Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Grant Opportunity to Attend 2007 Full Frame Film Festival

While we don't generally make a point of doing cross-promotions for other documentary events and activities on our blog, we did want to share something we think is a unique and worthy opportunity for emerging documentary filmmakers...

The Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant will fund two first time documentary makers for travel and accommodations at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, April 12-15, 2007. For four days, grant recipients will be given access to films, participate in master
classes and be mentored by experienced filmmakers.

About the Grant: Garrett Scott made a distinctive mark in documentary films during his short career. Without any formal training in film, he directed CUL DE SAC: A SUBURBAN WAR STORY, examining the case of a methamphetamine addict who stole a tank from an armory and went on a rampage through the San Diego suburbs. The film prompted Filmmaker
Magazine to cite Scott as one of 25 New Faces of Independent Film. He went on to make OCCUPATION: DREAMLAND, co-directed with Ian Olds, about U.S. soldiers in Falluja, Iraq. It won prizes at Full Frame and the Independent Spirit Awards. Both films were broadcast by the
Sundance Channel.

In 2005, Scott died of a heart attack at age 37. His friends, family and colleagues established this development grant to help other emerging filmmakers reach their potential. The grant's
selection committee looks especially for filmmakers who somehow fulfill Scott's example, by bringing a unique vision to the content and style of contemporary documentary making.

Criteria: Applicants must be a U.S. citizen or green card holder, living in the continental United States; any age 18 or older. "First time filmmaker" means someone who is in the early stage of their documentary career and not yet received significant recognition (such as major festival play or broadcast). All applicants should anticipate finishing their first project by March 2008. You can still qualify as a "first time filmmaker," even if you've made shorts or student projects or worked professionally as a crew member on other people's films. Or if you've recently completed a documentary that hasn't been released yet. The grant is open to students and
non-students alike.

How: Applicants should send a 2 page letter addressing these areas:

1) Project summary: Describe the documentary you're working on. It doesn't matter whether the film is a short or a feature. Describe the characters, structure, visual approach and what stage you're at.

2) Director's statement: Describe how you came to filmmaking and how you've trained as a filmmaker. It doesn't matter whether you went to film school or are self-taught. Describe what you want audiences to take from your film.

In addition, if applicants have a 5-10 minute sample of their work or work-in-progress, please send that as well on DVD or VHS (NTSC format). A sample work isn't required to apply. But if the selection committee has to choose between several strong applicants, the sample work will become a factor in making the decision.

Submit two copies of both the letter and work sample along with your...
Send to:
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
324 Blackwell Street. Suite 500
Washington Building, Bay 5
Durham, NC 27701
attn: Garrett Scott Documentary Grant

Deadline: Applications must be postmarked by February 5. Applicants will be notified by email in mid-March.

More information: http://fullframefest.org/call/garrettscottgrant.php

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Documentaries to Revisit: Me and Isaac Newton

While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we wanted to revisit a few documentaries which reflect a wide variety of styles, but all share the power of effective story structure and character development. The first is Michael Apted's ME AND ISAAC NEWTON, reviewed by Docs in Progress co-founder Adele Schmidt.

At our Docs in Progress workshops, we often talk about character development as an essential part of documentary storytelling. At the same time, we encourage filmmakers to create works which are visually attractive. ME & ISAAC NEWTON , by renowned British filmmaker Michael Apted, is a good example of how these two goals do not need to be mutually exclusive. The film profiles seven remarkable scientists: chemist Gertrude Elion, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, computer scientist Maja Mataric, environmental physicist Ashok Gadgil, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, professor of cancer medicine Karol Sikora and primatologist Patricia Wright.

When the film was first released in 2000, Apted was asked in an interview why he selected these scientists in particular. He said he had initially interviewed many more, but decided to select these seven because they are the best in their respective fields and were able to transmit their highly complex ideas and theories into understandable sentences. This is very important because sometimes the top experts or someone who has an interesting life story may not be at their best on camera. Casting is essential.

It may sound strange to “cast” for nonfiction work, but it is important to find the right character who will represent the film and who often carries a certain message the filmmaker wants to share with a wider audience. The better the character expresses him/her self in words and actions, the more the film benefits from it. This is especially important for films like ME & ISAAC NEWTON where the director decides not to include the additional voice of a narrator. The film is carried by the interviews with the scientists and by the outstanding footage Apted captures by visiting them in their homes, their workplaces and other surroundings. With each scientist, Apted introduces us to an unexpected new world.The film is divided in four chapters, introduced by titles: Beginnings, Work, Eureka , and the Future. Each character speaks to each chapter with his or her own experience. In Beginnings we learn, for example, that theoretical physicist Michio Kaku constructed an atom smasher in his mom's garage when he was a teenager. Computer scientist Maja Mataric shares with us her teenage experiences immigrating to the United States from former Yugoslavia . Back then, her biggest preoccupation was how to get rid of her foreign accent in order to appear like all the other girls in her classroom.

The development of Mataric during the film is very engaging. In the Beginnings section, we see her pregnant while working on a computer program to instruct robots in a laboratory at MIT. In the final section, The Future, she pushes her newborn baby in a stroller, followed step by step by a couple of little robots.

In Beginnings, we also learn that Patricia Wright never thought of becoming a scientist until, one day she stood in front of a pet store and decided to buy a monkey. Wright was so intrigued by the behavior of the monkey that she started to get involved into the research about the species.

In the Work section, we see the scientists at work. These scenes function on two levels. They provide visual breath to what could otherwise be a very abstract or talking-head film. But they also continue to establish and develop the characters by showing them in the environment of their life's work. Steven Pinker reflects on the question of what kind of "software" the brain brings with it in babies. Patricia Wright takes us to Madagascar where she is establishing a lemur preserve. With Ashok Gadgil, we travel to India where he is inventing a process to purify water in villages where children are dying from diarrhea because of infected water. The endless struggle to find a cure for cancer occupies Karol Sikora. We see him in the laboratory and interacting with patients. The urgency of the research becomes particularly clear as we see him in a consulting session with parents and their young son who is diagnosed with cancer.

ME & ISAAC NEWTON's division into chronological chapters follows a relatively linear approach. While this may make some more ambitious documentarians yawn, it is important to see films which do this effectively. In the case of this story, the linear approach makes sense because it is difficult enough to make an audience interested in following seven characters, let alone to make us follow their stories out of sync or one at a time.

What the film manages to do is to tell this story without resorting to by-the-book b-roll. The images Apted selects to cover the interviews go beyond simple or literal illustrations of what we hear. They work as metaphors which represent deeper meanings of the situations. When we see Patricia Wright dancing with the villagers in Madagascar , we understand that she has accomplished more than just protecting lemurs. When we see 81-year old Nobel Prize Laureate Gertrude Elion traveling around the world sharing her expertise with college students, we understand the value of passing on life experience to the next generation. We get to know each scientist as a remarkable person full of compassion and dedication for his/her work. The film succeeds not because it is about science and scientists, but because it is about the human beings behind those scientists.

The film is also recommended for filmmakers because ultimately it is about how to cope with the ups and downs of the creative process. We understand the scientists' work is a constant process with all the success, challenges, and limitations. When asked how they overcome the moments when it seems you have reached a dead end, the answers allow the viewer to identify easily with the characters. Sometimes the “click” happens overnight, after weeks of analyzing a problem from every possible angle. Sometimes it takes a special ritual to help break through. In fact, the film’s title comes from this sequence; when theoretical physicist Michio Kaku gets stuck, he goes ice skating. The camera captures him figure skating in deep concentration while we hear the words: “It’s just me and Isaac Newton skating on the ice”.

© October 2006, Docs in Progress. Blog and articles may not be reprinted without permission.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

When Should I Have a Website for My Film?

Since Docs in Progress is starting a new online presence with Docs Interactive, it seems appropriate that our first question is about websites. The question is no longer "should" you have a website, but rather when is the best time to start your website and what should be on it.

Though we may all want to believe that our brilliant documentaries will play every important festival, break all box office records, have a high profile screening on television, and be the talk of the town, there are few films which make it without advance buzz. Rather than waiting to find the world's best publicist for Sundance, filmmakers need to realize the world's best publicist is pretty close at hand: You!

Whether your film will achieve all those accolades eventually or you will be reaching out to a niche audience, you will be marketing your film all the way. A website is an essential tool to start publicizing your film. At its most basic level, a website provides basic information on a film and helps reach out to potential crew-members, funders and supporters. If you use it to start a mailing list, you can start to build your audience beyond your friends and family. By the time some films are released, they may already have several thousand interested subscribers who will start the buzz going.

Ultimately your website will also serve as a resource for journalists, film festivals, distributors, students, and the general public who will be seeking out information on your film. At a minimum, a documentary website should contain a film synopsis, information on the director, and contact information for the production company and/or distributor. You may also want to include information on specific characters, bios for the rest of the crew, a director's statement, information on fundraising, and links to further resources. Further down the road, you will certainly want to include information on screenings, press about the film, ways to buy the film. Added bonuses are trailers for the film, educational materials, and an online press kit to make it easy for film festivals and journalists to download materials and stills from the film.

For an example of a basic but effective documentary website, take a look the site for Shelter Dogs, a 2004 film by Cynthia Wade about the ethics of euthanizing domestic animals. It does not have many of the bells and whistles of other documentary sites, but clearly conveys all the information about the film.

But what on earth do you put on a website, especially if you haven't filmed anything yet? How do you protect your idea if it is still just that -- an idea? The key is to think of the website in the same way you would a proposal or query to a potential broadcaster. Once it's out there, it's out there. Yes, ideas do get swiped and sometimes there may be several people working on a similar topic at the same time. But while you cannot copyright an idea, you shouldn't hold a project so close to your chest that nobody but you and your friends know about it. If you have a treatment, characters who trust you, some other unique connection to the story, and even some footage under your belt, the fear of "losing" your story to someone else does not outweigh the publicity benefits that come with a website. Unless you have a muckraking doc with a big surprise or a human rights story where you need to think about the access to and safety of your characters, a website is a must.

What should be on a website for a doc in pre-production or early production? A little about you, the background to the story, your intentions with the project, and how those visiting the site can help you get the film made. Even if you can't yet afford a website, you can even start a site as a blog and give your newly developing audience a reason to want to revisit the site to see your progress with the film. Lebanese-American filmmaker Basil Shadid is currently doing this with his work-in-progress, Writing Home about his impending journey to his family's homeland after a summer of war. The Director's Statement on his site tells us that Shadid does not need to worry about someone stealing his idea. Sure, there are probably lots of documentaries being made in Lebanon right now, but he has a unique angle that is likely to set his apart.

Just as your film develops, so too will your website. For some filmmakers, it's not just about the pride of announcing the world premiere of your finally finished film to your loyal and new website fanbase (though that is certainly a thrill). It's also about using the website as an entity of its own and making it something that people will want to make a destination site.

This is especially true of many social issue documentaries. Some may include links to partner organizations which are working on the issues outlined in the film. Megan Mylak and Jon Shenk's Lost Boys of Sudan includes links and suggestions of NGOs combatting the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Spike Lee's latest documentary When the Levees Broke provides links for organizations helping to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Political filmmaker Robert Greenwald has harnessed the power of the web not just to get out the word about films by his production company, Brave New Films, but to build whole "meet-up" movements around them. Reportedly he has raised more than $300,000 for his latest project entirely from small (but numerous) contributions through the web and at meet-ups.

Using a website for action does not have to be limited to providing links. Many films rely on interactive elements to help viewers relate to the film. These can be as simple as post-screening discussion groups or as complex as interactive "games" which mirror the themes of the film. The website for Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini's film Well-Founded Fear, for example, gives viewers the opportunity to decide on real-world asylum cases. Interactive elements can also build new connections. Filmmaker Grace Lee examines stereotypes of Asian-American women in The Grace Lee Project by seeking out other women with the same name as hers. Even after the film was complete, she included a survey on her website which could only be taken by those named Grace Lee.

These are just a few examples of documentary film websites. We could surely list many more. In fact, if you know of some additional doc websites which stand out from the crowd, please feel free to include links to them in the comments. (You can even mention your own website, but if you're going to shamelessly self-promote, tell us what makes your film's website so exceptional).

Welcome to Docs Interactive

Docs Interactive is a Blog started by the team from Docs In Progress.

The focus of our workshops, peer pitches, and other programs has been to foster documentary community and help documentary filmmakers (experienced, emerging, etc.) get feedback on their works in progress and on documentary as a whole. We also publish an online newsletter which features interviews with experienced documentary professionals on their craft, reviews of documentaries which offer examples of effective storytelling, and our new feature, Docs Interactive

While our face-to-face programs take place in Washington DC, Docs Interactive is a new means for us to think about specific questions which arise related to documentary filmmaking. Every so often, we will post a question, offer our own comments, and invite you to add your thoughts and ideas -- in keeping with the interactive nature of our other Docs in Progress programs.

We look forward to sharing with you and hearing from you. And, by all means, if you have a question you'd like an answer to, please feel free to e-mail us and we may include it in a future blog.