The Accidental Filmmaker
It began with a Platypus Workshop (aka Digital Video Boot Camp) and ended with a one-hour broadcast on public television. Ironically, I wasn't the one who took the workshop, but I did produce and direct the film it inspired.
When Ed Kashi, my husband and collaborator, decided to take one of Dirck Halstead's workshops, it was a logical career move. In the age of multi-media, photographers who can shoot video have a distinct advantage. I fully supported Ed's decision to invest the time and money into Platypus. But a week after the workshop, when he told me that he planned to buy a Canon GL1, a Senheiser microphone and Final Cut Pro, I thought he was crazy. A workshop was useful; a video camera, editing system and mini-DV player meant hemorrhaging precious resources. The price tag was nearly $10,000 and I tried desperately to dissuade him. Like any self-respecting entrepreneur, he ignored me.
For roughly ten years Ed and I had been collaborating seamlessly—he took the photographs, I conducted audio interviews and then wrote the stories to accompany his images. In the field, we danced gracefully around each other, facilitating each other's work in perfect tandem. I functioned as Ed's "field editor," often spotting situations he might otherwise miss and insisting he retire his cameras when he had exhausted a situation. He facilitated my work through his impeccable journalistic instincts and his fearless tenacity, pushing me to reach beyond the comfort zone both physically and mentally.
Five years into our project, we had started to envision the final fruits of our labor. We wanted to mount an exhibition of the work that would have more dimensionality than just framed photographs on walls. One of our thoughts was to mount several LCD screens around the gallery where visitors could see the subjects come alive. This audio-visual enhancement would enrich the experience for viewers and go beyond traditional photography to leave a lasting sensorial impression.
With a DV camera as our new tool, we could conduct interviews that were previously done on a Sony mini-DAT recorder, onto videotape instead. These talking heads would be a logical extension of what we had already been doing, and they could prove invaluable for our exhibition. At the very least, we would still come away with good audio.
The Platypus Workshops are specifically designed to help photojournalists translate their skills into moving imagery. As Ed says, "In six days I learned six months worth of information." During DV Boot Camp, he and his long-time friend, photographer Bob Sacha, immersed themselves in shooting, scripting, and editing, barely coming home to shower in the course of the week. When the workshop ended, they decided to test their skills for a few days, with Ed shooting stills on one of our aging subjects, me interviewing the subject on tape, and Bob shooting video.
Over the next few months, Ed and I started to collect talking head interviews, but this was like limiting ourselves to foreplay without any hope of climax. There had to be more. Although I did not personally take the Playtypus Workshop, getting your hands on a video camera can be dangerously addictive. Maybe I was drunk with ignorance, or maybe it was just blind enthusiasm, but once we got into the field, I couldn't resist stretching my limits. Video is a forgiving medium, the tape is cheap (and reusable), and the equipment has gotten so easy to use there was nothing holding me back.
Typically, in the field Ed and I have plenty of down time while the other person is working. While Ed was shooting stills, I started to pick up the camera and dabble in the realm of B-roll. There was nothing to lose, after all. Although I wasn't quite sure what there was to gain either. As Ed and I started to vie for the best angle to capture our subjects, it quickly became apparent that for the first time in ten years of collaboration a turf war was brewing. Ed repeatedly walked into my frame while I was shooting, and there I was at the edge of his viewfinder at the critical moment. Our perfect marriage was turning into a territorial conflict. We had launched an entirely new dance when we wanted to work simultaneously, and we had to start making tough decisions about when stills prevailed and when video could rule. More often than not, we found a comfortable resolution, but the working dynamic of our relationship had shifted.
Over the course of the next two years, Ed and I collected video footage whenever possible. In the end, we had roughly 100 tapes and still no idea what to do with them. Then our web series on MSNBC.com was launched (www.aging.msnbc.com). Using only stills and video, the team at MSNBC had taken our work to new levels, infusing our reporting with a power and accessibility that's only possible through multi-media. That's when I knew that I had a polished one-hour film hiding in our raw footage. It dawned on me then that despite the fact that we had only gathered video footage during the final leg of our project, I could incorporate Ed's stills and create an incredibly powerful, new direction for our materials.
I met with a video editor and had her explain to me the steps necessary to make a movie. "You have all your tape logged, right?" she asked. "You've transcribed all of your interviews, right?" When I kept shaking my head ‘No,' she suggested that the first thing I do was to get an intern, start typing, and then call her back when I was ready to script.
As luck would have it—and thanks to the economic downturn—I was inundated with eager applicants. I was able to hire two fantastic interns, one of whom had a working knowledge of Final Cut Pro. Katie Buono had done a DV boot camp similar to Platypus, and she was eager to work on a documentary film. She and I clicked immediately, and her intuitive editing talents became apparent as soon as we decided to cut a three-minute segment for fundraising purposes. Not only had I found an intern to help me wrestle an unwieldy hundred hours of media into submission, but I had found an editor who was willing to bungle through our first film together.
Over the course of the next ten months, Katie and I cut Aging in America: The Years Ahead, the one-hour film which is excerpted on this website. We used small index cards and a bulletin board to script the film. We probably chose the most labor intensive path at every opportunity and relied on the trial-and-error school of filmmaking. We made one trip, to Alabama to shoot a geriatric prison ward that Ed had photographed six years earlier. This was the only pre-DV story from the project that was too important to tell exclusively through stills. We also occasionally shot in San Francisco to supplement our existing footage.
When we had significant chunks of the film edited, we periodically shared our creation with trusted allies and left our pride outside the studio. When in crisis, we relied on the generous (and compulsive) support of the SF Cutters group (email@example.com), a local online community of DV filmmakers who seem to understand FCP as well as the programmers who made it. We also relied heavily on the invaluable advice of experienced filmmakers who seemed to find our tenacity worth supporting.
When we had a decent rough cut finished, I started sending the tape out to places like P.O.V., Independent Lens and HBO. In my enthusiasm to make the film, I hadn't fully addressed the broadcast opportunities, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, placing a single, independently produced, one-hour documentary is not an easy undertaking. If your film is not picked up for national release through PBS, the stations work independently of one another. Air time is at a premium and the stations have more material than they can use. Compound this equation with the seriousness of our subject matter and odds seemed stacked against us.
After facing a healthy dose of rejection, Aging in America was picked up by KQED Television, the San Francisco PBS affiliate. It premiered in September 2003 and will be released nationally to PBS affiliates in the spring. In the meantime, it just won the Silver Images Film Festival award for Best Educational Film and I have submitted it to a number of film festivals around the country. I have also begun to self-distribute the film, which is being purchased by universities, long-term care facilities and government agencies nationwide. I have even had requests from Mongolia and Australia for the film, thanks to our internet exposure.
I think of myself as an accidental filmmaker and I'm certain that ignorance is the only logical explanation for taking on such a monumental task. The process was far more labor intensive and expensive than I realized at the onset. That said, once an addict, always an addict. It will take a huge effort not to embark on our next film.
© Julie Winokur
Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist