Monthly Archives: January 2010

Hoop Dreams | documentary 15 of 100

I’ve never seen Hoop Dreams before. Surprised? Me too. It comes up frequently in conversation with other documentary filmmakers. And despite being famously snubbed by the Oscar committee, it is “the most successful and critically acclaimed documentary in American history,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1995 (obviously prior to Michael Moore’s blockbusters). I finally sat down to screen the nearly 3-hour film for myself last night.

Synopsis: The story of two black kids from low-income neighborhoods in Chicago, who dream of one day playing in the NBA. The film follows their separate paths  through high school, chronicling their personal and professional challenges that include low grades, money problems, unexpected fatherhood, crime and drugs in addition to the main conflict, which happens on the court in a series of high-school playoff games culminating in state championship game.

Story Structure: The film begins a few moments before the film’s climax: in the final moments of a high-school state championship game. This let’s the audience know that something big is going to happen in the film – someone is going to make it to the playoffs. At this early stage there’s a great line from one of the characters: “When I get in the NBA…” This tells us he WANTS something, and provides the classic ingredient of a character-driven plot. It starts the story train in motion. And we’re willing to stay in our seats to see what happens.

We then flash back to pre-high school, where the story really begins. We meet Arthur Agee, who gets recruited by the same suburban high school that Isaiah Thomas played on before going pro. The film switches back and forth between the two main characters, using a mix of cinema verite and interview-driven storytelling. There’s also a limited amount of narration, provided by director Steve James, to guide us through key points in the story.

The story is helped by one incredibly powerful element: conflict. It is always palpable, arising from the gap between the reality the boys come from and the success they aim to achieve. Everyone plays a part in blocking them: their coach makes their life hell, and fails to see the talent in one of them. Injuries threaten to detail the other. Tuition costs force one of the boys to drop out of school briefly. One of the boys fathers leaves the family. One of them gets mugged. Friends become drug dealers. And of course, the opposing team is out to beat them every time. Perhaps the biggest conflict, though, comes from inside – with both boys struggling to barely maintain their grade point average at a level that will give them a shot at going to college.

Overall, this story follows a classic hollywood storyline: act one sets up the heros for their journey with a series of tests that show us they are up to the challenge. Act two shows them either overcoming or failing to overcome a series of increasingly difficult tests, which sets one of them up for the final  showdown in act three. After the climactic final game, the film wraps up quickly. We learn what happened to the two major characters in college in epilogue text prior to the credit roll.

Cinematography: I spent the better part of yesterday shooting 4th-7th grade kids shooting hoops at Eton School, for whom I making a series of short promotional web videos. So I can say with authority that it’s HARD to shoot basketball handheld in a way that isn’t blurry, shaky or out of focus (for me anyway). I was consistently impressed with the fact that Hoop Dreams made it look simple and easy (even in clutch situations during playoff games where they had only once shot at getting it right). They are helped by shooting wide, with what appears to be shoulder-carried cameras. Other cinematic standouts: tracking shots shot from car windows show the neighborhood, and the kids walking to school (with camera traveling a little faster than the person walking – as if they are falling behind perhaps). A pan down from the sky to the outdoor basketball court is how we first get into the narrative, from the early set up of playoff game. Nice tough! Remember to get shots like that – you’ll love yourself in the editing room.

I liked how the interviews were a mix of set up interviews, and off-the-cuff interviews, for example, Agee’s mom talking on her bed with arms under her staring at ceiling. Nice mix helps weave it all together into one storytelling experience. Also, I loved how they included the live camera shots of the orthoscopic surgery – that was very dramatic and made me wince. Also, there are two places in the film where big games are introduced with a shot from up high in the stands with the camera moving through a narrow doorway into the arena. This is a visual metaphor for getting through a “tight spot” and adds great dramatic effect to introduction of game, even though these are very brief shots.

Editing: This film was cut from 250 hours of footage, shot over a 5 year period. That’s a LOT of editing. In addition to just plain brilliant work in finding the thread of story in all of that film, there are a lot of techniques that I observed in this film. For example, one convention that we return to throughout the film is a stock evening shot of the outside window of Agee’s home, against dark blue evening sky. Night is falling. Darkness is gathering. And the editor is both setting the stage for some drama to unfold and telling us where the action actually happened at. A nice extra is that the editor could begin the sound of the family talking before we cut to them, which pulls us into the conversation at same time as informing us where it was taking place without having to use narrator to do so.

I also really liked the cuts that move us seamlessly from practice games into real games. This establishes the rationale for the practice – it really does pay to practice hard – or, in some cases, it doesn’t pay because you didn’t practice hard enough. Narration is subtle, with just enough to tell the story. I like it. Finally, I like the frequent mixing of closeup, medium and wide shots used throughout the film.

Music and Audio: There’s frequent use of music in the film to introduce dramatic moments and cue us that something important is going down. A lot of the dramatic effect background music is repetitive, interestingly. But there are a lot of great cuts in there too by performers like Snoop Dog. Audio is recorded well enough that I can’t remember much about it, which is exactly what well-recorded and -mixed audio should do.

This film, more than any other I’ve screened to date, incorporates most of the storytelling devices available to documentary filmmakers: narration, cinema verite, interview, still photos, news casts, newspaper headlines. Without feeling chaotic or unstructured. Together it all adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. No wonder everyone’s still talking about this film 16 years later.

Strongman | documentary 14 of 100

Stanless Steel

I saw Strongman at the 9pm showing of it’s opening night at NW Film Forum here in Seattle, with director Zachary Levy in attendance. Just a handful of people showed up. Which surprised me, because it won Grand Jury for best doc at Slamdance last year.

Synopsis: An aging strongman, whose specialty is bending pennies and lifting trucks with his bare hands, struggles to hold his life together and earn a living in a world more interested in flashy showmanship that “true” strength.

Story Structure: The film is organized on a linear timeline, which follows events in the life of “Stanless” Steel, the main character in the film. We see him rehearsing for performances, with his family in New Jersey, and performing at events that vary widely from private weddings up to a trip to London where Stanless performs on a TV show with other strongmen. The film closely follows his rocky relationship with his girlfriend, Barbara, and the challenge of living with his low-income family and drug-using brother. What really works wonderfully well is the fact that his struggle to bend steel acts as a metaphor for his struggle to keep his life together. Add that that the fact that it’s also a metaphor for how difficult it is to make a cinema verite film, and you have a perfect storm of cinematic synchronicity.

Cinematography: The film was shot entirely by Levy, who used a hefty digibeta, shoulder-held video camera. Nothing about the way it was filmed really jumped out at me, which is a testament to the filmmaker’s intentions: to put all the attention on the events as they occur, rather than on how they were filmed. The quality is “good enough” – standard definition, much of it was shot in low light at Stan’s home. Levy told me that to light the scenes, he replaced the standard 65-watt bulbs in  the home with 100-watt bulbs, which provided just enough light, while keeping the scene appearing exactly as it otherwise would have had he not been filming. Great trick.

Editing: Levy edited the film himself in Avid. The editing is simple and straightforward, and calls no attention to itself, in keeping with cinema verite tradition. My only beef with the editing comes about 3/4 of the way through the film, where I think a much tighter edit of the final quarter of the film would have improved its story and mainstream audience watchability. I was ready for the film to end sooner than it did, and the ending really just trailed out, rather than ending with any finality or in keeping with classic story arc. But that’s probably how Levy intended it: because life itself doesn’t follow story scripts.

Music and Sound: Levy is a cinema verite purist. He wanted what actually happened to provide the soundtrack for the film instead of adding music himself. Music in the film happens in scenes where the characters are playing the radio. Levy claimed “fair use” to reproduce them in the film, rather than paying expensive clearance fees, which I think is a great strategy for documentary filmmakers. To take this approach, of course, reproducing the song has to be truly part of the scene and therefore the quality is going to be limited. But it’s very authentic.  Levy did use one song for this film, and it plays over the credits at the end, not during, the film.

He had just one crew member with him on all of his shoots: a sound guy, who used a shotgun mic on a boom pole to record the main characters. He hooked up the main character to a wireless lav, but almost always had the boom operator there as well to catch his interactions with other characters.

While Levy was in Seattle for the screening of his film, he was gracious enough to accept my invitation to dinner, and I learned a lot about the challenges of verite filmmaking and DIY film distribution. I met up with him at NW Film Forum, where he was asking staff to make a bigger sign announcing his presence in an effort to boost flagging attendance. When a man walked in to buy a ticket to another film, Levy unsuccessfully tried to talk him into seeing Strongman instead. That’s what I call working hard to promote your film!

Levy told me it took him 9 years to make this film – 3 years shooting, and the rest in post. I hope it doesn’t take him that long to do his next one.

New Brow | documentary 13 of 100

New Brow, a film by Tanem Davidson, just finished a short three-day run at Northwest Film Forum. I caught it last night on it’s final evening in town.

Synopsis: Through more than 40 interviews with “low-brow” artists, gallery owners and collectors, filmmaker Tanem Davidson explores the cultural roots and evolution of popular art through the work of graphic designers like Shepherd Fairey, cartoonists and street graffiti artists. The film chronicles their DIY rise from the streets to the place where today they are poised to break into the “high brow” world that has until recently been unwilling to accept them as “serious” artists.

Story Structure: This film is a straightforward, interview-driven documentary film. There’s tons of visually interesting b-roll and always the voice of an artist in the background talking us through the story. Still photos are zoomed through, panned across, or pulled back from before cutting back to the person being interviewed. The film tries to cover the entire movement but sacrifices a clear story arc in the attempt. Some elements of conflict arise from artists describing their outsider status from big NYC galleries who until recently have not been interested in showing their work. But I left the film wishing more thought had been given to taking me on a journey with a clear beginning, middle and end.

Cinematography: The production value was not high. The interviews appeared to have been grabbed in a scattershot way without any stylistic cohesion, and most disappointing, some were just plain poorly lit. But one thing worked well: there’s a ton of great art in the film. And that really helped make it visually interesting. In particular, most of the art is shot up close, so it’s really in your face, which works for the subject. I found myself wishing the camera had moved more slowly on the pans – you can hardly pan or zoom too slow in my view. Side note: the cinematography in Up In The Air, which I saw Saturday night, was so powerful, in part, because the camera work was so subtle. There’s all these wonderful super slow tracking shots. I had to watch the edge of the frame to determine whether the camera was actually moving, and it almost always was throughout the film, which worked very well for a film about travel.

Editing: This film could have been editing a lot more tightly. A lot of the material felt repetitive to me, and I didn’t feel l like I was being guided through the huge amount of material by a master storyteller. There wasn’t a clear beginning, middle and end of this film, just a lot of interesting and historically significant material, that I think could have been focused much more sharply to greater effect.

Music and Sound: Audio was distractingly bad in some of the interviews. There didn’t appear to have been any attempt to control the setting of the interviews, resulting in cuts that transition directly from a quiet office to an echoing gallery so that you really notice the difference. And in some cases the audio was too loud relative to what came before and after – levels weren’t normalized.

What happens when filmmakers make a film about the same topic as another set of filmmakers at roughly the same time?  I’ve always felt that it’s best not to worry about it, because no film can be YOUR film. But this film is one thing that can happen. Similar material was covered, faster and with higher production values, in Beautiful Losers, which was released in 2008. I guess this goes to show that it pays to be first, or that if you’re going to come after, you have to find a way to put a new spin on the material. I don’t think this film achieves that. But what the filmmakers DID achieve is, they made a film! And that’s always an achievement worth celebrating.

Seth Godin's advice to filmmakers: ship, fail, repeat

Tim Burton's failed projects

Seth Godin is a marketing guru. I began following his blog when I was looking around for inspiration on how to promote my previous business, Biznik. I’ve continued reading him as I’ve moved on to filmmaking. And I find his advice just as relevant for filmmakers as it is for entrepreneurs. Of course, it’s the same thing.

When I was at MOMA last week, I saw a list of director and artist Tim Burton’s projects. Here’s the guy who’s responsible for some of the most breathtaking movies of his generation, and the real surprise is this: almost every year over the last thirty, he worked on one or more exciting projects that were never green lighted and produced. Every year, he spent an enormous amount of time on failed projects. Read full post.

Tarnation | documentary 12 of 100

Synopsis: Tarnation is Jonathan Caouette’s dark autobiographical film, which draws on home movie footage, phone messages and conversations with family members to recount his abusive childhood and his awkward relationship with his mentally ill mother, who herself was a victim of abuse. The film follows her losing battle to stay sane, and the filmmaker’s struggle to face his own fear that one day he too may suffer the same fate.

Structure: While this is a chaotic film, filled with disturbing and repetitive visuals, there is definitely a structure that propels the film forward. The film opens in New York, where Caouette establishes that he’s gay in the opening scene of the film by showing himself chilling with a male lover. Then he learns his mom has overdosed on lithium, which launches him on a trip to Texas to be with her. While on the trip, he uses footage of the passing landscape to begin flashing back to family footage from much earlier years. He uses a final transition in which the present-day passing landscape becomes pixelated and dissolves into the old family footage and we pull back out of an old TV where we find ourselves in his disturbing past. The film follows a mostly linear progression from the time of his childhood and catches up with the point where the film opens, then continues briefly past that to the present day, concluding with Caouette finally making an appearance as narrator speaking to the camera, giving voice to his fears.

Cinematography: This was an extremely low budget film. According to the film’s IMDB entry, it cost just $218 to make this film, but cost $400,000 to license the music and video clip royalties. But the fact that the quality is crap adds to the nature of the story, which is about someone whose life is pretty crappy. The footage looks super saturated and in many places solarized throughout the film, which helps it look stylized intentionally, rather than just plain low-quality. Stills and moving images are freely and frequently mixed together and that works well.

Editing: This film was edited on iMovie. It uses an array of simple editing tricks to create a sense of dislocation and disassociation. Highlights are blown out, pictures zoom in and out and multiply, and characters seem to disappear into mirror reflections of themselves, as if being turned in a kaleidoscope. There’s a long sequence of still photos early in the film that show Caouette’s early childhood, and they simply “flash dissolve” one after another (that is, one picture gives way to the next by quickly fading up to white, and down to the next image).

There is HEAVY use of text to narrate the story, and despite my general aversion to narration in films, I found myself wondering whether narration would have been a better choice. We learn later in the film that the filmmaker doesn’t trust himself to let go in front of the camera, which explains the awkward and repeated use of text to move the story forward.

Music and Audio: Lots of music in this film (which explains why it cost $400k to get all of it released) playing in the background while an endless number of quickly cut stills and short clips play on the screen. Lyrics like “I fell down the stairs, I wished you were dead, he handed me your head…”  support the mood of the film. One nice audio transition that I’ve heard before: a sudden change of scene behind which a sound like a plane landing that is suddenly cut off as the volume rises. I want to find a sound effect for that and use it somewhere some day. There’s a nice found music edit which begins with a scene in NY subway where a street artist is singing. The visuals quickly move on to something else, but audio stays with the street performance for awhile. Great reminder to keep that camera rolling on stuff longer than you think you’ll need it – and remember that the camera is basically a rape recorder, too, even if you’re not getting any visuals at same time.

This film was a huge hit at festivals from Canne to Sundance, not because of it’s technical prowess, but because it is an authentic story told in the way only this filmmaker could tell. The subtitle for the film is also an important message to documentary filmmakers looking for ideas: Your greatest creation is the life you lead.

Here’s a really great in-depth interview with Caouette about how this film was made.

Documentary Filmmaking dvd offers tips from the trenches

Last week I ran a fairly extensive Google search for films about how to make documentary films. Guess what? The market isn’t exactly crowded. In fact, I could only find this one, Documentary Filmaking: Tips from the Trenches, a 2008 educational film made by Brooke Barnett and Katrina Taylor. So I oredered a copy off Amazon, where it retails for $30 and, sat down to watch it after breakfast this morning.

The film is almost entirely a series of interviews with 30 documentary directors, most relatively obscure ones, but I was thrilled to find a few legends like DA Pennebaker, Marshall Curry and Ross McElwee.  To call it a low-budget production would be an understatement – most of the scenes appear hastily lit, and shot on low-quality video with occassionally distracting backgrounds. But I give Katrina Taylor and Brooke Barnett major props for making this film, which I would recommend to anyone looking to deepen their understanding of the documentary form.

The film structures the interviews into 6 sections:

  1. Introduction
  2. Story
  3. Shooting & Editing
  4. Legal Issues
  5. Ethics
  6. Financial & Distribution


The film starts out with what to me is a tedious question: what is a documentary film? Luckily more than one director agreed with me and said as much in the film, and we soon get past that into the good stuff. Marshall Curry explains how he taught himself how to make documentary films by watching his favorite films over and over again, breaking them down scene by scene, writing down how long each scene in the film lasted, and recording the role it played in the film. If this sounds like hard work, it is. That’s why most people don’t do it. And why most people don’t have their first film nominated for an Oscar, as Curry’s was.


You should be able to describe your film in one sentence – if you can do that, you may have an interesting story, said one director interviewed in the film. DA Pennebaker stressed the importance of frequent practice: If you were a painter, you’d be painting every day. You’re a filmmaker, so you should be shooting every day. That’s how you improve.

On how to find a good story, Curry put it this way: “If you point a camera at people who are interesting, you’re going to have an interesting film.” And look for stories that have a narrative arc – that makes it easier.

BBC has two rules about stories they tell: Any project they undertake must:

  1. Entertain
  2. Educate (optional)

But if it doesn’t entertain, it does the opposite, and you never get the chance to educate. Many filmmakers agreed that it’s better to “uncover” a story than it is to script it. The story section concludes with one great piece of advice: Commit. It’s tempting to try and cover everything about a story, but you’re better off covering one person deeply. When you come to a filmmaking fork in the road, take it.

Shooting and Editing

Tip: Don’t use zoom – get close instead. Too many shots live in the “dead zone” of middle focal length, said one filmmaker. It’s better to be either wide or tigh. Also, and this is advice I got from Zach Levy at his workshop last week, HOLD your shots for a 10 count after you think they’re done. If it’s dangerous or exciting, use a 20 count (because you’ll be counting faster than normal).

Focus on what you have, rather than what you don’t have. It’s important to use the technology you have fully. Play to the strengths of the equipment you’re working with. It can be a good thing rather than a limitation – and good filmmakers see it this way. One example provided is the film Tarnation, made over a 20 year period entirely with consumer grade equipment.

Remember to get stock shots of your subjects in various moods, without them talking – just sitting and looking pensive, or happy, or whatever. You will need these in the edit.

Tip: To improve your filmmaking skills, watch your favorite films with the sound turned OFF. This takes you out of the story, so that you can fully concentrate on what’s happening with the cinematography, editing, etc. And it’s a reminder that your doc will only be as good as the sound you get to go with it.

A lot of the directors in this film agreed that the role of editor is essentially of equal importance to role of director. Pennebaker suggested that you approach editing little by little, and the story will tell you where it wants to go. Curry agreed, saying that for him, editing is “months of trial and error” in which you try some things out, show them to people, and keep modifying until it works. McElwee stressed the importance of showing your film to test audience (of people who are not your friends or family), and asking them direct questions about what worked and what didn’t, as part of the editing process.


There was widespread agreement among directors that you should get releases when you can, but they also stressed that there’s lots of grey areas. One director said his rule of thumb is to obtain a release for anyone who speaks in the film, but not if they simply appear.

The concept of “Fair Use” was glanced on, without much clarity emerging on this foggy topic. Some directors said they wouldn’t use anything without it being “cleared” while others said it was fine to use news clips and other archival footage if they helped advance your story. For example, a song by a major artist might be fine to include if your subject is playing it on radio, but not if you use it to cut across multiple scenes as background music. Also you’re on firmer legal ground if you use only part of a news clip instead of the entire clip.


Trust is the currency of documentary filmmaking. As such, you have to earn it and build it, and you begin to obtain that by observing a simple rule: do what you say you will do. So if you say you’re going to be there filming on Sunday at 3pm, you be there. Also, important to let people know you’re rolling – tell them, “if I’m here and the camera’s out, assume it’s rolling.” One filmmaker stressed that you will also be renegotiating access throughout the story, and it’s important to keep the camera rolling especially in difficult situations, because you might not get a chance to come back to it later. You can decide what to leave in and out of the film in the editing room, but if you don’t record what’s happening, you don’t have the option. So get it.

Financial & Distribution

A large number of directors said they worked day jobs while making their films to support their filmmaking. You have to have another source of income, they said, to maintain your independence. Others said grants are possible but generally only after you’ve established a track record. One gave this quote by Ghandi: “Find a vision, and the means will follow.” They concluded with the advice that funding organizations will be much more comfortable if you can show that they are part of a group of other organizations that are also funding your project, rather than the only one. And I love this bit of advice: “I’m a small business owner first, and a filmmaker second.” The government certainly sees you this way, so it makes sense to remember that.

Everything is changing with regard to how films are distributed, most filmmakers agreed. Self-releasing is becoming a viable option. One filmmaker even pre-sold $12,000 of his DVDs before his film was released using the net. And the festival circuit is essential to build a pedigree for first-time filmmakers, McElwee said. On that, Slamdance is taking over the role that Sundance once held as a means of identifying truly indie films.

Panasonic set to make first integrated 3d HD camcorder

I’m intrigued by how the rapid pace of technological change is affecting documentary filmmaking. One safe prediction: we’re going to see more 3d documentary filmmaking in the near future. The overwhelming success of 3d Avatar shows what can happen when you dazzle audiences with the pure visual magic that 3d can provide.

Now, thanks to a new 3D video camera from Panasonic, it looks like 3d filmmaking could become an option for documentary filmmakers. The specs on this camera are pretty impressive, right down to the fact that they record onto standard SDHC cards, which I’m a huge fan of (I HATE how most every major camera manufacturer has it’s own proprietary solid-state card type, and applaud the move that Panasonic seems to be making to support the inexpensive SDHC standard).

This camera is estimated to begin shipping this fall at a price of approximately $21,000. The price will put this camera outside the range of most documentary shooters, but within the reach of someone dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what technology makes possible. Projects that involve extraordinary visuals – imagine Winged Migration if it had been shot in 3d – would be a natural fit. But I’m intrigued by something else: what emotional impact would an interview shot Errol Morris-style looking straight into the lens(es), look like in 3d? Could be pretty powerful stuff.

'The Story Beyond the Still' hints at potential of large-scale collaborative filmmaking

Vincent Laforet is a still photographer turned filmmaker, who approached Canon recently with a contest idea designed to bring more still photographers as he put it, “into the fold” of DSLR filmmakers. The result is The Story Beyond The Still contest, which began accepting submissions yesterday.

The idea: begin with a still image, and use it as inspiration to create a 2-3 minute short film, which itself ends on a still images. Filmmakers use the ending still up which to base the creation of their own 2-3 minute film. The best film wins, and the next chapter begins, and so on, for 8 parts.

“It’s an ultimate huge social experiment of filmmaking to see what a community can  bring to this, and where they can lead to,” said LaForet. “I have a feeling that with the right ingredients, it’s going to lead to some very interesting end film of all these chapters that is going to be quite fascinating.”

While certainly not a new idea (writers have been doing these kinds of serial works for a long time fueled by the internet), it’s the first case I’ve heard of this being applied to filmmaking (although there have already been successful collaborative films like War Tapes based on submissions from many camera operators).

I’ll certainly be watching closely as the episodes unfold, not only to see what happens with the story, but to learn what I can from how the films are made

One critical observation: the first film, made by Laforet with a small army of a crew members, has VERY high production values. In the making of video, I spotted a $4,000 gyro stabilizer being used for the car scene, a $15,000 Steadicam Flyer operated by a very experienced operator, a jib arm mounted on track, and crazy lighting equipment.

If their goal was to set the bar high, and encourage high-quality submissions, they achieved it. But Laforet’s stated goal is to make more filmmakers out of still photographers. In that case, the first film should have emphasized creativity within reach. It shouldn’t have included carefully scored music, when the contest rules expressly forbid including third-party music in submitted clips. I suspect setting such a high standard with the example film will have a chilling effect on beginner level filmmaker submissions.

But I’m more interested in what this type of filmmaking could hold in store for inventive filmmakers looking to push the limits of technology to make films that were not possible to make before.

It seems to me that collaboration technology is equally important as camera technology in trying to understand what technology makes possible for filmmakers looking to do inventive work. Motivated with the right balance of incentives, perhaps tackling a huge social issue, filmmakers could use a similar approach to harness the collaborative efforts of filmmakers or anyone capable of operating a video camera, to create documentary films that have never been made before. What would be the elements of such a project, and what might one look like?

Red Scarlet prototype demo

Ted Schilowitz from Red shows off the latest version of the camera a lot of indie filmmakers have been waiting for. And more waiting is the keyword: it was supposed to be out last year; now it’s slated for “spring or summer.” The model shown here is a non-functioning prototype.

It looks like an amazing camera, for sure. And at a price-to-quality ratio never before seen in the industry. This is a high production value camera for making films aimed at viewing on the big screen.

But for documentary shooters like me, for whom story generally trumps production value, I’m not sure it’s where I’d put my money (although I might change my mind after I get my hands on one). I also seriously question the workflow, which sounds really cumbersome compared to my drag-and-drop JVC HM-100 to Final Cut workflow. Of course, from a quality standpoint the quarter inch sensors of my JVC don’t even begin to compare with the 2/3″ first-generation Scarlet sensors. On the other hand, the Scarlet doesn’t compare with the Canon 5d MKII’s full 35mm sensor.

As much fun as it is to peek behind the curtain at what Red is developing, I question their logic in hyping the camera months, or in this case, years, before it’s even finished being designed, much less available for sale. I prefer the kind of frustration Apple dishes up – never knowing what’s coming until the rabbit comes out of the hat, and I can place my order the same day.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room | documentary 11 of 100

Alex Gibney has quite a pedigree as a filmmaker. He’s been producing or making documentaries since he graduated from Yale. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) was his 8th film or TV series, proving that you don’t have to be an overnight success to be a success. Enron was nominated for an Oscar, and in 2007, Gibney actually won an Oscar with Taxi to the Dark Side (a film I’ll be screening soon).

This film uses lots of news footage to cobble together a difficult, complex story. I doubt I could ever make a film involving this much research – I don’t have the patience for it. They use documents that were probably entered into courtroom cases as evidence, panning through the document Ken Burns style to help explain how Enron went from being the darling of Wall Street to one of the biggest cases of corporate fraud in history.

Simple but creative use of visuals reinforce what the narrator is talking about (yes, of course there is a narrator in this film – how else would you tell such a complex story? I’d love to know, because maybe I’d have liked the film more if they’d found it). For example, there are cutaway shots of paper being shredded while we hear voiceover about how Enron shredded paper. There’s even a cutaway to a Simpsons cartoon that helps explain things (something Al Gore does in An Inconvenient Truth).

I like the use of music to reinforce and subtly make points in this film. Immediately after a historical clip of Ronald Reagan describing the “magic of the marketplace,” we hear “That Old Black Magic” which is a very effective way to subtly call bullshit on Reagan. “Son of a Preacher Man” is a great choice for the background music while narrator introduces us to Enron wonderkid Jeffrey Skilling. The editing is straightforward: begin the sequence with the music at full volume, fade it down to background so we can hear narrator, and keep it playing until the sequence is complete – then just fade it away.

Structurally, this is a straightforward, traditional doc, with heavy use of historical footage, narration, still photos, cutaway shots and b-roll, all supported by interviews with experts and participants, who are all looking slightly off camera. It’s a time-tested formula, so I award no points for inventiveness in how the film is structured.