Friday, June 29, 2007
Slow Day At The Office

So, pretty soon now I'll start editing. You'll probably be hearing about this over the coming months, as I tend to get more absorbed in this part of the process than in shooting, and since it's so cerebral it generates a lot of random thoughts that will eventually need an outlet. It's strange -- I always dread the edit in the beginning, and god knows it can be absolutely torturous. But it's also when I feel most connected to the medium, when I feel the most like a filmmaker. It's deeply satisfying.

An embarrassing admission: when I first began working in film, I conscienscously avoided editing because I perceived it as "weak" work... or to be blunt, it was women's work. And if that isn't bad enough, I also initially avoided documentary work for the same reasons. I don't know if my slow, inexorable gravitation towards documentary editing is just a confirmation of all my suspicions, but suffice to say that I've pretty much given up fighting what seems so natural for me. I guess "women's work" is fine if it makes me happy.

I know, though, that editing is where I have the most potential. I'm a competent shooter, and I'm pretty good with sound (as far as I've been able to develop that skill set), but the edit, I think, is where I could move beyond competence and into genius. I undertand the nuance in a way I don't with other aspects of filmmaking. I get it, I can feel the underlying structure of a well-cut film, and I can sense the space into which editing might expand. My capacity for growth is greater here than anywhere else. At least, it will be if I can ever find a place to really dig into it.

I suppose it's obvious that I'd end up moving into editing -- I can write pretty well, and editing and writing are profoundly connected. Editing, especially in documentary work, is really just a kind of writing using sounds and images instead of words; they both rely upon your ability to construct a narrative structure, and both are more about what you cut away than what you put in. Frank Zappa once said that he was a composer first a foremost -- he happened to be a composer who worked with music, but he could compose anything. And that's how I want to be. Give me some stuff, and I'll edit it.

And it's funny, the things that used to draw me away from postproduction are now the things that are driving me towards it professionally. I love to shoot for myself, but I just don't think I want to spend my working life dealing with the kind of tense, hectic environment you find in industry productions. I used to hate the idea of spending eight or ten or sixteen hours a day in a dark room making fantastically fine alterations in a flickering image; now it sounds like bliss. Maybe I'm just getting older, but I'd love nothing more than the peace of a dark room and the opportunity to focus my thoughts on chewy conceptual problems.

I've noticed that over the course of shooting this film, I've made some real progress as an interviewer. I've moved from simply figuring out how to do an interview to figuring out how best to do an interview. Errol Morris, who's unequivocally a first-rate interviewer, has said that his secret weapon is the akward silence: where most of us would fill it in with another question, he lets it hang until the subject cracks and fills it for you. He gets some really interesting material that way. I don't know if I could ever harden myself sufficiently to use that approach, though I'd like to play with it sometime.

My own interview process goes something like this: I usually start recording before I've completely set up the camera -- the act of focusing and color balancing and framing and the rest of it masks the act of rolling camera. I certainly never announce, "okay, I'm filming... NOW!" I don't really want my subject to know when I've started taping, to the point that I often cover the red LED that indicates I'm recording. Then I start in with a little chit-chat -- how are you? How's your day been? What are you doing after this? I'm not really interested, but the point is to slide them into the interview like a warm bath. Then I ask them a two-part question, usually "what's your name and where are you from?" It's important to ask both at once -- if you just ask, "what's your name?" or "where are you from?" you'll always get a one-word answer ("Jimmy", "Lubbock") and that's useless. Ask both, and they're forced to say, "I'm Jimmy, and I'm from Lubbock." I can use that.

It's kind standard practice to ask novice subjects to speak in complete sentences, repeating part of your question, because complete statements are easier to cut. But it seems impractical to me -- they try, but they never do it. And anyway, I don't want to saddle a subject with any extra requirements -- it's hard enough just to be on camera without having someone nagging you to answer their questions "right." In my opinion, the better approach is to build the completion requirement into the question, which requires some care in question design. If a question is too focused, they'll give you a brief answer that's less likely to bring its context along with it; it's better to ask a more open-ended question, and the context will take care of itself. You'll usually get a short, incomplete answer intially, but then the subject will begin to explain themselves, and nine times out of ten they'll give you a much more cohesive statement at the end. If you can get them talking freely, not only will you not have to worry about what you can and can't cut -- it'll all be in there -- but you'll also de-emphasize your own agenda and allow your subject space to speak for themselves, and probably get better material as a result.

And you shouldn't be afraid of some silence if they need time to think. Sometimes I throw a subject a particularly abstract question just to provoke them into some on-camera thought-gathering, just because it gives me a chance to grab some shots while they're not paying attention to me. I also try to figure out ways to ask obvious questions in inobvious ways -- I try to ask questions sideways. With this film, for example, I didn't ask them "why do you want to teach in the delta?" because I knew I'd only get pat answers -- they were expecting to get that one, so they already had answers ready. And I don't want prepared answers. So instead I asked them, "At the end of your first year as a teacher, how will you know whether you've been successful?" It covers the same ground as the obvious question -- their values and ideals, their expectations and preconceptions -- but not one of them saw it coming, so they had to formulate entirely new answers on the spot. And that's what I want. That's what the film wants. The other fun thing is to ask them an obvious question and watch as person after person gives you exactly the same answer -- "oh, if I can just help one student it'll all be worth it." Get enough people gravely spouting the same platitude and you've got instant documentary gold.

Bah -- enough of this for now. I've got a spreadsheet to tend to.
12:26 PM ::
Amy :: permalink