Category Archives: Becoming an Independent Videomaker

Tired TV eyes

Ahhhh… It’s the first weekday morning in weeks that I’ve simply gotten up and stumbled to the kitchen to make coffee and oatmeal.  I don’t have to go in until later today — thanks to a couple of slideshow shoots I have set up.  I have the morning free.

I had planned on riding.  Now I’m not so sure.  I’m so dead.  Kung Fu three days in a row will do that to you.  Now I’m considering working on my documentary assignments… things like that.

Last night I watched a really incredible documentary: “Winged Migration” (2001).  The cinematography was really beautiful.  The narration was infrequent, but the editing was fast enough so it wasn’t boring at all.  For me, it helped me remember how beautiful and amazing birds are… it’s so easy to forget that when you see them everyday.

Recently I’ve watched a number of older documentaries.  I saw “Nanook of the North,” and it was interesting.  As the “first” documentary, it was silent, so I had to watch carefully to read the explanations.  I didn’t enjoy watching them slaughter animals.  I understand why they do, and I’m not trying to say they shouldn’t, but I had a hard time watching them drag a walrus up to shore and slaughter it.  It’s almost mind-boggling to believe that people live in the snow and ice like that… especially for people like me who live in Texas!  It’s also hard to imagine living for pure survival.  Any mistake and you could die.
I also saw a couple of war films, shot during WWII.  They weren’t true documentaries… more like news reels with a slant.  One was a “reenactment.”  One film that bored me to tears was “Man with the Movie Camera.”  It was interesting for the first 15 minutes.  The filmmaker showed all these aspects of 1920s Russia, and it was cool.  The score had been added later because the film was silent.  But it just went on and on.  It was almost the same content for 1.5 hours.  Maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake.  Maybe I’m a hopeless product of MTV.  I don’t know, but I definitely don’t want to go through that again.

Next on the film schedule?  “Roger and Me” by Michael Moore.  Andy says we watched it years ago, but I really don’t remember much about it.  I’ll try watching it again.  I’ve seen “Bowling for Columbine” and that was thought-provoking.  Hmmm…  we’ll see.

Campus Connections

I met with a graduate admissions counselor this morning at UT.  I wanted to find out more about my chances of entering the Graduate School in Anthropology.  It was only a 10 minute meeting, and I invested a lot of time and effort in getting there, but I think it was well worth it.

Here’s what I discovered: at UT, there is no requirement to have an undergraduate degree in Anthropology to study it on the graduate level.  In fact, many of the graduate students had history degrees and the like.  But the admissions process is a crap shoot.  Only 15 people were admitted for this fall.  I got the names of a couple of professors who work in subjects closely related to my interests, and at the very least, I have contacts for future video projects.  More on the subject later…

Here's a documentary I highly recommend…

Murderball I’ve been trying to see as many documentaries as possible as I gather materials for video #3, and prepare to write the script for #2.  So I decided to go see one at the theater.
“Murderball” was shot over two years, and follows Team USA Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby squad members.

I had been hearing a lot about it.  A couple of reporters did some nice stories about the film’s premiere (one of the team members lives in Austin— Mark Zupan), and I also saw a write up in “Documentary International.”

Here’s what the Austin Chronicle had to say about the film:

 “In action, they look like gladiators from some warped Mad Max: Beyond the Velodrome concept, but they are instead the men of quadriplegic rugby, a sport nicknamed “murderball” before adopting the legitimacy of international recognition and competition at the Paralympics in Athens. Strapped securely into tricked-out wheelchairs encased with full-metal hubcaps, these contestants collide into one another as if they were driving bumper cars while trying to keep the ball in play. The rules of the unfamiliar sport are explained at the beginning of the film, yet before viewers can settle in for a straightforward sports documentary, Murderball switches gears and takes us in unexpected directions……. Murderball also distinguishes itself by presenting its subjects as neither objects of pitiable fate nor victims locked in an eternal struggle to overcome…. Murderball is at its best when pricking these walls of public opinion, and co-directors Rubin and Shapiro deliver the rare documentary that totally entertains, informs, and inspires.” (Austin Chronicle:

The most thrilling moment for me was when the film had me really feel the same emotions as the players… it was like going from sympathy (because I had been so far drawn into the reasons why they became wheelchair bound) to empathy.  At a key moment in the film, it no longer felt as if I was a world apart from the characters and I was just an observer.  Instead, I felt I was there with them and their families, feeling their disappointment and pain.

See it if you can.

Storytelling… good thing some producers get it right.

Before moving to Austin, I rarely, if not ever, watched PBS. I used the on-screen guide to flip through channel listings, and I hardly ever saw anything that interested me. It was always something like “This Old House” or government talk shows. For some reason, my interest in PBS programming has skyrocketed since living here. As I flip through the on-screen listings, there always seems to be something interesting. Right now, I am watching a program series called “Roman Empire: The First Century.” The producers also did the Islam series I liked so much. The style is steady and paced. It deluges you with information that draws you into the story and connects you with the characters.
I wouldn’t call it a true documentary, but it appears closer in style than other programs I’ve seen on commerical channels. I’ve been frustrated in the past by programs that relied more on sensationalism than storytelling to interest viewers. (The very thing I hate about tv news.) One that comes to mind was on The Discovery Channel a couple of years ago. If I remember correctly, the show producers followed a female scholar as she uncovered something “revolutionary” about Nefertiti. There was so little content, the show seemed to drag on through dramatizations and weak theories. The show relied on the untested theory from one scholar and reenactments to portray it. After watching about 1/2 an hour, I couldn’t watch anymore. It was like the show scratched the surface of all the history it was dealing with. It was like the producers barely did any research and instead relied on the scholar as if her truth was the only truth. But I think those kinds of programs walk a risky line. The purpose of these programs is to inform, which implies that they are balanced. Viewers expect balance, and they are led to believe that the theories they see are absolutely true. What if they aren’t? All theories have detractors. Part of the wonderful part of learning is hearing the debate between scholars, whether it be history, theology, economics, anthropology or science, and making the decision about thr truth for yourself. It’s kind of like listening to politicians and deciding who to vote for.
Ah well. Commerical TV has to do something to get viewers. Sometimes the programs appeal to the lowest common denominator. They try to answer questions than would be almost impossible to do so within an hour– (broad generalizations about the ancient world come to mind). They piece together weak theories and try to make them sound strong– (our understanding of human evolution has come a long way, but the Discovery channel series made it sound as if it is rock solid and unchallenged on many fronts, and I’m not talking about the so-called Intelligent Design theory. I’m talking archaeology itself). They treat psuedoscience as a legitimate topic– (UFO shows? Please).
Okay, okay, enough criticism, especially since my ravings are not backed up by specific examples. I’m relying on my vague recolections rather than on solid facts, which is exactly what I hate about the programs I’m writing against. Talk about being a hyprocite.
It’s better to concentrate on what I like. But it’s so hard for me to articulate what I LIKE about historical programming. I like the storytelling. History is just a story, and good programs are able to spin that story into a wonderful tale. Good stories don’t need added drama. They don’t need the producers to add anything more to them. They are already exciting. So what makes a good story? Good characters. Look at some of the most engaging historical figures. I can think of dozens of figures who are incredible characters. They are such good characters, they have become the source of inspiration for books, film, and fictional television. They are hardly boring, and their lives and actions are rich and varied. They inspire us. That’s the key to a good show and a good documentary. The Roman program I’m watching… characters like Augustus, Marc Antony, Tiberius, and Caligula draw us in, whether it be for their bravery, superhumaness, or incredible cruelty and eccentricities. What producers need to do is weave their tales into a conherant story. We should bring together the story with multiple voices from the past and the present, vivid images, and a soundtrack that compliments rather than overpowers the story. Easier said than done, right?
I would agree, based on the poor quality programs I’ve seen. But fortunately, there are enough producers out there who do get it. And they weave together some wonderful tales. The “Islam” and “Roman Empire” series I’ve seen are wonderful. So is one called “The Appalachians.” So, if you’re channel surfing and land on PBS, give it a chance. The programming is so much better than some of the much hyped programming on commerical tv.

I love Netflix

I think I’m in love with Netflix.  If you don’t have it and you love movies, it’s definitely worth it.  Andy and I have been resisting for ages, because we weren’t sure we would get enough out of it, but when the documentary book I’m reading gave a recommended list of films to see… well, we just had to sign up.
For starters, I HATE Blockbuster.  I hate the fees, I hate the snotty people, and I hate having to drive there to pick out a movie from their relatively small selection only to be disappointed that somebody got there first.  And those “no more late fees” commercials?  Lies.  Only company-owned stores follow the new policy.  Franchises don’t have to, and most of the stores I’ve lived near have been franchises.  The fees stand.
I am also tired of the typical movie theater.  Who needs fighting for a seat with hundreds of other people only to get stuck next to the rudest person in the crowd?  Now, I love the Alamo Drafthouse.  I’ve gotten to the point where, if I’m going to go out to see a movie, it’s at the Alamo.  At least I can have a beer while I watch.
Andy and I don’t have anything special set up in our living room to watch movies.  Plans for a surround sound system have been put on the back burner while we take care of other necessities.  But it’s fine.  The TV is big enough and the couch comfy enough to make for a pleasant movie experience.  Plus the movie come right to our house.  Netflix and the DVR give us enough to watch that we sometimes become overwhelmed by all the options.  I’m telling you… those two things are going to change the way we watch tv and films… much like the web is changing the way we get our news.  It’s a new world out there, and the technology is amazing.  Who would have thought 20, or even 10 years ago that TV Guide would stop printing local listings, people would be able to shoot and edit quality films right on their computer, and Video on Demand and DVRs would change our tv viewing habits?  Not me.  Pretty exciting, huh?

The Daily Grind

Oh, for shame…

I just did something I haven’t done in years, and I’m kind of ashamed.
I signed up for TVSPY and spent an hour looking through the Watercooler.  I used to read TVSPY’s Watercooler back when I was in the tv biz… before I left producing in disgust 3 1/2 years ago.  Now I’m working at a tv station again, and the urges to keep up with station gossip are overwhelming.
I never post.  I just read.  I like to see what people are saying about my station and the others in the market, and compare that to the way I view my station.  I don’t know how other industries are, but the tv news biz is REALLY, REALLY small.  If you’ve been in it a few years and a few different markets, chances are you know someone working in just about every state, and certainly people at most stations in your market.  It’s really weird how that is.  I mean, on Thursday, I sat down with my ND for an hour, talking about people we both knew and how it was at stations we used to work at.  But that’s how it is. 

Get to work!

My task this weekend: get some work done on the Keyser Farm video.  I haven’t forgotten what my goal is, but it has been hard making the transition to full-time work.  I exercise in the mornings, go to work, but when I get home, I’m either exhausted or I have other things to catch up on.  Not to mention required watching… I have two documentaries on DVD I NEED to watch this weekend, and another I want to see in the theater.

Me? A judge?

I have just been invited to judge entries for a college television news contest.  It has a fancier name, but that’s essentially what it is.  I’m told there aren’t that many tapes to watch, but there seem to be a number of categories in which to evaluate them.  I hope I can find some of my old college grading sheets so I can remember everything to consider.  Boy!  It didn’t take long to be sucked back into TV News!

Changing the face of everything…

Project: Analyze a documentary for structure and style

Suddenly my video viewpoint is starting to take another turn… this time, away from the journalistic version seen on most of TV, and toward one that is more socially critical.
This documentary textbook that I’m reading really delves into the documentary style, and the reading has been eye-opening.  I guess I always assumed that a documentary is anything non-fiction.  But in actuality, it is much more.  A true documentary is eye-opening, and at its very core it is trying to bring light to an issue and force the audience to make a judgment.  Documentary filmmakers do this in a vast number of ways… from the subtle retracing of the past through Errol Morris’ interviews, to Michael Moore’s “in-your-face” argument.
I had actually once argued that Moore does not make real documentaries… but as it turns out, I was wrong.  The “documentaries” that are now being shown on almost every cable channel are actually non-fiction videos.  Not everything of course, and many of those you see on PBS are excellent examples of quality programming.  But, yeah, a lot of the shows that are called “documentary” are not, and I thought they were.
The book has a really long list of documentaries that it strongly recommends viewing.  Then it has a series of projects.  I think I’m going to go through them on my own.  The first is at the top of this entry.  I have to watch one of my choice and go through and write a paper on it.  …Might as well.  I like to write, and I really want to learn.  Already, I’m beginning to develop my vision for video project number 3.  But I haven’t quite fleshed it out yet.

On the shelf, in the back of the mind…

Project 2, Keyser Farm, has been stale for the past three weeks.  I’ve been reading this book and then I got the job…. I found that ever-present excuse to put it on hold.  But I have a feeling it will be for the best.  It’s always good to step away from a project and then come back to it fresh.  I plan to continue the research tomorrow by heading over to the PCL.  Today would be a better day — it’s raining buckets — but I have a martial arts class in a few hours.

Keeping details on the QT

I just want to say briefly that the job is going well, and I really like it.  But, as you may have noticed, I haven’t said much more than that.  I signed a piece of paper on my first day that forbids me to disclose any company secrets and all that stuff.  I don’t want anyone to read my blog and use that as an excuse to fire me.  Not that I would say anything bad, but you know how people can get.  They can use the littlest thing — even the most inconsequential one — as an excuse to fire or reprimand someone.  No… I’ll probably say very little about the job.  That doesn’t mean I’ll stop railing against the news.  I’m still very critical of the media, but hopefully I’ll be making a difference for the better.  This time, I’m on the side of a movement in journalism to provide “news on demand.”  Instead of waiting for an anchor or newspaper to report the story… people can get any information they want with just the click of a mouse.  And they can get as much information or as little as they want.  Much like how digital video recorders are changing television as we know it.  That’s the way the web is changing the face of journalism.  Look for more commentary in a future entry.
But you know… it is just a job.  I don’t see it as a career.  The career… that’s the video stuff I’ve been talking about for months.  The job is just the means for doing the career.  The balancing act will be the hard part.  I’ve already discovered how hard it is to come home after being at work for 9 hours, and finding the motivation to write or study.  I guess somehow I will find a way.

Sifting for info

   I’m reading a book right now that should help me market my future videos: “The Complete Independent Movie Marketing Handbook” by Mark Steven Bosko.  It got great reviews and came highly recommended.  I’m not too far into it yet, but I’ll let you know how I like it.

   Yesterday I got a pep talk from my station advisor from college.  We went to lunch, and I told him about my quandary… go back to school?… get a real job?…  I got some good advice and I’m chugging forward.  He did recommend another book: “Directing the Documentary” by Michael Rabiger.  I can’t wait for it to arrive.     

Get into the Groove

44PA1Kids-diggingI have 5 minutes to write before my calendar tells me it’s time to start logging two more tapes for my next video — Keyser Farm.
I set the schedule for myself to stay motivated and try to prevent myself from slacking off.  It’s one of the three To-Do Lists I have.

I tend to be a procrastinator.  I also tend to get really excited about a new project, then become less and less excited as the project continues.  I’ve found this to be detrimental to various hobbies and pursuits, but over the years I have devised a number of ways, that together, help to keep me on target.  I don’t know if it works to everyone.  But it’s helping me.

  • Create detailed lists
    Detailed is the operative word here.  If I write down “Shiloh Video” on my list, I tend to loaf around because that’s not specific enough.  But when I have a list of specific tasks related to Shiloh, I go through the list one by one.  At one time, I had a list of 30 things to do on Shiloh, written on the dry erase board next to my desk.  It was stuff like: Call artifact owners for permission; correct sound on McNeil bite in Chapter 2; crop and ready new Dye photos for import into Avid.
    And now that I’m logging tapes for the next one, I’m scheduling which tapes to log on which days.  Today, my goal is to log tapes 8 and 9.  And if I get done early, I can do other things.
    This system is helping me accomplish things faster.
  • Schedule time wisely, both work and leisure activities
    I used to schedule things on my calendar that there was no way I’d be able to accomplish… like logging a tape for 2 hours during lunch.  Okay… number 1, I’m not going to finish a tape in 2 hours, and 2, even if I rush through lunch I only have 1 1/2 hours to log.  This is a bit unrealistic.  Now I set aside larger chunks of time for working and playing.  I make sure I put down lunch, exercise, outside meetings… and I know I’m less likely to work at the computer between 6 and 8PM… so I just don’t bother trying to make myself.  It’s all about being realistic, but also challenging myself.
  • Get up early
    I’m unemployed right now, and it started getting hard finding the motivation to get up and accomplish things.  So I started making myself get up early.  It actually helps!  I don’t feel as much like a bum.  I’m sitting at my computer by 9am… having already eaten, exercised and showered.  I feel ready to start my day!  I’m not making any money right now… but one day I will, and I feel good that I’m not loafing around until that day comes.

 So that’s my strategy for getting stuff done.  It works for me… I have an attention span that goes nuts during the day.  My dad and brother are the same way.  If I don’t have a system, I’ll never get anything done.