Moss and Musser: Show Images that Say Something

Today, in contrast to our usual practice of screening complete films during our meetings, we thought it might be useful to see how filmmakers deal with problems as they come up during the course of production and editing. We invited Rob Moss and Charlie Musser to class in order to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at their creative processes. Charlie talked about making a film about Errol Morris in which things weren’t going exactly as planned, and how he turned his crew’s four-hour interview with Morris in an unplanned location into a 67-minute documentary. Charlie established a set of rules for this documentary and sought to follow these rules rigorously (keeping within the bounds of the four-hour interview, for instance, and not recording new footage afterwards), although he also mentioned that the order in which the film proceeds does not follow the order of the actual interview.

He then proceeded to show us the first 27 minutes of the documentary – which contained footage from Morris’ office and served as a prelude to the conversation. Charlie talked about his intercutting of footage from Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera with footage from the Whitney Humanities Center during the first few minutes of the documentary, describing this as part of his effort to show the conditions under which his film was made. He also mentioned his efforts to obtain releases from the subjects filmed during his interviews – a challenge that we are also facing in the course of our work.

Robb Moss then proceeded to talk about making his film Secrecy, opening with the observation that secrecy was a difficult topic to film given that, definitionally, there’s not a lot available to show when things are secret. “We had a big screen, we had a projector, and we would film objects being projected on the screen,” Robb noted in reference to the initial opening scene of the film. Robb described how this opening scene initially provided scaffolding for both the film and fundraising efforts, but eventually got in the way of what Robb and the filmmaking team wanted to show in the rest of the film.

Robb noted two questions he wanted to explore in the documentary: how does secrecy function, and what is the role of secrecy in a democracy? He described his animation style in the film as an attempt to light his subjects from a background of recurring animations that would have the effect of holding together the image of the film.

We spoke with Robb about whether he revealed any secrets in the course of his film (the answer was no). He mentioned that his favorite part of the process was sitting in the editing room and imagining the many possible paths his films could take; he said he entered a kind of dreamy state at this point.

At this point, members of the immigration team screened some early scenes from their film, and Robb offered a very helpful critique, the gist of which was that once we have a good shot, we should commit ourselves to that shot without feeling the need to pan around or zoom in and out. If we have the shot we want (for instance a tight shot of a bench), then *hold* the camera in that location for 12 seconds without moving it. Then move to a new shot, and hold it *there* for 12 seconds. “Get the shots that you can get” and we won’t necessarily need to make the shot look like what we want in the final film product. With the camera, you have to see what’s in front of your face as well as you can – you have to expose for that focus, get the right framing – but you can’t overstep the process and think about what it will look like in the finished film. The more you stop seeing like this, the more natural shots will emerge. Give up, at least initially, on doing the big shot at first.

Whenever you’re moving with the camera, always use a wide angle. And rarely if ever use the zoom function – zoom only to change the focal length when you’re making a new image.

Robb also expressed his dislike for the term “b-roll” given the way it can kill the joy of filmmaking by assuming that a large amount of footage will simply be background and unimportant footage compared to the foreground of the interview. We need something to motivate our imagery, or we need to find some way of inhabiting a space – we can’t just relegate that imagery to b-roll. We need to show images that say something, and aren’t just filler. The words are incredibly important for storytelling, sure, but they need to go hand-in-hand with our images. We can’t elevate the talk above our visuals.

The immigration team mentioned its difficulties getting in touch with people who were involved with a raid, given that the bulk of the people in the raid were no longer in the United States. We discussed ways to compensate for their absence in the film.

We then screened some interviews from the criminal team’s film. The team at first was critical of one of its shots because the interview subject was looking down and not comfortable with the camera, but the rest of the room disagreed and found the shot to be quite compelling. We also talked about placement of lav mikes and sought to ensure that these microphones were not too close to the mouth, but also not muffled. Also, Robb noted that the sound should always be manual rather than digital, given that digital inputs often handle overmodulation of sound poorly.

Many thanks to Robb and Charlie for stopping by and for offering immensely valuable comments and insight.

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