Just an Old-Fashioned Guy
May 2009

by Ron Steinman

I start shooting a new documentary in May. The subject is mental health, but this essay is not about that film as a film but how I still will make films in what I call "the old-fashioned way." The way I know best. By film I mean any motion picture whether on acetate or video. I use the word film to define storytelling that combines words, pictures, ambient sound and music. I care about pacing, tone and narrative coherence. I care about the emotion conveyed in the way that only film can because of its many-faceted approach to storytelling.

As I begin, we must never lose sight of the adage that as things change, they remain the same. So, this is also about the so-called new reality of creating stories for television, TV news, the Web or independent films and how time and tried methods must still prevail. The storytelling code of the ancient Greeks is still the way we tell stories today and the way we will always tell stories. It is how we should always tell stories. It is the way of the bible. Boccaccio knew this. Chaucer knew this. Shakespeare knew this. Milton knew this. Some things never change, nor should they.

Video is dominant today only because it is relatively inexpensive when compared with film. Video, even the new forms of digital, is far different from film. It has a distinctive "feel," and a different "tone" from that of film. With lighting for film you can create deep contrast, bright tints and shades and you can wander creatively over the full spectrum of color. You can create a mood using film that is often difficult or impossible with video. Video has what I call a patina that appears as thin on the screen and seems to reject depth despite various filters that are available to give video the look of film. It works sometimes but only to a small degree, though that is occasionally enough considering where one projects his or her film, be it on TV, the Web or in a theater. For my new film we will use video because that is what we can afford, a major reality today in the making of any documentary.

However a story appears on paper, or in someone's mind, unless that person has an unerring ability to tell a story, it will fail. This means that the film must have a beginning, middle and end. That seems simple enough on paper, but the story must rule.

Here, though, is a warning. How I prefer to work fights the economic reality of today's world of video and film production. Simply put, I do not favor the one-person-does-it-all philosophy that now seems to prevail, whether a person is making an independent work or is on assignment for someone else.

I believe to reach the highest quality possible in a film there must always be another person looking over the shoulder of the person in front of him or her. That way creativity can reach its peak. One person doing everything is counterproductive. If the gatekeeper arrives only at the very end of the process, then it is too late to fix problems and make a better film. Without a gatekeeper, there is no one to keep the filmmaker honest. Meaning more often than not, the filmmaker cannot see the forest for the trees.

As you read this, you can already tell that I am a dedicated believer in the division of labor, especially in a medium as complex as filmmaking. When too few people do too much it more often than not leads to a weaker creation. For my new film, there will be a strict division of labor. The cameraman, in this case a director of photography, will translate my vision into pictures. My partner who does the interviews will prepare the questions. She and I will go over those questions and refine our approach. I will set the interview shot. The director of photography will light the subject under my supervision. He will have the right to disagree knowing that I never discount that he or someone else on the shoot might have a better or more workable idea. As you can see, making a film is a community affair.

After we complete the shoot, make transcripts of the interviews, and screen all the footage, we do our initial edit on paper. We will allow the interviews to carry the story. We hire an editor. We book an editing suite with an advanced AVID editing system. We then edit the film. Three of us in a room. All of us with strong ideas. My partner. Our editor. And me.

For music that will enhance the piece, but not bury it the way music sometimes does in a documentary film, or as it can in a shorter piece for effect that has nothing to do with making the story better, we either find it in the public domain or we commission a score by a composer who understands the role music plays in a film. Interestingly, as more video stories appear on the Web, I see many articles online and in print about the misuse of music. Usually, these stories are by people who have no idea about the purpose or use of music in a video or a film. Music can and should play an important role in filmmaking. If done right, it can be the backbone of the piece, the structure that holds everything together, adding emotion, verve, and power where none seemed to exist before the score had become part of the movie. But when using music, the filmmaker must understand it should not dominate. It must, and this may be difficult to parse, underscore the other elements of the film. Rarely should music cover every sequence. Rarely should the filmmaker use music under every interview, especially in a long piece. There is no need to hum the music after seeing the film. That is not its purpose. But if the music adds emotion to the story without being obtrusive, you will know you have done your job.

After we complete the visual part of the piece, we do a sound mix with an audio engineer using any ambient sound, the dialogue, interviews and the music. If the film is for TV or theaters, we will color correct each frame for balance and mood, again with a special technician. We then add credits and complete the film.

As you can see, this represents a firm division of labor with experts in each step of the way. I know that today in most cases it is no longer economically feasible to produce visual stories the way we once did, and the way I continue to do. When I was with the television networks, I never experienced the early, local version of the "one-man band concept" now prevalent on all levels of broadcast news and even in filmmaking. Cameras today are smaller and easier to use even if they are HD, the current darling of visual media. With one person doing all the work, sound, however, suffers because it is often impossible for the cameraperson to ride the knobs that control audio. Many filmmakers use Final Cut Pro, an editing system that can fit into a home living room that requires less space than the professional AVID. This one-person operator believes he or she has no need for a professional editor. That, too, is often a serious mistake. I want a seasoned "film" editor whose shoulder I can look over to help make decisions that would be difficult for me if I were alone in the editor's chair. I know from long experience my method will make for a better film.

Here is what happens when one person does it all. The good is that person has a vision that he or she will guide him or her through the entire process. He or she operates the camera. He or she directs him or herself. The camera operator/director works the sound. The person then prepares the script, even edits the film, finds music, and does the sound design. The bad for me is that I strongly believe critical self-analysis suffers. Without a knowledgeable person looking over one's shoulder to catch an error, to catch a creative gaff, to make a better suggestion, the film may never be as good as one thinks it is while he or she is making it, and, worse, after one completes it.

My way of making a film may appear to be old-fashioned and more expensive. I understand that criticism. But I enjoy sitting behind someone watching them work. I enjoy making decisions with a clear mind. It gives me greater latitude in the making of a documentary because I can concentrate on the art of film and truly judge the value of its content. Ultimately, someone sits behind me and also makes decisions about the film. This does not mean I will always like what I hear or accept the thoughts of another person, though sometimes a different viewpoint opens my eyes to a better way. No matter. This is how I prefer to work. Filmmaking is about collaboration, minds getting together to make a better product. My way is something I will not give up. Nothing will change me. I am too old to change. More importantly, and I hope this does not sound arrogant, I do not want to change.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's http://ronsteinman.wordpress.com.