Tuesday 21 August 2012

52 It´s a Wrap

One of the toughest tasks making docs is seeing a project through the first idea, development, production, post-production and then the hard part - getting it out there to the public. Eki and I are good at it. Very few of our projects have fallen into the black hole of Bright (un-realized) Ideas. But still, I´m surprised we stuck with this blog for a year, It started on a whim and then we got into it.

image by bluegum / sxc.hu
The life of a small film company is a cliff-hanger. There´s never enough funding, commissioning editors disappoint and people who would make great subjects back out. But we´ve been at it for 19 years and have made productions that we´re really proud of. For me the series 10 Finnish Architects comes out on top. It was our first big, BIG project. One of our CEs made the off-hand remark: "But Maggy that´s 100 minutes of film." I pooh-poohed her with:  "No, no it´s 10 ten minute movies."  That long, long project (it took almost two years from start to finish) was fun, traumatic, exhausting and a crash course from Eki to me about making movies

"marihuanaland" is next on my list of favorites. Eki and I financed it ourselves because we both believe that pot, especially medical marihuana, should be legalized. End of story. We also plan to edit and publish online littlemargiedocblag under the title: Diary of a Mom & Pop Film Company (99 cents).  Making movies is so much fun you just don´t want to, maybe can´t, stop. "Action!"

Lesson 52:  Once you get the itch just scratch, scratch, scratch.

littlemargiedoc-blog will take a three month break while on the road.

Monday 13 August 2012

51 A Tiny Ton of Troubl

image by kovik / sxc.hu
Bought a cardboard shack on a plot of land and decided to write a song (country western, of course) about it. Have been filming since the start and even Eki seemed excited about the idea. The renovation was damn hard and discouraging at times but writing a song is really daunting. I listen all the time to DAC (David Allen Coe), Merle (Haggard), Willie (Nelson) and it seems so easy. But no, not.

I´m also including shots of the town, which has John Ford scenery (one of his main locations isn´t far from here in Ridgeway). And twelve churches and seven saloons. The saloons get all the business. One is right across the road - it´s a great place to drink beer, meet locals and hear music.

The climax of the music video is a Wild West party. It´ll be in a couple of weeks. My guitar teacher, Sharon, and her uke group will be the entertainment. She insists we do a duet - play and sing. And chose "Home on the Range."  I groaned. But found out that simple old-fashioned tune is hard to learn. For the last five weeks I´ve tried to nail it. There are five chord changes and they come up fast. If my mind wanders for even a second I make a mistake. But at least she has me singing in tune. Not like when Eki, Era and I recorded "The Old Gray Mare" and I was hopelessly off-key. When we edit A Tiny Ton of Troubl we´ll put it on youtube. DAC, Merle, Willie watch out.

Lesson 51:  Bite off more than you can chew. Always.

Next week:  52 It´s a Wrap

Monday 6 August 2012

50 10 Words Every Doc Filmmaker Should Know

  • 01 Ambient Sound: background sound to add atmosphere to the sound track (also known as "atmos" and "wildtrack. Eki is a musician and is great at enhancing the audio.
  •  02 Animation: one of the things I love in the edit is when Eki animates something. He´ll add a person or object. Or show how a building changes. It might take two hours of work and be on-screen for a few seconds so he rations me.
  • 03 Boom:  the pole that holds the microphone out of the shot but near enough so that it picks up the audio.
  • 04  Color Correction: after the edit Eki goes through and balances all the colors so they are the same tone throughout. We choose what  color direction we want: bright, shady, blueish, etc.
  • 05 Copyright: the artist´s legal right to the use of his/her work. Copyrights can be a minefield. Any doc filmmaker, however small, should be au courant when using someone´s music, art, books, etc.
  • 06 NLE (non-linear editing): allows you to insert footage anywhere in the edit without having to remove what was there before.
  • 07  Rough cut:  first edit of the un-finished film. You might have one, two or more rough cuts.
  • 08 Steadicam: a stabilizing device attached to the camera and worn by the photographer. It allows him to walk through the scene and creates a long fluid shot. Very effective. Our steadicam man is Antti Hacklin.
  • 09  Time Code: the seconds, minutes, hours on the top of the film that lets you synchronize the audio and the video. Also a big help in the pre-edit when you want to pick out the best shots.  
  • 10  Zebra Striping: lines seen through the camera´s viewfinder that tells you when a shot is over-exposed. 

Edit by Eki: I'd probably define NLE:s by it's difference to old school tape to tape editing. In the stone age (when i used to ski to old school both winter AND summer), the program was cut together in a linear fashion by copying one shot at a time from the source tapes to a master tape, starting from the first opening shot and ending to the last bit of credits. If you then needed to change something in the middle... you were screwed, as the timing of the shots was fixed - the tape doesn't magically stretch or compress to fit the new material you want to put in the middle. With a NLE, making such a changes is trivial, one can easily shuffle shots around in any order. In practice, all current computer based editing systems are NLE:s, so the "NL" part of the abbreviation is unnecessary baggage really.

Other than that, you mostly got it close enough  ;-)

Lesson 50:  Learn the lingo

Next week: 51 A Tiny Ton of Troubl 

Monday 23 July 2012

49 Make 'Em Sign on the Dotted Line

shho / sxc.hu
It´s one of the ickiest-stickiest problems in filmmaking: asking the main subject in your doc to sign a release form. But oh the possible headaches if you neglect to do it. A guy I heard about spent a year filming his family. It was commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE).  After the edit, the family decided they didn´t like his take on them and said it couldn´t be shown. The production was shelved.

We had our own problems with Esa-Pekka Salonen, Finnish composer and former conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I hated to ask him to sign a release form because I was afraid he would cancel the project. And that his team would make a whole bunch of (written demands). In the end everything turned out OK. But there were weeks and even months of anxiety.

Our release form is simple:        


I,  (subject´s name), hearby give permission for Little Margie Productions to use footage taken of me for the production (name of production). These rights extend to film festivals, television, viewings and the internet.

Signed:  (subject´s name)

It´s a drag to ask people to sign, especially if they´re famous and you desperately want to make your doc. But a signed release can save you a whole lot of trouble. And maybe even help avoid a lawsuit.
Lesson 49: Nothing like a John Hancock to make it legal

Next week: 50 Ten Words Every Filmmaker Should Know

PS Littlemargiedoc-blog missed a week due to my Mac malfunctioning.

Monday 9 July 2012

48 Hook Line & Stinker

Before I left Finland for the Wild West Eki and I talked about developing a new project: teaching the Navajo language to kids on the reservation (working title) Tses-naa-Snez (Belong"). I´d read that it´s been compared to Finnish in difficulty. And both languages were suppressed by the US and Finnish  governments at one time. But when I got here I found out that you don´t just walk into a reservation and start shooting. There´s a thick layer of bureaucracy to wade through.

linder6580 / sxc.hu
So when I met a guy (an ex-cop from Wisconsin) who said he had a daughter who worked on the Navajo reservation in Arizona I perked up. But it got better. She was gifted, had got scholarships to Rosemary Hall (a posh preparatory school) and Brown University. Plus, she was beautiful and had been a contestant in the Miss Navajo Beauty Pageant.  Where you not only have to be a knock-out but able to eviscerate a sheep and know what to do with the parts afterwards. Now she was back on the reservation trying to help her people.

I was excited, gave him my card and waited. And waited. He did warn me that she wanted to move to LA and I warned him that a documentary was a long-term  commitment. It´s been three weeks and I just heard at the local hang-out that my ex-cop-connection had put air in his tires and embarked on a 2,000 mile bike trip. Big Disappointment. But I think Eki will agree with me that it´s still a good idea.

Lesson 48 When all else fails have a good cry.

Next week: 49 Make ´EM Sign on the Dotted Line

Monday 2 July 2012

47 Two Tin Cans & a String

Yes, shiny new DVD:s!!
They can say what they want about the internet connecting everyone, but give me the good ole tel anytime. Last Monday I called Eki.  It was good to talk to him. Like old times. He agreed that it was my turn and that he would do the DVDs for "marihunaland".  It´s been nine months since we´ve finished the edit and I haven´t been exactly patient. But now I´ve just read a review of a book called Wait: the art and science of delay by Frank Partnoy. The gist of the book is that some of the best ideas, inventions and maybe even docs hang around for a long time before they´re launched.

For example:  The Post-it. When it was designed, the people at 3M thought it might make a good bookmark that stuck without leaving a trace. But then they decided there weren´t enough readers to make it worthwhile. The project was set aside. To prove that you can´t keep a good idea hidden for long, employees started using the samples to write notes to themselves and stick them on the wall. Mr Partnoy writes that the 12-year delay between invention and the launch of the Post-it Note was a good thing. A bright idea at the right time.

Here in the US there´s a national election coming up on the first Tuesday in November. At least two states (Colorado and Texas), and maybe more, will have initiatives on the ballot to legalize (or decriminalize) marihuana for recreational use. Ann and Bob Lee, parents of Richard Lee*, founder of Oaksterdam University* (the trade school that teaches you everything you need to know about cannabis), advocates of legalization and avid Texas Republicans should have a DVD copy. They made one of the most moving statements ever for legalization of pot in "marihuanaland". And they have the clout to promote it. So Eki, rrrrinng, rrrrring. "If it´s Monday it must be..."

Edit by Eki: The DVD:s are in the mail now... finally.

Lesson 47:  Dial direct and state your case.

*In April 2012 Oaksterdam University and Richard Lee´s apartment were raided by the FBI.

Next week: 48 Hook, Line & Stinker

Monday 25 June 2012

46 The Tool(S)

I had to buy this book. The Tools was written by two of the most famous people in Hollywood who nobody has ever heard of (outside of the movie business). Psychiatrist, Phil Stutz and psychotherapist, Barry Michels, are the go-to guys if you want to win an Academy Award. That is if you can get an appointment. But their book promises that those not lucky enough to make it past the gatekeepers can learn how to reach the summit on their own. It´s easy. Just follow The Yellow Brick Road.

  • Tool #1 Reversal of Desire (the Higher Force: The Force of Forward Motion) 

This one boils down to getting out of your comfort zone, embracing pain, going straight through it to endless possibilities (there are diagrams to make it easier to understand). Joseph Campbell covered much the same ground in his book Hero With a Thousand Faces (or was it ten thousand?) when he wrote:  you have to go through hell to get to the boon.

  • Tool #2 Active Love (the Higher Force: Outflow)

In a nutshell: get out of the maze (read "the trap of the past"). Realize you can only change yourself, not anyone else and accept them as they are. Only then will you have the freedom to go on with life.

  • Tool #3 Inner Authority (Higher Force: The Force of Self-Expression)

Get over your insecurity by realizing you have a second self: a shadow. Don´t wait for approval from the outside. Use your inner authority to turn your shadow into the cool, confident person you want to be.

There are a couple of more tools, such as, Grateful Flow and Jeopardy. And finally the conclusion: Faith in Higher Forces and The Fruits of a New Vision. But before I got to them I wondered if it wouldn´t be better to go to a good shrink and talk things over. Now how can I use my new-found smarts (tools 1, 2 and 3) to wangle an appointment with either Dr Stutz or Mr Michels? Then Sundance here we come.

Lesson 46:  You can´t tell a book by its cover

Next week: 47: Two Tin Cans & a String

Monday 18 June 2012

45 Out of Sight, Out of Mind

kgreggain / sxc.hu
For the last 9 months Eki and I have been separated by about 7000 miles and a cheap phone connection. It´s made a big difference. He gets scads of emails every day (I´ve seen them when we´ve edited together) and it´s easy for him to slide over some of them. It´s much better when we´re on the same continent and I can call him with "If it´s monday it must be Maggy."

Sometimes I bite the bullet and say to hell with the expense and phone from the Wild West. It´s always nice to hear his voice and find out what´s going on. But as far as a working arrangement, proximity makes all the difference. Then when I get a harebrained idea I can run it by Eki and have him shoot it down. Or if he says something like, "Not a bad idea" I can pursue it because I know he doesn´t get bowled over.

We´re on the last leg of "maihuanaland".  We have to make DVD copies and design the cover. It´s one of those niggling chores that´s a snap to set aside when you´re "putting out fires". That´s how Eki describes his job. But I know if I were there I could say "Hey Eki, if it´s monday..."

Lesson 45: Keep tryin´

Next week: 46 The Tool

Monday 11 June 2012

44 Bigger Bang For Your Buck

Posh, Poor & Middleclass BRITS (2010)
Like most small doc film companies, little margie productions is always looking for ways to save money and still produce a pro production. If you want to enhance your doc concentrate on the following.
  • Location, location, location
Be sure to check them out before you shoot. Look for the scenic and unusual. For example, when I was shooting Blue, the homeless guy in Posh Poor & Middleclass BRITS i could have filmed him on the street. But instead I chose a beautiful gothic church. The combination worked because it was a quiet restful place where he could relax and added pathos to his plight.
  • Pay careful attention to the Lighting and audio
We´ve written about this before but it´s so important it doesn´t hurt to repeat it, especially for interviews. Take the time to make sure that the location is inviting, the subject looks great on film and that the audio is crystal clear. These are Musts (with a capital M).
  • Find a celebrity 
Famous faces. or even semi-famous faces add value to a doc. It might not be fair, but viewers like to look at someone they´ve seen in a flick, or on TV. The problem is (we´ve written about this too) they usually want control over content. You have to weigh the pros and cons. But if you land a celeb try to make it work.
  • Keep it moving
Unless you´ve made an artistic decision to use stills, it´s much more fun to see action. If you can´t afford an expensive steadicam try to use something else with wheels to get the effect of the camera moving through the scene. For example, a luggage cart, or the trunk of a car. Drive slowly.
  • Stock Footage
Sometimes it´s cheaper to buy it than shoot it yourself. We were lucky when making "marihanaland" and found out that "Reefer Madness" was in the public domain. Eki illustrated some of the action with scenes from RM. He also color enhanced them to fit into the doc.

Lesson 44  Attention to details means value added

Next week: 45 Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Monday 4 June 2012

43 The Dead Zone

urbanlane / sxc.hu
What do you do when you have no new projects coming up?  Eki and Antti work for lots of other film companies as well as little margie productions, so they´re always busy. Antti and his steadicam, long ago, were signed up to shoot at the London Olympics. Eki works at least 20/7 almost every day. But ever since I finished my work on "marihuanland" I´ve been free-floater.

What I did was pack up my camera (and interview) gear and take it with me to the US (the Wild West). Spent a couple of months checking out this and that but nothing clicked. Until I seriously started to listen to Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, David Allen Coe and other country western greats. Decided that since I´m hanging out in John Ford country it would be fun to shoot a a CW music video.

"A Tiny Ton of Trouble" will be a two (or maybe three) minute video on youtube*. We (my guitar teacher, some of the guitar-picking red-neck construction crew who worked on my house and I are collaborating on the lyrics and the music (with, I´m sure a contribution from Eki). What I discovered was, that it´s damn difficult and takes a lot of hard work to come up with a credible tune. But the filming has been has been fantastic fun.

*Posh Poor & Middlelass BRITS has had approx 11,000 hits on youtube

Lesson 43: Keep shooting. It´s good target practice.

Next week: 44 More Bang For Your Buck

Monday 28 May 2012

42 Press Kit

Daino_16 / sxc.hu
It´s one of those niggedly-piggedly things you want to forget. Don´t. When you send a DVD to a film festival, or for consideration by a commissioning editor, or to potential investors, you should include a press kit.

The basics:
  1. A pocket folder (good if the cover is the opening of the doc).
  2. A brief cover letter (three short paragraphs) on your company letterhead. This should include information about you,and your qualifications, your company and the program. Include website information and awards.
  3. A short synopsis of the the program (like the blurb on the DVD).
  4. Bios of the principles in the doc and the crew.
  5. Any interesting information that you think might sell the program.
  6. Press clippings.
If you sign up with WITHOUTABOX they have an electronic press kit. It´s an easy way to enter multiple film festivals.

Lesson 42: God is in th dinky details

Next week: 43: The Dead Zone

Monday 21 May 2012

41 Slings & Arrows

Image by asifthebes / sxc.hu
What do you do when get a bad review? Try to remember the fashion world maxim: bad publicity is better than no publicity. Then sit down and cry. Little margie productions has been lucky: the critiques have been mostly positive. But I did have one shock. A half-page with color photograph of one of our docs: "Lucia." I was thrilled, but my Finnish wasn´t fluent enough to get the gist. I happened to be with the media buyer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He translated it for me, but not before he burst out laughing. "Lucia" is essentially a Swedish-speaking celebration. In the doc I said it was spilling over into the Finnish-speaking population, especially with children. The writer took exception, in a lot of words. Some unkind.

But that was a blip compared to what The Daily Telegraph wrote about composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. It was the day after the London debut of his piano concerto at Royal Albert Hall. We were there filming him for the doc, "Chasing Esa-Pekka." The next day we had an appointment to interview him. At breakfast I read the review to Eki and Antti. It was, in one word, devastating. I asked the guys if they thought he´d show up. They said, "Sure." And he did. One of the questions I had to ask was, what did he think of the critique. He was cool and appeared not the least bothered. He said, "That´s just part of the game." And we went on to other things. But I´m sure it hurt.

Lesson 41: Do what Esa-Pekka did, keep truckin.

Next week: 42 Press Kits

Monday 30 April 2012

40 It´s Like Building a House

Image by GHerrmann / http://www.sxc.hu
When people hear you make docs their first question usually is, how do you start. We always say the same thing: find the money first. They almost always look downcast and say something like, that doesn´t sound very creative, or idealistic.  But like building a house, before you pour the foundation you have to have the bucks to pay for it.

Then brick by brick we begin to put the project together. That means filling out grant applications, making pitches to the interested company, writing and re-writing the synopsis, the treatment, the budget, creating the storyboard, assembling profiles of the team, sources of financing, looking at locations and sometimes doing a short test film. Finally when all the bits and pieces come together (this can take months) we´re ready for some fun.

The shoot. This is like putting up the walls of a house. Compared to the rest of the production it´s usually short term and goes by in a flash (for us, due to costs and low budgets). After everything is in the can the really hard (sometimes boring) work begins. Post Production, when Eki, king of the editing room takes over. There are so many things he does that don´t show, like color correction, and making the music fit the tempo of the doc. We view and review the rough-cuts countless times and even then we miss stuff and have to go back and fix some small error. After the PP, like putting in the lawn of a new house, we have to do the DVDs and make sure all the principals get a copy. Then we hope we spelled all the names in the credits correctly.

Lesson 40  Your structure might spring a leak if you skip the details

littlemargiedocblog is taking a three week break while on the road

Monday 16 April 2012

38 The Right Gear

Is this thing on?
When we planned the shoot ("marihuanland") in Oakland, CA, Eki decided it would be more efficient to rent the equipment on site. When I saw the list (and the cost - around 5000 dollars) I let out a howl. He told me we needed it all. And that we were getting a bargain. They (Eki and Antti)  showed up at the hotel with a whole rooomful of stuff. At least five black bags (each about half the size of a body bag).

The list (Eki correct me if I´ve left anything out):

Two cameras (with hard drives that had to be downloaded every night)
Microphones: lavalier and shotgun mic with boom (the connections)

At the end of the shoot Eki said, with a puff of satisfaction, that we had used everything. All the bags were stuffed into the back of the car, including me.

Edit by Eki: Well, to make it exact, here's the actual rental gear list (the cost was actually around $4200):

1 *Sony EX1 w/16G Cards Package*
1 Sony Ex1 XDCam Camera
2 Sony Ex3/Ex1 BP-U60 Batteries x2 with Charger
1 Sony Ex3/Ex1 BP-U30 Battery
1 Sony Ex3/Ex1 SxS Card - 16GB
1 *Sony EX1 w/16G Cards Package*
1 Sony Ex1 XDCam Camera
1 Sony Ex3/Ex1 BP-U30 Battery
2 Sony Ex3/Ex1 BP-U60 Battery
1 Sony Ex3/Ex1 Battery Charger
1 Sony Ex3/Ex1 SxS Card - 8GB
2 Cartoni F101 Tripod
1 SteadiCam - Sachtler Artemis
1 Sound Devices 302 stereo mixer, Petrol bag, beta
1 Sennheiser MKH 60 Mic w/Zepplin support
1 Boom Pole - Internal Coil Cabled XLR
1 Lectrosonics 211 Diversity Radio Mic System
Sonotrim Lavalier, 3x Antennas, R.Angle XLR
3x Batteries  PAY IF USED
1 Headphones Sony MDR-7506 stereo
1 Dedo 24v 150w Kit w/ 3 lights & Focal spot
1 Kino Flo Divalite 400 Universal
w/ Tungsten/ Daylight Bulbs
1 C-Stand with sandbag

Lesson 39: Always, always take extra batteries

Next wee: 39 Keeping Track

Monday 9 April 2012

37 The Runaround

Image: iStockphoto.com
The problem: famous (or even semi-famous) people help sell docs. But they can be hard to handle. Or more specifically their "people" can be tough as old boots. They´re paid to protect (and cosset) their clients. You´ve found your Subject. You might of even had direct contact with him/her. Subject tells you to contact his PR, PA.  What´s next?

You send and email to the PA/PR person. In our experience it always begins with an email. Often it goes un-answered and you look for other routes. Finally you get through. Have your story ready and use your contact with the Subject, if you´ve been lucky enough to have one, as an opener. After preliminaries the PR/PA gets down to the nitty-gritty and sends a list of demands. Read it carefully and comply if it   doesn´t dilute or destroy your plans for the project. For example: if PA/PR demands that Subject has the right to check all footage tell him "NO!"

"Chasing Esa-Pekka" was a long hard slog because his "people" wanted him to have control, and veto power, over everything that went into the doc. We finally called a halt and said "Sorry but we´re not doing this documentary under those conditions." They even contacted our commissioning editor at the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) to back them up. But our CE supported us. Although we did have to take out the F word, which made one scene human and funny, to keep them happy. We never heard what they thought of the doc, although they later asked permission to use it. We gave it to them with pleasure.

Lesson 38: No matter how famous the Subject is, know when it´s time to say "NO!"

next week; 38 The Right Gear

Monday 2 April 2012

36 To Light or Not to light

When Eki, Antti and I go out on a shoot, they take masses of equipment. I always wonder what all the stuff is. Part of it is lights and reflectors. They spend quite a lot of time setting up the shot to make the subject (victim) look good. Here´s what I´ve learned from watching.

El Gaucho de Högsåra (2000)
Backlighting is good. Shooting in front of a window (most of the time) is bad. They try to show the subjects (especially if they´re not young and beautiful) in a good soft light. Usually the right amount of space between the camera and subject is about eight feet (Eki and Antti are also very conscious of background: does it look busy, confused?)

Pro lighting is a major ingredient in a broadcast quality product. In big-time movies and on still sets they might spend hours getting it right. But when I´m making a Homemade and on my own I don´t have  the time or the right stuff. So I make do. Light a lamp on the subject (the artist Cindy Sherman, who currently has a big one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York did this when she first started out and didn´t have to resources to buy equipment) Or I use natural light and hope that Eki can correct it in the edit. But when I compare what they do and what I do, I can see why they are both in hot demand.

Lesson 38: Your subject will love you if you light his/hers best side

Next week: 38 The Runaround 

PS: a sore throat kept me in bed, and made me miss the casting call for the Lone Ranger. Whaaaaa!

PS2, a note from from Eki: In the above image from Tryggve's interview, the natural light was great as is, no artificial light added.

Thursday 29 March 2012

FLASH! EXTRA! (three days late due to Mac malfunction)

Lone Ranger, Tonto and Maggy
Next Sunday there'll be a casting call in Moab, Utah (a couple of hours west of here) for Johnny Depp´s new movie: "The Lone Ranger." JD plays Tonto, the Lone Ranger´s sidekick. But they´re switching the emphasis and making Tonto the star. Not a bad idea. The masked man, righter of wrongs was alway kind of boring. Even to us kids when we listened on the radio.

So Sunday morning (April Fools day) I´m hightailing it west to Moab. I want to see (or try to see) some of the action. Met a guy who is trying out for a role. His real day job is re-surfacing porcelain bathtubs, sinks, etc. But he´s lean and long-legged and looks the part. I think he´s got a chance. The critics and money-men are excited about this flick. They think Johnny might do for Indians what he did for pirates - give them some sexy pizzazz.

This is one time when straight hair and a striped t-shirt won´t do. Wracking my brain on how to style muself so that I look enough like the period to get a job as an extra. Especially if I could sneak a camera on-set and shoot the people shooting the picture. Whatta hoot.

Lesson 37: Making movies will make you crazy. Get used to it.

Next week (back to normal): 37 To Light or Not to Light

Monday 19 March 2012

35 What´s Hot, What´s Not in the USA

01 HOT: Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains
  • Sunshine (approx 320 days a year), John Ford scenery, Aspen, Telluride, Palisade (the New York Times gave this small town - 2,700 inhabitants - three full pages). Skiing, biking, rafting, fishing on the Colorado river and the state´s wine country. Lots of artists, eccentrics, farmers and people who love the great outdoors.
01 NOT: Sappy Sayings 
  • "You have a wonderful day." I mean, somebody close might have just died.
  • "I have to go to the bathroom." Americans say this even when they´re in the middle of the woods.
  • "It is what it is." Leaves you speechless.
  • "Whatever." The ultimate put-down. In other words, "shut up."
02 HOT: Authentic Tex-Mex 
  • As the Hispanic population migrates across the US, Tex-Mex is available in almost every American city. Simple, cheap, delicious and good for you. Expecially if you go heavy on the beans and salsa.
02 NOT: Monster vehicles
  • The roads and parking lots are chockablock with gigantic gas guzzlers. They are scary. When one sits on your tail it´s like being chased by a computer-animated movie monster. I was rear-ended twice in two weeks. In the meantime drivers (and almost everybody over 16 is one) are squealing about the price of filling up their tanks: cheap compared to almost anywhere else.
03 HOT: Walmarts
  • Consumer god please forgive me. Promised never to set foot in one of these gargantuan cathedrals of consumption. But I cracked. Discovered you can almost furnish your house and not break the bank: a set of dishes (four place settings) costs 9.95, silverware (20 pieces) 9.95, a couch (makes into a bed) 119.95, a complete set of pots and pans (12 pieces, including utensils) 49.95. The shopping cart fills up fast. After you check out, the nice and cheerful staff kindly helps you stuff your stuff into your car and tells you "to have a wonderful day."
03 NOT: Medical Hucksters
  • The US is NOT a good place for a hypochondriac, especially if you watch TV. The country is obsessed with health. The airways (and magazines) are inundated with medical commercials. Have discovered diseases I´d never heard of. A lot of these commercials have to do with lawsuits. If you have this or that illness you might be eligible to join a class action suit and make a bundle. Then there´s Doctor OZ. He extols the dangers of taking showers (the head is full of bacteria), going to the loo (thousands of germs fly out of the toilet after each flush), eating beef (as dangerous as smoking). The no-no list goes on and on and on....

Lesson 36: When in America go with the flow, you know, whatever

Next week: 36 To Light, or Not To light

Monday 12 March 2012

34 Who's Watching?

A producer friend, Robin Dalton, (Oscar & Lucinda, Country Life), belongs to the Academy. For several weeks before the Oscars she goes to see the nominated feature films, short films, animated films, foreign films and documentaries. She said almost all of them had full houses except for the docs. And yet, big-time directors such as Martin Scorcese and Werner Herzog are making them, in addition to the thousands  of independent doc filmmakers.

But now one has hit pay-dirt: KONY 2012 (30´). They stopped counting after appox 50,000,000 hits on youtube. About the children who have been abducted by the dictator Kony, it hits all the right buttons: a sad, horrific story about kids who have been abducted and have suffered in terrible ways. And it has a mission: to alert the world to Kony and try to track him down (the US government has about 100 troops on the ground trying to do the same thing),

Going viral with a doc on youtube is like buying a lottery ticket.  So what keeps people developing, shooting, editing and promoting their docs, often financed with their own money. In my case, it´s like a drug. Just can´t stop. When an idea (or title) pops up, I call Eki or unpack my camera and start shooting. And then there´s the fun of sitting for twelve hours at a time at SpaceWhale editing with Eki.

Lesson 35: Just do it!

Next week: What´s Hot, What´s Not in the USA 

Monday 13 February 2012

33 Blah Blah Blah

Image by chumney / sxc.hu
Eki always says story is king. But how to tell it. We usually do a voiceover and interviews (talking heads). But a lot of viewers are tired of TH. And VO. A new movie (The Artist), which might win best picture at the Academy Awards, is entirely (almost) silent.  The music is fantastic and you don´t miss the audio at all. When we filmed "Lucia" we did it in the style of a 1930s movie with sub-titles. It was great fun and I´ve always regretted that we never had it translated from Swedish to English.

TH and VO have become a cliche´. But how to solve the problem. Some let the audio on the camera do the work. But most follow the tried and true and do what we´ve always done. For our next project I´d like to try something different. Maybe do the whole story with music, or in rhyme. Right now we´re thinking of something with a country western theme. 

Or maybe go back to a silent film (in black and white) with sub-titles. "The Artist" was so good I suppose a lot of doc filmmakers are thinking of going down that road. Jean Dujardin, the lead, was brilliant at telling the story just with facial and body expressions. The same goes for his dog, who was not only a good actor but adorable. Right now I´m looking around for a cute pooch.

Lesson 35 Try to find a new way to tell the story and then let us know

Little Margie doc-blog will take a three week break while on the road

Monday 6 February 2012

32 S´Not Fair

Image by amaci / sxc.hu
The other day I got an email from an architecture student at the University of Maine. He wanted to know where he could get a copy of “Frank & Alvar” (about architects Frank Gehry and Alvar Aalto). Before I answered him I went online. Got a jolt when I found one site, Films for Humanities & Science, selling “Frank & Alvar” DVDs for 99.95. Although it was our production, LMP never made a penny on that distribution deal.

It happened like this: when the Finnish Broadcasting Company (who commissioned the program) closed their distribution department they went to NordicWorld. So did we. We signed a contract and never heard from them. After two years we asked to see a rundown of sales. Nada. But when we decided to cancel the contract they said they had sold the DVD rights to FfH&S and a couple of other places. But with expenses and all there wasn´t enough left over to pay us. Mm-hmm.

After that I went online and checked “Chasing Esa-Pekka” (51´). There are approx 20 sites. And people have downloaded different versions including a couple of truncated shorts. But we have no control over these pirate version. On the other hand, LMP had to pay composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen 15,000 Euros for the right to use his music even if the doc was about him. And 6,000 Euros to the BBC for one minute of his piano concerto that they filmed.

The same thing happened to one of our home-mades: “Posh Poor & Middleclass BRITS”. It appeared in the OXDOX film festival and was picked up by a distributor: Journeyman Pictures. I was thrilled, because this was a doc I shot and Eki edited. Now it has about ten sites. And commercials before the video begins. But again LMP has received no revenue.  Although it´s had about 8,000 hits, that´s not enough to get paid. Eki and I finally decided the more people that see the docs the better. And let it go at that. But the reality is, we had no choice.

Lesson 35: Docs on the internet have a life of their own

Next week: 33 Blah Blah Blah

Monday 30 January 2012

31 Check It Out

Whenever Eki and I get an idea for a new project, the first thing we do is google it. If there´s a lot out there on the subject it doesn´t mean we drop it. Instead we try to develop the doc with a little Margie production slant. When we began to get serious about doing a production about pot, we found a lot of stuff on the subject. For example: “Marijuana Inc” produced by MNBC had over 40,000,000 viewers on cable and over 350,000  on Youtube. And there was tons more.

That told us a whole lot of people were interested in marihuana. The MNBC angle is high drama. We decided ours would be low-key. “marihuanaland” is told from an outsider´s point of view (a Finnish film team) and zeroes in on the cannabis industry in Oakland, California: how it operates within the state law and how it has affected the city. 

Chasing Esa-Pekka (2008)
When we were developing “Chasing Esa-Pekka” for the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) they gave us all the docs made about the composer/conductior Esa-Pekka Salonen. Because people who are interviewed a lot tend to repeat themselves, we were able to see in advance what Salonen had said before.

When we interviewd him we tried to ask questions that steered him into new directions. We also decided that watching him conduct all the time would be boring, except for the most dedicated music lovers. Our solution was to film him in different situations in several locations: Los Angeles, Milan, London, Stockholm, Helsinki. It was a new way at looking at Esa-Pekka and his work.

Lesson 35: It´s all been done before but…

Nest week: 32  S´not Fair: copyrights

Monday 23 January 2012

30 Who´s Boss?

Best boss mug from NBC store
Little Margie productions is essentially a two person company, but Eki and I have our spheres of influence. My job is to secure the financing, usually pitch the project to our commissioning editors, arrange the travel, hotels, etc and fill out the dreaded grant applications. Eki orders the equipment, is chief photographer, king of the editing room and does the music. We both direct, write the narration and plan the schedule (by phone or at a meeting in a café).

It all sounds cut and dried. But it´s more like a loosely related family. When Antti (our steadicam operator and sound man) is with us he puts in his two cents too. Sometimes like big brothers Eki and Antti gang up on me. Or they speak fast Finnish and leave me in the dark. But most of the time there´s a lot of camaraderie and we all have fun together.

When Eki works he is totally focused on the job at hand. And hates to be interrupted. I like to take a long time on a project, be completely prepared and organized. We´re a good team. We´ve been together working on projects for around 18 years. And have established a balance of power (terror?). By now we know what buttons not to push and when to be quiet. Most of the time.

Lesson 34: The boss should never be above making coffee for the crew

Next week: 31 Check it out

Monday 16 January 2012

29 Rants & Raves

  • Rant #1: people who say they want to see your doc and then talk, or worse, don´t watch. When we show a doc to our commissioning editors there is dead silence all the way through, including the credits. Then they make their comments. Once, when a group from the American Womens Club in Helsinki asked to see a couple of segments of “10 Finnish Architects” they kept saying things like, “Hey, Delores, remember when we went to Finlandia Hall, the acoustics were terrible.” Very disconcerting for the director.
  • Rave #1: When the music fits the doc perfectly. When we were doing the audio for “Lucia” Eki took the old worn-out Santa Lucia song and jazzed it up. At first it sounded a bit strange, but it gave the doc a whole new twist. We used the technique for “Back in the USA” and “Posh Poor & Middleclass BRITS”, It worked every time.
  • Rant # 2: commissioning editors who see a project at several stages of development and like it. Then can´t find a spot in their schedule for the finished production.
  • Rave #2: the help Kerstin Degerman from EU Media Programme Development gives to filmmakers when they´re trying to fill out the EU MPD´s horrendously difficult grant application – around 100 pages of dense information. When I first looked at it I said, “My first language is English, but I still don´t understand it.” Kerstin reassured me and said, “It´s like eating an elephant bit by bit. Together we did it and little Margie productions got the money. I think since we applied (three times, once it was rejected and we had to re-apply) they´ve simplified it.
  • Rant #3: missing a spectacular shot. Like “amen” in church, during every production, it seems like a great one always gets away. You don´t miss it in the final cut but when it happens it is hugely frustrating and disappointing. Especially in docs, when most of the time you don´t get a second chance.
  • Rave #3: during the production when there´s an impasse or something horrible happens and Eki says, "I´ve got an idea."  Those are magic words, and they usually break the log-jam.

Lesson 33: Try to keep the ratio of rants to raves about 1 to 4

Next week: 30 Who´s Boss?

Monday 9 January 2012

28 Monkey Sees Monkey Does

When Eki and I work at SpaceWhale and need a break, I usually make coffee and he picks up his guitar or sits down at his drums. Then he really looks happy. When he scored “Back in the USA” he and Era (who shares the studio) played guitar and we all sat down and sang “The Old Gray Mare” together. It was a hoot. Like sitting around a campfire on a warm summer night. But when we played it back I let out a shriek because I was so off-key. The two guys over-ruled me and it went in the doc.

Image by tanli / sxc.hu
Now I´m in the wild west and decided it was a good time to take guitar lessons and learn how to sing on-key. My old pal Billy Clewlow from Venice Beach days has been playing and singing ever since the eighth grade. He emails me country western tunes by Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, David Allan Coe, Woody Nelson and others for inspiration. He also advised me on what to buy: a ¾ size instrument with steel strings.

Went to the music store and a very nice man sold me a Crafter. Just the right size for me to handle. He also recommended a teacher, Sharon Riggen.  She looks like the grandmother you always ever wanted. But you can tell she´s a pro because she makes playing look so easy and has a voice like a young girl. Sharon sat me down, put a big wooden block under my right foot, gave me a shocking- pink pick and told me to play my first chord: G7. Then a C.  After a couple of practice runs she said we´d sing “Marianne” together. The forty minute lesson flew by, but my pressing finger was on fire. She said it would take about six weeks to toughen up. Oh yeah.

Lesson 31: Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice...mm-hmm

Next week: 29 Rants & Raves

Monday 2 January 2012

27 The Interview

Image by ilco / sxc.hu
Getting people to talk on camera (and reveal themselves) is an art. Mastering it is an on-going process. But at least I´ve learned (with Eki´s help) not to interrupt the subject. The following are three type of interviews with some hints on how to conduct them.

01 Just Folks: people with no claim to fame but who have something to add to the doc. Some subjects are shy but we´ve found that most them like to be filmed if you approach it in a relaxed way. Our rule in most cases is to keep the interviews to ten minutes and sharply focus the questions.

Hint: Make it fun, a kind of on-camera game

02 Semi-famous: Esa-Pekka Salonen, Finnish composer and former conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic falls into this category. Well-known enough to have handlers who earn their keep by trying to control people like us. He was hard to pin down, but once we got him he gave us a long and fresh interview (without his minders). Sadly, we had to delete one of his best lines because he used an innocent four letter word and they went ballistic.

Hint: Dig deep for fresh insights. People who are interviewed a lot are lazy and tend to repeat themselves.

03 Famous: little Margie productions has never interviewed an A-list celebrity, but I read everything I can about people who do. One reporter from USA Today wrote a cheeky article about interviewing Kate Blanchett and Russell Crowe. They all met at a posh hotel in Beverly Hills. The two old pals from Australia spent the first five minutes catching up on Aussie gossip and acted as if she were invisible. But she got her revenge when she wrote about it.

Hint: Don´t be intimidated, no matter how famous the subject is.

Lesson 31: Avoid a “puff piece” like the plague

Next week: 28 Monkey Sees Monkey Does