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By Ron Steinman

A year ago, I went to a video film festival in New York at Lincoln Center. It turned into one of the most disappointing days of my viewing life. I left the theater wondering why I wasted my afternoon watching so many poorly produced and directed so-called documentaries. I know this is harsh, but I saw nothing redeeming in any of the films, most of which were on digital. However small a digital camera is, and how compact editing systems are, they do not make a film.

For many, digital is about democracy and freedom. Democratization of any medium is good. I applaud the new freedom we have to make films, but not everyone has the talent or the ability to create something that lasts. Look at the huge number of still cameras in the world and then at all the poorly composed pictures and you will understand. Despite the proliferation of computers today and before that hammers and chisels to write on stone, quill pens, ink, pencils and ballpoint pens, then typewriters, there were only a few able to write a worthy novel. The number of good writers, or storytellers probably changed only slightly as the population increased hugely. Not everyone can convert an idea into a film. Having a great concept does not by itself translate into a film worth seeing.

When entering the world of digital, remember you will not be reinventing the most important part of filmmaking which is good storytelling. Yes, digital provides newly accessible tools to make it easier to create for television and independent films, perhaps the 21st century’s two most important mediums. Much cheaper than film, and cheaper than professional beta, good digital, meaning three chip with sufficient lines to give you a good set of images, has advantages because it is initially so affordable. Once you get into editing, and all you need to complete your project, costs always go up. Time suddenly seems to be your enemy because you are rushing to show the world, or at perhaps your boss, the wonders you visualized. Time, though, should be your friend. The care you take with your final piece before you foist it onto the world will make the difference between artistic success and failure.

Your digital equipment is not a magic bullet. With it, anyone can be nearly technically perfect. Do not let that sway you into believing success is yours. Most importantly, before you shoot a frame, know your story. Use your digital gear only when you are sure you know your vision. Be prepared to make that idea understood. Have a reason for your film that supersedes your ego. Unless the material is remarkably compelling, do not allow it alone to dictate the direction of the film. If that happens you may find yourself no longer in control. When you lose control over your material, the work becomes slack, diffuse, without purpose. Learn to edit yourself as you are composing your piece.

Be ruthless. You may feel each time you drop a shot or end a day’s shooting, or make an edit, as if someone is tearing off a fingernail. Get used to being your toughest critic early in the process because it will hold you in good stead later, if you survive. Digital is not a substitute for creativity. Yes, it allows an individual to be artistic in ways never imagined. A person picks up a camera, loads it, takes off the lens cap and starts shooting. When done, there is all that material. But, unless you have a clear vision, you will have no place to go. Once you have the material, the work really begins.

As I said, know your story. Before you shoot a frame, know where you are going. If you do not, you will never finish what you start. Don’t waste a lot of time going around in circles, looking for a theme, searching for an idea you are sure will come only after your material is shot.

It does not work that way.

Shooting many hours of tape does not translate into something superior, eloquent, or brilliant. Always observe proper technique. Learn when to stop shooting. Yes. Learn when to stop, to say no. Not every picture is worth a thousand words.

I know a filmmaker who has more than 1,000 hours of tape or 6,000
minutes of material he hopes to make into three hours worthy for air. He is talking about PBS, meaning when completed he will have 165 minutes.

If you produce for cable, your content comes to maybe forty-four minutes for an hour program with commercials, promos, lead-ins, and all the assorted business of cable broadcasting.

If you are thinking of an independent documentary or even a Hollywood narrative, length is less important, though always keep your audience in mind. Try to separate yourself from you as the filmmaker. Think of the person who might eventually see your production.

At one time poets, writers, and painters, tried to create alone in a garret. There they escaped, believing they were safe to imagine a world outside the one in which they lived. They looked for silence. They hoped to flee chaos. Each person was alone with his thoughts and it helped him to compose whatever reality he was seeking, because it had a truth he alone defined. It created the myth of the starving artist. It was romantic.

Filmmaking is a different art form. One person never produces a film alone, unless it is purely experimental. Filmmaking depends on a community, whether it is two people or twenty. Someone has to run the camera and sound. Someone has to direct, often but not always the same person as the director of photography. I believe there should be a separate editor. A filmmaker’s worst enemy may be a film he edits himself. There is something to stepping back and observing your work over another’s shoulders, rather than doing it all yourself, without benefit of another set of eyes. All films benefit from another viewpoint.

There have been times when I resented an extra pair of eyes over my shoulders. Not every suggestion works, but some do, and more times than not it will make the project better. Consider, too, music, graphics for titles and lower thirds giving information often necessary to help the viewer, and finally post production for picture and sound.

I know this seems daunting. It is not if you have a vision and the guts to carry it out. Mainly, though, it consumes time, something we should realize is necessary when making a film.

On the subway recently I overheard two young women, both students in their early twenties, talking about a film one of them just completed. Their conversation, animated, touching, affecting, was impossible for anyone in their vicinity to ignore. It went something like this.

“They loved my film.”
“I’m so happy for you. What’s next?”
“Well, they want me to cut it down before they decide.”
“Cut it down? How could they ask that?”
“They can but I don’t want to cut it.”
“How long does it run?”
“An hour and a half. I think it’s beautiful.”
“How can they make you cut it? It’s your film, your work.”
“They can. I’m still a student. They’re the boss.”
“I feel for you. Your work should stand as it is. It’s yours. Not theirs.”

“You are so right. It’s mine and I’m going to keep it that way no matter what they say. Anyway, I’m not sure I know how to cut an hour from the film without destroying my vision.”

I wanted to say something she would have found disturbing, and make her understand that others in this business with more experience might be able to help. I attributed her assumption of perfection to her youth. Arrogance, if it ever works, may have validity when it is part of uncontested genius, something few possess. It was not my place or right, and I said nothing. She may be right about the purity of her vision. Perhaps her film is perfect, but I doubt it. Nothing ever is and the sooner she knows that, the better off she will be if she expects to have a career as a filmmaker.

A final thought, for now. Be prepared to serve an apprenticeship by working anywhere, and doing anything and everything asked of you. It will broaden you. It will prepare you for any situation. If you can do that and learn your way while making a living and having fun, success may be there for the asking.


At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.


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