Making A Film From Stills

002_untitled_from The Joseph Szabo Project_Courtesy of Joseph Szabo
From The Joseph Szabo Project Courtesy of Joseph Szabo

Upon seeing the work of photographer Joseph Szabo, who documented the essence of American teenage life in the 1970s and 1980s, filmmakers David Khachatorian and George P. Pozderec knew immediately they had a story to tell. Reminded of their own youth growing up in Queens, New York, the directors felt passionately for the project and invested much of their own free time and money into completing the film. Currently making the rounds at film festivals across America, here they spoke with Sean Samuels about the process of turning stills into motion picture film.

Sean: You mentioned earlier that making this film was a process over many months, going through all the images. Let’s talk about that.
George: We would visit Joe in his studio where he had boxes and boxes of contact sheets and prints. Every week, we would pull out a new box and talk about it. Joe would have recollections about this photo or that photo and for each one there was a story that went with it and we are talking thousands and thousands of photos. At this point it was a process of discovery, just to see what was there.

David: Joe’s organization system is not exactly the best. In the case of 50-year archives, there’s a substantial amount of material to go through. A lot of stuff he already had printed but it had not seen the light of day, so that was a good starting point. Here were boxes full of pictures that had never made it anywhere, but were still amazing. Next were the contact sheets, but it’s really tough to tell what’s good and what’s not from these. I mean, you’re looking at tiny little square 35mm negative images printed on paper. So we ended up scanning all of his sheets high res. This worked out well, but was time consuming, and really that’s why this thing took a long time. We looked at each scan on the computer and then cut out every individual frame to create a high definition image that we could examine in detail. This is when the whole tapestry of his work really started to show.

George: We were insistent that we lookat every image. You just can’t look at a contact sheet with a magnifying glass and decide this image is going to work in a film. You have to see how the image fits into the bigger picture. And from here all of the images had to be organized. They had to be grouped. For example, we had a party section and we had a classroom section. Joe really was immersed in the teenagers’ world. He went to a Rolling Stones concert with two of his students, he went to parties and hung out while they were smoking and drinking beer. He was always there.

David: Joe had a lot of patterns in his work and that came out in this process. The container for his work was high school, but he shot a lot of different aspects of that over a very large period of time. He had very specialized areas he wanted to concentrate on and that came about as you were going through everything electronically. This might not have happened with prints in hand because when you look at an image by itself it means one thing, but seeing the image with other images, all together in a browser, created a different meaning.  The process brought out a new context to the images and it turned out that Joe’s intuition back then was right.

George: He was so busy shooting (back in the 70s and 80s) that he didn’t have the time to physically print everything or to really analyze it, but we had the time and rediscovered some hidden gems.

Sean: As filmmakers looking for images that would fit well in a film what were you looking for?
David: Every picture had to tell a story. Every picture had to forward the narrative of Joe’s story and his students’ story. We looked at some images that were really great, but they didn’t fit in a sequence and that’s where the evolution occurred from photography to filmmaking, where you are looking at 24 frames per second. Our situation was unique because here we were with still pictures that would eventually become 24 frames per second but how would they be perceived by a person’s brain and heart. The question was whether we could create an illusion of movement just by editing stills together. Fortunately Joe’s work was a perfect candidate because here was a documentary photographer in the same location for decades at a time looking at everything around him and that gave us a lot of coverage for telling the story.

Sean: Did you have an idea of the narrative prior to looking at the images and did this inform the process?
George: No, we had no idea. We shot a lot of footage that never made the light of day from Joe walking along Jones Beach where he had photographed for decades to him working in his studio, but we soon decided we were missing the point and the point was the photographs. Once we made that realization things turned a corner.

David: I think the strength of his pictures really dictated the story to tell. We had a limitation based on what Joe had shot. That was one of the beauties of this thing. We created a storyboard within the browser itself. The photos told us which way to go and shaped the story of the film.

Sean: What do you love about telling stories, especially ones from New York?
David: We are both from the area and because we are not making films that are commercially driven, for the time being anyway, the stories we tell are passionate projects for us and the three films we have made so far have all been labours of love. New York is embedded in us. This is the key to independent filmmaking. You really have to want to make these types of films because everything is stacked against you. You have to beg and borrow and do what you have to do. There are a million stories in New York but the ones we chose are really personal to us.

Sean: What did you beg and borrow for this project?
David: Literally everything. We were working on a limited budget so we called in a lot of favors. For example, we traded one of Joe’s photographs to get the website built. We were totally out of funds and Joe helped us out. He donated it.

George: We also traded a photograph with Darin Wooldridge, who did the colour correction for us. We spent our own money making this film and we really needed to do things like this to finish it. We didn’t want to go down the grant process because that just takes forever. Joe volunteered a lot of time, he did all the scans and he printed all his own stuff. And if he didn’t like anything that was chosen it wouldn’t be printed, but luckily he liked everything that made the film that had not been printed before.

Sean: What was Joe’s input? How much freedom did he give you with his work?
George: David and I had done a film on Jones Beach and that is where we first met Joe and so we had already established a certain level of trust with him and so I think he felt he could trust us with this new material and that we would do the right thing by it and him.

David: It was a similar level of trust between Joe and his students and that’s one of the reasons why his images are so successful. They treated each other as peers, which was a rare situation. It was an intuitive, person to person non-judgmental process. For us, the trust was number one and he was familiar with our work on Jones Beach. This set a precedent because you don’t have many professional photographers opening up their archives to people to look through.

George: He let us go wild and look for what we wanted.

David: Yeah, we were like kids in a candy store.

Sean: It sounds like it was a lot of fun being in his studio?
George: Yes it was because Joe was so willing to give us whatever we wanted and the more time we spent with him the more he would remember and share all these funny stories with us.

David: And we filmed all of these times, so the narrative of Joe talking about the photos was always there as a research tool we could go back to.

Sean: What influence did your experience as editors have on the way you made the film?
David: You definitely think in a certain way as an editor that is different to the way a writer or director or producer or actor thinks. You figure out a way to dissect the material and be looking out for what the essence of the story is and what story you can tell. Fortunately, with this situation we had a really long time to figure this out and it just grew organically. It would be a totally different film if we were forced to complete it within a time constraint.

George: As an editor when you are listening to interviews you can hear sound bites as they go by. You can hear when someone says something that is great and that you are going to use later, you may not know where, but you know you want it. And I think it is the same thing with pictures. You see an image and all of a sudden you have an idea of a sequence. And with this project it was a combination of the two – finding the right words and photographs from Joe that told the story. It was fascinating to experience putting one still next to another and then another and to get this incredible sense of movement.

Sean: How much movement did you want to bring to the still images?
David: Well there are certain moments where there is linear escalation of the frames Joe took. There is physical motion in the same way you have with Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, but the motion that really drives the film is not as literal, for the most part it is in the cutting from shot to shot to create an illusion of movement. When you think back on things in your own life, your own memories, you think of them as still images you don’t think of them as moving pictures, and for me when putting multiple images together this creates a new idea overall. This harks back to the work of Eisenstein where he would juxtapose dissimilar ideas to form a larger idea. That’s what we were thinking about. And given the piece is 15 minutes long, we did wonder if we could keep an audience engaged and in their seats and invested in the story emotionally. Could we tell an old fashioned story the way it was supposed to be told? Joe’s story is a very specific one and we wanted to tell it in that vein and this is a very seventies style film. And we really didn’t know if it was going to pay off in the end in the same way Joe didn’t know if what he had was good. He said it himself, he knew it was honest, but he didn’t know if his photography was good. Everything was on intuition.

George: When you start to put the images together there is an emotional quality that is released. When you combine the images with sound and with music they lift off and you are immersed in this world with these characters. Early on we wondered whether the audience would relate to these people that they don’t know anything about. But Joe’s photographs are so universal in their portrayal of the teenage experience that it is like an automatic connection. It was like being transported in this time machine back to highschool.

David: So many photographers of their day such as Walker Evans and Russell Lee captured a certain world for the generations to come to be able to look back on and feel as if they were there at the time. I guess that is the illusion of still photography. In its essence it allows you to vicariously experience the milieu even though you were never there. That idea was also an inspiration for us for this film and was the ultimate gift from Joe. He was in the right place at the right time. It was like he was a documentary filmmaker and that was impressive.

© Sean Samuels 2012

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