If fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, documentary filmmakers have got to collaborate. Or so it would seem based on what’s happening inside The D-Word Community (www.d-word.com), an online network of Gotham docmakers.
After hobnobbing on the Web for a year, two dozen far-flung D-Word members decided to overcome geographic distance and create a joint project using the Internet as a primary means of collaboration. The fruits of their labor debuted June 20 as “Essays in Documentary,” eight shorts presented on DocuWeb.com. The shorts peek at various aspects of documentary filmmaking, from credit card financing to the “truth” about cinema verite.
“We’re a group of creators, and when you get creative people together, it’s really very natural for them to want to work together,” says Doug Block, a documentarian who co-founded the D-Word site in 1999, which has grown to 250 members in 14 countries. “What I get so clearly from hosting this community is that people are dying to connect with their peers. We all want to feel part of a community, and the Web is a perfect way to connect.”
It’s still less than perfect when it comes to collaborative filmmaking, however.
“We embarked on it as an experiment,” says Lori Cheatle, one of four supervising producers.
Indeed, “Essays” serves as a case study in what is possible in online collaboration, especially among mere mortals — those with home offices and 56K dial-up modems.
Some tasks were wholly feasible, while others remained tantalizingly out of reach. The Net served them best when they were dealing in words, discussing and debating across time zones and latitudes. Even though the core group was spread out from New York to San Francisco, they were able to inch their way toward consensus on such matters as the project’s topic, rights agreements, credits, and overall objectives using email and discussion threads.
The bumpy part began when words segued into images. Transferring moving picture files over the Web poses a problem for those with standard modems and phone lines. Between this and software glitches, only part of the group could download rough cuts to screen and critique. The rest undertook this phase of the process the old-fashioned way — shipping cassettes via UPS and plugging them into the VCR.
“It’ll be easier for people to upload their work in a few years,” says Cheatle. “Even at the beginning of this project, (digital subscriber lines) or cable modems were not as common as they are now, just one year later.”
Limited bandwidth and server space also stood in the way of chain-letter storytelling, editing each other’s footage and other collaborative schemes the group was itching to try.
But the future is within sight. At the National Assn. of Broadcaster’s convention this year, D-Word member Robert Goodman spotted some products that enable long-distance editing.
“All of your footage files is stored someplace, and your editor can be anywhere,” he explains. “When you select a clip, a (low-resolution) proxy downloads. Then while you’re cutting, the system continues to download the full file in the background. It’s not cheap. It’s not an independent solution. But it posits what the future may be.”
In the meantime, Block extols what’s possible today. “Collaboration is one of the strong points of the Web. Even if the technology isn’t quite there, that’s something we can do right now, in a very text-based, simple way.”
“I think our collaboration was pretty successful, given the obstacles,” says Cheatle. “It expands the idea of independent filmmaking, and that’s exciting, even though it may be in a rough stage right now.”