Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Christmas Carol

[Now available at YouTube in 2 parts: Part I - Part II.]

I'm going the easy route with my final Christmas special of the blogyear - cute kids, classic story, singing fish. Like my other two holiday posts, this one draws on something from my past (and I'm pretty much out of clever Christmas creations, so next year the MMmusing stockings will be empty if I don't get to work). A Christmas Carol is my first "movie," filmed in 2000 and edited together in 2002. I'm mainly posting it because it's fun and makes me happy, but there are aesthetic points to made, as always.

The backstory is that I'd just gotten a computer powerful enough to import and edit video (remember when that wasn't routine), so on the drive down to see our large assortment of adorable nieces and nephews that Christmas, my sister and I hatched the plan of making a movie. Dickens' tale seemed the obvious choice, and somehow the casting all worked out pretty easily too. Since many of the actors were under the age of 6, the basic process was to feed lines one at a time and shoot. I made all sorts of videoing mistakes, such as not realizing that when I stopped (not paused) and then restarted the camera, I'd lose the last few seconds of the previous take. This, and the realities of shooting the whole thing in a couple of days with young children (and those annoying child labor laws) meant that the editing task that followed presented some . . . challenges. Although it took me almost two years to brave the task, I had a great time working within these rather tight constraints.

The final product is quite charming, and even features some special effects that tested the limits of the bargain-basement software I used. Of course the cute kids carry the film (my then 1-year old daughter makes a tiny cameo walking through the party scene), but the aesthetic point to be made here is that the constraints become a part of the language of the work. I wrote about that (and another family movie) in a past post, how certain flaws that would be unacceptable in one context are actually positives in another. (I was thinking something tangentially related the other day listening to Kermit the Frog sing on a Christmas album; that goofy, shaky voice would not be acceptable from just any singer, but our associations with Kermit's persona make it meaningful. Maybe the same could be said of Bob Dylan's voice, although his sound isn't as polished as Kermit's.)

Even though I'm now presenting this to a wider audience, I'll cheat and remind all that it was mainly designed as a family thing. Inevitably, there are inside jokes and an appearance by a singing fish that had been gifted and regifted a couple of times that year. There's also sadness: my then 2-year old niece, who has a small part as Mrs. Cratchit, lost a battle with cancer a few months after that Christmas. We still miss her terribly, but it's wonderful to be reminded of her, and we can't wait to see her again.

This is quite obviously amateur filmmaking (let's just say Industrial Light & Magic was not consulted for the FX), and I make no pretenses of being a real director. (Speaking also as the editor, I can say I wish we'd had a more experienced director!) On the other hand, I think it's wonderful that technology has opened up the possibilities for this new kind of art. I spent an amazing evening last night reading Dvorak and Brahms quintets with my wife and others, and although those works are certainly masterpieces by any standard, I was reminded that the joy of the chamber music experience is as much about creating art on an intimate, spontaneous level as it is the works themselves - I think homemade family movies tap into some of that same unpretentious joy and satisfaction that only art on a local scale can provide.

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