a draft bumper I’ve developed for The Rhetorica Network.

Rhetorica is a character that represents the concerns of the discipline of rhetoric — the persuasive use of language. I’ve mixed the Old English font with Greco-Roman imagery to connect the past to my application of my academic field (rhetoric, not media) to the persuasive concerns of documentary filmmaking.

Anyway, bumpers are cool and fun to make. So here you go.

June 10, 2022

On Passion and Regret

I made many mistakes in my early career directly attributable to a youthful lack of wisdom. One thing in particular: I wanted to be the best photojournalist, to have my name spoken in company with the best of the 20th century. To win the major awards. To witness the great events. To have my images of those events become iconic.

Luckily, none of that occurred. And while I suffered a bit of youthful regret as soon as it became apparent that dream wasn’t going to happen, I did manage over some measure of years to settle down and be cool with the way things were working out.

Things have worked out better in many ways. But my 24-year-old self would not have recognized my understanding of “better” today.

After earning a Ph.D. and getting a proper academic job, I did the tenure grind and the promotion grind and wound up a full professor. I made a decision in 2014 that, only a few years later, I figured out was sort of wise. So, yeah, gotta be careful there. Wise is a lot like cool or woke. If you claim it, you probably aren’t it.

Some years before my wife and I made a list of things we individually hoped to achieve as we landed in middle age — that was a few years before I finished graduate school and took an academic job, while life was still in flux. At the top of my list I wrote: “Learn to make documentary films.” Not too surprising for a visually-oriented, non-fiction guy. The list was put away and forgotten until my wife found it sometime around 2016 after I’d finished my first documentary film. Oh, look! It was on the list!

In 2014, I began production of my first documentary film with a group of my students. I had not made video much over the length of a standard news report to that point. A colleague in the department asked me — I was a print journalism professor, after all — what I hoped to achieve. I answered with one word: mediocre.

And I achieved it!

Somewhere, somehow — possibly owning to my adherence to Stoic philosophy — I stopped trying to be the best. A first hint was right there on that list of goals. I wrote that I wanted to learn to make documentary films. Not a word about being good at it.

My 24-year-old self would not understand me because I do what I do for me first– and last.

 

May 10, 2022

What’s Not (in fact) a Documentary Film

What is a documentary? Part 2

Let’s deal with a little unreality first. Check out the about page for Reality Films. You may detect some irony 🙂

Also, check out their film Discovering Bigfoot, listed as a documentary on Tubi. I just finished watching it — an excruciating 1:50:33 of gibbering nonsense that has the look, feel, and sound of a documentary.

The first installment of this series introduced the idea that (something called) reality is at the core documentary filmmaking. And I suggested this as a reasonable beginning point:

Let’s start this whole examination (over multiple parts) with this dichotomy: Sometimes what’s in front of the camera being captured by the photographer is a scene that would/could/might be occurring whether or not the documentary crew is there to capture it. Sometimes what’s in front of the camera being captured by the photographer is a scene that would/could/might not be occurring because it was created for the film crew to capture.

This bifurcation is useful for talking about a film such as Discovering Bigfoot. It’s intended as a way to begin making sense of some of the differences between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking. Given that the film shows us utterly nothing convincing (and science has yet to discover so much as a bit of scat or hair), it’s easy to claim that what’s in front of the camera being captured by the photographer are scenes that would/could/might not be occurring because they were created for the film crew to capture.

In other words: fiction.

No Christopher Guest mockumentary is listed anywhere as a documentary. Easy to see why, I think.

But Discovering Bigfoot is listed as a documentary.

That’s not a good thing. At the core of documentary film should be reality. As far as we know there is no such thing as a bigfoot.

Now, a documentary about a guy who chases bigfoot (I think this has been done), or about bigfoot as cultural mythology (I think this has been done) could be cool. But stating its existence as fact is out of bounds.

From the core being reality, we must now consider facts.

May 2, 2022

At the Core is Reality

What is a documentary? Part 1

First, don’t click on this short film.

SAMRAKA from acline on Vimeo.

Yes, it’s a joke. I was learning Adobe Premiere. I was learning it the way everyone learns software these days: Launch it and start pushing buttons while keeping an eye on a YouTube tutorial. In this case, I was dragging stock footage into a timeline to check all the basic functions. Then I got the idea to have a little fun with the whole idea of non-verbal, non-narrative documentary along the lines of Samsara and Baraka by director Ron Fricke. A couple of hours later, Samraka was born.

You’ll note that there are “chapters” with themes. I’ll leave it for you to figure out — if you made the mistake ignoring my advice above 🙂

So I was trying to communicate — something, even if just going for a laugh. I was using footage that, for the most part, was connected to reality (yes, some scenes are typical stock set-ups with actors). But the footage is not connected thematically except for the structure that I gave it by placing it in an editing timeline in a certain order while thinking (to some extent) about how each clip might be understood in connection with the two on either side.

What does “connected to reality” mean? (Or what even is reality?)

Let’s start this whole examination (over multiple parts) with this dichotomy: Sometimes what’s in front of the camera being captured by the photographer is a scene that would/could/might be occurring whether or not the documentary crew is there to capture it. Sometimes what’s in front of the camera being captured by the photographer is a scene that would/could/might not be occurring because it was created for the film crew to capture.

Hmmmm… so does that mean press conferences and other government-run photo-ops are fiction?

I’m not offering that dichotomy because I think it clarifies anything. Instead, it’s my first attempt to make some kind of sense out of something I’m calling reality that happens independent of my witnessing it while pointing a camera at it.

There are many, massive problems (and opportunities) here. I’ll mention one opportunity and one problem before closing out this chapter. I tell my documentary and journalism students these:

  1. Humans apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events. In other words, we tell stories to make sense of the world. We make meaning. It’s our superpower.
  2. Introducing a camera always changes what’s happening in front of it.

At the core of what a documentary filmmaker does is something that might be happening independent of their interest in the something (reality?) and their eventual structuring of that something into a story. The subject has a certain agency that the actor does not. The scene has a certain messy connection to the subject that the film set does not.

The intentions of the documentary filmmaker and fiction filmmaker, however, are almost certainly closely related if not the same. See #1 above.

← Previous Posts

Powered by: Wordpress
wordpress