The Approach or Nervous All the Time

27 07 2010

Before I really dive into this post I want to take a second to acknowledge that a lot of good things are happening with Sparrow Songs and we’re grateful for all of them.

The first bit of news that’s equally exciting and rewarding is that this year we’ve been named to Filmmaker Magazine’s annual list of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film.   I’ve been a fan of the magazine and its ground-eye view of the work of independent film for a long time so it’s really flattering to be a part of this list.

The second piece is that we’ve got a Kickstarter campaign going for the project and we’ve already raised over $500.  That support and the feeling of people literally investing in the project feels great.

All that said, it’s another month, which means in the process of making a short documentary we’re back at square one.  The calendar doesn’t care if we’re on the front page of The New York Times, the clock is ticking and there’s a film to be made.  Right now we’re mired in the most nerve-wracking phase of the whole process which I think of as The Approach.

You have an idea, you can see how all the pieces will fit, there’s the potential for amazing visuals, you might learn something about yourself by making this, the audience may learn something about life by watching it, all this good wonderful stuff is going to happen when you make this, it’ll be hard but we’ll pull through and then we’ll all eat pizza and drink a beer or two.

Okay, but this is a documentary and that means a subject is involved and unless you’re Ken Burns or Jaques Cousteau that subject has a living, human component.  The only way you can make this film is if you somehow get this person (or worse, these people) to agree to make this film with you.  And you know what?  There is an inverse-proportional relationship between your level of excitement about the project and their apathy toward it.

For a long while I’ve wanted to make a piece about the poet Gary Snyder.  He’s the last of the living Beats, he’s lived his life according to a beautiful and rigid set of beliefs and his understanding of man’s relationship to the natural world is revolutionary and ancient.  I’ve read most of Snyder’s books and read his collection of interviews earlier this summer.  It’s not out-of-bounds to say that he’s one of my heroes.  Earlier this month I contacted the publicist at his publishing house, had a great conversation and composed a sincere email to her about our aims for the piece. She forwarded the email to Snyder.  Five days later he said no.

Three or four days after that I started kicking around an idea for a different piece.  It wouldn’t be interviewing one of my heroes but it held the chance for me to explore a question that I’m trying to work through in my own life.  I did research on whom I needed to contact, sent emails, got responses, sent more emails and set up a meeting.  During a meeting like this – or more often a phone call –I do my best to explain Sparrow Songs and to convince the person I’m speaking with that this is an honest attempt to understand the lives around us.  I have no credentials, no real professional presence; I’m just sitting there trying to reassure them that this piece about their lives isn’t going to be sandwiched between videos of a cat fighting a roomba.  You do your best, shake hands and leave the room. Then wait.

That’s where we are at this point in the month.  I’m supposed to get an email any minute now letting me know if we’re on for a three-day shoot or if I need to scramble and start the process all over.

I don’t think there’s any corollary to this in narrative filmmaking.  You may not get a location or an actor might fall through, but you never have to ask a character’s permission to tell their story.

The whole thing creates a certain Zen-like attitude toward the stories themselves.  You learn that the more force you apply the less likely you are to get the results you want and when you do hear a ‘no’ you can either drive yourself crazy thinking about how great the piece could’ve been or to trust that there’s a different piece you need to make right now.

That being said, the waiting is never easy.


Episode 9 or ‘The Personal Documentary’

5 07 2010

Yes, this episode is short.  No doubt about it.  When we began this project the only rules were:

  1. We’d make a film a month.
  2. No film could be shorter than 3 minutes.

So, technically, yeah this film meets those requirements.

At the same time I’m a little fearful that people will somehow feel gypped by this piece and feel that it somehow doesn’t measure up to the bar we’ve set with the previous eight episodes.  The feeling feels negative but I can see that that’s actually a very good thing.  This project is a far different animal than what it was when we began it.  The response to the films has exceeded my expectations and at times the filmmaking has exceeded what I thought Michael and I were capable of.  And now we give you this episode which on some level is just me cleaning the house. “Are they putting us on?  Is this some kind of piss-take? Is there actually something there?” No. No. Yes.

Already this is sounding like a defense which is not what I intended to write when I sat down to do this post, so let’s start at the beginning.

The opening of the film comes from Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March and this moment of McElwee’s friend Charlene making a strident and valid point about the nature of love forever changed the way I saw both documentaries and relationships.  I’d seen plenty of non-fiction films but this was doing something entirely different: there was no social issue driving the film, there in fact didn’t seem to be anything driving the film other than a certain longing and existential pain and despite that (because of it?) the film flowed easily and through restructuring the seemingly mundane pieces of his own life McElwee made something universal and epic that — with both irony and sincerity in the same breath – equated his search for romantic love with Sherman’s war path through the South.

It struck me as remarkable that it was even “okay” to make a film like this.  Up to that point so much of what I’d seen was staid, poorly-shot films about uprisings in foreign lands heavy with statistics and burdened with good intentions; that to see Sherman’s March was akin to discovering that connected to the house you’ve lived in all your life there’s actually another room.

I came to discover that the Personal Documentary was a genre unto itself.  Folks like Alan Berliner and McElwee were actually in the canon and they had created a tradition that now led to films like Caveh Zahedi’s I Am a Sex Addict and Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans and Jay Rosenblatt’s remarkable short films.

More importantly Sherman’s March let me know it was alright for a nonfiction film to involve itself in nothing more than looking at people and emotions and the way lives are lived and could take the seemingly simple pieces of our own existence and rearrange them into something telling and worthwhile.

As part of this project is to try on different traditional documentary styles and to borrow different voices and see how they feel I was aware from the start that one-month would involve making a personal doc.

There’s something else at work too: For anyone who’s been with this project from early on, it’s clear that the subjects in the previous films have – to varying degrees – let their guards down and been honest about their own difficulties and feelings.  Using these conversations, sifting through them each month to create these films, hearing these interviews over and over and all the while not sharing anything about yourself… well, you can only do that so long without feeling like a parasite.

The result of all this is Episode 9.

Episode 8

7 06 2010

If you set out to do 12 pushups, chances are the first one won’t be the hard, neither will the last one, I mean, you’re almost done.  But numbers 7 and 8 will be pretty tough.  So it goes with Sparrow Songs.  I don’t want to raise the specter of burnout, but it’s a real phenomenon and there’s certainly been some of that at play in the last couple of months.

Making a film a month is hard, that’s all there is to it.  Doing it while working 50 hours a week on another film only complicates things further.  None of this is meant to be taken as a complaint.  I love doing this. At times though it’s difficult to connect into that love and I’m resistant and hesitant and procrastinate and struggle.   There was a lot of that this month.

All of that led to a couple of different approaches used in this episode, one good, one bad.

First, the bad: I’m learning an enormous amount through this project and learning things about American life, about filmmaking and about myself.  Often times I’m learning about all three in the same moment.  Those moments usually happen during the interviews.

As far as technique is concerned, something I learned during L’Arche was that if you are asking questions in the hope of getting a specific answer, not only are you not going to get that answer but you’re going to close yourself off to allowing something far more interesting, something you haven’t considered, to emerge.  There’s an element of Zen to this: you want (and need) to draw out something interesting from the subject but the moment you pursue that response is the moment you condemn yourself to losing it.

Despite knowing this, it is exactly what I did – on a larger scale – as I approached the Circus piece.  I decided that this piece would be about community and how a community works when it has no physical place.  Instead of letting the subjects dictate what the piece was really about I came to it with my own idea and looked for pieces that would support this idea.

Stubborn and determined, I brought this agenda to the cutting of the piece and spent about three night fruitlessly trying to make it work.  It wasn’t until really late one night when I found Oliver (the first interview) saying, “People forget what the circus is” that I realized this film was about a once-thriving family tradition and the timelessness and allure of that tradition.

Now the good:  being so exhausted coming into this piece I found myself really resistant to working on it, to sitting at my desk and diving in.  In order to get around this I decided I would begin cutting using the B Roll only, not going through any of the interviews.  I would just string together the most interesting visuals that moved the story forward.

There was something liberating in this approach and I think this combined with Michael’s superb work makes this I think the most visually appealing piece we’ve done.

Lastly, already I’ve gotten a slew of emails about this piece.  I really appreciate the feedback, so thanks to everyone who’s written.

It’s Not About the Camera, or Our Workflow, Pt. 2

28 05 2010

In the last post I detailed the technical basics of our workflow. As I mentioned, a lot of people – friends and strangers alike — email me to ask about the camera and the look we use.  The questions spiral out: is the camera is easy? What kind of mic-rig do we employ? How big is our crew?  How much lighting does Michael do?

I answer all of these questions because I appreciate the interest in the project and in our techniques, but the actual truth is: none of this matters.   While the camera we use (the Mark 5d) has gotten a lot of attention in a lot of circles, it’s no more important than what type of pistol grip we use for the microphone.

We’re in a period when the technology to produce moving images is changing drastically every six-months.  Six-months ago it was the Red One, now it’s these HDSLRs and six month’s from now it’ll be the Epic or some other oddly named tapeless camera.

Unfortunately – and I saw this a lot at film school – there’s often an inordinate amount of faith put into the technology being used, and by this I mean there’s a sense that if you somehow use the cutting-edge camera your work will simply be better.  That’s not the case, and I don’t think it ever has been.

A couple of years ago there were literally thousands of people using Panasonic’s HVX200 to shoot narrative films, but there was only one person who could make it look like this. And while James Laxton’s work on that film is flat-out great, none of it would’ve really mattered if Barry Jenkins wasn’t able to illicit intimate and lived-in performances that matched the film’s palette.   Without having spoken to them about it my guess is that their choices – in terms of camera, crew and workflow – came about organically and by necessity.

And that’s the way our workflow has emerged.  We shoot the way we do because most of the time we’re a crew of two people – Michael and myself (with the very capable Jon Schwarz helping shoot at times).  To do this we need both a camera and a sound rig that are mobile, don’t attract attention and can record high volumes of footage without having to offload the data all the time.  That’s how we came to this camera and that has in turn influenced the aesthetic.  (Read more here).

This strikes me as being just what I’m driving at: through this project I’ve learned to relax and go where it takes us in a number of ways but one of the crucial ones is learning that your necessity drives your aesthetics and the work gets a lot better when you accept that.

With that I want to offer a quick thought and a little praise to the visual steward of these films, Michael Totten:

What strikes me – pretty much every month – about Michael’s cinematography is that what he chooses to focus on is always reflective of the larger themes at work in the piece.  He’s there with me listening to the interviews and feeling the energy of the people and the space and then somehow intuits the right image to reflect what’s being touched on — or better yet — what’s going unspoken.

He does it month in and month out, and with an eye like that, it doesn’t really matter what camera he’s using.

Our Workflow, pt. 1

26 05 2010

We get a lot of emails asking about our workflow on the Sparrow Songs films and about the sound and camera set up we use, so I thought I’d just lay out our basic workflow here.


We shoot on the Canon Mark II 5d and record second source sound on either a Sound Devices 744T (when we can afford it) and more often on a Tascam DR100.   When we’re doing interviews in which the subjects are seated and will be in one place for a little while we mount the boom mic on a C-stand, when we’re shooting more verite pieces (the moment of prayer in L’Arche, all of Donuts) I hold the microphone and move around to get the best angle.

Getting into Post

The Mark 5d shoots everything in the h264 codec.  To work with it in Final Cut you need to transcode it to the Apple ProRes 422 codec.  We use MPEG Streamclip to do this.  This transcode takes a long long time, somewhere around3-4 times real time.  In other words if you have three hours of footage the transcode will take nine to 12 hours.


Because we record a guidetrack on the camera we’re able use a program called PluralEyes that automatically syncs the second source sound to picture.  (I know, I know, I didn’t believe it would work when I heard about it either).


This basically involves me staying up for three to four nights in a row, going to my day job completely exhausted, coming home and getting frustrated with the cut and then finding some way to push through.

Near the end I tend to get technically sloppy because I’m feeling the pressure of the end of the month coming and I’m too tired to stay focused on those things, so I’ve taken to writing notes to myself that say things like: ‘Do an audio pass before finishing’ ‘Collapse video layers.’ ‘Add fades.’


I then turn the Final Cut Pro project file — with collapsed video layers — of the piece back over to Michael who does a quick color pass using the program, Color.


We keep all original media on two redundant drives.  Lately we’ve been getting inquiries from film festivals about screening some (or all) of the pieces and since we’ve preserved all of the original elements of each piece we’ll be able to go back in and re-work the look and sound of some of the pieces.

My guess is after reading this you may have more questions than answers so feel free to email or post a comment and I’ll answer it the best I can.

Next up, why none of this matters.

Episode Seven

12 05 2010

This is the paragraph where-in I mention how tough this particular episode was.  And — as always seems to be the case – this one was indeed difficult.  In fact, the basic subject matter alone made the whole thing feel like a minefield.  In its most elemental form this month’s film is a piece about the ‘9/11 Truth Movement’ that has sprung up centered around the belief that the terrorist attacks of September 11th were actually orchaestrated by the US government.  At the same time the piece aims to neither put forward the 9/11 Truth theories nor pass judgment on their beliefs, and wants to do all of this without using any footage from September 11th.

That’s a tall order, but those constraints speak to what we’re trying to do with this one.  I have no interest in disproving various conspiracy theories, nor do I have any interest in re-hashing the events of that September day (once was too much to begin with). Rather my interest with this piece was to find a group that had a shared sense of having found the truth and an intense need to share this truth with others.

What that specific ‘truth’ is, is irrelevant.  My hope was to be able to convey to the audience the fervency and urgency that accompanies a deep-held feeling of possessing the truth when others around you are ‘unconscious’ or oblivious and how this feeling changes the possessor’s life.

Now that that’s out of the way, a note on the style of this piece:  one of the joys of doing Sparrow Songs is being able to try out different stylistic approaches, interview techniques and constructions with each film.  For much of the first half-dozen we’ve employed a kind of gentle still-life approach that works to use the existing exterior world to illustrate the interior world of the people with whom we’re speaking.  This month’s episode feels like a bit of a departure (to me at least).

Early on in the project Michael put me on to Errol Morris’ First Person series that was made for IFC.   With this piece, on some level, I was looking to ape his approach less because I want to mimic Morris and more because I wanted to see what I could learn from it.  To this end, one big lesson came early on: any time you put the camera directly between yourself and the subject it immediately creates distance and tension.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing if that’s what you’re going for, but it was interesting to feel the difference between sitting behind the lens and sitting next to it.

Room Tone and Its Visual Equivalent

6 05 2010

This blog hasn’t touched on technique a whole lot during the first half of the Sparrow Songs year, but as we enter the second half I’m going to work to add more posts on techniques we’re using.  I want to do this, in part, because it seems to be something that folks are interested in, but also because I’m learning so much by making these films and I know a lot of lessons go unlearned for having not been written down.

Technically ‘room tone’ is the recorded silence of a room.  Sit quietly, with all distractions turned off and you’ll hear that wherever you are has it’s own distinct silence – a refrigerator hum, the fan from the building next-door, etc.  Sound recordists make a point of recording this so that during editing when a gap appears in the dialogue the editor can drop in a piece of room tone that then covers that gap.

In practice, the recording of room tone offers the closest thing to meditation that a production can have.  Someone calls out that room tone is being recorded and every one sits silently or stands in place and statue-still for a full minute.   On big movies, it’s a remarkable thing to watch simply because these are the few moments of the day that are completely quiet.  Even on our small two-person shoots it’s a nice moment and gives both Michael and I and our subjects a little break.

At some point – during Episode 2, I think – we started rolling the camera while we recorded tone as well.  The result was great.  Here, all of a sudden, you have thirty seconds or a minute of just someone’s uninterrupted gaze.  The subjects sit quietly or fidget — whatever it is they do they’re usually not thinking about being on camera — which affords a certain honesty in their movements and expressions.  These moments lend a certain tone and credence to some of the pieces.  In Porn Star Karaoke you can see them strung together at the opening of the piece.

I’ve never tried just rolling the camera for thirty seconds to a minute during a narrative piece, but my sense is that having footage of your actors during quiet moments would bear fruit as well.

Now having said all this, I completely forgot to do any of it during Episode 7, which will be up in the coming days.