Documentaries… SOOOOO Hot Right Now

Written by: Tyler Schwartz

2018 has already seen the release of three critically acclaimed documentaries in RGB, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and Three Identical Strangers. Beyond sharing similar levels of mass critical appeal, each film has also succeeded wildly beyond expectations at the Box Office, causing many industry journalists to signal this as watershed moment for documentary filmmaking.

Here are two reasons America is going through a documentary renaissance…

 

THE LAST DAYS OF MONOCULTURE*

The slow death of monoculture has been one of the most interesting societal phenomenons of the new millenium. The days of half the country watching the Mash or Seinfeld finales are long gone. The word of the hour now is “choice”, and in 2018 audiences have more options than ever before. However, despite culture critics espousing the death rattles of monoculture, once in a blue moon a subject pops up that still captures our collective imagination. FX’s American Crime Story about the OJ Simpson trial is a great example of high-level content and mass public interest colliding to create a cultural behemoth. It’s no coincidence then that all three of these documentaries tap into our national consciousness in similar ways.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor profiles the iconic Mr. Rogers, the Johnny Carson of children’s television. Everyone from ages 20-60 grew up with Mr. Rogers in their living room. Beyond being our neighbor, Mr. Rogers was also our uncle, father and grandfather, someone three entire generations of Americans have grown up with, passing on his wisdom to their own children. Put simply, you’d be hard pressed to find a celebrity personality with a higher approval rating among Americans than the venerable Fred Rogers (no disrespect to our future president Oprah… or Tom Hanks who will be playing Rogers in an upcoming movie).

Ruth Bader Ginsburg may not have the same nationwide appeal as Mr. Rogers (especially not in red states) but RGB, the documentary that profiles her life and career, is uniquely situated to tap into the current zeitgeist. In the age of Trumpified politics, Ginsburg stands out as the final bastion of liberalism. The Notorious RGB is the OG blue-blooded liberal and the OG modern feminist. In a world run by Agent Orange tweets and harrowing #MeToo accounts, the story and ongoing legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg has never been more timely (Kate McKinnon’s hilarious SNL impression also helps). Hollywood seems to agree, On The Basis of Sex starring Felicity Jones as a young and pugnacious RGB, will open later this year and has already garnered significant Oscar buzz.

Unlike the previous two films, Three Identical Strangers doesn’t chronicle the life and times of well known cultural figures, however that doesn’t make its story and message any less prescient. The film tells the tale of three identical triplets who are separated at birth and later reunited as young adults. To elaborate on the many twists and turns this incredible story takes would be to spoil a worthwhile night at the movies. All I’ll say is that what begins as an uplifting yarn about long lost brothers turns into a true crime witch hunt that forces the audience to ponder a basic premise that defines all humanity: What shapes who we are, Nature or Nurture? These identical strangers may not be household names but the virtues taken from their life story are primal emotions that every human can relate to.

 

COLLECTIVE TRUTH IN THE AGE OF FAKE NEWS

As Americans we’ve grown accustomed to talking heads on cable news shouting different opinions. However, in 2018, we’re also confronted with conflicting facts. The presidency of Donald Trump has ushered in the era of “fake news”and this unfortunate phenomenon is another reason why the impact of non-fiction films is felt so strongly right now.

An oft made mistake when watching documentaries is to accept everything appearing on-screen as fundamentally true. This simply isn’t the case. If it were, we wouldn’t need more than one documentary profiling the lives of Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King as opposed to the hundreds that have already been made. Documentaries may be non-fiction but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an agenda or that they’re telling the full story. In their most basic form, documentaries are propaganda, carefully shaping the narrative of “reality” to fit whatever the filmmakers want us to see. This isn’t inherently wrong, it’s just storytelling. However as our country becomes increasingly more divided over what “Red Facts” are true and what “Blue Facts” are false, American audiences continue gravitating towards non-fiction content that forces them to choose for themselves.

A great example of this are two recent Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer and Wild Wild Country. Both of these shows do a great job of presenting the facts, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions. This makes sense when you think about it. In a society that has become increasingly filled with grey areas,  it seems fitting that audiences would want to decide the difference between black and white for themselves. Non-Fiction films aren’t constrained into the ‘Hero’s Journey’ that most narrative films are forced into. They can live inside the grey area, exposing both black and white, and encouraging the audience to relate the story to their own life without hitting them over the head with a “message”.  

Whether the recent documentary craze is a flash in the pan or dawning of a new era still remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain. As long as movies exist, documentaries will continue to shine a nonfiction light on the good and evils living inside this world.  And there will always be a line of people at the movie theater waiting to see them, eager to decide for themselves.

 

*For those of you (like Janice) who need a quick definition of monoculture, it is: a culture dominated by a single element: a prevailing culture marked by homogeneity.

10 Tips for Giving a Great Toast

In your entire life there are only a handful of times when all the family and friends you love most come together in one location to celebrate you. Your wedding is one of those times, and considering that we don’t really have retirement parties anymore, and you won’t be at your funeral (depending on how you look at it), this is really the only time. So, you can probably see why I think toasts are one of the best parts of a wedding.

 

And while I definitely feel that way as a filmmaker who uses these toasts to drive the stories in our films, I also know that toasts are not always the guests’ favorite part of a wedding. Why, you might ask? Well, to be totally honest, they’re not always good.

 

After 7 years of filming weddings I’ve seen incredible toasts that bring the guests to both fits of laughter and tears of emotions, and I’ve seen toasts that leave guests looking around at each other like ‘Did they just say that?!’  So we decided it’s time we put some of our wisdom down on paper. Whether you’re a future toaster or a future listener, here are our top 10 tips for writing and delivering a great wedding toast.

PLAN IT. I know, you’re great at ‘winging it’. I’ve heard this before, and you’re probably not as great as you think. And if you really are great at winging it, you’ll be even better with a little bit of extra thought put in ahead of time. This an important moment for that couple- don’t waste the opportunity to say something meaningful that will stick with them for years to come.

 

KEEP IT SHORT.  5-7 minutes is perfect. It doesn’t need to be too short, but too long is problematic for several reasons. It can bore the other guests, who are typically waiting for the toasts to be over in order to eat, drink or dance. It can throw off the timeline, which the planner and couple have spent months meticulously designing. And, it can cut the party short. If toasts are supposed to last 20 minutes and they last an hour, that’s 40 minutes the couple doesn’t get to enjoy the dance floor at the end of the night. Be respectful, and cut yourself off at 7.

TOAST, DON’T ROAST.  It’s their wedding day. Funny stories are okay (though reference #4 before deciding which make the cut), but don’t spend too much (or any) time tearing anyone down. The point of a toast is to share your favorite parts of them as individuals, and as a couple, with all the guests who are there.

 

USE STORIES INTENTIONALLY.  Develop your theme and your key points first and then select stories based on which best illustrate those points. Don’t just tell the funniest, craziest, silliest stories you have because it’ll make you laugh. Those stories usually don’t go over very well, and they certainly don’t strengthen the overall message. Hand in hand with this…

AVOID INSIDE JOKES. I’m sure if you are best friends with the couple you have lots of shared experiences and inside jokes. It’s okay to tell stories (again, reference #4), but if everyone in the room except for you and them is going to look around confused, leave that one out. You don’t want to alienate the audience mid-toast. They’re easy to lose but hard to win back.

 

SPEAK TO THE INDIVIDUALS, BUT ALSO THE COUPLE.  If you are giving a toast you likely know one half of the couple better than the other half. Don’t hesitate to share what you love most about the person you’re closest with. In fact, that should probably be your focus. But it’s always nice when you go from there to comment on them as a couple, or how you saw them change when they first met their significant other.

AVOID GENERALITIES. Unless you can ground them in specific stories. There are lots of clichés and quotes about love, and anyone can string them together to make a 5 minute speech. But it won’t mean anything to the couple, and it certainly won’t help the guests get to know the couple any better. Focus on their story as individuals and as a couple, and only use generalities if you can follow it up with a specific story about them.

 

Don’t talk about yourself too much. You’re giving the toast, but the toast isn’t about you. Keep the focus on the couple.

PRINT IT. Or use notecards. Call us old fashioned, but reading from a cellphone is problematic for several reasons. First, the print is often small and it can be hard to read, making the toast less natural and more scripted. Secondly, and this is a big one for us videographers, the light from the phone is going to cast a weird light on your face. The room is likely going to be a bit darker, and this contrasting bright light on your face isn’t going to look good on camera (or in real life).

 

PRACTICE. Even if you’re planning to read from a paper, or reference notes, reading through it out loud, standing up in front of a mirror or a friend can make a big difference in your comfort level.

Wedding Day Advice from a BDLB Groom

by: Tyler Schwartz

 

“Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop to look around once and awhile you could miss it.”

– Ferris Bueller

Substitute “life” for “weddings” and Mr. Bueller’s quote rings even more true. Weddings are beautiful, spiritual, and joyous, however they’re also emotionally overwhelming, physically taxing, and psychologically exhausting. With such a strict schedule and so many different plates spinning in the air at the same time, couples often feel a sense of whiplash by the end of their big day. Ask a Bride or Groom right after their wedding what their favorite moments were, and you’ll most likely get two blank faces unable to articulate specific details from the day, almost like they’re trapped inside a “wedding fog”. That’s because no matter what, your wedding day is going to be a blur. It’s a fact of life. So many friends, relatives, and strangers. So many hellos, goodbyes, questions and answers. Yet inside of this blur are genuine miracle moments, eternal life memories that you’ll never want to forget. So while a little “wedding fog” is to be expected, here are my humble suggestions for truly soaking in all of your special day.

 

  • Remember to Breathe. Little known fact: asphyxiation is the 2nd leading cause of death in men and women on their wedding day. The first, you ask? frostbitten feet.

  • Stop and Smell Your Roses. What does your wedding day smell like? The flowers? The candles? Your great-aunt’s perfume? Use your freshly wedded nostrils and take it all in. These are the aromas of your life, the scents of your past, the redolent of your present, and the fragrance of your future.

  • The Little Things Matter. The minute details of your wedding are the things that make your day unique. You’ve made so many tiny decisions throughout the process that sometimes it’s hard to keep track of it all. Don’t forget to take a moment and appreciate all the little pieces of beauty the two of you have created. The Table Settings. The Food. The Cake. The Decorations. All of these choices have lead to this picture-perfect tableau. Like any classic piece of artwork, enjoy it from afar, but make sure to get a close up and appreciate the fine strokes that create the greater whole.

  • A Moment of Prayer. This is one out of my own personal playbook. From the time we played sports as little kids, I’ve always been the pre-game motivational speaker in my group of friends. My own wedding day was no different. Right before we went to lineup for the processional, my groomsmen, father, and soon-to-be father-in-law, all kneeled down, huddled together, and I led us in a brief but emotional pump-up speech. However, this speech was unlike others I had given in the past. In fact this speech didn’t feel like a speech at all, it felt like a prayer. While speaking, it dawned on me that I was surrounded by all the men in my life I love most. The men who have helped mold me into the man I am today. My prayer became a sermon, a way for me to thank them for their support on this day, and furthermore, a way for all of us to thank the universe for launching such a cast of disparate souls into each other’s orbits. Their wasn’t a dry eye in that circle by the time we were done. It’s a memory I’ll cherish forever, a moment of spiritual serenity in an otherwise chaotic day. On our honeymoon, my wife and I finally debriefed our wedding day experiences. When I told her about this moment she started to cry. It was partially a happy cry because she was glad her dad had that experience. But it was also a sad cry because she immediately regretted not having a similar moment before the ceremony with her family and bridesmaids. They were too caught up in getting ready that they simply ran out of time. So heed this advice, no matter how busy your prep time, no matter how far behind schedule you’re running, take the time to kneel down with your loved ones and send a blessing of love and gratitude into the universe. Whether you’re religious or not, I promise that the sense of peace and harmony you’ll feel after is the perfect remedy to any pre-ceremony jitters. So acknowledge the love surrounding you, and with that feeling, let the universe launch you together into forever.

Artist Soapbox Podcast

Last month I got to sit down with Tamara Kissane from The Artist Soapbox. She is the host of this Durham-based podcast featuring creative entrepreneurs, and their perspective on what it’s like to turn a passion into a full-time gig. I LOVED the chance to sit down with her and talk bigger picture about some of the things that are on our minds daily here at Big Dog Little Bed, and excited to finally share it 🙂  You can find it HERE, or by subscribing to Artist Soapbox using the Apple Podcast app.

Some things we covered…

[1:05] What is the line between narcissism and documenting our stories?

[6:14] Bringing the dream from hobby to full-time. The steps to launching a creative and product based business.

[13:30] Product, process and point of view. Why we often skip the last one, but how it can be game-changing for our businesses.

[19:42] Observations on gender in both filmmaking and entrepreneurship.

[26:44] Maintaining a creative spark in the midst of a growing business.

[31:15] Brand Story Films: What are those? Why are they valuable?

[34:03] Grappling with the question of how we create films that inspire us creatively and are also good for the world.

3 Reasons This is the Best Campaign Film You’ll See This Year

Written by: Tyler Schwartz

In my inbox the other day I received a link to a recent campaign video for Democratic congressional candidate MJ Hegar. Upon watching, I can confidently say it’s one of the best campaign ads I’ve ever seen. What makes this video so unique and exciting is that it’s the rare political ad that doesn’t really talk about politics. Additionally, in a medium that often relies on politicians talking to camera and trying to tell their story, Hegar’s video succeeds in showing us her story by putting us inside of the action.

From my perspective, here are the three defining characteristics that separate this ad.

 

1. Stealing from Scorsese

The video opens with the viewer omnisciently floating through a front porch and entering a house. The background music sounds eerily like the opening chords of “Take Shelter” by The Rolling Stones and then the voice-over hits. These cinematic elements are all hallmarks of Martin Scorsese, and they help us peel back the curtain to see how the “Ad Sausage” gets made. Within the first 15 seconds of the video we get a classic Scorsese opening line ( MJ’s “This is a story about doors” = Goodfellas “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster”), followed by some classic Scorsese exposition. Before a single cut occurs, we learn that MJ lives in Texas, is married with children, and is a former Air Force Pilot. All within 10 seconds! Therein lies the power of cinematic voice over. We’ve barely met Hegar, and yet we’re already predisposed to trust her because she’s our narrator, and as viewers, we’re trained to believe that narrators always tell the truth. Compared to more run-of-the-mill Ads where a hired Voice Actor does the narration or a when the actual candidate themselves speak to the camera, this method allows the viewer to connect with MJ on a different level; she’s not a candidate, she’s a character.

 

2. Seamless Editing

At a run time of 3 minutes and 28 seconds, this video is longer than your typical campaign ad. The reason it doesn’t feel overlong is due to the seamless editing that guides the viewer throughout the story. Similar to what DP Emmanuel Lubezki and Director Alejandro Inarritu did with the film Birdman, the filmmakers here hide their edits with well timed whip pans, dissolves, and match cuts, creating a feeling of total engrossment for the viewer. The great editor Walter Murch once said that an editor’s job is to anticipate when a viewer is going to blink, at that moment is when a cut should occur. While there aren’t many “normal cuts” in this video, the filmmakers still allow room for “viewer blinking” by intentionally going static on certain images. The benefit of these brief moments of stillness are that they provide the audience with a “blink point”, which then works to solidify the visual theme on screen. Walter Murch again sums it up best when he says, Blinking is some way of tabulating – a kind of carriage return, click, or save to disk – that helps the process of ‘Okay, now change the subject.’ Every time you move your eyes, there’s an interruption in the visual field – you go momentarily blind when your eyeballs are moving.”

 

When remembering this video, what are the images that stick in your memory? The helicopter door, the ROTC sign, Flight School, the Purple Heart, the Closed sign… all of those moments occurred during a “blink point”, yet because of the seamless editing, the emotional power of the images is digested entirely on a subconscious level. As the audience member, we’re tracking the story, but as potential voters, our minds return to these blinked “save points”  and deliver us the information Hegar actually wants us to remember: She’s a Mother, an Air Force Pilot, a Purple Heart Recipient, a Feminist Lobbyist, and finally, she’s running for Congress.

 

3. Politics without Politics

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the entire Ad is the complete lack of politics mentioned within the video. There are no mentions of domestic policies or foreign affairs. No mentions of Trump, Obama, or Hillary. Not once does Hegar even mention that she’s running as a Democrat. The message here is simple, you’re not voting for MJ’s politics, you’re voting for MJ’s story. This is a tactic that has been used before for both good (Obama’s “Hope” campaign”) and evil (Trump’s “Make America Great Again). In both instances, voters were directed to vote with their hearts instead of their minds.

 

On a national scale this method can become overwhelmingly populist no matter who’s employing it. However, for a congressional seat, this heart-on-your-sleeve approach does its job in investing the viewer in Hegar’s story. If you’re really interested in her views on abortion or gun rights, there’s plenty of reading material online at your disposal. My guess is that Hegar’s team is betting that the average Texas voter doesn’t really care about policies. They’re not selling you a person’s politics, they’re selling you the person and believing in her is all that matters.

 

I had never heard of MJ Hegar before watching this video. I don’t live or ever plan on living in Texas. I’m not even a registered Democrat (I’m proudly independent). Yet, with all that stated, and even without really knowing what her true political views are, I’m fully prepared to vote for MJ Hegar. Why? Because I believe her. She comes across as no-nonsense and forthright and that’s what I want in my politicians. In the world of Trumpified politics, I believe the American people want truth and honesty. Hopefully come November, the good people Texas’s 31st district will give Hegar a chance to prove her motivations and sincerity. My feeling is that if they do, it’ll be because the power of visual storytelling opened the door to their political hearts.