Jon Else became a documentary filmmaker to tell stories. But lately, the director of Cadillac Desert and The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb finds himself spending less time behind the camera. Else sent out 310 funding proposals before he had enough money to produce Cadillac Desert, a film about water in the American West,. “More and more of us have found ourselves having to spend more and more time raising money,” Else says. “It’s a lousy waste of our time.” Else, who was series producer and cinematographer for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, hopes technology will set him and his colleagues free. He teaches documentary filmmaking at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. The focus: low-budget and no-budget filmmaking. The tools: the same cameras and editing applications available to Mac users.
Why did you go into documentary filmmaking?
That should have a simple answer, but it doesn’t. I was enthralled by newsreels as a kid. Somehow, the real thing was always more fascinating to me than fiction. And I actually started out as a still photographer, headed down the photojournalist path and had a tough time making a living. So I took a job at a film lab processing film. Well, the rest was history, I was sunk. There was no way of avoiding diving into a career as a documentary filmmaker. I’ve always had a suspicion that documentary film was really important in our culture. It’s how an awful lot of us learn about the world in school, where we’re forced to watch films about plants, animals, and World War II. So I figure it’s a chance to actually make a difference.
You’ve worn a lot of different hats over your career. Was that something you did on purpose?
I am first and foremost a cinematographer/videographer… But I do direct, and write, and produce, and it’s really because there are some stories I want to tell from beginning to end. I want to do more than just control the picture part of it. There’s another role that I’ve taken up for years and years and years, and that’s the roll of fund-raiser for my own films. That just becomes such a nightmare. That’s why we started this operation at Berkeley, that’s where the idea came from. As filmmakers, more and more of us have found ourselves having to spend more and more time raising money. It’s a lousy waste of our time. We’re no good at it. We don’t like it. We should be out doing camera work and editing. Now every time we get a really good idea, we have to raise a half-a-million dollars, for mainstream primetime documentaries. This center at Berkeley was conceived because the film I did about (opera) stage-hands took 137 fundraising proposals over a period of 8 years, and the project before that, Cadillac Desert, took about 310 funding proposals. Something is wrong. Something’s wrong if that’s what we have to do. So I became very interested in figuring out a way to do an end run around the funding problems and I really felt like the beginnings of that answer lay in new technologies.
Is making a documentary now easier or harder than 20 years ago?
It was a lot easier to raise money 20 years ago, but mechanically it was more difficult. The fact of the matter is that Avid and Final Cut Pro editing is vastly more transparent and flexible than the old film-style editing. And let’s not even talk about the nightmare of tape-to-tape editing, the real dark continent of editing. Technically, we can make a much better picture and do much better edits than twenty years ago, but it’s impossibly more difficult to raise money.
How are new technologies affecting documentary filmmaking?
We see the technology as just a way of getting the door open to less expensive ways to make some documentaries. It’s not rocket science. Every year we get smaller cameras that take better pictures. We’re approaching a point where even small-format video, when viewed on television, approaches the quality of 16mm or Super 16. These can be consumer cameras that sell for $1,000 up to low-end professional cameras that go for $10,000 to $15,000. It used to be an Avid system cost $120,000. Now a complete Final Cut Pro system will run you about $4,000. There are still some things that the Avid can do that Final Cut can’t, but there’s about 80 percent to 90 percent of an Avid’s capabilities that Final Cut can. Those are the two main things, except for the things we tend to forget about like word processing, cell phones, and spreadsheets. Doing a budget on documentary 10 years ago was two days work for somebody. Now I call my associate producer, and we can have a budget in an hour.
Do you see more people taking up documentary filmmaking now that the equipment is becoming more affordable?
I’m sure that will happen. With a ballpoint pen, anyone can write a novel. There just might be a lot of lousy novels. Television is essentially just a fire hose for crap and junk. That’s fine. It’s good for democracy. But with it, you’ll find there are many wonderful documentaries that otherwise wouldn’t get made. If there are great documentaries mixed in with the junk, that’s fine.
What is the ideal low-budget documentary?
We’re not interested in making the same old films cheaply. Instead we’re interested in finding new ways of storytelling and new subjects that naturally lend themselves to inexpensive filmmaking. We’re not going to try to make Ken Burn’s Civil War on $50,000 an hour. It can’t be done and shouldn’t be done. We’re going to try to find certain kinds of films that naturally work. It’s like the difference between oil painting and watercolor. A mainline PBS or HBO documentary broadcast in primetime, that’s like oil painting. We’re looking for something different, a different animal. We haven’t discovered it yet. I guess that’s why we’re still in business.
What is an essential equipment package for today’s low-budget documentary producer?
The consumer cameras are starting to get so good; you can get anything pretty much for $1,000 and up. In the program at Berkeley we use PD100s, PD150s, VX1000s — the Sony stuff — and also the Canon XL1, which has become a real workhorse, and the GL1, which is a little less expensive. Any of these consumer-prosumer cameras will make astonishing pictures. Then, you need a good external microphone. You may have to spend a thousand bucks for that. One of the weak points of the consumer cameras is the recording of the sound. The on-board mics are very limited, you need to be so close. And finally, you need something to edit on. We’re going to go with Final Cut Pro because we’re working in a professional world and we like to stick with manufacturers that are widely used…. So how much is that? Six grand for everything?
What do you think documentaries are going to be like 10 years from now?
There’s no question many — and I stress many and not all — documentaries are becoming cheaper to make. However the distribution of the films is become much more complicated and fragmented. When I was growing up, you made a documentary for PBS, ABC, NBC, or CBS and that was it. End of conversation. Now, if you’re a young filmmaker, there are the networks, plus a dozen cable possibilities, plus an infinite number of possibilities on the Internet. Plus, what is now a very vibrant home video, educational video market. That’s just confusing to a lot of folks and more difficult to access. So more documentaries get broadcast, but fewer people see them. And we’re in this business to have people see our films. Why bother making a film about the civil rights movement unless 21 million people are going to see it?