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Behind the scenes of What We Got: DJ Spooky’s Journey to the Commons

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Swing Your Parter Round and Round…maybe not!

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The National Center for Media Engagement published this template for partnership.  I’m using it to guide a partnership agreement discussion with Jae Rhim Lee for a film we are proposing to do together about death denial and the funeral industry.  I think you filmmakers out there might find it useful, too.

A Pre-Nuptial Contract

Just like personal relationships, production partnerships can be filled with satisfaction, strategy, and struggle.

The Proposal: I Think I’m In Love
Are the participants/decision-makers compatible? Will they be able to achieve resolution when potential conflicts arise? Are their editorial standards in-synch?

’Til Death Do Us Part
How long should the partnership last? Is this a monogamous relationship? How many partners will there be? What does each partner add to the project? Caveat: Each additional partner adds exponentially to meeting time and decision-making time and effort.

The Vows (Write Your Own)
What are the goals for each partner? Publicity? Name value? Clout? Added resources? Extension of project visibility and public service?

What is the project?
Are there broadcast, print, web, event components? What are the roles and responsibilities for each organization? (Be precise.) What are the editorial standards and policies? What is the process for finding consensus on issues and resolving conflicts? Who are the decision-makers for each organization? Is there a need for regular meetings?

Having the Marriage Blessed
Does the partnership need formal/informal buy-in or sanction from senior management, the GM, or the Board?

Will There Be Progeny?
Will there be secondary or limited partners? What are their roles, privileges, and obligations?

For Richer or Poorer
What are the financial obligations of each partner? What will each contribute in cash or in-kind? What are the roles in fundraising? For commercial/noncommercial partnerships, how will underwriters and advertisers be acknowledged?

Renewing the Vows
What are the check-in points to ensure that the partners are satisfied and that goals are being met? How will we determine whether to extend the term of the partnership? What are the criteria to critique project success?

Mr./Mrs./Ms.?
Does the partnership have a name? How will each partner be acknowledged on air, in print, on the web, in signage? How will organizational logos be incorporated?  Basically, credits.

I Want a Divorce!
What is the process for ending the partnership on amiable terms?

Janesville project — short and sweet

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Short and Sweet -- Janesville in one page

Here it is -- the short and sweet summary of our Janesville film and community engagement project

My presentation on Cultural Commons that I gave at the NAMAC conference

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Joaquin Alvarado touts public tv 2.0 at Namac.  He's the new Senior Vice President for Diversity and Innovation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Joaquin Alvarado touts public tv 2.0 at Namac. He's the new Senior Vice President for Diversity and Innovation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

(thanks are due to Jay Walljasper for some kind edits and augmentations)

The commons describes a social practice that unleashes people’s capacity to create things together and take their lives and livelihood into their own hands. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture, but which is now on the rise.

But how does the commons relate to questions of culture and creativity, which we tend to think of as individualistic pursuits. What do we mean when we talk about cultural commons?  First, we mean something that we create together, whether we are talking about wikipedia, which participants research, write and manage together on-line, or ancient traditions forged and passed along by a particular group such as, say, the Hopi nation.    Secondly, we mean a way of creativity that embraces values like sharing, community and stewardship as opposed to privatization, enclosure and exploitation.

The founders of the United States embraced the ideas of the commons when it came to ideas.  They understood that the best fresh ideas are generated out of  previous ideas, and therefore should remain in the public domain (a cultural commons).  Indeed, copyright and patent law in the early days of the nation expressly aimed to move new cultural creations into the public domain as soon as possible.  Today’s long terms for copyright, (as much as 70 years beyond the life of the original creator) are a relatively new phenomenon.

It’s only very recently that the rise of intellectual property law has tipped the scales toward private ownership of every conceivable aspect of what we create, from breakthroughs in science and other academic fields to traditions in art and pop culture.  Today people are attempting to claim exclusive rights to spices, healing herbs or yoga poses that have been used for centuries. Compare that to Benjamin Franklin, one of the founders of the U.S. Patent Office, who  refused to patent the famous Franklin stove.  Why?  Because he said he was merely building on ideas of stoves that came before.

Novelist Jonathan Lethem documented how the free exchange of ideas works in art in an essay for Harper’s Magazine, “The Ecstasy of Influence” in which he traced patterns of borrowed influences through music (Delta bluesman Son House to Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters to British rock bands), animation (without Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show), literature (Pyramus and Thisbe is the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which in turns was the the inspiration for West Side Story).  To prove his point about the mutually collaborative nature of new ideas (as opposed to “eureka” theory, in which ideas are concocted out of thin air), he strived to footnote the influence of every line of his essay.

The Scientific Commons

A great example of a cultural commons from the field of science is the Human Genome Project, a massive collective effort on the part of scientists around the globe to decode human genetics.  New information discovered in the project was shared for all to use and to improve upon in their own research. The project was competing with a private venture that sought to decode the genome, and then sell the data that was produced.  The private venture didn’t succeed, and thankfully so because the high cost of their data may have stymied many subsequent scientific and medical advances.

The Human Genome Project used a commons approach that was based on two assumptions: 1) genes are part of nature and thus belong to all of us;  and 2) that sharing and collaborating information would be more productive than privatizing it.

Busting Out of the Market Mindset

Many of us in the U.S. have grown up in a time that when market economics and privatized ownership were hailed as the formula for all progress, innovation, and prosperity.  Private wealth is worshipped, while our common wealth has been dismantled. If something is not owned by an individual, we are told, it will fall prey to misuse, disuse, or overuse—the tragedy of the commons. Many people today have lost sight of the common as both a practical way to share things valuable to all of us and as a cooperative model of how we can relate to one another as creators and users of culture.

Examples of thriving systems managed according to the principles of the commons, rather than the privatized market, exist all around the world today, from fisheries off the coast of Greece to forests in Tanzania and Indonesia, to the open source software movement.

But most of us have been taught that the commons began to fade away in 17th and 18th century England, when private landowners claimed and enclosed (literally with fences) land used by commoners to graze livestock.  Yet the commons endures to this day throughout the British countryside in form of legally-protected rights of way that entitle anyone to cross private property on tens of thousands of miles of paths throughout England, Scotland and Wales.  This is also true in the cultural realm, where we make imaginative journeys thanks to stories, songs, ideas, knowledge and research belonging to all of us.  It is not trespassing to take advantage of the creativity of Plato, Buddha, Leonardo daVinci, Shakespeare, Bach, Darwin, Florence Nightingale and many others.

Those fences of the 18th century England give us a powerful image and metaphor for the “enclosure” of culture going on today at an alarming pace. Here are a couple of examples.  Media companies want to slow down your access to websites that don’t pay a premium fee for their place on the internet,  a troubling violation of the commons principle of  net neutrality that will allow huge enterprises to dominate the flow of information.  Another is example is the Walt Disney Corporation, which has built its empire on appropriating and ultimately copyrighting material from the public domain—from The Little Mermaid and Robin Hood, all the way back to  Mickey’s first cartoon “Steamboat Willie,”  which was taken directly from Buster Keaton’s character Steamboat Bill. But try using an image of Mickey Mouse in your own work, and you’ll soon hear from the Mouse’s lawyers.

Creative Commons Licenses

No one wants to deny people the chance to make an honest living off their creative work. But the recent proliferation of copyright and intellectual property privileges means that many artists, scientists and other creators are denied access to material they need to do their most valuable work—an even graver threat to their livelihoods, and to the needs of society as a whole.  The Creative Commons license was created to address this dilemma, allowing sharing, remixing and reuse that is not possible within the more restrictive copyright framework, but still protecting creators’ opportunity to realize profits when their work is bought and sold.  I’m making a film called What We Got:  DJ Spooky’s Journey To the Commons to highlight all that we share, from air, water and land to our art, culture and discoveries.  I want to practice what I preach by sharing the movie we make online so that others can remix and repurpose it under the terms of a Creative Commons license.

Adapted from a presentation given at NAMAC

Day 4 of writing retreat

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Day 4 was fab.  Finally broke through the loss of the Fiji scene (I know, what’s the big deal?) and wrote all the way through Act 2.  I feel the argument of the film and the narrative are joining nicely.  This film won’t be for everyone, but frankly, who cares about that, now?  I think its going to be good, and I trust some others will, too.  I wrote Samir’s final speech, a unity of the natural commons and created commons, and the joy of a bright, somewhat unknown future guided by the commons-esque notion of a gift (a la Lewis Hyde).  Knowing more about the end informs the rest of the script.  I also feel I have a handle on the documentary/fiction blend within scenes.  The whole is something that needs to be examined more closely, but I’m not ready for that, yet.  I did figure out that a scene Jason wrote that takes place in a great commons – an AA meeting – is going to be near the end and in a way deal with Samir’s addiction to repeating old mistakes.  In the room are archetypes of all kinds of people representing “recovering” institutions that want to steer a new path in the bold “share economy” of the future and not be doomed to repeat past mistakes.  I know that sounds rather vague or silly or incomplete — so, you’ll just have to read it.  I’ll post a draft of the script in a month or so, once its been revised and a few trusted souls feel it is ready for your feedback.  Just an hour or so before I leave to rejoin my family “up north” (as they say here in Wisconsin).  My goal:  get the new outline up on the white board so that I can attack acts 3 and 4 next week.  Act 5 (the final act) is in pretty good shape.

I love my notecards and white board.

I love my notecards and white board.

Day 2 of writing retreat

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I returned to the studio on Tuesday after a break on Monday for obligations like screening scenes for the Hmong film my students are making and a quick shoot in Janesville for a new film. It was a very good day. I finished structuring with notecards, moving on if there was a gap that I couldn’t solve at this level. Then I dove into the rearranging and writing on Act 1. Jason’s script v.4 spent 26 pages in mostly live-action with actors until the crazy DJ Spooky effects start to whisk Samir off into a tumble of a magical journey to discover “the commons.” My focus was to reduce that amount of live action drastically both to avoid too much of the directing of actors, something I’ve barely ever done, and to get on with the journey as quickly as possible. Now the journey more or less starts on page 15. I’ll be able to reduce that even more on a second pass. I’ve also decided that the journey progresses from almost normal but strange to really wacky. In that light, I’m working on a scene in which Samir is on a plane to Fiji (where there is a bottled water documentary scene). While flying, a Michael Crichton book “talks” to Samir about the privatization of genetic material. Crichton was a critic of such privatization, and his last published book, Next, is about the issue (in part). Anyway, I’m on to day 3, now. Fun, fun, fun……

And, because these things matter: I FINALLY got a male/male mini-stereo cable so that my super sweet Audio-Technics no-noise headphones will work. My last cable was cutting in and out.

Good headphones make for good work

Good headphones make for good work

Day 1 of Writing Retreat

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I’ve broken Jason’s script into its component scenes and put the scenes on notecards.  I’ve taped them to a white board to try to see the script’s structure.

I’m feeling thankful for the creation of Samir (protagonist) and his invention, a way to cross match an individual’s DNA with the Human Genome Project’s DNA databank and use the information to concoct microbrew treatments for diseases too small for mass market treatments and cures.

There are some strong scenes, like Ben Franklin telling him he doesn’t have to patent everything, or Mickey Mouse encouraging him to infringe. (Really, Mickey should tell him to “open it up”).

But the central issue for me is that the argument of the film — that there is such a thing as commons and that we need to protect them — does not come through.

We’ve all been keenly aware of the difficult nature of this project.  We’re dealing with a concept and it’s hard to make a story out of a concept.

I think I have a solution:  a three stage argument regarding Samir’s invention that would, if patented, privatize DNA.  First, DNA is a natural commons and can’t be privatized any more than anyone has the right to privatize the sky or our water.   Second, what we know about DNA we know because of the publicly-funded open source Human Genome Project — a created commons.  Third, and finally, there is an alternative to enclosing DNA by making the invention intellectual property.  The more innovative, 21st century way is a commons-based approach in which the invention is open-sourced,  shared, and improved as a result.  Still, Samir can make money by supporting the invention — like Linux and countless other open-source solutions.

That’s where I’m at…..

Here is What We Got in the form of notecards on a wall - the structure, scene by scene.  Yellow is live action.  Blue is documentary.  Green is animation or effect.

Here is What We Got in the form of notecards on a wall - the structure, scene by scene. Yellow is live action. Blue is documentary. Green is animation or effect.

Great Essay on the Structure of the Essay Film by Karen Everett

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Crafting an elegant essay doc

By Karen Everett

The essay or topic-based documentary is the second most popular art form dominating today’s independent documentary landscape. Although it shares in the festival accolades and box office commercial success of the character-driven documentary, structurally the essay doc is a different beast entirely, usually organized around a central idea rather than a protagonist on a quest. It looks different too, often employing talking heads, text, statistics, man-on-the-street interviews, educational graphics and slide shows to make its points. Popular examples include An Inconvenient Truth, Religulous, Bowling for Columbine, and The Corporation. Other essay films, such as Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World and Jean Marie Teno’s currently released (and recently playing the SF International Film Festival) Sacred Places (edited by Christiane Badgley), are more introspective tomes or poetic profiles than quantitative or data-heavy docs.

All of these skillfully crafted essays belie the chief difficulty that sinks many topic-based films: how do you keep your audience engaged rather than putting them to sleep? We are, after all, dealing with an essay (yawn). And yet most first-time filmmakers instinctually gravitate toward topic-based films because they are excited about exploring an idea. Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin said that “at the core of all essay is an interest so intense that it precludes … filming it in a straight line…The essay is rumination in Nietzsche’s sense of the word, the meandering of an intelligence.” This column offers editors and directors three specific strategies you can use in the edit room which I believe are in line with the contemporary trend in essay films—to reign in excessive “meandering” and keep your viewers glued to the topic until the credits roll.

1) Hybrid Strategy

One way to make an idea-based film as gripping as a character-driven doc is to meld the two forms. But let me first distinguish what I am calling the “hybrid documentary” from the term “hybrid narrative film.” The latter refers to a film that is part narrative (fictional) and part documentary (real life), which is not what I’m talking about in this article. A so-called hybrid documentary weaves together two structural models. As structural experts like Fernanda Rossi, Sheila Bernard Curran and (in the narrative world) Robert McKee have outlined, the character-driven aspect will follow a protagonist (or several) on a quest to achieve or gain something in the face of great difficulty. The essay or idea-based aspect will present arguments that support a central idea (see “Structural Strategy” below). Structuring the hybrid doc is not an easy feat, so I recommend that editors create an initial assembly cut of each model before combining the two. A great example of a commercially successful hybrid doc is Supersize Me, ranked the 9th highest grossing theatrical documentary release with more than $9 million in revenues. Director Morgan Spurlock attempts to stay in good health while eating only McDonalds’s food for an entire month. In the course of his various difficulties (vomiting, high blood pressure, impotency), Spurlock presents stunning evidence of the dangers of America’s fast food diet in the form of experts, lawsuits, anecdotes, research and other data.

The beauty of the hybrid approach is that you can construct an elegant, complex documentary that demands both left-brained analytical engagement and right-brained emotional immersion. Done right, your viewer is held rapt. Other successful examples of hybrid docs include Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, No Impact Man, and King Corn. Note that the last two are personal documentaries in which, like Supersize Me, the director/protagonist has the advantage of contriving a narrative arc (living for one year without leaving a carbon footprint, growing an acre of corn) upon which he can hang his intellectual arguments. Plot points pave openings for cerebral proof.

2) Stylistic Strategy

Traditionally, PBS essay-style documentaries were characterized by talking heads, narration and occasional b-roll used as “wallpaper.” Not very cinematically appealing materials, to say the least. Then along came Ken Burns who put his imprint on landscape beauty shots, reenactments, actor’s voiceovers and rotating zooms on photographs. Today we may yawn at these once-engaging tactics. In the last few years, creative directors have racked their filmic sensibilities to come up with fresh stylistic approaches.

On the visual side, essay films are now employing animation (Bowling for Columbine), humorous verite scenes structured as character vignettes (Religulous and Sicko), and most refreshingly, spectacular graphic gimmicks. I recommend studying such fine examples as the psychological profiles in The Corporation, the clever timelines in I.O.U.S.A., and the guilty/innocent verdict “stamp” in Who Killed the Electric Car? The other chief reason to use graphical representations in your editing repertoire, in addition to adding visual verve, is to convey complicated information. Witness the funny ballooning timeline in I.O.U.S.A., which helps us wrap our heads around economic theory and all those zeros in a trillion dollars. If you can afford it, develop both animation and graphic treatments for your more knotty concepts. If your budget is tight, then aim to convey ideas through simple reenactments, verite scenes in which some genuine action unfolds, or spectacular landscapes heightened with simple Motion filters such as the “lens flare.” The bottom line: give viewers a reason to watch your film, rather than read a magazine essay on the same topic.

What about the sonic landscape? Definitely hire a composer. Essay films are notoriously talking-head heavy, so the idea of introducing what filmmaker Jon Else calls more “yackety-yack” seems counterintuitive. For a period, narration fell out of favor, as a generation of filmmakers eschewed the booming, omniscient voice of father god. These days, narration as text has become quite popular and effective. In the future, perhaps the unseen, third-person human voice will make a comeback as storyteller extraordinaire. I happen to favor narration. From an editing standpoint, it keeps your cuts spare (rather than wrestling with jump cuts and long-winded interviewees to make a point). From the audience’s vantage point, narration clarifies, a welcome tactic when ideas get dense.

3) Structural Strategy

While there are plenty exceptions, most idea-based films can be divided into three parts. I use the word “parts”, rather than “acts” intentionally, to distinguish the powerful essay we are crafting from the classic three-act narrative structure first articulated by Aristotle. (For an excellent primer on how to construct a fundraising trailer for each of these two types of films, see Fernanda Rossi’s innovative book Trailer Mechanics.)

In Part One, which runs no more than one-quarter of the film’s length, you introduce your viewer to the film’s topic and ethos, or intellectual sensibility. What is the film about? Is your approach critical, affirming, investigative? Most importantly in Part One, you present your hypothesis, or central idea. Let me stress that your film’s premise should be a remarkably simple idea, i.e., “global warming is real”, to really grab your viewer. Filmmakers with multiple dissertations and agendas make the mistake of diluting their vision and diverting their viewers’ attention. Another way of presenting your essay film’s single thesis is by asking a central question. For example, in Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore asks, “Why does America have the highest homocide rate from handguns?” All the other questions he poses in the film lead to that central question. For a great scene-by-scene case study of Bowling for Columbine’s essay structure, check out Sheila Bernard Curran’s excellent book, Documentary Storytelling. In Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog poses this question: Why did Timothy Treadwell get so close those big bears (that they ate him)? The documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? poses its central question in the title.

In Part Two, the bulk of the essay film, you craft arguments in support of your thesis and then organize these claims in a way that keeps momentum building. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore (and by extension, director Davis Guggenheim) puts forth several contentions to support his now rarely contested thesis—that global warming is an impending crisis. First, he debunks the naysayers’s research. Then he presents scientific evidence that temperatures and sea levels are rising, species are drowning, water shortages are creating arid farmland, food shortages are becoming epidemic, etc.

If your central idea is posed as a question, then Part Two explores different answers to that single question. Why did the Grizzly Man get so close to the Alaskan bears? Was he it because he was a fearless advocate for four-legged endangered species? A showman? Was he a man with an intuitive, non-verbal, bear-whispering talent? An egomaniac? Was he insane? Likewise, in Who Killed the Electric Car?, director Chris Payne cross-examines one suspect after another to find who should answer for this crime against the environment. Was it the car company CEO’s? The marketing executives? The American consumer? Technology?

How do you order your arguments or answers into an escalating format? Generally, you save the most intellectually powerful and damning evidence for last, although this will depend on whether you have the footage to illustrate it. Sometimes spectacular cinematography trumps the power of points made by talking heads. In other words, you may decide that great visuals accompanying a less powerful argument merit placing it toward the end. Or, your organizational strategy may be chronological, if your timeline naturally builds suspense. Or, you may hold for last the arguments that are best illustrated through moving character vignettes. I say “vignettes” because essay films are more likely to feature character snapshots rather than full-blown character arcs. Michael Moore excels at this strategy in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko.

Part Three of an essay film raises the stakes even higher, perhaps by expanding the geographic realm of the topic, looking into the future at the implications of your case, or presenting solutions. Now that you’ve made your argument, it’s time to turn a structural corner and spend a little time (not much) speculating on what it all means. OK, the earth is heating up. What are the consequences? What can we do about it? In a similar vein, now that we’ve pointed the finger at all the suspects who could have sent the twentieth century electric car to a premature tragic death, where do we go from here?

In Part Three, you need to decide on how you want to end your film in terms of tone. Do you want your audience to leave feeling hopeful? Outraged? Troubled? My instincts tend toward the hopeful, particularly if you’ve spent most of your viewer’s attention span in a critical analysis of the status quo, as many social issue documentaries do. The Celluloid Closet, a terrific essay film that indicts Hollywood for its homophobic erasing and vilifying of gay people, ends with a flurry of hopeful signs: gay characters appearing in television sitcoms and dramas, straight actors playing gay characters, gay actors coming out. Give your attentive audience a dessert for their denouement—such as a sweet montage of success stories—and they just might honor your film, as evidenced by Fields of Fuel, an ultimately buoyant documentary about bio-fuels that won the 2008 Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Editor Karen Everett, owner of New Doc Editing, is writing a book entitled Documentary Editing and teaches editing at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She directed and produced five documentaries, including an award-winning PBS biography of the late Marlon Riggs. To inquire about a free editing or story consultation, contact her at Karen@newdocediting.com.

Written by Brad Lichtenstein

May 22, 2009 at 9:06 am