Monthly Archives: March 2010

Les plages d'Agnès | documentary 44 of 100

Watching this documentary is perhaps the closest thing possible to getting inside long-time French filmmaker Agnes Varda’s head without surgery. It’s a playful brain dump that skips through the memories of her long life in an avalanche of arty free association. “She has a way of never explaining very much,” wrote film critic Roger Ebert, “and yet somehow making it all clear.”

Synopsis: Agnes Varda, who at this time of this film was 80 years old, finds a way to tell her story that is as original and vivid as her own life. Constructed from family photos, snippets from her many films, and swept along by her irrepressible narrative, the bits of her story appear and vanish like bubbles in the sand. Old photos come to life in carefully reconstructions with young actresses, whom she sits beside, observing with a wry smile. The river of time flows deep through Varda’s live, pulling you along with it on a wild ride that encompasses many of the most significant events of the 20th Century.

Story structure: The film opens on the beach, where Varda is building a very artsy mirror assemblage, an apt visual metaphor for the film to come, in which Varda throws the pieces of her life into the kaleidascope of this film. After the loosely follows the path of her, chronicling major events such as her marriage to French filmmaker Jacques Demy. But equally resonant is the interior journey of the recollection itself, the inquiry leading her to surprising places in her mind, and like a tour guide, leading us, is Varda, sitting in a little sailboat, or walking shoeless on the beach. The story is told with her narration, in a train-of-consciousness style that allows her to wander freely to find connections that are real to her, and captivating to us.

Cinematography: The memorable scenes for me are the way still photographs were incorporated into the film. Varda, who was an accomplished photographer, uses pictures from her childhood layered with moving images to form moving, occasionally surreal and always stimulating visual juxtapositions. The opening mirror scene is also a keeper. The timelapse of suger cane cutters in Cuba is also memorable.

Editing: The stream of consciousness style of this film reminds me a little of “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.” Only within one person’s head, not four.

Music and sound: The sound effects in the mural painting scene, such as pig snorting, registered.

Shine cast and crew screening revelations

Last night I invited 40 members of the cast and crew of Shine, my first short doc made with Ben Medina, as well as the biggest financial supporters of the film, to a private screening at Fremont Studios. It was also the first time I’ve seen the film on a biggish screen (30 feet or so), and the first time I’ve had the experience of showing a film to the people who are actually depicted in the film. I was a bit nervous, and I expected a wide range of responses. I wasn’t disappointed.

The good news is that by far, nearly everyone liked the film. The entrepreneurship experts in particular, like Connie Bourassa-Shaw and Steve Brilling, and Mark Lacas said they felt we struck just the right balance between hope and dreams vs. realities and failures of entrepreneurship. Chris Julian, who teaches film editing here in Seattle, said that at 24 minutes, we got the length just right for a film of this kind, too, and complimented me on the color grade, which I did myself with a lot of help from a handful of Red Giant Software plugins.

The theater screening revealed that the audio mix still needs work. What sounds great on my Sennheiser 280 headphones actually sounds VERY different on surround sound in a theater. Chris Julian tipped me off to using a good pair of external speakers when editing beats phones every time. Lesson learned.

Another reason I’m glad we screened the film to as many of the people featured in the film is because we were able to catch one huge mistake – I misspelled Connie Bourassa-Shaw’s last name! I can’t believe that made it past all of our rigorous checks. Luckily it’s easy to fix that before the film gets out.

One woman featured in the film objected to her face being shown so large (the film is built around close-up interviews with people looking directly into the camera). It was a little too intimate for her. And the fact that it was in HD meant that there’s no place to hide any blemishes. I really like that level of intimacy, and that’s not something I would change. But it’s an interesting observation about HD vs SD – HD can be a little TOO good for some people.

One of the entrepreneurs in the film sent his publicist to the screening, and she objected to the color grade I did on him, which really surprised me. I spent a lot of time making him look good, and in fact, Ben shot his interview to look positively glowing very intentionally. Film is a subjective medium, that’s for sure. Luckily for me, Chris Julian was standing nearby when she cornered me and backed me up on how good it in fact looks.

But the biggest revelation of the night came when someone who will remain unnamed here threw a temper tantrum after the film, in the hall outside the theater, objecting to not receiving a larger credit. That one really caught me by surprise.

Ultimately, making a film is a deeply subjective, personal process, and I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to have collaborated with so many talented people in its making. It’s a true film. And I’m proud of it.

No word yet on whether it’ll get it’s public premier at SIFF – they have until the end of April to notify us. Fingers crossed!

Little Dieter Needs to Fly | Documentary 43 of 100

After watching another Herzog film, I’m struck by how clear it is that Herzog makes films about topics that not only interest him, but somehow ARE him. Dieter Dengler, the German-born Navy airman whose epic escape from behind enemy lines is the subject of this film, is the Herzog character in this film. In fact, it’s the only Herzog film I’ve seen in which Herzog allows the narration to switch seamlessly between Dengler and himself, and it’s momentarily disorienting because you’re not sure whose German accent you’re listening to.

Synopsis: During the Vietnam War, Dieter Dengler was shot down behind enemy lines, and this documentary recounts the story of his imprisonment and ultimate miraculous escape and rescue. Much of the film was made during a trip to Vietnam in which Herzog accompanied Dengler to the locations where key events happened, where he hired actors to partially recreate events. Dengler narrates most of the film, telling his own story with a deftness and sureness that is nothing short of extraordinary. No wonder Herzog later made a narrative feature film based on Dengler’s life after he died in 2001. It’s pure, unvarnished heroism, and anyone who watches the film is likely to be as captivated by Dengler as Herzog clearly was.

Story and Structure: The film opens with a Bible quote from the book of Revelations, then unfolds through 4 named acts: The Man, His Dream, Punishment, and Redemption. Herzog goes deep in the filmmaker’s tool kit on this one, using archival footage, military training film footage, recreations with actors filmed during a return visit to Vietnam, accompanied with his own narration, to tell the story. But mostly, the story depends on Dengler’s own words, which at times are so matter-of-fact in describing unspeakable horrors that it’s surreal.

Cinematography: The last scene in the main part of the film is very powerful (but something tells me, given the situation, could have been even stronger).  It begins with Dengler walking through the massive military aircraft graveyard at Davis Monthan Airforce Base near Tucson. Next we’re seeing him walk from an aerial shot, in which we leave him behind and pass row after row of decommissioned Vietnam-era planes. It’s a landscape of dreams, in a place where Dengler could sleep forever, and a fitting end to the film, as those willing to sit through the brief credits soon discover in the postscript, filmed at Arlington National Cemetery.

The film contains a scene early on that has become legendary in documentary filmmaking circles, in which Dengler arrives at his home and tries all the doors, opening and closing them, explaining that it’s a habit he’s gotten into since his escape to ensure that he can leave whenever he likes. Only, that piece of the story was one of Herzog’s moments of “ecstatic truth” shot not because it was real, but because it showed what it really felt like to be Dengler. And as long as Herzog is forthcoming and honest about his use of such techniques, which he has always been, I support his use of such fabrication. After all, all cinema is manipulation, and filmmakers are not, thank God, journalists.

Editing: Much is woven together in this film: family stills, interviews, news footage, dramatic recreations. And it all hangs – but without anything rising to the level of memorable editing, in my view. It just works, in a solid, journeyman, well-crafted kind of way.

Music and Sound: Herzog’s music tends to be symphonic, operatic, and epic, and this film is no exception. There’s even some Tibetan throat singers, also a recurring theme in Herzog films. This is where I find myself slightly critical of the film, on the one hand acknowledging the fact that his choices are definitely moving, while on the other wondering whether there might have been another way, perhaps a more original way.

Canon T2i LCD lava lamp screen problem

I’ve had my Canon T2i dslr for just over two weeks, and I’ve been absolutely blown away by the video it shoots. However, I picked up the camera yesterday and noticed some strange, lava lamp-like formations on the LCD screen. At first I thought it was actually recording them, but I soon realized that they are only affecting the display, not recording to video. Clearly, the LCD pixels have been damaged or corrupted somehow.

Anyone ever seen anything like this before? Googling “damaged pixels” doesn’t show anything like this, though. I’ve taken good care of the camera, and I’ve got a Zacuto Z-Finder attached to it all the time, so I can’t imagine how anything might have damaged the LCD directly by striking it.

I’m already so in love with this camera that I can hardly bear the thought of sending it to Canon for repair.

How to use Nikon lenses on a Canon DSLR

I recently took the plunge into DSLR cinematography by purchasing an $800 Canon T2i. If you scoff at the idea that video shot on a consumer grade Rebel can be taken serious by pros, I look forward to showing you some of the video I’ve been shooting.  I’ll post a proper review of how this unpretentious game-changer is working for me in my documentary work soon. But today I want to talk about lenses.

Both Lara and I used to be professional photographers, and during those years, we acquired a fair bit of top-notch Nikon glass. So when I was looking for a HD video DSLR, I looked in vain at Nikon – Canon is so far ahead of every other DSLR manufacturer in this regard that it’s not worth discussing. I’d long heard about adapters that allow you to use Nikon lenses on Canon bodies, but I’d always dismissed them mainly because they don’t work with autofocus or other electronics, which is a big deal on modern still cameras.

But video is another matter entirely. Manual focus is the only way to go with video. Furthermore, one of the limitations of the T2i interface is that, if you’re using modern Canon lenses, you have to hold down a button on the back with your right thumb AND AT THE SAME TIME rotate a dial with your right index finger to change the aperture. That’s lame. Wouldn’t it be nice to just rotate the aperture ring instead? Using a lens adapter, you can.

Looking at lens adapters can be confusing: They range in price from a $270 model from Novoflex, to a $79 model from Fotodiox, to a $9.99 model sold by a top-rated Hong Kong ebay member Kawaphoto. I’ve since purchased and used 4 of them, and here’s what I’ve discovered.

I began by ordering the cheapest one from Hong Kong, and it arrived in less than a week via mail. With a little guesswork in how to correctly attach the thing (it comes with no instructions), I figured out how to rotate and lock it into place. Then I gingerly seated it on the Canon, worried that the protruding elements of the old Nikon lenses would hit the mirror or other electronics on the Canon. In fact, I had to remove a protruding element on my Nikon 35mm 1.4 lens in order for it to fit. But once that was done, it clicked into place and was good to go. The video produced was sharp and the lenses focused normally, no problem focusing to infinity (but it does allow you to go beyond infinity, which is slightly annoying if you routinely focus by looking at the focus ring instead of through the viewfinder).

I was so impressed with the fact that I could now use my Nikon glass on the T2i that I initially overlooked the fact that there was a little bit of play between the lens and the camera body. I ordered two more of the same inexpensive adapters, thanking, screw the expensive ones, these are great! But I got a wakeup call when the next batch arrived. One of them seemed to be fine, but one of them was a loose fit, which allowed the lens to rock back and forth when I turned the aperture dial, throwing the image slightly out of focus and jogging the image. At that point, it was clear to me that the cheap adapters, while they work, are not machined to exacting specifications. While not a big deal for only occasional use, I found this highly annoying with heavy use.

So I shelled out for the next cheapest model, sold by Fotodiox on Amazon for $79. It arrived quickly and much to my surprise, I discovered that it was made from plastic on one side, metal on the other. That worried me at first until I rotated it onto my lens and it snapped into place requiring a reassuring amount of force. The fit was like night and day from the all-metal cheaper version. Obviously made to much higher specifications, it holds the lens without any give at all. I can now twist the iris and focus without any fear of slippage.

Because all adapters are a bit of a pain to take on and off of your lenses, it’s a good idea to purchase one for every lens you are planning to use, and simply leave it on all the time. This means buying Canon lens caps for all your Nikon glass (in this business it seems every time you buy something, it means you have to buy yet another thing to support it, followed by yet another thing to carry it in, etc.)

I have not tried the more expensive version from Novoflex, because the $79 Fotodiox model works perfectly for me, and is the one I recommend if you’re shooting video professionally. If you’re only occasionally using Nikon glass on your Canon, buy three of the $9.99 adapters, try them all out when they arrive, and throw away the two that fit the least well.

Drobo Pro – mixed first impressions

Until yesterday, I had 6 Lacie hard drives spinning on my desktop. They have worked fast and flawless for my video storage and editing needs. But there’s one big problem: if (when) one of them fails, data on that drive will be toast. I DO occasionally back up my most critical footage from one drive to another, but that’s a horrible backup strategy. I’ve known that I need to resolve this data storage issue for a long time. So when I was in Vancouver last week at his workshop, I asked Larry Jordan what he recommended for storing a lot of video files safely. He recommended products from four companies: Dulce Systems, Caldigit, Gtech and Drobo.

After researching all of them, I picked the Drobo Pro. Here’s why:

  1. I can use ALL of my existing hard drives in the Drobo. It’s sleek black box accepts up to 8 SATA hard drives of ANY size or rpm (yes, that means you can mix and match and if you run out of space, simply pull out a smaller drive and pop in a bigger one). Many of the other systems require all the same type of hard drive, which would mean buying a whole bunch of expensive new drives in addition to the raid enclosure.
  2. The Drobo Pro offers an iscsi connection (in addition to firewire 800) which promises theoretical transfer speeds of up to 100 mbps using a regular ethernet cable between my computer and the Drobo. Since I’m planning to purchase an iMac 27″ as my main editing workstation soon, that’s the fastest data connection I could hope for with the iMac, since there’s no way to add expansion cards (such as eSata) to the iMac.
  3. Several of the video editors at the workshop in Vancouver mentioned they were using Drobo products and liked them, and Larry Jordan also repeatedly mentioned Drobo during the workshop, although he added a caveat that he had not personally tested the Drobo Pro (but was planning to soon).
  4. Drobo has won a bunch of awards.

Before purchasing the unit, I noticed a few negative comments on B&H suggesting that the iscsi connection wasn’t living up to it’s billing, instead producing slow transfers that rarely exceeded 20mbps. But many others raved about it, so I overlooked the naysayer and placed my order. Possibly a mistake, as I later discovered.

The unit arrived yesterday in pristine Apple-inspired packaging. The inside of the cardboard box was actually painted black! And the unit itself was neatly wrapped in branded black cloth. Lovely. B&H included a free 1TB hard drive for purchasing it from them, which I promptly shoved into one of the slots backwards. I should have read the directions, which are literally as simple as 1-2-3. I next added a 2tb drive which I had ordered previously from Otherworld Computing (note that the unit requires TWO empty hard drives to start up the first time).

After installing the included software, the Drobo finally appeared on my desktop. The simple setup process requires nothing more complex that naming the drive and clicking a few buttons. It couldn’t have been easier. Props to the team at Drobo for making a truly hassle-free install.

OK time to see how fast this puppy can move data. I selected the contents of one of my hard drives and dragged it to the drobo. It was about 700 gigabytes. It copied in about 4 hours. Not bad. After that, I took the drive that had just finished copying out of its enclosure, and added it to the Drobo. It did a little light dance and suddenly there was almost another 1TB space available (drives are automatically formatted when you install them). Sweet.

Then I dragged over the contents of another 800 or so gigabyte drive. This time, the progress bar said “26 hours remaining.” Hmm. Not so good. I was headed out the door to dinner, so I just let it run, thinking maybe it would speed up. When I got home at 2 am, I checked on the drive, and it showed 22 hours remaining. Yikes. I went to bed and woke up this morning and it was still churning away with like 16 hours remaining. I did the math and figured out it was copying data at approximately 15mbps. Horrible. Time to go to plan B.

I cancelled the copy, and unmounted the Drobo. I disconnected the ethernet cable and replaced it with a firewire 800 cable, and then powered the machine back up. It took a few minutes, but finally it mounted on the desktop. However, a few seconds later it disappeared and the “disk improperly put away” error message appeared. Huh? The red power light had also come on. A glance at the manual revealed that red power light means the unit has overheated. I didn’t think that was possible, having just powered it up, but I followed their instructions – disconnect powercable, wait a few minutes, and reboot. I also connected the firewire cable to the second port on the Drobo. This time when it mounted it stayed mounted.

I dragged over the same stack of files and now the copy time was 4 hours. Much better. As the files were copying, I read in the manual that you can daisy chain firewire devices via the drobo (there are two firewire ports for this purpose). So while the files are copying, I plug in 4 daisy chained hard drives into the extra port. The Drobo didn’t like that at all. The drive lights flashed, then went blank. The red power light came on. And my Mac froze up, eventually forcing me to do a hard force quit by pressing the power button. I hate that.

After rebooting both my machine and the Drobo, everything mounted OK, including the daisy chained drives. Then, I started the copy again. Only this time I noticed it was nearly twice as slow. It was going to take 7 hours. What’s up with that? Apparently Drobo slows way down when you chain Firewire 800 drives to it (and no, I didn’t use any firewire 400 cables anywhere in the mix, so that’s not the reason). So I unmounted the Drobo, unplugged the chained drives, and rebooted, then re-inated the fire copy. The speed this time was back to 4 hours.

I created an account on the Drobo support site (you have to provide your serial number to create the account and get support) and sent a message to support asking for help to troubleshoot the slow iscsi issue. It’s a Saturday, so I doubt I’ll hear from anyone till Monday, but might as well try it just in case.

First impressions: mixed. The ease of setup and ability to use any kind of drive is fantastic. And I’ll be sleeping a lot better knowing my data is protected. But the slow iscsi connection has me worried, especially after seeing the comments from some other users that iscsi runs slow for them too. At least I’m able to get decent firewire 800 transfer speeds, as long as I don’t try to daisy chain it with other drives. I really wish this unit included an eSata port, but even that wouldn’t help me when I switch to the iMac. Mostly, I’m just bummed the iscsi isn’t delivering on it’s performance promise. But I’ll reserve judgment until I hear from tech support and I’ll update this post when I find out what’s up.
Update 5: OK, this is my last word on this: The supposedly amazing iscsi interface simply doesn’t work. It’s not at all ready for prime time, and I’m surprised Drobo shipped it with this product. So if you buy this unit, don’t expect to get faster transfers than the firewire 800 is capable of, which in my configuration is about 35-50 mbps. Drobo support isn’t very good – they send these silly automated emails that say, before even acknowledging you as a person, “we’ll assume that your problem is solved if we don’t hear from you within 48 hours.” Never mind that some of us have films we’re in the middle of producing, lives to live, etc., and on top of that we now have to follow Drobo’s schedule to try and figure out how to make their stuff do what they says it will do, only, it doesn’t. Lame.
Update 4: The problem is back. It randomly worked fine for two days, but today when I test with AJA System Test, I’m getting only 11 Mb/s file transfers. This is really lame. I’ve reopened my support ticket, and I’m wondering whether iscsi is actually ready for prime time.

Update 3: Drobo support asked me to generate a diagnostic file, and submit it to them. I figured I should probably have the plodding iscsi hooked up when I did this, so I restarted drobo and hooked it up. But low and behold, when I did that, the problem vanished, and I’m seeing decent iscsi transfers of between 50 Mb/s and 80 Mb/s. I’ve tested it throughout the day, restarting three times, and it’s still working by end of today. I’m crossing my fingers that it stays working this time…

Update 2: Unfortunately, the fix that had been working stopped working less than an hour later. So I tried to send a message on the old ticket, and got a reply that it had been closed. I created a new ticket this morning, informing them that speed over ISCSI was down to 11 Mb/s. Then I left to go on a shoot that lasted all day. I got back this evening, and find an email from tech support telling me that they’ve reopened my old ticket, and I’ll need to resubmit my request for support on that old ticket. OK. Going to do that now…

Update 1: I received an email reply from Drobo tech support on Monday shortly after noon. Following these steps corrected my problem, and I’m now measuring screaming-fast 85 mbps data throughput to the Drobo using iscsi. Whoo hoo! One minor gripe: There is a button in the Drobo Dashboard that says “check for updates.” I had previously checked that, and it reported no new software updates, even though there was, in fact, a new update. Seems a bit odd that I had to go through this convoluted process to update to the latest version of their dashboard. But I’m thrilled with the results.

I would like you to update your Dashboard to 1.6.8

In a browser, go to
Download the latest version (e.g., 1.6.7 or later) of Drobo Dashboard for Macs, the one you want to install. Take note of where the file is located
Put your Drobo in standby mode. Or shut down your DroboPro. (Alternatively, you can shut down your Mac.)
When the power light has turned orange (Drobo) or otherwise turned off, disconnect the data cable (USB, FireWire, eSATA or iSCSI) from your Drobo storage device to your computer. (Turn your Mac back on if it is not powered up.)
If Drobo Dashboard launches, close it completely by clicking on the red X in the upper left-hand corner of the window that displays the pie chart, then click on “Drobo Dashboard” in the upper left-hand corner of your screen and select “Quit.”
Go to the Drobo Dashboard installer (e.g., This is normally in Applications/Drobo Dashboard. Double-click the installer file and follow the on-screen process.
Accept the license agreement.
After you accept the License Agreement, in the next screen, select “Uninstall” from the drop-down menu.
Follow the on-screen instructions to uninstall the Drobo Dashboard application.
In your Mac HD Applications Folder, delete the Drobo Dashboard folder by dragging it to the Trash.
Empty Trash.
Restart your computer.
Double-click the .dmg file you saved from steps 1 and 2 to install Drobo Dashboard.
Choose the “Register Later” option when asked.
When prompted to eject any mounted Drobo volumes, simply select Continue.
When prompted with “You may now reconnect,” simply Continue again.
When Drobo Dashboard says, “Ready For Connection,” connect your data cable (USB, FireWire, eSATA or iSCSI). For Drobo S, DroboPro or DroboElite, also flip the power toggle switch in the back of the unit.

The Bridge | documentary 42 of 100

Watching The Bridge is about as close to suicide as you can get without vaulting the guardrail of the San Francisco Bay Bridge yourself. That is to say: it’s a very unusual and thought-provoking film. I found myself awake at 4am the morning after screening it, wrestling with the host of disturbing images and questions raised by this film.

Synopsis: Staking out the Bay Bridge for a full year with nearly $100,000 in extremely long lenses, Eric Steel (who more recently was co-producer on Julia and Julia) and a team of camera operators hired off Craigslist films people walking across the bridge knowing that an average of two per month will choose to end their lives by jumping from the bridge. Sure enough, they manage to record quite a few of the 24 people who died in 2004. What makes the film interesting beyond the morbid curiosity of watching someone jump is that they followed up with friends and relatives of the jumpers, to find out why they did it.

Story Structure: The main character in this film is, of course, the San Francisco Bay Bridge. It’s presence is always felt from the stunning opening sequence which is timelapse of rushing fog through which we catch momentary glimpses of the bridge, until the fog melts away to reveal the bridge in all it’s majesty. After that it’s a non-linear voyage into the stories of people who both successfully and unsuccessfully tried to end their lives by leaping from the bridge. The structure used is basically this: Interviews with relatives provide voiceover to b-roll of bridge, including shot of person who is standing on bridge alone, looking out over the edge. The person then climbs over the railing, and either immediately vaults to their death, or stands on the precipice before doing so. Splash. Cut to another story. The tension comes from showing people who look like they might jump, and you wonder: which one of them is going to do it? There’s one particular guy, Gene, who we keep seeing many times throughout the film. It’s as if he’s having a really hard time deciding whether to jump. We hear from tons of his relatives all through the film, and the film’s climax seems to be leading up to his decision whether to jump or not. I won’t spoil it for you.

Tension builds from the opening of the film, in which we see someone jump, setting up what you’re going to see more of. Then it makes you wait, building the suspense, while we catch up with stories of some of the people from point of view of relatives.

Cinematography: I think I would have been ready to jump off the bridge myself after about a week of what must have been never-ending tedious camera operation. Can you imagine scanning the length of the Bay Bridge all fucking day long looking for people who might jump, then being ready, in an instant, to track them and keep them in the frame? That’s dedication.

The timelapse sequence  and b-roll of the bridge itself are absolutely stunning, and involve the use of extremely long lenses which compress everything (such as wires) mercilessly. There are wonderful visual methaphors everywhere: pelicans soaring and clouds billowing (symbolic of freedom – something the suicidal people perhaps long in choosing to end their lives);  massive and solid columns soaring into the clouds (symbolic of strength and stability – something the jumpers lack); inclusion of “emergency exit” sign in some stills, etc. Still photos are used with slow zooms into the faces. One particularly memorable timelapse is of a sailboat tacking frantically under the bridge in rough seas – a perfect metaphor for the lives of the jumpers.

There are a couple of scenes in which we dissolve through a lengthy series of shots to show time passing, which work OK but not extraordinarily well.

Editing: There are some random flash-transitions toward the end of the film that seemed a bit out of place, perhaps because they are not used consistently throughout, and their use didn’t seem particularly intentional.

Music and Sound: There’s a lot of bells, tones, and melancholy instrumentation that weaves a feeling of ominous foreboding well. Occasional happy music is juxtaposed. Music overall is understated in the film, disappearing into the background, until late in the film when we hear the first vocal track, “Since I lost you.” I think it could have been a better film with more carefully selected music of this kind. I’m guessing there was a fair bit of sound effects work on this film, because obviously the many sequences with people walking across bridge were not audio recorded in sync with the visuals due to the extreme distance of camera from subject.

I couldn’t wait to watch the extras after screening this film, because a film of this kind raises many questions. Why did Steel want to make it? How did he get permission from participants? Some of these questions are revealed, and others are not. In doing a bit of research, I learned that Steel wasn’t entirely forthcoming about the subject of the film when he applied for the permits to make it – he said it was a film about the bridge, rather than about suicide. And some reports suggest he also did not reveal to family members that their voiceover would be used with actual footage of their loved one jumping. I would have liked to have heard him be more forthcoming about those questions and his thought process.

Careful what you ask for…

VNV Nation is an internationally acclaimed band whose melding of goth industrial riffs with uplifting electronic anthems instantly made me a fan ever since I discovered them via Paul Aleinikoff’s On The Edge radio show 5 or 6 years ago.

One of the things I love about this band is their surprising ability to transcend genres and defy easy classification. So when I was looking for the perfect music to match with a video I created for Eton School, I skipped through every one of their songs in my iTunes collection, more because I wanted to hear them than because I expected to find a fit. But when I heard As It Fades (2nd Movement), I froze. The angelic, almost haunting harmony of the last track on their Reformation 1 CD conveyed exactly the feeling I was going for with this video. I dropped it into my timeline in Final Cut thinking, there’s no way you’re going to be able to use this – it’s a well-known band, and this project is for a local non-profit school. They probably won’t even return my calls. But I’ve always been a believer in aiming high, so I went ahead and cut the video with the music. It was perfect.

I looked up the band’s label, and called the contact person for licensing. No answer. I left a message. No reply after two days. That was kind of what I figured. I started thinking, OK, now I’m going to have to find some music more within reach. But I’ll call one more time… this time, a person answered, and he politely told me that his label didn’t represent the album I was asking about. Could he help me find the right person to talk to, I asked? “You should just talk to Ronan Harris,” he said, the band’s founder, main songwriter and lead vocalist. “Do you have his contact info?” I asked. “Sure, here you go.”

Armed with that info, I composed an email to Ronan explaining why I believed this particular track was perfect, and asking for permission to use it, including a password-protected link to the video which contained his music. I hit the send button figuring that the message would probably never actually be read by Ronan himself, and doubting I’d ever get a reply.

Exactly 19 minutes later, I get this personal reply from Ronan Harris:

I am utterly flattered that you wrote asking this. You have my full permission to use this track for this documentary. I watched it and was extremely moved. This is very much the spirit of what VNV Nation’s message is about – self betterment and finding a path and personal strength, no matter the adversities being faced. I applaud you for making this. I wish I’d had the benefit of this kind of school when I was a kid.

I’ve learned several things from this experience. The first is, always strive diligently to do extraordinary work (which incidentally is part of VNV Nation’s band motto “It is better to strive diligently than to sit in bitter regret”), and never fail to ask for what you want. Finally, no matter how famous you become, take time to answer your email. I was a fan of VNV Nation before – now I’m a raving fan for life.

Louis Psihoyos steps outside of the journalistic box

Louis Psihoyos was for many years a photojournalist before he embarked on making his first film, The Cove, which earlier this week won an Oscar. And in this interview with the National Press Photographers Association (which I used to be a member of), he said this: “It was really refreshing to step outside the journalistic box.” Hallelujah to that. Journalists will always be constrained by facts; filmmakers are free to explore truths.

Once you’ve had a taste, there’s no going back.

A well-deserved win for some brave, inventive filmmakers

When The Cove had a short run in theaters in Seattle last summer, I skipped watching it because I didn’t think I could stomach watching people slaughter dolphins. But I changed my mind after continuing to hear great things about the film. Lara and I caught up with the film in Tacoma, where it was playing at The Grand several weeks after finishing its Seattle run.

The film rocked my world. Who knew a documentary could be so damned thrilling? The film reignited my belief that private citizens who are deeply committed to a cause can take on huge institutions, heck, whole countries, and make a difference. The film leaves you feeling elated, heroic, determined, rather than depressed.

The Cove winning an Oscar is a reminder that courageous filmmaking for a noble cause is alive and well. And it doesn’t always go unrecognized.