Ever since I got the equipment necessary to film, I’ve been playing pretty fast and loose with scheduling interviews, putting together trips, and so on, preferring instead to revel in the incredible footage my camera produces.
For example, here are some great shots from interviews I’ve conducted between January and March, for all three productions:
As I have to keep telling people, these are not photographs taken during filming; these are actual screenshots from the video files I shot during the interviews. One of the most satisfying and time-saving aspects of the new camera is that taking additional production photos becomes the exception, because you can see everything so clearly in the video.
These interviews took place in Finland, California, Maryland—a wide variety of locations and a lot of fun to do.
But now playtime is over.
Now begins the hard part of the production: moving away from randomly grabbing interviews based on where I happen to be heading, and actually calling, arranging, and planning whole trips where I do nothing but interviews. Typically I shoot 2-3 a day, but with the new camera and the new advantages, it could be as many as 6-7.
This year I have a swath of trips to do, and the trips fall into two categories: those where I have speaking engagements scheduled and those where my presence is needed for these films. In both cases, interviews will be happening.
There are trips ahead to locations all over the US—Portland, San Francisco, LA, Seattle, Las Vegas, Boston, New Hampshire, Washington, D.C. and Kentucky—not to mention the world: London, Brighton and South Africa. All are potential places to do lots of sit-down interviews with all sorts of people.
But only if I plan.
So the planning begins: the letters, the phone calls, the inquiries that turn into interest and then grow into firm times and places, and the lugging of equipment all over creation to tell all these tales.
When I did the first two documentaries, I didn’t become obsessed with “color grading.” I was doing somewhat basic footage, and viewers weren’t likely to fixate on color issues, so color grading struck me as a self-indulgent, time-consuming process for little benefit. The most I did was remove a slight yellow cast to some shots because I’d forgotten to do a white balance on the video camera.
Here’s a shot from the BBS Documentary (this is Ed Williams, one of my favorite interviewees):
I really am fine with this shot, even 9 years later. It has good information about Ed, captures his gestures, and lets him express himself and be heard. The excellent content of his interview, not the image, is why Ed shows up several times in the BBS Documentary. A perfectionist, however, might have wanted to make changes. This is where color grading comes in.
When people say color grading, they now mean a whole host of image repairs—from cropping the image, to changing the color, intensity and overall feel of the shot. With digital footage, the ability to do so on the fly has gone from the realm of craftsmen and expensive studios to anyone with the ability to manipulate a slider—like me.
In Ed’s image above, one might bring him forward in the shot by darkening the background, or change the color balance a tad, or play around with the framing to get just the right feel. I didn’t think it important, but this was also 720×540 Standard Definition video footage, shot on Mini-DV. My new footage is whole other matter.
When you have a shot like this…
…well, now you’re going to have a whole range of things to check out. Do you want to bring him forward? Is the lighting just right? How’s the focus? Do you want to change his skin tone from what the environment caused?
To do this, I have a whole range of tools. But since it’s so time-intensive to do, I wait until the last moment to see exactly how much of each interview’s footage is going to appear in the documentary.
Here’s another scenario. You’re shooting with a camera that wasn’t quite designed to be a video camera (but does it well), and you’re the crew, and you’re shooting in a foreign country, and you discover that the frequency of the lights causes your camera’s manual setting to freak out—so the whole thing looks like fake videogame footage—and you’re not inclined to tell your subject to just stop by the next time you’re in Finland, so you go ahead and shoot anyway, and when you do, this happens:
To be honest, this shot looks kind of awesome, but the chances are pretty high of it jarring the audience out of their absorption in the film to ask, “Why was this filmed inside a kiln?” One fix is to just use the excellent audio from the interview, but instead I’ll do color grading at the end. Here’s a very rough example of playing with the color balance in my video editing software:
The shot is still nowhere near perfect, and obviously is in need of a lot more tuning, but I wanted to demonstrate that a shot that may seem “ruined” is not necessarily. In fact, the troubled shot might even inspire you to take more risks with the look of parts of the film. Ideally, you want to get the shot 100% right the first time, but there are just too many factors to guarantee it, and so at some point, it’s likely color grading will come into your future.
IN AN IDEAL world, all budgetary and time costs that go into a film production would show up “on the screen”; put X dollars and Y man-hours towards a certain shot and your efforts would always be reflected by the final work the audience sees. Usually, however, this term is used in a negative sense: If something is worked on and doesn’t show up on the screen, it’s either a waste or a sign of incompetence. The term is often used in arguing against something being planned. For example, “Do you really want to put that together, just to not have it on the screen?”
Documentaries, of course, are rife with this problem. People film all sorts of subjects along a certain line of exploration, only to decide that just one or two of the people they’ve been filming should go in the final work. Meanwhile, all the rest of that work is gone, left on the cutting-room floor (a lost idiom) and won’t be seen again.
However, even knowing that a lot of his work may end up on the cutting-room floor, the responsible documentarian has to put in the effort. Of five interviewees, only one may make it on the screen, but if you don’t film all five of them, you would never know which one will come forward as the main story. If you don’t pull together all the possible copies of VHS tapes you might use, you would never find the perfect, zeitgeist-capturing sequence that defines the heart of what the film is about.
With my documentaries, the hardest and most time-consuming task I have (that doesn’t necessarily show up on the screen) is lining up the interviews. I’m talking about the thousands of letters, e-mails and phone calls.
The subjects in my documentaries are diverse and in many cases doubt their own worth as interviewees for a film. If I’m looking to capture a tale that spans decades and has many participants, people who played minor roles in the events may be able to donate their time but discount the contributions they could possibly make. This happened constantly with Get Lamp—people who “just” played these games in the 1970s, who didn’t think anyone wanted to hear about that.
In other cases—and this is happening a lot right now—people ask me how such-and-such a documentary could possibly be interesting. I then have to show them some of the work from the previous films to prove that yes, it could be. Most of this effort never shows up on the screen.
All of this can be summed up in a bald-faced fact: I write to people, and I write a lot. For the BBS Documentary, I easily topped 4000 e-mails. For Get Lamp, it was a svelte 2,000. With those sorts of numbers, you can imagine what three films at once will be like.
Sometimes a dozen e-mails will fly back and forth, ranging from finding out when people are available and where they are, to walking them through subjects that might come up in an interview. (Some people want no surprise of any kind, some people are up for anything.) I have to find out what they want to talk about, what they think we should talk about, what I hope we can talk about… and of course what makes the most sense as a backdrop. An office? A workshop? Some agreed-upon place that we both travel to?
I’ve interviewed people at work and at home, but sometimes had to grab a hotel room to get any sort of quiet location. I recorded a few people in hotel hallways, using the dimensionality of the shot to bring it some variance.
But the letters, as legion and as massive as they are in numbers, and as much as they might not show up on the screen, are absolutely necessary. The letters take a person who is concerned this could be a waste of time and transform him into an excited and involved interviewee. It’s where I am my most polite (and let me tell you, I am not a polite person at all), and afford people the respect they deserve for opening their homes to me and my equipment.
As the letters begin going out, I’m grabbing any coattails I can, roping everyone in as potentials. Some viewers of the final film will decry missed opportunities, but they don’t realize that there was a conversation there—a set of letters that resulted in a no-show, for reasons not obvious. And when you do see someone there, on the screen—well, now you know there’s a lot going on in the background to make it happen.
EVERY FILMMAKER HAS his influences—other films and filmmakers that have inspired him. For George Lucas, Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress was one of several major influences on Lucas’s 1977 Star Wars. For Steven Spielberg, the epic works of Sir David Lean (Bridge Over the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia) influenced his Indiana Jones adventures. And for Jason Scott, although he has been influenced by many films, two recent documentaries—8-Bit Generation and Indie Game: The Movie—have inspired him to take his filmmaking game “up a notch.”
Jason admits that initially he was “stunned and cowed” by the two documentaries—particularly their stunning visuals—but upon further reflection decided to use them as benchmarks or touchstones instead, in terms of how the two films were made, as well as the equipment used in their production.
Both 8-Bit Generationand Indie Game: The Movie it turns out were filmed using the ultra-portable, ultra-versatile DSLR technology, resulting in “fantastic-looking, powerful shots that made sedentary subject matter dynamic as hell,” Jason says.
“There’s a shot of Phil Fish, in very thick glasses, sitting in a bar. That shot was far and beyond anything you’d expect in a documentary about video games. I said to myself, ‘I need what does that.’”
Explaining the visual effects of DSLR and how they inspired him, Jason says, “One of the hallmarks of DSLR filmmaking is extreme control of the focal point. The subject can be in tight focus while the background remains in a soft blur. It just feels more honest…it doesn’t feel like the interview situation was contrived to fit a particular camera. There’s also a real sense of capturing a whole space.”
Before investing in DSLR equipment, Jason sat in a Google Hangout with James Swirsky (co-filmmaker of Indie Game: The Movie with Lisanne Pajot) , asking him about the exact lighting, sound and video used to make Indie Game. He also had an extended conversation with Paul Levering, co-filmmaker for 2 Player Productions (whose credits include the first Season of Penny Arcade Television, Reformat the Planet, and the in-production Mojang: The Story of Minecraft). Their common advice was not to be overburdened with equipment, adding that they used DSLR exclusively to make the film. “They’ve all been very generous with time and advice,” Jason says.
With 8-Bit Generation, although visually impressed by the documentary, Jason reacted most strongly to the film’s phenomenal subjects, including Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak and Commodore Co-Founder Jack Tramiel, and their dynamic, crystal-clear presentation onscreen. Given the high caliber of interviewees Jason would like to capture on film for Arcade, Tape and The 6502, he realized he needed to use the same equipment the makers of 8-Bit Generation used—DSLR—if he was to get visually stirring, emotionally charged shots.
In conversations with the creators of 8-bit Generation, Jason has learned that they drew inspiration from his BBS Documentary. In fact, one of the main musicians for the Get Lamp documentary, Zoe Blade, will be providing the soundtrack for 8-Bit Generation.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — Chinese proverb.
LIKE THE ANCIENT traveler’s journey of a thousand miles, Jason Scott’s new journey—an arduous 4-year, 3-documentary journey—must start somewhere, and he has chosen to take the first step at MAGFest, the 10th Annual Music And Gaming Festival.
Plans for MAG Fest Initially invited to the conference to do a showing of Get Lamp, Jason has been authorized to set up an interview area at the festival with video games in the background, where he plans to “rope in” gamers as interviewees for Arcade.
“When I conduct the interviews in this way, it’s kind of random what you get,” he explains. “But it’s a good way of clarifying my questions and themes. I did this to a limited extent with Get Lamp, and with BBS: The Documentary I set up in a hotel and at a hacker con [HOPE]. People line up or I grab them. But it’s not as though it’s very difficult. It’s not like I’m shoveling coal into a boiler or anything.”
While Jason hopes to talk to a range of arcade enthusiasts at MAG Fest who will wax nostalgic about the heyday of video arcades, as well as arcades’ sad but inevitable decline in the face of home gaming systems and the internet, he acknowledges that the interviews themselves may not turn out to be the most valuable part of the experience.
“Often, the best thing to come out of random interviews are recommendations for more formal interviewees,” Jason says. “Someone I would never otherwise meet knows such-and-such a guy who was a major player in whichever world I’m chronicling.”
Besides being an opportunity to gather footage towards Arcade, the short shooting schedule at MAG Fest (Jan. 2–5) will serve as a working “dry run” for all of the new equipment purchased for the film.
“When I was raising the money to buy a new camera for Get Lamp, what I told people was that I liked everything about the BBS documentary except the sound and the video,” Jason says. “I liked the sound that came out of Get Lamp, and I really improved the video by switching to an HD camera. The look was richer. But for the next three, I decided I wanted to go to a higher level. When you’re filming people who are legends in their various areas, you want your best audio and video.”
Standardized professional filming equipment was one approach Jason considered, but “it was really a non-starter because even the most basic setup gets into six figures, and there goes my entire budget.”
Before purchasing cameras, sound recording devices and other equipment for his next 3 documentaries, Jason consulted the filmmakers of Indie Game: The Movieand Mojang: The Story of Minecraft, whose common advice was, “don’t be encumbered with equipment.” The message: go small, nimble and versatile. Their recommendation: DSLR.
Because he was inspired by their film (see forthcoming “Inspiration” for details), Jason respected the filmmakers’ recommendation of DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras. With DSLR, Jason would have excellent picture capability in a high-quality, lightweight, and extremely portable housing. As Jason explains, “This family of cameras that have come out of Canon, Nikon and Sony…is combining the best of the old analog cameras with the digital. The lenses are superior, the shutters are superior, the settings are more geared toward professionals.”
In addition to a pair of Canon DSLR cameras with multiple lenses (for extreme close-ups and distance shots), Jason purchased an array of versatile stands, including a monopod, a sliding dolly and a steady-cam, all with the aim of addressing a criticism of his first 2 documentaries, which was “too many talking head or static shots.” With its maneuverability and versatility, the new equipment will allow for more dynamic shots in a greater variety of situations.
In his short test film, Equipment Test: Typewriter, for example, Jason used the new equipment to film a writer friend, Chris Orcutt, at work on a typewriter, covering him from multiple angles and using different stands. “What I learned,” Jason says, “is that everything is much more flexible and configurable on the fly.”
Core Questions/Fascinations Every filmmaker chooses to make certain films over others because he has core questions about the subject that he wants to answer, and Jason is no different.
With Arcade, he’s fascinated by arcade collectors and people who recreate the arcade in the modern era. “I want to know what it is about them, what drives them,” he says.
For the documentary Tape, his interest in the subject is more multifaceted and difficult to reduce to a single question. “Part of it for me is why the community video store, the service they offered,” Jason says. “But another part of it is exploring the inherent poor durability of consumer-grade tape and the fact that we’ve got all this information out there that is going to be lost unless people start archiving it now.”
Finally, with The 6502, Jason’s interest takes a somewhat philosophical bent: “I believe the 6502 represents a turning point in the interfacing between human and computer chip—the height of people interacting with a computer chip through programming.” In speaking with experts on the 6502, as well as some of its users, Jason hopes to document the chip’s versatility and allure.
Although formal interviews have not been scheduled yet, for all three documentaries recommendations for interviewees have been pouring in. Before filming wraps, Jason expects to have interviewed between 300 and 400 subjects.
But all of that is years away, and for now there is only the single step—MAGFest. Next month you’ll learn what the results were. Stay tuned for step number two.
You’ve found this weblog because I might have linked you to it from the Kickstarter page, or because some search term hit, or any of a bunch of reasons. On the day before Christmas, 2011, this weblog went live and began to tell its story – and hopefully the story will be interesting, deep, and enjoyable indeed.
I make documentaries. One kind of documentary, actually – historical documentaries, films about geek subjects with figures historical and marginal, themes emotional and human combined with in-depth study of information considered too technical for a general audience. I take a long time to do them, and insofar as I am pleased with what comes out at the end of the process, I do them as right as I can.
The first film I made, BBS: The Documentary, took about four years to make and resulted in a 3-DVD set about the era of the dial-up bulletin board system (roughly 1978-1995). Based on the success of that project, I spent another four years making another documentary, GET LAMP, which tells the story of text adventure games, interactive fiction, and the nature of writing interactively. They were wonderful experiences and I considered making another one.
I decided to make three. At once.
This weblog is to be my chronicling of the process, the thoughts that go behind it, the work that doesn’t obviously end up on the screen, and the triumphs and tragedies involved in making these films. To help me do it, I’ve enlisted writers and friends to contribute materials and I’ve asked them to join me in telling my story. When things start to heat up, one of the first aspects of production to go are the updates – the filmmaker is just too busy making sure all the pieces are fitting and that all factors have been considered to then sit down and start writing too much. By having people assist me, I hope to reverse that trend.
More details will be here soon, with the start of 2012, including how I got here, what is going on, and what plans and dreams there are that may change or be surpassed in times to come.