Jon Else: Interviews and Articles


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    Sing Faster: Interview with the Filmmaker Jon Else

    Mirrored from PBS web site: PBS Press Room:

    PBS: This is Lauren Kalos, PBS, and I am talking to Jon Else, the writer, producer and director of "Sing Faster: The Stagehand's Ring Cycle," which is part of the Independent Lens' first season and winner of the 1999 Sundance Filmmaker's Trophy Award. Thanks for talking to us today, Jon.

    Jon Else: It's good to be here.

    PBS: You've been working in documentary production a long time now and you've enjoyed quite a successful career. What initially drew you to filmmaking?

    Else: I actually am a failed still photographer. I had started out, actually, in the south in the 1960s and then in Berkeley in the 60s also, trying to be sort of a combat photographer for what was going on in the 60s in this country and I just couldn't hack it. So I took a job at the film lab, processing educational films and stuff for NASA, and got really, really interested in documentary film, through processing the same films over and over and over again, a thousand prints of "Nutrition in You" and that sort of thing. It was a strange but really wonderful education. One thing led to another, and then I went to film school. And here we are. Probably the other thing that had something to do with it is that both my parents are artists -- my dad's a painter, my mother's a sculptor. So I sort of grew up in a visual world. And grew up sort of understanding that the best way to tell stories is visually, and I'm still trying to do it.

    PBS: Was there some specific film or filmmaker that influenced you?

    Else: Yeah. When I was a kid, interestingly enough, "Victory at Sea," which was really I guess one of the very first compilation documentaries about World War II was on, and we used to watch that every Saturday afternoon. And I just became fascinated by it because it was the real stuff. It was real, it was a genuine article. Later on, I was heavily influenced by a whole bunch of filmmakers from the National Film Board of Canada. I went through the film school at Stanford, and we had a relationship with the National Film Board. And I was trained really by a guy named Ron Alexander, who was the chief sound guy at the Film Board. But during the Golden Age, there were guys like, particularly, Donald Britain, Donald Spotten, Wolf Kernick -- those folks were making films that had both sound journalism and a real great, kind of quirky verve behind a funny, kind of ironic sense of life about them. And that stuck. I was young and impressionable, and I was impressed by them. And I've tried to imitate them ever since.

    PBS: Now, your body of work includes "The Day after Trinity" through working on "Eyes on the Prize". Then you come to this film, "Sing Faster," which seems like a totally -- I don't want to say 'off-the-wall' -- but you took a little turn there.

    Else: Well, in some ways it's a turn, in some ways it's not.

    PBS: It deals with destruction.

    Else: I had spent my whole career doing very sort of, weighty films, about nuclear war, economical depression and environmental destruction and the beating down of labor unions, but at the same time I'd always had a day job doing music films, doing MTV stuff. That's how I supported my PBS habit. And I had always wanted to do a music film of my own. And Wagner's "Ring Cycle" may not seem like the obvious choice to do a musical, through the light entertaining musical, but nonetheless I had been looking around for a music film for a long time. But also, most of the films I had done have in, one way or the other, been about working people. It's easy to miss that. Whether they're people of Los Alamos, high up on that masontop during World War II making the atomic bomb, or workers in Henry Ford's River Rouge plant during the early days of the Depression. People building dams in Cadillac Desert. I mean, I spent a lot of time working in factories and construction myself, and I had always been fascinated by that. So in that sense, "Sing Faster" is right alongside that, just another step on the same track.

    PBS: So that drew your attention.

    Else: Yeah, that drew my attention. The other thing that which, I guess in some ways, is a departure, is that I had also been very interested in doing a film that told two separate stories at once. And that's what I tried to do with "Sing Faster." One story, of course, is how these guys get this opera done. It's just a work story, it's a look at how they do it. And the story is, in fact, the telling of the plot of the entire 17 hours of the "Ring Cycle," you know, gods betraying their own treaties, it's really heavy stuff. And that is the story, about, sort of the unforeseen consequences of stealing a little bit gold, which seemed like a good idea at the time. And the unintended consequences of good ideas is also something that I've been making plans about all my life.

    PBS: So was it an interest in the "Ring Cycle?"

    Else: No, I was not an opera fan. In fact, I sort of disliked opera. I had done one film about this soprano, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, in 1984. But that was it. We took our kids to see "La Traviata" 10 ten years ago, when they were little. During the scene changes -- it was a family matinee -- and during the scene changes, the curtain opened, so you could see the soprano who would finish her thing and leave the stage, and there'd be a hundred construction workers who would come out of the stage. And I thought, "This is great." They would change a cornfield into a palace in about 90 seconds and I thought, this is much better than anything in the operas. So I proposed to the San Francisco Opera that we do a short little film about a scene change. And they said great, and we both forgot about it, until about a year later, they called me and said, "Listen, we're doing the Ring Cycle next season. Do you want to come in and do a film about the stagehands in the Ring Cycle?" And I said, sure, and never having heard the Ring Cycle, I went out that afternoon and bought a recording of the whole 17 hours of the Ring Cycle, and I sat down and listened to it at home. And I thought, "You gotta be kidding me. People actually pay money to listen to this garbage?" I couldn't stand it, it was just this awful, ugly music. And it slowly, very slowly, grew on me, and now I just can't get enough of it. So I'm a huge fan of the "Ring Cycle" now but I tell you, it's an acquired taste. It took a whole eight years, nine years, of being with it to get to really love it.

    PBS: So the San Francisco Opera approached you? Did you have any problem once you got into it? Were there any problems working inside, backstage?

    Else: Well, no. We spent a lot of time shooting this. I spent a lot of time hanging out with the crews. I knew some of these guys because the union which represents the stagehands is the same union which represents all the people that work on film sets, on feature films and commercials. And I had worked in that world in San Francisco, and from the beginning, for years, I had been impressed with how good these guys were, these fellows. So I knew some of them already, I was sort of familiar with that world, with the professionalism of it, we spent a fair amount of time just being around, getting to know the ropes, getting to know the guys.

    And they and the opera company were astonishingly cooperative, they let us go anywhere -- they let us rig the cameras inside the dragon, they let us rig cameras inside pieces of scenery. Our original deal was that we would only film during rehearsals, and then they allowed us to film during dress rehearsals, and finally in the end, they allowed us to film actually during some performances. In fact, I spent one performance of the fourth opera, which is a five and a half-hour opera, I spent that hanging off of a little ladder right up above the stage. So it was a great working relationship in the end.

    PBS: Was the time lapse actually shot during a performance?

    Else: We had an airflex bolted to a railing on the second balcony, and that camera ran an image, it exposed 20 seconds, it got one frame every 20 seconds for several months, which means it recorded many, many different performances and many, many days of rehearsal and set moving. So the Ring Cycle you see unfolding at the end of the film in one minute, that's actually made up of probably 10 or 15 different performances. We took the best from each act, and the best from each opera and strung them together.

    PBS: Pretty amazing stuff. Now, I understand from reading the release, that you had some problems with getting funding. It took quite some time. Was this sort of normal for your productions?

    Else: Well, I think it's normal for anything that's idiosyncratic that tries to find a home in public television. Except for what ITVS is able to do. It's pretty rough to find funding for these oddball things, and this is certainly an oddball thing. It is normal to the extent -- the last project I did was "Cadillac Desert," and the fundraisers on that had to go through I think, 330 funding proposals to get funding. The "Ring" took 137 funding proposals.

    PBS: Was this something you were doing on your own, for "Sing Faster"?

    Else: Yeah, I was doing all this myself. I actually had one fellow, Richard Berge, who was helping me near the end. But that was over the course of eight years.

    PBS: You kept your day job?

    Else: I kept my day job. Yeah, actually I went off and made two other series for PBS, three other series for PBS, while I was trying to raise the money for "Sing Faster." And the problem was that "Sing Faster" started right at the moment about 1990-91 when public television shifted its resources entirely to series projects. This is in the wake of "The Civil War," Ken Burns' project, "The Civil War." And it was also right at the time that Congress started going after funding pretty substantially and it was also right at the time that public television documentaries began to depend more and more on corporate funding and this is not something that's attractive to any of those. It's a single program, it's very idiosyncratic, it's not a normal opera program, it doesn't have any appeal to corporate underwriters, because it's not a good use of their advertising dollars. So, it was just sort of this orphan that hung out there. I had the unprocessed film in my freezer for years, and finally, in the end, CPB came through. I have to give them credit. I have to hand it to them that they finally came through, along with a couple of foundations, the Gerbode Foundation and the Fleishhacker Foundation in San Francisco. But it gives me pause about trying to do this again. I would certainly think twice before setting out knowing that it was going to take 8 or 9 years to raise the funds for something like this. I tried to figure out either way to do in and around the funding or to make a different movie or to change careers.

    PBS: So you're advice to other filmmakers is to …

    Else: Well, my advice to other filmmakers is to make these films, but try to make them with digital video. Try to shoot them on DV or DV Cam and I have to say, unfortunately, my advice is to be very very, very weary of doing films about the performing arts. Because there are tremendous rights issues involved, and those at the end ended up being a very substantial expense and a great deal of trouble. This is a 106-piece orchestra, it's got 30 singers and a chorus and dancers, and those are all artists who have to be accounted for and paid, so my advice would be shoot on DV and try to stay away from giant performing arts undertakings.

    PBS: So speaking of that, what are you working on, what's your next project?

    Else: The next project, actually, is on DV. I was so shaken by this experience, this whole film cost oh, I don't know, $350,000. And I so shaken at how difficult it was to get that money that I set out to make a film about auctions' traders on the stock exchange, shooting in DV. Trying to see how inexpensive we could do it with a two person crew, try to do it in very, very very long sustained shots, try to do it so that all the production infrastructure is really, really efficient. And just, you know, because the fact of the matter is, that when you go out to look for funding, if you can ask for $50,000 bucks instead of $500,000, your chances of getting it in one shot are a hell of a lot better. It's still not good, but they're an awful lot better. So I guess I'm going to put my money where my mouth is and try to see if I can do one of these things for a hell of a lot less money. It's a very similar film because it's about working people, it's about these wild, wonderful sort of alley fighter stock traders working on the foreign exchange.

    PBS: And after that, is there anything that's just eating at you that you have to do?

    Else: Well, I'm like all freelance independent people -- we always have half of those projects that are either trying to get born or are dying -- somewhere in between the line. I'm involved in a series on the Ten Commandments. I would love to do another film about the "Ring Cycle," believe it or not. I actually proposed last year to MTV to do a feature documentary about the "Ring Cycle," looking at the singers the same way we looked at the stagehands on this one. I'd love to do that again. But I guess mainly I'm really interested in trying to be part of the solution for how to get around this funding problem, because it's killing us. I'm interested in making any film that can be done in a way that just simply makes it easy to make the film. Because it's getting too tough with the Congress having decided not to fund these things, and with corporate funding such a problem. There has to be a better way.

    PBS: Well, good luck.

    Else: Thank you.

    PBS: And I appreciate your taking the time to talk to us.

    Else: Sure.

    PBS: Thanks, Jon.

    Else: A pleasure.

    - PBS -

    CONTACTS: Mary Lugo, Tel.: 770/623-8190; Fax: 770/623-8190; Email:

    Cara White, Tel.: 843/849-1174; Fax: 843/849-1173; Email:

    Harry Forbes, PBS Program Press Relations; Tel.: 212/708-3001; Fax: 212/708-3018; Email:

    Mirrored from:

    Jon Else: Give me Opera or Give me Death

    PARK CITY, UT -- The grim line-up of documentaries on the Sundance roster included subjects about prison, poverty and Vietnam widows. Jon Else, the director of "Sing Faster," opted for a refreshing tonic about opera stagehands as an antidote to the oh-so-serious films.

    "The intent, really, was just to have a hell of a good time," he said. "It's the first film I ever made that's just a goof, just a musical. I've spent my whole life doing films about nuclear war, civil unrest and environmental degradation. And to go behind the scenes with these guys and just have fun for an hour, why not?"

    An elderly gentleman with grey hair and glasses, Else spent the first half of Sundance wracked with pneumonia. Still recovering from his bout of illness, he ventured out into the snowy streets to promote his film at a luncheon for Documentary and Dramatic Competition filmmakers at the Yarrow hotel.

    "In general, documentary filmmakers tend to be deathly serious people," he said. "We really are convinced the world is going to end next week if we don't make the right film to stop it from ending. Which is probably true, in some cases."

    Although not an opera fan at the beginning of his project, Else found the arias grew on him during the course of the film. "Sing Faster" goes behind the scenes for a sneak peek at the offstage divas, namely the stagehands, during a production of Wagner's "The Ring Cycle." Else found that opera fans are not always as dignified as the public might believe.

    "Wagner maniacs are like deadheads," he said. "They hang out at the stage door, they travel all over the country. I'm sort of stuck with that [opera] now, I'm just loving it. I play it too loud in my office and drive my office mates nuts."

    Else conceived the idea as a short four-minute film, and approached the San Francisco Opera about filming backstage. To his delight, he found a wealth of entertaining antics, and decided the subject required a full-length documentary instead. However, he declined to sing an aria for the audience at the luncheon.

    "No, I'll let the stagehands sing the opera arias," he said. "In the film, the stagehands actually sing along with varying degrees of success with parts of 'The Ring Cycle' in German, in High German. I'll leave it to you whether they have more charm than the opera singers. But that's not my balliwick." - Nina Davidson

    Video clip from this interview

    Mirrored from: indieWire

    INTERVIEW: Wagner, Public Broadcasting, and Jon Else, director of "Sing Faster: The Stagehand's Ring Cycle"
    by Steve Rhodes

    Jon Else is known for his award winning documentaries such as "The Day After Trinity" and "Yosemite," his work on the PBS series "Eyes on the Prize" and "Cadillac Dessert," and as a cinematographer on hundreds of documentaries including "Crumb." His latest documentary, "Sing Faster: The Stagehand's Ring Cycle" is a visually stunning and humorous departure from these more serious docs, as it looks at the Ring Cycle from the point of view of the stagehands who worked on the San Francisco Opera's production in 1990. It won the Filmmaker's Trophy for Documentary (which is awarded by fellow filmmakers) at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.

    San Francisco public television station KQED airs "Sing Faster" as part of their Docs of the Bay series today (June 9, 1999), and Los Angeles's KCET station will broadcast the film on June 17th and June 20th. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Opera mounts the Ring Cycle again this month. Else is currently working on a documentary on the Pacific Stock exchange.

    indieWIRE spoke with Else about funding and the future of docs back in January at his office at the University of California at Berkeley where he heads the documentary program in the Graduate School of Journalism.

    indieWIRE: Can you give me some background on how you came to make the film and raise the funds?

    Jon Else: The film started out 10 years ago. I had planned to do a four-minute film on one scene in "La Traviata." That actually expanded into the idea of doing a half-hour film about all of the sets in the Ring Cycle. I was able to raise a little bit of money for that in 1989. We actually shot the film in the summer of 1990. And then it was stalled for nine years because I could not raise the money to finish it.

    In the nine years between when we shot it and now, I submitted 137 funding applications to various foundations and agencies. Finally little by little we were able to raise the money. In the final incarnation, the film had grown from four minutes to an hour and was not only about the sets, but the whole story of the ring cycle.

    We shot it in 16mm over two months over the summer of 1990 - shooting two or three nights a week, hanging out backstage during all of the dress rehearsals.

    iW: You have some interesting visual elements in the film. Were those planned in advance?

    Else: Yes, all of the time lapses - there are two big time lapse sequences in the film. One at the beginning which shows all of the construction of the sets and all the arranging and moving of the sets. And one at the end where we take all 17 hours of the Ring Cycle and condense it to about 60 seconds. And those were fairly carefully planned from well before we started shooting.

    What we did was bolt an Arriflex camera with an intervalometer to the railing of the second balcony of San Francisco Opera. It took one frame every 20 seconds for about two months. And we took that footage and edited it to those two sequences. The gag with the time lapse at the end is that throughout the entire hour of the film you've never been allowed to watch the opera from the auditorium, from the house. So at the end you finally get to watch the whole thing from beginning to end - every single scene.

    iW: You mentioned you had first been interested in "La Traviata." Had you been an opera fan for a long time?

    Else: No, I had not been an opera fan at all. My wife and I had taken our kids to see "La Traviata". It was a family matinee, and they left the curtain open during one of the scene changes. It was great. The soprano finished her aria and left the stage. Then all of the sudden 100 workers came out and transformed a palace into a cornfield or a cornfield into a palace - I can't remember what it was.

    I approached the San Francisco Opera to see if we could do a little behind-the-scenes movie about the scene changes, and they said sure. And then we both forgot about it. Then about six months later they called me back and said we're doing the Ring Cycle, do you want to do the Ring Cycle? And I, without thinking, said sure, never having heard the Ring Cycle. I went out and got a recording of it and sat down and listened to it. I thought are they kidding? People actually listen to this shit? I can't imagine people actually paying money to listen to this garbage. And then slowly it began to grow on me. It is certainly an acquired taste. By the time we finished shooting, I was a complete maniac for the Ring Cycle.

    iW: You said you were originally interested in the sets. How did you become interested in the stagehands?

    Else: Well, I've always been really interested in working people. I've done a lot of work. I've worked in factories and I've worked in construction. I'm just fascinated by the work that people do. Old fashioned work. Drive a nail, push a wheelbarrow, work. The thing that attracted me originally was the grandeur of the sets. Then I began to hang out with the guys who did this astonishing work.

    I was really struck by two things. One, just the amazing skill and intricacy involved. They're almost like musicians the way they move, the way they choreograph, the way they can have several huge sets moving on the stage at the same time - all in silence. The second was how well they knew the operas. I don't know why that should have surprised me, but it did.

    Another thing was you could make a four minute film with no structure, no story. You could probably almost make a half-hour film with no story, no structure. But if you're going to make an hour film you have to have something that goes from beginning to end, has a beginning, middle and end. I did not want to do the standard making of an opera, so I decided to actually structure it around the story of the Ring Cycle.

    iW: Why do you think it was so difficult to raise the money? The Ring Cycle seems a natural for...

    Else: One would think so. This was a project from the beginning for public television. We were trying to raise money right at the moment that Congress was just ripping all of the funding away from public television. The other thing that happened was that we were trying to raise money at a time when the public television system had really made a policy decision not to support individual programs. It was a big shift all to series. This was in the wake of Ken Burn's "Civil War." So virtually everything that gets funded for public television from within the system is a series.

    This also was just a strange sort of movie. They were sort of scratching their heads as to what it was all about. They're still scratching their heads. They've actually turned it down for broadcast.

    iW: Right, but you eventually did get funding...

    Else: Well, we actually did get funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting through Oregon Public Broadcasting as the sponsoring station. And from several foundations and other sources. But it still needs to be seen how it is going to get broadcast.

    iW: What was the reason they gave for turning it down? You would think PBS would have the perfect audience for this.

    Else: They thought that the through line was not strong enough. They thought that the film did not track from beginning to end in a nice kind of logical way. I can't reconstruct their thinking. The people who turned this down are the people who do all the big performance - Live From Lincoln Center, Great Performance, American Masters. I'm sure they had their reasons. I think that at the bottom level it was just too strange, a little too odd for them. We'll see. I'm sure it is going to find some sort of broadcast home.

    iW: "Sing Faster" was shown at the Film Arts Foundation festival in San Francisco last year. What was the reaction there?

    Else: That was the first time I had seen it with an audience. I was very pleased. I think they laughed at all the right places. There was a combined audience of film people and Wagner fans. And the Wagner people are like Deadheads. They really know their stuff. They will catch you if you make a misstep. I think we passed.

    One thing that was curious and interesting was that it was projected on a very high-end video projector. At Sundance they will show a 35mm print which was made from our video master. I can guarantee you we've reached the point where the high-end video projection looks better than the 35mm print made from the video master.

    This technically is a real rat's nest of a film. It was shot on 16mm Fuji film ten years ago with no key codes. Then we edited it on an Avid system. When the time came to make a print, there was no reasonably inexpensive way to go back to the original film negative. That is why we went from the digital beta master. It looks ok on 35. The ideal thing would have been to shoot it on Super 16 with Kodak keycode numbers. Then it is a slam-dunk to go from back to the original negative for the blowup.

    iW: There has been a tremendous change in technology since you shot the film.

    Else: Yes. If there is a bitterness I harbor on this whole experience, it is because it took so long to raise the money. The film probably cost twice what it would have if we had been fully funded initially. It burned up a lot of my life. And in the time it took us to raise the money, film editing became obsolete. The first assembly on this film was edited on a Steenbeck. If we could have forged ahead at that point and made a 16mm negative and then a 35 blow up from that, we would have been way ahead of the game. The very ponderousness of the funding process had a lot of downsides to it. The film cost more and looks worse than it would if we had had half as much money at the outset.

    Can I talk a little bit about the sound? This is very much a sound movie. The only reason it works is because of this incredible field sound recording by John Haptas. What is easy to miss when you watch the film is that it is in a deafening sound environment. You have a 106-piece orchestra playing full volume and you often have people whispering in the foreground. Haptas is just a wizard at being able to get good clean recordings the first time around. We also had a number of discrete audio channels set up recording continuously. There was the music, the singers and six different intercom channels in the opera house. Those were all recorded on Nagras in the basement in a recording studio we had set up down there.

    We had one of the great sound editors in the world who edited part of the film, Jay Boekelheide. The editing was split between Deborah Hoffman who did the first half and Jay who did the second half. And Jay did the sound mix. He is just a genius in being able to find clarity in this chaos of intercoms and singing and screaming. I just marveled at how simple it is to understand the sound and the language, which are so often just crushed in environments like that.

    iW: Can you talk about the state of the documentary?

    Else: I think it is a great time. I'm incredibly optimistic. One reason is the emergence of DV, digital video. It is the moment I've been waiting for all my life because a person... You or I can go out with $3,000 worth of equipment and make a really good looking and really good sounding film. And without having to raise a half million dollars. You can also make a piece of crap and there will be a lot of crap out there. If you look at this recent spate of films like "The Saltmen of Tibet," "The Cruise," "Celebration" where they are making this end run around the funding mechanism. That is incredibly liberating. That is hopefully going to do what early 16mm did for documentary - democratize it.

    I'm very happy that the middle ground of video production is going to go away - I hope. What is going to survive is Super 16, digibeta and HDTV at the very high end. I feel very comfortable with a sort of two tiered system that is emerging. On the one end is really what amount to ballpoint pens - DV and all of its forms. That is really accessible to everyone. And at the high end, the image quality that is going to survive is so good. I will not lament the passing of standard 16mm. I will not lament the passing of beta. So I think we are heading in a pretty good direction there.

    The problem then is broadcast and this voracious commercialism that is overpowering everything having to do with television. That's a hurdle we have to mount. But at least there are ways to get the films made. I still think we are a long way from seeing serious documentaries on commercial television. The profit driven system will just not tolerate it. And with all of the faults, public television is the forum in this country for really serious documentary to survive the battering of this market driven noose. There is good stuff happening on HBO, but that is not enough. I'm also hoping with this new technology there will be a more invigorated market for theatrical documentaries.

    iW: You've talked about setting up a lab for documentaries at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism?

    Else: In the broad sense the documentary program within the School of Journalism is a training program based on the idea of making real films for real audiences. That is making documentaries that are intended to be seen by millions of people. And within those confines - those confines being broadcast television - trying to do films that are as adventuresome and daring as they can possibly be while still being accessible. Still being engaging to a mass audience.

    What we're trying to do is raise a bunch of money to open up a laboratory here to figure out how cheaply these documentaries can be made. To use this mini-DV technology as a springboard, as a lever to redesign the whole documentary production process from top to bottom. To look at what kinds of films can be done cheaply.

    First, it is almost impossible to do archive films cheaply. It is probably possible to reinvigorate cinema vÚritÚ and do them very, very cheaply. How can you change production management? How can you change sound finishing? How can you change the editorial process? So you can get out of this stratospheric cost. You know prime time documentaries cost half a million dollars for each hour and that can't go on. What we're trying to do is set up a lab to figure out how to do them for $50,000, $100,000, and $10,000. There are some documentaries that can be made as cheaply as radio in essence. Anything to get out of this death grip of funding, particularly corporate funding.

    [Steve Rhodes is a Berkeley based journalist. He has worked on documentaries for Frontline and is a member of Paper Tiger TV.]

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