Monday 9 December 2013

Between the IDEA and the REALITY Falls a...

Shadow. I think we've used this T. S. Eliot quote before. But it deserves a repeat. An idea comes in a blink. A flash. It's easy. Then the hard part, like an all-white jigsaw puzzle. First you have to find the border pieces and then.... We usually start with a synopsis. But in this case our story editor says forget the synopsis do the Treatment.  I hate the Treatment. You have to know where the story is going and imagine how to shoot the different scenes so they fit. The synopsis tells the story. But the treatment, if it's good, shows the story.

A blank page.
When we have a new project we talk about it a lot, collect related info from different sources and then try to put it all together on one page (single-spaced). It's not uncommon to do nine or ten drafts (each numbered). There should be no typo errors or spelling mistakes. We like the project we're working on so much that we're shooting a small test film before it's even commissioned, to go with the proposal we'll pitch to the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE).

At the Nordic Film Festival I've been to pitching sessions where producers and their commissioning editor present their projects before a panel of CEs from the Nordic TV companies. Sometimes it ain't pretty. They demolish the un-prepared. Or those with weak proposals. The winners are calm, confident and can answer any difficult question. They tell their stories, which have a beginning, a middle and an end, concisely.  Sounds simple and logical but try it. For example, I should be working on the Treatment for our project. But writing this blog is a lot more fun. Tomorrow I'll tackle the un-tackable.

Q.  Do you ever wish you were in another business?

A. Nope. When we don't have a TV project to work on, we make music videos for the fun of it (see GETTIN' OLD AIN'T EASY).

January: Cats-R-fun 

Friday 1 November 2013

GETTIN' OLD AIN'T EASY: a Finnish, French, American music video

Billy The Cat - "Gettin' Old Ain's Easy" (2013)
Eki and I just finished the edit on "Gettin' Old Ain't Easy." We both like it a lot. And in two weeks it's had over 500 hits. A drop in the Youtube ocean but still... Partly it has to do with Baptiste Daleman, the singer/composer/guitarist who composed the music, performed and recorded the song (I wrote the lyrics). Baptiste has a following, especially in France. Although now he's got a gig in the UK - London and Brighton. He started out as my guitar teacher. But we soon got tired of him trying to teach how to change chords and instead started writing tunes after I played "A Tiny Ton of Trouble" - a music video that Eki and I did last year.  He asked me to write something for him.

Our first song was "Dating Mating & Hating after 30."  I thought the lyrics were Cole Porter-ish but being 29 and romantic Baptiste thought they were cynical. So we left that one and I wrote "Gettin' Old Ain't Easy" A sweet sentimental take on old age that has a sad beginning and a happy end. It also has kids and cats (one of whom is Billy) which people love to see in videos.

When I was in the US - the Wild West - I did the filming. Lots of it. But then I decided to re-shoot a scene because I didn't like the t-shirt the motorcycle rider was wearing. Big mistake. We took the new shots and I forgot to turn the camera off. Eki told to look at the footage before we met to pick out the scenes I liked best. Big surprise. 25 minutes of the fan in my living room going round and round. I decided not to tell Eki until he saw the rest of the tape. When he took a look he said, "Mmmmm."  Not a promising beginning. But then he went to work and I was quiet. Never once did he have to say, "It's ren-der-ng." 

Q. Did Billy the cat find a good home?

A. Yes. A fantastic home with an adorable couple who have two other sweet (female) cats who love him to pieces and two dogs, one who lets Billy cuddle up to him when the weather gets cold. They send me photos and I still miss him.

Next month: A New Project

Monday 2 September 2013

"Happy Birthday to YOU".. But it'll cost you.

Who would have thought that "Happy Birthday" the most sung song in the world is copyrighted. Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson found out the hard way. When she decided to make a movie about the song she discovered that the rights were owned by Warner Chapell, the publishing arm of the Warner Music Group.  She paid $1500 and decided to sue to have it put in the public domain. The company collects approximately  $2 million a year for the rights.

banj0e /
HB has a long and convoluted history. In the late 1800s two sisters, Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill wrote "Good Morning to All" to the same tune as HB. Over the years it evolved into the song that almost everyone in the world is familiar with. In fact, what would a birthday be without it. That was the story Ms Nelson wanted to tell. Other filmmakers have also paid for the rights. It was an important scene in "Hoop Dreams".  Steve James paid $5000 for the rights. Now Robert Braumeis, professor at George Washington University Law school has written a 68-page article titled "Copyright and the World's Most Popular Song." He doubts that the tune is under copyrights legally.

Ms Nelson is still making the documentary and the story has got a whole lot more dramatic. Her lawyer is trying to get a class-action status so everyone who has paid to use it can get in on the act. What would Mildred and Patty think? Probably laughing their heads off that the the world has gone crazy.

Q. What happened to Billy (the cat not the guy he was named after)? 

A. We still haven't found a home for him, but a big dinner is being prepared for some prospective guardians. No expense has been spared. In the meantime he is eating up a storm, cavorting around during the day, and sleeps like a rock at night. A perfect cat.

Note:  littlemargiedoc-blog is taking a break while on the road.

Friday 2 August 2013


This post is one day late because a couple of weeks ago my life got complicated. A teen-age tom cat camped out on my front porch. He was skinny, scrawny and howling.  He was hungry. I fed him a thrown together meal of hard-boiled eggs, whole wheat crackers all mushed up in water. He scraped the bowl, lay down on a mat and looked at me with imploring eyes. I went straight-away to the market and loaded up on cat food, kitty litter, litter boxes, a talking cricket toy and salmon cat treats.

Photo by Maggy Fellmann
He kept coming around for meals. And then he stayed (outdoors). The best part was, when I came home from some outing I whistled and he came running. Every day my whistle got stronger. And so did he. About a week into our relationship I loaded him into my sister's cat carrier and took him to our local vet. Dr. Morse knew exactly what kind of cat it was. I was so nervous I forgot. But he's pale ginger colored, with circles on each side, white boots and a white belly. I named him  Billy (after a friend of mine who is another sort of tom cat).

Billy, the cat was tested for leukemia, examined and given a whole bunch of shots. The vet said he was very healthy and that some awful owner had dumped him. He told me to let him out during the day but to keep him in at night. The first night he pooped and peed on the guest room sofa. I called the guy who works on this house to come and take it away (the sofa, not the cat). And designed a new bed. I hated that sofa. As he got more used to me and to the house he got bolder. He tried to sleep on my bed. Stayed out till eleven and had me worried that he'd got run over or cat-napped. As Billy got more confidence (bordering on bravado) I got more like a helicopter pet owner. But the worse thing:  he's an adorable cat and I can't keep him because I'm going to Finland and France in the fall. So now everyone I know is looking for a cat lover who will give him a good home and love him like crazy. If Eki and Riikka lived here it would be no problem. They are crazy about cats.

Q. What part of making docs do you hate the most?

A. When Eki tells me to watch the interviews and pick out what is best. We keep all interviews to around ten minutes for that reason.

1 September 2013:  "Happy Birthday to You."  And here's the bill.

Monday 1 July 2013

EKI Takes a Vacation. I hope.

Image by Bamsemums /
1 July.  A week after Midsummer - the drinkingest day in the year in Finland. The date that everyone leaves town for a hut in the woods. Or an island. Or a boat trip on the Baltic. Or somewhere where they can blow off steam and have fun. That is everyone except a skeleton crew left in the cities who take care of tourists and a few unlucky people who have to work. I hope Eki has left his computer (and all those fires he puts out) and takes a rest. Rides his bicycle. Takes Riikka for a second honeymoon. The thing is, unless you live in Finland (all of Scandinavia really) you can not understand what all the fuss is about. Light has a lot to do with the frenzy. Because after summer solstice - the longest day of the year (in Lapland it's light 24/7) it begins to get a little darker every day.

The first year I was in Finland I wondered what all the fuss was about. When my sister-in-law said in August that Christmas was not that far off I thought she was crazy.  I soon learned that she had a point. But what a life for six weeks (the amount of vacation time most Finns get). Known for being silent and serious, people become jolly, party-going and giving. Lighting huge bonfires. Dancing. Singing.  Eating (especially crayfish by the dozen). It's positively pagan. Finns came late-in-life to Christianity and it shows up during Midsummer and Christmas. They throw off all restraint and have a blast.

Eki usually goes to the island that his parents established to do genetic research. He tells me it's all work and no fooling around. But I wonder if with night falling around eleven pm he doesn't get out his guitar and start strumming. I was in Chicago on 24 June. We had dinner at one of those serious restaurants that had 25 cooks in the kitchen, two dozen waiters and 29 courses. No one raised a toast to the beginning of summer.  It was fun, but I missed the what-the-hell freedom of good old Finnish midsummer madness.

Q. You're far away from Finland. Are you working on a new project?

A. Eki and I had so much fun making "@Tiny Ton of Trouble" we decided to make another music video: "Gettin' Old Ain't Easy."  Stay posted.

Next month: "Happy Birthday to YOU" and here's the bill

Note from Eki: Unfortunately, i'm still working, though it's rather laid back because everyone else is on vacation. I'll take two weeks off though, starting mid-month. Not six weeks, but better than nothing.

Monday 3 June 2013

Dirt, Dust & Desperate

When I bought a cardboard shack by the railroad tracks I knew exactly what I wanted to do to it. Tear out the whole inside and make it like a boat in the desert. Finnish style. That was the easy part. It was the giant yard that threw me a wild curve. Finally a dust storm blew in and required a massive clean-up. I called the contractor and told him to bring in the rocks.

image by mc2006/

They tore down the back fence and brought in the earth movers. It was all filmable. I got out my Canon and started to shoot. Two guys plowed up the weeds, dust, dirt and leveled the ground - the whole place, house included, goes downhill. Then they started laying in 42 tons of rock. I couldn't believe it but then saw the bill. It said 42 tons of rock.

Inspired, I added singing to my guitar lessons because by that time I decided we could make a music video. Eki is a musician and I had confidence that he would turn the raw material into something that wouldn't make us cringe. Pals were sceptical. They had never heard me sing a note. Or moved away from me at parties where there was group singing because I was so off-key. I thought it was nervy but but what-the-hell depended on Eki to pull it off.  When it was finished Eki said, "Not bad, next time do more closeups."  (see: "Tiny Ton of Trouble" on Youtube).

Q. Have you ever used Kickstarter to raise money for your projects?

A. No. But I've read a lot about people who have. And they've been successful. It's crowd sourcing and seems to work. You have to do a five minute video of the project and make your pitch. You have a limited time to raise the money (I think it's usually around three months). Maybe we'll try it for our next project. I'm sold.

Next month:  Eki Takes a Vacation. I hope.

Thursday 2 May 2013

Eki Pulls an All-Nighter

Image by Krappweis /
Eki and I had a date. We made it about one month in advance - this guy is always booked. Hard to reach. BUSY (a dirty 4 letter word). I was going to be in Helsinki one week. And there was a weekend. So we had only one day and a lot to do. We agreed on Friday. At 10:00 (a long time ago I learned the hard way it's not good to talk to Eki before ten). I called to tell him I'd pick him up. He was groggy. Told me he got to sleep at 6:00 AM. We decided to meet for lunch and work afterwards.

I called again at noon. He sounded a bit better. I picked him up, we had lunch and went to the studio. I love SpaceWhale and am always glad to work there . We were going to edit "@TINY ton of trouble." And finish "Bayonne: sleeping beauty" - a little five minute travel doc that I had shot about two and half years ago. It began to feel good. Fun to see all the raw material start to turn into a finished product. Eki working his magic: mixing the pictures with the music, distorting the colors, computer-animating certain scenes. But he was pre-occupied. And his cell kept ringing. Frantic conversations. I finally asked him to explain in English what the hell was going on. He said they'd worked all night on a sports program that was going to be broadcast on Saturday (the next day). People were waiting at the TV station for the finished product. But the computer kept crashing. I hate that word.

His face turned all red and blotchy. He was nervous. He said the computer wasn't working. I was completely clueless about this disaster. Finally he said he had to go home and try to finish the program. He said never in his entire career (more than 20 years) had he failed to deliver. I groaned. We agreed to meet on Monday - one day before I was to leave. Well he didn't fail me. We finished everything. I left Helsinki happy ready to start shooting again. But not Eki.

Q How does a small film company like little margie productions get projects commissioned?

A The first stage is development, which consists of researching the project and then the preparing a proposal. It includes a title, premise, one paragraph blurb, synopsis, treatment, sources of financing, bios of the company and crew. Then pitch it to the TV station and hope it clicks.

1 June 2013: Dirt, Dust and Desperate

Footnote by Eki

Q: How do you edit a 50 minute documentary in four days?
A: No sleep. hindsight, that "all-nighter" was a train wreck waiting to happen from the getgo. There was way too little time to edit to begin with. Usually you can roughly estimate one hour of editing for each completed minute of the programme, for simple work, if you're well prepared. We only had four days, about 2/3 of it (estimate: 4 x 8 hours of editing = 32 minutes of programme).

Image by Fry2k /
But that was the only way it could have been made at all - welcome to the schedules of the sports news world - the content is best served fresh. We thought we could pull it if everything went fine and we worked 12+ hour days. There was no other option really, the slot for the show to air was already set.

But to say we were well prepared was unfortunately not exactly true, as the shooting wasn't even finished when we started editing - which i didn't know at the time i agreed for the gig, and neither did the production company. Without going into details, there were surprise turns in the plot that needed extra footage to be explained - always a possibility when documenting actual events.

Also, when things start to go awry, they usually do so in many different, overlapping ways... so, in addition to not having all the footage when we started editing, a lot of the footage we had was either not properly logged (content listings missing or inaccurate), or didn't work at all due to compatibility problems with the files / the editing hardware.

Summa summarum, we were soon in a big doodoo. And this is where the "no sleep" part comes in.

We managed to finish the edit at 6 am Friday morning (which took a bit more than just one all-nighter as said), but at that point, it was still just a list of edits in the computer, not an actual broadcastable master. Or, masters to be more exact - there were two commercial breaks within the show, so the master was to be delivered as three separate files.

I set the masters rendering and went home to catch some shuteye before Maggie's edit. I wasn't too worried... i'd be a little tired, but apart from that, we could concentrate on "Tiny Ton" for the whole day.

Oh, how wrong i was.

When i returned to the studio, admittedly still a little cross-eyed and grumpy, i found that all three renders had crashed. And i had no masters.

We can now jump cut to ten PM, which is when i finally had the deliverables on a hard drive, after many increasingly terriying failures to render the show out, with slightly varying settings, on multiple different machines. Finally, i had to resort to making files that were not the way that was specced by the broadcaster - it seemed my editing software of choice simply wasn't able to render out files that were without crashing (likely a file size related issue with QT). We ingested the ad-hoc files to the broadcasting company's systems and... black. No sound.

Well, that made us miss a beat or two, but it turned out it wasn't a biggie - the system there was just configured so that it automaticly converted non-standard files to something usable - without giving any indication that it was processing the files for an half an hour or so each.

Our program aired on time the next morning, once again we dodged the bullet, albeit barely. I didn't watch it, i slept. In fact, we were also so busy in the edit that we never had the time to watch the whole program through from start to end. So, i've never actually seen our all-nighter.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

A BIG ton of trouble

@TINY ton of trouble (2013)
It's only 2:58 minutes. And when I look at "@TINY ton of trouble" it looks easy. First of all it was nervy of me to think that I could sing a song, even if I did take guitar and voice lessons twice a week with a patient teacher: Sharon Riggen. What kept me going was Eki.  He didn't know it, but when people looked at me like I'd lost my mind I told them, never mind Eki, my editor is a musician. He'll fix it. Poor Eki didn't have a clue that I was throwing his name around.

Last September I showed up in Helsinki and we planned to spend one day working on the project. To my surprise he thought the tune I wrote (lyrics and a few bars of music that came to me in the car) was pretty good. Then he went to work on the music. It sounded like a real tune when he played it on the guitar. He recorded it and plopped the earphones on my ears and told me to try to keep time to the music. I sang it line by line over and over and over. And thought this is a disaster with a capital D. But we kept going.

10 hours later after he chose the best parts and maggalized it - something he does to make the voice even and sound better - we listened to the finished piece.  I was a bit shocked, maybe he was too. It sounded  kind of good and I thought the images would carry it along. We agreed that he would finish the edit by Christmas. Eki always says his job is to put out fires. A lot of people call him when they're in trouble and need a finished edit by yesterday. Well there were conflagrations galore because by March "@TtofT" was still on the shelf. We decided to do it when I was back in Helsinki. It's always a kick to work with Eki, especially in his new studio, so it was worth the wait. But when I told him I loved making music videos and couldn't wait to start the next one, I thought I heard a groan.

Q You and Eki have worked together for a long time, how do you manage to get along?

A Eki has a few choice phrases to keep me quiet. For example: "It's rendering." And "Shut up Maggy."

1 May 2013: Eki Pulls an All-nighter

Thursday 7 March 2013

Hollywood in Helsinki

The last time I was in Helsinki to work with Eki he was excited.  I mention this because in the 20 or so years we've worked together it has been me who was the high-flying kite.  One time he told me to "be quiet" my enthusiasm wore him out. So this was a new Eki.  But when he took me to the soon-to-be-ready SpaceWhale studio I understood. This was no good-ole-boy man-cave where the guys get together to jam and have a beer. This was the real thing. It was big and airy. You could actually make movies here. And music.

SpaceWhale is a non-profit music association.  Eki (Halkka), Era Mikkola and Teemu Konttinen are three musicians, who've kept their day jobs, but are serious about their hobby.  They wanted to create a place where bands could rehearse, record demos and even make actual records and broadcast quality music videos (Little Margie Productions is in the process of making "A Tiny Ton of Trouble").  One of the aims of the association is to advance the music life in the Helsinki area, another is to make the facilities for visiting (non-pro) musicians free and affordable for professionals. Half of the studio is built for video use and renting it out for commercial productions, which brings in most of the income to cover the costs.

Inner Circle is an affordable way for clients to use the studio and be sponsors for the non-profit association. The member companies pay a monthly, reasonable fixed fee for 24/7 all the facilities. They include:  a cyclorama with two greenscreen walls and floor that's ready for shooting. They also have a decent (Eki never over-rates anything) small light kit at their disposal. And some tracks, dollies, grip gear, etc. All are included in the studio rent. In addition it's in a great location with direct access to the outdoors:  Vattuniemenkatu 19, 00210 Helsinki, 

Q:  how do you and Eki work together, he' s in Helsinki and you seem to be on the road half the time?

A:  There are all those Monday morning phone calls.  Sometimes they get results and sometimes I show up on site with a whip. But we always have some project in the works.

Next month: A BIG Ton of Trouble