How Did We Start Making Documentaries?
I am totally self-taught in all of this and so this is a confessional meeting, right? I did show up at the right meeting? Okay. I'm Julie Winokur and I never studied this in school. And so, I'll put that out there as horrible as it sounds to say it out loud, but I hope it inspires you to recognize that there is no barrier to doing this. This isn't rocket science. It's about learning the tools, obviously, but it's about a lot of practice. It's about a lot of mistakes. And I've made plenty of mistakes and something that you create right now you think is the best thing you ever made, and in five years, believe me, when you look at it again, it is not the best thing you ever made. So, I am completely self-taught. I actually started out as a dancer. That was my first career. I'm probably the only human being in the United States with a degree in dance criticism. Not necessarily the most useful degree, but that was my passion at the time and I wanted to perform professionally as a dancer. Di...
d that a couple of years out of college. And then realized that that was absolutely the hardest way to make a living on the planet and my fallback plan was writing, which is the second hardest way, but at least you can do it for a long time. So, I worked for magazines when I stopped dancing after a couple of years. I worked for magazines and that was another passion of my was writing. And that's really important in terms of what I ended up doing because if you can write a story and organize your thoughts, you are leagues ahead of many people who wanna make films. Do not ever underestimate the power of language, even in visual media. So being able to write well, being able to construct story, understand pacing, understand the rhythm of language. When I sit down to edit, I hear it. I cannot look at picture because I really, really, really wanna hear what is being said. And I find picture totally distracting. I know from experience, I'll watch a radio cut, which is no picture, and then I'll watch something that's been edited with visuals. And the one with visuals, I'm always like, "Oh, that seems good." But then if I turn the picture off, I can hear how redundant or illogical the actual narrative spine is. So, I spent several years working for magazines. I was at "Travel + Leisure" magazine, three years on staff there. And then realized that wasn't for me either, fully. I needed to spread my wings. I do think everybody who freelances or works in the way that we do in some way, it's because we are hardwired not to have bosses. Would you say that's right? Not that we're difficult to work with. Quite the contrary. We're incredibly great collaborators. But, I think that idea of the routine of going to an office everyday still wasn't the right set of clothes for me. So I started freelance writing. I did that for a few years. And I've always been a very visual person, but didn't have the tools to express myself visually. And then I met this guy. And we started working together, collaborating on magazine stories. So, Ed was shooting. I was writing. We came up with ideas. And we're idea people too. I mean every phase of my life has been very much about coming up with an idea, creating something from nothing. So, ironically, I think everything I've done is connected. So, even the dance training that I had and learning how to choreograph, was about movement through space. So, what is filmmaking? It's movement through space. You're just capturing it and you have this element of time. So, what ended up happening for me, when we started to transition into shooting video, was all of a sudden, I got this camera in my hands and I swear I did not know how to use this thing. And I discouraged Ed from getting it, even, because I thought, "We've got enough going on. We've got stills and writing and recording interviews on an audio recorder." When I got the camera in my hands, suddenly, like I was dancing again. I was like, I was doing that again. And it was just like it made sense. It all just went, "There it is." And then I should also say that we are a byproduct, as filmmakers, we are a byproduct of the digital revolution. So, we would not have been able to do what we do a generation ago or whatever, 20, 30 years ago we couldn't have done it because the cameras were too expensive. The editing bay was too expensive. So unless you were trained formally, you were not gonna do it. So once the digital revolution made the tools available, it also meant that we were able to experiment and we started to do multimedia first, using stills and audio. We did our first foray into that world with a project called, "Aging in America." And we're gonna share a little bit of that. And produced early multimedia just using stills and audio. And when I saw what was possible with that, I thought, "Well, huh." We've been starting to shoot these interviews now on camera and I've been sort of playing around. We've got this random footage. I might be able to make a film. There's a concept. And the funny thing was I called up a friend who was a real filmmaker, and I said to her, "I've got a hundred hours of footage. I've got this incredible treasure trove of Ed's stills. I'd like to make a film." And she said, "Oh, well, you've transcribed all of the footage, right?" And I said, "No." She said, "Well, you've logged it, though, right?" And I said, "I've what?" And she said, "Okay, the first thing you're donna do is get an intern." It's probably the best piece of advice I ever got. And I got an intern in to take this hundred hours and ingest it, and she happened to have some basic Final Cut Pro skills. And so I said, "Why don't we start to like cut this?" And so sitting with her, we started to cut some scenes and then after months of working, we had an hour-long film, this film, "Aging in America," which ended up going to PBS stations nationwide. And if I tell you that ignorance is your friend, I mean it. Because had I known what a big mountain I was about to climb, I might not have done it. And that would have been a real loss, for me at least. I don't know about the rest of the world. But it would have been a loss for me. So, you can learn these things and teach yourself and this is one of the things I love about creative life, is that this is available for you just for the taking to learn and teach yourself through instructors like us. So this is just a tremendous asset to be able to share with you.
We pair interns, by the way.
Yes, we do.
Don't believe in free labor. For me, the path was in some ways more conventional. Well, as conventional as being a freelance photojournalist can be, because it's a pretty bizarre profession. I went to Syracuse University. Got a degree in photojournalism in the late 70s when there were only a handful of programs that gave you a B.S. in photojournalism. And then I moved out to San Francisco. I was a New Yorker and I decided to move out to San Francisco, start my career, and my work evolved from local work to region work and then to national and international magazine work. And that's really where I was, that was a sweet spot for probably 20 years. I've produced 17 features for National Geographic Magazine, and just was international photojournalist doing magazine photography. And then somewhere around 2000, that's when things changed. This idea of multimedia began, the cheaper equipment, as Julie alluded to, Final Cut Pro, these sort of technological developments, that aloud people who are not rich and who did not work for TV stations or Hollywood, to actually produce really good films. And so we started to dabble in this thing called multimedia. I was a pretty early adopter within my field of photojournalism of multimedia. And, again, I was so fortunate to have a partner who had these other skills so it allowed us to move forward, not only in a more rapid pace, which isn't what's important, but with a certain level of quality and completeness to our work. And then that brings, what's interesting now is more than half of what I do is filmmaking, so I've really morphed from being a print-based photographer, still photographer, to now doing, well, I call myself the hybrid visual storyteller, whether I use my iPhone or a still camera, or a video camera, it's sort of all happening at once. And then going back to the multiple outputs, it can appear in a magazine in print or on all multi-digital platforms that now exist. And, of course, social media being sort of intertwined with all of that. So, well, in brief, that's my path. It's been a very interesting one. The one thing that I think is, the one sort of spine that runs through it all, and I know you'll agree with me with this, is that, and you sort of alluded to it, is that we've always come up with our own ideas.
We've always proposed our ideas. Even today, I'm mid-career, I hope. I'm in mid-career and I some ways, even though I'm very established and all that, I'm in the same boat as someone who's just getting started, the twenty-something year old. Because ultimately, it's our ideas that are gonna propel us forward. And that gets back to this whole idea of what inspires you. What stirs your passions? Because that's where the great work will come from. All right? And we'll talk about the differences between client work and personal projects. We're gonna dive into that a little later because that's a critically important distinction to be able to make for yourself. Some people don't do any personal work and they have great lives, great careers. They're happy. They make a living and all that. For me, I would be distraught, more depressed than I already am. No, I would be distraught if I did not have personal work. You could give me all the money in the world, all the great projects, but if I do not have a personal project that I am engaged in, I'm somewhat out of sync and miserable. So, and again, we're all different. We all have different needs. We're propelled by different motivations.