Tuesday, December 25, 2007
"Why is it that with over 60 years of improvements in cameras, lens sharpness and film grain, resolution and dynamic range that no one has been able to equal what Ansel Adams did back in the 1940s?..."
Short answer? The artist's eye, craft, skill and intuition matters much more than the technical implements used to capture an image.
Friday, December 21, 2007
Am struggling with The Office Situation. My home office is unavailable right now, and I am trying to rent a temporary spot. I have previously written in rented rooms, empty sheds, vacation houses, libraries and coffee shops.
Like many writers, I am most productive when working away from home. I'm so easily distracted and have a very bad record of being productive at home. When I'm at home, I always seem to stop writing to do something important... like fix the dripping faucet, walk the dog, do the budget, stack firewood, or visit the kitchen for a snack.
It always surprises me how hard it is to find a reasonably priced room for a 2-3 month rental while I finish a book. As soon as the landlord hears the word "writer" the deal seems to go south. Despite the fact that I have cash in hand, and am ready to pay in advance.
Have had this happen several times now. I think people get fearful, and start worrying about what you are doing, *exactly.* (Sitting there all day looking at a computer? Got to be something weird about that.)
One landlord even made a point of walking in on me unexpectedly and looking over my shoulder to see what I was doing. Maybe this is an artifact of living in a semi-rural area. I don't understand it.
Phil is an amazing cinematographer. His footage with the XDCAM EX1 is stunning.
These are my main lenses.
16mm Zenitar f2.8
18mm Signma f1.8
28mm Nikon F2
35 Nikon F1.4
50mm Zeiss f1.4 and Zeiss Macro T2 and Nikon 50mm F1.4
85mm Zeiss f1.4
105 Nikon f2 DC
135 Vivitar f2.3
180 Nikon F2.8
I also have one Sigma zoom which I think is 28-70mm f2.8
Two f2.8 swing tilt lenses. One 50mm, one 85mm
I use the Letus support bracket on a set up mish mash rods that I am still perfecting.
The most solid I have come across are the Cinevate camera base and rod support. I actually use the carbon fibre rods from Cavision. Cavision supports are pretty good and very customisable. I did use my old Redrock one for a bit but it is SOOO heavy.
I used a Marshall 7" monitor when I need external focusing. Helpful but no longer essential with my ex1 and it's amazing LCD screen. But it is still easier to focus using an external monitor. The resolution on the screen can by a 100 billion pixels but it's still small and size is everything!
I sometimes use my redrock follow focus but this is quite rare. I am a fast worker. Constantly changing tools, constantly changing lenses and having a follow focus slows me down. What i do have is the gears on most of my lenses. It helps me to rack focus so much easier.
My tripod is a Miller DS20 solo. i CANNOT rave about this enough. It is a super tripod. It is lightweight but solid. It can go as low as my low boy manfrotto tripod and very high. it has a superb head that can take the weight of a fully laden down 35mm ex1 combo and monitor. It is also super smooth.
I have a few different radio mics. 2 Sennheiser evolution lavalier but not sure of the model number. They are affordable and good quality. I also have recently bought audio technica's dual receiver lavalier system which is great for my larger cameras as it powers off of the 12v camera output. The receiver is a little big for the smaller cameras but it works so well.
I have a wally dolly which is for me the best dolly I have used for the price. So smooth. easy to set up, doesn't need perfect surfaces and is cheap. Oh and it doesn't need a grip!
My main light is a rifa 55 500w soft box with a 45 degree egg crate diffuser. A superb soft key light and it goes everwhere with me. I also have 2 dedo 150 lights which I use for backlights etc. I have a projector and gobos for them. I have redheads and otherlights but rarely use them. I often try to make use of as much natural light as possible. For example if you look at my Anorexia section most of the interviews in parts 1-3 are with available light.
I have three matteboxes. I cheap Indian one which is fine. A cavision one, which keeps falling apart and a lovely Chrosziel one that lives on my DSR 450. I recommend buying the best you can afford as I didn't to start with and just bought cheap. They fell apart quickly. I have formatt and Tiffen 4x4 filters.
I think that's the bulk of my daily kit and set up.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
The cover design is gorgeous and the text has a wonderful typographic layout.
It's really cool to get a cardboard box from UPS and find actual books inside which have my name on the cover.
I spent five days reviewing the bound galleys, making final tweaks to words here and there, and correcting a couple typos. I thought the bound galleys were for review, but what bound galleys *really* are is the FINAL book.
The bound galleys come out when everything has been set into print, and the only question for the writer is "Do we push the print button and crank out 20,000 copies?"
Fortunately, the publisher is willing to go back and incorporate my tweaks. Next time I write a book, I will spend a lot more time on the UNBOUND galleys, so all I have to do is just nod "yes" or "no" to the BOUND galleys.
Have been indexing the production book. Professional indexers quoted us $2,000 to index the whole thing, and I wish we'd taken them up on it. I find indexing a tedious, difficult job and one best left to people who have a gift for it.
The whole trick of indexing seems to be to keep the reader in mind, and constantly ask "what would be useful to someone looking for information: about framing the idea, interviewing an expert, or signing with a distributor, or any other topic...
My main challenge right now is eliminating redundant index entries, and referring the reader only to the specific and most useful page(s).
Very time consuming. But at least I get to sit in front of a fireplace, with a good cup of coffee at my side, as I work on the laptop.
After watching a movie on a 46 inch LCD in 1080i, and then in 720p, it's clear to me that progressive is the *only* way to shoot anything. High resolution is an aesthetic imperative, as much as good sound. The 1080i image felt 'blurry' and 'fuzzy' compared to the progressive image.
For a low-budget independent filmmaker, I think this means that the only thing to be shooting is 1080p. If you want your films to be around in 5 years, shooting anything less than 1080p is self-destructive. Given a choice, consumers are going to prefer higher resolution. (How many VHS tapes have you watched lately?)
Hollywood knows this, and according to one expert I talked to, the big boyz are already experimenting with shooting 4k (and higher) progressive at 48 frames per second. Their data rates are into the terabytes. (Have to find details on this.)
All this boils down to Sony's new HDCAM EX for low and no-budget filmmakers like me. $7K and you get 1080p 60 frames, recorded to solid state memory. (I got a chance to put my hands on the EX at DV Expo last week researching Digital Video Secrets, and the camera's really slick.)
Friday, November 23, 2007
Although filmmakers are scrambling to create HD content, the infrastructure to distribute and view that content is not at all firm. So, the filmmaker is faced with a difficult choice--what frame rate and format to shoot?
For a filmmaker, the safest bet seems to be to either shoot 1080 60i--1080 lines, 60 frames interlaced, or 1080 24p--1080 lines, 24 frame progressive. (In PAL land, the two options would be 1080 50i and 1080 24p.)
Maybe the best thing to do is to shoot 2-3 minutes of test footage at both frame rates. Then convert both samples to three final products: broadcast, film, and DVD.
I'll probably run this test before I shoot my next project, and choose the project's frame rate depending on how the conversion process goes, and what the final product look like.
Friday, November 16, 2007
We began my making a wish-list of people. We later called these folks "the notables." We chose people of outstanding integrity and accomplishments in film and journalism.
Next we asked everyone we knew if they knew anyone who could help us contact the notables. Help and answers began trickling in. We now have packages off to the notables, and with luck we shall soon have endorsements by people we respect.
A couple observations about endorsements:
- Endorsements (2-4 line reviews for the back cover of the book) are the fuel that keeps the marketing engine running. They are more important than I ever suspected.
- Celebrity endorsements are the best fuel of all.
- The hard thing about celebrity endorsements is reaching the celebrity. Getting the endorsement is easier.
- The best time to get endorsements is well before the book marketing engine starts to rev up. Getting them late in the publishing cycle is frustrating and painful.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
After throwing out my earlier draft and re-thinking the idea behind the camera book, I realized that the how-to information was central to the book. I restructured the book around what is known as a "task analysis." A task analysis simply asks, "What does the user (reader) have to actually do?"
With this focus, the organization and content of the book quickly fell into place.
Everything I've read so far leads me to favor the Canon XH-A1.
Not the least of the Canon's attraction is a $600 Canon Console program that turns a laptop into an engineering console with a real time vectorscope and waveform monitor.
I'd rather wait until after NAB (April) when new cameras come out, and prices on current cameras go down, but I need the camera before then.
I have long believed that audiences will tolerate a lousy story, and may sit through crummy images, but they will walk out if the sound sucks.
Links to The Ten Commandments of Sound for Picture by Christian Dolan.
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
Saturday, November 3, 2007
"I watch as many documentaries as I can," says Ken Burns, whose seven-part, 14-hour World War II epic The War starts on pbs September 23. "We are really in the golden age of documentaries right now." Some of his recommendations of classic films and filmmakers worth seeking out:
1 Robert Flaherty's groundbreaking Arctic silent Nanook of the North (1922)
2 John Grierson's Night Mail (1936): "A beautiful film that followed the mail from Edinburgh, Scotland, to London, England. Just an amazing black-and-white film."
3 Frederick Wiseman and John Marshall's Titicut Follies (1967): "Still one of the best cinema vérité films of all time."
4 Albert and David Maysles' rockumentary Gimme Shelter (1970)
5 Errol Morris, director of The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War: "I loved Errol Morris from the very beginning. I think he's one of our great filmmakers."
6 Jeff Blitz's Spellbound (2002): "Amazing film about a spelling bee— who thought you could be at the edge of your seat worrying about that?"
7 Michael Moore: "You'd obviously want to study Michael Moore to understand how propaganda works."
"My style has eight elements: four oral and four visual. The visual would be the interviews, the footage, the live cinematography, and the still photographs. The oral dimensions are the third-person narration—"the voice of God"—the first-person chorus of voices, assorted readers, and then a complicated sound effects track to complement authentic music. Each one of my films engages these in varying degrees, so they seem to be radically different, you know? To those who say they're the same, I have to remind them of the diversity and the authenticity of the style."
The colors are excellent, and the resolution is high enough to allow "pixel for pixel" mapping of the HD signal. The price is very good when compared to other HD monitors on the market.
As with all monitors, it should be calibrated regularly -- every 4-8 months for home use, once every month for professional use.
Friday, November 2, 2007
From the Tor site:
Tor is a software project that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security. Tor protects you by encrypting your communications and bouncing them around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world. Tor works with many of your existing applications, including web browsers, instant messaging clients, remote login, and other applications based on the Internet's TCP protocol.
Hundreds of thousands of people around the world use Tor for a wide variety of reasons: journalists and bloggers, human rights workers, law enforcement officers, soldiers, corporations, citizens of repressive regimes, and just ordinary citizens. See the overview page for a more detailed explanation of what Tor does, why this diversity of users is important, and how Tor works.
Contributors are mostly working cinematographers in the motion picture industry.
DCS is a good source for no-nonsense camera evaluations and technical tips. Membership highly recommended.
Annual Membership Dues: $30 US
Membership Benefits include:
•A monthly eNewsletter covering the latest developments in Digital Cinema technology and techniques.
•DCS networking events, seminars and educational classes.
•Streaming web access to DCS activities.
•Access to the Digital Cinema Society’s on-line Q&A forum, classifieds, job boards, and a database of members’ resumes and services.
•Screenings, including new major digital releases and members’ own digitally created content.
•Discounts and special offers on products, trade publications, industry events and professional services.
The documentary was produced and directed by cinematographer James Mathers, founder of the Digital Cinema Society.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Yet another reason to convert to Mac.
Vista is apparently the biggest reason.
Two people now have said almost the exact same thing to me, "I bought a new laptop, and it had Vista on it... it's awful. I wish I still had XP..."
Can Vista be that bad? Maybe not, but I know I won't be trying it any time soon...
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
This may be the future of HD acquisition.
In this future, HD video goes directly from the camera to an Internet gateway, and from there to a studio anywhere in the world.
No more need for the camera to have it's own recording media. Instead, the signal is simply transmitted to a nearby wireless access point connected to a laptop or Internet gateway.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
When my co-author and I have a fundamental trust of each other, everything works. Drafts get finished, books go to the publisher, difficulties are worked out and resolved.
Without trust, nothing works. It becomes impossible to solve the simplest problem. Misunderstandings multiply and become malignant. This has led me to think about trust and how it is created between two people.
Real trust is not given, or granted, it is only earned. And the earning of trust takes time. There is no substitute.
Thus the phrase--common in documentary filmmaking circles-- of "trust building." As one filmmaker told me, "Trust building is the heart of documentary filmmaking."
... If possible, write as you report.
... Start putting the information from your last interview into story form. Even if you don't know where it will go in the story yet, start writing paragraphs that will fit somewhere.
... Write a lede based on what you know so far.
...Writing in chunks can lead to choppy writing. You need to fix this.
... Decide early what your minimum story is, the story that answers the basic who, what, when, where questions. This is the story that allows you to keep drawing a paycheck next week.
... Decide early what your maximum story might be, the story that readers will be talking about at work and in coffee shops the next day, and marks you as a star.
...Identify immediately the potential sources who could provide the information for the minimum story and get the information from them as quickly as possible. Then you zero right in on the sources who might provide the maximum story.
... Before and after each interview, assess quickly what you still need to nail down the minimum or maximum story. Go quickly to those elements in your questioning.
... If you don't have time to interview all the desired sources, avoid those who will waste your time with redundant information.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
ACES the American Copy Editors Society
- Articles on practical things like: writing, editing, interviewing, and maintaining relationships with sources.
- Reviews of copy editing books.
- Journalism, writing and copy editing resources and links.
Monday, October 15, 2007
camera and lens combination while researching the "Camera book."
It's the Nikon D200, 10.2 Megapixel SLR with Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR II Autofocus Lens.
Reviews are extraordinary.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
I finally made the decision to switch to Apple Final Cut Pro.
I made the decsion for three reasons:
1. All the filmmakers that I'm working with are using FCP.
2. After going to the confusing Adobe site and trying to figure out what I'd have to buy to upgrade my current version of Premiere Pro, I concluded that Adobe's latest version of Premiere would be almost twice the price of FCP!
3. Adobe's past practice of changing user interfaces radically when they upgrade Premiere.
To run FCP, I'm buying a used Apple G5 computer with dual 2.3 Ghz processors and 1.5 gig of RAM.
The new Sony PMW-EX1 HD camera looks ideal for indies and low-budget docs. Small, lightweight and because everything is solid state--no tape drive--rugged.
It shoots variable frame rates and records up to 140 minutes of HD on flash memory. Pretty impressive for an $8K camera.
The Sony PMW EX1 shoots full 24 frame 1080p, and has a 14x Fujinon lens with manual focus and a real iris ring.
Camera to be released in November. No info yet on how to get all the gorgeous footage into FCP.
The Sony product brochure says you can record 140 minutes of HD on two 16 GB flash cards. No word on what the cards cost, but they will be pricey. Before buying this camera, I'd want to see how to get the images from the cards into an FCP editing system.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
I threw out the first draft because it read too much like a technical manual. The second draft is stalled about halfway through. After much analysis, I believe the problem is in the original idea for the book. Jack R. Hart explains the place of the book idea in the writing process in A Writer's Coach. Hart believes that problems with any part of the writing process are invariably caused by a flaw in the preceding step.
My challenge is to come up with a manuscript that is useful, task oriented, and simultaneously interesting to read. If it's not an interesting read, there's no reason to publish.
The best writer I've found in this genre is David Pogue. His reviews and his "Missing" books are models of clarity, humor, usefulness and just plain good writing.
I asked a friend who has written a dozen successful books--1/3 fiction and 2/3 nonfiction--what to do with the galleys.
Take a look, Tony, and see if there are any real problems which you can't easily solve. Most galley stuff is copy editing- and often copy editors prefer more conventional ways to say things than the writer. Also, look for questions- facts, opinions, gaps in continuity, and simple errors. Most are easily answered and dealt with.
The whole process can take you less than 8 hours if all the issues are just part of the manuscript ( remember 95-98% will be untouched.)
Copy editors are not always right, but when they are wrong, pay special attention.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
A recording offset is the difference in length (offset) between two recordings--in this case, the one from your digital video camera and the one from the zoom.
Recording offset only matters when you are trying to synchronize recordings from two devices--usually an audio recorder and a digital video camera. If you are only recording sound with one device, offset doesn't matter.
Short version: it looks like all 'consumer grade' digital recorders have some level of recording offset. The zoom is better than most.
Cheap fix: run a simple test on your Zoom H4 (described here) to see how much recording offset there is in your zoom after 1 hour of continuous recording. Then stretch the zoom audio in an NLE (Non-Linear Editor) accordingly.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
In Chapter 3, I am recommending the DVD "Visions of Light" to first-time filmmakers.
I really believe there's no better way to to build a visual repertoire, and learn composition, than by studying great films and paintings. I once read a story of Woody Allen teaching himself composition--at the beginning of his film making career--by spending days in museums studying paintings.
Visions of Light contains clips from 125 classic films.
Anthony Lane captures the essence of the Leica M series cameras in this week's New Yorker magazine.
Candid Camera: The cult of Leica.
by Anthony Lane
... Alfred Eisenstaedt, of Life magazine, ...recalled:
"I was running ahead of him with my Leica, looking back over my shoulder. But none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked."
He took four pictures, and that was that. “It was done within a few seconds,” he said. All you need to know about the Leica is present in those seconds. The photographer was on the run, so whatever he was carrying had to be light and trim enough not to be a drag. He swivelled and fired in one motion, like the Sundance Kid. And everything happened as quickly for him as it did for the startled nurse, with all the components—the angles, the surrounding throng, the shining white of her dress and the kisser’s cap—falling into position. Times Square was the arena of uncontrolled joy; the job of the artist was to bring it under control, and the task of his camera was to bring life—or, at least, an improved version of it, graced with order and impact—to the readers of Life.
Friday, September 21, 2007
Publicity plan finished. Very interesting exercise. The lessons learned should apply equally to publicity for both films and books.
After the publisher reviewed version 2.0 of the publicity plan, he suggested several additions. His suggestions improved the plan immensely. He helped me see things from a publisher/distributor's point of view.
- List of celebrity endorsements and/or interviews planned.
- Specifics on planned personal contact with the media (reviewers, writers, TV hosts, etc.)
- Specifics on planned personal contact with customers through workshops and conferences.
- Specific list of cities and dates for workshops, festivals, readings or screenings.
- List of film contests and festivals to which the work will be submitted. (Find them by seeing where similar works won awards.)
- List of published works.
- List any awards that you've won.
- Describe any distribution deals currently being negotiated.
- Describe any outreach activities (publicity, readings, screenings, etc.) done while creating the work.
- List any contact databases you've created during the creation of the work, or that you plan to get (rent, buy, or exchange) from other people or organizations.
Working on second version of publicity plan.
Publisher suggests that publicity plan include personal appearances and workshops.
Basically, have to figure out where we will show up at workshops, film festivals, bookstores, speeches, etc.
It all comes down to time and money. How much time do we have for personal appearances and how much can we afford?
Thursday, September 20, 2007
-- Carry the zoom in a fanny pack, hook up a lavaliere mic, and record high-quality voice-over for a documentary soundtrack--while walking, working, or riding in a hot air balloon.
-- Put the zoom on an interviewee and get high quality sound in the field, without the need for wireless mics.
-- Record high quality sound for Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9 voice recognition software, anywhere.
The publisher talked to the distributor, and the distributor was very enthusiastic about the book. They asked if we (the authors) intended to help promote the book.
The answer to that is simple. Yes.
Promotion is the second half of the job of book writing.
My co-author then challenged me to come up with a publicity plan. Surprisingly, I was able to do so. I just used the publicity section in the "Producing" book as a guide!
It's very odd to see the book taking on a life of its own.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
....most people notice flaws in audio quality before shortcomings in photos, text, or video. Since it can be difficult to improve the fundamental sound quality of a recording after the fact, it’s essential to capture the best possible audio at the source.
Just bought a Zoom H4 4 track stereo field recorder to replace my old Sony BP150 recorders.
When doing pre-interviews, (for a documentary) it's a good idea to use the best microphone and recorder you can afford. That way, if you need to use the sound later in your sound track, you have it.
The Zoom H4 records at several resolutions, including 44.1 Khz (CD-quality), 48 Khz (DV soundtracks) and 96 Khz (high resolution.)
The Zoom has outstanding built-in microphones. It also enables me to use my professional lavaliere and shotgun mics via two XLR connectors.
The Zoom feels a bit large in my hand, but it's still only 1/4 the size of the old Radio Shack cassette recorder that I used years ago. I bought a 2 gig SD card, so I've got oodles of memory space.
Note to self: Add more about audio to Digital Video Secrets.
Oct. 24, 2008 note to self: Check out new Zoom H2. Looks much easier to use.
A 35mm print will be readable 100 years from now. I suspect that many of the current digital formats will be obsolete, and unreadable, within a couple decades.
The Cinevator digital film recorder, a new invention, can make direct prints with subtitles and sound (no negative needed), directly from digital information. It's less than half the price, compared to going through a negative.
NFS, 1st print - $25,500, $255/min
NFS, 2nd print - $7,500, $75/min
Total for both prints, $33,000, $165/average cost per minute
Using the single print price, NFS can make a print for festival/other use for 56% of the cost of generating the print via a DI (Digital Intermediate) interneg.
From the RED site:
DIGITAL SUPER 35mm
Record 2540 progressive at up to 60 fps RAW. With 4520 X 2540 pixels, Mysterium™ puts pure digital Ultra-High Def in the palm of your hand.
RED ONE™ and REDCINE™ also support down-sampling to 1080p and 720p for in-field monitoring and compatibility with non-linear editors.
You get the same breathtaking field of view and selective focus found on film cameras. Mysterium™ boasts a greater than 66db Signal to Noise Ratio thanks to its large 29 sq. micron pixels. And 12,065,000 pixels deliver resolution that can only be called Ultra High Definition.
With a 12 megapixel super-35 mm sensor and interchangeable lenses this camera has the potential to revolutionize digital shooting. Looks like a fully equipped system--body, lenses, viewfinder, etc. would run around $50,000.
Finish the second draft.
Work with collaborator to complete third draft.
Final list of illustrations.
(Note: Screen captures must be at least 1500 pixels by 2400 pixels)
Finish final draft.
Package and deliver manuscript.
Soon I must start thinking about indexing. Many libraries will not buy a book if it does not have an index. I've always seen libraries and university classes as potential markets for this book.
Monday, September 17, 2007
Saturday, September 15, 2007
1. Scene by scene construction.
2. Record the dialog in full.
3. Write from a third person point of view.
4. Record the symbolic details of people's status life.
From "The New Journalism", pages 31-32:
...By trial and error, by "instinct" rather than theory, journalists began to discover the devices that gave the realistic novel its unique power, variously known as its "immediacy," its "concrete reality," its "emotional involvement," its "gripping" or "absorbing" quality.
This extraordinary power was derived mainly from just four devices, they discovered. The basic one was scene-by-scene construction, telling the story by moving from scene to scene and resorting as little as possible to sheer historical narrative. Hence the sometimes extraordinary feats of reporting that the new journalists undertook: so that they could actually witness the scenes in other people's lives as they took place--and record the dialog in full, which was device No. 2. Magazine writers learned, like the early novelists, learned by trial and error something that has been demonstrated in academic studies: namely, that realistic dialog involves the reader more completely than any other single device. It also establishes and defines character more quickly and effectively than any other single device. (Dickens has a way of fixing a character in your mind so that you have the feeling he has described every inch of his appearance--only to go back and discover that he actually took care of the physical description in two or three sentences; the rest he has accomplished with dialog.) ...
...the third device was the so-called "third-person point of view" the technique of presenting every scene to the reader through the eyes of a particular character, giving the reader the feeling of being inside the character's mind and experiencing the emotional reality of the scene as he experiences it...
...The fourth device has always been the least understood. This is the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, style of furniture, clothing decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene. Symbolic of what? Symbolic, generally, of people's status life...
As I read things like Joan Didion's "A Year Of Magical Thinking," I can't help thinking, "How does she *do* that!"
Didion vividly describes sights, smells, colors and textures of events ten, twenty, thirty or forty years in the past. Hell, I can't do that with something forty minutes in the past.
After thinking this through for a while I figured out a way I might compensate for my poor memory when writing nonfiction:
1. Begin by listing everything I remember about an event, without bothering about details, inaccuracies or relevancy.
2. Trim the list. Throw out memories that are clearly unrelated to the story.
3. Organize memories into scenes. The scenes may be in chronological order or they may form a dramatic arc.
4. Gather information about the memories on the list. This might involve visiting a place and recording impressions, re-enacting experiences, reading descriptions, and interviewing people. (Do extensive note taking.)
5. Organize the notes and information.
6. First draft.
Write a first draft, going quickly and not worrying about inconsistency or missing stuff.
7. More research.
The first draft usually reveals holes in the research. Fill in these holes.
8. Second draft.
Polish the second draft. The polish sequence might be:
- Craft an opening from a visual anecdote in the draft.
- Cut weakest paragraphs.
- Craft an ending.
- Review for external logic (all the steps there? Anything missing?)
- Review internal logic: one idea per paragraph, one thought per sentence, sentences follow logically, transitions between paragraphs.
- Remove adjectives and adverbs.
- Punch up descriptions. (visual words)
- Read aloud. (flow and pacing)
10. Get feedback
- Give piece to "ideal readers"
9. Revise as appropriate.
- Package the manuscript and deliver to publisher.
- If the manuscript is a chapter or section from a larger work, print the chapter and put it in a 3-ring binder.
Didion's writing is stunning.
I am still haunted by her story of how she kept her deceased husband's best suit in the closet, because "He would need it when he returned." She knew she was engaging in magical thinking, but the thoughts were beyond conscious control.
A wise, compassionate and honest book by a major writer.
Friday, September 14, 2007
What the job is about, instead, is project management, needs analysis, interviewing, going to meetings, collaborating with brilliant intractable people, and learning complex technical subjects quickly.
Technical manuals are not so much written as they are assembled.
The raw materials for a manual--code, specifications, engineering release notes, customer data, marketing materials and white papers--all exist in some form within the organization.
The overall structure of the manual is usually pre-determined by the style guides and prior publications of the organization.
Given all this, and given that the main thing a beginning technical writer needs is a portfolio, I think that I would teach a technical writing class by sending the students out to complete real-world assignments.
I'd send students to the local hospice organization to write a two page user-guide for the person who enters client data into an excel spreadsheet. Or I'd send them to the local schools and have them write instructions telling teachers how to use their computers.
Then I'd have them conduct a usability test of their procedures, and revise accordingly.
By the end of the course I'd want them to have a portfolio piece: a tested, readable and useful user-guide.
If I were teaching such a course, I might suggest
these three books:
Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications
Third Edition (Paperback). A standard in the
industry, and it's relatively cheap, $17 on Amazon.
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark. I think every
technical writer should own this book. It will help
anyone write clearly, concisely, and efficiently.
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition (Hardcover)
Strunk, White and Angell. Essential.
"I write from 9-1, after a good breakfast. Four hours (of writing) is about all I can handle, and I think that's enough. A good breakfast (before starting) is important."
I tried Burton's plan and it works for me, too.
The only thing I'd add is that it has to be seven days a week.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
The publisher suggested shortening all the chapter and section headings. My co-author and I spent a day shortening and in some cases writing new headings.
We were able to reduce the wordage by about 50%. The result is, as the publisher promised, easier to read.
Now to transfer the new headings to the manuscript and get final OK from my co-author.
Lesson for future--concise chapter and section headings!
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
While telling the stories of the men and women who participated in the rebuilding of the MacArthur Maze, David captures the optimism and can-do spirit that represents the best of what we are as a people.
When you make a documentary, it's easy to throw stones, complain, and accuse... but to capture this sense of energetic optimism without hyperbole, spin, or boosterism is extremely difficult.
An extraordinary film. I think it will gain national recognition.
Amazing: The Rebuilding of the MacArthur Maze
"Amazing: The Rebuilding of the MacArthur Maze" is a half-hour television special relating the remarkable story of the fiery collapse and incredibly fast rebuild of the Bay Area's MacArthur Maze, where 3 major California freeways meet at the base of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Produced and directed by David L. Brown, recent winner of two Emmy awards for his film about the Bay Bridge, "Amazing" tells the story of the Maze reconstruction from the perspectives of all the main players in the drama: the now legendary lead contractor C.C. Myers; Caltrans Director Will Kempton; the Caltrans engineers who rebuilt the collapsed structure; the Arizona steel fabricator whose company built the steel girders; a firefighter who responded to the accident; and the Oakland Tribune reporter who covered the story.
Saturday, September 8, 2007
Here's where I am now.
While doing background research for a book, I find it necessary to read several dozen books, magazines, reports, and other documents. Facts taken from these documents must be summarized to I can use them in my draft, and 'sourced' so I can go back to the original document later, if I need to verify a fact.
I have a terrible memory, so I have to devise a systematic way of keeping track of what I read, and where I read it.
Before starting notetaking, I enter the book title in RefWorks, so I can generate a bibliography later.
1. Read and annotate the book.
2. Go through the book with a stack of 3 x 5 notecards.
Write concise notes describing the annotations on the 3 x 5 cards. Write concise summaries in your own words, do not copy, do not write prose. In the upper right-hand corner of the card, note the source -- book and page number. Work quickly.
3. Sort the cards into Chapter piles.
4. Sort Chapter piles into section piles.
5. Stick the cards on a display board.
Rearrange the cards until they feel right.
6. Referring to the display board, write the first draft.
7. Insert bibliographic citations as I write the draft, using the RefWorks Write-N-Cite utility.
In this approach, books are consumables. Much like film stock in a film production, the books are consumed during the project.
I hate to write in, or highlight, books! I'll spend $500 going to a seminar as part of background research, and never blink an eye. But writing in the margins of a $5 book makes my skin crawl.
"Imagine a painter. She has become very excited about her current project. She prefers to work on it than to pursue her other activities. To use the language of the preceding lesson she is positively obsessed. She recognizes that she is letting other things slip through the cracks as she worked feverishly on her painting, but nothing feels important enough to cause her to stop.
"She understands that she is operating in a self-absorbed, grandiose, arrogant way, as if that were anybody's business. Interruptions irritate her. She feels a constant, intense internal pressure to paint. Every so often she fantasizes about the glorious reception or painting will receive when it's finished and seen by others, offend sissy that exacerbates her high strung state. She sleeps fewer hours than usual as, driven to create, she works on or painting later tonight and returns to it early each morning.
"She feels both elation working so intensely and impatience that she can't work even faster. She experiences a heightened sexual energy that sends her impulsively on the prowl as well as bouts of anxiety when a thought strikes are that she may ruin her painting or complete it and hate it. Hovering nearby is a depression generated by the half conscious fear that painting is not nearly as meaningful as she is making it out to be.
Maisel has captured something important here.
Every artist and filmmaker that I've known has acted something like this when in the midst of a creative project.
Maybe everyone--generals, businessmen, lawyers, architects, professional athletes, and grade school teachers--displays similar symptoms when attacking a challenging project that requires total commitment and creative thinking.
The challenge for the artist is to to channel this energy and avoid sliding into obsessive, self-destructive behavior.
Friday, September 7, 2007
How it works:
RefWorks is an online database for all your
bibliographical entries. You can access it from any
After you sign up for an individual account at
RefWorks, you simply enter your bibliographical
information in RefWorks from any Internet connected
(I enter everything that I come across while
researching a manuscript... books, interviews,
magazine articles, journals, films, images... )
When it comes time to write your manuscript, Install
the RefWorks utility Write-N-Cite on
your word processor.
Once Write-N-Cite is installed, go ahead and write
your draft, as usual.
To insert a citation in your draft, open Write-N-Cite
and scroll down the list of citations in the
Write-N-Cite window. Click 'Cite' to insert a
Write-N-Cite installs a tiny snippet of MS Word code
in your manuscript.
When you are finished with your draft, follow the
instructions on the Write-N-Cite page to automatically
generate your bibliography.
In practice, I've found it very simple and reliable.
Detailed Write-N-Cite description.
1. Connects to computer via USB, for a simple, reliable physical connection to computer so I can transfer voice files easily and quickly.
2. Windows automatically recognizes the recorder as a 'storage device', so I can transfer voice files easily and quickly. No proprietary software needed to connect to and access the recorder.
3. Records in MP3 format, so I can use any computer to play interviews back in 2, 3 or 5 years.
4. Has line-in, mic-in and line-out connectors.
Line-in for recording high quality sound from a 'line
out' jack on another device.
Mic-in for using generic external microphones (like
Line-out for recording your files to any other device
with a 'line in' jack.
5. Records CD quality (128 bit)
My podcasting friends tell me that this is the minimum
for good quality voice files for radio, podcasting or
6. Has removable memory, preferably on standard SD cards.
When the recorder memory is filled up (on a long trip, or a long series of
interviews) it's nice to have the option of swapping memory.
7. Uses standard AA or AAA batteries.
8. Small and unobtrusive
When I'm interviewing someone, I always ask first if
it's OK to record.
If they are comfortable with recording, and give me a
clear "yes," I like to start the recorder and place it
on the table between us.
If the recorder is small and unobtrusive, people tend
to forget about the recorder and we establish a
personal connection. I think I get better interviews
8. Intuitive controls.
If I'm interviewing someone, I want to be able to
start and stop the recorder quickly, without fiddling
with the controls or accidentally pressing the wrong button.
Also, I want to be able to tell at a glance that I'm
The only recorder I've found so far the meets most of these requirements is the Zoom H4 mobile field recorder. Only down-side I see so far is that is a bit larger and more 'attention getting' than I'd like, and it's relatively expensive.
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
I remember being at Sundance nearly 20 years ago, and going to watch an 'art film' made by a friend.
The movie began with long takes of desolate, alienated people. Within ten minutes the audience began to leave. As two men walked past me, I heard one say angrily to his partner "I didn't come here to see experimental film!"
From Art movies: RIP by Camille Paglia
...On the culture front, fabled film directors Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni dying on the same day was certainly a cold douche for my narcissistic generation of the 1960s. We who revered those great artists, we who sat stunned and spellbound before their masterpieces -- what have we achieved? Aside from Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" series, with its deft flashbacks and gritty social realism, is there a single film produced over the past 35 years that is arguably of equal philosophical weight or virtuosity of execution to Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" or "Persona"? Perhaps only George Lucas' multilayered, six-film "Star Wars" epic can genuinely claim classic status, and it descends not from Bergman or Antonioni but from Stanley Kubrick and his pop antecedents in Hollywood science fiction.
Tragically, very few young people today, teethed on dazzling special effects and a hyperactive visual style, seem to have patience for the long, slow take that deep-think European directors once specialized in. It's a technique already painfully time-bound -- that luxurious scrutiny of the tiniest facial expressions or the chilly sweep of a sterile room or bleak landscape.
First, for simply gathering the information needed when it comes time to write the first draft.
Second, to prevent inadvertent plagiarism.
Third, to give accurate sources for your information and to create a good bibliography.
Here's an excellent summary of one style of note taking:
“How to Take Notes”
The objective of note taking is to come up with an outline for the chapter, paper, or book that you are taking notes about.
Before you start
1. Formulate the research question. Have it in mind as you read, listen to interview, etc.
How it’s done
1. Take copious notes. Figure 4-10 times as many as you’ll need.
2. Compress the material, and extract key points. Do not dwell on details.
3. Use (print to) 3 ring binder paper.
4. Number each note and sub level.
5. Source each note carefully.
6. Distinguish important points
7. Translate into your own words
Things to avoid
1. Copying lengthy chunks of books or web pages or interviews.
2. Jumbling topics together.
3. Writing prose.
Monday, September 3, 2007
I have much more to say about the whole subject of digital to film: when, why and how.
Film is probably the single best archival format available.
I suspect that 100 years from now, no one is going to be able to read any of the digital formats currently available. Film will be readable as long as the physical medium is intact.
Eric Maisel has written a book "Coaching The Artist Within," that identifies 12 skills a creative person can learn to "develop the habits that make creating a daily routine."
The skills as explained in "Coaching the Artist Within" are:
2. Finding and nurturing your passion.
3. Getting a grip on your mind.
4. Embracing dualistic thinking.
5. Generating mental energy.
6. Creating in the middle of things
7. Achieving a centered presence.
8. Committing to a goal oriented process.
9. Managing anxiety.
10. Planning and doing.
11. Reality testing.
12. Maintaining a creative life.