Documentary on L.A. Homeless Mixes Film and Tape Formats
Director Madeleine Farley’s Trollywood began as a still photography project but quickly developed into a full-on feature about the homeless of Los Angeles, lost street-dwellers who trundle their belongings through the city on trollies – better known in the U.S. as shopping carts. The documentary has an immediacy born of Farley’s general disregard for the technical issues that might have gotten in her way. For instance, she never worried about the ramifications of shooting freely in a mixture of DVCAM, Super 8 and Super 16, or recording audio via a microphone jammed into a soda-cup straw.
"I was amused, because it’s a post problem," Farley says. "I caused Lipsync [her London-based post facility] all those headaches, but they had to sort them out. Initially I wanted to learn what Nick Broomfield does with professional sound equipment, but if you see Nick when he interviews people he’s got all this stuff strapped to him and he looks like an eyesore," she said. "I studied all the equipment, and there were so many buttons and wires. I just wanted to concentrate on my work. Boom mics are totally intimidating," she added.
Farley’s fascination with movies first came to light in her widely acclaimed "Q-Tips" photographic show, with cotton-bud characters replacing the actors in recreations of famous movie scenes. She had another stills project in mind when she decided to hunt for the L.A. hidden behind the glitz and glamour. "I started photographing shopping carts that I saw abandoned in various places around the city. I became obsessed with the way they looked. They were full of stuff, and every one seemed like an art piece," she said. "Then I started to meet the owners and thought I could put a book together with small interviews beside my pictures, but they talked so much I realized I had to get a movie camera and film them. I had a structure in mind, but I didn’t stick to it at all."
Five weeks of concentrated shooting over a period of six months produced 50 hours of material. Reality TV and documentaries had emerged as a popular genre when Trollywood started to take shape, so Farley went for the essence of reality TV plus her own brand of artistic shaping. Producer Philip Moross says the film wound up costing "significantly more" than its original budget, but calls it "money well spent."
In Back Alleys
"Having spent a lot of time in LA on the glamorous Beverly Hills side – which I thought was just soulless and horrible – I was so pleased to find a soul to the city, and that was the homeless people," Farley recalls. "I found a man down a back alley one evening and I got talking to him. I really trusted him. He introduced me to everybody, and protected me at all times."
Farley shot interviews with representative of the three categories of homeless people she says she found- the mentally ill, the chemically dependent, and the Vietnam veterans. She always took Super-8 and DVCAM cameras on her trawls, taping the interviews and filming the more atmospheric imagery. She also shot several Super-16 sequences with a crew. "I wanted to make it quite stylized. I didn’t want it to be your average, ugly documentary. But when I went out it was always with two Super 8s and loads of film stocks. I used reversal film, negative film, and monochrome. There are so many different looks in the film," she said.
Farley’s choice to acquire in multiple formats caught up with her in post, where she was faced with hours of mixed-media material. The edit was originally scheduled to run eight to 10 weeks, but stretched out to four months. Her editor at Lipsync Post, Helen Lindley, sums up her task matter-of-factly. "I started by evaluating the interviews and sorting people in terms of subject matter," she says, "I then got the structure working, mindful that Madeleine did not want a film with masses of narration."
Mixing media formats in the assembly process created interesting challenges. "There was much re-scaling of images, re-sizing and repositioning," says Post Coordinator Lisa Jordan. "And because of the very nature of handheld projects, there were quite a few wobbly shots that needed to be stabilized. Some of them have been left because it was the look that was desired. The re-formatting issues mostly came about because of transferring up to film, which was obviously the ultimate aim of this project."
Most of the technical issues arose in the film and HD stages, but the material survived the boost from SD to HD resolution very well. "We did a realtime upres, which, while it is more expensive than other options, worked out better," Jordan says. "The only thing we didn’t upres was the text content, which was remade in true HD so it wasn’t soft in any way. All the DVCAM material had to be completely de-interlaced, and we used a number of shot-dependent techniques to do that."
HD compositor and grader Kevin Dobson spent the equivalent of a week and a half in back-to-back-sessions on the online edit. "There were so many different locations and so many different types of lighting conditions that we didn’t even try to create a completely uniform look to the film. We used different techniques in different sections, but essentially the whole project was given a film look and some grain effects were added," he said.
The soundtrack was also laid at Lipsync, the big issues being a long wait for musical clearances and the state of the original location track. "It was very noisy. Madeleine put the mic in the top of a drinking straw so people didn’t feel uncomfortable about being interviewed, but consequently, the track is nothing like 100 percent," says rerecording mixer Michael Carter. "We couldn’t get those people in for ADR, so we had to get the best result we could. People who see the film will accept this because it is documentary in style. The music picks you up from the word go and drives you along with the movie."