Video Production

I've been interested in filmmaking for a long time. My first experimentation was as a little kid. My dad had a Super-8 projector. I had purchased a couple of the Planet of the Apes Super-8 releases (yes, they actually used to release movies on Super-8; they were just trimmed down to a lean 10 minutes). When I discovered that my dad also had a splicing tool, I set out to dissect the Planet of the Apes movies I had, and re-arranged the scenes to create a story of my own design. That was my first ever attempt to tell stories through moving pictures.

Years later, after I'd graduated from college, I tried my hand at some amateur video production. One of my fraternity brothers landed a job where he could borrow video cameras for the weekend. I was immediately interested. We would get together on occasion and tape little skits. Then one of the guys bought his own camera. I was very jealous. As soon as I could scrape together the money I bought one just like it.

This really opened up my creative life. I enjoyed documenting events on tape, and I enjoyed staging productions even more. Whenever a bunch of us alumni were in the same place together, we'd invariably get out the camcorder and throw something together. Sometimes we'd come up with good stuff and other times it was total crap. But it was always fun.

Editing the material into a cohesive end-product was another story. I didn't have access to any equipment, so all I could do was selectively dub from the camera onto my VCR. That was okay for copying whole tapes, but when I tried to assemble various scenes together, things came out pretty cheesy. After a little practice I developed a technique that allowed me to string clips together without any static in between (technically speaking, I was able to avoid creating breaks in the control track).

It worked, but it was still really tough to get the kind of precision I wanted. I had to pause the VCR at the place I wanted the previous clip to end, cue up the camcorder to where I wanted the next clip to begin, and then un-pause them both to lay down the new clip. Conceptually that's pretty simple, but in practice it was a nightmare. The biggest problem was the lag time. When I un-paused the VCR, there was a certain interval before it would start recording again. And when I un-paused the camcorder, there was a certain interval before it started playing again. The problem was that the two intervals were not the same. It took a lot of trial and error. Looking back on these early tapes I am a bit surprised with the level of quality that I was actually able to achieve.

After a while my fellow alumni were less and less motivated to stage these productions. While it was a lot of fun, it was also a lot of work. I also began spending less time at these fraternity functions. I finally decided that it was time to change my direction. I enrolled at the local Public Access studio. I had actually planned on doing that for years and years, but I never got around to it. Part of it was being lazy, and party of it, I supposed, was being a little intimidated. I would be standing all on my own, and my work would be viewed and scrutinized by a much larger and less friendly audience. Eventually I got over myself, though, and signed up for the classes.

It was all 100% free. In my opinion, Public Access Television is the best-kept secret in America. The big Goliath cable companies have to sign contracts with all localities where they provide programming service. This is usually on the county level. In my county Time-Warner is the cable provider. Each municipality can write into the contract requirements that the cable company provide equipment, facilities, and broadcast media to members of the community who wish to exercise their freedom of speech. While cable companies aren't in the business of giving things away, municipalities can require it in exchange for the privilege of selling their product. It's just about the only example in this country where people can truly get something for nothing. In my case it was especially true. Since Time-Warner didn't provide service in the rural part of the county where I lived, they weren't making a penny off me. But as a resident of the county I still got access to their facility.

The toughest part of the training was the scheduling. There were four weeks of classes which met only on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. Back then I still used to travel a lot, and it was almost impossible to find a four week period when I didn't have any plans. Finally I found a time and signed up for the classes.

The training wound up being a breeze. It was actually quite frustrating for me, because I felt I could have learned it all in one or two classes, but we had to move at a pace that everyone in the class could follow. That meant very slow. There was one assignment during the class, which was to produce a short interview that contained a certain number of cut-away shots. I had a lot of trouble finding someone to interview. I quickly began to learn how spoiled I had become when I had an army of fraternity alumni at my disposal. I had a friend at Ithaca College who agreed to do it, but when I showed up with all the equipment he wasn't there. I took all the stuff home, and the next morning I interviewed myself playing a fem computer nerd. When I got in the editing booth I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but it was difficult to get the equipment to cooperate. There were about a zillion buttons, switches, and dials. If one thing was out of place then there would be no picture, or no sound, or any number of other problems. It was a little humbling, considering how cocky I had been in class, but with the help of the staff I got things going and started editing. What a wonderful delight it was to be able to make an edit right down to the specific frame, instead of having to cue up a VCR and camcorder and pray. In an hour or so I was had it finished. It went over pretty well with the class. The only one who I was concerned might come up with a better video, my friend Mike who was taking the classes with me, accidentally had his piece erased by another class member who edited his video over Mike's work.

Finally the classes were over. I had met all the requirements, but there were still more hurdles. I was authorized to work on other people's productions, but if I wanted to produce projects of my own I had to undergo further certification. The first thing was to pass the "producers' test." They gave me a handbook to study. It was a trip, actually, as I hadn't studied for a test in years and years. I learned many interesting things. The public access station basically had only one rule, which was that commercial content was prohibited. For example it was not permissible for me to air my own info-mercial. I was also obligated to broadcast anything I produced. For example I couldn't use their facilities to produce wedding videos for profit. Beyond that they had virtually no rules at all. The reason for this was that I, as a producer, was responsible for my own content. If I aired something that violated a copyright, or that was obscene, then I was the one who would get hauled into court. The public access station itself was entirely indemnified. That started to get me to understand the gravity of the activity I was now engaging in.

I wound up practically acing the test. That made me an apprentice producer. All I had to do to become a full producer was to plan, execute, and deliver one finished product. I had zillions of ideas. Every night for the last month I'd lie awake in bed thinking about all kinds of things to do. I settled upon one short that would only require myself and one other actor, with all the camera work being done on tripods. The problem was finding someone to appear in it with me. This was when I really began to appreciate how spoiled I had been with my fraternity alumni. First of all I just found it very stressful to ask people I barely knew to be in a video production. I approached one guy whom I thought would do a good job. He was flattered, but perplexed as to why I chose him. He agreed to do it, but I had a devil of a time scheduling it with him. He finally confessed that he was very camera-shy, and didn't want to do it after all. That was fine, but it would have been nice if he had said that up front instead of wasting my time for 2 weeks. I approached someone else who was also perplexed as to why I had asked him. At least he did me the courtesy of declining upfront.

In the end I wound up doing what I should have done in the first place. I just asked Monté. He agreed without batting an eye. I had an elaborate script written up. It wasn't long, but it was very dense. The original concept was to do it all in one take. We picked up the equipment and went out to the local gay bar to film it in the afternoon when I knew it would be almost deserted. I had arranged permission to use the location some time before. That was also a stressful process for me to go through. But the owner was pretty cool about it. We got into costume, set up the equipment, including lights, and asked them to turn the background music down. When we were finally ready to go we quickly realized that there was no way we could get through my wacky dialog in one take. We re-arranged the cameras and did individual takes with each of us essentially holding up cue cards for the other. Finally we were done. When we shut off the lights some of the old queens at the end of the bar made sure to proclaim, "Finally!" loud enough that I could hear them.

A week or so later I went in to edit the footage. I was aghast to discover that the tape had no audio. The microphone I had chosen to use, a PZM, had its own power supply and had to actually be switched on. I didn't realize this, and it turned out that all our efforts had been for naught. My deadline was approaching, and I didn't want to go through the hassle of arranging a time with the bar owner again, not to mention inconveniencing all the old bar flies that hung out in the afternoons. I eventually grabbed Monté again and just taped it in my house. It wound up looking a bit odd, but it worked. I edited it together in a jiffy and I was finally done.

What I created was "Pard' Me." It was essentially my student film, but it remains to this day an acclaimed part of my catalog. Most everyone who watches it likes it. Just a couple months after I completed it I brought it with me to the MIX NYC film festival. They have a "gong show" event where people can submit videos on the spot. I handed it in on my way in the door and sat nervously as I waited. I actually couldn't believe how nervous I was. I wasn't really sure why. I only had to sit and watch it with the rest of the audience. I didn't need to perform in any way. And yet I was acutely nervous. I almost thought I was going to have a panic attack. It played fine, and actually got a decent reaction. I didn't expect much of anything, but it wound up placing third. Actually, in my opinion, it was considerably better than the video that beat it out for second.

That Gong Show event was a bit of a lark, but it gave me a taste for having my work shown. While I produced plenty of Public Access crap, I also began to produce works specifically targeted to gay/lesbian film festivals. I would say that I had reasonable success. I've had videos play all over North America, and even some in Europe and Asia (details are in my videography. There was only one problem. While my photographic art is rather staid and subtle, my sensibilities with respect to video are explicit and absolutely over the top. This was a problem in that I was obligated to broadcast anything I produced, and my content was wholly inappropriate for the local cable TV audience. My material was deliberately intended to be unquestionably obscene. I got around this by either sneaking small projects in on the sly, or heavily censoring the original works for the purpose of broadcast. The latter didn't really bother me all that much. Some artists would rather die than censor their work. When it came to the festivals themselves, I would absolutely not tolerate any form of censorship. But when it came to broadcasting on cable TV, I really didn't care. My goal was essentially to exploit the public access facility to produce videos for festival submission. My goal was not to inflict my prurient visions on the poor unsuspecting farmers and religious fundamentalists who tended to watch the public access channel. In that context, censorship was not an issue for me.

My video production went along well enough, but I grew weary of certain things. For starters, the studio kept their producers on a rather short leash. Any use of camera and sound equipment had to be tied to a specific project. Each project had a specific deadline. As they liked to limit projects to 30 days, I was constantly asking for extensions. While they were always granted, it was a big hassle. They also didn't want producers to have more than one project in the works at any one time. I could understand why. Public access producers tend to be losers, freaks, and jack asses. While I was highly disciplined about managing my own projects, most other producers weren't. If the studio didn't force them to be disciplined, a lot of them would have endless projects that never got completed. Still, it was a hassle I was increasingly losing patience with.

I was also getting tired of having to make reservations for equipment and facilities. The location of the studio was not terribly convenient to me to begin with, and I usually had to make one trip just to log the reservation, and another trip to actually do the work. And if I made a reservation and turned out to be too tired or generally not in the mood to work on a video project that day, I still had to show up or risk sanctions. They did not take kindly to people blowing off reservations. I found myself enjoying the production process less and less.

The answer to my problems came as a blessing in disguise. I had a little VHS-C palmcorder that I used for personal stuff. Eventually the batteries failed to keep a charge. I didn't know if it was a problem with the batteries themselves or with the charger. It wound up being a moot point, because I decided to buy a new digital video camera. I already had an iMac with FireWire, so I just took the plunge and went all digital. It was great! The iMovie software was very easy to learn, and digital editing wound up being a whole hell of a lot easier and more powerful than the analog technology I'd been using. Beyond that, I could work whenever I wanted, and I could do it in the privacy and convenience of my own home. And if that wasn't enough, I was no longer obligated to broadcast the sick and disgusting content that I wanted to produce. There were times when I missed the treasure trove of equipment available from public access, and there were things that iMovie couldn't do that their facilities could, but it was a small price to pay. I was now truly independent.

I still have far more ideas than I have time or resources to produce. I also remain vexed by the difficulty in finding people to appear in my productions and help on crew. Most of my work features me. People think that this is because I am a self-centered, egomaniacal exhibitionist. While this may be true, the real reason I'm always featuring myself is because it's such a fucking hassle to find other people and coordinate their schedules. Anyone who helps me out is doing so as a favor, so I can't really place demands on people or apply any kind of pressure. Even when I do find people who are perfectly willing to appear, it's a nightmare to find a time when everyone is available.

Alas, this is the cross I bear. I continue with video production not so much because it's something I want to do, but because it's something I can't not do. I have gone through phases where I take a break for a while, or when I simply don't have anything actively in production at the time, but these are generally short-lived. My mind is always thinking of new projects. If I fail to produce them, or even attempt to produce them, then I feel like I'm failing to fulfill my potential. I have an undeniable compulsion to create. Producing videos not only satiates this need, there is an audience for my work, and from what I tell they tend to like it.

arts index | Next Essay: Counter Culture: Fraternities