Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Building a Documentary

I am currently in the process of editing a documentary on what happened to a pair of bald eagles in Manassas, Virginia, which will also include the plight of other eagles around the country. As predicted by biologists and conservationists after the eagles recovered from the scourge of DDT, habitat loss would be the next big issue. And we see it front and center in many communities today. Landowners are selling off unspoiled woods and grasslands at record rate without much concern for what it will do to the surrounding ecosystems. At some point, my hope is, they’ll realize that enough is enough. But that’s a focus for another blog post. In this post I will discuss how to build a documentary, as well as a few different types of documentary styles.

Expository Documentaries
These are the most common in which the filmmakers and narrator have separated themselves from the content; they are only there to film it and tell the story. Think of March of the Penguins or any Ken Burns film.

Participatory Documentaries
This means exactly as it sounds. The filmmaker, who can also be the narrator, has participated in the story. You may hear him or her asking questions to the people interviewed. If they also become the narrator, they can give the piece a more personable feel. You are no longer a fly on the wall; you are allowed to feel the emotional state of the filmmaker at various points. Think of Michael Moore documentaries.

There are also other styles of documentary: Poetic, Reflexive, Performative, Observational. Some have overlapping similarities. There are also documentaries where the narration is made up of only the subjects themselves. Search out Trophy Kids on Netflix. In this film parents and coaches forcing kids to excel in various sporting activities provide all the narration. They talk about what drives them to push their kids, and you also see them "in the moment" egging on their young prodigies. How the filmmaker was able to capture a father belittling his son for five minutes at the beginning of the documentary is beyond me. I’m guessing they spliced together the most shocking moments over that one day.

In any event, you have to decide what category your documentary fits into. And this was part of my original struggle. I knew I fully participated in the documentary. It’s my voice you hear when interviewing subjects, and there are several pieces where I directly address the camera. I was fully involved. So it would be wrong for me to write the narration in a totally expository way. For instance, look at this one sentence:

"It’s only fitting that the City of Manassas, Virginia, located just 32 miles from the Nation’s Capital, has its own pair of bald eagles. After all, the bald eagle is also the mascot for the local high school."

It seems fine. But I have pulled myself out of the picture. It would be better written as follows:

"It’s only fitting that our City of Manassas, Virginia, located just 32 miles from the Nation’s Capital, has its own pair of bald eagles. After all, the bald eagle is also the mascot for our local high school."

See the difference? It maintains my closeness to the subject. But there are certain sentences in the narration of a Participatory documentary that can be written in an expository way. Like this:

"Manassas is a vibrant community with a historic past. Two major Civil War battles were fought here. At times it can be the picturesque embodiment of hometown U.S.A."

In this case I don’t need to impart my connection. It was already stated in the previous sentences.

All films are made of segments, which are sequences of shots put together to cover a point in time or a certain topic. In this film I will edit a segment on eagle symbolism. I’ll also edit segments on events that took place. Some segments have finite beginnings and endings, like a day where a lot happened, a council meeting, a groundbreaking ceremony, etc.

After you’ve outlined what you want to cover in the film, you begin editing those segments. You have to figure out where each segment should be placed in the film for maximum impact. It can be challenging at times, to figure out the order in which the sequences should occur. Sometimes you’ll realize that a little foreshadowing of later events can be very effective. Once you decide, you typically fade from black or dissolve between the sequences to signify a change in direction or a passage of time.

Writing Narration
I find myself writing and recording test narration, editing a piece, and then rewriting the narration to better fit the shots I’ve chosen. And that’s okay. Things don’t always work out as first thought, or there may be a better choice of words to accentuate the images. In some cases, the shots fall into place so well that a segment turns out better than you ever imagined. Those are the magical moments.

Failure is Not Failure
The most important thing I’ve learned in any creative endeavor is that if you realize something sucks, it is not failure. It’s you successfully ascertaining that something needs to be improved. Ask yourself why it sucks? Is it the narration, the delivery of the narration, the music, or the selection of shots? Does a certain segment bring the film down or detract from the overall message? Does it steer the film in the wrong direction? Like writing, editing video is an art that involves reediting and retrying. Don’t get discouraged. You’re already on the right track if you realize something is amiss.

The Overwhelmingness of it All
Making a feature-length documentary can be a daunting task, especially if done by one person. Look at the credits of other documentaries you’ve seen. Twenty, fifty, one hundred people or more are sometimes involved. But great documentaries can be made with little money and by few people. Today’s digital cameras shoot in full HD. Like never before creative folk are putting out some truly intriguing content.

But, it can be overwhelming at times. Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? Is this too big a task for one person? When it comes to that I always think of Barbra Streisand’s song “Bit by Bit.” Check it out. All great works of art are created in pieces: a mural that takes a month to paint, a song that takes a week to write, or a movie that takes four months to shoot and a year to edit. All good things come in time. Unless you win the lottery, of course, but you still have to wait for taxes to come out and the check to arrive.

Deferred gratification. It will come. So be strong and persevere.

To watch the video trailer and make a donation to our documentary, please visit our GoFundMe page. We appreciate your support! Vic

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Bald Eagle Documentary 101: The Footage

Oh, Dear God, what have I gotten myself into? That’s the first thing I ask myself whenever I invest my time into a large project. And a feature-length documentary is a monumental project, especially for one person. It can take years to complete.

I am now producing my third documentary, “Who’s Protecting Our National Bird?” which highlights the loss of habitat and disturbance of a pair of bald eagles and their offspring in Manassas, Virginia. Two 40,000 square-foot warehouses displaced the natural habitat directly in front of their nest with an asphalt lot edging up to five feet from the base of the nesting tree. It was a colossal failure by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the City of Manassas, and, to some extent, the developers. I will also cover similar situations and threats to our National Bird around the country.

So, when you make a documentary, you have to recognize its importance. Why is it important? Who’s to blame? Will the documentary enact positive change for future occurrences? All the reasons to think about before taking on such a large project.

To date, I have filmed over 10,000 usable video clips and over 15,000 usable stills—“usable” meaning I’ve removed the bad takes. So I have a lot of material to work with. Sometimes you don’t know when enough is enough, so you keep on shooting. For these particular pair of birds, I have to keep on filming while producing, because at any moment, the situation can change.

I have some totally lovely footage. Breathtaking. Things that no one has ever seen before. And that’s what I call the “cream of the crop.” Footage that must somehow be incorporated into the film. That could be a heron flying in slow-motion to a moving statement from an interview subject. I know right when I’m filming it: this has to be included. Sometimes it makes me shiver when it happens live. Keep the camera steady, keep the camera steady.

Shooting for the Edit
And so for this first blog post on the documentary, I want to talk about “Shooting for the Edit.” It’s when you choose shots along the way that you know you need to incorporate in your story. Watching a documentary about bald eagles would get pretty boring if all you saw was the nest for 90 minutes. So I’ve had to film shots of the town, the people, interviews, nature, and the consequences of overdevelopment. It can be something as simple as an open utility box with wires in disarray, a graded field, or, sadly, an animal carcass on the side of the road. It’s a baseball game, a county fair, a Christmas parade, and a high school football game. All these things make up the BIG picture. They give the story perspective and life.

Sometimes I don’t know what I will use in the future. I am certain that I have more than enough footage of these eagles to make a good film. Coming, going, mating, mating, mating, mating, feeding, preening, flying, swooping…it’s all there. Still, how can you not resist to film more of these majestic birds?

Getting to Know your Footage
Once you’ve decided that it’s time to move along with your documentary, you have to take a look at everything you have. That means weeks and weeks of looking at every video clip and every still. It means logging the best shots. It means creating a timeline. It means one of the worst things of all: reliving all the drama again.

On that, I wish people knew the toll on one’s heart it takes to re-experience all the strife you went through. And this is not a one-time thing. As you edit and assess the quality of each edit, you re-experience it again and again. Like, for months and years. You have to keep it as real as possible, but keep your own emotions in check. I once wrote in a book a segment on a man giving up a beloved dog he had found. I got up from my desk and paced back and forth in my kitchen and bawled like a baby for 15 minutes. I know that if it doesn’t affect me in the editing room, it probably won’t affect anyone else.

And so, over the next month or so, I will scroll through months and months of shots to create a timeline. From that timeline I will create an outline. I already know the opening segment; it’s already been written. It will be created from footage that I didn’t even know I had. It’s very moving, considering what happens after.

I hope that I have the full support of my cohorts and the people who have followed along with this particular story. I still need donations so I can travel to remote locations across the U.S. for interview segments that are important. You can do so at the GoFundMe Page.

Please share and follow along this journey in filmmaking and advocacy at Bald Eagle Preservation Group and


Friday, April 7, 2017

Eagle Lovers Disturbing Manassas Eagles

Nine months ago the many eagle lovers in Manassas, Virginia witnessed the removal of the habitat directly in front of our only known pair of bald eagles within city limits. It was devastating to watch. What was once a tranquil field of tall grasses and pine trees has now been replaced by two 40,000-square-foot warehouses and a parking lot. The asphalt rides up to just five feet from the base of the nesting tree. It's a travesty how U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the City of Manassas allowed this to happen.

But the eagles have stayed. They have laid eggs. And now they are raising two healthy eaglets. Yet, ironically, what may scare them away, or worse yet, cause them physical harm, are the eagle lovers themselves.
Trespassers disturbing bald eagles on private property.

In the past, when there was a spacious field in front of the nest, people kept their distance, for the most part.  It was a natural buffer, and people knew that if they got too close, the birds would fly off. Now it seems to be a round-the-clock drive-through ride and snap. People see a paved lot and somehow feel that they have the right to drive onto private property to get as close to the eagles as they want. There are no barriers or gates to prevent gawkers from coming within feet of the tree. There are only Private Property/No Trespassing signs at the entrances, which most seem to ignore.

I've had the opportunity to witness and speak to these many people who seem to think that they have the right to get up close and personal with these eagles. I actually had a local school teacher tell me that "she pays taxes," and that she has every right to view the eagles that close no matter what signs are put up. Wrong. So very wrong. It's private property.

Another onlooker told me that she always ignores No Trespassing signs because she "has no intention of doing any damage to the property." Wrong again. And shockingly so.

We get it. You want a great photo of the eagles to share on Facebook or Instagram. But is it worth the price that these eagles have to pay? At this point, our eagles have no choice but to try to raise this year's young in a hostile environment. They already have to deal with large trucks, noise, and commotion from the warehouse tenants. Why add more to that? In fact, the majority of the traffic disturbing these eagles on a daily basis is the eagle lovers themselves.

And I've seen their effects on the birds. I've documented it on video. The parents will often stop feeding their young when too many people are below. If one is resting on a nearby branch, it will fly back into the Cannon Branch Fort Park to get out of the line of sight. They do take notice, and this may ultimately cause them to abandon their nest in time.

NEC opens parking lot to eagle lovers. Park in the right lot.
There are several great alternative ways to view the eagles. NEC is allowing eagle lovers to park in their lot directly across the street. You can see the nest fine from that location, and the birds will often fly overhead. One has even taken to bathing and drinking from a little puddle of water that fills up just feet away in the adjacent field. You can get some terrific shots from that location. And, you won't be disturbing the birds. Plus, you can meet and chat with the many other eagle lovers in the area.

Please give the eagles a rest. Obey the Private Property signs. Know, also, that video surveillance cameras have now been installed to track disturbances. It's a misdemeanor to be caught on Private Property. Don't take the risk. Stay back. Stay off the property. And please be considerate and protective stewards of our National Bird.

Eagle lovers taking photos from across the street so they don't disturb the birds.