Crash Course in Digital FilmmakingHow one nonprofit turned teens into documentary filmmakers in less than a month
April 2, 2007
If you watch "Sleeping Nights Awake," a 2007 film about influential rock band Sonic Youth
, you'll find all the key elements of a music documentary: live concert material, interviews with band members, and candid backstage footage delivering a close-up look at the band and its music.
Yet unlike many documentaries, "Sleeping Nights Awake" wasn't shot by a professional crew or with a large budget. Rather, the film is the work of seven teenagers under the direction of the Nevada-based nonprofit Project Moonshine
"An Empowering Feeling"
Project Moonshine helps Reno teens develop digital-video skills by providing them with the equipment, training, support, and guidance necessary to produce a documentary film. The organization's founder and CEO Michael Albright said he believes that filmmaking can help give young people a sense of identity that can be difficult to find elsewhere.
"A lot of the sentiment when you're a teenager is that you don't really have a voice and no one really cares about what you have to say," Albright said. "There's an empowering feeling when you have a [video] camera in your hand."
Founding and Funding
The seeds of Project Moonshine were planted in 2004, when Albright worked as an intern for New York City documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles ("Grey Gardens," "Gimme Shelter"). There, the recent UC Santa Barbara Film Studies graduate realized that he could be more productive in a smaller, more affordable city with less of a film industry presence.
In 2005, Albright relocated to his hometown of Reno, Nevada, where he set up Project Moonshine as a 501(c)3 nonprofit and recruited some friends to help him run it. He then began raising the funds needed to purchase digital video cameras, a computer, and editing software by sending letters to local businesses and individuals.
Albright believes his ties to Reno helped the organization achieve its fundraising goals more quickly than if he had been working in a less familiar city.
"That's one of the benefits of actually doing it in your hometown," he said, "because you know people and you can raise money a lot easier." After securing the necessary funds, Project Moonshine purchased a trio of Panasonic AG-DVC30
video cameras, high-end consumer models that record on MiniDV digital tapes.
Albright also used his ties to the local community to recruit students for the project. He explains that while he was forming Project Moonshine, he worked as a substitute drama teacher at Reno High School, which allowed him to meet students who were passionate about the arts and filmmaking. Project Moonshine also recruited applicants at other area high schools, eventually settling on a diverse crew of six students.
The final addition to Project Moonshine's cast of filmmakers was 19-year-old Nathan Lower, a friend of one of the students, who started coming to meetings. Although Albright initially wanted to limit participation to six young people, Lower's interest and tenacity eventually won him over.
"At first, Mike was pretty hesitant to let anyone else into the program but I just kept showing up at all the meetings," said Lower. "He liked that, and I was in."
Learning to Film under a Deadline
For Project Moonshine's first film, Albright decided to have the students document Artown
, a yearly summer festival that showcases a variety of Reno artists, from dance troupes to jugglers. Since most of Artown's program is geared toward an older demographic, Albright thought that giving the teenagers the chance to put a unique spin on the festival.
Yet although Project Moonshine had identified the subject of its first documentary, the seven recruits had little or no prior experience working with video cameras. With only a few weeks to prepare, Albright and his staff began training the crew to shoot video.
For one of the first training exercises, Albright took the students to downtown Reno, where he divided them into three groups. He then gave each group a camera and a shotgun microphone and asked them to interview one another. "That's some of the best footage we have," said Albright. "They're not only getting to know each other, but they're getting to know this camera."
Project Moonshine founder Michael Albright conducts a training session in downtown Reno. Photo courtesy of Project Moonshine.
In preparation for the Artown project, the students met several times a week to receive more hands-on video training. Albright asked each student to pick one subject matter — such as water, graffiti, or trash — and film as much of it as possible. "That was just a way to try to get them to think about an idea and find as much of it as they could," said Albright.
One common mistake many of the teenagers made when learning to use a video camera was over relying on the zoom button. Albright instructed the filmmakers to find a shot and let it develop, rather than constantly move the camera around. Lower agrees that learning to focus on a subject or scene was one of the biggest obstacles he faced during the course of his video training.
"I couldn't focus on one thing for too long," Lower said, "so I had to be more patient."
A Chance to Film Sonic Youth
While preparing to film the Artown festival, one of Project Moonshine's staffers decided on a whim to email Sonic Youth's management to request permission to film the band's upcoming July 4 performance at the Reno Hilton. Although the band happily agreed to the request, Project Moonshine had less than a week to prepare the teenagers.
To give the film crew advance practice shooting a live band, Albright, who acted as the film's director, had them shoot several small concerts that were part of the Artown festival. "The biggest thing was that they were all really afraid to get close [to the stage]," said Albright. "So just standing with them in front of the stage and getting really close into the action was something that really helped."
Though the students were taught to focus on the main points of a shot, Lower believes that the trainings also helped give him an eye for bringing out the finer points of a scene. "In the small time Mike had to train me before Sonic Youth," said Lower, "he stressed one thing in particular: Look for the details — the unique things about whatever you are filming that make it special."
The Day of the Shoot
On the day of the show, the teenagers arrived at the venue early and were instructed to film everything they could, including the concert hall, backstage footage, and the band's sound check. Meanwhile, Albright and other Project Moonshine staffers stockpiled spare MiniDV tapes and camera batteries and coordinated interviews with the band members.
To prepare the students for interviews, Albright had photocopied a story recounting Sonic Youth's early history and handed it out to the filmmakers. While some of the students read the story and used it as an interview guideline, others preferred the spontaneity of interviewing the band cold.
Project Moonshine's staff used Sonic Youth's sound check to determine how to position the cameras across the venue to capture the best possible concert footage. Eventually, they placed two of the three groups of teenagers in the crowd at opposite ends of the stage, gave each group a camera, and asked them to take turns filming. Because this setup allowed each group to focus on one of Sonic Youth's two main guitarists and also capture the vocalist in center stage, this footage became the backbone of the filmed concert.
The third group spent the concert roaming about behind the stage, capturing footage of Sonic Youth's drummer, the crowd, and the band members from a variety of different angles. "The roaming team got all the details that would make it [the footage] sort of come together," Albright said.