Many movie industry people believe a film will only be successful with A-list actors, a multi-million dollar budget, and the biggest, loudest special effects. Unfortunately, they fail to consider what ultimately makes a movie really memorable; the story. I recently watched a short film that left a lasting impression on me. It's called "Notebook on Santa and Elves" by Ted Fisher, an award winning film maker, photographer, and video editor in New York.
I had an opportunity to speak with Ted, and he was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and processes with me. The interview is below:
CC: "Notebook on Santa and Elves" makes use of many still images. How did that come about?
TF: When I moved to New York in 2005, I began to notice locations and landmarks that seemed strangely familiar. I realized I knew these places from famous images by street photographers. When I'd first started in photography, studying in California at the end of the 1980s, I'd become fascinated by the work of Garry Winogrand, Elliott Erwitt, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and a dozen others who shot on the New York streets.
So as 2005 came to a close, I found myself walking the New York streets and shooting what I found there. As it got colder, I designed a circuit that took me past areas famous for shopping and holiday events. I walked it dozens of times throughout the season. I looked at everything on the street, but quickly found I was most fascinated by the traces of Santa in New York. As I gathered images, I started working with them in book form. That made sense to me, and followed from my interest in street photographers -- the end product was often a photo book.
CC: When did you start working on films here in New York?
TF: In the fall of 2006, I went back to school, studying documentary production at The New School. The program was structured with a preference for making the type of documentaries I call "struggle and result" -- that is, films that follow a subject as they try to do something and either succeed or fail. Will the team make it to finals? Will our character overcome her fear of raccoons when she visits the zoo? I jumped right in to making films with that model. I made "12th and 3rd in Brooklyn" with two other filmmakers. It's about "Brooklyn's Best" playing their once-a-year stickball match on the same street they played as children.
CC: Tell me about the making of "Notebook on Santa and Elves"
TF: When I considered making a film about Santa in New York, I hit a wall. The documentarians I spoke with felt it was really a first-person film. It would be about me shooting photos -- and who cared about that? Did we really need another first-person film, anyway? And there was no built-in result: it wasn't about Santa trying to do something, so what kind of ending could it have?
Still, I thought something could be done with the concept, so I brought two fellow documentary-production students to SantaCon in December 2006. We'd decided to shoot it based on the day-long rampage of hundreds of drunken Santas as they visited the city. Mostly, the bars of the city. My friends quickly gave up, however, and the day ended up being me dragging a huge camera bag with two DSLRs and a camcorder. Fueled by an occasional slice of pizza, wearing a Santa costume and trying to balance fitting-in with keeping an objective distance, I stayed with the tribe of Santas for about 16 hours.
CC: Once you had all of the material, how did you piece it together?
TF: When I started editing, I discovered my film advisors were right: this was a first-person film, and I didn't want to make a first-person film. Not exactly. I'd been a fan of Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City" -- a novel written in second person singular voice -- and I realized that I could use that form. It would allow the viewer to experience a descent into the world of debauched Santahood, but defer the questions on morality and significance. "You" could become Santa, and go along for the ride, only later wondering if it was the right thing to do.
The final form of the film became a hybrid: a mix of stills and video, internal monolog and external action, and themes of belonging and loneliness. It's 18 minutes long, and starts -- purposefully -- slowly. Still, I think it gets somewhere as it goes along and has a few surprises.