From New York to Milan, to Burundi and even China, Ole Schell’s films have taken him all over the world and also offer his viewers the chance to step outside of their own lives and into the stories of others. His documentary interviews and small-scale filming outfits give his films a very intimate feel, and we were honored to hear how VEGAS Pro is an essential part of his filmmaking set up.
Our interview with Ole Schell:
Can you tell us about what attracted you to filmmaking and how you got your start in your career?
My mother is a photographer focusing on social justice and my dad is a writer who focuses mainly on China. My mom, Ilka Hartmann, is known for her work documenting social movements like the Black Panthers and the American Indian movements. My dad, Orville Schell, focuses on Chinese history and contemporary geopolitics. Filmmaking was somehow in the middle of those two careers.I also grew up in a very artistic community in California.
The actual moment I got my start was while a freshman at New York University. At that point, I had not decided what I wanted to major in. NYU happened to have the best film school in the United States. A friend of a friend was a child actor who had been in some big movies. She was a film student and had an assignment to tell a story through audio alone. She was really struggling with the equipment. I took a look at the recorders and offered my help. It all seemed very simple to me. I ended up doing the project for her and everyone in her class said it was really good. I thought to myself “maybe I should do this” and that was it. I wrote an application to the film school and was accepted.
How would you describe yourself and your style as a director?
I see filmmaking as more of a craft than an art. I often say it is like being a plumber. A plumber has to find a way to make the water flow from one place to another. A filmmaker has to figure out a way to make the story flow from beginning to end in a coherent way. Story telling is no easy task. My father’s good friend, David Fanning, created the documentary news show, “Frontline,” here on public television in the United States. He said in documentaries “you tell the story you believe to be true.” I never forgot that. In a documentary, certain shots may not have happened in the same linear order as they did in real life. That is ok. One has to be true to a higher truth you are trying to capture and convey to the viewer.
As for my style… I am just trying to get the job done in a coherent way. I am drawn to action and excitement generally. My hope is to blow people’s minds with imagery and stories.
What attracted you specifically to documentaries?
I actually don’t watch that many documentaries. I fell into making them. In my early 20’s, my girlfriend started becoming successful as a high fashion model. During that period in my life, I took a video camera everywhere I went to capture our lives together. I happened to be present when her career took off and I had it all recorded. That ultimately turned into the film, “Picture Me: A Model’s Diary”. That’s how it all started.
I have since made films on everything from the last man alive in the United States who was inside Hitler’s bunker in Berlin at the end of World War II, called “Hitler’s Brave Boys“, to a film on Chinese entrepreneurs called “Win in China”.
“Win in China” was made with Chinese Central Television and featured some of the biggest entrepreneurs in China including Alibaba founder Jack Ma. I went back in forth between New York and Beijing for almost two years to make the film. It also featured a look at Chinese youth culture including punk rockers, rappers, Ferrari salesmen, and one aspiring lingerie baron nicknamed “The Wolf” for his predatory business-style.
The crews of your productions are often small, but your subjects of your interviews always talk past the camera. This gives your films a very intimate feel – almost confessional. What led you to this style? (Do you use…?/) What technical elements do you use to achieve this during filming and post-production?
Having a small crew or just me filming at times can put the subject at ease. It would be hard to be authentic with a soundman, boom operator and DP all staring at you. One guy hiding in the corner is much easier to handle. That is how we made “Picture Me”. It was just me quietly following the life of my ex-girlfriend.
We, of course, do have a full crew at times for sit down interviews, but that is a very different, more formal experience. That can also be good. There is a certain energy with lights, cameras, and professionalism that can bring out another side to an interviewee.
For many of your films, you’ve directed and edited them. What is your technical set up? Which software are you using?
Yes, I often – but not always – edit the films I make. I sometimes sit with an editor and sometimes just hand it off to an editor and oversea it. We used VEGAS [Pro] on all those projects and every project I have done for quite some time. We have used a variety of different PCs to run VEGAS. For a while, we had three VEGAS stations in the Lower East Side in NYC.
What particularly about VEGAS Pro made it your choice for NLE software? Are there any particular features or functions, which you love and regularly use?
I started using VEGAS in 2005. At that time, Final Cut couldn’t handle all the different codecs and formats. We were trying to work with HD, HDV (which was new at the time), and old 720×480 SD at the same time. VEGAS was able to handle all seamlessly. I also like the ergonomics and smooth nature of VEGAS. That is when I switched from Final Cut.
There are many features that I like in Vegas. Color Curves was a great addition a few years back. It makes color correction and grading very simple. Final Cut or Premiere is always stopping to render. The timeline is always red which is super annoying. Vegas also can handle more codecs without rendering them or using proxy files.
You’ve mentioned that you like sharing stories of people overcoming obstacles and loss, and turning negative situations into positive ones. What about these stories makes them personal for you? Why do you feel compelled to help tell them?
I am always looking for true stories that will take a viewer away and seem unbelievable. A man escaping the genocide in Africa, in the way Deo did, is heartbreaking and unimaginable. Each beat of his story is harder and harder to believe than the last, yet it’s all true.
Taking the Memphis hip hop dancer, Lil Buck, to China to perform with Yoyo Ma and Meryl Streep in front of the highest communist party officials is also an almost unfathomable notion. It didn’t happen on its own – instead we made it happen. I saw the opportunity for the great contrast of a black American kid going to the far-east to perform in an entirely different culture with some of the most accomplished artists today. I put the film out with the Atlantic Monthly Magazine and we were lucky enough to get a lot of other press as well. The film even went all the way to “The Colbert Report” here in the United States. That was a lot of fun.
(Watch “Lil Buck Goes to China” here.)
Are there any technical choices that you make a direction and/or editor to help convey the story you are trying to tell?
I often like to do textual chapters in films. It can set the stage for what the viewer is about to see. In “Picture Me”, we created eight or so chapters: “the shows, money, youth, body image, the next step,” etc… These chapters can prime the viewer for what they are about to see. It also makes the edit easier and can keep the editor from drifting. “Here is what we are going to talk about… Now let’s talk about it.” We did the same thing for “Win in China” and “Lil Buck Goes to China”. I have created chapters in the past and then edited within them to create the structure of the film before removing them at the end. What remains is a clean, organized film even without the textual chapter cues.
As an artist, you have control of aesthetics and, ultimately, this will be a part of the message your audience takes away from a piece. What are your philosophy and thoughts on responsibility as a filmmaker when showing the lighter and darker sides of these stories?
I try to show things as they are. Aesthetically, I aim to come up with a motif that reflects that truth I see. When we interviewed a survivor of the Burundian genocide, we put him in a room shrouded in darkness with soft focus lights sparkling behind him. We kept him in there while he was speaking about the darkness of his past. Once he began to speak about rising up and reclaiming his life and effecting positive change on the world again, we shot him in bright, natural light. That was somewhat of an obvious choice, but one that we hoped imbued the viewer with the feeling we were trying to convey in each segment of the film.
(Watch Deo: Escape from Burundi here.)
Still, you’ve dealt with some pretty heavy subjects in your documentaries. How do you keep your approach compartmentalized for different tasks like making an ad, or preparing for an interview?
I have a variety of different interests. I have covered some heavy subjects like child abuse in the fashion industry and the genocide in Burundi, but among other things, I also have a passion for the automotive industry. I enjoy the challenge of coordinating all the vehicles, crew, drones, airplanes and helicopters. When shooting a commercial for the co-founder of Tesla’s company, Wrightspeed, I felt like I had “the force” as I was directing the chopper, 2.5 million dollar truck prototype, and other vehicles on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. We had special aeronautical radios to communicate with the truck, chopper, and crew on this vast desert landscape. I would say things like “We need the chopper 20 meters closer, 5 meters higher, now hover, now spin… We need the truck to accelerate under the chopper now slide.” It was all happening in real time. We kept the camera on the chopper rolling for the whole shoot. You never know what you will pick up.
(Watch the Wrightspeed promotional piece here.)
I have also directed for BMW. They have the E-class electric car line, which includes the i3 and the i8 super car. Both are electric hybrids. BMW is a sponsor of the Formula E all-electric racing series,which is also a client. Imagine formula 1, but with an all-electric field. The electric sounds of the cars are totally unique.
I first encountered Formula E by accident while in Beijing directing for RedBull. I was attending a party across from the Olympic stadium as this first every Formula E race was being held. From that moment on, I was hooked on electric racing and electric sports-car technology.
Does this change the way that you want to view the scene as a director? For instance, using particular camera angles, effects, and so on.
Every film or project is different. I try to find a style, angle or pace that is reflective of the subject matter. Sometimes that might even happen subconsciously. When I made “Picture Me”, I shot a lot of it myself. Some reviewers said things like “Schell’s hand-held whimsical verite shooting style was reflective of the turbulent unsettled fashion industry. “ They found a connection between the shooting style and the subject matter. I found it funny because I just was trying to get the film made and was always getting knocked around, kicked out of places, and shooting on the fly under difficult circumstances. [For example, in] “the pit”, which is the press area at the end of the catwalk, it’s every man for himself.
“Win In China” was more controlled. We had more sit down interviews, lights, sound, etc…
Which is the most enjoyable and rewarding project you’ve worked on and why? What did you learn from it?
The film that may have had the most effect on the world was “Picture Me”. It started a dialogue about working conditions for models in the fashion industry. It is an industry in which young girls are often taken advantage of. Their money is routinely embezzled by their agencies, they are often sexually taken advantage of by much older photographers and some suffer from body image issues. That film came out in 50 countries and by that measure was successful. It got a lot of attention in the press, but was still an exhausting and difficult process. Not only was it about my then girlfriend, but it was about sensitive subject matter with a lot of blowback. The film started a dialogue about the age of the models, working conditions, sexual abuse and financial improprieties – I am proud of the change it began in the industry.
Some of the most fun I have had is directing spots in the automotive space. Another great challenge was directing “The Sunday Morning Drive 3D.” In it, we had an Audi R8 race-car racing against thirty motorcycles on the Pacific Coast Highway as they were chased by a helicopter and seaplane. We had the car pretend to be driven by an Australian fashion model. It was logistically very complicated shoot to pull off especially in 3D. I had never done 3D before and it was a challenge. The post-production took me all the way Bangkok Thailand to finish the film and perfect the 3D. We got sponsorship from Gopro. They rigged up our airplane with 3D Gopro rigs. It was awesome. We then partnered with Sony VEGAS to release it.
What projects do you have coming up?
I just started a new company, Action 8 Films based in San Francisco and New York, with a friend from Lucasfilm. We focus on documentaries, feature films and advertisements in the tech, fashion and automotive spaces. We also do work in China. Our clients include: BMW, Google, Audi, Cisco, Redbull, Gopro, Miss Sixty, Ferrari, Star Wars Rebels, and many more.
Any interested clients should look us up. www.action8films.com
We are also developing a feature film about kids getting embroiled in the marijuana trade in my hometown in Northern California. It’s a coming of age and adventure story.
Where should people go to find more information and keep up to date on your work?
Check us out. We will try to do a better job of updating our social media.
We’d like to thank Ole Schell for giving us the opportunity to discuss his projects with him and learn from his experiences. If you’d like to find out firsthand about the smooth interface and user-friendliness that helped make VEGAS Pro Schell’s video-editing software of choice, go here to try a free 30-day trial.