Hemmed In

18 03 2010

I get a lot of emails about techniques in the Sparrows films, questions about what cameras we’re using and how we go about cutting it, coloring it, etc.  So far this blog has focused a lot on the experience of the project, but in the coming months we’ll include more posts about the issues of technique that some folks are interested in. Beginning now…

Some background: In the past couple of months there has been as lot written about the DSLR revolution in filmmaking.  For the uninitiated: in mid-2009 both Canon and Panasonic released digital cameras that while being Digital stills cameras also had the capacity to record high quality high definition video.  What makes this revolutionary is that it’s now possible to shoot a professional-level piece with a camera with the size and cost of a stills camera.

So far we’ve shot every Sparrow Songs with the Canon Mark II 5d.  There are some serious benefits to this camera, but there are some elements of it that put a drag on the film, or more accurately push you to make certain creative decisions you might not otherwise.  I’d even go so far as to say that these restrictions have (at the least) informed and probably created whatever uniform ‘style’ is being ascribed to the Sparrows pieces.

Here are the major points as I see them:

No Verite – The camera handles movement very poorly for a couple of reasons, the first is that without a special (and expensive) rig pulling focus is a bear.  Focus on stills lenses pulls in the opposite direction than motion picture lenses do, so it’s counterintuitive from the outset.  Also, you don’t have a focus whip so you’re working with just grasping the lens and twisting which makes it very hard to nail focus when you’re moving.

The second impediment to shooting verite-style footage is that the Canon has a CMOS sensor (I think) and this results in what is referred to as the “jello effect” which basically means that any quick movement makes the image wobble a little.

There are clearly workarounds for this problem because this documentary was shot on the same camera and this filmmaker is moving around as if he’s being shot at, because, well, I think he was.

We don’t have the option of the expensive rigs, so we’ve been very clear about sitting our subjects down, getting focus and moving forward with the interviews.  When we’re shooting the subjects in action our framing is usually a little wide – to make the depth of field easier to deal with – and to contrast with the framing of the interviews.

Still Lifes – All of the films so far have a number of shots that look similar to still life photos.  While I think Michael and I just plain-old like this approach – there’s something great about using the objects surrounding someone to aid or illustrate the story they’re telling – they also play into this camera’s strong points.

These require no movement and exploit the cameras ability to produce shots with a shallow depth of field, these are shots you can’t replicate on a Panasonic HVX (or similar).

Lighting – Michael could speak to this much better than I can, but suffice it to say that these cameras require very little light.  So much so that when we were in a pinch on one episode we used a practical lamp from the location – Michael called it the “Wand of Despair”  — and the piece still looks great.  Both indoors and out we’ve been able to get great footage in places where other cameras would produce milky and dark images.

Intimacy – A friend of mine growing up once said that she didn’t understand why cameras are always black, she thought they should be white.  Her point was that pointing a black box at some one can intimidate them and cause them to withdraw whereas if you had a neutral object or better yet you could point a flower or a puppy at your subject you’d have a better chance of drawing them out.

The  Mark II 5d does not look like an HD camera and for documentarians that is a huge bonus.  Not only have we been able to shoot in places that normally would be hesitant to have a camera crew present but more importantly people interact with this camera much differently than they would with its bigger bodied brethren.  Everyone is used to having a stills camera around and because of that the camera makes people less self-conscious.

Michael would probably disagree but – for me – this may be the cameras biggest selling point.  All the great images in the world don’t mean much if there isn’t some honesty and heart somewhere in the footage, to that end anything that helps a subject open up is invaluable.

Early next week I’ll post about Sound and Post workflow.

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What Work Is

8 03 2010

This month we faced a familiar foe in getting the film done – our work lives kept getting in the way of the project.

I’m a firm believer that where you are emotionally and physically when you create a piece gets written into the project and that was certainly the case with ‘Donuts.’ During the week when I was cutting it and recording the voice-over – in our reading nook with an assist from our cat, Ray Ray – I was also working  55 hours at my day job.  Each late night rolled my exhaustion into the next day, until the last night when I’d slept maybe fifteen hours in four days.  Now when I look at the piece – rested and less critical – it carries a certain weariness and seems to be about a certain weariness.  Tang’s emerges as a kind of way station for the worn out and marginalized and that’s certainly how it felt.

We’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: Michael and I pay for Sparrow Songs out of our own pockets. This involves paying for equipment rental, software buys, travel, etc. along with our rent and food and the occasional gifts for our attractive and bewilderingly supportive wives.

Both of us work in the film industry, toiling away on  outside projects all in an effort to squirrel away a little money and time each week to devote to Sparrow Songs.

For me that means working as an editor on an urban dance movie for a studio.  That’s not to say that there isn’t heart and passion involved in the film – there is, it’s just different.  Films like this are assembly line projects and I’m just one craftsman sanding a piece of the table as it passes by on its way to being stained.  I’m getting paid to be a part of it and people will pay to see it.

Sparrow Songs exists on the absolute opposite end of the spectrum: no one is paid to produce it and no one pays to see it.  That’s all by design but oddly the free nature of it seems to add to its value rather than detract from it.  If we were to charge for the episodes suddenly any criticism or questions about the episode would seem less like the sharing of ideas or inquisitiveness about the product, and more like a customer complaint.

To put it another way – there’s a great moment in the film Rivers and Tides during which Andy Goldsworthy stops in a snow-covered field, gathers two fistfulls of snow and tosses them high high into the air.  The snow drifts back down, refracting the winter light, shining, sparkling.  It’s an action no different from a child working paper into a boat and setting it down a small stream – it has no real purpose other than as both an expression and creation of a certain sense of joy.

To both the creator and the viewer it seems to say only one thing, “This moment, this moment, this moment, this moment, this moment…”