Monthly Archives: January 2010

Harlan County, USA | documentary 22 of 100

It’s doubtful that Harlan County, USA, is on any tourist guidebook “must visit” lists today. And it certainly wasn’t in 1973, when Barbara Koppel was making this classic social documentary about the struggles of striking coal miners. Just watching the footage, with its Southern drawl, red necks and decaying teeth made me want to move back to Canada. But I stayed in my chair. And I admire Koppel for staying in Harlan County for the years it took to make this important film, and glad she found gold under all that coal when she won an Academy Award when the film was released in 1976.

Synopsis: Striking union coal miners in rural Kentucky go head-to-head with Duke Power and its “gun thugs” in a lengthy strike that leaves one miner dead. The film illustrations the conditions that miners worked under in the mid-70s, which caused many to suffer black lung and die in mine accidents, and their struggle for decent wages and working conditions. The film, made by Barbara Koppel, also documents the active role played by the miner’s wives in support of the strike. Violent clashes on the picket lines are recorded by filmmakers as well as messy power struggles within the labor union leadership that ultimately leave miners feeling alone in their struggle.

Story structure: Story roughly begins with the strike, follows events during the strike, and concludes when miners signing contract that was less than what many wanted.  But along the way, we take many sidebar trips into understanding conditions miners work under, view historical footage of famous mine disasters in the region and meet survivors and relatives who give interviews, and learn about labor politics. It seems the filmmakers set out to make us want to care about the plight of the miners BEFORE it portrayed them as being on strike – and they spend considerable amount of time in beginning of film doing that before we learn they are on strike. Probably chose that approach because of knee-jerk reaction many American’s have against organized labor. There’s no satisfying conclusion to the film, though, when the strike ends: the miners seem resigned to repeating this struggle over and over again.

Cinematography: I’m still wondering how the filmmakers got permission to film in the mine – perhaps the shots that open the film of the miners leaping onto conveyor belts that take them deep into the mine were shot after the strike ended and they returned to work, in non-linear sequence. But I’m still surprised that Duke Power would allow them to film the miners afterward. In any case, the fact they were able to film in the mines is an achievement. Without it, the film wouldn’t have had the same “there but for the grace of god go I” feel.

Because they lived with the affected people over a period of more than a year, they got intimate access which is what’s remarkable about the otherwise unremarkable cinematography in the film. Simply being able to be there with a camera when the grandmother collapses on seeing her grandson’s open casket, for example, is so powerful. The cinematography is very journalistic, but one memorable artistic moment is the shot of miners silhouetted around the barrel fires on the picket lines. Some of the shooting was also quite brave: there’s moments where gun thugs approach the camera menacingly, and you hear Barbara’s voice off-camera talking to them, sounding quite confident and sure of herself.

Editing: The film was cut together using a combination of interviews, archival and news footage, photos, and cinema verite shooting. There’s one very plain textual graphic device used in the film to convey info very effectively: using 3 lines of simple white text over a shot of the mine, the first line shows the percentage increase of Duke Power’s profits. Second line shows miners wages increase. Third line shows cost of living increase. We see that the miners are making less than cost of living increase, while profits were up 170 percent. Very effective; no animation required, just these numbers presented cleanly.

Music and Sound: Since the union miners have a rich tradition of singing, why not use that as the soundtrack of the film? It’s the obvious choice. And sometimes the obvious choice is the best choice. It certainly is very effective in this film. Early in the film we hear a coal mining song being sung in background over shots of mining life. Then we cut to a guy who looks like the face of death, rocking on his porch and we realize he’s actually the guy singing. Nice way to bring the soundtrack to life, and as it turns out, transition into an interview with the man about what it was like for him to work in the mines.

A lot of the tracks are purely vocal, sung without musical accompaniment. Some include banjo picking. All contribute to the ambience of the place as being low education, low opportunity, but big hearted and real.

Objectified | documentary 21 of 100

When I stop and think about it, Objectified is the film that made me want to be a filmmaker. I first saw this extraordinary film last summer at Northwest Film Forum. This film spoke to me where I was at at the time: in the middle of making a “talkumentary,” and wondering how the hell can you make interviews interesting? This film is one lovingly crafted answer. Gary Hustwit gave me something to aspire to. Like the objects it portrays, it’s a work of art. I purchased the DVD last week so I could screen it again, and it’s a reference I plan to return to a lot. It’s that good.

Granted, if you’re not a design lover, you might not love this film the way I do. It does appear aimed at a specific audience – people who are predisposed to own Apple products, BMWs or designer furniture. But thanks to Target and Ikea, this audience is bigger than ever. And I take it as an article of faith that this type of film will be made more and more in the future, as audiences become even more niche, and filmmakers aren’t afraid to do what Hustwit did – start his own distribution company (Plexifilm) to reach them. Bravo for stepping out of the mainstream to make something remarkable for those of us who can appreciate it.

Synopsis: Objectified takes a reverent look at the well-designed things in our lives through the eyes of the people who design them. Seamlessly stringing together interviews with industrial designers like Jonathan Ive (iPhone), Karim Rashid and Marc Newson, it is a pean to the clever men and women who turn cell phones and kitchen chairs into objects of desire.

Story Structure: This film is more a meditation than it is a story. It’s more poetry than it is narrative. And it’s proof that – at least for someone interested in the topic – you don’t have to launch a story train to keep an audience’s attention: you just have to pick a visually compelling topic, get access to its most famous and well-spoken practitioners, come up with a clever way to link the interviews (more on that below) and have a lot of frequent flyer miles.

Cinematography: I especially liked how the interviews were set up. They appear to be all natural light, but a few are not – I could tell that a nice big softbox or other very soft source of light was often used to bring up the faces of the interviews against the white walls that they are often shot against. But most of them are lit with available light, most often window light, frequently with white walls as a background (or possibly against a white backdrop) that are rendered light grey in the exposure. Where possible, interviews were shot with the designer’s workspace as the background, or in designer’s home surrounded by their favorite objects.

The interviews are intercut with many details shots (taken at same time as interview) with subject handling their favorite objects (ie, Ive turning a mac on, closing the lid, playing with milled metal).

Interviews are always shot on sticks, but usually fluid – with camera operator following the movement of the person gently to keep them filling the frame. Lots of reframing is hidden by b-roll, but we get nice series of wide, medium and close shots for most of the subjects to keep it visually interesting. And clearly, a lot of attention was paid to the backgrounds.

B-roll is simple and beautiful. For example, to get into the Target interview, we have a brief sequence of shoppers at Target, which ends with a shot of an idle checkout machine at Target on which the Target logo is bouncing around the screen in screesaver mode. And when we’re hearing from the car guy, we see this intimate very extreme telephoto shot looking right into people’s cars at their faces as they drive by (you can bet they didn’t get releases for those shots, yet another reminder that releases are NOT always necessary for docs).

The use of slightly slow motion is visually interesting, and at first I didn’t even notice that it WAS slow. But it is – no more than 50 percent, possible just slowed 25 percent, but enough to really render beautiful the crowd scenes of people walking while talking on their cell phones, etc.

I noticed that some of the interviews broke the convention of having the interviewee look between the camera and the key light source. Reminder that if it looks good, it’s OK if it doesn’t follow convention.

There’s not a lot of fancy camera movement in the film. Just a couple scenes come to mind, when there’s a twisting camera pan into a trash bin, and another tilt shot revealing how much trash there is in the bin by traveling from bottom to top slowly. Like the best design, the camera work in this film is a reminder that less is often more.

Editing: The pacing and rhythm of this film is magnificent. It opens with the sound of an assembly line robotic machine, which after a few seconds of black, fades up to reveal the machine at work in a series of locked off shots, in which all the motion comes from the machine’s movement. We hear Jonathan Ive’s voiceover, speaking reverentially. We feel that we are witnessing creation. The camera doesn’t budge until later in the sequence, when the pace picks up, and the camera finally begin to move with the machine as the music picks up the pace. Fucking brilliant editing and shooting, that.

Another thing I noticed: At critical points in interviews, there’s an edited pause in which an object which is being discussed is shown, to give us time to look at it for a few seconds, before the dialogue is continued. This doesn’t FEEL like an edited pause, but it is intentional. You can just tell, because the pacing is too perfect.

But the most brilliant thing of all with regard to editing is the way the interviews are linked to each other. Throughout the film, they are generally linked like so:

Interview 1: Interview ends with woman talking about using shears, holding a pair of shears in her hand.

Interview 2: Begins with wide shot of next interview subject clipping hi bonsai tree. Snip! You have them linked. Ends interview with guy saying: the company that is doing the most impressive design work now is Apple.”

Interview 3: Cut to Apple’s Jonathan Ive talking with obvious devotion about how they mill MacBook Air frames out of slubs of aluminum.

This seems clearly intentional, and I’m guessing Hustwit peppered each interviewee with one or more questions about one or more of the other designers they are interviewing for the film, so they’d have something to use in the edit as a bridge.

The sickest transition of all, though, has to be how we get into the interview with the Tokyo designer, who designed a cd player that is mounted on a wall, with a string to turn it on and off, which you pull like a light switch. The scene starts with music playing in the background, and begins with a tight shot of the disc spinning. Then we slowly zoom out, until we see the string hanging (against a plain white wall). Then we see an arm come into frame, and the string is pulled by the designer. Click. The music ends abruptly. And the interview begins. Transitions like that rock my world.

Displaying products: A series of products are shot on white seamless, and then whip-panned from one to another (skipping several adjacent products to get to the one we’re targeting). This looks like an editing effect, rather than an actual whip pan, but hard to tell for sure. It’s very effective in generating a sense of energy in what would otherwise be a fairly static parade of objects. Clever.

There’s one visibly archival clip in the film – and it’s of noticeable lower quality than the rest of the footage, showing a hamster controlling a vacuum cleaner (which looks like the kind of thing that would attract a lot of views on YouTube, which is probably where Hustwit found it). Not sure whether this was necessary, really – I probably wouldn’t have included it because it brings the quality of the film down for that clip. But if Hustwit can include YouTube clips in his film, it gives me confidence to include them too.

Simple line animation: There’s very little animation in the film, but a couple of scenes are built from pen strokes, by starting with a sketch from one of the designers, and isolating each element, then building it up from it’s simplest element. For example: Starting with an arrow, a shape is added, then another line, until we see the completed object drawing. It’s a very simple kind of animation, and works very effectively.

Music and Sound: Brief electronic riffs frequently come in under voiceovers and to announce new sequences, and to support the sense of “we’re going somewhere special now.” It appears they used a lav mic for the Rashid interview at least, because on the extras section of the DVD, you can see the black wire trailing out of his shirt, and he’s moving around and it’s making distracting noises because it’s rubbing against his shirt and chest. I’m surprised they used a lav, frankly – why not just mount a mic overhead on a boom arm? Maybe because they were traveling as light as possible for the interviews? But the sound in the actual film is very high quality, so this is more of a clue to how it was achieved than a criticism. Some of the interviews are fairly echoing because they are shot in sparse interiors, but overall it sounds great. There’s also great use of found sound – for example, the sound the assembly line machine makes, the jets of air, the hydraulic noises, the plastic popping off of molds, all adds up to an aural experience that is the design equivalent of singing in church.

51 Birch Street | documentary 20 of 100

51 Birch Street is a tough doc to get your hands on. I was able to find a copy on Ebay, after reading about it in Documentary Storytelling, a fantastic book. I figured it would be a perfect film to screen back-to-back with Daughter From Danang, for two very different takes on parent-child relationships. This film is much more personal in it’s approach than the journalistic Daughter – to the point where I wasn’t surprised to see Ross McElwee included in the thanks column during the credit roll. But while this film is worth watching, it’s no Sherman’s March.

Synopsis: After his mother’s death, filmmaker Doug Block sets out to discover the parents he never knew. With the help of his mom’s diaries, interviews with his father, family friends, his own archival footage and family photos, his quest uncovers what to him are shocking discoveries of infidelity and marital unhappiness that ultimately call into question his own marriage and leave him wondering whether he should have opened the diaries in the first place.

Cinematography: This film makes heavy use of still photos, but unlike Daughter from Danang, the filmmaker is very much a character in this personal documentary. Not only does Block narrate, but he also is visible, and at one point his father turns the camera on him, a nice (but unrevealing) twist. Memorable shot: Block shoots his mother while she’s still alive in a hallway, and later cuts to the hallway empty to show how empty it is without her. Then we see his husband’s new wife in the same hallway a few weeks later, which visibly notes the passage of time. Interviews are shot with subjects looking very nearly (but not quite) into the lens, which I like a lot.

Story Structure: The film picks up the story with his Mom still alive, with him talking to her, and talking up why he’s making the film using narration. Then his mom dies, and from there on the film makes frequent non-linear trips down memory lane. But for the most part, it’s following the chronology of his parents life up through the present, and ends with his father driving off into the sunset towards Florida with his new bride.

Adultery is a hot-button topic, which I guess saves this otherwise unremarkable film for a lot of people who are surprised that adultery happens. I don’t mean to totally slam it, but the sense of mystery that builds at the beginning of the film is never really paid off for me. The big discovery is: One of his parents was cheating on the other, but they put on a smiley face and stayed married.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not shocked by that. That married people cheat is the opposite of surprising. And even though there’s a little twist in that the person who was committing the adultery isn’t the one you initially think it is – I still never managed to climb on the story train of this film the way I did with Sherman’s March or Daughter from Danang. I give Block props for trying, though. He even acknowledges in the beginning of the film that he never thought he’d find himself making a film about his perfectly normal, suburban parents. And I give him major props for making a film about the things that are right in front of him – that’s always where filmmaker gold lies. But one man’s buried treasure is another’s recycling bin, and for me, the story just didn’t resonate.

Editing: To make the story work, Block translated the handwriting of his mother into typewritten pages and then zoomed into keywords in bold (other words on page greyed out) to help his narration as his gets closer and closer to the big discovery. This is a nice device that keeps building suspense and calls out the important bits with authority. In particular I liked the fast scrolling with sudden stop on the surprising words. There’s also lots of slow zooming and panning through family photos. I found all of this pretty tedious by the end of the film, though, possibly because I felt like it never added up to any big revelation. One nice transition I liked: one of the text slides starts to blur before dissolving into a photo. Nice.

Music and Sound: There’s a lot of piano music in this film, which worked OK, but not remarkably. One thing stood out: in the credit roll, Block credits the person who got music clearances for him. Great idea – edit the music you want, and hire someone to get the clearances for you. There’s a job for everything in the film biz, it seems.

Daughter from Danang | documentary 19 of 100

The best documentary films, like the best Hollywood narratives, seem to always have a twist. When Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco met Heidi Bub, a Vietnamese orphan raised in the United States, they probably thought they had a nice “daughter returns to country of origin, meets mother in joyful reunion” story. But life has a way of surprising everyone’s expectations, and luckily for the filmmakers and everyone watching, the happy reunion soon evolves into a clash of cultures and expectations that is totally worth watching.

Synopsis: At the end of the Vietnam War, more than 2,000 Amerasian children were separated from their parents and airlifted to the US. Daughter from Danang follows one woman’s quest to be reunited with her birth mother, and the unexpected outcome of the reunion.

Story Structure: Nonlinear opening, followed by linear story. Film opens with historical footage from final days of US evacuation from Vietnam, in which mix-race babies are being brought to the United States for fear that they will be killed by incoming Viet Cong. Jump to interview with present day Heidi Bub, talking about what happened to her. Jump to Vietnam where we see Heidi’s mom walking in surf with her voiceover talking about how much she misses her daughter and wants to be reunited with her. Now that story train is launched, we then pick up chronology as she boards plane to visit her mom, and we follow her through the visit, and return home; two-year gap then a follow up to see where she’s at by the time the film was completed is a nice epilogue.

Cinematography: There’s some big problems in the cinematography: for example, there’s a recurring problem in which the lens hood is visible on the wide shots for part of the film – which shows how beginner the filmmakers were at that stage of the filming. But we’re willing to forgive that because it supports the story, which is compelling. There are also a few incredibly beautiful scenes from life in Vietnam, my favorite being white-clad young women riding bicycles through the streets, which camera overtaking them slowly from a moving car. Stunning.

Another memorable thing about the cinematography, which I haven’t seen in a documentary (and was possibly a happy mistake?) is street scenes shot at 48th/sec shutter speed or below, in which there’s ghosting and blurring. These scenes are used as memory scenes – in which Heidi in voiceover is describing something she remembers from childhood. Another unique thing: Blurry footage (possibly blurred in post) is used as background for the credit roll. Usually you have credits rolling on black, so I thought this was pretty innovative and an effective way to emphasize the fuzziness of memory, a recurring theme of the film.

Editing: The opening sequence of the film features an incredibly beautiful animated letters falling into place, then falling away again. Because of the amateur hand-held cinematography, the editor makes use of a lot of very quick cuts. And that’s very effective. For example, when Heidi boards a plane to visit her mom, the photographer followed her down the isle of the plane filming – but of course, that would be some really jerky footage, so the editor just found the least jerky two seconds, and used that. It’s a great way to work with this type of footage, and it tells the story effectively.

Music and Sound: Music sets the mood and location for the film from the opening by playing oriental string instruments in background. Switch to dixieland, bango-picker music when we hear about Heidi’s upbringing in the South.

Grizzly Man | documentary 18 of 100

The best reason to watch Grizzly Man isn’t to figure out whether a guy who lives with hungry bears is crazy or not. I think we all can guess the answer to that. It’s to hear Werner Herzog, in his precise German accent, state simply, unequivocally: “I believe the natural state of the universe is chaos, hostility and murder.”  By the end of the film, you may find yourself agreeing with him.

Synopsis: Warner Herzog pieces together the story of Timothy Treadwell, a self-styled bear defender who spent many seasons living with and filming grizzly bears in the wilds of Alaska, before he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by one of the animals.

Story structure: Herzog uses a nonliner approach to tell this story. His own narration provides the structure around which the story gels. It starts after the end, with an interview with a pilot who knew Treadwell talking about how he discovered the bodies of Treadwell and his girlfriend. The the story then skips around through different parts of Treadwell’s life through a series of  interviews. As the film progresses, Treadwell is shown to be deteriorating to a ranting, angry, figure who seems to have lost touch with civilization and is taking his girlfriend with him on a death wish as he lingers in bear country during a time when bears are most unable to find food before going into hibernation for the winter.

Cinematography: The footage of bears is spectacular, virtually all of it shot by Timothy Treadwell. The rest is shot by Herzog’s DP, Peter Zeitlinger. Interviews use available light. Herzog himself makes a brief appearance (the side of his face only) in the film when he sits with a friend and former lover of Treadwell, who allows him to play the tape of his death, at about halfway through the film. Herzog obviously respects Treadwell as a filmmaker, at once point complimenting him for letting the camera roll past the end of a take which allows him to capture the “unexplicable moments of cinema magic” that often happen after the action.

Editing: We learn that Treadwell left nearly 100 hours of footage behind, all of which must have been reviewed by Herzog and his editor, Joe Bini. Some of it feels repetitive. Grizzly bears are awe-inspiring creatures, but there’s only so many ways you can film them.

Music and Sound: The audio somehow sounds pretty good, so the Grizzly Man must have been using a wireless lav most of the time. There’s not a lot of memorable music in the film, except for the last song at the end, which is beautifully laid down under the pilot of the plane who is mouthing the words to the song as he flies Herzog away.

Man On Wire | documentary 17 of 100

To call Man on Wire a great film would be like calling New York a big city. It’s the only film on Rotten Tomatoes (review aggregating site) to receive 100 percent positive reviews (by contrast, Avatar has an 82 percent favorable rating). It cut a monster path through the festival circuit after it was released in 2008. And it won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2009 for British filmmaker James Marsh. So when my friend Oksana, who had it checked out from the Seattle Public Library, offered to sub-loan it to me, my answer was easy: yes.

Synopsis: Man On Wire tells the breathtaking story of how Philippe Petit conceived, planned and executed the tight-rope crime of the century by walking on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Evading security police, he and a small team of accomplices string a wire between the two buildings, allowing him to realize a lifelong dream.

Story Structure: The film launches a powerful story train right off the batt by attacking the story (using actors) at the point where they are about to leave their hotel and drive to WTC, which they are about to enter illegally. Tension mounts quickly as interviews with the real characters intercut with the actors recall how afraid they were, and how uncertain the outcome was. At the point where they reach the first WTC checkpoint, the story jumps back to the chronological beginning: with Petit in a dentist’s office, where he learns of the WTC buildings under construction. On the spot, he steals the paper and flees the dentist’s office. “What’s the pain in comparison to that now I have acquired my dream,” he says in an interview.

Family photos, news photos, historical footage, animation, reenactment and interviews are all used to tell the story – the only trick in the documentary storytelling book that’s NOT used is narration. And it’s not needed, because we have the characters involved telling the story much more effectively than any third-party narrator. At points where we might otherwise get tired of the history of his previous exploits and personal life, we jump back to the growing drama of getting into the building, as both teams encounter complications requiring them to evade police. Then we rejoin the historical part for awhile, and so on, until we are 2/3rd of the way through the film, at which point we finally have caught up with crew perched on the roof of the building, struggling to string the wire as one of the team members abandons them. The climax of the film, of course, is the walk itself. After that, the film has some loose ends to tie up: what happens to Petit after his arrest, and a surprise twist that was hinted at but not disclosed until the end, involving how Petit’s relationship with the other characters was transformed as a result of realizing his impossible dream.

Cinematography: The interviews are lit professionally, with dramatic but soft light, so they stand out from their background. Scenes that are historically reenacted are shot in black and white to indicate the flashback – except for one sequence in which they are perhaps the happiest moments of the story and the color indicates that – the training camp that Petit runs to rehearse. That scene shows emotional closeness of teammembers by depicting them rolling in the grass together and goofing off together.

There’s one particularly beautiful reveal shot of the Notre Dame, shot at dusk or early morning in present day, to set up his tightrope walk there. In it, the camera tracks past corner of stone to reveal the cathedral and then an someone on the crew presumably flushed a flock of pigeons which takes flight just as camera enters, for added drama. Last scene in film is of Petit in present day, walking on tight rope, and nice series of tight and medium shots allows him to conclude with his voiceover stating his view that life should be lived on a tight rope. Some of the shots look shot on crane or track.

Editing: There’s a brilliant splitscreen effect early in the film in which the left half the screen shows the WTC under construction and right half shows Philippe Pete under construction – that is – growing up. The two are thus effectively linked and we understand how significant the building is to Petite. Also allows us to zip ahead in time to opening of the building after showing historical footage of early construction. A binocular effect is placed over early scenes of the Tower in which Petit describes how he ran surveillance – and the binocular mask effect adds drama nicely. Simple animation shows how many times Petit flew back and forth between Paris and NYC. Similarly, a small circle is used over the flashback scenes to his earliest period in Paris. A fuzzy oval shape is used for the scene in which he hooks up with a groupie, perhaps to indicate the secrecy he was attempting to maintain from his girlfriend.

Sound and Music: The gorgeous soundtrack by Michael Nyman builds the tension from the very first scene with minimalist, tense orchestral music, to the final lyrical piano piece. Wanting to learn more about the composer, I headed to his website, and discovered this: To celebrate the creative power of music, film and photography you can now download a Nyman soundtrack to use on your own film for free! I downloaded it.

Kevin Kelly's True Films

Kevin Kelly is one of those truly visionary people whose work helped guide me when I was setting up Biznik. But I had no idea he was a fan of documentary film until I accidentally stumbled upon his site, True Films, while researching Werner Herzog. Here’s what Kelly has to say about documentary:

This is the golden age of documentaries. Inexpensive equipment, new methods of distribution, and a very eager audience have all launched a renaissance in non-fiction film making and viewing. The very best of these true films are as entertaining as the best Hollywood blockbusters. Because they are true, their storylines seem fresh with authentic plot twists, real characters, and truth stranger than fiction.

Encounters at the End of the World – with the sound off

Soundless encounters

According to Marshall Curry, a great way to learn how to make documentary films is to watch them. Check. Then watch them again – with the sound off. I decided to give it a shot with Encounters at the End of the World, the Oscar-nominated film by Werner Herzog, that I watched yesterday. Conclusion: it’s work, but it works. Here’s what I picked up.

As a director, Herzog is enraptured by the beauty of the underwater world beneath the ice. He opens the film with that. This is a foreshadowing of the visual goodies we can expect to see if we stay with the film.

Herzog then switches to linear chronological storytelling: we see a big plane in the air, establishing that the filmmakers are on their way to make a film. Briefly he cuts to a shot of Lone Ranger riding his horse and footage of jungle ants milking sugar water from captured prey which, combined with his narration which I couldn’t hear, establishes his feelings about the journey, the questions he’s here to explore, and shares his perspective.

Then we see something often repeated in the film: a steady succession of storytelling shots which make use of different focal lengths and approach, but combine to establish what’s happening: 1. plane landing, medium shot. 2. plane taxiing into frame (closer shot). 3. plane taxiing away (wide shot).

Cut to historical footage. This allows more musing on the part of Herzog about what has gone before, and what is here today. Next shot is a fine example of a contrast cut: he cuts directly from shackleton’s team pushing sleds over ice ridges to close shot of the wheels of a giant “terra bus” used to ferry arrivals to McMurdo Station. This powerfully illustrates how far we’ve advanced since Shackleton’s time.

To get us into the first interview, he set up a tight shot of the stairs being lowered on the massive bus, from which the driver descends. Then we get into the first interview. It’s a nice visual bridge. It’s a “first step” into the story.

He uses a similar one-two edit on the next interview: 1. tight shot of caterpillar claw raking earth. 2. wide shot of caterpillar driver parking, dismounting, and walking over to the camera.

Interviews follow convention of positioning interviewer between key light and camera (most often the sun or window, although some scenes, even outdoor ones, appear to have been very subtly lit – but most are natural light throughout film).

Another 1-2 editing sequence: 1. Zoom out from ice cave (on sticks). 2. static shot of icicles inside cave.

Slow pan over McMurdo shows what the place looks like (and gives Herzog plenty of time to talk about his reaction to the place). There are many slow pans and zooms throughout the film, which does seem a bit amateurish – but presumably they were traveling light. It works.

In next interview, the detail of the scientists iceberg simulation is shot right off the screen, rather than captured in a quicktime file. This leads to one of the rare dissolve edits in the film (most are simple cuts)  in which the simulation dissolves into one of the recurring visits to Shackleton historical footage – a shot of a man floating on a smallish chunk of ice while paddling furiously.

From there we have a brief interview with cook – showing off the McMurdo ice cream machine, which seems bizarre in such a climate. A lesser filmmaker wouldn’t have noticed the irony, and including this helps establish that some things really don’t make sense down here at the end of the world.

Another wide establishing shot of McMurdo, followed by slow zoom into city. One thing I noticed about the zooms is that they are always consistent speed – and the camera is usually on sticks when the zooming is happening.

The survival scene is priceless: it works visually as a metaphor for people blindly clawing their way around following each other despite having no idea where they are going. And it’s just plain funny. It’s all shot off shoulder, which, like most of the shoulder and handheld shots in the film, looks unsteady relative to what you’d expect in a film made by a filmmaker of Herzog’s calibre. I’m guessing the choice was deliberate, or at least a deliberate choice to live with the limitation so they could travel light and work fast. The camera work explores the subject in a lot of fairly lengthy cuts, complete with camera turns, approaches, and sweeping shoulder pans. The pans end crisply – no noticeable wobble. That takes practice. Nice mix of shots: detail shot of boots, bucket with face scrawled on it, contrasted with wide and medium shots of people.

From the simulated whiteout, we cut to a real whiteout – a nice transition to next sequence. This was some of the only whiteout footage that happened on the trip, though, and he gets back to nice weather with a nice scene of snowmobile overtaking another snowmobile, with camera pointed at nice, then you see that we’re on a snowmobile, then we overtake the one ahead, and now we stay abreast of it for second until the cut. For shots taking from a moving vehicle, it’s nice to shoot another moving vehicle that is moving a slightly slower or faster speed to give something interesting to look at and illustrate what’s going on.

Herzog’s cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger used very little shallow depth of field in this entire film (possibly because it was shot on an HDV camera which likely had 1/3″ sensors – at one point you can see what appears to be a prosumer video camera reflected in the sphere at the South Pole). Most of the interviews have a lot of background visible at beginning, then cut to a medium shot, and zoom in for emphasis at key points, or cut to tight shot. I noticed that on the medium and tight shots, the person was positioned close to center but just to one side. So he didn’t really follow convention of putting person clearly to one side or the other, and it works fine.

The scene where the scientists are listening to the ice is a great example of how he anticipated the edit, and then went out and got the best quality recording of seal sounds he could get (the Wikipedia entry for the film says it came from Douglas Quin, a sound expert.) But the visuals he pairs the incredible sounds with are really quite simple, and in fact, not well exposed (the faces are very dark). Herzog mentions what a bitch it was to shoot in the bright sun and ice, and I’m sure that’s true.

Another well-crafted transition: 1. Face of scientists pressed against ice listening to sci-fi seal sounds. 2. Cut to torch being ignited with a loud “pop.” 2. medium shot of him soldering pipe with torch. 3. cut to interview tight shot of face and hands. This is great way to get into the interview, and he uses it throughout the film as a way of introducing us quickly to the characters while moving the film along lyrically. For the interviews, when the camera is on sticks (about half the time) the camera operator stays on top of the action, and isn’t locked off – there is reframing.

Lots of helicopter footage bridges the sequences. Then wide establishing shot of hut where divers dive from. I mentioned the dive scene previously, so I’ll skip to this memorable scene after the dive, with the characters at rest in their hut watching a movie. This scene was obviously staged: the camera walks in slowly to the room, approaches one of the guys, then turns slowly, on cue to where they had set up the dvd, and then walks toward the small screen on which an old sci-fi film, “They,” was playing. Just at the moment the camera gets close to the screen and pauses, a nuclear flash detonates on the screen. And we hear horrible shrieks and drama with insects attacking people. It’s perfect match for Herzog’s narration.

One interesting technique: I noticed that in the interview with globe-traveling woman, he rolls on the hallway of her place for a good 10 seconds, before turning and walking slowly into her room, where she is painting. The next cut and we’re into the interview with her, of course. But the conscious decision to roll extra time at beginning of interview allowed Herzog to use that to set up the interview with his narration. I’m guessing he had his dp do that for all the interviews, and it’s a technique that I am going to adopt in interview situations to provide maximum flexibility in editing: roll 10 count BEFORE interview, and 10 count AFTER interview.

There are a ton of really WIDE shots in the interiors during the film. So much, that you see the world distorting when the camera pans – the straight lines are bent. It’s a little distracting, but clearly, this film was more about story and less about perfect cinematography.

From the interview with the guy who always has a pack ready to go (which includes a raft), he cuts to Shackleton’s ship pushing through icebergs. Interesting non-linear cut, because we’d already seen Shackleton’s ship founder on rocks in previous historical footage. But sets up next scene: we visit Shackleton’s camp, which is almost perfectly preserved by subsequent explorers and the cold air.

Next is a sequence dropped in (and lower film quality) of odd dude who aims to break weird records like walking with milk chocolate on his head, or doing most number of miles via summersault, in strange places like Antarctica. The whole sequence is created from archival footage – Herzog just needed the freakiest freak possible to carry the narration, and somehow got the footage to support it, and didn’t mind that it brought down the technical quality of the film. Archival footage you can get away with a lot, apparently.

The most memorable sequence in the film, with the sound ON, was this next one, of the penguin. Specifically, the one who wanders away from the pack to certain death. But I noticed with sound OFF, that it really doesn’t have near the arresting power as it did with the narration. In fact, it could have easily been camera angle trickery, it seems, so we trust Herzog to be telling it like it was. I was surprised just how much depended on his narration when I watched the same sequence without sound. Just goes to show that you can make good footage a LOT better with supporting sound and narration.

Another 1-2 cut: flying over volcano’s rim, to standing on the rim. This 1-2 editing works great to get us into the interviews. Herzog uses footage from the cameras to show eruption, as it wasn’t erupting when he was there, as well as dramatic footage of first explorers, who were injured by eruption while attempting to descend into it. His narration again makes the footage look MUCH more dramatic than it really is when you watch with sound off.

The shot of ice-covered machinery, and crashed helicopter (explored from several angles by camera) is great visual for narration.

The scenes shot under the pole in the dark tunnel are truly alien. Lighting them by using scientists flashlights to illuminate the objects – sturgeon, popcorn covered shrine, adds to otherworldly vibe.

I noticed two sections of the film fading to black and fading up, presumably indicating an act change or significant new part of film. And yet I didn’t feel like the film was really composed of acts.

One thing I wondered: did they film some of the helicopter stuff at 60p and then conform it to 24? That would probably help smooth out the shots, which do look slow mo in some cases. And explain why some of the helicopter footage is lower quality than the rest of film (assuming rest was shot at 1080p).

Another beautiful cut: After climbing around in fumaroles, there’s a wide shot of the snowy fumarole, and the camera tilts up slowly, until we see the sun filling the frame (which causes light to stop down, narrowing the size of the sun). Bang! We cut to big snow machine carrying a piece of aluminum that the sun is reflected in, which carries us forward into the next scene of the film – the helium-filled balloon launch, to study nutrinos – the films last sequence.

There’s the last interview with the handsome nutrino researcher who waxes philosophical about nature of existence, hinting that we’re coming to end of film. He describes an explosion at end of his interview and we cut to scene of the doors where balloon was stored opening to let sun shine in for one brief second – great edit. Then it’s over, fade to black.

Up comes three words in simple white Times font (which all text in film is set in): “For Roger Ebert.” I did some Googling, and it turns out that Roger Ebert has been a huge supporter of Werner Herzog, helping his films receive a wider audience than they might otherwise have achieved. In this open letter to Werner Herzog, Ebert says this, which is the highest form of praise any documentary filmmaker could hope for:

You have the audacity to believe that if you make a film about anything that interests you, it will interest us as well. And you have proven it.

Encounters at the End of the World | documentary 16 of 100

After watching Encounters at the End of the World last night, I think the film’s subtitle should be: filtered through Warner Herzog’s brain, things get strange.

Synopsis: German filmmaker Warner Herzog visits Antarctica, lured by haunting images of divers swimming under the ice shot by a friend. While there he makes some arresting images of his own, and meets some unusual characters, both animal and human. Apparently taking it as an article of faith that humans will one day go extinct as a result of global warming, he trains his camera on what aliens might one day learn about us based on the well-preserved evidence left behind on this beautiful, brutal continent by explorers dating back to Shackleton.

Story and Structure: The film is a personal narrative, a travelogue that follows a roughly chronological structure, beginning with Herzog’s arrival by plane in Antarctica, and concluding somewhere near the end of the trip (we don’t actually see him leave). Herzog narrates the film from beginning to end, explaining why he came here, complete with details about how the film was funded, and what interests him about the place and the people he finds. In between the narrated bits, the story is advanced by interviews with the characters Herzog meets, whom he questions (with his voice clearly audible off camera). The interviews often give way to scenes of the people doing their thing – exploring volcanos, diving under the ice, harvesting seal milk. Herzog supports his story with a few archival clips from Westerns, as well as historical footage from Shackleton’s voyage. And ultimately his story is this: man goes on a quest seeking things, sometimes finding them, sometimes not, but ultimately bearing witness to the incredible misery, mystery and beauty of the universe, which is itself completely impervious to us.

Cinematography: This is a beautiful film. And yet, it’s full of handheld, jerky shots that at first made me think: how come he didn’t steady that? On second thought, it’s perfect – the world as Herzog sees it in this film is imperfect, conflicted, and a less-than-perfect camera work emphasizes this point. Shots that would have used a steadicam or dolly in a slicker production are simply walked into with the camera shoulder carried.

Another interesting thing I observed was that a few of the interviews used direct address: with the subject talking straight into the camera. It’s not a convention, though: many of the interviews are conducted with the person looking off axis. The interview with the Apache plumber is an utterly fantastic example of why great camera operators always leave the camera running after the person appears to be finished speaking: the guy just stands there with his fingers together, and then goes back to work. The camera operator keeps the camera on him. The guy sees the camera is still on him, so he feels the need to perform. He grabs the torch, and says “I call on the spirit of my ancestors! Let there be fire!” It nails his character. Takeaway: Always roll at least a 10 count after you think the shot has ended. Always.

Editing: I like how simple editing conventions are used to get us into the various points in the story: for example, the scene in which the milk is harvested from the seals, opens with the seals being milked. Then we cut to a wide shot of the ice-perched lab where the results are studied. As soon as the shot changes from the seals to the wide shot of the lab, Herzog’s narration begins. Then we cut to a medium shot of the lab. Narration continues, and we cut to a shot inside the lab, where a scientist is preparing the sample for analysis. Narration ends, and the woman’s voice begins: “This was just collected today…” Great storytelling device. We get from there to the next sequence by cutting from face of scientists listening to seals below ice to a close up of a blowtorch being lit by a plumber.  The ‘pop’ of the flame igniting is matched with the last ‘pop’ of the seal sounds. Lots of beautiful cuts like this in the film.

Editing interviews: I noticed that reframing on interviews worked well in many cases. That is: Set up the interview, get the person talking. Then reframe between questions (zoom in to medium shot). Also, roll on face of person when they are not talking. That worked great because Herzog had time to finish his narration before the person picks up talking.

Music and Sound: Sounds is very important to creating the mood of this film, and haunting music carries the long underwater sequences and ice cave sequences. But most of the time it’s subtle and in the background, contributing to the mood. Chanting begins and ends the film, always in a different language than English. I watched the film with my friend Oksana, who is from Russia, and she told me the chanting at the end was Orthodox priests chanting in Russian about forgiveness and begging God for mercy. How perfect is that? But for everyone else, it’s just weird chanting with words that might as well be from another planet creating an eerie sense of mystery. One thing that surprised me: there’s virtually no sound of wind in the film, which I would have expected to hear in such a harsh place. Apparently they did a great job blimping the mics, probably a little too good. But the audio is of exceptionally high quality. Also they did a great job recording and incorporating found sound – the scientists who play guitar to celebrate finding a new species, for example.