Is this thing over yet? We’ve watched the world open back up, sort of.
Is it too late for new art about the coronavirus, after months of lockdown and too-much-information? Sort of.
Yet there’s no vaccine. Another outbreak, or new virus might come along. Whether or not these past few months fade into memory someday: for the first time in a millennium, our whole world has shared an experience together. After the decimation we’ve seen in our lifetimes of mass media/broadcast television, it’s really something. We really are/were in this together.
As a departure from my (albeit rare) posts here about filmmaking tech, I’ll show you a few little things I’ve made since March: a “pandemic playlist” of sorts. And it’s like a story too, in chronological order. You can access the whole playlist below or at this link, but I’ll embed each of its separate videos into this page also, as I get to them.
The year was 2011, and it had been almost a decade since the book (and later movie) The Hot Zone took the world by storm and gave us a glimpse of the horrors to come. Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion gave us simply the best science ever from a film about coronaviruses (COVID-19 being just the latest one — not the nineteenth, but named for the year when it showed up). Its lukewarm reception was well-deserved: sometimes the acting is stiff, characters diluted, structure flat. Jude Law’s sideline story of fraud is an ambiguous distraction. And, shot on old RED cameras, the dynamic range is terrible with tons of blown-out highlights, and exaggerated color grading that hits you over the head with chem-lab green. Namely, it’s another mainstream Soderbergh film. But the electronic music score by Cliff Martinez is brilliant; and of course, the prescience of the subject is totally haunting.
Especially from the beginning of this year’s pandemic, the film has been a valued watch for everyone who’s trying to understand. What I thought I’d do, is excerpt all the good parts, organize them succinctly into an informational video essay via fair use, and fix some of those flawed exposure and color grading decisions in the original film. From its multichannel 5.1 source, I extracted mainly the center dialogue channel, then dropped in an original score by my collaborator BLK S^TRN who is a common thread through more of this pandemic playlist (see below). As seen in the video, my questions (with answers suggested by the film) are:
- Where do coronaviruses come from?
- How are contagious viruses transmitted?
- How do we know the reproductive rate (R-0 or “R-naught”) of a virus?
- Young people are stronger. If some get exposed, but stay healthy, why worry?
- When people say there’s a cure, should we trust them? Is there a difference between a final cure, and meds that just profit big pharma little-by-little?
- What’s the right balance between social order, and personal liberty?
- After a final cure, who gets it first? How long is the wait?
- How will life change after COVID-19? Will we ever shake hands again?
In the decade since 2011, I traveled around the world a lot (and now especially miss it). Anyone who makes films, can’t resist grabbing good material abroad, even when there’s no immediate project. So, I shot footage in China, New York City, rural Pennsylvania, California’s Central Valley, and music concerts, that eventually accumulated into this next original film Corona. It was a response to a challenge from BLK S^TRN, who composed a 23-minute experimental hip hop work over a weekend, and asked me to set it to visuals. Within a few days, I had created this utterly strange experimental film divided into sections that respond to his seven-movement symphony of sorts. It’s punishingly minimalist, most of the time, in a common thread of outrage rather than optimism (and I’ve felt an absent longing these days to stare evil straight in the face, instead of those many feel-good streams that have dominated at-home culture with desperate wistfulness). What excited me most about the challenge, was actually technical: I had never gotten around to exploring the Boris FX “Beat Reactor” feature, so during most of this running time, you are seeing multiple discrete visual effects reacting to the music score at isolated pitch ranges. Camera gear ranged from the original Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera in China, to the DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 in flight.
I was filming a big documentary project in upstate New York early March, and stopped by Manhattan for a weekend on my way back to Washington, D.C. In the hour before my train home, I grabbed a few pick-up shots at Union Square for another project. Simply put: we all couldn’t imagine what was coming, but we had heard the news.
I shot this handheld on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, with the smooth stabilization of my Olympus 12-100mm f/4 lens. Against the bright setting sun, it pushed the (alleged) 13 stops of dynamic range in BRAW format, since most of the action was in the shadows. That wide vantage point of Union Square was from behind the window of a multi-story Men’s Wearhouse (the one high spot I could get). From there, I saw this thing happening on the plaza, then sped down the escalators to catch the performance, and the rest is editing.
It speaks for itself. Our cities will look like this again. How soon, is how we behave.
When I got back in early March, people started realizing that lockdown was around the corner. The premier new music ensemble in Washington, D.C., 21st Century Consort (with whom I’ve created The Passion of Scrooge and many other projects) was going to have a concert at the modern art Hirshhorn Museum, and had already loaded in heavy percussion for a week of rehearsals. As the Smithsonian began to declare its inevitable closures, the Consort’s artistic director asked me to salvage all that work and expense, by capturing the concert without an audience. This was a new idea at the time! Dr. Fauci had already warned us to keep everyone 6 feet apart, and we did. The local paper interviewed me and wrote about the production here, and we leveraged YouTube’s premiere feature with chat functions to launch it one week after the originally scheduled concert date. Compared to the lo-fi, smartphone streams that we’ve been watching at home (or suffered through, depending on how you feel about it), this was a pristine multi-camera shoot at UHD-4K resolution, color graded from log footage, using a nearly nightmare combination of: Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, Sony a7 III, Sony a6600, and Z CAM E2C. You might enjoy trying to guess which was used for each angle. I applied camera-specific FilmConvert LUT profiles to match things up, as a starting point (but as ever, it needed tons more refinement in the grade).
For this playlist, I’ve excerpted the first work on the program, whose prescience (programmed before the pandemic) is haunting now. You’ll see reflections of the water bowls on the ceiling, that look like the virus; it looks like everyone’s dutifully washing their hands; and one of the musicians later joked — very dry humor — that you could call this “Flu Man Group.” (Rimshot.) If you want to watch the full hour including more conventional music, click here.
We all know what happened next, as if things weren’t bad enough. Yet for a long time, America has been suffering from its original sin, and there is no end in sight for reparations.
This isn’t quite an original work, just a straight-up excerpt (though I’ve deployed a few J-cuts and L-cuts to help it stand alone). Enough has been said, and too much destroyed, in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I was just there in February, shooting a documentary interview, on my way to Winona’s Frozen River Film Festival (to show the last film in this playlist below), right on the heels of Winona Ryder painting a more nostalgic picture of Minnesota and her namesake small town during the Super Bowl. Tension was hiding in plain sight.
Distance helps, yes? Director Ladj Ly grew up in the Montfermeil commune of Paris and set his debut feature film there, drawing parallels between the actual Victor Hugo classic story, and today’s ethnic and economic tensions in “Les Bosquets.” Good drama resists tying things up neatly in a bow: this film shows good cops and bad cops, and the abiding reality that uprisings backfire, while rage is unavoidable. You can’t be surprised, after an accumulation of one injustice after another. The complete feature film — you’ll find it interesting that a drone camera is very central to the plot — streams in pristine UHD-4K/HDR freely on Amazon Prime Video.
And now we end right there in Paris. Sort of. Olivier Messiaen was a French composer who got imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II at Stalag VIII-A. There in captivity, he composed and premiered a transcendent work called Quartet for the End of Time that probably receives more consensus from musicologists than anything else, as the greatest piece of chamber music written in the 20th century. A few years ago, I had the rare privilege to document rehearsals, and a 75th anniversary performance of the work, by “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band Ensemble — this was during the Obama administration, if it matters to you — and around that time, Paris got bombed by terrorists. I show those memorials at the end of the film, while the interviewee eloquently relates that chaos is everywhere, and it feels like the end of time.
But there’s a misunderstood enigma about the title of the piece, also the title of my documentary: in fact, we should translate “the end of time” as “the end of the relevance of time,” pointing towards some kind of timeless spiritual existence that rises above this chaos. Hope and salvation isn’t just cheap therapy: maybe it’s written in the stars, and in ourselves.
So that’s the stuff I’ve made (so far), although if you’re like me, it’s also been tough to stay productive, absent routines, and the prior need to stay on our feet outside home. I hope you’re figuring out how to stay sane, creative, and engaged in good health. Laughter is still the best medicine, don’t forget that: for me, these endless weeks have been perked up by comedian Annie Lederman’s Patreon and podcast; Donterio Hundon’s on-fire barbeques; Michael Rappaport’s rants; and Bobby Lee and Andrew Santino’s Bad Friends. I’ve also passed (and wasted) plenty of time watching whole seasons of episodic television, consuming all five of Better Call Saul, the first of Lil Dicky’s heartfelt Dave, and Sam Esmail’s Homecoming. Got any must-watch tips of your own? Please let me know right back.
Stay well y’all, and for the love of god…