With streaming channels becoming increasingly popular, documentary films are given the chance to stream in millions of homes, affording filmmakers the opportunity to have their stories shared with a variety of demographics. Streaming services like HBO Go and Netflix are paving the way for filmmakers to profit from their films after working through festivals, and the benefit of this appears to be promising for new and experienced filmmakers alike.
For the most part, I was somebody more interested in the filmmaking side of documentaries. I thought that I could combat my shortcomings in journalism with better “filmmaking” skills and that’s where my energy should be devoted. I thought that, for the most part, documentaries shouldn’t be too closely associated with journalism and the idea of objectivity because that would undercut the film’s cinematic power. However, the Ross Brothers dissipated a lot of my lethargic feelings towards journalism’s role in documentary filmmaking with their film Western.
In the documentary industry, New York City and Los Angeles are widely considered the two cities in the country where people who are serious about documentary journalism live and work. Those interested in documentary filmmaking will aim for these cities and eventually land there in their careers. After graduation, five 2017 alumni of the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism began their careers in one of those meccas of the documentary world, New York City. In October, four of them explained their path to Mizzou, student experience at the Murray Center, their individual professional interests in documentary journalism and filmmaking and new lives they are building in New York. This is the first of those interviews.
Documentaries are on the rise. According to a 2013 Economist article, 16 percent of the films shown at the Cannes Film Festival are documentaries. Thousands of documentaries are made globally each year about every subject under the sun. One reason for this rise may be that audiences these days have a need for facts; they are unable to trust government or their own communities, so they turn to something they know as truth. Documentaries sometimes reveal deeper reasons for human action that people crave.
Rat Film is a documentary that tackles the rat problem that has plagued Baltimore city since the early 20th century. While there is a government program set up to fight the rat infestation, many of the citizens of Baltimore are left to their own devices to combat the rats. Their methods vary from poison to guns to fishing rods to bats. The rats are an invasive and pervasive part of the city. This is explored through Baltimore’s equally ubiquitous issues with race, effectively turning the rat problem into a people problem.
Robert Kolodny is a writer, director, and cinematographer based out of Brooklyn, New York. He is the founder and creative director of House of Nod, a bespoke production company that specializes in narrative and documentary film, music videos, stylized commercials and fashion videos. His work has been screened at the Cannes Film Festival and he is the recipient of a New York Emmy Award.
SL: What first interested you in film/video?
RK: My childhood was marked with an unconventional interest and subsequent education in film history. By the time I was ten or eleven years old I had seen films like Citizen Kane, The Deer Hunter, Mean Streets and Dog Day Afternoon several times over. This elicited something inside of me and I began making narrative films with my friends and younger brother Adam (who is now one of my most trusted collaborators) in my parent’s backyard on a massive VHS camera. I would then edit the videos using two VCRs, one as playback and one as a master recorder. This was probably sixth or seventh grade, as time went on the storytelling, camerawork and editing became more complex. I made an hour-long Vietnam epic for my eight grade class project, which was deemed far too violent to be shown in class, but which earned me an A+. I began to get more serious as time went on, both in educating myself in foreign and avant-garde films and in writing and editing. At 15, I had my first short film shown publically in a film festival. I was first interested in film because it allowed me to create worlds that I found more interesting and meaningful than the surroundings that I was born into.
SL: How did that affect your college path?
RK: As soon as I found out that such a thing as a film school existed, I made up my mind that I’d go to one. I was so fervent that my poor parents had no choice but to go along with it. They were very supportive and still are. My college decision was also marked by two other important factors. One being that, through high school, I had grown in contempt for my hometown and wanted badly to escape it. The second and more autobiographically meaningful is my love and passion for New York City. Through trips there as a child and through the magic portrayed on cinema screens, the city spoke to me on a deeply meaningful and passionate level.
SL: What was your plan when you graduated from college?
RK: The plan was to make movies. I came out of my thesis year at SVA (School of Visual Arts) having written two films and directing one. Both of those films happened to do really well and each had a long festival life. That was a big motivator for me. Not that either of them were masterpieces, but the fact that they acted as a passport that allowed me to go see other independent peoples films, meet and chat with them, become more exposed to the community. The plan is always to make movies, into perpetuity.
SL: How did you come up with the name “House of Nod?”
RK: I was very active in taking the reigns and making movies in my school. I didn’t have a dollar to my name and was eating a can of tuna fish, an apple and 12 cups of coffee a day to survive. Taking out cameras was free at SVA though; you just had to sign up for it. So, I would take out camera equipment every single day to use on my own. This was not the norm. I also made very odd, off kilter, seemingly high production value work, which I did totally alone or with my roommate Phill. After a while a few other students expressed interest in working with me, most notably Bennett Elliott, who is my producer and partner in crime to this day. We started making movies on a larger scale, amassing crews and casts that sometimes were thirty-plus people deep. One of the films that we made, in our junior year was called Land of Nod. It was a counterculture, queer, coming of age, revolutionary, anti-government, free love kind of jam. It was a beautiful production; we all slept and ate together in my ramshackle apartment in Brooklyn, the whole cast and crew! We were a real family and it is one of my very fondest memories. So, Land of Nod is the genesis of the House of Nod company. It represents the communal aspect of the film industry and how collaboration, understanding, collective hard work and shared passion under one roof can build a film.
SL: Why did you decide to start your own company?
RK: After college, I quickly was offered and accepted a role as associate creative director at a small media and advertising company. I learned a lot there: how to work with people who didn’t have art in the forefront of their mind, how to sell my skills as an asset, but maybe most important, I learned what I did not want, and that was working in an office for other people on projects that I didn’t care about. I spent a year at that job and count it as a great experience. After a year I bought my first HD interchangeable lens camera and quit with the intention of never having a full-time office job again. That was five years ago and I haven’t had an office job since. The idea to start House of Nod was sparked by myself and my producer Bennett Elliott while we were posted for a shoot in a remote and dusty village in post-earthquake Haiti. When we got back to the States, I quickly built a company identity, made the website myself and started to foster our first clients, which were mostly small fashion designers and bands that we were friends with. It was rewarding having creative control over what the execution and presentation of my vision was. The jobs kept getting bigger and we are still operating, now with nicer cameras and more experience under our belt.
SL: What are the best things about working for yourself?
RK: The best thing about working for yourself is the sense of authorship. The model that I like to think House of Nod operates on is this: always have a presence of mind that the goal is to make movies. Pay the rent by doing creative projects for bands, brands or other filmmakers that we trust and genuinely like. Keep a curatorial eyes about what we put our names on. Maintain authorship over what we create and then use the money earned to help finance our own creative projects. Working for yourself also allows you to structure your time and build in writing or pre-production development opportunities for yourself.
SL: What are the most difficult things about working for yourself?
RK: When you are your own boss, you don’t have to answer to anyone (except the clients) and that’s a great thing. That being said, it is only you. Success or failure weigh entirely on you; there isn’t a boss or co-worker or invisible company entity that you can pass the buck to. When you fuck up, that fuck-up is yours alone and that can be a really painful and disheartening blow. The other down side is that there is no distinction between work and your ‘personal life.’ There is no clock-in, clock-out, lunch break, Christmas bonus. You can escape an office, but the when the office is you there is no getting out. There are many nights (full transparency: more often then not) that I stay up until 4 or 5 A.M. grinding out a project for a deadline, refining, crafting, color correcting. It takes a lot of discipline and a lot of commitment, certainly not for everyone. However, if this is something you are passionate about and you have the hustle and hunger to make it work, there is nothing better.
SL: What advice would you give to young college students who want to start their own production companies?
RK: Go for it. With the internet and social media in the state that it currently is, you need to represent your personal brand as strongly as you can. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your full-time gig–you can do other things–just put some work into your website, your social media presence and the way you present your work. Make business cards, have a company profile. Most importantly, make your work you. There are a hundred new people picking up a camera or hopping on an editing system every day. This craft has never been more democratized then it is right now and that’s a beautiful thing because it gives way to new voices. Your individuality and vision is what will set you apart. Don’t copy other people’s work; don’t try to verbatim recreate an aesthetic that you have seen. Do what interests you and what you feel passionate about and present that. The jobs that have gotten me the most notice are the ones that I have not gotten paid for. Those are the things that really matter. Take your camera out and experiment, don’t be afraid of getting weird and don’t be embarrassed about what you create. If it doesn’t look like what everyone else’s looks like then you are probably doing something right.
SL: How do you find work opportunities?
RK: At this point, it’s mostly word of mouth. We have a specific brand, which is curatorial and highly tactile. A lot of our work comes from recommendations or people reaching out because they have seen something we did online. We have a few Vimeo staff picks and that gives you a lot of exposure. We had a little exposure bump after we won our two Emmys as well. Social media also helps us, we’ve gotten more then a few clients from Twitter or Instagram outreach.
SL: What makes the New York industry different than other cities?
RK: New York is a unique animal within the production world for a host of reasons, the paramount one being that it’s just a generally fast-paced town that requires quick thinking, hustle and decisive action. There are a lot of jobs, but also a lot of competition and that breeds a really electric, sometimes cut-throat atmosphere. That isn’t for everyone, but it’s the kind of pace that motivates me personally. You have the opportunity to work on your craft and the motivation to not make mistakes, because as soon as you do, you know you’re not getting a call back. For almost as long as there has been film, there has been a film industry in New York City. Narrowing it down more specifically, there is a rich history of independent cinema here and that model is very alive today. Whereas in LA you are more often than not relegated to climbing a studio ladder or working on meaningless fashion new media projects and in the middle of the country there is such a divine lack of industry, New York has opportunity galore.
That being said, it is a far scrappier, ramshackle, bleeding knuckle, kick in the teeth variety. If you are willing to hustle and wade through the cascading horrors, New York can foster you beautiful experiences in film and the potential to realize your own ambitions.
American news outlets offer an increasing abundance of reporting related to North Korea and the actions of its authoritarian government. However, with access to the country severely restricted, especially to foreign journalists, this reporting is often limited to broad coverage of events, both government-publicized and unintentionally exposed. In order to produce nuanced, informative journalism concerning the isolationist state, alternative routes of access must be found. In his film, Under the Sun, Russian filmmaker Vitaliy Manskiy finds one such route.
Under contract with Pyongyang officials to produce a propaganda piece about the North Korean way of life, Manskiy allows his camera to capture what takes place before and after each take, and then includes these moments in the film alongside scripted scenes. The result is not only a powerful work of art which offers unprecedented insight into the experience of the citizens of North Korea, but also a valuable journalistic work which could not exist without the fundamentally artful approach taken in presenting its story.
Just as North Korean leadership uses artifice and misinformation to project an image of stability, Manskiy lets the highly misleading script around which he’s expected to work form the film’s narrative. In this way, the structure of Under the Sun reflects the nature of the society it attempts to capture. These scenes alone reveal the extent of the brainwashing to which North Korea’s population is subjected, as the audience requires little assistance in recognizing their many deceptions.
However, the making of these revelations is not Manskiy’s sole objective. He includes numerous takes, focusing on the banter that occurs between each, and occasionally panning over to his Korean overseer (the film’s intended director) at the edge of the set as he prods the actors to provide more convincing performances. These moments deconstruct not only the artificiality of the hyper-idealized script, but also the facade of subservient bliss that North Koreans are expected to wear. As the construct of the propaganda film repeatedly falls apart on screen, it becomes increasingly clear that the humanity of these oppressed people persists, despite both the efforts of their government and the preconceptions shared by many Westerners.
Sudden moments of emotion punctuate some of the film’s most constructed scenes, creating compelling characters that humanize the oppressed population to which they belong. Images like those of a young student struggling to stay awake during a long-winded war story, a family laughing between takes of a phony dinner scene, and tears of pain and fatigue falling from a young girl’s eyes during a strenuous dance lesson force the audience to identify with a wholly foreign and seemingly unknowable people. In direct contrast with Western assumptions regarding North Koreans, the film is full of life and its characters are highly sympathetic.
This liveliness is drawn out and elevated by meticulously crafted frames which, like the structure of the film itself, reflect the highly constructed nature of the image that North Korea’s government presents to the world. Near the end of the film, during a nationwide celebration of former dictator Kim Jong-Il’s birthday, a ceremony taking place at a monument to the Great Leader is presented through vivid photography and extensive sound design. The sudden appearance of hundreds of Pyongyang residents, all bearing flowers with which to adorn the feet of the statue, is one of the most painstakingly choreographed moments in the film. Manskiy uses the artifice of the scene, and of Under the Sun in it’s entirety, to achieve a goal quite opposite to that of his chaperones.
Having spent a great deal of time developing and underscoring the humanity of leading character Zin-mi, placing her amongst hundreds of other North Koreans in so premeditated an event compels the audience to expand their empathy to encompass not just one little girl, but the entire oppressed people with whom she shares a home.
After an extensive run of the film festival gauntlet, Welcome to Leith is one of Netflix’s hidden gems. Directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, the documentary dives into the bizarre happenings of Leith, a rural North Dakota town with a population of 24. A new resident, Craig Cobb, moves in, but his intentions for the town are much darker than anyone could have anticipated. Cobb is a radical white supremacist and leader of a white nationalist group. With creative cinematography and a stellar soundtrack to match, the film tracks the chilling reality of Leith’s potential demise at the hands of Cobb’s ideologies.
Welcome to Leith opens with the climax of the film, throwing the viewer into the heat of the moment as the tension boils over in the town. Pitting Cobb and the town against each other from the very start, the sequence juxtaposes raw cell phone footage of the white supremacists with smooth POV shots throughout the town. This floating camerawork gives the effect that something (or better yet, someone) is lurking and is overlaid with audio of a frantic 911 call reporting Cobb’s threats. The plot is a classic case of starting with the effect rather than building into an issue with the causes, and for Welcome to Leith it works beautifully. With its captivating cinematography and compelling audio, the opening sequence hooks the audience right from the start as they crave the context of that cell phone footage and the resolve of the suspense created.
In revealing the context, the film takes an interesting approach to its pacing. While establishing the town and its longtime residents, the film cuts together several observational shots of daily life and interviews with its subjects. It then swiftly launches into how Cobb obtained property and where he fits into the white nationalism movement, throwing loads of information at the audience in a short sequence. The rapid pace itself replicates the haste of Cobb’s takeover in Leith. As his plot builds and the white supremacists threaten domination, the suspense continues until it climaxes with the scene that includes the original cell phone footage that opened the movie, this time in its full context. After this revelation, the film shifts into a much slower pace as Cobb is arrested and awaits trial. Again, the slow movement echoes the elongated process of the courts and the suspense lingering among the town as Cobb awaits trial. As the pace of the film reiterates the climate within Leith at the time, it again immerses the audience in the tension of the town.
As a real life thriller, the issues faced in Welcome to Leith are far too real if watched in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. While it is a tragedy that a movie like this can even exist because of the subject matter, the film does a very tasteful job of addressing all areas of the problem and both opinions in the matter. With the plot seeming like a fictional film, the audience cannot help but be shocked by the spectacle that has become the town of Leith. For documentary nerds and average moviegoers alike, Welcome to Leith is nothing short of captivating and is definitely worth the watch.
When it comes to being a Documentary Journalism student at the Missouri School of Journalism’s Murray Center, having access to the Sony PXW-FS5 is a pretty incredible benefit. Using the camera can be overwhelming at first, but once you learn to use–and fully understand–a few of the main features, it will quickly become your favorite tool.
One of the main benefits of the camera is having customizable picture profiles. It’s easy to read a users manual’s description of how to change these profiles, but unless you know that function’s purpose and how it works, it becomes a much harder task to select the appropriate one for each filming condition.
The picture profiles I recommend becoming most familiar with are CINE or Cinegamma profiles. Amongst them are CINE 1, CINE 2, CINE 3, and CINE 4. Rather than using my method of trial and error, there are a few easy things one can remember when it comes to choosing. CINE 1 should be used for bright light situations such as direct sunlight outdoors, CINE 2 is the same as CINE 1 except it curtails the exposure to make it safe for TV broadcast, CINE 3 is good for average lighting, or if lighting varies throughout the shoot, and CINE 4 is best for low light situations. Each of these will most likely need a bit of color grading to get the best results, but not much will be required.
Once you acquire good color grading skills, the S-Log picture profile can become very useful. The FS5 has fourteen stops of dynamic range, and the only picture profile that can hold on to all fourteen stops is the S-Log. Naturally, the wide range makes for an amazing image, but only if you have the post-production skill to bring it out. Not only does S-Log absolutely require color grading, but it also makes it difficult to read the image while shooting. S-Log naturally results in a very flat and washed out picture, and exposure levels can be all over the place, especially for whites and face tones. This makes it hard to shoot because footage can easily be overexposed or underexposed without knowing it. To slightly ameliorate this situation, you can use a viewfinder LUT. This tool allows you to convert from the S-Log2 or S-Log3 gamma, to 709 gamma (which is used for broadcast) so that the contrast of the image displays itself correctly; making it more conducive to correct exposure. The downside is that it only manifests itself through the viewfinder and not the display screen. In addition, the viewfinder LUT only changes the contrast, meaning the colors will still look grey and washed out. Ultimately, because S-Log holds on to all that dynamic range, when done right, the image can be color corrected to perfection. I recommend using an S-Log only when you’ve become very comfortable with color grading images.
The Stronger Than Fiction Film Festival celebrates the work of students graduating from the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism. 2017 marks our very first graduating class. Our talented students have spent nearly a year developing their own short films for the festival. Each student has directed his or her own documentary, collaborating with other students in the program who serve as their cinematographers, editors, producers and more. The festival will play all the shorts from graduating students, including question and answer sessions following each block of films and an awards program at the end of the festival.
All films are free. The schedule for May 10 at the Missouri Theatre is:
Block A: 10:00 am-noon
Sam & Jess
dir. Shannon Little
It is often said that Broadway dancers begin looking for new careers around age twenty-nine. Samantha Zack, who has been living her dreams as a dancer for over a decade, is nearing her 30th birthday. Her hometown friend Jessica recently dropped out of college and is moving to New York City to pursue her own career in the spotlight. With almost ten years between the two women, will this turn into a mentorship or a bitter rivalry?
Last of the Last Days
dir. Jordan Inman
This personal and experimental film juxtaposes scenes of home video recordings with letters from the director’s mother sent 20 years later. The director’s decision to leave the family’s faith results in an ultimatum from her mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness: either return to Jehovah or never see her again. As the choices are revealed, the film discovers what has been lost and questions why subsequent generations often repeat the past.
A Conversation Between Parents
dir. Adam Dietrich
Thadd and Shannon begin a long-distance relationship after a weekend trip with some mutual friends. After traveling to each other’s hometowns a handful of times Shannon becomes pregnant. With plans to have the baby and start a family together, Shannon moves from central Illinois to Columbia, Missouri to live with Thadd. As the couple struggles to make things work for their new family, the threads begin to come undone and uncertainty sets in. Eighteen months of their lives culminate in one conversation.
Then and Now
dir. Majiyebo Yacim
An exploration of social justice in the 20th and 21st centuries, the film examines the coverage of, tension in and monumental moments that defined protests and movements in the United States, from suffrage movements in the early 20th century to the multifaceted Civil Rights protests of the mid-twentieth century to this year’s Women’s March in Washington. Though each movement is different and deeply embedded within its own historical contexts, the parallels between all of them are striking.
dir. Marc Nemcik
This nonfiction meditative drama follows a learned man to the heart of Kansas as he enters the Survival Condo Project, an Atlas “F” missile silo turned luxury condominium. Built to house a nuclear warhead from 1961 to 1965, the site now serves as a survival bunker for the ultra-wealthy. Imagining life as the last man on earth, the man contemplates doomsday and the enduring spirit of humanity.
Block B: 1:00 pm-3:00 pm
dir. Alexandra Watkins
A crew of teenage boys attempts to satisfy and perform in a world of high expectations as they prepare mentally and physically for competition. Shot through the lens of an older sister, this intimate nonfiction portrait observes the interplay of the boys with their carefully-controlled world.
dir. Varun Bajaj
An experimental, minimalist portrait of four significant moments in the life of Virginia, who grew up in and out of the foster care system. The story unfolds as Ginny recalls snippets of her life, as the camera examines the dissonance between internal psychological spaces and the external spaces in which she exists.
dir. Lindsey Miller
Green Chiles follows the people connected to Rio Grande Community Garden in Albuquerque, New Mexico. These individuals are determined to make the world a better place by getting closer to nature, but reality gets in the way of this idealism. Soon the members of the farm begin to question if the farm can sustain itself solely on the optimism of the community it tries to serve.
dir. Steve Gieseke
In 1894, Thomas Edison invented the motion picture camera, and the world would never be the same again. The Edison Company produced roughly 350 films over the next three decades. Considered together, this collection tells the story of an idealistic young America, one that dreamed of a better world for all, but created something very different. Kinetoscopic Memory is a documentary investigation of early 20th century American history seen specifically through Edison’s camera lens.
Block C: 4:00 pm-6:00 pm
Welcome to Normal
dir. Kellan Hayley Marvin
After the town of Normal, Illinois alienates her over her spiritual beliefs, a woman turns inward to cope with the tragic loss of her best friend and regain the life she pictures for herself.
dir. Marisa Anz
The film explores the pressures of a woman’s career on all aspects of her life. As she attempts to separate herself from her work, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain detached. Betti Angela reveals the lengths one will go to satisfy needs of intimacy and security.
dir. Joe Petersen
On May 25th, 2008 Parkersburg, Iowa was hit by an F5 tornado, killing seven people and leaving hundreds homeless. After leading a successful effort to rebuild, tragedy struck when high school football coach Ed Thomas was killed by a former player in front of his students. Parkersburg looks at back at the history of Parkersburg, Iowa by observing the town as it is today. This short film chronicles how a town faces unprecedented tragedy and attempts to rebuild and recover.
Anxiety and the Monster
Dir. Az Rudman
For decades, filmmakers have used anxiety as a device to manipulate the audience. The reason nails on a chalkboard and screeching tires work so well for relaying an emotion to mass audiences is because everyone feels anxious; it’s part of what makes us human. This film uses intense visual expressions to show how it feels to have anxiety, exploring the parts of us we often keep repressed and hidden. We explore how our perception differs from our reality. It’s an attempt to see the invisible.
dir. Morgan Lieberman
This intimately captured film features a housekeeper named Bertha, who is employed to clean large estates in the affluent Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, California. With dozens of gated communities built to protect the privacy of high profile residents such as the Kardashians, Britney Spears, and the Jackson family, the film takes viewers into places once inaccessible to reveal a day in the life of one individual maintaining this unreal American Dream.
Block D: 7:00 pm-9:00 pm
dir. Kyle Pyatt
The rural Missouri community of Weldon Spring is home to a nature preserve, a high school and a dark past. While most of its residents have little interest in their town’s shadowy history, retired teacher Tom Whelan refuses to let the old stories fade from memory. As he takes us on a tour of the area, we meet high school sophomore Dylan Busken, who lives a few miles from a looming structure known as the Rockpile. Spurred by talk of toxic water and elevated cancer rates, Dylan sets out to learn more about the Rockpile’s origins. These investigations converge when Tom and Dylan hike deep into the woods in search of ruins that may or may not exist. While they dig for the buried secrets of their hometown, they also shed light on the dynamic between fact and folklore in small town USA.
dir. Charlie Lonergan
Entropy is a first-hand account of the riots and social disorder in the wake of the inauguration of President Donald Trump. It documents the violence and confusion that have become an everyday occurrence in the streets of America. We are at a calamitous time in our nation’s history. The political elite have been defeated by an inexperienced celebrity, Democrats and Republicans are in a panic, and proxy wars rage between superpowers. All the while, self-proclaimed anarchists and communists move to burn cities to the ground in an attempt to create social entropy to fuel their revolution.
dir. Meg Vatterott
Native American teens experience the highest rate of suicide of any population group in the United States. The Rosebud Reservation is home to Sicangu Sioux. The film follows Geraldine and Caroline, two Sioux women who run the only 24/7 suicide and crisis hotline on the reservation. The hotline is a single cell-phone that could ring at any time as these women go about their daily lives. Geraldine and Caroline reveal their everyday challenges, intimate moments, and motivations for the work they do.
That Time I Made a Movie About Brady
dir. Katie Schnell
As a memoir to a project forgotten, this film chronicles the journey of Brady Brock, a 21-year-old competitor in the MR340 river race. As Brady battles physical and emotional obstacles to achieve his goals of becoming one of the youngest competitors to complete the 340-mile solo race, the film examines his motives and those of the filmmaker. Exploring the process through the ups and down of a first-time filmmaker, the film unravels what happens to a friendship when a camera is introduced.