Thomas Edison once famously said that genius is “one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
There’s no exact corollary to that when it comes to filmmaking. But as Larry Hott sees it, any filmmaker who doesn’t do the proper groundwork before turning on a camera is getting off to a bad start.
As Hott recently explained to a group of aspiring documentary filmmakers, the preparation for a film — from developing smart interview questions, to building good backdrops for interviews, to getting the lighting right, to scouting film locations — involves a lot more than “Lights, camera, action!”
“As a filmmaker, you have to control the situation,” Hott said to a class he’s leading at Northampton Community Television for the next few months. “You don’t want to make a film where the viewer is distracted … by a bad backdrop, bad lighting or other things you didn’t get right.”
Hott, of Florence, has been making documentary films since the late 1970s, primarily with his wife, Diane Garey. Their company, Florentine Films, has won numerous awards for movies on a range of subjects, including the War of 1812, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and a thriving music program at a Springfield high school with limited resources.
Over the last several years, Hott has also been doing an increasing amount of teaching, including at the University Without Walls program at UMass Amherst and at a media program in Maine. He’s taken to teaching in part “to get away from the grind” of fundraising for his films, he said with a laugh. But he’s also come to enjoy the experience.
“Film has become the new English degree,” he said. “There’s a clarity of thought involved with it, and it embraces a lot of the same things, like good writing … and I think I’m pretty good at [teaching].”
For the NCTV class, which is free, Hott and NCTV Director Al Williams received 31 applications; eight students, ranging from their late teens to about 60, were selected, based on their previous experience and the strength of their proposed film projects.
In the class, which meets roughly every four weeks through May, students look at all aspects of documentary filmmaking, from narrating a story, to pitching an idea to potential donors, to budgeting for a film — as well as vital technical steps such as properly lighting a film scene and incorporating sound and archival images.
The students — six women and two men — are expected to incorporate those points in their own film projects. In the final class, they’ll each show segments of their work to get feedback from one another and from Hott.
Williams says having Hott lead a filmmaking course at NCTV is a natural step for the station, given its related work in recent years, such as sponsoring some short-film competitions and producing the last few Northampton Film Festivals, including some crowd-sourced community movies.
“Having a filmmaker of Larry’s stature working with us is just a great opportunity,” he said.Setting the scene
In the first meeting of the class, in early February, Hott, using a laptop computer and a monitor, cued up some short segments from a few of his movies and other documentaries to illustrate some basic techniques for filming interviews.
In many documentaries, he noted, interviews are often conducted in fairly bland settings — hotel rooms, offices, schools — and filmmakers have to cover up that blandness with a pleasant but neutral backdrop to keep viewers focused on the interviewee.
When he’s filming, Hott said, he always travels with various screens and a large container of plastic, multi-colored blocks. In one interview segment from his documentary “Rising Voices,” about the efforts by Lakota Native Americans to retain their original language, he deliberately blurred the backdrop, leaving just a soft pearl of color from plastic blocks he had stacked to the left and right of the man who was speaking.
Even seemingly innocuous background items can misfire, he noted: film someone with a potted plant behind them “and invariably, when you look at [the film] afterward, there’s a leaf sticking out of the person’s ear.”
Hott also recalled a scene from “Rising Voices” in which he’d been forced to do a critical interview without adequate preparation. He’d ended up having to send that segment of the film to an outside editor, who used some computer magic to recast the lighting and backdrop and make it more presentable.
“The takeaway is this — unless you’re shooting with a really crucial background, your backdrop doesn’t matter,” he said. “You want to focus on your subject … interviews are the backbone of your story, and they need to look good.”Hands-on lessons
After some discussion about lighting, it was time for class members to do some hands-on work. Dividing into small teams, they used NCTV’s cameras and lighting equipment and set up stations for doing mock interviews.
First step: form the kind of neutral backdrop Hott had been talking about. “I’ve got a box of toys here you can use,” he said, as he shifted through a range of the colored plastic blocks he uses on his own films. The students searched the station for other useful items.
For one group, this involved draping a couch against one wall of the TV station with a dark sheet, then propping some of the plastic blocks on it.
“This is a really good idea!” said Sylvia Shread of Northampton, as she peered through the lens of a camera, mounted on a tripod. “[The background] already looks better.”
Some 20 feet away, three other students were trying to figure out how to improve their backdrop and get the lighting squared away for their mock interview. Kevin Murphy of Sunderland sat in a chair, the camera trained on him, while Amanda Herman of Florence fiddled with the camera settings.
“Your background looks a little messy,” said Hott as he observed their work. He suggested they place a freestanding poster, from the other side of the room, behind them to add some color to the backdrop.
Another student, Melissa McClung of Hadley, said she was thrilled to be part of the class so that she could connect with other filmmakers. Her current film project is what she describes as a mix of documentary and fiction; the part she plans to work on for Hott’s class involves profiles of people living in the Valley.
A film teacher at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley, McClung has made a number of short films, including some as part of NCTV’s short-film competitions.
“NCTV has given me amazing opportunities, which have truly changed my life path,” she said.
For the next class, Hott asked the students to prepare a one-page “treatment” — a summary — of their film projects, as well as how they’d try to pitch them to get funding. They’d also practice interviewing one another to get a feel for how to prepare good interview questions.
“You’ve got to train yourself to get people to give you complete answers — the answers you want,” he said.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at email@example.com.