Producing “Carousel!” – My first documentary

Producing my first documentary was indeed a learning experience. I played all the roles in the production: researcher, writer, narrator, cameraman, stills photographer, image editor, special effects tech, sound technician, film editor, and director/producer. It was really interesting to see the sphere of influence each of these roles has and how to blend one role with another without losing the integrity of the role’s process.

I had chosen to document the Carousel at our Burlington City Park amusement area. This is a historic hand-carved carousel dating back to approximately 1906-1910. In the early 1980s it was completely overhauled, repaired, and repainted mostly by volunteers in service organizations and from our community. It remains a wonderful testimony to the wonderful work done both by the original artisans in the Dentzel Carousel Company of Germantown, PA as well as to the loving restoration done by the Burlington area volunteers.

Initially research and writing drove the project. I have been familiar with the Carousel since I moved to Burlington in the mid-1980s and had even taken photos of it back then, but I really did not know a lot about its back story. Needless to say, the Internet became my first line of research. I began working on the narration document and added appendices providing links to sources, images, and video that I located. As I located images and video resources in various archives, I investigated their provenance and determined if they were public domain, licensed under Creative Commons, or fully copyrighted. Those that were copyright sparked off contact with their owners requesting permission to use and any that granted their explicit permission were released for use within the documentary.

Since this project was a self-financed, Creative Commons, non-profit production, the budget allocated for it was shoestring at best. Thus I was not in any position to pay royalties for use of images. I did have to pay for small items (e.g. The North Carolina Archives has a nominal fee to retrieve and provide an image) but this was very acceptable.

Anyway, as the research progressed, I started to learn the back story of the Dentzel family. I had already contacted our City Park staff requesting access and permission to video the Carousel, and they had provided me with the contact name of the person who headed up the restoration process. Dianne Vaught was a tremendous source in that she had not only worked on the carousel’s restoration, but had also documented the process and its history. She knows the living Dentzels and had even interviewed several of them. Additionally, in a parallel research project, I had located and had some dialog with William Dentzel III who currently hosts the existing Dentzel Carousel website (http://www.dentzel.com/). I was able to retrieve several images through him as well as some historical information about the family and the company.

Leap-frogging around the Internet following lead after lead led me to the National Carousel Association’s archives (http://nationalcarousel.org/). The friendly researchers there were able to dig up an image of the old Dentzel workshop for my use.

After discovering that the Dentzel family emigrated to the Philadelphia area in the mid 1800’s and knowing that Burlington also had its roots in the same time period, I decided that the direction for my documentary was to present the growth of the Dentzel enterprise and the growth of Burlington as two distinct tributaries that crossed paths in 1948 when Burlington purchased the carousel. Both stories demonstrate the power of the “American Dream” where those with a vision and a willingness to work on that vision can grow successful.

My research about Burlington led me to the kind folks over at the Alamance County Chamber of Commerce (http://www.alamancechamber.com/). They were able to provide a large number of photos that documented the growth of the town and the county. Many folks forget that their local Chamber of Commerce is a virtual treasure-trove of information. I was also assisted by the kind folks at the Alamance County Historic Society (http://www.alamancemuseum.org/) who produced scanned images of Burlington around 1900-1906, the exact time period when our carousel was being created! Other sources of solid research included the Smithsonian’s archives, the Library of Congress, the North Carolina State Archives, and the Internet Archive (http://archive.org).

Over time, I gathered many images and even some old public domain carousel video. I also by this time had acquired enough information to be able to write the script and based upon this script I could then go to the carousel itself and shoot A-roll footage. I opted to shoot at a 24fps and to produce everything in this mode to keep everything feeling “filmic.” I was able to shoot this over the course of a weekend. At the same time, I continued reaching out to sources for permission to publish other images for use as B-roll and even some A-roll usage.

As the director/producer I had formulated the five major sections of the documentary. It needed to be interesting and educational in nature so I opted to include a section describing the origins of the modern-day carousel as well as section describing the parts of the carousel. The other sections would document the Dentzel family, introduce Burlington, and then focus ultimately on the actual carousel itself.

The key to producing a documentary (or really, any film) is having enough supporting footage. Footage comes in as actual filmed footage, still images, and animated or special effect segments. In something historic like this, I had a rather large number of stills but far less video footage. A lot of the stills also were of subpar quality. I had to bring all my Photoshop skills to bear to restore old images and to de-moiré dotty newspaper and web images. In order to add interest to some of the images, I also used Photoshop to split into layers which could then be animated using After Effects. Another way to add interest to stills was to use a Ken Burns effect in the editing phase in Premiere Pro.

The script remained somewhat fluid early on but it gelled as the time to prepare the narration track approached. Even so, there
were a few additional pieces of information that did make it into the script and which required re-recording of small sections. Ultimately, I can see how this is a crucial stage in project development since one would not pay talent to come in repeatedly to do retakes of narration.

Initially, I had thought about doing some interviewing but I opted to not do so since it would have been lopsided (more interview footage in the latter part of the video than in the first part) and I could not think of a feasible way to introduce the interviewees early on in the documentary. I am planning on a follow up that is more person-centric and I believe that this second documentary will be heavy on the interview style of reportage.

A part of the research was to locate and prepare music for the soundtrack as well as to accumulate sound effects. In some cases, the sound effects had to be prepared from scratch or extracted from video footage as background. Effects then needed to be combined and prepared to support video segments.

The basic flow could be boiled down as follows:

  • Research
  • Document
  • Script
  • Prepare effects
  • Shoot footage
  • Prepare sound
  • Pre-edit video
  • Prepare credits
  • Find additional footage to fill in gaps
  • Finalize video and add soundtrack

I appreciated working with this project since it actually forced me to spend some quality time with After Effects. Of all the tools I used, it is the one with which I was least familiar. By the way, I have to give a shameless plug for Lynda (http://www.lynda.com). Its online training is high-quality and indespensible for getting someone from zero to sixty in 3 seconds flat! The subscription rate is not horrible but only makes sense if you are actively using it. Anyway, long story short, I feel a lot more comfortable with getting things done in AE and this has been a good foundation to start on.

The final version is on my Vimeo site. It is just over 16 minutes long (I had planned it to be around 15-20 minutes). Please sit back, slap it on full screen, and enjoy!

Click the image above or here

The video is also on YouTube if you prefer. Click here if you prefer YouTube to Vimeo.

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About claforet

I have been photographing since my college days. My current gear is a Nikon D-700 along with a plethora of lenses, and always tote an Olympus point-and-shoot digital camera attached to my hip. My first serious camera was a Canon EF back in the early 80s. A Canon A-1 soon followed. Since then, I also have had a Minolta Maxxum, Nikon FM, Nikon F4, and Nikon Point and Shoot in my film days. I have had and maintained a private full color and B&W lab on and off for much of that time. My photos can be found at http://www.ipernity.com/home/chrislaforet Photography and painting are my "sanity breaks" that save me from my day-to-day software development existence! I host a group in Facebook called "Painting as a Second Language" for anyone who is interested in painting as an outlet for the day-to-day pressures. Please look it up and join if you think it will meet your needs. Recently, I have also branched into the video world and am learning how to shoot video better and how to edit compelling video sequences. My learning experiences will be part of this blog and my videos can be seen at http://www.vimeo.com/claforet I live in, and photograph mostly around, North Carolina. I love traveling so there are many shots from states around us, out West, and other places. My daughter has been bitten by the photography bug too. She has spent time in a B&W lab and loves the excitement generated by just the smell of the chemicals. Maybe one day she will take over where I leave off....
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