My First Film (Work on Trying)

I made a film and the process made me happy. Work on trying some kind of creative process, your end result might pleasantly surprise you- here is mine:

When I first contemplated writing my final thesis paper for the MALS program, I originally thought I should choose a piece of literature that I was fascinated with. Naturally, being a bit of a free spirit, I strongly considered analyzing Alan Ginsberg’s Howl and how it has influenced me as a writer. After careful consideration keeping in mind the notion that I wanted to also make a documentary, I decided to change my topic to something that has influenced me not only as a writer but also as a person. I have decided to pursue the topic of my heritage: Cuba. More specifically, I am planning to examine social roles of citizens from Cuba in the 1950s.

To gain an understanding of the social roles the citizens of 1950s Cuba I made a documentary. The film consists of music, art, architecture, photographs and interviews as well as original one-of-a-kind photos, footage and testimony of Cuban immigrants; it was filmed in Miami, Florida, March 16th-March 18th 2012. The reason I made a documentary is because I wanted to address history, loyalty, pain, and memory when I interviewed the citizens of Miami on my trip. What I discovered was the outcome was rather unexpected; the process I underwent of writing specific questions so I could get an understanding on how people lived during that time period evolved on my journey. I was curious about how Cuba used to be during the early 1950s and how it has changed during Castro’s regime, but I found the immigrant’s personal lives to be more rewarding especially since most people are familiar with Cuba during Castro’s regime. There is much to learn about Cuba during the 1950s, and I was eager to know it.

When you write an essay there is an introduction, a body, and a conclusion; a documentary is also written in that fashion. I choose to sub-divide my body into three distinctive parts: Part one- “Background knowledge” A brief history of Cuba. Part two-“Embracing my heritage” The journey begins. And Part three-“Talking with friends” Recalling 1950s Cuba. Part four was entitled- “My reflections” An analysis of 1950s Cuba; this was my conclusion.

Part one was a necessary component of the documentary because the viewer needed to gain understanding of Cuba’s history in order to justify why Cuba is worth their attention and it provided them previous knowledge of how Cuba has arrived to its current state. Part one supplied the viewer with Cuba’s history and Part two supplied the viewer with Cuba’s present. I showed the viewer in Part two how Miami was influenced by the Cuban people who currently reside there. It created a foreground of art, music and customs that the Cuban people have displayed throughout Miami. Part two also provided the viewer, with an education of certain aspects of Cuban heritage.

I felt that Part three was the most exciting part of the documentary. Interviewing citizens of Cuba from the 1950s provided great insight of Cuba’s social life during that time. I did not go into the process of interviewing alone. I had a crew with me through my process and each member had specific tasks. I was the director, producer, as well as the lead interviewer. Jim DeMaio, was the lead camera man as well as my film’s editor. Steve DeMaio operated the sound microphones and was our second camera man if one was needed. Omar Gonzalez, my Maternal Uncle, was the film’s interpreter and our guide through Miami. Ivis Gonzalez, his wife operated as our microphone operator when Steve needed to use a second camera.

The interviews were conducted in various locations throughout Miami such as parks, in the market places and in nightclubs. They people were divided into two categories: Cuban residents and members of my family. Omar, my Uncle severed as a member of my family as well as Nora Fransico- she is Ivis’s mother. My parents (Jose and Ciomara Yvonnet) were filmed in New Jersey. Cuban residents/ other interviewees included : Dr. Mariano Loret de Mola, Dr. Jose Hernandez, Juan Garcia, Latrice Lorette De Mora, Rose Bagley, Eloisa Echazabal, Ernesto Garcia Pedreado, Gabriel Machado, Ignacio Martinez, and Tony Cabaerio.

Part four, served as a conclusion to my findings of the entire documentary process. This part was written through reflection each evening after filming and then again when I returned home from my trip. I have discovered that the process of making a documentary is different in every sense of the way than the creative writing process. My words in creative writing are a collection of my personal experiences mixed with a hefty thesaurus whereas documentary writing is a process demands perceived fluidness as if it were previously edited and then written. Before my documentary I made unfounded assumptions on how I thought I would feel. My interviews provided my script with unexpected raw emotion and unseen surprises. I also discovered how easily my mind allowed me to go in uncharted directions, so consequently, my script’s direction changed. Initially I wanted my script to be a conceptual description of dialogue and action, but ultimately it became a shell for a complex production.

Documentaries, just like books and feature films, have an intended audience. I wanted people to feel sentimental about my family’s history, but I also wanted them to seek answers within themselves. Before writing this thesis I read a book called They Say I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Berkenstein. Chapter seven of the book is entitled “So what? Who cares? Saying Why It Matters,” describes what to do and not to do in regards to knowing your audience. It outlines the importance of your audience’s desire to learn about your subject matter and asks them to consider your story about larger issues then your own. I believe I took this chapter quite literally by directing my audience to the importance of Cuba in the 1950s, I literally asked my audience- Why should people care about Cuba in the 1950s?

Films do not just consist of words

Along with writing an effective script for a specific audience, a documentary also consists of color and audio elements (in my case consisting of both voice-overs and music). Choosing the best way for a film to look and sound can be a daunting task. A typical scene involved a dozen decisions- “What should I wear? Can you hear me? Did I say that clearly? Do you think this sound is too up beat? Is there too much light, too many shadows? Should I raise the volume to a 12 or a 16?” I could go on forever. In the beginning of the film I wanted the audience to feel playful and interested in the film from the very beginning- striking, colorful images and engaging, toe-tapping audio made this possible.

How do you know what sounds to choose, when to speak and when to explore color? That I was not sure; when I heard the right song, when the scene satisfied me visually, and when I was content with a decision I had made, I just knew- there is no reason why. . . it just was. I listened to so many songs and I looked at hundreds of images. In the end I just chose the ones that most appealed to me and the message I wanted to convey. I wanted people to see my documentary and think each detail was a conscious effort on my part to tell them a memorable story about Cuba in the 1950s.

There are different approaches that can be adjusted in making audio and color successful companions to a story. Images, for example, shown traditionally, resemble somewhat of a slide-show. To give images a more film-like feel, movement is of vital importance. The key to accomplished eye pleasing movement is variation; sometimes an image needs to move to the left and sometimes a zoom in appears to make more of a statement. When I wanted to show my audience how important an image was, sometimes a freeze-frame was needed to place emphasis on what was being seen; this gave them a minute to consider their feelings. I also used the freeze-frame to interject humor or as a transition to another thought; music was also used in this way.

Music contributes life to colors and sounds. A song can make or break the mood a director is trying to convey to his or her audience. I found the lyrics and bass to be the most distinguishing parts of the appropriate songs. When I first introduced the audience to the film’s title for example, I choose the loud horns from the “Mambo Caliente,” this made my topic come alive. I wanted to get into the minds of my audience and fuel their interest through music. Sometimes this task was difficult when length came into consideration. Often a song was a bit too short or sometimes a bit too long for a scene. Because of this, a start-point or an end-point needed to be selected and determining on where the song needed to start or end was circumstantial. Fade-ins and fade-outs added to this dilemma at times but not on all occasions. When a song did not fit, sometimes it had to be modified or another song had to be selected. This was also the case with pre-selected video clips.

A visual or audio clip was sometimes stretched or modified to create the right kind of mood. In Part Two of my documentary, for example, the art was purposely timed on a four count and if the art was large it was given an eight count. The counts refer to the number of beats assigned to the rhythm of a song; traditionally in contemporary music, the beats are measured in fours (1-2-3-4). In this matter, there needed to be at least four counts of footage for a visual; moving footage is easier, but for an image four seconds can feel like an eternity. As the music played the visuals seemed to dance for the audience, which is in contrast to most wedding footage is so boring. Wedding footage is boring because it is not edited along with music and therefore the footage only becomes fun for the people who were personally involved.

Editing and organizing till the cows come home

Edit. Edit some more. And when you think you’re done, do it again. If I knew how many sleepless nights I would experience thinking about how I could have edited a scene differently I am not sure I would have made a documentary at all. The way scenes appeared on the computer was different from the way they appeared on the big screen. Sometimes I would play a scene, and it would appear to sound crisp and have clarity. I would then transfer the edited scenes to a DVD; only to discover that the vocals had a crackle sound to them and the music needed to be lowered or raised. Notes upon notes needed to be written to aid the editing process. I created an active storyboard for precisely this reason.

No matter how many handy apps are created to help a creator organize his/her own thought process, never underestimate the advantages of a great storyboard. I personally, used two storyboards. Each consisted of multi-colored index cards in both full and half sizes and arrows indicating the order of the scenes. The index cards were pinned so they could be easily arranged. The concept of a great storyboard is to arrange your ideas accordingly while seeing the entire picture at once. I bought five stacks of index cards and I used seven different colored highlighters as well as a variety of markers and pens. Color within my storyboard facilitated my organization; I assigned a certain color to distinguish certain components of the documentary. Every time I used a pink highlighter, for example, it was understood that the music for that scene had already been chosen.

In the editing process, consistency needs to occur. For a documentary to have audio and visual uniformity throughout, every detail needs to be considered. Every time words are written on the screen they need to have the same font as the previous scene. In my particular case, I chose Jellyka Estrya Handwriting, because it felt both personal and professional. I had a sticky note on my storyboard to remind me about my font. Other sticky notes were also created as reminders. I remembered to place the music during the background scenes during the introduction at -19.5 because once something worked, I wrote it down so I could repeat my previous success. To speed up this process I also created abbreviations for myself. Every time there was a freeze frame I wrote (FF), a title page (TP), no audio (NA), alternate audio (AA) or a sound clip (SC) on my storyboard so I did not have to write out all these concepts; abbreviations assisted with my organization and editing because they relieved unnecessary congestion on my storyboard.

I knew my documentary needed structure for the story to make sense and achieve fluidity. The introduction needed to hook the audience in immediately and it had to be carefully organized to achieve this goal. I chose pop culture to address my topic and asked the audience to “play a word game with me” in order to provide structure from the beginning of my documentary. The task appointed to the viewers was to hear a word and say the first thing that comes to their mind, once prompted, the word was of course Cuba. When I organized these critical scenes, I surveyed people to tell me “what was the first thing they thought of when they thought of Cuba.” The results were then displayed on the storyboard in groups to find similarities; these similarities became the pop culture scenes. These words were displayed on a carefully considered template to resemble old film; I choose this template to create a 1950s mood.

Each part of the documentary was distinguished by a title page, in particular a traveling donkey image with added movement. These title pages needed music – I chose a theme song from a popular Lucas Arts video game – and consistency. All of the font sizes, shadows and outer strokes of the letters needed uniformity and this was labeled on the storyboard as well. Such detail can stunt the expedience and lengthen the editing process.

Curiosity also prolongs the editing process. Sometimes I would see an image or a song that seemed fitting and I would wonder could I find something better if I changed my search criteria. When you type “map of Havana” in the search engine you obtain certain images; then you might type “city of Havana map” and suddenly you have entirely different images. This was frustrating because I felt like I was constantly editing my decisions just because I was curious if something could look better, half the time changing an image back to my previous selection.

Curiosity prolonged my editing process in another way as well. I would create a scene and become more curious about a topic then have to add something like a voice over in the scene – this made the details of the scene clearer to the viewer. At one point in our journey, Jim, Steve, Omar and I, went to a clothing store and shopped for a typical Cuban shirt. After completing the editing for my scene, I would watch it repetitively and wonder, “How much do I actually know about Cuban clothing?” I would then go back and re-edit my scene adding a voiceover to complete the scene and each voiceover needed to be researched, written, recorded, and then placed in the documentary.

 

Quality vs. quantity and deciding what fits

Deciding what to place in the documentary brought a set of challenges I did not anticipate. Sometimes I would find something so interesting but it just did not fit with my story. I learned two lessons about quality in a documentary. The first is that sometimes you have to look through hours of footage to find a quality shot of something. We took almost ten hours of footage and ten hours became less than one hour if you account for the images also within the documentary. The second lesson I learned is if something is boring or unrelated, it needs to be omitted.

I eliminated three scenes that I found extremely interesting from the film. They were called “the plans for progress scene,” “the Edgar footage” and “the bird analysis scene.” The “plans for progress” scene consisted of Omar’s mother-in-law talking about a bridge. When I asked her, “did Cuba have any plans for progress?” she responded with a story about how she had heard the French had intentions of building a bridge from Cuba to Miami. I remember thinking, “wow a bridge to get to Cuba from the United States- that would be truly amazing.” I decided that although this was an interesting rumor not only could I find no evidence of such a plan, but I was also off topic as I was asking them about their social lives. Unless all citizens in the 1950s built bridges it did not affect them as of yet; therefore, it needed to be cut.

“The Edgar footage” was also cut but for different reasons. When I was in the park taking footage of a Jose Marti memorial what we thought was an obnoxious teenager kept interrupting my audio, both mocking me and screaming, “Viva Cuba!” At first I played off my discontent with his rude interruptions with laughter, slightly giggling, “hey man do you mind. . . we are filming.” We then realized he was not a teenager at all but, probably in his thirties. He inquired what we were filming about and I told him Cuba in the 1950s. He explained that he just recently came to Miami from Cuba and that he might be able to offer insight on that time period. We filmed him just in case, even though we knew he was barely thirty because we thought, “you never know what we might get,” from a willing interview. His story was fascinating because he discussed life under the Castro regime. The problem was that his story was too political and I was not going there.

The last scene, “The Bird Analysis Scene.” I wanted to include because I felt it described my grandfather well and it also made me understand him as a person. My Uncle spoke about a business transaction my grandfather conducted in regards to exotic birds. Apparently, my grandfather made a great bargain for some birds and gave a bunch to the neighborhood, keeping one for the family as well. One day they thought the bird escaped, but it just flew into a guava tree in the backyard; from then on it made that tree its home. When my uncle left Cuba, he left that bird behind, and briefly he muttered, “maybe that’s why I like birds so much.” It was a great line and a moment of great self- discovery. The problem was the story was delivered slowly and it had gaps- it took forever to finally conclude. This scene was cut because of its “long winded” delivery.

I wanted my characters to be people of quality. The tricky part about creating dynamic characters is to make them likable but also a little strange. When I introduced Omar, for example, I chose to exhibit his strange but likeable qualities by using a western song that is typical for the comedic saloon villain’s entrance. To show a strange character I played footage with a voice over. I selected his exotic bird collection and all of the various guns he owns as footage to display him as a collector. In order to add likeability to Omar, I choose a comedic clip where I tease the cameraman explaining that, “Omar is like the mayor, he will talk to anyone.” Throughout the documentary, Omar and I were the primary characters. Showing art and footage with Omar involved gave my documentary a friendly tone, especially because Omar is a large man with a mustache. To re-emphasize my friendly qualities, sometimes I would dance or make a funny face.

In a documentary, the funny footage not meant to be used was extremely useful. Sporadically in our trip I would naturally react to a situation or moment in my own way. I realize, that compared to the average person, I indulge in funny facial expressions and random dance moves more often then the general population. At on point during filming we noticed chickens walking down the street. I thought it would be funny to chase them for a moment. I know that chasing chickens has absolutely nothing to do with 1950s Cuba. Although I was aware of this notion, I knew it had to be included because I found it hilarious. Incorporating random fun footage allowed the audience to feel as if they were taking a journey rather just than watching a film.

It was bizarre to find out that when I conducted the interviews, some people talked about the same things; I added a humor element by stressing this to the audience. Television, new cars, and education were hot topics to many interviews. Identifying the other key topics was in particular, very trying to the editing process. The only solution to remembering everything that happened was to watch all of the interviews again and take notes. I burned the footage after dumping the camera’s memory card, from the computer, to a DVD. I proceeded to bring my portable DVD player wherever I went and I literally re-watched all of the footage. Each interview had its own index card or set of index cards depending on the length of the interview, they were labeled with the people according to personalities, not names. Addressing people by their personalities made the editing process easier because it helped avoid confusion. If I mentioned, “the guy with the police story,” instead of, “Juan Garcia,” my editor knew which footage I was referring to. Even though my interviews were organized and edited, sometimes they were just too boring to be included.

Making footage interesting and exciting

If footage seems dull and indifferent, changing the viewpoint, interjecting images and adding voice over humor, can really add excitement. For the major interviews such as Omar, Nora (Omar’s mother-in-law), and my parents, there were two cameras. The reason you film a scene with two cameras is to create an illusion of conversation. One camera will film me talking to the camera while the other will show the both of us. Another method to change a viewpoint is to zoom in on faces at emotional moments. There were conversations that made people in a sense “light-up;” for example, when we asked Nora about music, she said that she used to love to dance and she was skinny because of it. This created a visual for the audience- they literally pictured Nora dancing as a young teenager; to enhance this visual an image of a personal photograph was interjected.

Interjecting an image during an interview can make a powerful statement; the right image reinforces that the story really happened. While Nora was talking about herself when she was young, I placed an image next to the footage of her interview in the form of a personal photograph. When my parents talked about their lives and memories- images of their stories were interjected so the audience felt as though they had experienced the events as they occurred. A visual interjection does not always have to be a personal photograph; sometimes it can be a photograph taken of a monument or an object or even a silent clip. When I filmed the scene where I was explaining about a Cuban sandwich to the audience, the footage was of me eating a sandwich. Although I eat a pretty impressive sandwich, the visual of my consumption gets old. In this case, I interjected footage of the waitress, the café, and photographs of Cuban cafes, sugar mills, and cigar factories.

Adding a voice over for humor can make for quality footage. It can be as simple as interjecting a joke, like when my father said, “My name is Jose Yvonnet, I am Erica’s father . . . very proud.” I interjected a voice over a freeze frame claiming, “My dad is adorable.” Voice-overs can also be effective when they are used for transitions. For example, when the doctor discusses how the University of Havana was free, I interjected with. “Free? Like free? Wish I could say the say thing about my university; which reminds me . . . .” This is when I transitioned into my Kean University footage. Everywhere we went people wanted to know why I was making this film. Originally they thought we were a television crew and apparently I look close enough to be mistaken for a Cuban celebrity. When I told them it was for Kean University some of them said, “Oh, hello, Kean University.” I decided to change my approach of extracting answers by capturing three of these on film.

Quality footage can be obtained because perspective on boring footage often evolves. As the editing process continued and my goal to obtain quality footage evolved as well. I tried new ways to display the footage each time. When I displayed Omar’s likable but strange characteristics for example, to transition between footage I said, “We should make this presentation seem like a case study.” I obtained a picture of a typewriter suggesting it should display the nicknames. It just was not a quality scene. In order to make it a quality scene, I interjected the letters of the nicknames one at a time with a typewriter audio playing simultaneously. This scene, in my opinion, was a valuable scene after these factors were added during the evolving editing process. But of course they took time.

It takes time to make a quality documentary. A small change can take hours and hours worth of footage can become seconds of actual viewing time. I cannot express how many times we repeated the phrase, “In ten minutes we will break for food.” Coffee and hamburgers were often eaten cold and late night drives became even later. In addition to the Florida trip, the editing time took days. We began on a Friday night and completed editing on the next Sunday night, making the final editing time: ten very long days and nights. After viewing the rough copy that I was going to give to my professor, I still needed to make sound changes- time is never the film-maker’s friend. If there was no end of the semester deadline, I think I would have returned to Miami and re-taped some footage.

 

How will others feel about my documentary

Showing this documentary to others is a sensitive topic for me. I have watched so many documentaries, read so many books, highlighted so many index cards, and made so many coffee runs at two in the morning that I take criticism personally. I do not want to be so sensitive of what people say or think about what I have created because I know it could ultimately be helpful. My friend Tom saw the documentary and he suggested adding subtitles to some of the interviews; while this is something that might make the viewing more enjoyable, there just are not enough hours in the day. Sometimes it was absolutely necessary to change parts of the documentary based on people’s feedback. For example, my friend asked, “What is in a Cuban sandwich?” It was then we interjected the voice over explaining the sandwich’s components.

After viewing the documentary, I needed it to address if my thesis was defined- did I truly examine Cuba in the 1950s on a social level? My objectives included educating the audience about 1950s Cuba and discovering my ancestry through the process. In the end, I felt like I had both taught something and learned something as well. I taught the audience about the country, the culture, and the people, and I learned about my past. This truly was one of the most rewarding experiences in my entire life.

12 thoughts on “My First Film (Work on Trying)

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