Tag Archives: documentary

Bringing the documentary Long Live Benjamin to life

The New York Times Op-Docs recently debuted Long Live Benjamin, a six-part episodic documentary directed by Jimm Lasser (Wieden & Kennedy) and Biff Butler (Rock Paper Scissors), and produced by Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment.

The film focuses on acclaimed portrait artist Allen Hirsch, who, while visiting his wife’s homeland of Venezuela, unexpectedly falls in love. The object of his affection — a deathly ill, orphaned newborn Capuchin monkey named Benjamin. After nursing Benjamin back to health and sneaking him into New York City, Hirsch finds his life, and his sense of self, forever changed by his adopted simian son.

We reached out to Lasser and Butler to learn more about this compelling project, the challenges they faced, and the unique story of how Long Live Benjamin came to life.

Long Live Benjamin

Benjamin sculpture, Long Live Benjamin

How did this project get started?
Lasser: I was living in Portland at the time. While in New York I went to visit Allen, who is my first cousin. I knew Benjamin when he was alive, and came by to pay my respects. When I entered Allen’s studio space, I saw his sculpture of Benjamin and the frozen corpse that was serving as his muse. Seeing this scene, I felt incredibly compelled to document what my cousin was going through. I had never made a film or thought of doing so, but I found myself renting a camera and staying the weekend to begin filming and asking Allen to share his story.

Butler: Jimm had shown up for a commercial edit bearing a bag of Mini DV tapes. We offered to transfer his material to a hard drive, and I guess the initial copy was never deleted from my own drive. Upon initial preview of the material, I have to say it all felt quirky and odd enough to be humorous; but when I took the liberty of watching the material at length, I witnessed an artist wrestling with his grief. I found this profound switch in takeaway so compelling that I wanted to see where a project like this might lead.

Can you describe your collaboration on the film?
Lasser: It began as a director/editor relationship, but it evolved. Because of my access to the Hirsch family, I shot the footage and lead the questioning with Allen. Biff began organizing and editing the footage. But as we began to develop the tone and feel of the storytelling, it became clear that he was as much a “director” of the story as I was.

Butler: In terms of advertising, Jimm is one of the smartest and discerning creatives I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I found myself having rather differing opinions to him, but I always learned something new and felt we came to stronger creative decisions because of such conflict. When the story of Allen and his monkey began unfolding in front of me, I was just as keen to foster this creative relationship as I was to build a movie.

Did the film change your working relationship?
Butler: As a commercial editor, it’s my job to carry a creative team’s hard work to the end of their laborious process — they conceive the idea, sell it through, get it made and trust me to glue the pieces together. I am of service to this, and it’s a privilege. When the footage I’d found on my hard drive started to take shape, and Jimm’s cousin began unloading his archive of paintings, photographs and home video on to us, it became a more involved endeavor. Years passed, as we’d get busy and leave things to gather dust for months here and there, and after a while it felt like this film was something that reflected both of our creative fingerprints.

Long Live Benjamin

Jimm Lasser, Long Live Benjamin

How did your professional experiences help or influence the project?
Lasser: Collaboration is central to the process of creating advertising. Being open to others is central to making great advertising. This process was a lot like film school. We both hadn’t ever done it, but we figured it out and found a way to work together.

Butler: Jimm and I enjoyed individual professional success during the years we spent on the project, and in hindsight I think this helped to reinforce the trust that was necessary in such a partnership.

What was the biggest technical challenge you faced?
Butler: The biggest challenge was just trying to get our schedules to line up. For a number of years we lived on opposite sides of the country, although there were three years where we both happened to live in New York at the same time. We found that the luxury of sitting was when the biggest creative strides happened. Most of the time, though, I would work on an edit, send to Jimm, and wait for him to give feedback. Then I’d be busy on something else when he’d send long detailed notes (and often new interviews to supplement the notes), and I would need to wait a while until I had the time to dig back in.

Technically speaking, the biggest issue might just be my use of Final Cut Pro 7. The film is made as a scrapbook from multiple sources, and quite simply Final Cut Pro doesn’t care much for this! Because we never really “set out” to “make a movie,” I had let the project grow somewhat unwieldy before realizing it needed to be organized as such.

Long Live Benjamin

Biff Butler, Long Live Benjamin

Can you detail your editorial workflow? What challenges did the varying media sources pose?
Butler: As I noted before, we didn’t set out to make a movie. I had about 10 tapes from Jimm and cut a short video just because I figured it’s not every day you get to edit someone’s monkey funeral. Cat videos this ain’t. Once Allen saw this, he would sporadically mail us photographs, newspaper clippings, VHS home videos, iPhone clips, anything and everything. Jimm and I were really just patching on to our initial short piece, until one day we realized we should start from scratch and make a movie.

As my preferred editing software is Final Cut Pro 7 (I’m old school, I guess), we stuck with it and just had to make sure the media was managed in a way that had all sources compressed to a common setting. It wasn’t really an issue, but needed some unraveling once we went to online conform. Due to our schedules, the process occurred in spurts. We’d make strides for a couple weeks, then leave it be for a month or so at a time. There was never a time where the project wasn’t in my backpack, however, and it proved to be my companion for over five years. If there was a day off, I would keep my blades sharp by cracking open the monkey movie and chipping away.

You shot the project as a continuous feature, and it is being shown now in episodic form. How does it feel to watch it as an episodic series?
Lasser: It works both ways, which I am very proud of. The longer form piece really lets you sink into Allen’s world. By the end of it, you feel Allen’s POV more deeply. I think not interrupting Alison Ables’ music allows the narrative to have a greater emotional connective tissue. I would bet there are more tears at the end of the longer format.

The episode form sharpened the narrative and made Allen’s story more digestible. I think that form makes it more open to a greater audience. Coming from advertising, I am used to respecting people’s attention spans, and telling stories in accessible forms.

How would you compare the documentary process to your commercial work? What surprised you?
Lasser: The executions of both are “storytelling,” but advertising has another layer of “marketing problem solving” that effects creative decisions. I was surprised how much Allen became a “client” in the process, since he was opening himself up so much. I had to keep his trust and assure him I was giving his story the dignity it deserved. It would have been easy to make his story into a joke.

Artist Allen Hirsch

Butler: It was my intention to never meet Allen until the movie was done, because I cherished that distance I had from him. In comparison to making a commercial, the key word here would be “truth.” The film is not selling anything. It’s not an advertisement for Allen, or monkeys, or art or New York. We certainly allowed our style to be influenced by Allen’s way of speaking, to sink deep into his mindset and point of view. Admittedly, I am very often bored by documentary features; there tends to be a good 20 minutes that is only there so it can be called “feature length” but totally disregards the attention span of the audience. On the flip side, there is an enjoyable challenge in commercial making where you are tasked to take the audience on a journey in only 60 seconds, and sometimes 30 or 15. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed being in control of what our audience felt and how they felt it.

What do you hope people will take away from the film?
Lasser: To me this is a portrait of an artist. His relationship with Benjamin is really an ingredient to his own artistic process. Too often we focus on the end product of an artist, but I was fascinated in the headspace that leads a creative person to create.

Butler: What I found most relatable in Allen’s journey was how much life seemed to happen “to” him. He did not set out to be the eccentric man with a monkey on his shoulders; it was through a deep connection with an animal that he found comfort and purpose. I hope people sympathize with Allen in this way.


To watch Long Live Benjamin, click here.

Casimir Nozkowski: The challenges of editing a foreign-language doc

This English-speaking editor took on the Japanese-language in The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere.

By Kristine Pregot

I had the opportunity to reconnect with director, writer, producer and editor Casimir Nozkowski twice this year — first at Sundance and again at SXSW. Nozkowski edited the short documentary The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere, which played at both festivals this year, and recently aired as part of ESPN Films’ 30 For 30 series.

The short is a unique story about a Japanese racehorse named Haru Urara, who became a nationally celebrated hero and symbol of perseverance while enduring one of the biggest losing streaks in racehorse history.

Casimir Nozkowski

Nozkowski and I used to spend a lot of time together in the hallways of 11 Penn Plaza in NYC where he was a writer/producer for AMC and IFC promos, while I managed the post production of FUSE Networks. So it was great catching up with him and interviewing him about his work on this piece.

The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere is such a sweet little documentary. How did you get involved with the project?
Mickey Duzyj, the doc’s director and animator, asked me to edit it. Mickey pitched me the story of Haru Urara — a Japanese racehorse that lost all its races — and told me he wanted to make a documentary about her story and use animation to take it to the next level. I said, “Hell, yeah, let’s do that.”

As a former Yankee fan, I had grown weary of celebrating only the winningest winners, and I loved the idea of examining a “loser’s” experience — how the horse was still noble and still tried hard and this helped people identify with her.

Have you worked with the director before on other projects?
I cut his first film, The Perfect 18, which was nominated for an Emmy and also a Webby for editing. It was about a professional putt-putt player named Rick Baird who shot a perfect 18 —a.k.a. 18 hole-in-ones — in a tournament. Rick and his fellow golfers walked us through each hole. It was also mostly animated, which is a great weapon for an editor. Anytime you’re lacking a transition or some b-roll, you can put in a request for some animation and voilà, smooth sailing. Mickey’s animation is fantastic.

Getting back to Shining Star, how do you edit a film that was completely spoken in Japanese? How did that work with your edit workflow?
I’d actually never cut a film in a language other than English, and that made this film one of the hardest editing jobs I’ve ever had. But it was also a challenge I was excited to take on… and I had a lot of great support.

First of all, Mickey and Mona Panchal (the film’s producer) found this transcription software called InqScribe that was essential to our process. It allowed our primary translators Yurina Ko and Jin Yoshikawa to screen the interviews, plug in timecode to each line and then create a file in InqScribe that I could bring into Adobe Premiere (our editing software) and use to generate synced up subtitles! I actually couldn’t believe how well it worked. They did a great job on the translation, but I couldn’t believe the subtitles landed so seamlessly in the right spots, more or less, in our interview sequences. You’d have to go in and reformat them and do a little polishing but basically it was all right there.

Having said that, subtitles were still going to take up a huge amount of time, and that was something I had to get used to. I had to spend a bunch of days getting everything ready to evaluate it, so next time I’ll know to consider a bit more time on the prep end when working in a foreign language. On the plus side, once they’re in, you can quickly scan sequences because you don’t have to listen to audio each time; you can see the subtitles and plug them into pods or assemblies pretty quickly once you get a good rhythm going.

What did you learn from editing the project?
I learned a lot about Kochi, a small city in Japan. And I learned a lot about horse racing. And I learned a lot about Haru Urara — an incredible horse, now retired from racing and hopefully not too upset about never winning. I just learned a ton about editing a foreign language documentary. As I describe above, it was challenging. But I’m very proud of the end results. And our subjects were great — very generous with their answers and reflections.

Also, this was my first time really editing in Premiere. I had done a few small projects with Premiere, but this was the first beast I edited on it, so there was a lot of learning in that process. But it was great. I never had to render anything, I combined a lot of media formats in one timeline and really felt great about it. Still, I had to learn a few moves because before this I was primarily a Final Cut editor, but now that I’ve come out the other side post-Shining Star, I’m pretty high on Premiere.

The illustration and design were such a beautiful way to help tell the story. Can you explain how this was conceptualized?
Mickey Duzyj could speak a bit more to this, but the plan all along was to rely heavily on his art as a way to cover a subject where there might not be as much archival or the kind of archival we wanted.

There was footage shot of Haru — the horse — especially in her biggest race where she’s ridden by the great jockey Yutaka Take. We did use that footage to ground the story a bit, but that footage is also shot in a kind of medium, flat way that covers the whole race. We wanted to be able to look at the fans in the stands, the horses racing from different angles — we wanted to look into Haru’s eyes and speculate on how she felt. That’s the beauty of animation, especially Mickey’s incredibly elegant, emotive drawings — it lets you step further into a scene and evoke the feeling and stakes of these races. It lets you take what you know about Haru and tease out her character and personality.

Plus, for races where there was no footage (which was the great majority) we could use Mickey’s art to show scenes where we knew what happened, but didn’t know exactly what they looked like. Like when the prime minister comments on Haru. Or her legend causing a boom in merchandise sales. Or one of the times when Haru came in third place! She didn’t always lose spectacularly. She actually came close to winning a few times, and I’m glad we got to show that in the film.

What was your biggest challenge in the post process for you? The language issue?
I’m so used to working in English and being able to work a little editing magic on interviews where you’re not changing what someone’s saying but you’re able to kind of speed them up or help them say something more efficiently. With our subjects speaking Japanese, and the sentence structures being a bit different, I was often just guessing on which words I did or didn’t need to make a succinct point. I was often wrong. Doh! But luckily our translators were really with us throughout the process and kept us in the clear.

Nice Shoes was very happy to collaborate with you on your new short doc, IDAC. Can you tell our readers about this short?
I wrote and directed a short documentary that’s a very strange little story. Officially, it’s about a mysterious relative and her parallel life to mine and how and why I never met this relative — even though we were in close proximity to each other for over a decade. But really, it’s an examination of figuring something out and how sometimes figuring something out can happen in a flash of understanding or slowly dawn on you over years. That is to say, it’s a documentary about a very un-cinematic thing — a feeling — which I tried to make in a very cinematic, visual way. I like movies like that.

This is not a comparison, but it’s why I love movies like The Social Network, an incredibly cinematic, thrilling movie that’s actually about a website launching. Again, not a comparison to my movie, which is five minutes long and about a cool cousin of mine. I’m just saying I like subjects that aren’t immediately cinematic when you think of them. Nice Shoes did the color on IDAC, which looks phenomenal. I hadn’t been sure I’d do a color grade for it but then it got into Hot Docs and I’m so glad I worked with you and Phil Choe — he’s a genius colorist (who works on FilmLight Baselight). Phil really made it pop off the screen in my opinion.

What is next for you, personally?
I have a documentary crew called the Internets Celebrities and we just launched a website for our docu-series The Food Warriors, where we take the A train in New York City and get off at every stop and ask people where the best place to eat is. The website is thefoodwarriors.com. I directed the episodes and co-created the series with the hosts, Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam (who programmed the website) and a bunch of wonderful people (Bryan Galatis, Jesse Brown, Humu Yansane, Aaron S. Brown, to name just a few).

I’m also working on developing a fictional feature film and some new shorts, which will ultimately wind up at casimirnozkowski.com And last but not least, I’m on the board of Rooftop Films and we’re about to celebrate our 20th anniversary this summer in New York City. It’s going to rock. Come see some movies!

Kristine Pregot is a senior producer at New York City-based Nice Shoes.


Helping color Kurt Cobain’s world for ‘Montage of Heck’

Company 3’s Shane Harris works with director Brett Morgen on this new documentary

Director Brett Morgen spent eight years putting together the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which tells the fascinating and tragic story of the Nirvana front man in a very intimate way via never-before-heard recordings and animations based on his mostly unseen drawings. There are also very personal home movies and interviews Morgen did with the artist’s mother, band mates, friends and wife, Courtney Love. The film played at the Tribeca Film Festival, had a limited theatrical release and is currently on HBO.

For Company 3 (@company3) colorist Shane Harris, who also worked with Morgen on the director’s Rolling Stones doc, Crossfire Hurricane, the sessions were particularly fascinating and rewarding both because of his longtime interest in Nirvana’s music and because of Morgen’s strong appreciation of the role color can play in telling a story, even in a documentary.

Shane and Morgen

L-R: Director Brett Morgen and colorist Shane

There are so many elements to the film — interviews, the animations, Cobain’s personal audio diary. As a fan of the music, what did you think when you first saw the film?
I knew from working with Brett Morgen on Crossfire Hurricane that he wouldn’t approach anything about the film in a standard documentary fashion. When I saw the film, I found it fascinating like so many people who’ve seen it have. It’s very powerful the way he uses the audio and the animations and all the elements to tell the story.

I think it’s fair to say that people generally don’t think about color grading documentaries the way they do about narrative features. In a narrative the director and DP might have developed different looks based on the script but a documentary seems more straightforward. Brett is really into the look and the color of every shot. I can’t speak for every documentary filmmaker but Brett is pretty rare in that way. A lot of times I’ll work with the clients and set looks for different scenes and then match everything to that. We worked very differently.

He’s interested in the flow of music, the cut and color. We played the music much louder than we normally would. He wanted to hear it the way it would be heard in the theater and then we’d try different approaches for every shot, whether it went from old VHS to animation to a recent interview. The idea was to tell the story. It was almost like painting.

Which of the elements was the most challenging to work with?
Probably the new material: the interviews. The story of Kurt Cobain obviously gets darker, in a figurative sense, as it goes into his addiction. He had already shot the interviews, especially with Courtney Love and Kurt’s mother, in a way that they got darker and darker as they talk about more painful aspects of the story. In the grading theater, we tried all kinds of different looks to help this idea. He shot Courtney in a plain white room and let the images go darker and darker. I built a window around her to knock down the walls and make it seem as if her environment was getting darker and darker. He shot the mom in a room with daylight coming through windows.

It looks pretty straightforward. But by the end, Brett referenced the films of Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, and we made the room dark, her face has a saturated orange-y look and it’s really about the only thing in the frame that you can see. We could have brightened it up if Brett wanted to but this is much more effective for telling the story.

Did you take the same approach with the animations?
Yes. You might think that in animation, the way the shots come in is the way they’re going to look. But that wasn’t the case. The animation (by artists Hisko Hulsing and Stefan Nadelman) was beautiful but we still went through and built some windows and made some corrections, primarily to guide the viewer’s attention to a particular portion of the frame.

What did you use for color grading, and how did that help get the looks you were after?
We use DaVinci Resolve for everything at Company 3. This was version 11. It’s not unique to this show by any means but I used a lot of Power Windows throughout the movie to track in changes — bring walls or windows down, drive your eye to one part of the frame, etc. A lot of times we’d track faces or just eyes, even within a lot of the material that wasn’t professionally shot like in home movies. There’s a super 8 movie of young Kurt riding in a little toy car and we wanted to give the whole shot an overall color to help tell the story but then I went back and tracked his face to pull back some of the more natural looking skin tone. These are things we do as colorists a lot but there was definitely quite a bit of it here. And it can be a little more challenging to keep it all organic looking when the original footage is Super 8 or VHS.

Was there one scene more challenging than others, or anything that you are most proud of on the piece?
I’m really very proud of the way we used color in the whole piece and that’s due in great part to Brett’s approach to every facet of the film. From a purely technical standpoint, I’d say the most challenging part was the interview with Krist Novoselic.

He wanted to do it in his house, and there’s glass everywhere. It was impossible to avoid catching a lot of distracting reflections. So I made a huge number of windows to keep it all natural looking while controlling the reflections. It’s not something you’d ever notice, but it was actually the biggest technical issue on the project.

It seems like this was a dream job for a colorist?
I feel very privileged to have worked with Brett on this as he is an amazing talent. It was an incredible opportunity to work on such a powerful film that blended so many different elements together so successfully.

——-

Images Courtesy of HBO

‘A Small Section of the World’: How this doc got its look and feel

Producer/director Lesley Chilcott called on DP Logan Schneider to capture the images she needed to tell this story.

By Randi Altman

Lesley Chilcott makes documentaries. Some as a producer, such as An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman and It Might Get Loud, and some as a producer and director, such as her latest, A Small Section of the World. The project is about a group of women in a remote part of Costa Rica who started a coffee mill… and a very successful one at that.

Chilcott got involved in the project when Greenlight Media and Marketing in Los Angeles told her about ASOMOBI (The Association of Women of Biolley) and their micro mill built on top of a hill in Costa Rica. They sell their beans to Italian coffee company Illy Cafe. “My Continue reading

Filmmaker Lesley Chilcott curating PGA doc series

By Randi Altman

Los Angeles — Lesley Chilcott, known for her work on documentary films such as the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth as well as It Might Get Loud and Waiting for Superman, has been curating the most recent Producers Guild of America (PGA) series in LA, called The Doc Club. Continue reading