Archive for the ‘filmmaking’ Category

“I wanted to move to a place where I could live for nothing, and I moved to New Hampshire . . . The best professional decision I have made was deciding to stay here once [Brooklyn Bridge] was nominated for an Oscar.”
Filmmaker Ken Burns (on leaving New York City)
After the Fact podcast interview


Covered bridge in Gilford, NH

One of the shots that I saw as a film school student that influenced my photographic aesthetic was the tilt-up shot of the sunrise in the On Golden Pond (1981) title sequence.  They shot that enduring movie at Squam Lake, New Hampshire. I was in that area of the White Mountains over the weekend and delighted in the scenery even though it was winter, and the temperature was zero degrees (and my app said “feels like -20”) on Sunday morning.

On Saturday, I briefly stopped at the Omni Mt. Washington Resort, visited  America’s oldest ski shopLahouts, ate lobster at Gordi’s Fish & Steak House (whose two owners were both on the U.S. Ski team), and stayed the night in the Waterville Valley (not far from where they shot On Golden Pond).  I took the above photo of the covered bridge near Gunstock Ski resort, a day after taking the photos below in Bretton Woods and Lincoln.


Omni Mt. Washington, “#1 Best Ski Resort on the East Coast”
—Condé Nast Traveler


Gordi’s—The perfect place for lobster at Loon Mountain

I didn’t have time to make it two hours southeast to Walpole, New Hampshire where one of the most accomplished modern filmmakers has lived and worked for the past four decades.

“I thought I had just taken a vow of anonymity and poverty, if I was going to be a documentary filmmaker concentrating in American history for PBS.”
Ken Burns (who ironically became rich and famous making historical docs)
New York Times 

One hundred years from now documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (along with Steven Spielberg) will be remember as one of two giant American filmmakers of this era that will not only be well revered—but whose films will still be watched and appreciated. His films have covered a wide range of topics, including the Civil War, Jazz music, baseball, and his most recent 8-part PBS series on country music.

I don’t know the overall extent of filmmaking in New Hampshire, but just On Golden Pond being filmed there, and Ken Burns (and his team)—and filmmaker Dayton Duncan— living there is a rich enough history to impress me.  Here’s an illustration—with roots in New Hampshire— about the subtractive nature of filmmaking:

We live in New Hampshire. We make maple syrup here, and it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. And it’s very much like our process of 40- to 50- to 60- to 75-to-1 shooting ratio. So, it’s distillation. It’s subtraction. It’s what doesn’t fit. At the same time, you are also not trying to simplify it to the place where it no longer resonates with the complexities that the thing has. Now, filmmakers are notorious for saying, ‘Well, that’s a good scene. Let’s not touch it. It’s working. That scene’s working.’ And I’ve got a neon sign in my editing room that says, ‘It’s complicated.’”
Ken Burns

I’m going through Burns’ Masterclass on documentary filmmaking now and will write some posts on it later this month. But here’s one last quote from Burns about rejection that everyone needs to understand.

“There’s never been a moment where I haven’t, on any given day of the year, been actively pursuing the raising of money to pay for these [films]. It didn’t get any easier as my success grew or the popularity of the films grew.”
Ken Burns
The Art of the Documentary by Megan Cunningham

And next time I go to New Hampshire, I hope to make it to Walpole where Burns happens to owns a restaurant—Burdick’s— and grocery store . (Read about it in Travel + Leisure.)  And I hope to one day stay at The Manor Inn On Golden Pond that is linked to the classic movie which starred Henry Fonda,  Katharine Hepburn,  Jane Fonda…and the loons.

Lastly, here are some creative people from New Hampshire; Writer/director Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse), his screenwriter brother Max,  and National Geographic VP of Production Matt Renner (The Cave) all grew up in the Oyster River area of New Hampshire. Novelist and screenwriter John Irving (The Hotel New Hampshire) grew up in Essex, NH. Actress/writer Sarah Silverman was born and raised in New Hampshire.

P.S. Ken’s daughter, Sarah Burns—who was raised in Walpole and now lives in Brooklyn—and her filmmaker husband, David McMahon, co-wrote & directed  East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story, that will begin airing on PBS March 24, 2020.

P.P.S. I drove through New Hampshire after my weeklong class on Writing and Directing the Documentary at the Maine Workshops in Rockport, Maine. Until today (when I found the below video) I didn’t know that cinematographer Billy Williams—who was the director of photography for On Golden Pond) taught workshops in Maine in the past. Williams won an Oscar for Gandhi (1982) and is 91 years old. One of his workshop students was DP Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave).

Filmmaking nitpick: On that sunrise (sunset?) tilt up shot from On Golden Pond they should have cut about 30 frames out to avoid the shake at the end of the shot. (It’s at the 1:13 mark of the video at the top of the post.) Always bugs me. I’m sure it bugs whoever was operating camera that it was left in.

Related quotes:
Emotional Archaeology
Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns) 
Ken Burns on 1+1=3
Burns, Baseball, and Character Flaws

Related links:
The Cabin from On Golden Pond 
Florentine Films/Sherman Pictures 
Film in New Hampshire 

Scott W. Smith

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“Congrats to Julia and Steven, the filmmakers behind American Factory, for telling such a complex, moving story about the very human consequences of wrenching economic change. Glad to see two talented and downright good people take home the Oscar for Higher Ground’s first release.”
Barack Obama

Filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar won an Oscar Sunday night for their documentary American Factory, which they shot in—what I consider an unlikely place to lead them to Hollywood success—a factory in Moraine/Dayton, Ohio.

Both my grandmother and grandfather worked for NCR in Dayton, Ohio (where I was also born), and I had a great aunt who was a nurse at a GM factory there. In northeast Ohio, my paternal grandfather spent 30 years working for Youngstown Sheet and Tube. And I worked in a boat windshield factory in Florida one summer while in college. So while factories and Ohio may not get your heart pumping, that combination has a special place in my heart.

And obviously for Reichert and Bognar as well, as they also made the  documentary The Last Truck :Closing of a GM Plant.  A film nominated for an Oscar in 2009.

In the spirit of finding stories in your own back yard, Reichert and Bognar live in Yellow Springs, Ohio, just east of Dayton. Reichert went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs and has been nominated for an Oscar four times.

At the age of 73, and diagnosed with terminal cancer, it must have been fulfilling for Reichert to stand on the world stage and receive her first Oscar award.

Of course, it’s hard to miss that in Reichert’s acceptance speech that she’s probably the first person in Oscar history to both give a “Go Buckeyes” shoutout and quote Karl Marx. That will bring her friends and foes on both sides.

I’ve yet to see American Factory (which is currently on Netflix), so I don’t know if the filmmakers take a prescriptive, descriptive, subjective or objective  filmmaking approach to a Chinese billionaire bringing his car glass manufacturing plant in Ohio.

But she did say this on a recent interview:

“Some workers feel like the American dream is done. We are never going to get that back. And others say, you know you really have to believe in the American dream. And I think it’s really up for grabs. Is there an American dream still? Is there something that people can if they work hard and stick to the laws that they’re going to have a good life. Is that possible anymore? I think that’s a real question that I hope our film sort of raises. Is this the world we want to live in?”
Julia Reichert
Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross 

These are the questions, that in some ways, philosophy, religion, and politics have wrestled with for the past 200 years, and if you remove the American dream aspect, probably since the beginning of time. Long before capitalism, communism, socialism, and Make America Great Again were being debated.

It does feel like we are in a significant global transition period. If you watch 4-time Oscar winner Parasite (2019), it’s not hard to make the connection between daily financial struggles in Korea and those in Ohio. It’s also not hard to watch the documentary One Child Nation (2019), read current news about the spread of the deadly coronavirus, or track tariffs in China and realize how interconnected the world is these days.

Hat tip to Megan Cunningham for putting Julia Reichert on my radar. Cunningham wrote the book The Art of Documentary that I first read in 2006, and I’ve had the opportunity to produce and shoot projects with her company Magnet Media Films. In a LinkedIn post yesterday, Cunningham said Richert was a recipient of the 2016 Chicken and Egg Award . (The Chicken and Egg Award recognizes and elevates five female non-fiction directors each year with $50,000 unrestricted grants.)

Reichert wrote a book called Doing it yourself: A handbook on independent distribution that was published in 1977, and I’m not sure where you can find a copy.

P.S. From the back to the future file:  Watch the trailer to the 1986 film Gung Ho to see how an early Ron Howard film dealt with cultural differences as a Japanese company acquires a car manufacturer in western Pennsylvania.

Scott W. Smith 



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“I was surprised at how relatable I found many Villagers’ pursuits. Their attempts to find connection, love and meaning were not so dissimilar from my own.”
Director (and recent college grad) Lance Oppenheim

A mistake that creative people often make is that interesting stories are somewhere else—usually far away exotic place. South Florida native Lance Oppenheim found the subject of his first documentary feature in a well-known retirement village in Central Florida.

Some Kind of Heaven premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month.


The Villages sits in the triangle between Orlando, Tampa, and Ocala and I wondered if the film was made in part by  one of the many film/digital/ journalism programs within an hour drive or so from the large retirement community (Full Sail, Seminole State, Valencia, UCF, University of Florida, USF, University of Tampa).  But it turns out the 23-year-old Oppenheim graduated in 2019 from Harvard University’s Visual and Environmental Studies program.

Oppenheim told Filmmaker Magazine that he started pursing filmmaking while in high school discovering  “crazy things happening in my backyard,” including documenting his grandfather’s last days with Alzheimer’s disease. He collected some student awards and fellowships along the way.

He then made three short docs for New York Times OpDocs. Here’s one of those videos that was a Staff Pick on Vimeo. Followed by a short piece Long Term Parking about people living in a parking lot at the LAX airport.

I don’t have any further information on distribution plans for Some Kind of Heaven, but it will be playing February 19th at MoMA in New York City as part of Doc Fortnight 2020.

Related posts:
Starting Small
Aiming for Small Scale Success First 

Scott W. Smith

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“We didn’t do any color filtration….”
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael on shooting Ford v Ferrari

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 2.07.26 PM

Ford v Ferrari: To get that golden look (without filters or visual effects), you have to shoot at the golden (or magic) hour

Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron once said that the problem with filmmaking is there is “never enough time or money.” While I was reading this morning about the making of Ford v Ferrari that Cameron quote popped into my mind.

When I lived in LA in the eighties there was a remote area just outside of the edges of the San Fernando Valley called Agua Dulce.  Because it’s still in LA County (yet very unlike most of LA, movies like Blazing Saddles and 127 Hours were shot there. I did some rock climbing and photography there. Fast forward 30+ years and the surrounding area is no longer remote. That poses some challenges to those wanting to shoot there.

They filmed parts of Ford v Ferrari in what is known as the Antelope Valley at the Agua Dulce Airport near Lancaster/Rosamond/Palmdale, CA. An area now with a population of over 300,000 people.

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 1.31.01 PM

“At Agua Dulce, because of noise restrictions, we could only shoot until 10 p.m. — and since it was late summer, we couldn’t start rolling on our night work until 8 p.m.. So each day we’d have a two-hour window to complete our night work.”
Phedon Papamichael
American Cinematographer
“Lap of Honor” by David Hearing
December 2019, pages 40-42

If a $100 million budget has limitations (or $200 million in Avatar‘s case) then the chances are pretty good that you will not have enough time or money on the productions you work on. So what do you do? You embrace your limitations. It’s one of my favorite concepts: Embrace your limitations.

So all those beautiful sunset shots you see in Ford v Ferrari were shot in just two hour chunks.

On the director’s commentary of Rain Man, Barry Levinson talks about how they only had a few hours to shoot the sequence where Tom Cruise teaches Dustin Hoffman how to dance in a high dollar hotel suite overlooking Las Vegas.

The DP for the Levinson directed The Natural (1984) was Caleb Deschanel.  A film that had many exteriors filmed in the early morning or late afternoon hours when the sun is golden.

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 1.58.58 PM.pngScreen Shot 2019-12-13 at 1.56.17 PM

Decschanel also shot The Right Stuff which Papamichael said was an inspiration to him on Ford v Ferrari.

Another way of embracing you limitations is to know what you need to sell the shot. Years ago I shot an interview with a surfer in Atlantic Beach, FL. We were shooting an interior shot with the beach in the background. We had an HMI Joker light so we were able to not have the exterior background blowout. But it was a hazy day and small one-foot waves, so it was hard to tell we were at the beach. We embraced our limitations and simply propped up a colorful surfboard outside framing it behind her and it help sell that we were at the beach.

Scott W. Smith 














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“Have you ever wondered why it had to be so hard to get through school? Or just make it from day to day? Well, that’s because what you were building (your foundation) had to be strong enough to support the weight of whatever you could dream. And if you’re like me, you’re a huge dreamer.”
Tyler Perry
2016 Tuskegee University commencement speech  

How big is Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia? Well, as CBS’s Norah O’Donnell points out, if you take the Los Angeles/Burbank studios of Warner Bros., Paramount, and Disney and combined them together—they’d still be smaller than Tyler Perry’s 330 acres studio.

Scott W. Smith 

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“I’m not a movie producer, I’m in the feelings business. . . . I’m captivated by things that move me emotionally, and elevate me emotionally.”
Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind)
The Joe Rogan Experience #1370

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions

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“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness” 
― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

“Hello darkness, my old friend…”
—Simon & Garfunkel
The Sounds of Silence (written by Paul Simon and sung by Simon & Garfunkel)

The last two movies I happened to see in theaters were Joker and The Lighthouse. Thankfully, I didn’t see them on the same night. If I had of seen Joker and The Lighthouse back-to-back on the same day I would have gone home and immediately signed up for the newly launched Disney+  and planned to exclusively stream Disney films for the next year.

A Joker/The Lighthouse double feature would have had me rewatching Taxi Driver just for a ray of light. (I find nihilism as a worldview depressing, but I can handle it in two hour movie chunks.) The truth is both Joker and The Lighthouse are highly crafted films that will find favor at Oscar time. I expect actors Joaquin Phoenix and Willem Dafoe, directors Todd Phillips and Robert Eggers, along with the writing and production design teams to get Oscar-nominations.

But I think The Lighthouse black and white cinematography of Jarin Blaschke is the single most remarkable element of not only those two films, but of any film I’ve seen this year. And I should mention that both Robert Pattinson’s character in The Lighthouse and the Joker himself belong in what I call “The End of the Rope Club.”

“I would never write about someone who was not at the end of his rope.”
—Stanley Elkin

Here’s a little glimpse into how Joker and The Lighthouse were made.

P.S. As of this writing, the screenplay for The Lighthouse is available from A/24 at their “For Your Consideration” page (as well as the screenplays for The Farewell and Waves).

Scott W. Smith 

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