Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

And Now For Something Completely Different

Sometimes you have no idea you can do something well until someone gives you a prize. The first time I won a Zoomie for my student movie The Artful Bodger I saw that I clearly had an advantage over my fellow classmates because so few people actually finished their class project. With only ten days to do so you really had to hustle to not only shoot your movie, but edit it as well. The Zoom-In course sponsored by the Media Center is taught by Doug Kreitz and covers basic equipment operation, how to set up Hollywood lighting, how to handle sound. The lighting did indeed make an ordinary person look like a star and when he taught us how to interview a subject I understood the power of television. I had volunteered to be the interviewer.

"What was the first film you remember seeing in a movie theater?" I asked him and he was off and running telling me the story of seeing Boris Karloff in Frankenstein I think it was. And how he was so frightened he had to call his mother half way through to come and pick him up. The formality of filming a person for posterity, I realized, gave this process a ceremonial quality; people presented themselves in a different way with more attention to what they were saying. And there was historical information embodied in their answer too. On the receiving end it gave me an authority I was unused to receiving. I was entranced. 

I asked my mother if I could interview her about what it was like to be in a mixed marriage in the '50s. She agreed to the interview and dressed up for the occasion. I set up the lighting kit and a lavaliere mike I had checked out from the Media Center equipment library. But the lights were so large that they overwhelmed the tiny space in her sitting room. I threw something over one light to dim it somewhat. My mother sat in the chair and I rolled camera and started asking my questions, but when I listened through my headphones the sound was full of static and I couldn't figure out why. It was alright in playback mode, so I was good to go, but between figuring out if the camera was on or off, I had already lost quite a lot of my mother's story. Then the gel I had thrown over the light started to smoke and the situation was fast becoming a comedy of errors. And not all that interesting as a movie I realized since you can't just have a talking head for the whole film and my idea to cut away to photographs from the family album wasn't all that dynamic.

Luckily I had a fall back subject—myself making something. And I was using power tools, always an exciting visual given the chance of cutting off a finger or two. All I had to do was film all the steps of making the project and a little bit of context to show how I picked materials then tie it all together with a voiceover.  Doing a voiceover was not all that easy. You had to get the timing right while you read the script live into a microphone as the video was running. I didn't have it as perfect as I would've liked, but I did want to finish my project since Doug was as excited as I was that my movie was coming together. By this time class had run overtime by an hour or so with just me and another filmmaker. No wonder so few students finished their film. 

The Zoomies

At the 6th biannual Zoomes The Artful Bodger won the audience award against 5 other contestants. 
During the Zoomies awards night Becky, the Media Center coordinator interviewed the filmmakers under the bright lights in the broadcasting studio. The setting made it feel just like a television show and Becky asked questions about the making of my film as if it was a significant contribution to the world. Naturally, I loved this part even though the audience was all of twenty people. 
Photo by Doug Kreitz

Sixth months later I had another film to submit to the Zoomies and this time I invited any friends who might want to come (and my mother). Partly because I wanted them to see what meager beginnings was the start line for filmmaking. How those first student efforts were not even close to the simplest bit of news video they might see on TV. How many skills were actually needed to make a movie interesting. How even the graduate category submissions were tepid. This time I was ecstatic to win, not only the audience award, but the overall excellence award which got my name on a plaque displayed in the lobby. I had never had my name on a plaque even in school. 

Still I had to ask myself what gave me such an edge over the competition? With all those videos on YouTube I thought there were tons of people making micro films who were savvy navigators of the technology. This was supposed to be the medium of the digerati, the youth culture. But it turns out that you can't just set up a camera and expect to see a story unfold. No matter what the medium, stories don't tell themselves. Could it be that old age and experience trumps youthful energy and technical expertise? Plus I had all those years of watching movies critically to sharpen my eye. 

The Making Of Squirming Buckets of Id

My film began not with an idea for a film, but with the realization, after nearly a year accompanying Catherine to the infusion lab for cancer treatment, that vitality is a temporal thing. And it dawned on me that there were things I wanted to do before my own vitality was diminished. I didn't know then what exactly that was, but once I had a camera in hand and my new video making skills I knew I wanted to start capturing my friends in motion before we all grew old and feeble. I had also made a list of significant contributors to my life because it was such a person who had inspired me to get a movie camera in the first place so it seemed only fitting that I give back in some way.

I met Cristina,  during a lost mixed up time of life in my early twenties. She worked at the library where I had my first job shelving books in high school. I had returned while still in college to do data entry in that era of moving from card catalogs to computer catalogs. Cristina worked in the basement processing the new books that came in. We shared a love of movies and could talk endlessly about them. She was a graduate of Stanford—the writing program. This impressed me greatly, first because it was Stanford and second because I was awed by people who could write stories. Cristina told me stories of her writing professors and her two best friends. The three friends were the most talented in the class. I was envious of such friends. 

The following summer, Cristina and I went to England together with a friend who had good travel karma and an uncanny sense of direction. We went to seek out literary touchstones visiting the homes of the Brontes, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy plus a stop in Tintagel, King Arthur's place. Every night I duly recorded my impressions of our day in my journal until finally on the last leg of the trip Cristina wryly commented on this habit after an unsuccessful attempt to distract me.

"You're the writer," she said, "only a writer would be so dedicated as to stay up late recording every day of a vacation." Then she made me read what I'd written. I had had no formal training apart from high school English and a creative writing class. And though I was an avid journal writer, I had not made the leap to fiction so had decided my best bet was to finish a degree in graphic design. Cristina picked out passages from my entries that were marks of good writing. "That part you wrote there, that's a good transition; that's hard to do well in writing," she noted. After that evening I felt duly accepted as a member of the club and I carried on writing. When I wrote and published my memoir "Diamonds In My Pocket" nearly 30 years later, I listed Cristina as one of the people who had believed in me as a writer. 

Cristina, meanwhile, went on to get her Masters of Library Sciences and became a children's librarian. We kept in touch over the occasional lunch a few blocks from the library. One day she showed me a carrot suit that she was going to wear for her storytelling session. Costumes always intrigued me. At another lunch she told me she was retiring. I suddenly remembered this when I made the above list and realized I had never seen her do a storytelling session. I quickly wrote and asked if I could come and videotape her storytelling. As it happened she was only going to be doing one more. 

"I feel like a rock star," she wrote back and told me I'd be welcome to bring my camera. Watching her from behind my tripod, I was quite surprised at all the schtick she put in to teach children how to use the library and how to take care of books. I had no idea, in fact, how to talk to children, not having any of my own, so it astonished me to what lengths she was willing to go to keep them on point. I made sure to get lots of "B" roll of the kids looking at books, talking to Cristina and standing at the check-out desk. My experience posting how-to pictures to flickr had taught me that it helped if each step of a story was photographed to complete the story.

Later over lunch we discussed what she might talk about in the video and in her final week at the library I went to her office at the main library in Redwood City to do an interview. Having learned from class that good sound is more important than polished video, I had bought an inexpensive lapel microphone that plugged into my little Canon Vixia camera (bought used on e-bay). We picked a spot in the back room that had enough light and something to look at in the background. Then I asked her questions that would lead to the information I wanted. As instructed in class I made sure to remind her not to answer my questions directly, but to use full sentences. It was a jumbled collection of information, but I was confident that after 20 minutes of interview I had captured the highlights. 

Afterwards I hung around and got "B" roll that would provide me with lots of transition action. I now had about one and a half hours of video to use to build my movie.

On The Cutting Room Floor

I looked through all the footage and gathered together in a file just the clips I needed to tell my story, about twelve minutes in all. Then I showed just those clips to Cristina to discover if she had any preferences for how I edited the movie. With her own knowledge of film she agreed with me that the carrot suit was the most arresting piece of the action and that the story she told about bringing the community to the library through author nights had no B roll so would be irrelevant to our movie even though it had been her greatest achievement. And though she cringed watching herself on a bad hair day wearing an unflattering summer reading t-shirt, she allowed it as long as I included footage of her on a good hair day in her normal clothes.

As quickly as possible I assembled the story working in iMovie on my laptop figuring out how to split the sound from the video to use as a voiceover. Then I showed it to Catherine, my go-to reference for video critiquing since she had once had her own video company and had made a documentary that was shown at the LGBT film festival. She pointed out a shot halfway through my video that was clumsily moving to the floor and told me to cover it up with footage of the audience. On the interview of Cristina she suggested I to let her laugh all the way through and then fade to black. I had more to learn on iMovie to make these adjustments, but once I figured out how to insert a cut, I started listening to the narration and seeing that the footage was telling its own story and a rather disorganized one at that. So I rearranged several clips, added more and organized them into the subtext of the story. It felt like I was editing a piece of writing. No wonder I had a jump on the competition. Years of writing had translated to film giving me an edge over my fellow filmmakers who saw only one layer of story and presented things at face value. The footage I had reorganized turned out to be what carried the emotional thread while Cristina herself was revealed to be a charismatic subject. I put 14 hours into the editing of my little movie with all that I had to learn. Some of my essays might take that long, but most take half that. 

A video has its own merit as a finished product while a piece of writing is more like a letter that deepens (or complicates) my relationships in life. Filmmaking revealed my artistic sensibilities in a very different way from writing. And some topics lend themselves more to film, while others are definitely the realm of words. But much also depends on my audience. While film was a collaboration with my subject, writing was a conversation with my readers. Whether the conversation goes on depends on who responds, who seems to be listening. I often write simply to save my own life, sort it out in the mirror of writing, but to post it publicly asks the question "is this useful?". In this era of viral YouTube messages and photo memes, the written word has fallen out of favor and film is the shiny new thing, but as one of my readers wrote me "writing takes us to a very fundamental place in our species-specific consciousness". And for those of us willing to read that may still be useful.

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