On Being a Part-Time Filmmaker

I’m a part-time filmmaker.

What does that mean? Well, first I have a day job. There was a point in time when I quit my day job to try to produce episodic Christian TV content. It was well received, but didn’t pay. So I went back to a real job. So filmmaking isn’t where I make living.

Obviously, I’m also an independent filmmaker. I don’t work for a studio, or in the studio system. I don’t even work within the Christian studio system, such as it is. Instead, I make movies in my spare time. I make movies I want, but I have limited resources.

I work on movies in my spare time. I am currently 3 months behind in releasing my movie. Normally my projects are small, so I can do them quickly, in the time I have. But my current film is a feature project. It’s my first full-length feature, ever. And it’s been interesting.

My original goal was to release it by Christmas. Now, I’m working hard to release it before April. I’m close. Because I do this in my spare time, it’s hard to stay on a schedule. And the larger the project, the more that can delay you. Life is full of surprises. And no project will ever be more important than my family, so if I have to choose between them, the film loses out.

I cannot wait to release this movie. It’s the best work I’ve ever done. It’s a micro budget documentary, but the stories are good. If you have any interest in speech & debate, homeschooling or competition in general you will enjoy it. I want people to see it.

I can’t believe I’m almost done. I’ve been working on this so long I can barely imagine not spending every weekend possible editing or shooting for this project. It’s been over a year and a half of my life. As of today, it’s been 613 days since I got permission to shoot the documentary. Add another couple of months of work before that, getting ready, pitching the project, etc… That’s a long time.

Part-time filmmakers have to do most things themselves. I’m hiring out the closed captioning, but everything else in post production I’ve done myself. People say you shouldn’t edit your own films. I’d love to have that option. But because I’m part-time, independent and micro-budget, I do whatever I can. I would even do the captions, but it takes forever and I can get it done professionally for $1 a minute- or for $105 total for my film.

So the weight of the film rests completely on my shoulders. Because I value these stories, I’m doing whatever I can to tell them well. In the studio system, people specialize. They get very good at a small number of things, and work with a large group to make movies. But part-time filmmakers have to be decent at all aspects of filmmaking. We will have some things we are better at, but we have to do everything pretty well.

On the one hand, this is great because we retain complete creative control. On the other, it’s terrible because the parts of the process you are not good at are not done well. The reality is that no matter how hard we try, a one-man-band, part-time filmmaker probably won’t make an Oscar worthy film. That doesn’t mean it won’t be good, but there will be deficiencies. That stinks when you work as hard as we do.

The only thing we can do is tell our stories to the best of our ability. Stories that entertain, that inform, that inspire. They won’t be perfect, but they are important.

Which brings me to the last thing about being a part-time filmmaker, we tell stories we are passionate about. Whether through narrative or documentary, we have the freedom to pick and choose was we want to do. we don’t have to do a film to make a living. We can look for the right story, the one we want to spend our free time doing. When we take on a project it’s because we are passionate about it. If we aren’t, we will not finish it.

When I started my doc film, I was looking for a story I could tell with the resources I had available. I wanted to make a movie. And suddenly this idea popped into my head. I tried a proof of concept film, and then began work on the feature length idea. It is the largest film endeavor I have ever been involved in. But I love the stories of kids overcoming their hurdles and standing up to be judged. I loved the story about how experiences in speech & debate will inevitably impact students, and the world as the students go out- armed with the ability to think, research and communicate. And the kids are great. They are entertaining. I hope my work shows how compelling their lives were during this time.

I made “If My Judges Are ready?” because I loved the idea of it. And I wanted to share it. And when it’s done, I will be looking for the next story to tell… part-time.

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The 1-Man-Band Documentary Film: 6 Things To Think About Before You Begin

As I’m putting the finishing touches on my documentary film, I thought I would write a bit about the process of producing, directing, shooting, editing, promoting a 1-man documentary- primarily things you should think about before you begin.

1. Evaluate your resources and limitations before choosing a story to tell.

There are many reasons someone might choose to produce a doc film by themselves, but one of the main reasons is money. A niche-market film iike mine most likely won’t generate revenue to justify additional crew. It was shot on the smallest budget possible, in the most efficient way possible. That means some sacrifices were made. But it also means I could go places a full crew could ever go.

Much of my film happens during speech and debate competitions. I would not have had the access I did if I was not just one guy with a camera. So, while there are disadvantages and compromises to shooting alone, there can be advantages.

Consider your limitations when choosing a story. If you’re doing a micro budget film, with just you as the whole crew, there are some stories you cannot tell. You cannot fly across the world to shoot B roll. And you cannot shoot elaborate re enactments of events. But you can do a lot. Find a story you can tell within your limitations.

What do you have access to? Who do you know? What stores are local to you? What gear do you have? What technology can you employ to allow you to tell the story that interested you? Are you really interested enough in this story to do everything in order to tell it?

What do you know? Or what do you want to know more about? They say you should write what you know, and I think you should shoot what you either know well or really want to know well. You will be the driving force behind this story. If you are not passionate about the subject, if you don’t like the subject, you will not finish.

2. You’re alone.

The very first thing you have to understand is that you’re doing this, and no one is helping you. All preproduction tasks fall to you; location scouting, getting permissions and release forms, gear prep, shooting, editing, building an audience… it all lands squarely on your shoulders. Luckily, if you work at being organized, you can make it happen.

To be successful on the shoot you need to adopt a guerrilla style of filmmaking. Your rig should be small, and easy to manage. Lights will be limited, if you can use them at all. For many days of shooting I just had my Sony a6500 with a Rode Videomic Pro+ and Zoom H1 mounted on it. I carried a spare battery in my pocket. And a monopod with feet attached. That was it. Other times I knew I would be in the same general area doing a lot of impromptu interviews and I added a small 500 LED light panel on a stand.

There are some benefits to this. A large crew or set up can make people nervous which makes them less natural on camera. And, for many locations, getting permission to carry a single, mirrorless camera around was much easier than getting permission to have a full crew on site.

Plus, since you’re the producer and the editor, you know what shots you need. you will naturally shoot with the edit in mind. The shots you take will naturally fit into how you see the film.

3. You’re not alone.

As much as you have to do all the tasks, there will be people along the way who will help. They will donate money, they will offer resources, suggest interviews, and generally help out in some way. You can get so used to operating in 1-man-mode that you miss opportunities to let people who have caught the vision for your film into the process.

4. You’re limited.

You just are. You cannot have two camera ops at different places because it’s just you. You have to plan for and around the fact that you can only capture what you can capture. You only have the man-hours of one person. And if you’re doing a 1-man project then you likely have a day job to work around. You cannot go everywhere and shoot everything. You have limited gear and limited resources. So when planning and executing your film, you have to plan for that.

One way I did this was to purchase and use a short zoom lens. I knew that during debate and speech rounds i could not move to get another angle. And I could not have a second shooter in the room. I needed different shots, framed differently to use as B Roll and main footage. Since I didn’t have another camera operator in the room, I used a short zoom to vary the framing during the round. It’s not perfect but it worked.

5. There’s no excuse for quality.

The viewer doesn’t care how limited you are. If the film is bad, it’s bad. They won’t watch it, they won’t recommend it to others, and generally it will flop. You cannot put a disclaimer at the front of your movie explaining how little money and time you had and expect that to have any impact on their expectations.
Now, that doesn’t mean you have to shoot on a Red something or other, and look like a $100 million movie. But you need a good story, decent audio and decent video.

Most consumer cameras, even phones, can deliver decent video if used correctly. So use what you have, and learn how to use it well.

One thing people will not ignore is bad audio. Poor audio quality will make your video appear amateurish, no matter how good it looks. There are 3 scenes in my film that are critical to the story that have challenging audio. They were recorded before I had a good microphone. I have struggled in post production to make these usable. I cut them as short as possible. Used noise reduction, and generally tried to walk the line between too processed and usable.

But more important than audio or video is the story. The story has to be good. It has to be interesting, and succinct. The first time i showed my film to anyone outside my family, it was 2 hours and 5 minutes long. The bones of the story were good, but there were some long and boring parts. In the end i cut another 20 minutes. That’s almost the length of a sitcom. But the story needed to be shorter, needed to move the viewer along.

Not every documentary can follow the beats of a feature film. The hero’s journey, the Blake Snyder beats, the 5 major plot points- many movies have a generally established plot progression, something viewers are familiar with. My film actually follows them to some extent, but not every doc film can do that. But every story needs a beginning, middle and end. That’s non negotiable.

6. Since you’re the one making the movie, then you’re the only one holding yourself back.

This is key. You’re making you’re film. it will get started when you begin it. it will be as good as you can make it. It will get done when you finish it. It will be seen when you promote it.

You have the green light! You don’t have to ask a studio for permission. You can start pre production today.

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More Adventures in Doc Filmmaking

It’s been a year and a half of making my feature length Documentary called “If My Judges Are Ready?” It has been an experience. I’ve written about some of the process before.

Post Production has taken longer than expected. I’ve been working on this mainly on the weekends. And life always gets in the way, it seems. But I am closing in on the end. I want to release the film in the next few weeks/couple-of-months.

So I have been looking at distribution channels more. There are a couple I have relationships with that should be fairly easy. But the rest, I will need an aggregator or some help. I found FilmHub through a friend, and am looking at it pretty closely. No up front cost, just sharing revenue on the back end. Compared to other aggregators, that is way cheaper to get into. And this a niche market film, I hate to think about paying a lot to get placed on an outlet and never making the money back.

I have been looking at all of my licenses. I have been using Filmstro for music, which is awesome. I bought an annual license from them almost a year ago. I think it gave me enough clearances to use the three tracks in the film, but when I went back to check… the licenses had changed. Where I bought a “Personal/Freelance” license before, now they offer a “Pro” and “Pro Plus” licenses. The Pro level is where I was, but the terms don’t include things I need. So, if I can ever get them to send over the old document of licenses I can see if I need to spring for a one-month Pro Plus license. I may do that anyway and get the complete gamut of possible use, even theatrical and broadcast.

I really need a trailer now. I’ve started gathering clips I think would be good in one, but have not settled on the tone of that video yet. This is the full length trailer, not a teaser. I’m hoping to have it done this next week or so.

In the meantime here’s a teaser trailer I made several months ago:

Subtext vs Text in Video

Sub * text:
    The underlying or implicit meaning. A message which is not stated directly but can be inferred.
Subtext is the meaning beyond what is said or shown.
Take this snippet of Dialogue:
Man: Whats wrong?
Woman: Nothing, why do you ask?
On the surface the words mean one thing, but how the lines are delivered may change the meaning completely. If the woman is sarcastic, then we know there is a lot wrong. If the man in threatening and the woman fearful, then we see into their relationship beyond the words.

But subtext can be much more subtle. A candid moment may give a peek into a documentary subject’s state of mind. A beautiful setting juxtaposed with an account of a terrible tragedy provides contrasts to the horror of the story.

As a part of my job I have been involved in a lot of promotional videos. They have taken a lot of forms, but one thing is almost universally true: there was no subtext in them.

In a promotional video, everything is spelled out. You don’t want to leave anything to chance. You want to drive home the point, hit the call to action and get out.

But art is different. Movies and films are art, and art has subtext.

One of the major flaws in many Christian movies is that we eliminate the subtext, converting it to text. We tie it all up in a bow. Everything is fully explained, as though we are afraid someone will interpret the subtext incorrectly and fall into heresy. Non religious films or TV also can fall into this trap, although it’s normally accompanied by a heavy handed messages- like the ones in the CW DC Universe shows. The writers/directors/creators of this content are most concerned with people finishing the show with clear messages than allowing their work to speak for itself.

But that’s not art, it’s promotion or worse, propaganda. And audiences are smart. They see through it, see it for what it is. Audiences will put up with this, to some extent if they 1. agree with the messages, or 2. really like the characters or premise of the story. Audiences who do his will likely remember the message more than the art of the video.

So that’s the question: Are we promoting a message using story and video? Or are we telling a story about a subject and letting that story speak into the lives of those who experience it?

Are you making a promotional piece or art?

My 2018 In Review

The past year has had ups and downs.

In January Youtube dropped the hammer on casual creators. By August I gave up making tutorial videos on Youtube. I still think this was a dumb move on their part.

That was followed by Amazon lowering royalty rates for their AVD content. So, I pulled my series off Amazon (and off Youtube). I placed it on Christian Cinema. Both of those decisions cost me money. My first (and to date, only) royalty check from Christian Cinema was $0.74. That means no one is watching it… Even when the series was on Amazon I was making maybe $5 a month. But more people were watching it. Half of my reviews on Amazon were 1 star. The other half were 5 star. Oddly, It’s the same on Christian Cinema… Also oddly, you can still find new and used copies of the Peculiar DVD on Amazon.

But current film projects… Well those are moving along.

Did you know I made a short film? Yeah, it was part of a challenge someone told me about: Make of movie using only stock or public domain footage. I cheated a bit and used a VO. But chose to show the NASA Apollo 11 landing.

Meanwhile I was primarily focused on my feature length doc film. I completed production, which is major for any film. Then started down the new-to-me road of post production on a documentary. I made a paper edit, which was fun and productive. And have made several passes on the over all edit. We had a screening, which gave me great feedback.

The current edit is 1:50:40 in length, down from the first assembly of over 4 hours, down from the pre screening version of 2:05:00. It’s definitely a feature project. And the response so far has been very good.

I did not complete the film this year. I had some stuff happen, which I will go into later, but generally life happened and the release will happen sometime early next year.

At work we built a new website from the ground up. It took 9 months because we had to do it in between projects.

Pretty soon after that I started seeing doctors. I’ve seen more doctors in the last 3 months than I saw in the previous 10 years combined.

Generally, I’ve been blessed to be healthy. I had a few accidents, asthma as a kid, but over all, I have been healthy most of my life. Maybe that helped lull me into a false sense of security, and helped me fool myself into thinking I could live in an unhealthy manner without consequences.

This year in health, I threw out my back doing yard work- was down for 2 days. I went to the ER twice, back to back days, for high blood pressure events, which led me to the new pill/diet/exercise routine I am on now.

I lost 11 pounds of the weight I’ve gained over the last few years.

After all of this I developed persistent, unexplained, low-grade pain in my abdomen. After trying to treat it as an infection, I had a CT Scan.

Thank God, it wasn’t anything serious. Gall stones. There’s not a lot of treatment short of surgery, so before that happens I am continuing my diet and exercise routine, which at the least will help keep more from forming. And may shrink the ones there. A lot of people had gall stones their entire life. A lot of people have their gall bladder removed. I want to try to not have surgery.

Currently, I feel OK. Blood pressure is regulated, and I’m more active than I have been over the last few years. The movie is almost complete. Family has had some health challenges, but we are on the mend and doing well.

I imagine that like 2018, 2019 will have some good stuff and some bad stuff. But overall I expect it to be a good year! I’m praying for less health issues and more success with filmmaking in 2019!

How to Get a Warranty Repair From Dell: Public Shaming

Dell, like many electronics companies, does not like to repair your computer under warranty. Especially your laptops. People treat consumer electronics as consumables these days, and fixing your laptop for free costs them money, when they would rather you buy a new laptop, which makes them money.

This is the story of how my daughter’s 5-month old, less-than-$200 laptop almost cost $120 to repair, but eventually Dell stood by their product and repaired it under warranty.

My daughter, who was 12 at the time, had saved her money to buy a new laptop. She had just enough to buy an inexpensive netbook and a subscription to Office 365. She wanted to write, she’s thinking of becoming an author one day. We went to the local electronics store, and decided on a Dell. We chose Dell over some other brands because Dell was known to us.

For 5 months my daughter babied this computer. It was moved from her desk to our room every night. It was never dropped, bumped or mishandled. She took good care of it, better care than I took of my own laptop, which cost 5 times more.

So she comes to me with a broken hinge. It takes about 30 seconds to realize that dell has designed this laptop with metal screws going into less than 1/4 inch of plastic. 3 of the 4 pieces of plastic have snapped. Only one screw it holding. Every time she opens the laptop stress is placed on the screws. The brittle plastic could not stand up to the strain of normal use.

This is an obvious design flaw.

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See the small pieces of plastic on the small screws. That’s all that holds the screen onto the hinge.

So, I get on the dell website, and chat up a customer service rep. He has just told me the computer is under warranty, BUT his supervisor has told him the damage is physical damage and not covered under warranty. I have sent him pictures of the damage, and the case is perfect, not even a scratch. But the hinge is broken, both are really. I ask to have the supervisor get on the chat. He arranges a phone call.

A while later the supervisor calls. He starts to explain why broken hinged are considered physical damage. Starts with drops. I stop him and remind him there is no damage to the case, the computer has not been dropped. At this point he says the craziest thing: Sometimes opening and closing the laptop can cause physical damage. ???

I, politely, go off on him for a bit. First, laptops are designed to open and close. And my daughter did not mistreat this computer. This is an obvious sign flaw, or manufacturer defect in the plastic. Neither of which negates my warranty claim. He changes his tune and suddenly the repair will be covered.

The box arrives and I send it off. You might think this is the end, but if you know much about warranty repairs, you know there is another hurdle.

You see, even though the CS supervisor has ruled my repair under warranty, the same “physical damage” dodge is in effect for other employees. A few days later I got an email from the repair depot saying my repair would not be covered and would cost $120.

OK, here we go. Same dance all over again, but now they have the computer. i call the tech, who doesn’t answer. So I call the customer service line. I need an out of warranty repair reclassified as a warranty repair. Who can help me? I get transferred from one person t another and finally back to a lady who decides she will be the brick wall. She starts reading her script. I interrupt. I ask if she has the power to classify the repair. She says no, and to let her finish. I stop her again, and basically I’m told that no supervisor will help me. She will not transfer me, she will not help. I explain my conversation with the previous supervisor. She says I would need to talk to him. I ask to be transferred to him, and she refuses to transfer me.

Now, look, I’ve been polite, but direct, up to this point. But this is the last straw. This woman could transfer me, but she won’t. She is saying that Dell will not stand by its product. She is saying the even though I was promised an under warranty repair I won’t be getting one. I am done. I am over Dell.

I have one last thing to try, and that is public shaming via social media. I know that Dell has a couple of active twitter accounts. So I start telling my story, mentioning their accounts. Eventually I get a response.

Dell isn’t stupid. This screen bezel will cost them about $50 to replace. How many people do I have to drive away with my public complaints about their product to make it worthwhile to fix what should ahem already been fixed.

So I get in contact with one of the accounts. I DM them the whole story, start to finish with pictures. They go to work. The next day I’m told the repair is underway, for free. The days after that I get a shipment notification, the laptop is on the way back. We get it back and it is repaired and ready to go.

It should not be necessary to basically threaten the brand of a major corporation to get them to stand behind their products. But that was what it took to get my daughter’s laptop repaired. Will it break again in another 5 months? I don’t know, but for now its working fine.

We Built a New Website

This week we launched the new mobberly.org.

This has been a 9 month process. The old website was massive, and had become very dated in appearance and functionality. So we needed to updated it.

But we didn’t have a budget to hire a company to update it. So we decided to do it ourselves. Because we have other jobs, we knew it would take a while. Here’s the process we used.

1. In January we began tracking how people used our current website. We identified what people wanted to see. And we identified the content we thought was important that people were not seeing. We also found many pages that no one was visiting.

2. We also began talking with ministries, asking them to dream about their pages. We asked them to look at their content.

3. And we looked at other churches, looked at what they were doing on their websites.

We took a day to retreat and work through the data we had collected. We came up with a 2-fold purpose for our website, and 4 priorities to consider when making a new one.

The purpose of our site is to:
1. Help new people find out about our church
2. Be an Information hub for attenders

Our priorities were:
1. Mobile friendly
2. Guest friendly
3. East to navigate
4. Simple

65% of people visiting our website use a phone or tablet. So a responsive site is critical for us. The other priorities were straight forward.

We began to lay out our new site. We used our Strategies as touch points for the menu. We made campus pages with campus specific information, so people can find the information that relates to them. Once we knew how the site would look, we went to find a company that could allow us to build it.

In the Summer, I started trying out some web companies. It several attempts before I found one that could do everything we wanted. We settled on thechurchco.com. They have been very responsive, and our site is awesome.

So then it was time to build. I built the basic menu structure, and then pages, and then began to move content, edit content, create content. Initially we just used stock images. but as the site began to take shape, we started changing those out for our own. My Assistant Director spent a lot of time capturing new images of ministry here.

Finally, we launched and had all of our ministries go and proof their pages. We asked them to send one email with lists of corrections. (Not several emails…) I’ve made quite a few tweaks and corrections this week.

Today we had our first Sunday. On a whim I checked last weeks Analytics and noted the most used links on the old page. I made some redirects for the new page. In the space of an hour I saw 54 hits on the live video streaming link. Apparently a lot of people had bookmarked the old stream page.

I’m pretty proud of the new site. We worked hard, and thought things through. I think it will be a big improvement for us.

Like Vader, Social Media is Altering the Deal. Pray They Don’t Alter it Further.

Remember that scene in Empire Strikes Back? Lando discovers Vader is changing things. He complains and Vader responds, “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it further.”

Vader is Social Media and Lando is every business, organization or personality that has built an audience on those platforms.

Last week the big news was that most of the major social media networks had banned Alex Jones and his media channels.

I don’t consume Alex Jones or Infowars content. That is my choice. I don’t need to be protected from any sort of speech by large privately owned companies. Now, these companies can enforce their TOS as they see fit. But this road doesn’t lead to a good place.

Generally the internet is the great equalizer. There is a very low threshold to publish anything and the market decides what is good or bad. Do we really want gatekeepers?

When any corporation that bills itself as some sort of neutral platform removes a voice because they don’t like what they’re saying, that should give us all a moment of pause. Even so, many people just didn’t care, because Jones is a terrible voice.

This week it was Prager U complaining of shadow banning. While I may not agree with Dennis Prager on all things, or with every video his channels put out, he’s nothing like Alex Jones. Yet Prager U posted this:

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After a bit of attention was brought to the issue, Facebook issued this apology:

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Pager U was not satisfied.

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So… what?

We had a deal.

These are private companies and they can do whatever they like. But there are two significant problems with the sort of behavior.

First, these social media platforms have presented themselves as open networks. They don’t have views, they allows us to share our experiences and views through their networks. They have limited restrictions for content, and generally have spent a lot of time building trust with their users.

These platforms have a sort of social agreement with the users. They have built their brand on being open. This trend is a shift away from that.

Unfortunately, these platforms aren’t admitting this behavior. In fact, they deny it. They want to continue to appear to be neutral, but also cut down on the speech they don’t like. This is problematic for users.

People who use these platforms trust that they can see content from accounts they follow (like or whatever). They signed up for it, and trust that the platforms won’t censor what they want to see.

Second, these platforms have taken money from people to build their audience. They allowed these channels and accounts to be created, and to spread their message. And they encouraged them to spend money to build their audience, to boost posts, place advertising and so on.

Now- after all that time, effort, and money has been expended- they suddenly decide the message these accounts have been sharing is not allowed. They cut off access to the very audience they encouraged the accounts to build.

The deal has been altered.

Again, they can do whatever they want, but this does not lead to a good place. But hey, these channels can get their message out other ways, right? Sure, but the platforms invited them in, asked them to invest time and money. And now they don’t want them?

If they did not want this content on their platform, they should have said so from the beginning. Not after a large audience was built. Not after they accepted payment to help build that audience. Not after users signed up to get that content.

At the very least, they should immediately refund every dollar spent on boosted posts and advertising.

Businesses and channels who took these social media platforms up on their offer to build audiences didn’t do it for the short term. I manage a few accounts on different platforms, and if they suddenly threw me off for doing what I have always been doing it would be an utter shock. These accounts exist for a reason, and the users who make up my various audiences are fans/followers/etc for a reason.

The social media platforms are changing the deal, after its been struck with both users and channels.

People who build audiences have a right to expect the platform to continue to give them access to those audiences. People who use these platforms have a right to expect them to allow the content they want to see through to their feeds. Companies who use user information to generate income, and accept payment from accounts to build and reach audiences have a responsibility to those users and account owners.

Because these are private companies, there’s not much recourse. They can use other means of communication, but the audiences they built on these platforms are on those platforms. Conservative voices who find their deal is being altered can’t do much more than pray it won’t be altered further.

Paper Edit Continues

I posted on the production blog the other day, explaining the Paper Edit of the documentary.

I have been working at it for a while. I’m down to the last 3 transcripts. This is a tedious process. But I am seeing the content of the interviews again, and seeing how the final film will come together.

I am very ready to start assembling the video into the time line of the editor.