Still of ruth from "ruth weiss, the beat goddess" documentary
My second feature film is about the first female beat jazz poet, ruth weiss. I was invited to one of her poetry readings in San Francisco, not knowing what to expect, and three years later we are so close that she is like a grandmother to me. In a life that has spanned 91 creative years, escaping the Nazis with her family in Vienna, ruth became a Jazz troubadour exemplifying the zeitgeist of Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco. Known around the world, ruth weiss continues to this day to perform her poetry. Inspired by her work, the documentary uses poetic imagery through dance, art, animation and music to embody her oeuvre. Note: weiss spells her name in lowercase as a symbolic protest against "law and order," since all nouns are capitalized in her birthplace of Germany.
Learn more about the film: www.ruthweissfilm.com
Behind the scenes filming from "ruth weiss, the beat goddess" documentary
What are some of the unforeseen benefits of taking on a creative side project?
One of the benefits of being a freelance filmmaker is that I can make my own work schedule, so all my projects are important. If they weren’t important, how would they get done? I think one of the benefits of creating a project that you are really interested in making is that you can experiment with ideas you have been wanting to try, but your regular freelance projects don’t require it. Or filming something in a certain style you know you can do, but no one has given you the opportunity to show you can. It takes you a step closer to achieving the level of projects that you want to make. It keeps me on my toes creatively because something that I learn in one project could inspire another idea for a different project. It is not an easy path. It will be financially, emotionally and physically draining. But, once you finish it, it will be rewarding in a way that will make it all worth it. You will gain a level of knowledge and experience that you can’t get in school, only from failing and getting back up again and again.
Is there a particular project you’ve worked on that you really enjoyed?
Working on "ruth weiss, the beat goddess" really set my creativity free. Just meeting her as a person — she is so cool. I also loved working with the producer Elisabeth Montgomery because she is a great producer, and she said yes to a lot of my ambitious, wild ideas. We have worked on 27 documentaries together in China over the past 10 years so she trusted my vision.
Still of Ida Nowakowska Herndon from "ruth weiss, the beat goddess" documentary
When I read and listened to ruth’s poetry book called “Desert Journal,” I visualized a ballerina dancing in the Mojave desert. And so I reached out to one of my schoolmates from UCLA, Ida Nowakowska Herndon, who is a professional dancer and choreographer. She is a jury judge on the show "So You Think You Can Dance” in Poland, and is currently a judge on “Worlds Best.” It was extremely fun to film, and we mirrored ballerinas in other environments throughout the film dancing to her poetry.
Still of Brennan Wall from "ruth weiss, the beat goddess" documentary
We also used Monet- and Renoir-inspired animation for specific parts of her life history. She is a Holocaust survivor, and I wanted the animation to be like an old painting you would see at a museum. A mature work of art that reflects the severeness of her escape.
I collaborated with my friend who is an artist/animator, Ketzi Rivera, and it turned out incredible. I transcribed the interview, edited it together in my timeline and then created a script. I drew rough storyboards and edited it into the film to see how long each shot should be and how it would flow together. I gathered visual references for each scene and a color palette. I found photographs of how I wanted the character to look and what they would wear. Ketzi re-drew the storyboards, and then rough color, full color and finally the animation. We always communicated to keep on the same page. Drawing takes a lot of time, and I didn’t want her to go back and redo things when we could have caught it earlier on. The more information, communication and collaboration results in a good outcome.
Animation from "ruth weiss, the beat goddess" documentary
Is there a particular project that’s pushed you creatively? What kind of challenges have you had to overcome?
In the winter, I worked as a cinematographer on my first sci-fi action TV pilot that will premiere this year, called "Dimensional Shift," directed by Amber Sharp. The script flows between multiple dimensions from the past, present and alternative realms, so each reality had to be filmed in a different stylized way for the audiences to recognize which world we are in. I worked closely with the director on the visualization, storyboards, color chart and references to fully comprehend what she envisioned, and we worked really well together on set because we were always on the same page and she was happy with the look.
As a cinematographer, I created lighting and camera rules for different dimensions. Whenever we were filming a memory from the past, we created golden hour. The camera would be on a tripod, and my wonderful gaffer, Taryn, and key grip, Diego, would always dance around with a light or a mirror to get a lens flare. We came up with some fun techniques that I will share as the weeks go forward.
Still from "Dimensional Shift" TV pilot
The present-day storyline happens during troubling events, so the camera, lighting and colors reflect and define the present dimension. The style is dark, gritty, with blue or green colors, and the camera is handheld.
Still from "Dimensional Shift" TV pilot
We filmed the spiritual world during sunset, and I tried to get rainbow flares from the sun whenever a spirit would appear in a shot or we entered the spiritual realm.
Still from "Dimensional Shift" TV pilot
This project took a lot of planning, scheduling and pre-production to make sure everything ran smoothly, and we were able to capture everything we needed at each location in a short period of time. We powered through the filmmaking, and I am so grateful for the amazing team we had. Watch the trailer for "Dimensional Shift."
How do you manage to fit these assignments into your busy schedule given the time and financial commitment, in some cases? How do you find the balance between personal projects and hired ones?
It really depends on person to person, and their work ethic, but I thrive working on multiple projects at the same time; it’s very exciting and stressful. When I get bored working on one project for that day, I can work on another to change it up, and then come back to it later with a clear vision. I also get inspired by one project that gives me ideas for another. So working on multiple projects helps me always be fresh. Sometimes I get creative blocks when I work on my personal projects and I get eager to work on something else. If there is no tight deadline, I take a break and work on another project. Sometimes days and weeks pass by, and then when I am ready to work on my personal project again I get back to it. I take mental breaks, whether it is reading a book, watching a movie, going to the gym, hiking or playing with my cats.
Have you ever had any unexpected corporate opportunities resulting from projects that you’ve taken on as a way of giving back?
Yes, Skyword. I got an email from Isabel Garcia Ostwald, a producer at Skyword, asking if I would like to apply to shoot a movie for Samsung. She said she was really impressed by my work. She saw the trailer for "California’s Forgotten Children," my first feature about child sex trafficking, and she liked the way I told human stories. So I applied, got the job, and since then have made 15 projects for Samsung. Watch the selected projects: www.mcmfilmmaker.com/samsung.html
Do you have any advice for other creatives who are looking to take on passion projects? How can they find them, manage the commitment and potentially spin them into new opportunities?
I generally don’t go looking for passion projects, they somehow find me. Whether I am reading an article, see something on TV, meet someone on a bus or try new things that I am interested in; in some way, shape or form, the passion project will come to you. You will know it because you will have this urge to just jump off the cliff and make it happen. And when you jump off that cliff you are going to realize you didn’t have a parachute (money) so you will grab onto whatever rock you can (savings) and have to free climb back up to the beginning. You will learn so much about time management, financial planning and the elements you need to make your project a reality when you climb back up that cliff. And then slowly climb back down again with a rope (grants, Kickstarter, other jobs) or jump off with a parachute this time (investor, angel donor). I find the best thing to do is to meet with lots of people who have completed a passion project and listen to their journey. From that, take their advice that works with your project.
Don't forget to check out Melody's Skyword portfolio, website and Instagram!