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Q&A - 'As The Dust Settles: A Participatory Documentary Shot at Burning Man'

Filmmakers Roger Ingraham, Tarynn Wiehahn, Jeremy Lubman, Katheryn McGaffigan, and Jamie Dee star in "As The Dust Settles: A Participatory Documentary Shot at Burning Man" produced by Mike Hedge, who recently answered a few questions about the film.

Photos for As The Dust Settles
Photos for As The Dust Settles
Image from As The Dust Settles

Tell us about your film As The Dust Settles: A Participatory Documentary Shot at Burning Man.

Our documentary is an ambitious and experimental collaboration between several filmmakers. As far as I know, no other documentary has ever been made quite like it, with multiple collaborating directors, each with their own unique perspective. Our documentary was participatory, everyone was invited to be involved. The film has no added music, no set-up interviews, and no narration or voiceover, three things you will find in nearly all documentaries. The film follows the exact time sequence of how things actually happened, besides two or three incredibly minor changes, the film is in time order, and follows the seven days of Burning Man. There are some really well-made documentaries that have been shot about Burning Man, focusing on everything from the organization, to the art projects, to core principles like the gift economy. Our documentary although shot at Burning Man, is not a documentary about Burning Man. Instead, our focus is on several participants’ personal experiences during the week.

What inspired you to help create this film?

Back in 2006 and 2007, I saw hundreds of beautiful and inspiring photos from Burning Man posted to an online photo community called flickr. I remember being awe-struck by the color and the art. I thought it would be amazing if I could shoot a documentary there, using a new digital cinema 4K resolution camera that was soon to be released, called the RED One. I had also recently been part of a huge photography project, in which hundreds of people were given disposable cameras, and then we combined all of our photos into a group art show, where all the photos were displayed together. After reaching out to some friends on about the project, several people suggested the idea of having a bunch of people each document their Burning Man experience. Eventually, all of those ideas merged into the idea to have several collaborating filmmakers all combine their experiences into one multi-perspective documentary.

What kind of camera and sound gear did you use?

Ultimately we used about 10 different camera formats, everything from the three 4K RED Digital Cinema cameras, to several Canon TX1 cameras shooting HD, to a couple Lumix point and shoots, and even a Flip camera. I think that the incredible 4K footage from the RED cameras, mixed with the handheld nature of the smaller cameras, is an interesting balance. It sure is a neat effect to go from a wide slow panning shot to a close up perspective of being immersed somewhere, with a shot from one of the smaller handheld cameras. For sound, we brought out the best Sound Devices recorder, paired with a full K-Tek sound blimp with shotgun mic set up, as well as numerous Zoom audio recorders, but ultimately the majority of footage that we shot with those set ups was not used in the final cut. We mostly used the on-camera audio from all the cameras.

What challenges did you face trying to shoot outdoors in a desert environment?

The environment at Burning Man is both breathtakingly beautiful and, at times, as harsh as you can imagine. You can be trapped in dust storms for hours. I remember our first day of production being totally shut down due to a complete whiteout dust storm. We did our best to properly protect the delicate camera gear from the alkaline playa dust, however some of our cameras did not survive the harsh conditions. The wind also proved challenging, so we built a large camp structure that was tied down, to protect our tents. It was also a challenge to keep everyone well hydrated, and to avoid heat-exhaustion and sunburn.

How were you able to gain access into so many peoples’ lives at burning man?

The awesome filmmakers that were part of the participatory project all agreed to allow for their personal footage, shot throughout the week, to be included in the documentary. Our team also needed to follow the guidelines for getting permission of the people that we crossed paths with during production. Since Burning Man is a place where people tend to let go of their inhibitions, and do things that are a bit wild, Burning Man protects people’s personal rights as much as possible by only allowing a few documentary projects a year to shoot at the event. We were blessed to have been given this permission.

Did you tell the stories you originally planned to capture or was it more a process of discovering the stories?

I think part of the focus of the documentary was to document people's discoveries as they made them. Nobody really knew entirely where this journey was going to take them, so each filmmaker used their own style or perspective to tell their personal story. Several of the originally planned shoots did not come together as planned, as on the playa things can change with little warning. People end up meeting other people and doing other things that interest them. During the week of Burning Man, an entire city is created, there is so much to explore and to do. Sometimes it’s just not possible to stick to a pre-planned schedule. We also had a very special rule with our project. We agreed to spend only 50% of our time working on the project, allowing for the rest of our time to be spent fully immersing ourselves in the Burning Man experience. One of the main things that we had planned, was a friend’s wedding that we were supposed to be at and film. At the last minute, the wedding had to change its location due to another whiteout dust storm. The wedding did not make the final cut of the film, since it wasn’t part of any of the filmmakers’ personal storylines, but we did include it on the DVD, which has a Making Of Video and several other extra features.

Take us through the editing process. How long did it take? Were there any tough decisions that you had to make while editing the film?

The editing process is something very painful to think about. I am grateful that I made it through and actually managed to finish the documentary. We originally thought we would just fit together everyone’s footage like a puzzle, however it ended up being far more difficult than we had originally expected. The editing started right after we wrapped production in September 2008, beginning with the processing of all the 4K and HD footage down to tiny 240P files, so that we could collaboratively edit the documentary from several different cities. We hired an editor to begin this process, but that didn't work out too well, so we each tried going through our own footage to edit something together, but I think people involved in the project became busy with their own lives after the shoot. So, in May 2011, after years of struggle with the edit, I essential became the editor and started working full time in an effort to actually get the film finished, due to a promise I had originally made that I would complete the film. It was an unbelievable effort, originally starting with about 440 hours of footage, but I eventually was able to combine the various perspectives from five of the collaborating directors. Organizing this footage was a tedious and frustrating process of manual sorting, due to several of the cameras having incorrect timestamps. Ultimately, I had to visually organize all of the different media files by day, and then edit each day until I had an assembly edit that combined all the different perspectives from the 17 different cameras. I also had to successfully navigate the delicate situation with all the collaborators that were originally part of the project. In September 2012, we finally had the final cut done and sent off to film festivals. Sadly, I then had to re-edit the entire film, but that is whole other story. We had our world premiere in March 2013 at the Byron Bay International Film Festival in Australia. I then spent several months creating all the content for the DVD, which was released on Aug 26, 2013.

What are you working on next?

Well, nowadays, each of the collaborating directors are working on various things. Roger Ingraham is working on a new and inspiring online spiritual video series, Katheryn McGaffigan is working on her music and a book project, Jamie Dee is now married and working as a photographer, Jeremy Lubman continues his work in New York working on various media projects, as well as teaching, and Tarynn Wiehahn is on a new adventure down in South Africa. I am about to finally take a break from the full-time work of getting the documentary released, and maybe spend some time traveling or concentrate on some new photography projects.

"As The Dust Settles: A Participatory Documentary Shot at Burning Man" is available on DVD and through Amazon Instant Video.

Thanks to Mike Hedge for this interview.

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