Family Stories

I’ve been working for awhile on a memorial video for my mom who passed earlier this year. I had videotaped her looking at photo albums and I recorded her reactions and her thoughts, but those recordings were never used. I’ll explain why. Back in ’96 I filmed my mom using my Arri 16mm BL camera. This is before I made my feature “Deadly Obsessions“. I thought it would be a good exercise to get familiar with the camera while at the same time putting my mom on film for posterity. I had no idea on how or when I would use this in the future. I even recorded our first Thanksgiving dinner with the family in our small apartment in New York. It was fun and I was trying to do the things that I was taught in film school at Brooklyn College. I bought the Arri BL to force myself into using it. I did, and it was a good idea, but hard and a bit of a pricey experience. There were some problems, but since it was a test run to get me more familiar with the camera I managed to get image and sound. Just a small amount of footage was unusable, but the sound was good. It will always astound me that future generations will never know the butterflies you get when you load film in a changing bag, and the then wait to see your dailies from the lab. In a pure digital realm there are other problems of course like corrupt drives, but loading a film magazine in a changing bag can be a sweaty and nerve wrecking experience. As they say. Practice, practice, and PRACTICE!

I had hoped to make a film about my dad who passed in the mid 90’s. I needed to learn about those early days and since I did not have an interview with my dad on video or film. I would have to rely on people who knew him. My mom was that person. That was the plan, but as usual life got in the way and the film became more about my mom, and how she met my dad and how she grew up after losing her father and then mother. I was glad to have the footage and it is in the majority of the film. I had the footage transferred to VHS and digitized that footage for the film. This was way before digital media, and so I figured this was the better way to see how well I had done. Back when I did the interview hard drives were expensive, and transferring it to digital cost. There is still a bit of a perfectionist in me to have the film transferred to a hard drive now and re-edit the film with better looking footage of her. I may do that just to satisfy the archivist in me, but first I need to find a facility near me that does this or I might just have the lab I originally used to do it. The lab was DuArt films in New York. I’ve used them since I was in film school, and they alway did a GREAT job. Another lab worth noting is ColorLab down in Maryland. I used ColorLab to strike an answer print for my feature, and their also tops in their field. I’ll see how it goes, but first back to the film. I wanted to get the film done in time for my dad’s and moms anniversary in October. I don’t know why, but I gave myself a deadline and that helped me get the film done. It forced me to focus and find a beginning, middle and an end to the film.

I used Adobe Premiere to edit my mom’s film. I was familiar with the program having used it in the past, but now I had to re-learn it and what better way to do that then having a project to finish. I used tutorials on YouTube and tutorials from Adobe. Adobe has a whole lot of tutorials on their website, and when you subscribe to the service you get a whole host of videos to help you navigate and learn Premiere. To say that I learned a lot is an understatement. I’m still in the process of learning the software and have found out that it does way more then it did when I first used it. I edited for over two months to get the footage in order and scanned many old photos to use in the film.

My only regret is NOT filming more of my mom. The DV footage I shot was of little use. I mostly used them to know where and who were in the photographs. I got a sense of how they went chronologically and that’s how I got to know my mom’s history. To say that the DV footage didn’t have any value is not correct. It gave me a better understanding of my subject. But time is your enemy, and if you think you’ll one day do this yourself I would suggest you to whip out your cell phone and start recording your subject NOW! I was fortunate that I recorded my mom when she had most of her facilities and she remembered a lot of what happened throughout the years. I think I did the best I could do, and have been complimented on the film. I simple named it “Irene” and it felt fitting. I could hear her complain about being made a fuss over, but that’s the point. How many of us know our family members and their story. Our parents were young at one time and it was much different then then it is now. With ever death the stories are lost, and those stories need to be told. Each story is a moment in time and I firmly believe that there is a fabric to life that is woven in these stories. It’s as old as sitting around a campfire and talking about our experiences. It’s only when you zoom out and look at the bigger picture that all those stories make sense finally, and through them we see similarities with one another I find that very fascinating. Were not all that different from one another. Good stories are meant to be told. The more real the better.

I have to confess that I was very inspired by Martin Scorsese’s film “Italian-American”. In the film he talks to his mom and dad about growing up in the old neighborhood. It’s a love letter to his parents and better yet it’s a testimony of the love Scorsese’s parents had for each other. I wish I had done this with my parents. Now days it’s even easier to just film people with your cell phone and not use bulky noisy equipment like 16mm cameras, but you need to take the time to do so, and time is what we don’t have. We think we do but we don’t.

The film hopefully is for future generations to look back at. Everyone loves an origin story & we all have them. We may not be rock stars, or famous actors or actresses but we all know people who did extraordinary things. Raising a family is an accomplishment in itself, and maybe finding common connections with one another helps us understand each other better. Because when we understand and know how people grew up we might just find out we have more in common with each other then we realize. By knowing that we may just start talking to each other instead of shouting at one another. At least that’s my lofty idea. Whether it comes to fruition is anybody’s guess. So without further pontification I’ll just let the work speak for itself. I learned a lot from this exercise, and have an idea on doing one on my father, but that entails digitizing old media and putting myself in front of the camera. It’s an exercise that will be challenging, but worth doing.

Filmmaking: Trade or art form?

I’ve been working on a short film about my mom. She died recently and I have over the years recorded mom talking about our family history. I being an only child wanted to preserve the history for my children, so they would get an idea on where and how we came about. Of course this history has been hard to get a handle on. I had my mom talk about things that I had questions on, but as her dementia became more and more prevalent the more I worried about losing it all. We all don’t realize that our parents had a lives before us, and that they had dreams and aspirations as well, so I wanted to document this. If anything for me and my family and maybe their families someday.

What I needed to do is warm up those filmmaking skills I had learned so many years ago. Of course things and technology have changed, but I have kept up with the technology as best I could. I first downloaded DaVinci Resolve which I found really great, but there was a problem. Some of my footage was on Digital video tapes. Those small cassettes we all shot with on our Sony’s & Cannon cameras back in the 80’s and 90’s. I also had some 16mm film that I transferred to tape which needed to be digitized. DaVinci does not handle archaic formats well. So I broke down and bought Adobe Premiere. I am familiar with Premiere since it was one of the first non-linear editing software I used in my career. But some time has gone by, and Premiere has become a monster. It can do many, many things, and Adobe has made many improvements, so I needed to tech up, and I am still in the process of doing so. Digitizing stills, videos, and audio has become a crash dive into the new Adobe Premiere, and at times a frustrating & invigorating experience.

So how much is filmmaking a trade and how much is it an art form? Filmmaking requires many skill sets. The more you know about those skill sets the better filmmaker you are. My dad had always wanted me to learn a trade. “Learn a trade and you can go anywhere in the world” he said. Be a world citizen and learn about the world. That’s what was drilled into me, and somehow I did that but instead of plumbing or some other trade I learned the rudiments of making a film. From film cinematography to film editing I became more and more entrenched in those disciplines then most. I had good teachers but technology moves on and things change. I bragged that I could teach filmmaking to anyone in 20 to 30 minutes, and yet it would take you a lifetime to master it as an art form. While filmmaking has it’s trades it is also an art form which you can create by mastering several filmmaking disciplines.

I learned that or am learning that as I edit together my family’s history. Digital film has become more and more easier for the average person to learn. It is that which I find so fascinating and fun. Here I am a college graduate with a degree in film production, and I feel inadequate behind this software, yet I find a community on-line where I can get answers quickly to my film production problems, and with every piece of knowledge I fall more and more in love again with filmmaking.

I have known many excellent technicians, but there is something else that is needed to become a proficient and GREAT filmmaker. That is experience and the knowledge of creating a GOOD story. You can be proficient in editing and cinematography, but if you don’t have a good story all you have are interesting images, set to dialogue and /or music.

I find myself frustrated and antsy on NOT knowing it all, but I find myself telling myself to look at the story. The mechanics of piecing it together will come. As I am editing my little film I find myself getting more and more inspired, and this little film is becoming bigger and more intricate as I go. The story is dictating the technique, and that’s an interesting development. Is filmmaking a trade or art form? I say they are both, but the master filmmaker will use both his skills to create a piece of art that will be bigger then what he/her thought it was. Learning the mechanics is a basic step in creating film. The better armed you are the better you’re film will be.

So back to this little film I am doing. What I thought would take me a few weeks may take me longer. The materials I have on hand dictate what and how the film will develop through those months, but by pushing the software & hardware further one learns the craft better & being inspired by the work is something a filmmaker can only aspire to. No matter where you are in your career be inspired and get excited by the work. I hold no illusion that the film will play in a multiplex soon, but what I find inspiring is that maybe somewhere in the distant future a descendant of mine might sit down and look at the film, and see and know better from whence they came from. They then can point to that crazy great grandfather as inspiration, and maybe that’s as good as it gets, but for now I feel inspired and inspiration is the mother to good work. In the end that’s all we really need to become good artists who have something worthwhile to say. Be inspired everyone.

Format …

I shot my film “Deadly Obsessions” on 16mm.  The question being why?  In my defense for me it was the professional way to shoot the film.  I could have shot it digitally, but then I would have been locked into a process in finishing it digitally, and the one thing that concerned me was “obsolescence”.  If I shot in digital I would have to post digitally, and I knew I did not have the money for that.  I had read and watched “the Blair Witch Project” and other productions like “the Last Broadcast”, and thought I really liked how they were created yet I did not think that digital video was the way to go.  Since I shot “Deadly Obsessions” there has been advances in digital filmmaking, and now I would say that if you have limited resources digital is the way to go.  But back then when I was planning my film I was thinking of films that were shot in 16mm like “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer“, “Clerks“, “El Mariachi”, “Pi“, “Evil Dead“,”She’s Gotta have It” and even “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre“.   I had trained on 16mm, and liked it a lot.  I also knew that whatever format is dominant in the future I know having a 16mm negative would be to my advantage.  Everything now is HD, and though I shot in 16mm I can scan the negative and create an HD product.  This of course is an expensive proposition, but worthwhile, and at least I don’t doom my project to obsolescence.

In order for me to finish on 16mm I had to edit on 16mm.  I found an old 6 plate Steenbeck editor someone was selling not far from where I lived.  Getting the Steenbeck  home from where I bought it from was a herculean effort.  I enlisted my Uncle and even the guy I bought it off from to help me get it into the apartment.  I already had reel to reel rewinds, and a syncing block, so I could sync up my magnetic track and work-print.  By editing on film the big advantage for me was that I knew going into this that the film would be completed after a few years.  I had a day job and had to work.   On my time off I edited my film.  This also provided me enough time to save more money for the mix, the negative cutting, and the answer print.  It was from the answer print that I made a copy of the film on Beta digital tape which is where I made my DVD’s from.

Now I’m not going to say that I felt exhilarated at editing the footage this way because of the tactile sensation of handling my film.  It was stressful, and I felt like a dinosaur.  Cutting and splicing shots and effects was the only way I knew how to finish the film with the budget I had.  I occasionally went out with my Nagra recorder and recorded sound effects that I would later lay into the sound effects track of the film.  For me it worked.  The only sound effect that I purchased was a shotgun blast.  The rest of the effects were all created by me going out and recording it.  Just like John Travolta’s character in the film “Blow-Out”.   I have to say I used everything I was ever taught and even learned a few new tricks.  One of those tricks was videotaping my footage off the Steenbeck, and then digitizing that footage into my computer where I edited it on Premiere.  It was there that I could go quicker and see several different cuts before I attacked it on the Steenbeck.  I do not shy away from technology.  I embrace it, and use it to my advantage.  I am amazed at seeing how now students use digital editing to their advantage.  But in the end editing is editing.  No matter what you use and how you go about it the rules to editing still apply, and as always rules are sometimes meant to be broken.  The French New Wave and Sergei Eisenstein taught us that.

To sum up. I used what I had.  If you have a prosumer camera I’d say go ahead and shoot your film.  Do some tests and push that piece of equipment as far as you can.  It’s now easier to create your own film then it was in the past.  No excuses.   Remember how do you want to show this film?  There are great digital projectors now that project a fantastic image.  Most theaters now do project digitally, so all you need is a Blue-Ray disk and your set, and Adobe Premiere does a great job at creating  one, and there is now Adobe Premiere Rush for content creators.  Go ahead and use what you have or what you can get your hands on.  Format is important, but necessity is the mother of invention, so no excuses.  Go make that film.

  • A big thank you to my wife Phyllis who took the pictures of me.  Alway my best cheerleader and partner in crime.