Making a Documentary: Part 54 of ?03.10.11
Ok, so this isn't really part 54, but I should've been blogging or at least journaling from the start and I didn't - so I'll just start from today and fill in background stuff as I go.
We have quite a number of shoots this week. I wonder if the right term is "pick-up shots" since we already started the editing process and determined we would need these shots now but, they're fairly substantive. The first is in China. Yang Yang -- one of the magicians we've been following who is in Magic School -- we need to establish where he's from, put him in his native environment, and also get to know his friends and family better. In La Verne and other parts of the U.S., he really feels like a stranger in a strange land. We need to establish home for him. My DP, Chun Ming Huang, is native Chinese, fluent in Mandarin -- so he's there with one of our camera operators, Alicia Varela. It was a pretty big shoot logistically -- we had a large wish list of things we needed to get so they're there for several days. I try not to think about it. There's plenty that can go wrong and probably nothing I can do. I will say this. Chun Ming is a super resourceful and scrappy guy so I'm really glad that he's the one going. I considered going myself but decided against it (I myself have a shoot here in L.A. tomorrow among other things) and I think there's quite a bit of benefit in just navigating around China if Chun Ming is the lead person.
The second shoot is the one that's tomorrow morning. Two of the magicians we follow, Matthew Falk and David Gabbay, live a block from the Magic Castle. I think of them as the "do it yourself" magicians. They perform on Hollywood Blvd. David has organized his own one-man act (with Matthew stage managing.) Matthew now wants to create a theater space in the backyard of his apartment and organize other magicians to come by every week. He has no money so he's looking to create a Kickstarter page for it.
The third shoot is Michael Friedland (our MBA from NYU who is a successful businessperson but would love to be a professional magician). Michael is going to New York so we have a crew there (my editor and a camera crew that we'll be working with for the first time) to follow him around and he conducts his regular and former day to day job.
One thing about crews. With a documentary, there are a lot of shoots -- so I can't always use my core group of people (usually it's just Chun Ming and myself.) However, it's tough because Chun Ming is a freelance cinematographer and needs to book out space for some of his larger clients -- so I often don't know until close to the actual shoot if he's available or not. We have a good system down where we're able to get coverage but it's still logistically a little bit of a nightmare. I will say that despite many, many shoots -- I've only been stuck once I think -- and that time was the first time that I myself ran camera. It wasn't ideal, but we still got footage. By the way, before that shoot, I had to call a friend of mine over and have him teach me about all this gear I bought. Literally -- here's how to turn on the camera. Here's how you plug in sound, etc. How else are you going to learn? My goal of that shoot? Record picture, record (good) sound. Both turned out to be true. It's small but hey, we got it :) I've had to run camera a handful of times since then -- it's not ideal by any stretch, but at least when all else fails (that time I probably called 9 different potential camera operators / cinematographers) -- there is at least a fail safe!
For this next group of shoots -- the one in L.A. and the one in New York -- we're using people we've never used before. We're also shooting on the Canon 7D which we only shot with for the first time a few weeks ago. We've normally been shooting on the HVX-200. The 7D is a great camera -- great image and works particular good in low light. However, the sound on it is crappy so we need to have it record to a H4n recorder. This is probably Greek to someone who is reading this so let me simplify. In a pinch, we're able to get all the sound gear onto the HVX-200 -- we put the shotgun mic on top of it and run sound right into a camera. 1 person can do it. With the 7D, we need 1 person to run camera and a second person (at least) to run sound and hold a boom pole. In New York, there will be a crew of 3 people (camera, sound, and my editor). We're not able to replicate the workflow on the HVX with the 7D. So that's a downside. Managing the backend workflow is a little bit of a pain too because we then need to sync sound to picture. On a regular shoot, this is normally done with a slate. The problem with the 7D is it creates quite a number of clips so this might be a lot of slating. Fortunately, there's (amazing) software out there to fix this called Plural Eyes. I just bought a copy and hopefully it'll turn out to save us a lot of work in syncing.
I am excited to be working with these two new crews. It's always great to make new relationships in this business -- I always need camera people. The crew in NYC I met at a conference I was at (they were documenting that conference) and the DP is an aspiring director. My crew in L.A. is someone that I've wanted to work with for a long time (almost worked with on my web series "The Consultants") -- so even for a single day, it'll be great to get a chance to work with Jason.
I'll feel much better about all this once all 3 sets of footage are back and in the hands of my editor (with a backup in my fireproof safe in my apartment :) )
That's it for now. I'll write more on the craziness of making a documentary later. I will say this. When I started on this project, I sort of said to myself that I didn't know what I was doing (boy did that turn out to be true) but the fastest way I would learn is to just start doing -- something I learned at tech companies. It was PAINFUL. I think when you don't know some stuff -- not a big deal -- you start problem solving. When you don't know anything -- that's when it's just awful. Fortunately, I've started to find people who not only know what they're doing, they've done this many times before. I'm really fortunate to have found my editor -- Erik Dugger -- he's thoughtful, smart, and has edited a lot of documentaries (features, ones for National Geographic, PBS POV, etc.) So even though this is my first documentary, this is just another documentary for him -- and that's what I want.