Archive for the ‘Principles’ Category

A Long Weekend of Short Filmmaking at William & Mary: Pt. 2

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Saturday morning at William & Mary began with Troy Davis giving Ashley and me a tour around the William & Mary’s Swem Library Media Center. The Director of the Media Center, Troy was my host for the weekend and one of the primary organizers of the Media Center’s Long Weekend of Short Filmmaking.

The Media Center is several things in one — an equipment training center, an equipment check-out center, a recording studio for music and podcasts. It’s anything and everything that students want and Troy makes himself, and his assistants, available to students to teach them anything from iMovie to Logic Pro.

Troy has been the Director of the Media Center for a year and a half, and it’s impressive what he’s accomplished. On a technical level, he’s helped secure some superb editing facilities (several Mac tower stations with Final Cut, Logic Pro, and the rest of the works, each in its own sound controlled environment). For a guy who describes himself as a “dabbler” when it comes to film, I was impressed with all the smart technology purchases he has been making, not to mention his ability to talk in depth about the subtle differences between various pieces of equipment they own.

Since there are, no doubt, places like this at universities across the country, the biggest accomplishment isn’t the equipment and stations he’s amassed — it’s the sense of community generates out from this media hub. A lot of that, no doubt, is due to Troy’s vision for the Media Center as a place that is accessible and inviting (as opposed to exclusive and intimidating). The Media Center, in fact, is littered with Troy’s self-desribed “propaganda” — humorous, well-designed posters — that invite students into the space and use the equipment.

After the tour, Troy and I recorded a podcast that covered making and teaching film. He had thought a lot about my work and had some great questions, which is really flattering. (The podcast will be posted at some point on Media Center site. I’ll link to it when it’s available.)

The podcast led into a “self-reliant filmmaking” workshop that I conducted with some of William & Mary’s film students and faculty.

I began by discussing the work I do on this blog, including my reasons for starting it, and how it’s transformed my own film practice. I then opened things up for discussion, which led to a wide-ranging conversation that covered everything from what video camera to purchase to some simple strategies for first-time documentarians. Ashley threw in some good advice during the conversation, to boot; I was happy she had joined me.

Our workshop group talked for nearly two hours, so Ashley and I had a quick break for lunch before I ran off to a screening of some of my own short films at the historic Kimball Theatre. The films looked good in this classy venue, I was happy with the turnout, and the questions the audience asked were, again, really good. (I even received some email from audience members after the screening thanking me for sharing my work.) There was a little reception in the theater lobby afterwards, and I enjoyed talking with some of the William & Mary faculty members that had come to the screening. That conversation led to a coffeehouse where Sharon Zuber, who teaches W&M’s production courses, and I compared notes about how to teach film production.

We closed out the day by stopping by the premiere of the Cans Film Festival (pun intended), a student-organized screening of films produced at a variety of Virginia universities. (There weren’t any entries from Virginia Tech — maybe next year?) Ashley and I weren’t able to stay for long — I was beat and we had a long drive back in the morning. We did manage to catch one zombie flick before we left.

Before we left on Sunday morning, Troy treated us to breakfast at one of Williamsburg’s many pancake houses. Ashley and I had seen a number of pancake houses on our drive in, and I suppose they reflect the fact that Williamsburg is a haven for retirees and a magnet for tourists (motto: “Where History Lives”). The three of us had one last movie-saturated conversation, and Troy told us about his next dream for the Media Center — restoring an unused auditorium in the William & Mary library and making into a screening facility/microcinema.

As we drove out of town, past a few more pancake houses, I thought about a place like Wiliamsburg. Even with the occasional major production (like Malick’s The New World) coming to town, it would still be surprising to see Williamsburg develop into the next Austin. Williamsburg’s a town of 12,000 people, and a lot of the people are transient (whether they’re tourists, college students, or retirees). That’s a tough place to build a film culture. Of course these things don’t only apply to Williamsburg. If this sounds like your town, too, well, so be it. It sounds like mine.

The thing is, something is happening in Williamsburg. Things like the Kimball Theatre, and the William & Mary Media Center are part of the puzzle. The “corner pieces” of that puzzle, though, are a dedicated group of people with vision, passion, and resourcefulness. That’s the real lifeblood of regional filmmaking and film culture. Some places don’t have this, or have enough of it. Luckily, for Williamsburg, it has Troy Davis, Sharon Zuber, Arthur Knight (coordinator of Film Studies at W&M), and a host of student filmmakers. Something tells me that their numbers will only continue to grow.

A Long Weekend of Short Filmmaking at William & Mary: Pt. 1

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

The College of William & Mary brought me to Williamsburg, Virginia this weekend to participate in a “long weekend of short filmmaking.” It’s been a busy, and rewarding, weekend.

Friday, after arriving to town, I was a judge at 24Speed, William & Mary’s variation on those twenty-four hour filmmaking contests that have grown in popularity throughout the country.

In this case, eight teams of six filmmakers each were provided the same line of dialogue (a line from one of last year’s videos: “I’m not taking you out, I’m taking you down”) and a 1920s yearbook from the college’s archives, which they had to use as a prop. After a drawing in which they received two film genres at random each team had to choose one genre in which to work. They then had 24 hours to produce a three-to-five minute video.

By the time of the screening the place was packed. Each of the eight videos had their charms and their share of cleverness. Of course, all of them had their rough spots, too — what video produced in 24 hours wouldn’t? It’s funny, though, how those “rough spots” (some out of sync dialogue, say, or let’s-roll-with-the-first-and-only-take-performances) become charming in and of themselves when you consider the context of how quickly these things were produced.

After watching all the videos, the two other judges and I had a healthy debate about the merits of the eight videos. Every video, to its credit, managed to produce at least a handful of laughs, jolts, or cringes.

Speaking only for myself, as a judge I was looking for videos that had adequate craft, for starters. Beyond that, though, I wasn’t necessarily looking for the best shot or best edited video. I was looking for videos that gave me a fresh take on the genre instead of merely rehashing it. That might sound like a tall order, but there were more than a couple that did this.

Ultimately, after forty-five minutes, the other two judges and I had settled on the prize winners. The winner was a mockumentary that used consistently smart deep-focus cinematography to execute its jokes with a lot of subtlety; an honorable mention was awarded to some ambitious students that came this close to nailing their chosen genre, the musical. That’s right, in 24 hours they wrote, scored, shot and edited a musical. It was rough around the edges, sure, but it definitely had me eager to see what these guys could accomplish in 48 hours, and that’s worth something.

***

That night, after the screening was over, I realized that I had experienced a change of heart about competitions like 24Speed. In the past, to be perfectly frank, I’ve had some reservations about the benefits of such competitions. I guess I feared that the 24 hour time constraint reinforced bad habits (mainly, thinking that making a film is something you can rush through) and emphasized competition over collaboration. I see, now, that I’ve been wrong.

First, the competitive nature (at least at this one) was entirely overshadowed by the fun everyone was having. That was great to see. Competition can push people to do better work, even (especially?) with art. You just can’t take it too seriously.

Secondly, and even more importantly, I see now that what these competitions can do is remind us that there are times when it’s better to make something as quickly as possible just to do it.

More than anything else, watching these videos (and meeting the students that produced them so quickly) I was reminded of the collaborations I have undertaken in the past with friends on videos for Termite TV. To an outsider, such projects might seem “insignificant,” but I always learned something by making them, even if the final product sometimes ended up being kinda rough.

This afternoon, browsing Termite TV’s website, I ran across a quote from Manny Farber‘s “White Elephant Art vs Termite Art” essay, which reads as a kind of found poem for what I saw at 24Speed:

a peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art
is that it moves always forward,
eating its own boundaries, and
likely as not, leaves nothing in its path
but evidence of eager, industrious, unkempt activities

***

Part 2 of W&M’s Long Weekend of Short Filmmaking coming soon…

ADDENDUM:All of the entries for the contest are now online for viewing by the general public.

Cinema vs. Home Theater

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

There’s an interesting discussion going on at the Onion’s AV Club these days about the relative merits of watching movies in the theater or at home. Noel Murray and Scott Tobias began the discussion in a “Crosstalk” article, and that ingnited a nice little debate in the discussion area. Josh Oakhurst has weighed in on the issue, too (via FresHDV).

My partner, Ashley, manages a one-screen historic art house cinema. With the exception of 19th century costume dramas, I’ll see pretty much anything they screen. On the other hand, we also have very modest home theater setup. Just so you have the context, here’s the setup:

    – a low-end video projector
    – a movie screen bought for $10 from junk merchants that had set up shop on the side of the road near Joelton, Tennessee
    – a dvd player
    – an old home theater audio system handed down from my dad
    – home-made window blinds that completely blackout our living room when we want to screen in the daytime (unnecessary at night)

It’s not fancy, but we love it.

As for which is better, I think there are certainly pros and cons to either experience. I’m certainly not going to argue that people should give up going to the theater, nor that they should stop renting movies. De gustibus non est disputandum, as the saying goes.

These articles did get me (re)thinking the cinema vs. home theater debate. Here are a few personal observations inspired by Murray, Tobias, Oakhurst, et al.

(more…)

Life (and Filmmaking) During Wartime

Monday, February 5th, 2007

Let this article serve to remind us that, whatever production troubles we might be enduring producing one of our films, it could be a lot rougher.

From an LA Times article about Mohamed Daradji’s Ahlaam, a fiction film shot in Iraq that is now screening at festivals:

The last straw: a chaotic 24-hour period in December 2004 when Daradji and several crew members achieved a sort of modern Iraq trifecta — kidnapped and bullied by Sunni Muslim gunmen, then kidnapped again and bullied by Shiite Muslim gunmen, and finally jailed and interrogated by American soldiers.

As inspiring as it is to read about Daradji’s attempts to make art in the face of war, sadly, the bleaker news is this, says the article’s author:

Daradji’s film may end up being the last movie to come out of Iraq for a while. The country’s artistic life experienced a brief resurgence in the year after the U.S.-led invasion, with musicians, painters and actors all striving to restore Baghdad’s legacy as one of the Arab world’s cultural capitals. That trend has died as Iraq descends into civil war, with much of the educated, artistic class fleeing the country.

When you read something like this it certainly makes even the most astounding filmmaker “war stories” (e.g., comments like Coppola’s “This movie isn’t about Vietnam. It is Vietnam”) look pretty silly.

[via GreenCine]

DVGuru’s Demise: On AOL and the owning of blogs

Friday, February 2nd, 2007

DVGuru, the valuable group blog about most things video and film, is no more as of Wednesday. I read it daily, which I can’t say of many websites. I’m disappointed, as are a lot of other readers.

What made it an especially useful site was the fact that it served as a kind of aggregator for more specialized and esoteric film/video content-related websites around the web. But beyond aggregation, the writers had a talent for quickly summing up an issue and then leading you to the original source. As a reader — and as someone whose own writing was at times cited by DVGuru’s editors — I really appreciated that. Alas, I’ll now have to find some of my news from other sources.

The announcement caught a few people off guard. What’s the story?

I’ve heard and read that DVGuru, along with some other blogs, were given the axe by AOL, the company that owns Weblogs, Inc. There was nothing controversial about these sites that led to their shutdown — in these cases it’s always about money. Ads weren’t selling or getting clicked through or, in all likelihood, it was just too much trouble for AOL to do the research to figure out who should be advertising.

I understand why AOL wanted to acquire Weblogs, Inc. It’s a way to own content, and doing so would be a throwback to AOL’s dial-up heyday, those halcyon days when it housed a good percentage of the polished content on the internet. The difference is that, in the mid-late 90s, AOL’s content was general information, the “frontpage” kind of face that Yahoo and others provide these days. Blogs are different though; almost all of them focus on niche markets. Some companies get this; others mail out millions of CD-roms pleading with you to use dial-up.

(As a point of comparison, consider Google’s approach to weblogs. Google didn’t try to acquire various popular blogs. It acquired Blogger. The same thinking, no doubt, went into their acquisition of YouTube. Google doesn’t want the content. It wants the delivery system for the content.)

Anyway, I’m not going to wring my hands about this — there are, after all, another billion or so websites out there to read, and there is no such thing as death on the internet. Still, it only re-confirms my skepticism about the long-term viability of corporate-owned weblogs.

So long, DVGuru. It was good to know ya.