Friday, May 23, 2008

The Things I Carried

LUND--Movie making is a complex business in the best of circumstances. This statement would seem laughably self-evident, but the more one becomes involved in this insane business the more evident the complexity of the undertaking becomes. Before I left Wooster for Sweden I helped my friends Adam and Rhio Ginther and their fledging production company Nightmare Pictures film a zombie movie (soon to be released). Even on the set of The Rising Dead, as close to a no-budget movie as is possible (one's time, gasoline and tape still cost money even if the actors are unpaid and the equipment borrowed) I became thankful that, at least for now, I am not involved in making fiction cinema. I may have to crawl through swamps, interview people in other languages, carry thousands of dollars of equipment in unstable, crime-ridden places and remember to take my malaria pills but at least I don't have to deal with actors.

On the other hand, not dealing with actors or any other willing hands means I have to do the whole thing pretty much by myself and that is a mixed bag. The more you do on your own the more there is to worry about, the more there is to forget or to simply be unable to accomplish. I simply cannot film, take stills and, for example, hold a microphone boom alone so, often, I have to keep the microphone on the camera and not as close as I would like to the interviewee. Of course to say I made the last film all on my own is, in point of fact, absurd. SARA funded it, John Gilberg made my plane reservations, Dr. Jake Kuttothara drove me to the airport, Mike Butcher helped me with technical equipment issues and picked me up at the airport, Leonidas Maravilla drove me all over El Salvador and carried my still-camera bag when I was shooting video and my video bag when I shot stills and on and on. In the editing process Jesse Ewing designed the DVD cover and Jeff Pasek composed the instrumental soundtrack. Still, if I hadn't had Jesse I would have made the cover myself and I at least tried my hand for a while attempting to compose music in GarageBand. If you have a DVD of Robert Rodriguez's "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" watch the extra short film, "Ten Minute Film School." Rodriguez in no way makes movies all by himself. On the other hand he is now shooting digitally and personally does a lot of the editing, music and filming, involved in every step and thus in control of every step.

So this is my situation, in the end it is me that is responsible in every way for the finished outcome of my documentaries. I get all the credit (except where other credit is due and duly given) and I take all the blame as well if there is any to be apportioned. I would like, very much in the future to have, sometimes anyway, another person to work with. Someone to talk out problems and simply to talk to at the end of the day. In El Salvador I ate a lot of lonely meals with nothing but my notebook to keep me company or to hash out the day's and the next day's shooting. It would be a boon to have someone to help carry the equipment, have a second camera running and a second pair of eyes. But that is not for now. Which brings me to my dilemma. Those who know me know I spend a lot of time obsessing about packing. Frankly I think it is a form of personal therapy, a meditation exercise with practical applications. I envision my backpack, my camera bags, the contents of my pockets both before the plane flight and afterwards. I think of what I will need in, one hopes, any situation I will find myself, what I can and cannot manage to carry and how it will all work together. I have been trying to figure out, then, what cameras I will take.

Before I was doing much video this was still an issue but a much smaller one. In my old Domke bag I am able to fit my Leica M6 with its 50mm Summicron, 15mm Voigtlander and 135mm Hector, my Nikon D1x with a 17-35mm 2.8 zoom and a Tamron 28-300 zoom (that, although has taken some excellent pictures I am not happy with) a big Metz flash and a 55mm MicroNikkor manual focus lens. This bag, however, is quite heavy with all of that but not unmanageable. On the El Salvador project I decided I could not take the big Nikon, however; not with the addition of the video camera, a shoulder mounted Panasonic DVC 60 with a Røde NTG-2 shotgun mike on top. Instead I took the M6 with the Summicron and a Leica Mda with the Heliar SuperWide as well as an old Canon Powershot digital pocket camera and a Sony palmcorder. This worked quite well all in all. The advantage I had there, however, was that the year before I had already taken numerous color stills with the Nikon D1x. I already had several hundred digital stills in the bag.

With this upcoming Ukraine film I have none. I have decided, however, to take only the Leica M6 with its three lenses. In the main, I do my best work with it and I need to concentrate on filming more than stills. I need, because I am doing this essentially by myself, to simplify the things I carry. I think that trying to manage a rangefinder loaded with black and white film, a digital SLR set to color and a full-size video camera would not only be to darn heavy to carry but would also, ultimately, detract from the finished project by giving me too many options, too many things to use, too many modes of shooting to manage and switch between.

Of course I could be wrong and there will be that once-in-a-lifetime shot that only the Nikon could have taken. But I think I will take that risk and think that that wasn't so great a shot anyway and instead I got those once-in-a-lifetime shots only possible with a Leica and a video camera.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

After Edit Blues

LUND--I am experiencing a letdown phase after finishing the movie. It isn't, I am thankful, a Hemingway "black bottom" mood, but rather a sort of general listlessness. This project has been about two years in the making, coming across the story of the children of the mangroves when traveling with Dr. Katy Kropf through Central America and first working with SARA during that time. It was then I took a large portion of the still photos and we shot some of the footage that I eventually used with a small hand-cam. Then, back in the US I wrote the grant to SARA, received the grant somewhat to my surprise, and began planning for it--researching equipment, making my lists, talking with friends and colleagues about ideas and themes and structures. In the middle of all that I came to Sweden and my life took another turn. But I went back to El Salvador and the mangrove jungles of El Espino, filmed for a month then spent the next months packing up and moving to Scandinavia. And then a long dark winter, editing, thinking, editing, thinking about editing. Almost everything revolved around or came back to the film. Now it is done. My friend Jeff Pasek did some of the soundtrack, practically at the last minute, Jesse Ewing did the DVD cover. Now I have sent out two copies to Bettyann Larson and John Gilberg and in the next days will be mailing more. It really is done. I still want to make a short film on the subject but more or less, for now, I am finished with the material. I hope to go back and make another film, a more intimate portrait of the children's lives and work but that is in the unknowable future. Now I am preparing to go to Ukraine and make a second film with all I learned from the first, in a very different setting. I will be taking much the same equipment, with the addition of a sturdy monopod and a long XLR cable with which I can put a microphone on a boom (which the monopd will double as). I plan to shoot a fair amount more tape than I did in El Salvador and have ideas for particular types of scene to shoot, particular extra footage to acquire and ways to better organize my material.

And now the sun is out in Sweden. I suppose it is a good time to be a bit listless. At least I can wander around aimlessly in the sun.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

That's A Wrap....!

LUND--I believe I finished the film today. It was a beautiful day here in southern Sweden and I was bound and determined to go to class but this is also a week where Lena goes to work late and comes home even later so I got up early, as it were and began work. At a certain point where it comes down to class (language school) or continuing when the editing is going well I chose the latter, knowing that I could finish, today, with one last push.

I ran into a few problems earlier, forgetting to lock a few audio clips in place but, luckily, I noticed before I had saved much. I went on and the hours went by. I was adding some crucial scenes I had shot illustrating child labor in El Salvador: children working in a home bread factory, in the markets and, most dramatically, in a municipal trash dump. I cut these with statisitcs from the International Labour Office (ILO)/International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) and then adjusted the sound. And then it was done. I called my friend Matt, another American here in Sweden who just bought his first rangefinder and he came by with the requisite supplies and we solved the problems of the world and some of its lenses.

Jesse Ewing sent the final drafts of the DVD covers and it was pretty much a full day. Manana I WILL go to class and after that back to the darkroom for a long-overdue printing session with the paper Michelle sent me from the U.S.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Notes and Thoughts

LUND--Budapest was amazing, my new favorite city. The morning we left I put a copy of "News From El Salvador" in the mail to Bettyann Larson who will be showing it several places in the next weeks. Finally, a few days ago, it arrived and her response to watching it was very favorable which was a huge weight off my shoulders -- finally someone who has never seen any of the film (though is very familiar with the subject matter) has seen it and thought it good. It is interesting to think of it being shown to 100s of people in San Francisco and elsewhere. A film shot in El Salvador and edited in Sweden.

There is a scene I want to add, which I am working on now, but the film in one version is finished. Soon it will be wrapped up for good, this film, though I hope to find funding to return and make a film exclusively about the currileros, the children of the mangroves -- a more intimate portrait of their lives and not just the somewhat of an overview of conditions in El Salvador that this film is.

And Budapest. We met my old girlfriend Blair and her husband Chris there. I shot a lot of photos, taking only my Nikon D1x (and pocket Canon digital and pocket Olympus Stylus film camera and Sony palm cam). I felt distinctly unfaithful to my Leica but developing film is very expensive here and I knew I would be mostly shooting touristy stuff. I did get some footage of the statue park. Shots of the imposing Lenins and workers and proletarian soldiers that might come in handy for my upcoming Ukrainian documentary.

I have been pre-packing my bags for that, making sure everything is present for video work including the new 20 foot XLR cable and monopod Blair brought me from the US. Budapest was the beginning of what promises to be an ongoing exploration of Eastern Europe. It is exciting to begin a new project in a new place, some familiar themes but a very different look and feel I am sure, to Central America which I miss but from where I needed to take a documentary break.