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."