Working on a strategy to continue the storytelling at Tar Creek. Looking to produce a 4-6 episode series that could be picked up by one of the big streaming services. Looking for interested parties and/or producers that might be able help me see this through.
Working on the script for this concept, based on my recently completed short film of the same title.
It’s a nerve wracking feeling packing, labelling, and shipping the film. You wouldn’t think so but given there are customs forms, labels, packing, and payment, and then once it leaves your hands all you can do is hope it makes it where it’s supposed to go.
The next day I left on a work trip and during a layover at the Denver, CO airport I received a call from UPS. Something to the effect of, “We have your shipment here and we need some additional information about it.” Was not a good feeling to know it was stalled along the way. I worked feverishly to both call and email the necessary “missing” information – basically, they just wanted a description of the what was in the box. Yet another reason to sweat. I wouldn’t feel good until I received a confirmation that it’s in the hands of Cinelab in London.
Unlike digital formats where a backup is possible. If this film gets lost or damaged in transit, that’s it, it’s over. Gone. Lost forever. No returns, refunds, exchanges, do-overs.
Thankfully, a couple of days later I received confirmation that the film was received.
Saturday, June 11 was quite a long day. We went from shooting at various film locations, to the interview, and then back to shooting more locations. The idea really was to complete the entire film shoot in a single day. After all, it’s only 200 feet of film in the cartridge and at 18 frames per second (fps) that’s just 3 minutes and 20 seconds! How long could it really take? My thinking was that I would have more than enough time to shoot two rolls of film. But turns out that I barely had enough time for even a single roll. Not because of any one thing, but because each shot takes time to set up and there’s travel time between locations, and then there’s waiting around time, so on and so forth.
Later in the day we were to meet Rebecca Jim and her son Dana at a location along Tar Creek near the Miami Nursing Home. An odd thing happened while we were there. At the time, my son and I were waiting in the car for our guests to arrive so we could film them. I’d noticed these two boys with loaded-down bikes ride by and head down towards the Creek. I thought it odd because knowing that the water is highly toxic it didn’t make sense to me that they’d be going down there to fish or play. I let my son know that I was going to walk down and scout it out, maybe get a shot or two of the water while we waited. When I walked down to the access point, just beyond the trees, in the center of the Creek, stripped down to their shorts and digging around for rocks in the water, were the two boys. What were they looking for, I wondered? Crawdads maybe. But it couldn’t be, there was very little, alive in this water. They didn’t see me and I didn’t really make myself known – I just went about my business. But it did strike me as odd and at the same time, thought maybe this would be good for the film, so I pointed the camera in their direction and pulled the trigger for a few seconds.
A few minutes later, one of them must have seen me. By then I’d decided to pack up and wander back to the car. They seemed quick to get out of the water and get dressed. It was one of those uncomfortable situations where I sort of felt like starting up a conversation but at the same time didn’t have a great vibe about the whole thing and decided not to ask any questions.
Back at the car parking area and Jim and Dana arrived. I shared the story about the boys and a surprised look came over Rebecca’s face. “Where are they, what did they look like, what were they doing?” she asked. Apparently I’d stumbled into an ongoing issue and caught two kids red-handed that were doing something they were not supposed to be doing – and I had it on film! As was explained, these same two boys had dammed up the Creek last season to create a swimming hole. On top of the toxic metal levels in the water, the water became stagnant and concentrated with dangerous levels of bacteria. In addition, all posted signage had suspiciously been removed by “somebody.” The authorities got involved including the Grand River Dam Authority and the Corp of Engineers because, among other things, it is illegal to dam up a flowing waterway – not to mention one that is already highly toxic and not to be swam in. It took the authorities and volunteers months to dismantle the make-shift dam. Rebecca later relayed that she’d encountered the same two boys some time ago, one of them had an axe on his bike, one of them was carrying a holster firearm of some kind.
It wasn’t but a few minutes before Rebecca was on the phone reporting the incident, her son was documenting the area where a few rocks had already been moved into place to create the beginnings of a new dam. And then Rebecca was wading into the water to topple the stones, and remove rocks from the river. “Aaron, come down here and take these,” she said. Immediately, I found myself following orders and helping to ferry stones from the Creek to the hillside.
In the distance was my son digitally recording the live action.
As things finally settled down we were able to re-focus and get back on track with filming. I captured the one or two shots and we moved on to the next location.
Back at the LEAD Agency office at 12:00pm to meet with Executive Director, Rebecca Jim. She gave us a full tour of the home-office, which felt like a combination library, history center, and art studio. We shared some stories and I handed her a copy of my decades old thesis work. (As a side note, was nice of her to ask about it, it’s rare that anyone has any interest in my old scientific research.)
My son and I worked together to set up the audio recording device (used an H1n Zoom portable recorder device) – just propped up on a tape dispenser. I’ve done a few interviews but this one was already going to be different than ones before. Through previous correspondence, both email and over the phone, I’d expressed that, if possible, I’d like to use her voice, her words, as the narration. I’d written a script – or at least pieces of one – as a guide but I didn’t necessarily want her to read from a script. I wanted this to be an interview. But an interview as if I was speaking with Tar Creek. In other words, I was essentially asking if she could be the voice of Tar Creek. A tall order in some sense, and something that might make someone uncomfortable, or even unsure about how to approach such a request. Was this acting or was this an interview?
Rebecca then asked me a question, “Do I have your permission to speak for her?” I wasn’t sure how to answer. Who was I to give permission? But then I supposed that the question was posed to put me in a similar position as she felt, that we were in agreement that this would be the arrangement, and so I answered that, yes, she had my permission.
Her voice softened, her mood changed, and she spoke from the creek’s perspective. The best I can describe it is that she was channeling what she felt the area and the creek would have felt – not just at one point in time but at different points in time along the way. We were time traveling through history and Tar Creek, as spoken through Rebecca, was guiding us. It was meaningful, and powerful, and heartfelt. And sometimes I felt like the questions I was asking were disjointed, and unclear, and messy. And I was wishing that I was doing a better job in asking the questions but still, we were moving forward and carried along, as if by the current of the Creek itself. At the conclusion she said that the whole experience was very touching for her, and that it was difficult. And I could tell that it difficult. And listening back over the audio the intensity comes through. In total the interview was about 38 minutes long.
To sidestep just a bit, in terms of the technical aspects of the recording I was worried. The room was not great for sound quality. There was loud truck traffic right outside, her voice was very quiet at times, and all the while I was worrying that the recording just wasn’t going to turn out.
After we left the interview and went back to filming the rest of scenes I expressed to my son that I was nervous about the sound quality. He insisted I take a moment and listen back to it, just to check, otherwise I would be worried about it the rest of the day. It was good advice because once I heard the recording I realized that, while there would be some editing, and filtering, it was going to be useable.
I was excited to get going with shooting the film. I coordinated, at a moment’s notice, to drive to the site the following weekend. But as the day neared closer part of me realized I wasn’t fully prepared. Then as the weather forecast materialized it became apparent that this chosen weekend wasn’t going to work anyway. In retrospect, it was a good thing that the shoot got delayed a week. It gave me time for more preparation, more planning, and additional clarity.
When the time came, I was able to talk my son into coming with me. it’s about a 3-4 hour drive from my home up to NE Oklahoma. Along the way we talked about the plan, the film, and all the possible scenarios.
The thing about shooting a film “the Straight 8 way” is that, no matter how much planning you do, there is always the possibility for error. Unlike other films/videos where you can go in “in post” and fix it, there is no possibility of that with this type of film. If it is in frame when you are pulling the trigger, it’s on the film. No matter what. If it’s out of focus, if it’s too dark or too bright, if the lens cap is on, if your “talent” misses the take – that’s it! No retakes.
That feeling, knowing that the opportunity for error is always present, and yet you still have to proceed, to the best of your ability, to capture what you want, how you want it, and get to a watchable end product…well, that is both nerve wracking and incredibly exciting at the same time.
You can have the entire film in your head, or you can have your mind clear and shoot on-the-fly. I have to admit, I do a bit of both.
It was good to have my son there and fun to work with him. In spite of the long drive, the hot Oklahoma summer conditions, and all the little nit-picky details of setting up each shot, timing it, and document it, he was steadfast. I’d go so far as to say, he might have been having fun, at least for a little while. His was there to record me filming each shot – for timing purposes. He was there as a chemical element character in some scenes. He was there for the audio interview recording session. Overall, he did a great job and I was happy and thankful to have him there.
Shooting of the film took place on June 11, 2022. On the way into town, a funny thing; we passed an onion semi-truck that had some kind of malfunction with its trailer and lost its entire load of onions on the two lane blacktop. Traffic was backed up in both directions and the local fire department was spraying the remnants of squished and smeared onions from the asphalt. The pungent sulfuric odor of onion lingered in the air.
We arrived in the town of Cardin at about 11:20am after the long drive. We drove to an area I’d previously located on Google maps days before – I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, but had in mind all the elements of the shot. It didn’t take long and we were setting up along the side of the road, chat pile in the background, a barbed wire fence, and an old relic of a sign. So began this non-stop day. Following is the shot list I wrote down – in order of appearance. Times are an estimate based on my own count as I recorded.
Shot list - in order of appearance
Started at 11:20am - Cardin, OK
5 sec - First shot S8 ID# on barbed wire fence
5 sec - Barbed wire, chat hill background
5 sec - U.S. No Trespassing sign
(*At this point went back the LEAD Agency bldg to meet Rebecca for the interview. Picked up these following shots later, after interview and lunch.)
8 sec - Pan shot of chat pile
5 sec - Concrete mine structure 1
5 sec - Another concrete mine structure 2
5 sec - Active mining equipment
>>May be 2-3 individual random frames captured here.
8 sec - Close up of chat material
5 sec - Picher water tower
5 sec - Picher-Cardin memorial sign
5 sec - Picher Gorilla mascot memorial
5 sec - Close up - Summit in Yellow (Pb) shirt
5 sec - Summit - same shirt - at abandoned gas station at State Line
6 sec - Summit in Orange (Cd) shirt - abandoned structure/pillars
5 sec - Long shot of abandoned bldg - “Keep Out
5 sec - Close up of same bldg. with Keep Out more visible
5 sec - Close up of water in foreground - fish?
5 sec - Summit on chat pile (shirt color?)
5 sec - Long shot of chat pile
5 sec - Quapaw sign on fence
5 sec - Tar Creek - water flowing at E Street/Miami Nursing Home access
5 sec - 2 kids in the water moving large concrete/rocks
5 sec - Rebecca at Tar Creek in pink (As) shirt
5 sec - Daniel at tar Creek in red (Pb) shirt
5 sec - Summit at Tar Creek in Yellow (Pb) shirt
5 sec - Aaron at Tar Creek in Orange (Cd) shirt - filmed by Summit
10 sec - Bridge over Tar Creek at Rockdale location
?? - Rebecca downstream shot
?? - Rebecca and Daniel facing camera together in shirts
?? - Water barrel close up at LEAD Agency garden
?? - Rebecca watering garden
?? - Summit back of shirt with title “Take Care, Tar Creek on shirt” follow-shot past a Lead Free Yard sign into the garden
As noted in the shot list, we’d only just begun the film shoot portion when the time came that we needed to go back to Miami to the LEAD Agency office to meet for the interview.
Now that I had an idea, my next step would be research. I had a lot of history to cover, a lot of catching up to do on the history of Tar Creek. I spent time reading, discovering scientific articles, news stories, videos, and more. Most of all I’d hope to discover someone to speak to, I needed to have a voice and a perspective of someone who lived in the area. During this process I found LEAD Agency and Executive Director, Rebecca Jim. I reached out to Rebecca explaining what I wanted to do and expressing my interest in meeting with her. This step alone felt like a big one, to reach out and share a vision and to ask someone for their time. In that email I expressed:
I was pleasantly surprised that she returned my email quickly and enthusiastically.
Story & Planning
After making contact and receiving confirmation that I’d have someone to interview, I was anxious to get going. Maybe a little too anxious. At this point I felt like there were some major piece in place to create a production but didn’t really have a fully fleshed out story yet.
So much of “story” comes from exploration, brainstorming, testing ideas out loud, maybe talking through them, sharing them with others willing to listen – and sometimes, for me, writing my way through a concept. My writings these days often take place spontaneously through the Notes app on my phone. If something strikes me, even a fleeting spark of an idea, I will often make a note of it. Often times I’ve found, the ones I come back to more than once are the ones that have staying power, and end up in the film.
Through all of this, I’d been pondering the angle I wanted to take. i think of this style of film; these short Super 8 films, most akin to a poem in many ways. Knowing that I wouldn’t have time to introduce the entire spectrum and breadth of Tar Creek, this would not be an all encompassing documentary of the area – that’s not what I wanted. This was an opportunity for a singular perspective – and what better than the perspective of Tar Creek itself?
And so I began to think in this way, as if the Creek could speak. Then to begin thinking about titles, because the title could be the essence of the story. So many ideas came to mind, so many titles, but the one that kept coming back up, was “Take Care, Tar Creek.” It was as if the film would be an open-letter from Tar Creek to the world, and then at the end would be the salutation, Take Care, Tar Creek. And credit where credit is due, my wife helped me to solidify that concept when she suggested that the film could begin with “Dear…”
With that, I felt that the film, at least in my mind, presented a bookended concept with what could be a clear beginning, middle and end.
Then, to assemble the pieces in a meaningful way. I’d need music, I’d need some narration and of course, some moving pictures.
More to come on the shooting day, music and more in next posts…
Lots of progress made in a fairly short amount of time. I have been keeping notes and have some information to share over the next few posts.
First, a little bit of backstory on where the idea originated. It’s been over 20 years since I visited NE Oklahoma and Picher, OK. Last time I was there was as a student collecting soil samples for a scientific research project associated with my Masters thesis. In that work, I was investigating the relationship between particle size distribution and heavy metal concentrations in chat for extrapolation to potential exposures and health hazards. Even then, I remember feeling like the research I was doing, while useful in some respects, did not convey or communicate any real message, the way I wanted to. I recall having a discussion with my advisor once, about a documentary or story – but at that time it only felt like a pipe-dream, nothing more. Soon after achieving my degree I got my first career-level job, life took over and I moved on to other things. I never forgot about the place, kept up with the headlines, but always wondered if my work made any difference. I kept tabs on issues and followed stories about the area but it wasn’t until recently that I felt like maybe there’s something more to contribute.
Straight 8 is something I have entered a couple of times before. I’ve always embraced the opportunity to try and think of a concept from nothing, to something, to execution. This year I registered before ever having a real idea. I just felt like the pressure of knowing I’d committed to it would be a good driver of having to come up with something. Going into this one, my mind was actually headed in a completely different direction. I was thinking much more fictional and experimental. I went back to some old notes I’d made years ago and worked through the concept. But the more I thought about it the more I wanted to explore something in a documentary style. I started thinking out loud, talking through it, talking about ideas accessible to me, relevant to Oklahoma. And something that I thought an international audience might find unique or interesting about Oklahoma. This idea was in my wheelhouse – I’d known about Tar Creek, I’d known the challenges there, and the continuing struggles that the place has experienced. So the more I thought about the more it began to seem possible.
What I’ve found many times is that an idea that feels right seems to take on a life of its own. It grows legs and starts to move in a direction that wasn’t necessarily planned. It morphs and evolves into something more, something greater and sometimes, something different. Part of this feels like trying to bridle a mustang. It can get out of control. Trying to get my arms around something with so much weight, so much impact, and such a vast and storied past is difficult – and i felt that right away in approaching this idea for a mere 3 minute and 20 second film. My intent, from the beginning was to create a multi-part story, even a multi-film story. But I’ve since come to accept that I need to handle this one piece at a time. And while I could enter the Straight 8 festival multiple times and have multiple parts, I felt like I would be moving away from the intent of being able to tell a story with only one roll of Super 8 film. Arguably, an even harder task than knowing that I might have more time with multiple entires. The idea was then re-centered on keeping the focus on a single roll.
I have a film title. A subject. And a complete concept. Now, just to put it into action.
Going to be cautious in not revealing the idea or the title until I have some more solidified – so going to be a bit cryptic about it for now. But I am really excited about this direction and feel it has the potential for a must larger project.
This year I decided, rather abruptly, to enter the Straight 8 2017 Film Festival held by CineLab in London. Each year I see the festival come and go and each year I think about entering but somehow don’t pull the trigger (so to speak). But this year, I saw that I *might* have enough time to put an idea together so before thinking about it too much I paid my entry fee.
Luckily, I already had one roll of 500T sitting around. So I quickly went to work piecing together a concept that was bubbling in my mind.
For those unfamiliar with Straight 8 festivals it works like this: using a single roll of Super 8 film you shoot your film from beginning to end without edits, without takes, without the opportunity to reshoot anything. Once you start shooting, that’s it – what you capture is what you capture and there is no changing it. The film is sent off for processing and digitizing. Meanwhile, a soundtrack is put together, thankfully, editing is involved with the soundtrack but because there is no picture for reference it is difficult (if not impossible) to completely synch up audio and visual. The soundtrack is submitted as a digital audio file.
The film and audio is placed together and the first time the film premieres is the first time it is seen, in full, by any audience or even the filmmaker!
This makes the film creation process that much more exciting, unpredictable, experimental, and…risky.
I began in earnest putting my script together, documenting shots, proposing run times for each scene. My method of pre-production involves a lot of brainstorming, keeping random notes, writing anything down that comes to mind and then sorting it out as I come back to those notes again and again. Old ideas dissolve and new ideas take shape.
As I found this happening naturally, I decided that was what this film would be about – things taking shape, changing, and reemerging as new things. A constant continuous process of change; changing forms. I began to tie this concept to a couple of visual ideas – the process of making something by hand – in this case the forging of an original art piece from it’s early stage as a wax sculpture to that of the human and natural environment. Tying these two worlds together of the human-made vs. the natural environment, the common thread being that we are all part of a “process.”
For this idea I wanted an original soundtrack. I immediately jumped to wanting a cello piece – the cello has a certain power and mood about it that is unique and carries a certain weight that is appealing. I began asking friends about people who played cello and where I might be able to find someone to create an original score – in a short amount of time! But it seemed a tall order to find someone who could commit their time and energy to something like this on such short notice. I began looking online and quickly remembered using Fiverr for a couple of past graphic design projects so I began exploring there for a person that might be able to accomplish what I wanted. I posted a request and within hours received a number of replies from various composers and musicians about what they could offer. After sorting through the offers and listening to sample works I selected one that I felt could best achieve what I was looking for.
I was lucky enough to find a young Venezuelan composer to complete the score in less than 7 days! Here is a sample of the music:
In the midst of conceptualizing the idea I wrote a narration – sort of a spoken essay or long-form poem. It materialized as free-form writing, ideas popping into my head that became the “story.” I didn’t spend a lot of time writing and re-writing as I wanted to embrace the idea of “the first take” even in this part of the process. So not a lot of revisions. I used Fiverr again to seek out some talent to narrate the story. I found someone and received a version back pretty quickly. I made a couple of suggestions and received another version back.
Ultimately, I wasn’t getting exactly the tone I was looking for so I decided to do the narration myself. It took me several takes and I ended up revising the script a little bit more. The best takes were recorded in my clothes closet using an R-09 Edirol (the same one I’ve had for years now – in fact, the batteries are starting to rust out the inside).
I used Audacity to cut the audio and shifted things around a bit more. Final running time for the audio was 3:23 (about 3 min long but that’s fine).
My first roll ended up being used on another -related- project so I purchased a second roll. (I have the first roll and will be posting that footage as part of another project which covers more of the interior of the Crucible Foundry and the molding process for the soon-to-be bronze belt buckle that Rick Sinnett designed.) It is the wax positive of that piece that I chose to use for my Straight 8 project.
Principle photography took place over a period of three days. The first day took place at the Crucible in Norman. One of the most important – if not THE most important shot – is the first three seconds of the film because it has to display a unique ID number that identifies this cartridge, this film, as a valid submission. If the ID number is not in the first three seconds, you’re disqualified! So I made sure to open with that shot. I continued with a fade-in on an exterior interactive/movable sculpture and then moved inside for a few more select shots.
The second day of shooting, about a week later, took place in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oklahoma. This is one of my favorite places to visit so shooting there would be fun. I rounded up a couple of friends and fellow staff members, Virginia and Baylor, to be actors.
I wanted some interesting shots so I played around with a stop-motion idea and a moving time lapse scene. After a couple of hours and multiple locations I wrapped up the day.
Day three of shooting was back at The Crucible location in the sculpture garden again for a final shot that would wrap things up where they began. Not knowing exactly when the film would run out was challenging.
It is not so far removed to try and shoot Super 8 film in one take. In fact, I try to approach filmmaking with the idea of using as few takes as possible because, frankly, film is expensive and every unusable shot is wasted film. But this was my first foray into zero editing where planning is everything and time-keeping is critical. Probably the biggest mistake I made was purposefully ejecting the film cartridge just prior to my second day of shooting. There is always a cool effect when a cartridge is exposed – sort of a flash effect – so I thought it would be cool to include one. What I didn’t take into account was that my in camera run-time counter would reset once I opened the cartridge door! In fact, I realized I’d made an even bigger mistake from the very beginning when I didn’t have a designated stopwatch or time keeper. So I had true way to measure how much I’d shot and how much film was left.
Having a larger crew – or should I say – having a crew at all, would have been helpful. Even a couple of people to help me keep things on track, to keep time, to help with equipment, etc.
Thoughts on the Process
It’s difficult to say with a film like this if it’s going to be good or bad. The best you can do is try to make as few mistakes as possible and hope for the best. A number of things can always screw up what might be a good film: poor focus, bad lighting, shutter-speed settings could be off and affect your color (such as I encountered with my first run of 500T film that was very yellow because I failed to engage the correct setting). I managed to accidentally pull the trigger at least twice that I’m aware of – so who knows what those frames will look like. And I’m pretty sure some of the close-up shots are going to pretty damn blurry.
Everything is easily critiqued on a project like this….in retrospect. But fortunately, film shot in this manner has its value rooted square in the moment. That defining moment when the decision is made to pull the trigger and just go-with-it, for better or worse. I guess therein lies the reason for participating in something like this. Yes, it puts boundaries on what you can and cannot do but those boundaries require you to rise to the occasion and put forth your best effort without room for do-overs, re-shoots, re-takes, or previews.
I can see that for some professionals that call themselves filmmakers but are really videomakers (doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?) that process would be too restricting or cumbersome for their current “workflow.” But to me the thought of capturing something that is un-perfect and trying your best to dial-in everything leading up to the shot, and then once it is done, it is done – that it is both exciting and nerve-wracking all the same.
I guess that I hope the film is good but then again what is good anyway? Good seems to only be another individual’s judgement placed on the work. So whether what ends up as the finished product on screen is worthy or not is not for me to decide. What was good was the process of creating this project from start to finish. In that respect, I learned a lot and reinforced the idea that making film is a rewarding and fulfilling experience.
The Final Film
As of this writing the final film has been submitted and the soundtrack as well. At this point it’s a waiting game. Once the film digitized and the assembled with the audio track it will be placed online – at which point I will reference it from here for everyone to see.
My film was selected to show at the Straight 8 Film Festival in London!