Thursday, May 18, 2006

Today we obtained official permission to use the music from Ken Burn's "The Civil War"!

I'm still trying to get the school project done. I started on another segment last night, and realized that each segment is taking between 6 and 8 hours to edit. The segments run from 3 to 6 minutes in length. The kids did a most excellent job with content, their on camera interviews and a good selection of images to cut to.

However, there's a lot of work that goes into trying to make each one as interesting and as much fun to watch as the next. I'm trying to mix things up so that they're not all following exactly the same format, yet they all need to remain consistent stylistically. So its something of a challenge. Picking the right music has been hard, along with selecting the right images from the ones that I have to chose from without over using them.

The part of the day that was interesting was this...

So I'd always struggled a bit with the music. I wasn't sure at first what I was going to do. There was a classical musician at work that I'd talked to, but unfortunately didn't have the time to commit to it. So I started thinking that I'd be stuck using royalty free stuff or whatever I could construct from loops in Acid - a music/sound editing package that came with my video editing package.

Until I was sure what I'd do, I started using the sound track from Ken Burn's "The Civil War" as placeholder music. It really took the thing to a new level.

I still was struggling with a couple of things. First, it's copyighted material. Second, we've really been harping on the kids to make sure that they tell their story in their own words. There's a big push on plagiarizing material, so using copyrighted material without the proper permission does not set a very good example. Time is really a factor, and trying to get music any other way would have been daunting given the amount of time I'd been spending on editing. Having something already done that was done for something in roughly the same time period would be a huge help.

So today, I put a call into Florentine Films, Ken Burn's production company. I spoke with Brenda Heath, the CFO. I was delighted to hear that she was willing to help with our project. She asked that I email her a list of the songs that we wanted to use and she'd make sure that there were no issues.

Within the hour, I had a response back saying that as long as the music was used for the project and we wouldn't charge admission or distribute it in any other form, we were good!

Wow.. I can't reallyput into words how good that made me feel - what a relief to know that we could use what we needed for the project with their approval. I'm having so much fun and I'm so pleased with the results that it would be really hard if they'd said we couldn't or shouldn't use it. In addition, I keep hearing that the kids, staff and faculty are anxiously awaiting each new segment as I get it ready. The buzz is huge at the school now and I really don't want to let them down.

I sent an email to Ralph so that he could pass along the good news to the class. He was pretty excited to know that we had the blessing from "the master" (or at least from his CFO) that we could use the music for our little project from what is arguably one of the most successful documentary films of all time.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

School project is coming together nicely.

I've often felt that there's such an education crisis in this country. It's been so great being able to give something back and help kids and faculty alike have fun with the learning process.

I've now got three segments completed, two of which I'll have links to at the end of this post. Note that the cuts that I'll provide the links to are still rough, but they'll give you an idea of how things are looking.

I have to say that I've underestimated these kids a bit. The process basically was that they'd research a person or event between the years 1812 and 1860, then "produce" a segment. By this I mean that they'd be soley responsible for developing the content of the segment - I'd shoot, direct and edit it. The assignment called for them to be "interviewed" or appear as experts in their respective segments and tell something about the topic that they were responsible for in their own words. They also had the option of having a narrator provide a lead in and a conclusion/lead out of their segments as well. For some of them, the narrative fell right out of the interviews and the on-camera information that they'd provided, so no narration was really necessary.

Initially, some of the others seemed a bit weak, mostly because for whatever reason, I hadn't been given copies of their lead in/lead out narrations, and wasn't sure if there were enough information in them to help round out the piece. Yesterday, I went in to record voice overs with the English teacher, Adam Brown, on the team for this group of students. Since I wanted the project to be about the kids and the faculty and give them their chance in the spot light - I wanted a faculty member doing the narrations. Ralph talked to Adam and he agreed to do them for us. Adam's voice was so perfect, I can't really believe it. He sounded like someone that could actually have a future in voice over work. He had such a warm, well rounded tone and wonderful enunciation and was great to work with.

Anyway, what I think I was most blown away by was the quality of the writing the kids had done in these narrations. Very well done. This one segment that I'd finished last night wasn't looking like much at first, but with the addition of their well crafted narrations, the piece came together wonderfully. For a group of kids who'd never done anything like this before, I have to say that I'm damn impressed with the results thus far. Overall, I'd really have to say that this has far exceeded my expectations. It's not perfect, and there are things yet to fix, however, it's coming along so nicely, and I find myself so energized by the work these kids have put into it, that I find it difficult to know when to quit at night. Last night I was up until 2:00 AM working on a segment.

Yesterday, I went into their class with the two nearly completed segments I'd been working on(attached below). I popped the DVD in and the kids started just cheering, ooing and ahhing... Afterward, they were all asking me, "Mr. Bennett, when will I get to see mine?" it was such a great experience. So rewarding and uplifting to see them all so excited and responding so positively to the project.

For me, it was validation of the value of arts in education. This exercise taught them not just about having fun with a filmmaking project, but it taught them the importance of research and knowing and understanding a topic. It taught them about presentation, story and structure. For many of them, despite the fact that they were so terribly nervous about being on camera, it also helped give them some confidence as well. I can't remember a more rewarding experience in my life than seeing these kids so engaged and excited about something that can be as mundane and boring as a history class.

Below are links to two clips.

Please note: I've had to remove the following links. I've been given very specific rights to use the music contained in them and do not wish to violate that agreement.

"Star Spangled Banner" This clip features the history teacher, Ralph Sommers. Teachers have a tough life. They work their asses off, are often under paid, unappreciated and really don't seem to have much fun these days. And after having to endure a gut wrenching round of budget cuts, Ralph and his team (not to mention the rest of the staff at the school) were feeling a bit beaten down. Since I wanted this piece to be about the kids and their teachers, I wanted to make sure that Ralph had a chance to have fun with it too. The student that was responsible for this particular topic was so painfully shy, there was no way we could ask her to appear on camera. Her research was flawless and the piece that she prepared was wonderful. So based on her outline, I asked Ralph to tell the story of the Star Spangled Banner. This was done in one take - he did such a nice job. It's a little dark at the moment, but I've fixed that in a new cut - just haven't had time to render and upload.

"The Abolishionist Movement" This clip features my son Travis (the one talking about the anti slavery society) and his partner Josh. While they did have narrations prepared that lead into and out of the piece, I consulted with them after editing and thought that it stood so well on its own that perhaps it didn't need them. We're still deciding, so they may appear in the final cut. Josh did a fine job with the presentation of his materials, but we may rerecord the final two voiceovers for the final cut.

And yes, in case the style of the film left any doubt in your minds, I am a _huge_ Ken Burns fan... :)

Friday, May 12, 2006

The learning continues...

OK, so I'd mentioned in previous posts that I wanted to learn to do everything on my own so that in the unlikely event I had to shoot anything on my own, I could do it.

So in my previous post, I'd included a link to a clip that I'd cut from footage that I shot with my son Travis for the school documentary that I've been helping out with. Shooting the exteriors was pretty easy - no people to deal with, the images are pretty static, and I had plenty of time to work out various issues with the camera.

Last Friday, we were ready to shoot interviews with the kids so that they could talk about the subject that they had selected. I went to Rule Broadcast systems, got the gear and made it back to the School at 1:00. Problem was, we needed to start shooting at 1:00. So there were a bunch of kids, all ready to go, and here I am rushing to set the gear up to shoot the interviews. While I've had ample experience now working with experienced crews for this type of shoot, I've never had to worry about both the technical AND the producer/director aspect at the same time. So this was my first outing trying to shoot and direct real people with sound.

I get the camera and the lighting set up great - the images look wonderful and all, but I can't find the damn headphone jack on the DVX (camera) to monitor the sound. I consult the manual and find it but, as I go to plug in the phones, my hand slips and the jack goes into the iris remote plug instead, plunging the image into complete darkness.


So I'm thinking, fuck... I just killed the camera. While the display was still showing tape position and battery information there was no picture. So for the first time in front of the kids, I'm really looking like a dork and they're no doubt wondering, "does this guy really know what the hell he's doing?". My confidence was shredding fast I can tell you and I was very concerned that the project had come to an abrupt, gut wrenching halt right at that moment.

To add to the pressure, the history teacher that I'd been working with, Ralph Sommers, had just got through telling me what a morale boost my project had been for the school staff - who had just endured a round of cuts. He said "this is really the type of thing that we all need here to lift our spirits and get people thinking positive again". Great. And here I am with a dead camera, not one minute of student interview on tape, and it's looking like I'll have to shut the the thing down because I goofed and shorted something out in the camera. The pressure was needless to say, very much on.
I called Rule in a controlled panic (but a panic nonetheless) and discovered that pluging phones into the iris jack just causes the iris to go fully closed - duh. Hence the loss of picture, but not everything else on the camera.... Whew... OK good, now I won't have to pay for the $4,000 camera.

To top things off, I also had problems with the external mic. I had the mic plugged in and figured out that I had to select the correct external input, but for some reason, nothing was coming through on the mic - and time is running out fast because we could only keep the kids after school for so long.

I try the other battery. No good. I got my assistant to find another batter somewhere else in the building. Still nothing. So I ended up shooting the first couple interviews with the on camera mic. Out of frustration, I started playing with the cable, and finally, it worked, but I'd shot three groups of kids (they were working in teams of two) with the on camera mic.

Turns out that the problem was coming from the 10 foot cable that had come with the sound kit. The 20 footer that they'd given me worked great, and I switched over to that. I thought I was going crazy. Oh well, lesson learned.

While the images on the groups with the external mic came out awesome, the sound SUCKED.

With the sound problem worked out, I went back in the following Monday and did re-shoots for the groups that I'd done with just the on camera mic. The highlight of this was one girl in the class who struggled with her presentation the Friday before. Though she was not one of the kids that had a problem with the sound, she'd asked if her interview could be re-shot and it ended up being perhaps the best one in the group.

I've been cutting things like crazy trying to get the student film finished so that I can show them rough cuts next week. I think I'm on track to do that. It's been fun and I'm learning a lot. The response of the kids and the faculty has been great and I'm hoping to have a finished product soon.

Heist is on hold for the moment - until I get this school project completed.

One of my TV shows was making the rounds in NYC this week. Major LA prodco had taken it to a bunch of networks to pitch. I've heard nothing yet, but have reached a point where I'm not getting excited about anything until there's a deal on the table.

I came up with yet another show concept to develop, but I'm guessing that I'm not the only one that's on the trail of this one so we'll see what happens with it. I made calls to the people that I want to base it on this morning, but something tells me that I won't hear back as I'm sure I'm not the first one to the table with an offer to develop something around them.