Dana Shaw is a documentary filmmaker, editor and cinematographer with a strong interest in producing media that celebrates non-traditional artists and their work. An artist himself, Shaw works with the latest digital technologies, shoots film and hand paints experimental animations. His forthcoming documentary Keeping It Reel—which I caught at the Art Institute's senior thesis showcase—portrays four legendary San Francisco filmmakers who argue that digital technology interrupts their relationships with the creative process; namely, Craig Baldwin, Rick Prelinger, Rock Ross and John Carlson. Shaw agreed to meet for coffee to discuss Keeping It Reel and arrived with that touch of the sea that deepens all conversations.
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Michael Guillén: Can you speak to the collaborative ethos so admirably present in Keeping It Reel?
Dana Shaw: The people who helped me make my film, the core crew, we all live in the same neighborhood in the Richmond. Carl Sturgess, who was my assistant director, Nico van den Berg who was my DP, and everyone else who helped out were just in the area. I met them all at school and we've just worked on a lot of projects together, on corporate shoots outside of the creative, and then also inside.
Guillén: Since you're working in a group on each others' films, how do you divvy up duties? How do you know—let's say—who's going to be the camera man on one shoot and the editor on another?
Shaw: The Art Institute curriculum requires that we each produce a thesis film so I chose to make Keeping It Reel out of my personal experience and I chose the people I felt most comfortable with and trusted the most and who I knew would have good etiquette on set and who I'd mesh with well. For Dominic's projects—where I did titles and credits—I just like doing handmade stuff anyways. You pick by strengths. I like to do a chart of strengths and weaknesses and this was before we even met—I already knew what these guys did well and what they liked to do—but, when we first met, I'd ask, "What do you want to do the most? What do you like to do the most? What do you trust yourself with?"
Guillén: So how are you strategizing your shift from student filmmaker into the larger film community?
Shaw: I'm definitely submitting to Mill Valley. I really want to get a San Francisco premiere, at least Bay Area. Originally I wanted to get into the San Francisco International and last quarter I was submitting rough cuts; but, it wasn't ready yet for this year. I'm planning to submit to several different festivals but it would make sense for me to choose a local festival.
Guillén: Focusing on Keeping It Reel, how did you meet Baldwin, Prelinger, Ross and Carlson and why did you decide to profile them?
Shaw: I grew up surfing and working tactile, lots of things with my hands, stained glass and painting. Early influences were my grandfather who taught me how to draw and paint with oil paints and see the history. So I have a strong sense of history and people who have come before me who have laid down a path that I can follow. I like the idea of passing it down and working with different kinds of equipment, especially older equipment, to achieve something new.
I was influenced by two filmmakers who were surf filmmakers: Bruce Brown who made The Endless Summer (1964). I liked his voiceover and how witty it was from his point of view. The other was Thomas Campbell, he's an artist who's made several films and is pretty well-known in the contemporary art scene these days. He makes cerebral films that are searching for something.
Nowadays everyone's shooting digitally but they don't have a sense of what came before them and how much that took, so that was one of the things I definitely liked: the idea of taking a step back—to find something that was maybe heavier, funkier, more expensive, more time-consuming—and then have it run into something new. Even 16mm, when that came out, that was interesting and new and light. French filmmakers and all those guys before us in the '50s and '60s, had the advantage of using this lighter equipment.
Therefore, my idea was, "Okay, cool, Canon DSLR cameras—which is a lot like shooting 16mm—and teaching kids how to use f-stops and film stock and image and lenses and synching sound, recording sound separate, not having that luxury. Even having the timing, you can only shoot for 12 minutes a take relates to a 100-foot daylight spool. The idea behind Keeping It Reel—as with most of the films I make—was generated from a personal experience. I was up at the San Rafael Film Center listening to Walter Murch. He's one of my favorite editors and filmmakers of all time. I wanted to ask him the question: "What do you think is going to happen next with digital media? Is it going to influence people or are we going to make films that are blah and of no influence?" You can tell that Walter Murch was influenced by the earlier French filmmakers. My question didn't get answered because people started yelling out, "It's changing. We don't like it. We don't like this digital medium." No one understands the reality. And I thought, "You know what? I'm going to make a film about this."
So Lexi Leban, who is our faculty advisor and department head, she was like, "Hey, you know you have a good idea, let's research it, I have a friend named Rock Ross: do you want to meet him?" I said, "Sure." So I went and met Rock and enjoyed hanging out with him before I started shooting to get the vibe, to get to know him. Documentaries, when you sit down with someone, the access isn't there if you don't know them and if you don't relate with them. I'd buy him coffee and stop by and say hi and learned something about what he was doing, became really interested, and from here he connected me with Craig Baldwin and also John Carlson.
Guillén: Craig's a character.
Shaw: Yeah, instantly I loved Craig. He's the greatest guy. He reminds me a lot of my grandpa. My grandpa is an underground subterranean artist working on paintings and Craig's also underground working on films and collecting. Not too many people understand the method of his madness and I wanted to capture that. He's friends with Rick Prelinger, and John's friends with Rick, so they connected me. John was the one who made the call and said, "Hey, this kid Dana is really nice. He has an interest in what we're doing and he wants to make a film about it so maybe give him a call." I had already sent Prelinger a couple of emails because I wanted to talk to him. I had used a lot of his footage for my other films when school was starting, sort of a collage view, ephemeral stuff. He called me back and we started talking.
So I was talking to these guys, maybe a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there, going in person to meet them to say hello, familiarize them with my project, even ask them questions like, "Hey, what do you think about this? Is this too general?" Because we were making a film about a subject that's so big. How do you rope it in?
I had a couple of other filmmakers I talked to, like Katherine Bruens who made the documentary Corner Store (2010). She was originally going to be in the film but she was so busy and ending up not being in the film; but, she led me on the direction of thinking, "Okay, as a digital filmmaker who can I integrate into the story that makes sense?" Then I realized, "Whoa, this is really about me. It's about me finding roots in filmmaking and wanting to go tactile and wanting to become more grounded in what I'm doing and feeling it. So that's where the film developed.
Guillén: Having been trained at the Institute in digital formats, do you want to shoot on film?
Shaw: I shoot Super8 and 16mm now. My dad handed me an old Contaflex, his still camera, so I've been embracing the happy accidents of that kind of filmmaking. I don't worry anymore about everything being so perfect, or so nice and clean. I like the accidents, and the things that happen sporadically for some reason that you can't explain but are awesome.
A lot of those animations I did for the beginning of the title sequence, Rock scratched the title of the film and I shot it on a camera, so that was not digitally created; that was shot with a camera like you would shoot titles. A lot of things would happen, like maybe the color was weird, or grain was off, and I didn't really care. I thought it kind of added to it.
Guillén: You didn't take advantage of social media to promote your film like Dominic?
Shaw: He was going crazy, yeah. He really took advantage of that and that's something that I probably should have done.
Guillén: Do you want to continue doing documentary work in the future or do you want to do fiction?
Shaw: I'm mainly a documentarian, that's my interest and always has been. The reason I elected not to do a fiction piece was because of the acting and the actors who were available. It's always hard to get the performance you want and I wanted real people. I'm interested in making shorter pieces that are under the 10-minute range that can be shot DIY and are fun and gritty. Kind of like Gus Van Sant.
Guillén: Would you make films purposely to stream on Vimeo?
Shaw: It depends really. I'm definitely interested in it. It's the future and has a wider audience, which is always good. It'd be nice to have both. I don't know if you know Simone Nelson? She was one of our instructors.
Guillén: Simone and I interacted through the Global Film Initiative when I was on their board and she was in their employ.
Shaw: I love her. She had a big influence on us. Dominic and I had the same class together on distribution and she said hybrid models were where we should be aiming. Taking stuff from festivals that are tactile that people can sit and watch and then also looking towards YouTube and Vimeo as other distribution avenues. Simone taught us that you have a marketing distribution plan before you even make your film.
The way the Art Institute curriculums are set up, realistically for your senior project it's a three quarter rotation. I chose four because I was shooting doc. But you're writing and directing and doing a lot at the same time as well as writing a business plan, a marketing plan, and a distribution plan. Of course, mine changed a lot because the story changed in the editing room.
Cross-published on Twitch.