Friday, July 23, 2010

New Developments

This week has been such a great one for Abandoned Allies.  So many of the challenges I was facing have found solutions, thanks to the talented and kind people lending a hand with the film.  We had two private screenings, the first of which was with Surry, Joe and Adam.  The second of which was with Chris, Alena, Kyle and EJ.  Yesterday, two more new developments took shape.

It's too early to talk openly about the developments, but I will tell you this: I am thrilled!  I had a long, fun meeting with a new contact yesterday who watched the film and gave me some great suggestions.  He might be able to help us with a few things that have been giving me trouble, and it seems we have great potential to work on some other projects.  I'm really excited to tell you about these things once they become more formal.  He suggested that I work on the narration for the film immediately, because it would change the shape of the film so drastically.

The narration in the film has been a big challenge for me, simmering on the back burner for a long time.  Talking this week about the narration has helped me figure out a lot of things about it.  What needs to be said?  When does it need to be said?  How is it going to be said?  Who is going to say it?  How are we going to record it?  The questions go on...

I'm going to take the advice I got yesterday and immediately start working on the narration.  I now feel really comfortable with it, which is a change.  For so long I was trying to avoid using too much narration in the film, but our story is a complex one and the narration is key to understanding it.  I feel like I have some new knowledge that will help greatly improve the film, and that's really exciting.  I learned a lot in yesterday's meeting, and will tell you all about it when the time is right.

The same is true for another new development, but it's entirely too early to tell you those details.  I am super excited about the possibilities, though!  When the time is right on this matter, I'll be sure to let you in on the secret.

My friends, the project keeps getting bigger and better with every day that passes.  It feels like it's so much bigger than I ever thought it would be, and that's a really cool feeling.  I believe this is the result of a very powerful story that has been waiting to be shared for a long time, and I am so honored to be a part of that. I hope beyond all hope that this little project might have the power to make positive change happen.  Thanks for all your encouragement, folks!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Screening with Abandoned Allies Crew

Four of our team members crammed into a small room to watch the latest cut of Abandoned Allies last night.  How happy I am to be showing the film to people!

Members of the Abandoned Allies crew sit in a tiny room to watch the latest cut and provide feedback.  From left to right: Chris Moore, Alena Koch, Kyle Owen and Elizabeth Jackson.

The group provided wonderful feedback and asked some great questions.  The conversation helped me think more about the narration, and what information needs to be disclosed.  They also confirmed some concerns I'd been having about certain clips.  There are two things, in particular, that were giving me some trouble.

Part of the history of the Montagnard (pronounced MONT-en-yard) people is their relation to the Vietnamese.  Montagnards, historically speaking, haven't been treated well by the Vietnamese.*  The Vietnamese called them moi, which is a very derogatory word that basically means "savage."  All of this is relevant because it meant that South Vietnam was not recruiting or drafting Montagnards during the war, ergo they were available to work with American troops.  In order to explain this concept, I used a clip wherein one of our experts makes a comparison to something in American culture to help us understand how bad moi makes a person feel.  The group discussion last night helped me draw conclusions about the clip, and I'm truly grateful for that.  There are social stigmas in the comparison, and it might derail the audience from the point we're trying to make.

The second troublesome part relates to the use of visuals.  There are several great stories about certain individuals, but I don't have pictures of them.  Showing a picture of a person while someone else tells a story visually implies that this is the guy from the story.  That leads to confusion for the audience, and honestly it feels unethical.  So I have been debating about this and tweaking things to get around it.  There was one remaining picture on the time line that lead to confusion last night, and the conversation about it helped me put this issue to rest as well.

Waking up happy this morning because of the screenings this week, I think I'll really enjoy the focus groups when we do them.  When I watch the film with other people, it's as if I'm seeing it for the first time.  Having spent so many hours editing the same footage, that is a very refreshing feeling!  It helps me understand what parts of the story are key, and what can be left for the DVD extras.  We have 40+ hours of footage, and there are some really great stories being left out.  I suppose that's just one of the filmmaker's biggest dilemmas--leaving out really great material because it doesn't add to the story the right way.

The group will help us with so many important things over the next few months. 

Chris said he knows how to edit out things on the background (behind our cast when they're talking) which are particularly distracting without degrading the quality of the footage.  I'm so excited about that!  It's been driving me absolutely crazy.

There are some audio quality issues, which I hope to have resolved with the help from a friend of a friend.  I just need to figure out how to get the audio to him to work on it.

Kyle, who is helping us by composing original music, also knows how to resolve some of my troubles with finding an external DVD burner.  My G5 is older, so it doesn't have the Pentium processor inside, which is apparently important for an external DVD burner.  I bought one earlier this week and returned it the next day because it wasn't compatible.  I've called several places, but no one seems to have a DVD burner that'll work with my (growing old) Mac.  While focusing on the editing, this little frustrating gets magnified.  I'm excited that Kyle might be able to find a solution to this problem.

Alena has been helping me manage the Facebook and Twitter accounts, among other social media-related efforts.  These tasks are really important, but very tough for me to focus on while we're in post-production.  My mind is too full of other things like video editing, shaping the story, and all of the marketing / distribution things that will come once the film is finished.  Having her on the team provides so much relief, it's unreal.  I look forward to these efforts heating up when the film is available for the public.  There are a lot of fun social media things we can do.

Elizabeth will help us with event planning when the film is finished.  I've been reading a book about distribution for indie films, and in one of the chapters I read recently there was a bit of info about live events.  I have one in mind that would be really fun, but would require an enormous effort.  In fact, there are a number of events floating around in my mind and knowing that she's there to lead those efforts is really wonderful.  I am anxious to put them on paper once we get the motion graphics and music team members going.  There aren't words for how happy I am to have EJ's help.

All in all, the week has been a huge success, in my opinion.  I'm quite exhausted, but very happy.  The feedback from all of these folks proves that the film is shaping up well, and with some of the improvements suggested will be even better. Almost everyone said they loved seeing the Super 8 footage, too.  It adds so much.  Thank you, Skip Elsheimer, for the help with that!

Oh, my friends, how I look forward to sharing this film with you!!

*I say historically speaking because Montagnards were poorly treated in the past, but it honestly hasn't changed too much there today from what I'm told.  A lot of news articles hint about this, but details are tough to get in writing because the Vietnamese control the media.  The U.S. Department of State published the 2009 Human Rights Report: Vietnam, stating that the Vietnamese government "human rights record remained a problem" and goes into details about it. The Associated Press just published information stating that the Vietnamese government will start publishing a human rights magazine to "help counter what it calls 'erroneous and hostile allegations,' state media reported Thursday."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Last Night's Screening

The private screening for Surry, Joe and Adam went well last night, despite my dog's attempts to be a part of the viewing party.  He wasn't too happy about being ignored and vocalized it repeatedly, much to my chagrin.  Next time, I believe we'll find another time to show the film or find a way to wear the dog out before they get there.

This is the thrid time Surry, Joe and Adam have come over to watch the film. I'm so grateful for their kindness in offering their thoughts as we develop the story.  It is really wonderful.  They talk amongst themselves on ocassion, debating certain things that come up.  Hearing this conversation puts me to the test, too.  I have to think through the critique and search through my reasons for making a certain creative decision.  It leads me through a series of questions:
  • Why did I include this clip?
  • What point is it trying to make?
  • Is that point going to add to the overall message, or detract from it?
  • Does the clip (or series of clips) help make that point or harm it?
  • Is there a better, more succinct way to address the same thing?
  • How will audiences feel about this certain point?
  • What conclusions will be drawn by audience members watching it?
Obviously, we have our main points we want to make but we have to be careful to let the audience draw their own conclusions.  I'm always grateful to my time learning from Susan G. Wellborn at Washington High School because she helped me understand responsible journalism (which is what I feel like I'm doing as a documentary filmmaker). 

You research, research, research.  Then you form a story based on what you believe are the proven facts, while taking into careful consideration the reactions to the things that get published.  I have SGW's voice in my head, even though I took her class more than 10 years ago.  She has had a huge, positive impact on my life and I'm so grateful for her leadership. 

While we make this film, I recognize that there's a careful balance between our investigation into the matter at hand and forming public opinion about it.  It must be done strategically and tactfully.  Where do you draw the line on how much gets shared?  How can you provide more info for people who want it?  How do you allow the conversation to continue after the credits roll?  How do you not provide answers, but lead people to think for themselves?

Our research is limited by a number of things, the most pressing of which is time and funding.  There's so much more I want to learn about the Montagnards, Special Forces, American foreign policy, and Vietnam's human rights record.  But our film has a narrow focus for a good reason, and we have to stick to that or we'll never finish.  When the conversations during the viewing parties get started, I find my mind working over time to process everything. I love the critique process.

Last night's conversation has been replaying in my head for hours.  I try to reserve filtering the feedback until I have let it all simmer for a while.  Once that happens, I start to turn those conversations and suggestions into direct actions I can take to make the film better. 

The end of the film, for example, has been pretty vague for me for a long time.  I've had an idea of what it should look like, but it's not been as strong as I want.  After the conversation with Surry, Joe and Adam, I feel like I have a better grasp on how to shape the ending.  Now I have more confidence about what needs to take shape.

We have several other team members coming over to view the film this week, for which I am very grateful.  Things are moving along really well, and I am so happy to have a team of people involved at this point.  If we can get the motion graphics, music, color corrections and audio improvements going full speed ahead, then I'll be one happy filmmaker!

The Droid X Arrives, Phone Adventure Concludes

Note: This is a long blog post.  So feel free to read / disregard.  My phone is critical to getting the film finished, but to many of you it might not seem relevant.  I have been reading a lot online about cell phones in the past few months, and so some of this info might be helpful to others like me facing a similar decision.

My Droid X arrived yesterday.  I'm excited and nervous, hoping that I will have a phone I can live with for a while. 

I have started to rely heavily on my phone to keep me organized.  I was previously using my Blackberry Pearl, but switched to an iPhone in May to test it out.  Then I switched back to the Pearl, and now to the Droid X.  (Read the bullet points below for the details or lessons learned if you're interested.)  Here's hoping this is the last switch for a while!

Initial Reactions
My first reactions to the Droid X are positive, although I only got it last night.  It's sleek and shiny, although it's fairly larger than my Blackberry Pearl (which was small enough to fit nicely in my hand, purse, and pockets).  It's only a little bit larger, but when you've been carrying something smaller for two years, the difference seems like a big one.  Still, I am pretty stoked about it.

The screen is divine.  I will really enjoy the bigger screen while working on and sharing Abandoned Allies.  It will help me a lot by playing clips, music and the movie trailer (when it's ready).  I've also wanted to use my phone as a handy photography portfolio, so I can show clients and friends what I've been doing lately.  That will be great once I get it set up.

Also, because it's a Droid / Google phone, so it's already syncing with all of my Google stuff: Voice, Gmail, etc.  I rely heavily on them for keeping me organized because I can update it online or on my phone.  It's all connected, so there are no duplicate calendars (which gets too confusing).  This will also help me be much more responsive.  The past few months have been tough because I rely heavily on my phone to keep me on track, and I've been switching phones to find the right one for my needs.  All of that switching has made me frustrated because on several occasions, I've double-booked social events and missed some Google Voice calls and messages.  Truly annoying.

So, all in all, I think the Droid X will be a good fit for me.  I hear things about the phone self-destructing when you try to change some of the software, which is definitely a scary thought.  I've got more reading to do in order to fully understand that.  The battery also seems to get really hot, but perhaps I need the task manager, app-killer thing to prevent that.  The number of screens seems excessive, but I also haven't given it enough time to have a stronger opinion about that.  The only other complaint I have is a minor one regarding the pull tab when you first get the phone.

The Pull Tab
When you first get the phone, there's a bit of confusion about this tab in the back.  Here's a picture.  It says PULL but then underneath it says DO NOT CUT.  I'm not the only one that was confused by the label, thankfully, because it seems like it should be pretty simple/straightforward.

When you first get something that requires batteries, it usually has a pull tab that comes out (like in a watch or laser pointer, for example).  But when you get the Droid X, the battery is not shipped with the battery in the phone so you don't quite know what the pull tab does, especially since it also has a "do not cut" warning next to it. 

I looked through all of the materials that came with the phone, but couldn't find anything that mentioned initial set up for the Droid X.  In fact, I was a little surprised at how much was lacking on initial set up.  Finding nothing in the Getting Started handout that came with the phone, I looked online before I messed something up and found some forums discussing the pull tab. 

Other people were confused, too.  Some people had pulled the entire thing off, only to discover that's how you get the battery back out later.  One person had pulled the tab off completely, put in the battery, and then spent a long time trying to figure out how to get the battery back out.  I was so grateful for the forum discussion because I was sitting at home feeling like an idiot, so confused over the bad label design.  It was good to know other people were sitting at home with the same questions.

Once you put the battery in the phone, the pull tab seems to make more sense.  I've had a number of phones, none of which ever required a pull tab like this one so it still seems pretty dumb to me.  (Sorry to the guy who designed that feature, but it's pretty silly to have such a high tech phone that requires this little plastic pull tab just to get the battery out of the back.  You probably had a good reason for it, but I don't see it.  It just causes confusion for us.)

Regardless, I'm happy to have my Droid X in my hands and operating!

Sir Switch-A-Lot
There are a lot more details about this phone adventure. Obviously, you can skip this next section if you're not interested.  It was a serious waste of time on my end so I can't say that I blame you for skipping it; however, because every minute I spent on this cell phone ordeal could have been spent on video editing, I feel obliged to document the madness.  Anyway, here's what has happened since May 2010:
  • My two year contract with Verizon ended, which meant I could finally try out the iPhone.
  • Verizon didn't offer me much to stay with them (just a "new every two" $50 discount on a new phone), so I switched to AT&T in May.
  • For the next 20 days, I tried the iPhone and AT&T's service.  In that short span of time I had more dropped calls than I have had with Verizon in nearly two years.  Seriously.  It was beyond annoying.  As glorious as the iPhone is--and it's a thing of beauty--I'm still using the phone as a phone and absolutely hate having my calls dropped.  They also released the iPhone 4 just after I'd purchased the 3GS, which is particularly annoying.  Why didn't they tell me to wait for the new one?  Also, the iPhone doesn't play well with Google Voice, which I've been relying on for a while.  Finally, the coverage plan meant that I was paying more per month than I would at Verizon.  That's more strikes than you get in baseball.  I was done with it.
  • Before the 30-day cancellation period ended, I called Verizon to ask about coming back to them.  Through a series of several conversations with several reps, I was finally put in touch with someone in their Win Back Department, and offered a deal too good to turn down.  The rep I talked to there was very kind and helpful.  Three cheers for great customer service!
  • AT&T reps, on the other hand, were beyond frustrating throughout the whole process.  I ended up with a bill that was three times higher than it should have been.  It took nearly four and a half hours, five or more reps, and several days to resolve the problem.  One fellow, in particular, was so rude that I was nearly in tears by the time the problem was finally resolved.  Really, AT&T, you should be ashamed.  I think big companies like that end up with a lot of inefficiencies and the customer ends up paying for the resulting overhead.  There were a lot of steps that could have been taken to prevent these problems.  Now I have had such a bad experience with AT&T that I was almost hostile to the door-to-door AT&T salesman who tried to convince me to give the company another chance.  No thanks.  That definitely won't happen any time soon.  Every time I see their commercials and logo, I cringe because of the frustrations I went through recently.
  • After the switch back to Verizon, I thought everything was finally in order.  Then I got mail from Verizon about my contract and plan that was contrary to what the rep on the phone told me.  I called Verizon again, and the problem was solved in half an hour by one very kind person.  Dear Verizon, keep up that great customer service and you'll continue to have my loyalty.
  • The latest chapter involves a battle between Droids.  I came back to Verizon knowing I would get a good deal towards a phone that is Verizon's closest comparison to the iPhone.  They recommended the Droid Incredible, but it was on back order.  Then the Droid X came out before my Incredible arrived.  So, in another series of phone calls to Verizon, this issue was also resolved. 
  • FedEx delivered the Incredible and the X at the same time, but thanks to help from my roommate I was able to catch her before she got back in her truck.  I signed for the X and sent the Incredible back to Verizon.  And now I finally have a new phone!
Lessons Learned
Here are some things I wish I had known months ago.  Enjoy.
  • Putting a note on your account.
    Phone reps won't believe most of what you say, even if you're being honest.  If a store rep makes a promise, be sure they put a note on your account about it.  That way, when the company messes it up later, and you have to call their phone center to have it corrected, there's a note telling the phone center representative about that promise.  (Making a film about broken promises, I find this lesson in dealing with AT&T's madness hugely ironic.)
  • Buy what you need. And have confidence in that.
    When I bought my car, the salesman kept trying to "put me in" a sedan or an SUV.  All I wanted was a cute little thing to get me from Point A to Point B, with the utmost fuel economy in a certain price range.  Similarly, cell phones and usage plans can easily be much more than I need (and even more than what I want).  This implies that you have to figure out what you need/want before you start shopping, which is obviously a good step.  I'm now confident that I have a cell phone and plan that is exactly what I need and want.  Win!
  • The latest and greatest will be outdated in five minutes.
    Minutes (ok, it's probably more like days) after I bought my new iPhone, a newer version went on the market.  Days after I ordered my new Droid, a new one went out on the market.  I can handle not having the latest and greatest, but only when it doesn't come out immediately after I've made an investment.  It's kind of insulting, really, when it comes out so immediately.  Perhaps I'm just stuck somewhere in between being an average consumer and a tech girl.  While shopping, it's better to lean towards the tech geek side so you don't get jerked around.  Or just get what you get, and be happy with that.
  • Read forums and reviews.
    During the past few months I have read countless reviews, comparisons and forums about cell phones.  They really gave me great information about what to expect, and explained a lot of things I didn't understand.  Read as many trust-worthy product reviews as you can, then go into a store to test it for yourself.  Keep in mind, though, some of the reviews will be incredibly helpful, but they are opinion-heavy and you have to filter out what's right for you.  After getting my phone, I was so grateful to read the forum conversation about that dumb pull tab!  Of all the things I learned about the X before it arrived, this wasn't even on my radar.  None of the tech geeks covered this in their reviews and videos, but all of them took the time to show the box it came in.  I knew about what to expect thanks to these reviewers, but this silly little pull tab left me confused.
  • Talk to the Win Back Department.
    If you leave a company and want to come back, be sure you're talking to the right person in the right department.  No one was really willing to help me until I got to the right department.  Finally someone in Verizon's Win Back Department was a wonderful help.  She was very kind and helped me make sure I have what I need to be happy with the company's service. 
There are a lot of other lessons, but this post will be entirely too long if I include them all.  I'm super happy that this adventure is coming to an end.  I can now use my phone on a daily basis and get on with getting on, as they say.  Happy to be back with Verizon, on a plan and phone that meets my needs, I can finally get back to wrapping up Abandoned Allies!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Private Screening Tonight

Tonight's the night!  We're having another private screening to get feedback on the film.  This is the first of about three that we'll have this week.  Tonight's audience will be seeing the film for the third time.  The most significant differences between the previous versions are:
  • The addition of Super 8 footage
  • The addition of more still photos
  • Better-flowing, more organized content
The group that is viewing the film tonight is a really interesting one, and I look forward to hearing their thoughts about the film.  They tend to stir up great conversation, which helps me see the film in a whole new light.  They bring up things that I had not thought about, and help me adjust things other people might struggle with, too.  I'm really grateful for their help, and can't wait to hear their thoughts.

When a group comes over, I find myself insanely anxious to have the film finished before their arrival.  I want it to be as perfect as possible--and completed!  It's a work in progress, though, so I constantly remind myself to be patient.  Patient.  Patient.

We still have a lot of work to do.  My production "to do" list is a long one that includes:
  • Adding more footage from our second interview with George Shepard (beautifully-shot HD)
  • Adding footage from our interviews with Charlie and EG Long (standard def)
  • Working with  motion graphics team to create and finalize visuals
  • Tweaking the flow of content with Todd Tinkham to make it look & sound better
  • Get the content finalized so we have a lock on it and can start working on what I call the "final finesse" that makes it look and sound like a real movie
We're going to have the film finished before the end of the year, showing it to small focus groups over the next few months.  It's an exciting time, for sure!