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A Growing Trend
by Karen Moltenbrey

from Computer Graphics World, February, 2004

Widely available prosumer video products are producing a new crop of independent filmmakers

Amateur filmmaker and director Matt Giraud spent what seemed like a lifetime chasing a dream, hoping that the three years he spent filming, editing, and then shopping his documentary to distributors would have a happy ending. And it did.

Giraud's independent project, a half-hour movie titled Life in Vine, was the Web site designer/writer's first foray into independent filmmaking. However, unlike the multitude of newcomers who are flooding this burgeoning field with projects, Giraud beat the odds and received a national distribution deal.

Giraud is a principal in Grapheon, a design firm, and the owner of Gyroscope Pictures, LLC, a production company in Portland, Oregon. He also has written about food and wine in alternative newspapers and trade publications for nearly a decade. Not long ago, he decided to combine his knowledge of the wine industry with a yearning he had for filmmaking. As a result, he followed a handful of small winegrowers in northern Oregon during a full season as they toiled in the fields, cared for their delicate crop, and prayed for weather that would give them a good harvest.

"Wine making is being overrun by big corporations, but there's still a number of people doing it by the seat of their pants," Giraud says of the "stars" of his movie. "Many people see this industry as glitzy and sophisticated, but I wanted to show it in its true light, so this film is a little grittier from the lifestyle pieces you typically see about wine making."

To this end, the documentary contains a mixture of interviews in nontraditional settings. Instead of focusing on what he describes as "talking heads," Giraud shows what occurs in the vineyards. "It's not all sun and luxury," he says. "It was a very soggy activity, as a lot of the filming takes place in the rain."

In fact, Giraud chose an especially good year to follow his subjects. When he began filming in 1999, the grape-growing season looked bleak. It was a cold, wet spring, which meant the harvest would be pushed into late fall, making the crop vulnerable to winter storms. "Luckily for me—but not for them—everyone thought they would get decimated," he says, "which built a natural tension into the story from the get-go." And just like Giraud's own story, the winegrowers' tale ended happily when an unexpected three-week window of superb October weather turned despair into ripened delight.

Toiling in the Field

Prior to embarking on his film odyssey, Giraud had only directed and edited public service announcements and completed a short-film project—a far cry from this attempt at a long-form documentary. "The project became film school for me, as I learned so much about every step of the process," he says.

"At times I found myself in a situation where I wanted a particular shot and had to figure out a way to make it work without spending extra money." In one instance, Giraud built a dolly from plywood and PVC piping for a running camera shot. In another, he attached the camera to a stick for a crane shot. "I hoped I was pointing it in the right direction, and miraculously, I did, and I got the shot."

With a limited budget of $10,000 from personal savings, Giraud had no choice but to complete the work himself, although he sought assistance whenever possible. An invaluable resource was the Northwest Film Center, a Portland-based organization that encourages independent filmmaking through classes and low-cost equipment rentals.

With Life in Vine, filmmaker Matt Giraud distinguished himself from the growing number of indie filmmakers by creating an interesting story and securing a distribution deal.

Over the course of a year, Giraud shot nearly 50 hours of digital video using a Canon XL1. "As with most documentaries, 90 percent of that was garbage, especially the early stuff," he recalls with a laugh. After a while, though, some of the concepts from his design work, such as composition, began to influence how he would shoot with video. "Being able to frame a shot so it is interesting and tells a story is one of the main concepts you need to know while filming anything," Giraud maintains.

In addition, there were hundreds of technical issues, such as how to manipulate the lighting and determine the best time of day to shoot, that Giraud had picked up through the yearlong filming schedule. "I have been shooting still photography for years, but when you add motion, it becomes a whole different game," says Giraud.

One of the important lessons Giraud learned is that you have to think like an editor while filming. "When I reviewed the early footage on the monitor, I kept shouting, 'Focus! Reframe!'" he recalls. "Without question, having gone through the process made me a better videographer." Yet transitioning from one shot to the next remained one of Giraud's biggest challenges during Life in Vine, forcing him to reshoot some material because there was too big a chasm between certain shots. This was caused, in part, by large gaps in the filming schedule as Giraud covered the entire growing season and worked on the project during weekends, evenings, and time off from his full-time job.

Another factor contributing to this was Giraud's decision to edit the entire footage all at once, rather than in segments, which made themes and missing shots easier to identify. This task was accomplished in Adobe Systems' Premiere nonlinear editing software running on a Power Mac G4 from Apple Computer. Since completing Life in Vine, however, Giraud migrated to Apple's Final Cut Pro after Adobe abandoned the Mac version of Premiere.

In addition to Premiere, Giraud used a range of other Adobe products that he was familiar with because of his design work. These included After Effects for incorporating effects and for vertically reframing some shots to make the most of the project's final letterbox format. He also used Adobe's Photoshop for the title work and Illustrator to re-create a particular mechanism shown in the film that measures the sugar content in the wine.

While Giraud did all the off-line work himself, he turned to others for assistance in color-correcting the video. Downstream Digital, a local high-end postproduction facility, allowed the filmmaker to use its da Vinci Renaissance color system at a reduced cost and even provided an assistant colorist who worked after-hours with Giraud. "He really ratcheted up the quality of the video, making it look very professional," he notes.

Finding a Distributor

An equally daunting, but far less glamorous part of the independent filmmaking process is selling the piece. With so many "prosumer" film tools now available at a reasonable price, amateur filmmakers are flooding the market with projects.

On the upside, there is little overhead associated with these movies, enabling skilled people without a lot of financial resources to tell stories that just couldn't have been told otherwise. Giraud, for instance, is currently working on two new documentaries—one about a woman trying to run an independent farm in an era of huge corporate farms, and the other about a facility for the mentally ill. As with Life in Vine, these require a large time investment so the stories can unfold. "Until recently, these stories were under-told because they're too expensive to do in the traditional filmmaking framework," Giraud says.

On the downside, there are many untrained people producing and pitching uninteresting stories and poor-quality work, Giraud points out. "It reminds me of the desktop publishing revolution, when suddenly everyone became a production/layout designer," says Giraud. "The tools let people produce a higher quality of material in general, but they still needed an eye and a sense of taste to do something that will rise above the din."

Weighing these pros and cons, Giraud believes the trade-off is still worth the effort. However, because there are so many projects vying for recognition, it becomes even more difficult to get a film in front of a content filterer, whether that person is a producer, broadcaster, or distributor.

For Giraud, that process took more than a year. After Giraud got a foot in the door at Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), the PBS affiliate in Portland, he was able to work the 30-minute documentary into the right hands—a process that required "insisting, but not bullying." After there was some expressed interest, he re-cut the film to the standard PBS length (26 minutes and 46 seconds). Soon after, the documentary debuted on OPB, where it became the station's highest rated show that evening. That accomplishment carried some weight with national distributors, one of whom eventually offered Giraud a two-year deal. And now, nearly 100 PBS stations across the country are broadcasting the documentary.

Still, Giraud had to do a tremendous amount of self-marketing and promotion. "Thank God for the Internet," he says, noting that he subscribed to a scheduling service that provided a time and location for Life in Vine showings. Then, he would look up the local and regional press outlets on the Web, and promote the film. "The requisite promotional work is half the battle to getting your film seen, and that's even after you have a distribution deal in place."

Learning this secondary process, Giraud says, was an enormous challenge, but necessary. "These people are inundated with projects, and their default setting is 'I don't want to talk to you.' But you need to be persistent and learn the ropes on the back end just as you do on the front end," he advises. "Then, with some luck, you may be on your way."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.

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