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.