Lucy Walker would never say it of herself, but in the world of documentary filmmaking, shes kind of a rock star.
Walker actually was a rock star in her student days she moonlighted as a musician and DJ while attending film school in New York City. In the years since, Walker has directed a wide range of acclaimed documentary features and short films.
Her remarkably eclectic body of work includes films about Amish youth culture (Devils Playground), blind mountain climbers (Blindsight) and nuclear weapons (Countdown to Zero). In 2010 and 2011, Walker earned back-to-back Academy Award nominations for her feature film Waste Land and her short film The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom.
Walker is in town this weekend as special guest with the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, unspooling through Sunday in downtown Durham. The London-born filmmaker is curating this years thematic program, Approaches to Character, which features films and discussions about the role of the subject in nonfiction filmmaking.
Movies need stars
Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, Walker said that documentaries, like narrative films, require compelling characters. For lack of a better term, character-driven documentaries need stars.
We dont call them movie stars, but they are the stars of the movie, Walker said. Although its a particular quality with documentaries. Its having the courage to reveal yourself and collaborate with the filmmaker in this intimate way. If Ive done my job right, you get to know somebody better than if you actually meet them, because youre really seeing them reveal so much.
The intent with this years thematic program, Walker said, is to show the wide variety of techniques filmmakers use to access and illuminate their subjects. Walkers curated program features three of her own films, including her two most recent shorts, along with nine classics from filmmakers including Lars von Trier, Shirley Clake, Werner Herzog and Joe Berlinger.
One interesting inclusion is Creature Comforts, the original 1989 animated short from Nick Park of Wallace & Gromit fame. The five-minute claymation classic features zoo animals being interviewed about their living conditions.
People think its just an animation exercise, but its actually documentary audio of people living in hostels and homeless shelters in London, Walker said. Those are people describing their accommodations. Its so imaginative. Its more of a documentary than people realize.
Assembling the lineup for the program was a pleasurable challenge, Walker said.
As a filmmaker, having been to Full Frame before, Ive really enjoyed these thematic programs, she said. They really dust off some gems that you havent seen in a while, or have never seen on the big screen, or have never seen at all. I was pushing to put as many films up on the big screen as possible.
Walker said such deep-focus programming has earned Full Frame a good reputation as more than an exhibition and marketplace for new documentaries.
I find that at Full Frame, you get a lot of filmmakers really talking shop, she said. People go there to meet with other filmmakers and exchange notes, and really further the craft.
A true golden age
Documentary filmmaking has flourished in recent years, thanks to improving technology that makes it much easier and less expensive to create and distribute new work. Quality cameras are smaller and cheaper, and ever-expanding online and cable TV options are providing more outlets for finished films
I think its a true golden age, and I think there are a couple of factors involved, Walker said. You can work with a very tiny crew and a very modest budget and shoot material thats high enough quality for the big screen or broadcast.
Walker said that, in her career, shes seen another factor evolve as well. With the advent of digital, nonlinear editing editing on a computer, essentially filmmakers have a much more efficient system for assembling the final product.
In the old days when you had editing on film it was just so terribly laborious, she said. Each time youre slicing an image and have to keep track of all those single frames. You couldnt compare different versions without destroying the previous versions.
Improved editing technology applies to sound as well as image. Walker made music videos early in her career, and music is a key element in all of her films; she often creates her own soundtracks with custom remixes from collaborators like Moby and the Chemical Brothers.
I love working with the editor to remix the songs to get the music to work for the picture, as well as the picture to work for the music, she said. Its a really enjoyable part of the filmmaking process.
I think thats been a huge factor in this explosion of fantastic films, because for me these films are really made in the editing room. You can try a lot of options without losing your mind.