Sunday, December 28, 2014

Emerging from the Editing Room

After the long and rather monastic process of cutting together the material amassed over the course of production "78rpm" is now emerging from the editing room.

Still some final steps -- even though editing is done -- those last technical and aesthetic finishing touches that transform an "edit" into a movie.

There's a way of talking about the cutting of a documentary (a form notorious for bulking up on hours and hours of footage) that sounds much like trying to lose weight. The exercise of keystrokes on the editing station slims down the running time in such a way that one might exclaim: "I'm down to 2 hours and 6 minutes!" as if one had just stepped on the bathroom scale.

A good friend of mine was telling me this summer about editing her first big project, and how she began the process with a three-hour rough cut. Confronted with material she was reluctant to remove from the film, she kept telling herself that she wasn't completely getting rid of what she began to cut from it. These scenes would be "DVD Extras." The film was completed and it had a quite successful life of screenings. But she never got around to compiling all those DVD extras after all that -- they were, however, a good mental conceit for parting with footage dear to the heart but not helpful to the project moving forward.

Suffice to say, some lovely material has crossed the rainbow bridge into the Valhalla of "DVD Extras."

* * *

One aspect of the editing process that proved itself of great value in the last stages of things -- especially for a large project with many elements in play -- were the many private viewings and pieces of feedback from colleagues and cohorts.

A film plays very differently on a screen than it does on an editing platform, sometimes in quite subtle ways. Some of the advice I received made it directly into the film, but other suggestions were helpful in a more indirect way, pointing me toward sections of the film that needed attention -- even if the solution turned out to be something very different than what had been advised.

There's an art to giving feedback too. Sometimes there are very good suggestions that are nonetheless unhelpful -- not because of the quality of the idea, but because every film is a personal vision and there are many ways of making a film. Suffice to say, it might be a good suggestion. . . for the film that person should make themselves. Feedback of a more open-ended type can often be more useful, as paradoxical as that sounds.

But even sensing the energy in the room when people are seeing the film is a critical thing to the fine-tuning of pacing and the length of an ellipsis from one sequence to the next. And in a private work-in-progress screening there's no more beautiful sound than to hear laughter from other people at a funny moment in the film after so many times viewing it in the cutting room and hoping it will translate onto the screen. There can be a real danger in discovering how all this will play out by waiting until the film's premiere, and so I'd highly recommend it to other filmmakers as a useful lesson from the process here.

"That's all."

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Editing, Editing, Editing

"78rpm" is deep into in its next phase of creation: now traveling around in the footage, instead of traveling around with Bolex and HD camera gathering images and interviews.   It's very satisfying to see all the diverse elements come into consolidation as a whole.

Thinking back on the plans I was making last year at the outset this project.  I'd been anticipating contemporary collectors and enthusiasts as the primary subject matter.  But as it turns out, I've been able to weave in more history and background information on the 78 record than I'd expected.  Of course, this historic information is a tricky matter for inclusion, since I'm seeking to avoid creating a film that reads like a moving-image Wikipedia page.  Also seeking the right balance between interviews, vintage music, background history, contemporary profiles, various side-issues, jumping-off points, larger thoughts on the subject, and smaller details.  It's interesting to observe how the proportions of one thing affect everything else. . . taking out a long section from the rough cut about the early days of the record industry affects the other sections; suddenly there's a better balance in the relative allocation of time for the contemporary portraits, the musical vignettes, and everything else.  Not an easy juggling act to simultaneously view the forest and the trees, but it's also the gratifying part of editing as well.  Editing can be a meditative process, driven by aesthetic instincts as well as reasoning, where one can get into a groove and lose track of time.  And at other parts of the day, walking around the city, the editing continues, the footage being rearranged as mental pictures even in these moments separated from the material itself.

Then, there are the occasional moments when editing is like following in the footesteps of Gustave Flaubert as he described spending a whole morning putting in a comma, and an entire afternoon taking the comma out.

* * *

One of the first sequences to be cut together was the explanation of why 78rpm records are 78 revolutions per minute, why that speed was chosen instead of some other speed.  We cut between different interviews to discover all the various considerations and answers surrounding this.  Why 78rpm?  It's a more complex issue than I expected.  Are the reasons primarily technical?  Or does it have more to do with the compromise of fitting a piece of music of a certain duration on a record of a certain size?  Does it have more to do with compatibility, having a common standard?  Is it a loophole in avoiding patent infringement issues?  Pathé, Edison, and other companies used 80rpm, so why use 78 instead of 80?  And how often were "78s" actually not recorded at 78rpm?

But time to go back into the editing cave, hopefully to emerge with a finished movie in the not too distant future.

"That's all."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Kinetta scans!

The 16mm hand-processed b&w footage shot for "78rpm" has been scanned by Kinetta -- a lovely looking digital incarnation of the analog film footage -- at the recently opened Kinetta Archival facility in NYC.

Some aspects of the making of the project to contemplate in relation to the film's subject matter, since technology and obsolescence as one of the project's main themes:

The scenes between the interviews have been shot with newly manufactured ORWO film stock on a Bolex camera made in the 1960s, and yet these analog technologies haven't become dated, they still work to give you a "film" image.  But, on the digital side of filmmaking, what's up-to-date or out-of-date changes practically from one day to the next.  If I was making this film a few years ago I would have had the film footage put onto video (with a video tape as backup) using a state-of-the-art telecine transfer -- perhaps not even an HD transfer, since those were very expensive at the time.  But now, those telecine transfers seem to be the old-school method.  With "scanning" rather than "transferring," we've leapfrogged ahead of even High Definition video: the scans are larger than HD, and actually have to be reduced down to High Definition for editing.

I was able to sit down with the creator of the Kinetta Archival Scanner, Jeff Kreines, to see the difference in quality between a low-cost HD transfer and a Kinetta scan.  One of the striking things was the difference in the look of the film's silver halide grain itself.  Sometimes in a transfer from film to video the film grain is translated as a layer of digital "mush" spread across the image, like the lumpy surface of oatmeal. But with the Kinetta scans — at about five times the resolution of HD — the look of the grain is still there, resembling film much more than other transfers. Some nice examples can be seen here.  This is of particular relevance to a project that has been hand-processed, since hand-processing introduces all the beauty of analog imperfections, the sense of tactility, to an even higher degree than film developed at the lab -- in an ironic sounding sense, it's a matter of having the imperfections be seen at their best.

And yet, while it's easy to accept the notion that anything analog is old technology and anything digital is new, I'm editing now with Final Cut Pro 7, perhaps the most out-of-date aspect of the whole project (the 50-year-old Bolex included).  This is the discontinued version of Apple's editing software, supplanted by Final Cut Pro X, much to the consternation of the professional editing world. The term of art in obsolescent software (lacking in bug fixes, updates, and tech support) is to call it a "legacy system."  So while you can still get film for the 16mm Bolex, the days are numbered for this particular digital editing software (as soon as Apple introduces a new operating system that won't run FCP7, it's bye-bye software).

And so, to sum things up, we have a panoply of different technologies put to work, with modes of evolution and longer and shorter lifespans: The good, old Bolex (still relevant as a tool for gathering beautiful, filmic images a half-century later), newly manufactured 16mm film stock (a format first introduced in 1923), and Kinetta scans of a quality that are practically ahead of the curve (that is to say, higher quality than even HD), and obsolescent digital editing technology (Final Cut was acquired by Apple in 1999, version 7 of FCP introduced in 2009 and discontinued in 2011 -- a pretty short lifespan).  So I suppose the "newest" aspect of the project (besides the Kinetta scans) is the 16mm film, since it was just recently manufactured.

And so, as I cut together interviews of people discussing the relevance of the obsolescent 78 record in a world of rapidly changing technology, I can readily relate this issue to the world of filmmaking. . . alas.

"That's all."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"78rpm" update - shooting is done, now comes editing

An update on "78rpm". . .

Shooting is now complete. Has been quite an adventure making the project so far:

• Twenty-four HD interviews with collectors, historians, experts, and enthusiasts.

• Visits to London and Norwich UK, Los Angeles CA, Austin TX, Rochester and Albany NY, Burlington and St Johnsbury VT, Philadelphia PA, West Orange and Camden NJ, and elsewhere.

• And several thousand feet of images shot on 16mm film, now in the process of being digitized and formatted.

Now comes the task of taking all this material and weaving it into a film. Expect to have a cut in the early part of next year. A lot of work to get there, but looking forward to it. Will keep you informed on progress, as the film makes its way out of the editing room, and begins the phase of getting out into the world.

MANY THANKS to all of the project's supporters and participants!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Dancers and a Gramophone

A scene for the film, with dancers (the wonderful Momojiri Girls, and a friend) and a gramophone, shot at the charming Jalopy Theater, in Brooklyn.

A droll demonstration of the physical nature of the record -- the drowsy gramophone operator drifts off to sleep, the the spring winds down, the music slows, the dancers slow down too, until the music stops completely, and the dancers are frozen in place.  The gramophonist awakes, and then, with a change in record, some cine-magic occurs (thanks to an inadvertent selection of some hot jazz).

* * *

But I do wonder about how a younger generation, growing up in a digital world, relate to the references to the workings of archaic analog technology?  Just think of the sound heard over the telephone receiver of the clicks of dialing a rotary phone.  For one generation, a familiar memory of a commonplace occurrence, for another it's something only experienced as a sound effect in a period movie.  Even among the record collectors I've interviewed there are those who were young enough at the time remember the last days of the 78 -- just as 45s and LPs where being introduced.  And others, who came along later, growing up in the age of the LP record and the cassette tape.  To listen to the 78 record was not to re-encounter a form of technology from early childhood, but instead an act of discovering something unfamiliar, in the same way that the clicks of the rotary phone must be unfamiliar to a younger generation.  Of course, there will probably be some time in the future when films of people moving their fingers on tablet screens will seem like some strange, archaic practice, leaving one thinking, "how odd and old-fashioned."

"That's all."

Friday, September 20, 2013

Austin Texas and Amelia Foxtrot

More traveling, more shooting, in search of 78 culture.  This time arriving in Austin Texas to shoot some film with Amelia Foxtrot of the Austin Phonograph Company.  Collected some footage of her DJing at the East Side Showroom.  With the symphony in red -- red phonograph horns, red lipstick, red dress, red velvet curtains -- it felt a little bit of a shame to be shooting in black and white.

A very good interview with Amelia as well, touching on both 78s and vintage culture.

* * *

Austin is a charming place for a visitor to meander, to sample the many food trucks; although it gets pretty hot out in the sun, and so dashing from one bit of shade to the next seems to be the most efficient way to travel by foot.  Didn't see much of downtown, but stuck with the more eclectic neighborhoods to the east and south of town.

Screened some work at Experimental Response Cinema while I was there.  Nice turnout and nice reaction to the films.  Included the short piece "Victrola Cinema" with a portable phonograph supplying the soundtrack "live" for the event.

* * *

A visit to Los Angeles to interview Rani Singh, director of the Harry Smith Archives.  Harry Smith was a fascinating person; an experimental filmmaker and animator, a collector of many interesting and neglected things, including 78 records of American music of the late 20s and early 30s; hillbilly music, Cajun music, old-time country music, blues singers, folk music.  Harry curated selections from his collection into a set of LP records in the early 50s, the "Anthology of American Folk Music," released by Folkways Records, and introducing old, lost music to a new and appreciative audience.

Next came a visit to Excavated Shellac for a fascinating discussion on collecting music from different cultures around the world - Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East.

Very little left to gather with the camera to be done with shooting.  But saving one of the more unusual things for last, so stay tuned. . .

"That's all."

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The allure of hand-processed b&w film

Back when I was shooting at the Edison laboratory someone asked me about the 16mm Bolex camera I was using.  And in answering why I was shooting on film, I thought aloud to myself: "Just imagine a film where you interview all these people who are talking about analog sound and the beauty of the analog medium, and the whole thing was shot on digital video?  Perhaps a bit unintentionally ironic?"

And it was just this sort of thought guiding the decision to shoot the project on black and white ORWO 16mm film with HD interviews in between.  The confluence of analog image and analog sound.  The stock itself has the lush look of classic black and white film, with high silver content and a robustness of the image that results from this.  And as far as the HD interview sequences were concerned, rather than try to meld together digital and analog media, there seemed to be an aesthetic purpose to highlight contrast between the ultra-perfect, antiseptic beauty of HD with the more earthy, material beauty of analog film.

* * *

Of course, there's also a certain charm in being able to say, "I made a feature-length project and hand-developed the whole thing."  To that extent it's also something of a dare.  The Morse tanks hold only 100 feet of film, and cranking the reels through the chemistry takes time, but I realized using two tanks at the same time doubled the speed of processing.

Hand-developing isn't really a replacement for the film lab.  The results can be pretty grungy and inconsistent, with every roll coming out a little bit different the others, with all sorts of water stains, developing inconsistencies, and maybe a little random solarization on the ends of the roll too.  But the point of hand-processing is to embrace these hand-hewn qualities as the expression of the film as tactile media.  This acceptance of the imperfect as part of the experience is not too different than the sonic experience of the murmur of surface noise from an old 78 record.

* * *


Hand-processing film has a distinct look to it -- a "patina" might be the appropriate term -- but it also connotes an aesthetic philosophy of filmmaking, the  do-it-yourself school of production, as practiced by artists like Helen Hill, whose book "Recipes for Disaster" chronicles a myriad of techniques used by artists hand-crafting their films.  Sometimes it's a question of affordability in a medium often unforgiving to the independent filmmaker.  And at other times the necessity is more than simply monetary considerations:  Filmmaker Greta Snider made a hand-processed film as an act of artistic protest over a film lab refusing to print images it deemed too erotic.

In the 1960s the London Film-Makers' Co-op built their own hand-made processing machine, motivated by a desire to provide artists with the whole means of production, independent of the commercial film industry: "...Malcolm LeGrice and his students from St. Martin's School of Art began in 1967 to build the Co-op's first film developing and printing machinery, and only later thought to acquire film equipment...(the Rube Goldbergian wooden film developer leaked light and threatened to dissolve in its own chemical baths)..."*

And this desire is flourishing today in a number of artist-run film labs across the world, many of which can be found at

* * *

The act of hand-developing film also has a poetic resonance to it; as if the transmutation sought by the alchemists is to be found in the blank emulsion of silver halides transforming into images.  There's something magical about seeing these little pictures emerge by your own effort.  And if a developing tank isn't accessible, all you need is a bucket!

"That's all."

*David Curtis, "A Tale of Two Co-ops" To Free the Cinema, David E. James ed. Princeton University Press, 1992. p 258-9