A New Documentary: The Story of the Stuff - Coming April 2015

An image from Newtown, CT.

Today, on the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook School shooting, we are announcing Self-Reliant Film’s upcoming web documentary, which will be released online this spring.

Entitled The Story of the Stuff, the documentary -- using video, audio, images and text -- tracks what happens to more than half a million letters, 65,000 teddy bears, and hundreds of thousands of other packages, donations, and condolence items sent to Newtown, Connecticut, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. 

As I worked with residents of Newtown to tell this story, I was vigilant to resist exploiting this horrific tragedy by digging into the violence of that day. This is not a story about violence; it is a story about what we do after violence. 

The story has a deeply personal connection. 

On April 16, 2007, I was at work, managing a Blacksburg, Virginia, art house cinema when a shooter murdered 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech. It is the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. 

In the days, weeks, months, and years that followed April 16th (I later went on to teach filmmaking at Virginia Tech from 2008-2012), I witnessed firsthand the growing phenomenon in global culture that we’ve seen everywhere from Oklahoma City to Columbine, from Aurora to the Boston Marathon bombing: After a tragedy is covered in graphic detail by the news media, there comes a massive public outpouring of sympathy, most often in the form of physical expressions of grief—for lack of a better term, the “stuff.”

Votive candles, flowers, teddy bears, Hallmark cards—these come en masse. Giant posterboards, personalized gifts, hand-written letters, and painstakingly handmade artworks—the range and scope of materials is extraordinary. 

But the tidal wave of “stuff” poses an added burden for the recipient community and the questions are countless: Where does all the stuff go? Who should handle it? Should any of it be kept forever? Where and for what purpose?

Ever since my experience at Virginia Tech, these questions have fascinated me -- as a filmmaker, as a practicing librarian, and as one who has grieved—up close and at a distance—for those lost.

The Story of the Stuff, then, is an investigation into our American culture of consumption and remembrance. The way we represent, remember, and respond to such tragedies has much to teach us about ourselves, our memories, and our grief. 

I hope you’ll join us in exploring these questions when we release The Story of the Stuff on April 16, 2015—the eighth anniversary of that fateful day that changed my life forever and inspired this new work. 

-- Ashley Maynor

UPDATE (4.3.15): The Story of the Stuff facebook page has launched. "Liking" that page will keep you abreast on the most up-to-date announcements about the documentary's launch.

Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Fiona Otway

Given the recent closure of the iconic letterpress printing shop, Yee-Haw Industries, whose work adorned everything from Jack Daniels to Le Sport Sac to the movie posters for Self-Reliant Film, today's post on Kiss the Paper, a film about letterpress's decline and revival, seems especially timely.

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Fiona Otway is a director, cinematographer, editor, producer, and media instructor whose work is influenced by her background in cultural anthropology, critical social theory, and experimental filmmaking. She has edited three Academy Award nominee films, including one of the three stories in James Longley's Iraq in Fragments, which garnered a "Best Documentary Editing" award at Sundance.

Her latest short, Kiss the Paper, is a documentary portrait of Alan Runfeldt, a man who has been a letterpress printer since age 12. Told through poetic camerawork and moody, natural lighting, the film both paints a portrait of its subject character, Alan, while also exploring the world of tactile printing--a world that stands in opposition to and is threatened by the computers and cell phones even this hardcore letterpress printer has come to adopt and rely upon.

An example of thoughtful, poignant, and self-reliant filmmaking, Kiss the Paper is a meditation on art versus profession, trade versus craft, and the ways in which analog is hanging on in a digital world.

For those readers attending Full Frame Festival in Durham, you can catch the film today!

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How did you meet the subject of your film, Alan Runfeldt, and what inspired you to make a film about him? 

I had been wanting to make a film about letterpress for a long time and was living in Philadelphia, where there is a lot of printing history. I started talking to folks in the letterpress community in town, asking whether they knew of any printers who had been around long enough to witness the past few decades of changing letterpress history. A few names were suggested, but to my dismay, these printers had already retired or closed their businesses and were very hard to track down.

So I started expanding my search beyond Philadelphia and when I heard that Alan Runfeldt had filled an old chicken barn with a collection of printing presses he had rescued, I knew that I wanted to talk with him. From our very first conversation, it was obvious that Alan is a man filled with incredible passion.  He was very friendly and eager to share his many decades of accumulated wisdom. Soon after we chatted, I traveled to Frenchtown, NJ to visit his print shop and discovered a treasure trove of beautiful, beloved machines under his care. Since I was interested in exploring the themes of tactility and obsolescence -- both visually and through a character portrait -- Alan and his presses were the perfect subject.

Your credits on the film are producer, director, camera, and editor. Tell me about the process of making this film, which appears to be a more or less one-woman show. Were there any challenges or benefits to making the film in this way? 

I had a very narrow window of time in which to make the film (between other projects), so working solo was partly a practical issue of flexibility and expediency. It’s easier to shoot a film on the fly when you don’t have to coordinate schedules and availability with a lot of people. I also simply didn’t have any budget to hire other professionals to work with me one this one. But I wasn’t completely alone; my friend Ginger Jolly came with me on one of the shoot days and was a huge help in setting up lights, recording sound, and schlepping gear -- not to mention the creative support of bouncing ideas around together.  We had a lot of fun.

I have to admit, although it can be more difficult to work solo, I also really like shooting and editing my own material.  I had a pretty strong vision for this piece from the very beginning, and there is a creative joy that comes with being able to shape the material in such a hands-on, start-to-finish process.

Of course, collaborating with others to make a film can be an incredible experience too. I also freelance as a shooter and editor, so I know firsthand that sometimes it just makes more sense to have a team of people creating a film together.  A film can be greatly enhanced by individuals bringing their unique strengths, talents, and perspectives to the process.

In addition to this film, you've also edited a significant number of successful films, including James Longley's Iraq in Fragments, for which you won Sundance's first ever prize for "Best Documentary Editing." How do you go about the process of editing another person's film? In other words, how do you go about crafting footage into a story? What is your process of collaboration? Do you have any special processes or techniques for getting through that first assembly or rough cut?

The process of collaboration is unique to each project.  As an editor, I’ve found that every director has their own working style and each project has its own creative needs.

In the beginning, my job as an editor is to really get to know the footage — its strengths, its idiosyncrasies, its potential. I’m also engaging in a rich dialogue with the director, absorbing as much information as I can about their vision for the film. Sometimes I end up doing my own additional research on the subject matter, so that I can understand the context of the story better. I might also study other films for aesthetic inspiration and use these kinds of films as a reference point for ongoing discussions with director.

As I get deeper into the edit, I am working to find a structure that will carry the story. I write outlines, start assembling scenes that I think are especially strong, build spreadsheets, make notes on index cards, and begin playing with ideas and possible approaches for a story arc.   To get to the first assembly or rough cut, I’m searching for interesting resonances in the footage and in the story — the questions and themes that become more nuanced over time and make the material come alive for me. One of the aspects of editing that I love the most is that it allows me to tap into a deeply intuitive level of creativity.

Throughout the entire editing process, I’m continuing to have conversations with the director.  We are constantly working to refine our vision for the movie.  We’ll watch rough cuts together, make notes about what’s working and not working, and then chisel away some more.  At a certain point, we’ll start showing rough cuts to a trusted circle of friends and colleagues in order to get feedback from outside the edit room. This invaluable feedback gets folded back into the editing, and the process continues in these cycles until a movie is born.

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The lamentation and nostalgia that your film's subject, Alan, expresses about the decline of analog technology seems especially poignant, given this film's digital format. Did you question making this film digitally, or was that an intentional juxtaposition from the start?

KISS THE PAPER is actually shot on both super-16mm film and HD video, which was a very deliberate expressive choice from the beginning. With the recent news about Kodak’s bankruptcy, there are obvious parallels between filmmaking and letterpress printing. While KISS THE PAPER isn’t making specific commentary on the the decline of celluloid, I was very interested in the formal subtext of combining film and video in the making of the piece.

At one point, your film's subject Alan says, "Technology moves towards efficiency, but art moves towards emotion and feeling." Your cinematography, which turns heavy, oily letterpress machinery into a cinematic poetry of sorts, would seem to agree. Is this an edict that you feel accurately describes your work? How so?

I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for old technologies and tactile media, but I’m not opposed to the evolution of technology. I do, however, sometimes worry that we live in a culture that blindly worships technological progress for its own sake.

As a filmmaker, I make no apologies about working in a digital medium. In fact, the digital revolution in video is what has enabled me and others like me to have access to the tools of filmmaking in the first place. But at the same time, I want to create work that connects with people and enables people to connect with each other. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how digital technologies and digital media can either support or inhibit these goals. I often contemplate what is lost and what is gained in the fact of our increasingly digital lives and in the march towards ever-increasing technological efficiency.  These are some of the questions that led me to make KISS THE PAPER.

The film premiered this January at Slamdance and has also screened at Big Sky Documentary Festival. Where else can audiences hope to catch this film?

KISS THE PAPER premiered at the Athens International Film and Video Festival in 2011. The film is still in the festival circuit, and has screened at Silverdocs, the Citizen Jane Film Festival, Red Rock Film Festival, Slamdance, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival. The next few confirmed screenings include Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC, then DOXA in Vancouver BC, and at the 2012 New Hampshire Living History event in August. Additional screenings and the eventual DVD will be announced on our 

Facebook page

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Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Brian Bolster

Because short films are often neglected in film festival press and buzz, the next two installments of this series focus on powerful films in short-form packages. First up is an interview with Brian Bolster, a native of Boston and graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. His film, The Lookout, premiered at Slamdance and recently took home the "Big Sky Award" at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The Lookout is a sixteen-minute documentary about a fire lookout--a term which describes both a person and a place--in a remote area Montana's Flathead National Forest. Lookouts serve to detect and fight wildfires and, despite their ongoing use, seem a thing of the past.

Bolster's film is a reflection on solitude and voluntary simplicity in a landscape where, as the lookout puts it, "weather dictates life." Told with stunning cinematography of big skies and mountains, stars and sunsets, it is a carefully crafted film that celebrates quiet and natural beauty.

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It was your awesome hand letter-pressed card that first led me to want to watch this film, and in the film's press kit, you also included a letter-pressed business card. Why did you make this aesthetic decision to represent a digital film/filmmaker? How does this style of printing relate to your work?

This was the first time I have used letterpress printing for any of my projects. Initially, I was going to follow the formula that many filmmakers use at festivals, a glossy postcard with a still from the film on the front and standard screening information on the back.  However, I truly felt that this particular project warranted a less traditional feel promotional-wise. The Lookout has a rustic sensibility, and I wanted the marketing materials  to embody that as well. It was Fiona Otway’s beautiful film Kiss the Paper about a letterpress printer in Hunterdon County, New Jersey (which incidentally also screened along with The Lookout as part of the documentary block “Americana” at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival), that served as my inspiration to give letterpress a try. [Note from Ashley: This film, Kiss the Paper, is the subject of our next fresh filmmaker interview!]

Using an older, nearly forgotten art form to bring an element of nostalgia to the collateral materials just felt right, and in the end, I couldn’t be more pleased with unrefined texture of the output and how well both the postcards and business cards represent the film’s aesthetic. Fire lookouts and letterpress printers are similar in that both can be considered dying breeds of sorts, and I’d like to think that I played a role in preserving both of their crafts to some extent, by making a documentary film about one and successfully promoting that film with the other.

Most of my films examine an individual or group’s relationship to structures and/or the environment in which they work, live, worship in, etc. Given that spectrum, I don’t think letterpress print would be the right medium for every project.  For me, the film’s aesthetic should really dictate the look and feel of all its ancillary touch points. That said, my next project profiles the owner/operators of an old fashioned mercantile, situated at the end of a long dirt road in rural Montana. It definitely has a rustic feel similar to The Lookout, and I’m certain that letterpress print would, again, yield tools that would both perfectly complement and promote the film.

You made The Lookout with a one-person film crew and had to hike twelve miles to and from Thoma Lookout to bring up the equipment for you shoot, not to mention you went without bathing for the week of filming on the mountain. Knowing these challenges from the start, why did you pursue this film? Why did you feel this was a story you had to tell?

Fire lookouts and the individuals that staff them are an important part of our nation’s history, and I really wanted to showcase their work to audiences who may not be familiar with their unique, yet often times unnoticed, role in fire management. Additionally, though they remain  critical front-line components of our forest system’s detection and prevention of wildfires, they have recently dwindled in numbers, due largely to the proliferation of advanced technologies.  Because of this, I knew that I not only wanted to document the working life of a fire lookout, but also play a part in preserving their history in doing so.

As far as the physical challenges of getting this film made, backpacking and hiking have been a part of my life for a long time, so the camping and making the two 4-mile one way trips (personal belongings on one, film equipment on the other) up and down the mountain on the front and back-ends of the shoot were definitely much more a welcome adventure than an issue.  Also, while not showering for a week may be have been a little unpleasant, that too is something I’ve become somewhat accustomed to over my years of being an avid hiker.

The Lookout

The subject of your film, Leif Haugen, is a fourteen year lookout veteran, who chooses to spend solitary summers in a remote post with only a two-way radio as his connection to the outside world. Haugen is surprisingly natural on camera and I imagine there had to be some sort of negotiation for you sharing the small, tiny hut for a week of filming. Tell me about that process. Given his habitation to solitude, how did you achieve the intimate footage in your film, which gives a strong, cinema verite impression?

To my surprise, Leif was very comfortable in front of the camera.  While we had talked briefly on the phone once or twice about logistics and such, we had never met in person until the first day of shooting.  The hike up to the lookout gave us a chance to talk, and Leif was nice enough to accompany me on both trips up and down the mountain, allowing us to get to know each other fairly well in a very short period of time.

Overall, the weather at the lookout proved to be a real challenge and in many ways ‘co-directed’ the shoot, if you will. We experienced everything from wind and rain to snow and sleet, with one or maybe two warm and sunny days over the course of the week. On the days where the weather was particularly bad, we stayed inside the lookout and shot Leif’s interviews which ended up taking much of our indoor time. Other than that, our days would mostly involve discussing Leif’s plans for the day over breakfast, followed by my doing my best to shadow him as his went about with his routine, whether it was a trip to get water, chop wood or cook dinner.

Thoma Lookout is very small and tight space, and that, coupled with the fact that Leif is used to spending so much of his time in complete isolation at the lookout, often times left me with a sense that I was invading his world with my presence. Fortunately, due both to his dedication to his work as a lookout and our mutual desire to share his experience at-large with others, we were able to successfully navigate any discomfort.

In addition to being a fourteen-year veteran of the Hungry Horse/Glacier Ranger Districts fire lookout program, Leif also helps train newly hired lookouts as well as restores older lookout structures back to fully operational states. After Leif saw the film screen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, I asked him what he thought of seeing it for the first time in such a large format. Though he was beyond pleased with both the end product and the audience reaction, he also mentioned that the film left him feeling a bit melancholy because he missed his life at Thoma – a clear demonstration to his passion and commitment to his work as a fire lookout.

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How did you prepare for your week of filming at Thoma Lookout. (I imagine you wanted to get everything in one trip, given the struggles of getting there!) What forms of previsualization did you use (e.g. storyboards, shot lists, etc.) to plan your shoot, if any? Did you plan any sequences ahead of time, such as a stunning time-lapse sunsets or nighttime skies?

I did have some pre-visualization of what the end product would look like, but it was minimal since I had never visited this particular lookout and had no idea what to expect other than being told that the views from the site were stunning. I did find some inspiration from the films of Terrence Malick and John Ford’s film “The Searchers” before and after the shoot, and I did have a good idea as to what I thought was important for viewers to experience - but that information was primarily gleaned from Leif’s interview. Additionally, I also knew that I wanted as little camera movement as possible because I wanted viewers to be in and experience Leif’s world. The time-lapsed night time sequence in the middle of the film was the only segment that was preplanned before I left for Montana, and I knew I would include it in the finished film - although, it was pure luck that I happened to catch an electrical storm passing through that particular night. Other than that, everything was shot on site at Thoma.

To complete this film, you worked with an editor, Amy Glickman Brown. How much footage did you have to work with for this 16-minute film? What was your process of collaboration for winnowing down the footage?

This is the second time I have worked with Amy, and she definitely has a knack for finding the heart of a story.  At all points throughout the editing process, I always sense that she is just as invested in the project as I am, and she has never shied away from arguing her points when she feels that I may be making decisions counter to the project’s overall message.  I place great value on the pacing of my films, as I find that central in setting the mood for the entire piece.  With The Lookout, the only instructions I gave Amy were to edit the film with a pace that was slow, deliberate and with a very “day in the life” feeling.  She found the pacing quickly, and with limited footage (only about twelve hours total), was able to add a breadth to the end product that I never thought was possible.  In the end, I felt that the final cut of sixteen minutes captured my story perfectly – and I had originally envisioned a total runtime of only about eight to ten minutes prior to our post-production work.

The Lookout is a quiet film, whose soundtrack is composed by the wind, rain, and other elements of Montana's Flathead National Forest and the crackle of the dispatch radios. When and how did you make the decision to not use music? Was this a directoral decision or one you made in tandem with Drew Fuccillo, your sound mixer?

If nothing else, I really wanted viewers to experience the same sights and sounds as Leif, so the decision to not use music in The Lookout was indeed a deliberate one. Perhaps I should also credit some of my inspiration in this regard to the soundtrack from Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds as well, as I have always admired Hitchcock’s choice of using the sounds of the birds in place of a musical score.  However, my choice to use the crackle of the radio was made while shooting at Thoma. I loved how the radio would suddenly disrupt the quiet solitude. The crackle was jarring, and I wanted to incorporate that noise into the film as an auditory reminder that Leif was still connected to the outside world.

The budget for your film, $2500, seems fairly modest given the travel that must have been necessary for the filming. Do you often make work with small or micro-budgets? Do you produce work this way for practical, aesthetic, or other reasons?

In many ways this shoot was really an extension of a typical backcountry camping trip. The only difference being that I had a camera and tripod with me. Air travel aside, a hiking and backpacking trip is inherently a non expensive outing. Therefore, taking on a film shoot on such a trip definitely assisted in helping me keep costs low during production. While this helped me to keep costs down, it was by no means an aesthetic choice but rather a practical choice. Most of my costs for The Lookout were post-production related.

After its premiere at Slamdance, your film went gone on to screen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where it won the Big Sky Award. Where else do you plan to screen the film at this point? Do you have any long-term plans for VOD or digital distribution?

Currently The Lookout is making the rounds on the festival circuit. After the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, it screened at the Durango International Film Festival and will have two screenings at the Florida Film Festival next month in April and screenings at Independent Film Festival Boston. To-date, there has been some initial interest from a couple of distributors, but I’m definitely still open to exploring and discussing any short or longer-term distribution opportunities which may present themselves. Down the line, I’m also considering packaging The Lookout with some other similarly-themed short films in which I am currently in post-production. In the meantime, I welcome anyone interested in learning more about the film to please check it out at facebook.com/TheLookoutMovie.

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On Plex: National Film Board of Canada and Snag Films

I've been setting up a HTPC on a new MacMini. Nothing fancy, it's basically a MacMini running Plex, which (if you're not familiar with it) is a free media server application similar to XBMC and Boxee.

I used Plex about a year and a half ago, when it was in rougher stages. Today, it seems both more robust as an application and also offers more variety in terms of the content available.

In addition to stuff like Netflix, TED, and South Park, there are "channels" from Snag Films and the National Film Board of Canada, which has an amazing library of films online, including works by Michel Brault.

Vimeo's HD channel looks amazing, too -- it looks as good as any HD cable I've seen. So far there's no Mubi support. Hopefully soon.

You don't need Plex to watch these videos, of course. Click the image below to watch Pour la suite du monde (aka Of Whales, the Moon, and Men).

Of Whales, The Moon, and Men

Take the Survey: 50 States, 50 Filmmakers

I've been looking over Ted Hope's blog lately and one thing he keeps returning to is the idea that in order for cinema to be truly free (i.e., liberated), we have to do our part to help film culture. I agree.

That's part of what this blog has always been about. One of the reasons I began this blog was to champion filmmakers working regionally.

But now I'd like to undertake a concrete project specifically dedicated to spotlighting filmmakers that live around the country. To do that I need your help. Not a lot of help, mind you -- just a few minutes.

I'm calling this undertaking 50 States, 50 Filmmakers.

It will probably end up being a series of discussions with filmmakers working around the country. I hope to talk with others about why they live and work where they do, the challenges and opportunities they face, the resources available to them, and how they support their work. Ideally, these discussions will include links that allow you to watch or purchase their work. And I'd like to do one for each state, in case the title didn't tip you off.

So, to restate, to do this project completely, I need your help.

I want you to tell me who you think is living and making interesting films outside of New York or Los Angeles. The films can be feature films, documentaries, or short experimental works. I don't care. "Interesting" and "not-New-York-or-Los-Angeles" is all I care about.

If you want to nominate a filmmaking team or filmmaking collective, that's cool. I'm open to doing a few historical surveys, too, so if you prefer to nominate someone deceased (say, Eagle Pennell of Texas or Colorado's Stan Brakhage), go for it. I just want some interesting ideas.

So, without further ado, CLICK HERE TO TAKE THE SURVEY.

Don't know 50 filmmakers in 50 states? That's okay. I don't either. That's why I'm doing the survey -- to fill in some blanks and to get some good ideas for this thing. Just take the survey and give suggestions where you can. You don't have to provide nominations for all 50 states.

And please pass this along to your friends. I'd like as many people throwing out ideas as possible. I'm going to leave this post up for a couple of weeks, after which I'll start compiling replies.

Again, here's the link to the survey.

For Memories' Sake, pt. 3: Organizing Content

Once I had completed the most basic research and transferred Angela's movies to video, I had to figure out how to keep track of the content of her collection. Though I only later learned about the importance of metadata and the availability of online archivist classes, I began simply and naively with a system that has served me well. I created a basic Filemaker Pro database with screengrabs from the home movies and just enough data to let me quickly find movies by persons featured, keywords, and/or their location on specific film reels or transfer tapes. I think this screen grab is somewhat self-explanatory:

As you can imagine, the keywords tend to be most useful. The beauty of using Filemaker Pro (as opposed to a library-designed data management software or, even worse, paper-based finding aid system) is that I can create ways to look for and quickly find what I want in a way that make sense to me. It's also one of the most affordable solutions I've found.

Of course, I quickly discovered I would need hard drives and backups of those hard drives for all the data and the video files, and when you're dealing with hundreds of hours of footage, it's quite an investment. I've found this brand to be especially reliable and affordable. As part of the "best practices" I've adopted, I always keep one copy of master tapes and hard drives with data in a separate, secure, climate-controlled location (e.g. not in a basement, attic, or anywhere subject to big temparture fluctuations or humidity). I also set alarms to remind myself to power up and spin the heads on the harddrives at least once every six months. Failing to do so can mean a total loss of data.

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Even for filmmakers who aren't interesting in shooting small format or working with family archives, home movies have a lot to offer. As opposed to much archival footage that comes with hefty fees (my searches online yielded rates ranging from $25 per second to $350/second and up), home movies often come free for the taking (with attribution) or for a song at garage and rummage sales. More than that, I believe there's something inexplicably beautiful in these smaller than life versions of everyday scenes. Maybe it's because small things distill life to its essence...or maybe it's because the world seems so big and wonderful when things appear so small. Whatever the reason, if you come across orphan or neglected home movies, I hope you'll consider preserving and using these beautiful artifacts or donating them to an archive near you.

In the next making of For Memories' Sake post, I'll share how I scanned and catalogued 30,000+ photographs without taking too many years off my life.

Still from Angela Singers 8mm home movies.

For Memories' Sake, pt. 2: A Smattering of Super-8 Resources

Paul Harrill here. What follows below is Ashley Maynor's second post about For Memories' Sake, her forthcoming documentary. (I am the film's producer.) If you missed Ashley's first post, you can catch up with it here.

As you might guess if you read my first post, I soon found myself overwhelmed with the task of caring for Angela Singer's massive and chaotic collection. While this preservation project has finally come together in the form of a movie (more than three years since it began), I had to first learn to work with and care for her diverse and problematic assemblage of photos, films, and video. As a first generation college student, I majored in the not-so-versatile area of French Literature. I came to filmmaking late in my academic career, so it was without any formal photography training and during my first year of film school that I set out to learn best archival practices, digitization techniques, and the ins and outs of small format filmmaking.

While there's no substitute for learning hands-on through trial, error and frustration as I did, the following is a collection of websites and online resources that most helped me as I stumbled through the first phase of preservation:

Working with Home Movies

General Interest & Footage Sources

Home & Amateur - A blog about home movies and amateur film, whose contributors hail from the Center for Home Movies.

Lost in Light - The documentation of a (now complete) free home movie transfer project, including home movies, categorized by topic, many of them available for Creative Commons remixing.

Prelinger Archives/Archive.Org - A collection of home movies includes amateur films and videotapes from the collections of the Center for Home Movies, the Prelinger archives, other home movie aficionados. Many of the movies are public domain or available for use under Creative Commons guidelines.

Supplies & Small Format Filmmaking Resources

Film Shooting - A great online source for news about all things home movies and small format filmmaking based in Norway. Given that two major print publications (Super8Today and SmallFormat) have shut down their presses in the last year, this online news pool is essential.

On Super 8 - This site bills itself as "impartial and comprehensive resources for today's Super 8 and 8mm small gauge film makers." It's all that and more; based in the UK.

Pro8mm- The only movie house I know of in the US that specifically specializes in Super-8 film stocks and transfers. In 2008, they added a Milliennium II Scanner with daVinci 2K color corrector to their transfer menu, capable of SD or HD scans. It's the premier scanning system for small  gauge film.

Super 8 Site - A German Super8 site. The "links and addresses" page is worth a look.

Urbanski Film - Though the website screams 1990s, I've ordered and been very pleased with film cleaning supplies, projector bulbs, and other hard-to-find small format equipment.

And though it goes without saying, eBay is an immense (if risky) resource for finding old Super 8 cameras and projectors, as well as professional VHS decks for digitizing old videocasettes.  Before purchasing the unknown, I've found the folks on the AMIA Small Gauge/Amateur Film Interest Group listserve to be incredibly helpful and willing to share their expertise.

Preservation & Care Information

Brodsky & Treadway -The transfer house for rare, valuable, and fragile home movies. Their companion site, Little Film, contains detailed, downloadable tips and instructions for caring for home movies.

Home Movie Day - A major project of the Center for Home Movies, Home Movie Day is an international celebration of home movies. The site contains lots of information about film handling and care as well as links to home movie day events across the country and the globe. Home Movie Day also keeps a running list of home movie transfer houses.

National Film Preservation Foundation - A clearinghouse of film care basics and resources for more advanced users. Be sure to download their extensive film preservation guide.

Second Skin online for free thru 8/13

I saw Pure West's Second Skin at SXSW 2008. It's now being made available by Snag Films for free through August 13. Here's what I thought when I first saw it:

Second Skin digs into the world of MMORPGs, and how these online games create new lives and identities — on both sides of the computer screen — for the people playing them. Not being a gamer, I wondered how much I would care about the film’s subject, especially in light of the fact that 90% of the audience I viewed it with seemed to be there to see a film about their lives. Happily, the film finds some dynamic people to follow and it does superb job of chronicling their lives, both on- and off-line. I suspect this will have a healthy life on DVD, and perhaps theatrically.

Watch Second Skin on Snag Films.

It started with a tattered box...the making for FOR MEMORIES' SAKE

Today begins the first postings by Ashley Maynor on our film For Memories' Sake. (She's the director; I'm the producer.) Take it, Ashley.... It's Christmas 2005 and I've begun the crazy whirlwind of travel that results from being part of a Southern, Catholic family and a child of divorce. My grandmother, Angela Singer, who always gives the most unique (if utterly bizarre) gifts, often salvaged from garage sales or Dollar Store specials, surprises me with a tattered cardboard box. Within the box is a ratty paper bag, and within the bag a treasure trove: 79 3-inch reels of 8mm and Super8 home movies.

I had begged Angela for months to see if she could find her home movie collection, which I knew must have been buried in her house in Cheatham County Tennessee. What once housed nine children and all their things (most memorably for me: potato guns, slingshots, and dirt bike helmets) is now a cluttered mess of papers, mementos, newspaper clippings, and photographs that document time gone by and its slow, continual creep.

Having deciphered Angela's handwritten labels, organized the reels as best I could, and researched home movie transfer houses, I sent the films off in late 2006 for a low-cost telecine transfer. The films came back to me in digital form and I began to cut up and reconfigure these celluloid relics of time immemorial using a Macintosh Powerbook and Final Cut Pro.

After expressing such a fervent interest in the home movies, Angela keep digging and presented me, piecemeal over the next year, with more and more documents: over 130 VHS-C tapes of home video, dozens of photo albums from the 1990s, her latest photographs on CD-rom, baby books, photo collages, and so on. In sum, what began as a modest attempt to preserve a few precious films turned into an unexpected discovery of the immensity of Angela's film and photo stockpile and an involved (if unintended) campaign to protect and preserve as much of her archive as possible.

My next post will discuss how I learned (taught myself, really) to preserve Angela's "archive" and how I began shaping this raw material into something that I could use to create For Memories' Sake.

For Memories' Sake

The last couple of months have been pretty darn busy, so blogging has taken a backseat. I've been working on a few different projects -- some writing, a DVD of two short films, and some tests with a new camera. And I got married -- eloped to Walden Pond, to be precise. It's been good to have some downtime from the blog, but now I'm back.

I'll have some more information about some of these projects of mine later this summer, and I'll be making some changes (hopefully good ones!) to Self-Reliant Film as well. But for now, I want to announce the launch of the For Memories' Sake website.

For Memories' Sake is a new half-hour documentary directed by my wife, Ashley Maynor. I'm the film's producer and, though we're still in the latter stages of post-production on it, I have to say I'm about as proud of this movie as anything I've been involved with.

In the coming days, as we complete the movie and prepare it for distribution, Ashley will be blogging on SRF about some of the things that were involved in making the film. Until then, I encourage you to become a "fan" of the movie on Facebook and check out the aforementioned website.

Fat Tuesday: The Order of Myths

I've been meaning to catch up with The Order of Myths since for about a year now, and tonight is my chance: it premieres on Independent Lens (check local listings). In case you aren't familiar with its subject, here's a summary:

Mobile, Alabama threw its first Mardi Gras more than 300 years ago; since then the party has been trying to stay true to tradition. But tradition gets tricky when it comes to race and class.

Separate but unequal royal courts preside—one queen, from a family of outlaw slave traders, the other, a descendent of runaway slaves. Beneath the surface of pageantry lies a complex story about race relations and the ever-present racial divide that persists in America today.

Read more about the TV premiere here. Film website is here.

[hat tip: Agnes Varnum]

Scott Kirsner's ITVS Case Studies

A few weeks ago Scott Kirsner blogged about a series of case studies he recently authored regarding independent filmmakers connecting with their audiences. Commissioned by ITVS, the case studies focus on, as Scott puts it,

indie filmmakers who are pioneering new ways to: - Open up the production process to more audience participation

- Find and connect with new audiences for their work

- Distribute their finished film in new ways.

While all of the case studies focus on documentaries, there are a lot of insights here that are not limited to any one genre. In fact, I've made these case studies required reading in the Movie Business class that I teach at Virginia Tech. If you read this blog, chances are they should be required reading for you, too.

Read Scott's introductory blog post. Or go straight to the case studies.

Louis Massiah/Scribe Video Center

Louis Massiah, acclaimed documentarian and community video pioneer, visited Virginia Tech a few days ago. What an inspiration. Among the works Massiah screened was a segment from Power!, one episode from the Eyes on the Prize II series. In the segment, we are told the story of Carl B. Stokes, the first black mayor of a major American city. To say this video -- produced in the 80s, about a man that broke ground in the 60s -- was timely would be an understatement. If you want insight into this year's presidential election, including the racial (and racist) strategies being employed by opponents of Barack Obama, it's a must-see. (Search for it in a local library here.)

Still, even more impressive, was hearing Massiah discuss and screen work produced by Scribe Video Center. Massiah founded Scribe in 1982, and occupies a central place in Philadelphia media-making. If you don't know about it and you're interested in community storytelling (and empowerment) through video, dig into their website. Scribe has been around for 26 years, which is a phenomenal achievement, particularly considering the fate of so many other media arts organizations (from the Film Arts Foundation to AIVF). More importantly, they've changed lives through storytelling. Great stuff.

©opy®ight: A Few Helpful Links

Some helpful links: U.S. Copyright Office Copyright is a kind of intellectual property monopoly. And if it was intellectual property Monopoly, this site would be "Go." Translation: Start here.

How to Register a Work This site takes you to eCO, where you can file a copyright registration for your work through the Copyright Office online system.

Public Domain(?):

Stanford Copyright Renewal Database Lets you search for whether a work is still under copyright or not.

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States A chart to help you understand the labyrinthine laws regarding when a work will fall into the public domain. The chart is available as a PDF.

Fair Use:

Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use If you are a documentary maker you should know this up and down.

Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video Like the Documentary Best Practices, this is something to know and learn.

Center for Social Media: Fair Use FAQ A must.

Creative Commons:

Creative Commons. Where to go if you want to give it away, legally speaking.

Resource pages and other links:

Stanford University Libraries: Copyright & Fair Use: Charts and Tools: A great page of links.

Cornell University Copyright Information Center: More great links.

EDIT (7/9/08): This post was accidentally deleted. I think I've restored it pretty completely, and added some more links in the process.

EDIT (9/29/16): Fixed some broken links.

SXSW: Wrap-up

Last year I think I spent as much time posting thoughts on films I was seeing at South by Southwest as I did actually attending films and panels. This year I chose to err in the other direction. There were simply too many movies to see, panels to attend, people to meet, and parties to drop by. Highlights (in the order I saw them):

Nights and Weekends by Joe Swanberg & Greta Gerwig Wellness by Jake Mahaffy Paper Covers Rock by Joe Maggio The New Year Parade by Tom Quinn Present Company by Frank V. Ross

All make use of handheld digital video, feature naturalistic performances, and were made with small (or no) crews and budgets. Despite the superficial sharing of neo-neo-realistic qualities, it would be tough to compare them. Suffice to say that all are worth seeing.

As good as those films were, perhaps my two favorites of SXSW were two very polished documentaries, Second Skin and At the Death House Door.

Second Skin digs into the world of MMORPGs, and how these online games create new lives and identities -- on both sides of the computer screen -- for the people playing them. Not being a gamer, I wondered how much I would care about the film's subject, especially in light of the fact that 90% of the audience I viewed it with seemed to be there to see a film about their lives. Happily, the film finds some dynamic people to follow and it does superb job of chronicling their lives, both on- and off-line. I suspect this will have a healthy life on DVD, and perhaps theatrically.

At the Death House Door was the most emotionally gripping film I saw at SXSW. A somewhat conventionally shot documentary featuring lots of interviews, it reminded me that no single documentary style has a monopoly on greatness. The film follows Carroll Pickett who, during his 15 years as the house chaplain to a Texas prison, presided over 95 executions, including the very first lethal injection done anywhere in the world. The film also tells the story of Carlos De Luna, one of those 95 prisoners executed, and one that Pickett believed to be innocent. This is a movie that had me in tears -- both at horrific things, and also in admiration at the remarkable heroism of ordinary individuals. Emotions aside, it did bring some nuance to arguments for and (especially) against the death penalty. The fact that it was premiering in Austin -- that is, in the capital of the state where these executions took place -- made the screening experience all the more poignant. At the Death House Door was co-produced by IFC, so look for it there (and, perhaps, theatrically).

As for panels, not all of the ones I attended have been posted (nor do I know if they will) but here are the festival's recordings of some for those of you that couldn't be there.

Documentary Film Festival for Students

I usually don't post film festival calls for entries -- there are just far too many of them -- but this is one I couldn't pass up: The Reality Bytes Film Festival is Northern Illinois University's student film documentary film festival. As most of you know, NIU was the site of a mass shooting on their campus a couple of weeks ago. I received a bulk email from their PR director on Sunday. Here it is in full:

First, we want to thank everyone who has called or e-mailed with messages of support over the past few weeks. We are still coming to terms with the tragedy that occured on our campus Thursday, February 14, and it will be a long journey. However, the journey does begin with the first steps and in that spirit, the Reality Bytes Film Festival is still taking place, but with a change in the deadline and screening dates.

With that said, I am writing to you on behalf of Northern Illinois University and the Reality Bytes Student Documentary Film Festival. The festival is currently in its eighth year under the directorship of Dr. Laura Vazquez and is continuing to grow. The event prides itself on being open only to students and being affordable with only a $20 entry fee.

We have already started to receive films from schools all across the country and the outlook for this year's festival is excellent. Our goal each year is to continue to have a venue where students can showcase their amazing documentary filmmaking talents against their peers.

The submission deadline for students is now March 8, 2008 and the documentaries must be under 30 minutes length. Any style or genre of documentary will be accepted. The application form for this year's festival can be viewed and printed as a PDF file by visiting the Reality Bytes website at the following URL:

http://www2.comm.niu.edu/~realitybytes/index.html

The screening event will be held on April 4th and 5th and cash prizes will be awarded on April 5th. The best of festival winner will receive $200 and Avid video editing software, second place will receive $150 and third place will receive $100.

Thank you. We are looking forward to seeing all of the great student work coming out of your university.

Sincerely,

Kathy Giles Public Relations Director for Reality Bytes Northern Illinois University

 

 

*** 

If you're a student filmmaker with a documentary, send it on in. It sounds like a neat festival, it's an affordable entry fee and, in some way, however small, by submitting your film you'll be helping the NIU community move forward after a terrible tragedy. I imagine this edition of the festival will be pretty special.

An Oscar Antidote for Documentaries

Today, Thom Powers, Documentary Programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival, and AJ Schnack (filmmaker of Kurt Cobain: About a Son and blogger of All These Wonderful Things) announced the launch a new award for nonfiction filmmaking, to be held in March at the IFC Center in New York. Nominees in eight categories will be announced in Park City on January 20.

The new awards are a direct response to the Oscars. From recent debates over confusing (and shifting) eligibility guidelines, to its long history of jaw-dropping omissions (e.g., neither Hoop Dreams nor The Thin Blue Line were even nominated their respective years), the Academy's treatment of the genre has long been a source of consternation and disappointment for many within the documentary community. That's not to say that many worthy films haven't been nominated and awarded over the years... but clearly the AMPAS doesn't give documentary the attention that it does to fictional feature films.

Hats off to AJ and the others behind this initiative.

indieWIRE has the first report.

Fundraising Tips: Money Trees and House Parties

I was speaking with a fellow filmmaker the other day who was asking me for tips on finding grants for fiction films. I've been successful at finding grant-based funding for my work ("Gina, An Actress, Age 29" was supported by the sadly now-defunct Aperture Film Grant), but I had to break the disappointing news that those sources are few and far between for fiction work these days. Having said that, if you're developing a not-for-profit film/video project -- say, a social-issue documentary or a youth video project -- there is money out there. A great introduction to finding money is Morrie Warshawski's Shaking The Money Tree, 2nd Edition.

I read Shaking the Money Tree years ago when it was still in its first edition. Since then I've probably raised close to $100,000 in grant monies for various projects (my own and others') since reading it. Documentarians will probably benefit from it the most, but I strongly recommend it to filmmakers that need help raising funds for their films, or fund-raisers new to film and video production, regardless of film genre.

One fundraising strategy that's discussed briefly in Shaking The Money Tree is given its own extended treatment in Warshawski's newly revised The Fundraising Houseparty, 2nd Edition.

As Warshawski points out in this slim volume's introduction, individual donors account for 87% of all non-profit endeavors. Fundraising houseparties are a way to bring such individuals together and introduce them to a project that might deserve their support.

I've never hosted a houseparty (nor had one hosted for my work), but I have attended a couple, so I have a decent grasp of what works and what doesn't. Warshawski's guide is the best I've seen on what can be an intimidating process for the uninitiated. The basics are spelled out in easy-to-read prose, with straightforward diagrams and illustrations helping to walk you through the process. The appendix even includes sample invitation letters and a worksheet. Yes, some of this stuff is common sense ("Thank People as They Leave" states one heading), but other topics aren't ("taxes").

As the saying goes, you gotta spend money to make money. At $20 (or less) each, these books are a pretty good investment for anyone considering or pursuing the not-for-profit realm of moviemaking. If you have other tips or reading suggestions, share them in the comments below.

The 25 Greatest Documentaries of All-Time?

IndieWire reports today on the International Documentary Association's list of the "25 Best Documentaries." As an introduction to the genre for people who have never seen more than one or two non-fiction films (including, say, March of the Penguins) it's a serviceable list. On the other hand, it will probably upset a lot of people, if the comments after the IndieWire article are any indication. It's not worth getting too worked up over these things. Like those AFI best-of lists, they're not so much a serious study as a marketing tool for the sponsoring organization. Still, I was pretty surprised (and a little sad) to see just how historically short-sighted and Americentric this list is, particularly coming from a group that is comprised of filmmakers and bills itself as an international association.

Almost all the films on the list are American, English-language films. As for representation throughout the decades, the last seven years are represented by ten movies; the '80s and '90s are represented by seven more. The other eighty years of cinema are represented by a mere eight films.

I can put aside the fact that lesser-known, esoteric personal favorites (like, say, Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad, Godmilow/Farocki's What Farocki Taught/Inextinguishable Fire, Jorge Furtado's Ilha das Flores, or Wiseman's High School) didn't make the cut. But a list claiming to represent the "Greatest Documentaries of All Time" that doesn't feature a single film by Robert Flaherty, Dziga Vertov, Jean Rouch, Michael Apted, Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, much less Claude Lanzmann's Shoah ? Well, it's curious, to say the least.

Ok, I said I wasn't going to get worked up. So I'll stop.

Here's the list. Continue the debate in the comments, if you want....

1. "Hoop Dreams," directed by Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx 2. "The Thin Blue Line," directed by Errol Morris 3. "Bowling for Columbine," directed by Michael Moore 4. "Spellbound," directed by Jeffery Blitz 5. "Harlan County USA," directed by Barbara Kopple 6. "An Inconvenient Truth," directed by Davis Guggenheim 7. "Crumb," directed by Terry Zwigoff 8. "Gimme Shelter," directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin 9. "The Fog of War," directed by Errol Morris 10. "Roger and Me," directed by Michael Moore 11. "Super Size Me," directed by Morgan Spurlock 12. "Don't Look Back," directed by DA Pennebaker 13. "Salesman," directed by Albert and David Maysles 14. "Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance," directed by Godfrey Reggio 15. "Sherman's March," directed by Ross McElwee 16. "Grey Gardens," directed by Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer 17. "Capturing the Friedmans," directed by Andrew Jarecki 18. "Born into Brothels," directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski 19. "Titticut Follies," directed by Frederick Wiseman 20. "Buena Vista Social Club," directed by Wim Wenders 21. "Fahrenheit 9/11," directed by Michael Moore 22. "Winged Migration," directed by Jacques Perrin 23. "Grizzly Man," directed by Werner Herzog 24. "Night and Fog," directed by Alain Resnais 25. "Woodstock," directed by Michael Wadleigh