DOCNYC's State of the Art delivers / by KirstenStudio

There were two symposiums at DOCNYC.  The first one sounded more eclectic and interesting than the second, but I attended the second since it sounded as though it would more directly apply to what I do.  I am sorry to have missed the first session of the first symposia, Doc Convergence, called Story Leads to Action.  Judith Helfand led that discussion. I have a feeling that one was good.  It covered social issue documentary filmmaking and it's impact. State of the Art was Saturday's symposia and the day long event was broken into 5 different sessions. Each panel addressed major creative roles in filmmaking. The morning covered directing and archiving.  The afternoon held a cinematography, an editing and creative producing sessions.  They were more or less lasted an hour where the moderator asked them about specific topics to their jobs and films with the traditional question and answer period at the end.

As someone that has been to more than a few of these types of events, from IFP week to EditFest New York, to Women Make Movies Master Classes and workshops, etc, after awhile as an attendee, you can start wondering if you're at a creative and/or technical point that you've kind of heard many of the tips, tricks and insights of the trade.  Certain areas do get repeated A LOT at these things and that's sort of unavoidable as the audience is often wide ranging in experience.  Of course there's value in repetition for sure and hearing something from more than once from an expert can validate certain approaches to filmmaking.  But after some time, a person might start questioning whether attending film panels is still a necessary exercise for growth.

I found myself contemplating just that on my way to the symposia that morning. I kept thinking about this during the first session, Art of Directing.  Not long into it, however, I heard something that made me think.  

Director, Marshall Curry (Racing Dreams, Street Fight) said he does what he can to keep his subjects removed the filmmaking process when interviewing.  He doesn't ask interviewees to respond to questions in declarative sentences.  He said if you have to give them response instructions, a subject will become self-conscience will speak unnaturally.  That is so true and I experience this all the time.  Mr. Marshall's approach is to phrase questions in a way that almost requires complete sentences.  His example was to ask something like, "Where are you from and how old are you?". The natural response would be a complete sentence.  "I'm from New York and I'm 35 years old."  If the question is posed as "How old are you?", the usual response would be "35".  I deal with this all the time and in raw footage I hear the director or interviewer giving those declarative sentence instructions, which people really struggle with thinking about.  I myself have asked interviewers to tell the subject about responding appropriately because it's a little more challenging to cut without complete sentences at time.  That seems like a minor sort of filming tip, but it was big for me.  Creating a more natural environment for a character, creates a more natural film in the editing room, or so it should be.

All directors were interesting to hear from and included the very talented Heidi Ewing (12th & Delaware, Jesus Camp) and an energetic Josh Fox (Gasland).

The second morning panel was on archiving.  It was informative for me because although I've done research on films before and I've purchased screeners from a couple of different companies, the whole archival business is still a bit mysterious. The State of the Archives panel was lead by filmmaker Astra Taylor (Examined Life). Frankly it still is somewhat mysterious because dealing with archival imagery, its cost and licensing is very very situational, but all panelist offered their cards and encouraged contact.  Panelists included members of the Association of Commercial Stock Image Licensors and came from companies such as Claribel Torres, from the Associated Press and a woman from  NBC News Archives. One panelist, Jessica Berman-Bogdan, President of Global Imageworks, made a plea to refrain from stretching the term "fair use" and to please be responsible to what you are using as well as the research and archival industry.  She said using "fair use" as an excuse for not paying for it, isn't responsible to the content, the archival industry and can hurt the filmmaker later. With all the hoopla around fair use, this is definitely something to keep in mind not only for ethical reasons, but so it doesn't bite you later.

The afternoon sessions were fascinating.  In particular the Art of Cinematography.  DP's Kirsten Johnson (The Oath, Pray the Devil Back to Hell), Michael Palmieri (October Country) and Janus Metz (Armadillo) were moderated by fellow cinematographer Ross Kauffman (Born into Brothels). This discussion really opened my eyes more to DP's various approaches to their work and some aspects they consider before and during their shoot. Exciting territory was covered such as the responsibility a director of photography has toward their director and the subjects they film. There was talk about find the right moment, using peripheral vision to pick up on things in conjunction with the viewfinder or flip screen.  Use all your senses to observe and make decisions.  The question was brought up as to whether DP's feel as though they become a character in the piece they're filming.   A character just due to the fact that they are a part of the composition by being there, whether seen or heard from or not.  By filming, we are seeing the end result through they're perspective to a certain extent as well.  And what do they think? There were mixed responses but most agreed that it's unavoidable.  Mr. Metz thought so.  Kirsten Johnson (what an awesome first name...) sited an example of filming a woman on the streets of Afghanistan.  There was risk to them both for doing that in public. Ms. Johnson said she regretted not allowing herself to become a character by filming men's reaction to their shoot.  She said she had shot around it, avoiding the stares and gawking in order to avoid becoming a character.  Later she realized filming their response would have lent itself to the story.

Generally speaking, this panel was super interesting and they all interacted with each other well and the conversations felt collaborative. As an editor, it was very informative to hear from seasoned DP's.

The following group was Art of Editing and featured the likes of Sam Pollard (Gerrymandering, When the Levees Broke), Jean Tsien (Please Vote For Me, Shut Up & Sing), David Zieff (Crazy Love, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster), moderated by the filmmaker Doug Block (The Kids Grow Up, 51 Birch Street).  I've been to a lot of panels on editing and have seen both Mr. Pollard and Ms. Tsien speak a number of times.  Each time is great.  I had never seen David Zieff on a panel but he had a great clip of work shown and he was very funny and honest.

I wish this session would have gone into more depth, but that's probably because I am in this field so it's less mysterious and because I've attended A LOT of post-production workshops and panel discussions.  Nevertheless, they're usually always good and how can you not be interested with this kind of gathering of speakers?

Something that does get addressed at events like EditFest and other post-production panels is the fading opportunities for assistant editors, which I definitely feel.  It's the mentorship between senior editors and their assistants who are striving for their own editor spot.  I know from experience that many assistant editor positions require more time in a completely separate room, like a machine room, than sharing space with the head editor, which creates a certain disconnect for creative influence.  I have to say though, my time in the machine room was a huge growing experience for me.  I met talented smart people and was forced to become more technically minded, which was painful but good for me.  Technology is great, but it has also changed the assistant editor game, some of it makes life incredibly easier as an assistant and then some of it sucks. I guess that's show-biz, but I do wish there were more available mentorship programs for assistant and junior level editors.  I've had terrific mentors on a couple of occasions that were project specific or for an afternoon session or two but nothing consistent or for a an extended period of time on a real project.  I definitely had nice and talented people make efforts but in those circumstances it was more about practicing by making up a project for the exercise of editing rather than assisting on a real project and getting feedback on it and real sit-down time with a seasoned editor.  I have found that being mentored on real project that creates practical editing situations has been the most helpful to me.  I worked with a very talented editor for a few months as an assistant on an independent film.  I would be given some material, told the purpose of the scene, what scene it was going to come off of and what scene would follow it.  I would cut it that night after they left and I finished my regular assistant tasks, then in the next day or two we'd sit down together and I'd be critiqued. I'd be asked why I made certain choices and what worked and what didn't work.  Sometimes I'd be asked to re-cut it based on the critique and sometimes they'd take it over from there.  Although the mentorship took place at a time where I was completely new to documentary and I really had no idea what I was doing, it was the best growing experience I've had as an editor.  It gave me real critical thinking tools that I still use and they're even more useful now that I know a little more what I'm doing.  I wish I could have that kind of mentorship again on occasion.  It's kind of invaluable regardless of your level in my opinion.  These situations see unusual though unless you have the good fortune of being at Tisch in a Sam Pollard class or assisting Jean Tsien who says she loves assistant editors.

Mr. Pollard says he finds good assistant editors through teaching and Ms. Tsien said she relies on her assistants a lot because they always know the project material better than anyone and she lets them cut scenes.  We should all be so lucky as to assist these people.  It is good to hear the assistant is still valuable and isn't just there to do lay-offs, back up media and sort footage into bins and clips.  Although those are important tasks to learn and know as they are essential to project and they give the organizer the opportunity to really get to know the footage and elements, it's usually not the reason editors go into post-production.  Everyone want to contribute creatively.  At least that's been my experience.

The editing panel was great and one thing the moderator, Mr. Block, learned was that Mr. Pollard prefers to work without the director over his shoulder until he's ready.  I don't think that's too unusual, but it made for a funny bit during the session.

The last panel of the day was Creative Producing and featured all women, which was awesome.  A wide range of producers too. Judith Helfand moderated and this session was presented by Chicken and Egg. Producers present were Joslyn Barnes (producing partner of Danny Glover and executive producer, The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, Trouble the Water), Lori Cheatle (The Kids Grow Up, 51 Birch Street), Nekisa Cooper (Eventual Salvation), Amy Ziering (Outrage, Derrida) and Trish Adlesic (Gasland).

This is another grey area to a lot of people, even those that have been working in the industry.  Also, a lot of people don't think of producers as creative, but in my opinion you really need to be in order to be a terrific one.  As was obvious by previous sessions that mentioned their great producers and this session, a producer is not just raising funds or planning your distribution.  A producer is someone that has a creative eye and business savvy and the panelists covered some of that.

A question was asked about first time filmmakers and most of the producers here seemed leery of first timers.  As Mr. Ziering said, she'd love to work with new filmmakers but even working with a well known successful documentary filmmaker such as Kirby Dick is tough because getting a documentary on its feet and running AND one that will make some money is a very tough business.  Ms. Cooper seemed a little more open to discussion but everyone agreed it was very challenging to take on someone who doesn't have a solid proved portfolio.

State of the Art was something I would repeat next year, assuming DOCNYC is creative enough not to make it too repetitive and I'm sure they won't.  It was the first time I've been to a symposia that covered so many aspects of filmmaking in one day and it certainly gave me great insights into other keys positions in the filmmaking formula, especially the Art of Cinematography session.  Just terrific.  Look forward to next year.