Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Weekend Away

Spring has come to Memphis, and the robins in the park are acting weird.

Usually they act like any bird... they flap around and peck in the dirt near the trail until you come near, and then they hop away five or six feet until you've gone safely past. Today, though, they were standing rigid, with their wingtips extended down to the ground, staying still as stone even when you came close. You could see their beady little eyes watching you, but unless you made a move at them, they didn't budge.

Bird sex can take some strange forms. Not much stranger than ours, though, I guess.

Anyway, I'm spending this weekend in Jackson, Mississippi, shooting for the MTC documentary. I have to be honest: at the moment, I'm not looking forward to it. Not because of the teachers or anything; but just because this kind of stuff is so far out of my comfort zone, especially taken four days at a time. I'm a classic introvert -- I find dealing with strangers to be exhausting, and this weekend will be basically nothing but strangers, 24 hours a day. Combined with the pressures of trying to shepherd two teachers and several teenagers through the shooting process, while also maintaining my shooting schedule and running camera and sound and conducting interviews simultaneously -- I mean, it's pretty demanding work, and I admit to feeling daunted. I'm up to it -- I can do whatever needs to be done -- but I'm really, really ready for this part to be over. And it's only just begun.

The most important thing is to try to enter into the shoot with as positive an attitude as possible -- I won't get anywhere if I'm feeling discouraged even before I really get started. So pardon me if I vent a little. I'm trying to get the resistance and negativity out of my system.

It would be so much easier if I just had one familiar person along to help. Oh well.


Monday, July 31, 2006
The short spec film I put together for the Mississippi Teacher Corps, "Hollandale", is available for viewing here. It's still a work in progress, but it should give you some idea of what the larger project will eventually look like. We're forging ahead with the big production -- I've already completed the first round of interviews with five
new first-year teachers -- but we're going to need some cash to see it through. So if anybody would like to help out by sending a few dollars our way, you'll get to see your name in the credits, and I'll be your best friend forever.

You can make a donation here (just make sure you tell them what it's for.) Not only will it help us get the film made, but in the long run it'll also help the Teacher Corps do its much-needed work by helping them recruit new teachers and raise awareness about the situation in the delta and how the MTC can help.

Wilford Brimley* says:

It's the right thing to do, and a tasty way to do it.

*Wilford Brimley is in no way associated with this project, Novena Films, or with the Mississippi Teacher Corps. He actually made this statement in reference to Quaker Instant Oatmeal.

My Other Work

Friday, July 14, 2006
I spend a lot of time fretting over whether I've chosen the right road regarding my work. This morning was exactly such a time, although not in an unpleasant way. Not knowing exactly what one should be doing because one is Pretty Good (TM) at a couple of different things is a good problem to have (even if both things are impractical and hard to make a living at.)

I re-re-restarted this website as a base of virtual operations for one particular project, but I've always assumed it would expand to include all the other projects I'm working on simultaneously. There are two others upon which I consider myself currently "at work": a video, and a book. The video (assuming all goes well) will be done relatively soon, the book will doubtless be a long time in coming -- years, I expect. For me, the creative dichotomy balances film on one side (my adopted meduim) and writing on the other (the only one win which I might be said to have been born innately talented -- if such a thing actually exists.) The big irony is that, as smoothly as these two things could fit together, the one thing I don't consider myself is a screenwriter.

Music videos are the best thing ever, from a filmmaking perspective. It's the last modern bastion of the avant-garde (and the greatest hope the avant-garde filmmaker has ever enjoyed). It's sort of the opposite of a film score -- rather than creating music to accompany a film, you're creating a film to accompany music. It's a liberating form, in that it's film in its purest state -- no narrative (or none necessary), no dialogue or exposition, no character development; just imagery. The music holds the piece together (since music is actually better at temporal cohesion anyway, being a strictly fourth-dimensional medium) so any further coherence in the piece is optional for the director. All you have to concern yourself with is making the thing visually interesting.

That said, you do need a good visual hook. You still need a structure (though that structure can be a lot more flexible), and the thing still needs to make some kind of internal sense. This one I'm working on now already has its structure and visual hook in place, and I'm happy with them -- I've had the idea in my mind for a few months now, and I still like it, which is generally how I know that something is worth pursuing. I hate 90% of my ideas within a week of having them, so surviving for months is a good sign. But there are still gaps to fill, and that the last, hardest step. The one thing I've learned is not to try to have other people's ideas, but the alternative -- waiting patiently for your own to come -- is the most frustrating thing in the world.

And then there's the book. It's a nonfiction piece on a subject about which obnoxiously little has been written, considering the subject's cultural magnitude -- I'm still waiting for the book I want to write to turn up on a shelf somewhere, already written, because I can't quite believe that nobody has done it yet. I have a feeling I'll be talking about this one for a long, long time, but I'm committed to it, and I feel confident that it will eventually see the light of day. Just last night I formulated a solid thesis and found that it allowed me to understand the subject on a more concrete level. Structure is still a problem, but I think that'll sort itself out as I go. The problem is finding the time and the creative energy to spend on it. There are days when I just want to hole myself up in the corner of some coffee shop or diner somewhere and spend the day pecking away at a keyboard, but I don't have means to do that. It would be even better to have a space of my own in which to work -- a private space, with white walls on which I could tack up notes and sketches knowing that nobody else would see them if I didn't want them to (creative privacy is a big thing for me.) But I don't have any of that yet, and as of this afternoon I don't really know how I might acquire it.

Writing is what everybody tells me I should be doing; they've been telling me that since I was in junior high. I'm reasonably good at it (when I set my mind to it), although I'm still undisciplined about it. When I write I start at the beginning, write straight through to the end, and then go back and clean up the obvious typos and stylistic problems (leaving just as many forgotten.) It's rare that I write a second draft of anything. With an experienced editor behind me, I think I could turn out some damn good work. Enough to get paid? Maybe; I don't know. I'm at a sort of pessimistic place about ever getting paid a living wage for anything right now.

It's funny, in a sad way -- one of the attractions of film originally was that it was something that I might be able to make a real living at, unlike the unending hell of making a living as a writer. Film work is a skill, a trade, and one that's always in demand in the modern world. I've never wanted to get Spielberg rich, but to just, y'know, make enough to live a modest bohemian life. And now that I'm skilled enough to expect payment, I find myself in a place where there's very little steady paying work. And so I turn to thoughts of what I might do to get by during these barren days, and I think about writing -- writing to support my filmmaking habit. I have to laugh for fear of crying.

It's a big problem, though; I find myself with plenty of time to work, but so anxious over being eternally broke that I spend a lot of that time consumed with worry over how much free time I have, which I'm not using properly because I'm so worried. The only thing that saves me from falling into despair is the work.

Project 1 Complete

Tuesday, July 04, 2006
I believe I'm finished with the short MTC film, and I have to say I'm relieved about it. Not that I didn't enjoy it; I did, very much. But I'm about done watching this film now. I'll be curious to hear responses to it, since I myself can't see it the way a typical viewer might. My own thought processes are too deeply embedded to be able to tell whether it'll make sense to anyone else.

But for the most part, I'm happy with how it came out. There are a couple of technical problems -- I did one exterior interview, which was great and very effective except for a sound problem. My own lav mic was stolen (along with my last camera) a couple of years ago, so I had to borrow someone else's to do the interview. It's a nice mic, and it did a great job on interviews in controlled settings, but it wasn't quite up to the job on a public street on a breezy day. While I was shooting, the wind noise sounded minimal through my headphones; in the editing room, it was more pronounced. Not enough that it obscures the words of the interviewee, just enough to really annoy the hell out of me.

But there's not much to be done about it under the current circumstances -- no amount of digital fiddling with the audio has accomplished anything helpful, and a high-pass filter only distorted the voice and robbed it of its expressiveness. If we had the money and time, I'd go re-shoot that interview, but we don't. And even if we did, I'd hate to lose the immediacy of that first interview. I think it's best chalked up to experience -- and an indication that I really need to procure a quality radio lavolier microphone of my own.

The only other significant technical annoyance I encountered was a quirk in Final Cut Pro. Towards the end of editing, I devised a design for the credit sequence that was based on still images taken on the trip to Hollandale. I was going to go all Ken Burns on them, which is simple, albeit fiddly, to do. And it looked fantastic, except that I couldn't get the motion control and the widescreen matte to play nicely together -- any attempt to zoom on the image blew out the aspect ratio. So now I've got a credit sequence using still images that are nice, but not as lovely as they were when they had an element of motion. It's always frustrating to see something not live up to what you know is its full potential.

There are at least a dozen other little nitpicky things I'd fix under perfect circumstances, but then, that's always true. Film is made of compromise. I said to a friend yesterday, "I think I'm better at this (documentary)..." as opposed to dramatic work. But thinking about it later, that's not necessarily true. I think this film is better than my previous one; it just happens to be a documentary, and the preceding happened to be drama. I think/hope that my next film will be better than this one, and the one after that, better still. And I always tend to prefer whichever cinematic mode I'm working in at the moment.

Anyway, I'm still wrestling with Compressor to squeeze out a web-worthy mpeg-4 to put up here; I'll post again when it's ready. It would be good to YouTube it as well -- I'll have to ask Ben G. if that's cool. Optimistically, I've got another project coming up imminently which will be a departure from this project and, I think, huge fun to do. And then (actually concurrently) I'll be looking to get dug in to the larger MS Teacher Corps film, hopefully this time at a more measured pace. I think the short came out well, but I can do even better with nine or ten months at my disposal.

PS: I've switched to HaloScan commenting, which is now fully functional. Just so you know.