Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Finding the story: part 1

All I can say is: who knew storytelling was so hard?

If someone had asked me about when I started filmmaking to name the most important ingredient of a documentary, I’d probably say Story. But somehow I didn’t really know what that meant. In fact, at first I was rather skeptical of storytelling conventions – talk of “3-act structures”, “inciting incidents”, “raise-the-stakes” moments, they all made me think of some huckster running a weekend script-writing workshop.

I was also coming from a background in sociology – a field that values complexity and accuracy. I couldn’t help being bothered by the constant discrepancy between what “really” happened, and what got shown in a given documentary. When I’d listen to DVD director’s commentaries of docs, they always seemed to talk about how they changed around the sequence of events, or had to leave out really important information because it didn’t fit neatly enough into the story, or how they made a disagreement appear much worse than it really was because they needed to reinforce the “central conflict.” I’d think: why are these conventions so important? Why do you even need a central conflict? (Can’t we just make a film where everyone gets along?)

[Friend of foe?]

It's six years later, and a few hard lessons learned about storytelling, and I already find myself sounding like a huckster running a weekend script-writing workshop. If someone sends me a trailer or a rough-cut to review, I don’t watch for accuracy, I don’t watch for complexity. The first thing I do is scan the edit to see “does this person get Story?”

I'm not quite sure what happened - if I wised up or just drank the Coolaid. But along the way I started documenting some ‘ah ha’ moments I’ve had regarding story – both specifically for this film, but for story in general.

Dramatica: script-writing huckster central

The first idea that really spoke to me actually came from a narrative screenplay book called Dramatica which I stumbled across online HERE.

The key for me had to do with the idea of “Story Mind”: or the idea that storytelling conventions have less to do with following a old formula for its own sake, or following what’s become a social convention, and more to do with a techniques for engage with an audience’s inner psychological processes. Or, as they put it:

  • "Story is a model of the mind's problem solving process. This Story Mind does not work like a computer, performing one operation after another until the solution is obtained. Rather, it works more holistically, like our own minds, bringing many conflicting considerations to bear on the issue. It is the author's argument as to the relative value of these considerations in solving a particular problem that gives a story its meaning."

In other words, there’s something about the conventions (3-act structure, the “inciting incident,” the “raise-the-stakes” moment ) that are hard-wired into our psychology. When we as individuals face an emotional or moral conflict, these certain ingredients, unfolding a certain order, roughly reflect what our minds are experiencing on the inside, regardless of what’s occurring on the outside. So if a story needs to leave off lots of details , it’s because our mind generally leaves off lots of details. If a story changes the sequence of events, its because, when we’re reflecting on events, our minds can changes their sequence. In each case, our mind is only interested in the clues that matter most to the central conflict we’re struggling with in that given moment.

The book most clearly applies this idea to the idea of story archtypes – how the different stock characters types (Protagonist, Antagonist, Side Kick, Reason, Emotion, the Guardian, etc.) represent the voices in our head that come to bear in helping us make a difficult decision.

It all makes for a good read (and probably a better weekend-workshop). And I believe it helped me make my filmmaking a lot more engaging. I've learned that if I can create a story that's structured and unfolds in a way that reminds the viewer of a deep psychological conflict they've experienced, then they'll be 10-times more engaged and interested.

But it also begs the question: what are films (especially documentaries) supposed to be about? Are they not about the actual TOPIC of the documentary, but rather about head-trip of the audience member watching it? Should filmmakers resign themselves to the idea that audience members aren't actually interested in their documentary, they're only interested in perspective on their own minds?

I’m still working on that one, but I’m leaning towards a yes on both counts. In a way that's very troubling -especially when it comes to the ethics of the director, who will always need to alter reality in some way to fit their own vision of a story. But in other ways, it seems like not such a bad thing.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Production Background 5: Organizing the Edit

Things I love about post-production: its where the story comes to life, where a bunch of fragmented clips, sounds, images can magically congeal into a reflection of our deepest experiences as humans. It’s also a great mixture of art and organization: when I have a creative mind I can dive into story-issues, think about how a character is developing, think about how to create mood, how to re-imagine transitions; when I’m feeling brain-dead, there’s always endless amounts of organizational tasks I can slog through and still feel somewhat productive.

Things I don’t love about post-production: this film took over two years to edit.

Here’s how the post-production basically worked:
  • In the end there was roughly 300 hours of footage we shot [most of the first 100 hours was figuring out the visual style, and following angles that were later dropped. Perhaps 5 minutes from the first 100 hours ended up in the final cut.]
  • There was roughly 50 hours of archival footage we got from individuals, organizations, or from screener tapes we purchased from archival houses.
  • All of the 350 hours of footage was digitized first at low-resolution (Final Cut Pro’s “DV Offline Resolution” – which comes out to roughly 4 gigs per hour). I like having all the footage at my fingertips, and hate going back to the tapes to find out if there was anything else good from that scene….
  • When we got to later-stage rough-cuts, we would use FCP’s Media Manager tool to uprez the clips used to full DV resolution. (If I were starting over today, with hard drives being so much cheaper, I’d digitize everything at full resolution. I’d also shoot less, but that’s another story.)
  • All of the interviews were transcribed (and translated if necessary) into Word documents.
  • We created a File Maker Pro database for all the footage. In the end, it consisted of roughly 800 files. All the interviews were broken up and dropped in, all the b-roll and vérité tapes were summarized. Then each card was given descriptors for character, location, and “theme”. The database took about three months to construct, but it was completely worth it. When it was finished, I could find any fragment of footage within seconds: In the middle of editing, I could instantly search for, say… the moment when Yves says that line about growing up in Catholic schools in Haiti… or search for every time someone mentions the band Foula, or everyone who discusses the Haitian Revolution. [here’s a screen-grab of the database]

[Filemaker Pro Database]
  • If I were to do it over again, I think I’d skip all the “theme” boxes at the bottom. It was helpful, but it took a huge amount of time to categorize each point made by every interviewee, and I could find most of the same points by key-word searches. I doubt it helped me save as much time as it took to create.
  • The edit itself looked something like this:
    • A few months spent chopping down every tape or scene into a rough assembly
    • Picking the 20-or-so scenes that worked the best
    • Stringing these into a loose narrative
    • Showing this as a rough-cut, and asking audience members what they saw, what moments stood-out to them, what themes came through.
    • From that feedback, continued shooting, editing, and holding rough-cut screenings for the next year to solidify the story-arc.
That’s the organization. In terms of the “art”… more on that in another post.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Production Background 4: Cinematography Approaches

Cinematography has always been my favorite part of the film making process. And I’ve always loved documentaries that make a bold stylistic choices in their cinematography: films like The War Photographer, To Be and To Have, Fast Cheap and Out of Control…. These documentaries somehow are able to distill their essence, their ‘way of seeing,’ into concrete and unconventional cinemagraphic choices. Even with the sound turned off, a viewer of these films can be transported into a very specific and powerful mind-frame.

It’s also a very fine line. I've seen overly-bold choices that don’t quite work, and end up looking gimmicky and distracting. And when I think of my other favorite documentaries – Paris is Burning, Sound and Fury, Our Brand is Crisis – these don’t do anything bold or unconventional. They simply make the right choices from the conventional ‘bag of tricks,’ and execute them very well.

For this doc, the approach was to simply follow our instincts, try out a ton of things, and watch carefully for what felt right. I hoped for a really bold breakthrough, but didn't want to end up in gimmick-land.

One initial "bold" idea was to commit to the idea of the “procession” – to try to capture the flowing vitality of the moving rara in as much of the footage as possible. This would mean: all of the interviews would use a pulled-zoom (so the picture is always zooming in or out super-slowly); all of the b-roll and city-scapes would be shot in a dolly or glide-cam.

In the end, not such a great idea. We still hadn’t quite found our story, and knew it would take a ton of interviewing to discover the right material. So the idea of one of us committing to doign nothing but pulling zoom through 150 hours of interviews didn’t sound too productive. Also, the glide-cam b-roll (especially using a wide-angle adapter) just ended up looking like a low-budget rap-video.

Scrap that.

Another idea was time-lapse. This is far from revolutionary, but I wanted to see how time-lapses could be used not just as “the city as a machine” or “watch the patterns as a process unfolds.” Rather, I wanted to explore time-lapse for mood. A lot of the documentary is about an invisible side of the city, just below the surface. I hoped that I could find a lot of time-lapses that could take a viewer “below the surface” or take them from the familiar city to the unfamiliar.

In the end, these image sequences were hard to find and harder to capture. Here’s a few of the ones I liked best: showing the transformation of Prospect Park after dark, the changing of “cultural ownership” of a public environment, the creation of a ritual space….

Most of these ended up on the cutting-room floor (or the banished regions of my hard drive). But that’s what blogs are for…
[The second time lapse is shot from the top of the
Arc De Triomphe. Thanks Parks Department!]

For whatever reason, two things I started seeing in the footage and liking were foreground silhouettes, and shots of characters descending into basements. The silhouettes just “felt right,” and for whatever reason felt in-line with the mood I wanted to create. And the basement shots came the closest to conveying the “hidden world” theme. Much of the Brooklyn Haitian roots community exists literally and figuratively “underground.” So I started watching for and capturing all of the moments of characters walking down stairs to hidden vodou temples, to illegal basement apartments, to under-ground rehearsal spaces… Here's a few examples of each:

Foreground silhouettes

[B-roll of train and Statue of Liberty; Kone rehearsal; street scene in garage]

Descending into basements:

[Drummers entering a basement vodou ceremony; Dadou's construction job in the bowels of a Manhattan skyscraper; and Joujou's basement apartment]

These are very subtle, and most likely an audience member wouldn’t notice them as visual themes at all. But in the end that’s what the film seemed to need.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Production Background 3: Shooting Specs and Tools

Our Basic Specs:
The vast majority of this doc was shot on the Panasonic DVX100 MiniDV camera in 24P mode, 1/24th shutter (which added even more stutter, but gave another stop of light). For a few days we rented a shoulder mounted SDX900 with which we shot much of the city-scapes.

The biggest shooting challenge involved shooting the nighttime raras. The DVX has pretty bad low-light sensitivity, and its even worse in 24p mode. (In fact, the main reason we rented the huge SDX was for low-light shooting. We rented it on J'Ouverty night (the biggest procession of the year) in 2005. Of course, that was the year the police shut down the rara almost immediately, so it was almost a complete waste. So instead we stayed up all night and started shooting cityscapes at sunrise. We never had the budget to do this again.)

What we ended up doing for the other raras was to buy a battery-belt-powered portable light, rig together a boot-leg soft-box for it, and have one of us hold the light off-axis while the other was shooting (this prevents the straight-ahead flat lighting you get if you mount the light on the camera: the "live-at-5" look). Here's a few pics of our set-up in action. [The "soft box" is made from black-wrap, gaffer's tape, a bit of diffusion gel, and binder-clips... which for me are the basic legos of lighting]

Another thing about raras: not only are they dark, away from electricity, and full of jostling crowds, but they MOVE. Rara, at their core, are processions. From the beginning we explored ways to try to capture that motion, and the tool won out was the Glidecam2000. They were frustrating to use: it usually took almost a half-hour to tweak the counter-weights and screws to get it balanced. If I got it slightly wrong, the images would have a swinging quality that would make you sea-sick to watch. But when it was just right, it would create some beautifully stable images, even when I was running full speed. Here's some raw footage examples. (At the end you'll see Yves try to protect me from getting clobbered by the over-enthusiastic crowd.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Production Background 2: Finding the Ingredients

These days, when I’m teaching an “intro to documentary production” class, I tell students that before embarking on a feature-length doc, they should have a number of “ingredients” firmly in place:
1. a topic in need of exploration
2. an “emotional core” to that topic
3. compelling characters
4. a story-arc that will carry you through an hour+ of viewing
5. a stylistic approach that brings the story to life visually, and
6. some realistic hope of funding.

In a scrapyard in Crown Heights almost five years ago, in the moment I committed myself to making this film, I had exactly one of these in place: a topic. Rara in New York.

I knew enough to know it wasn't quite enough, but sometimes you do what you feel you need to do.

Fortunately for me, pieces of the second ingredient appeared within minutes: characters. First Pe Yves approached us and started talking. Immediately I was swept into his charisma, his passion for rara music (or “the movement” as he put it), the effortless poetry of his speech, and his genuine sweetness as a human being. I felt: this is a guy I could follow for a long time and not get bored. The second character - Max – also caught our eye. He arrived looking like he’d come from a corporate job, speaking flawed Kréyol and unaccented English. He seemed like a perfect “outsider/insider” who could help an audience member enter this complex and unfamiliar land.

(Pé Yves, the Visionary)

(Max [left] who works in corporate America, and Joujou [right] who's
main job was playing for basement vodou ceremonies.)

In terms of the other ingredients? A visual style we basically made up along the way. A story arc got worked out in the edit room 3 years later [a future post on that]. The “emotional core” really only emerged as we were listening to test-audiences at early rough-cut screenings, and started focusing some of the character development around what we were hearing. And funding? Well, a few grants, a few fundraising parties, shameless begging to friends, relatives and people with access to equipment. If you have a laptop and 5 years to kill, what else do you need?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Production Background 1: How did this documentary come about? or “Who's that moun blan fou who is always at the rara?”

Most directors’ first documentary, like unplanned pregnancies, results from a mixture of extreme excitement, naiveté, a possibly too many drinks.

My involvement in this film starts way back in 2003 when I was talking with a distant relative name Verna Gillis at a family gathering in a Greek restaurant on the upper west side. Verna’s actually a legendary ethnomusicologist who’s traveled the world documenting folk music for Smithsonian Folkways. She later was a manager for world music artists (Selif Keita and Yosou N’Dour among others), but by ‘03 she had retired. I had recently been transitioning from teaching high school kids to documentary work, and was asking her if she knew interesting story ideas. She lit up, saying she’d just come out of retirement to produce an album with a young Haitian musician with a fascinating back-story, and ask me to document the making of this album. Emboldened by my third glass of syrupy Greek wine, I though to myself “this could be a feature!”

In short, I dove in and started doing a ton of research. I had been interested in Haitian politics and a friend had turned me on to some Racine music in school, and the more I researched the more hooked I was getting. Soon into the process I connected with Magali – who had just moved back to Brooklyn from Haiti, and was a friend of the same musician, and we decided to work together on the project. To make a long story short, just as we were both really getting into the idea of documenting this album, the whole album project fell apart and got scrapped, and the musician moved back to Paris. Ouch.

By then I was on a roll, and fixated on the topic, and Magi and I spent the next night brainstorming about other angles to take. One thing always stuck in my head: Verna once mentioned that of all the musics she’d ever recorded across the globe, the most amazing thing she’d ever heard was a this walking music in the mountains of Haiti called Rara. I’d recently read a book on rara by the Wesleyan professor Liza McAlister that included a chapter on a small movement of rara in New York in the early 1990’s. I asked Magi if she’d ever heard of rara in New York and she replied “Yeah! There’s only one left – they’re my boys DJA-Rara. They’re rehearsing tonight. Lets go!”

(Scrapyard on Pacific Ave where I first met the rara band)

A few hours later we were on a grimy stretch of Pacific Ave in Crown Heights, passing auto-body shops and junkyards. We ducked into the last scrapyard on the block to find a circle of young guys unpacking hand-strung drums and these huge tin horns.

Its hard to describe the “Ah-Ha!” moment that hit me then. It had something to do with the unearthly sounds that came out of the horns, or the complete juxtaposition of junkyard and the rhythms of this 10-piece symphonic band. Or the fact that these young dudes, who were dressed like any other thugged-out hip-hop kid in NYC, were clearly so identified with this ancient folk music. Whatever it was, Magi and I may have had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but we haven’t looked back since.