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These American Lives: Mining the Heart and Soul of the Country's Unsung Heroes

By Bob Fisher

A scene from America's Heart and Soul, shot by cinematographer/director/producer Louis Schwarzberg. Photo: J.C. Earle

The crusade to bring nonfiction films to theaters may have just taken a giant leap forward. America’s Heart and Soul was scheduled to appear on screens nationwide, courtesy off Disney, during the Fourth of July weekend. The unconventional documentary features a montage of 25 disparate stories woven together into a theme that depicts both the spirit and diversity of the American people. The storytellers include an aging cowboy herding cattle on the open range, a boxer at a local gym, a coal miner deep underground, an aerial stunt pilot looping and soaring through the air, a grape grower who owns a vineyard and a messenger who navigates his bike through Manhattan’s daunting traffic.

Those are just a few snapshots of the short stories Louis Schwartzberg has pieced together into a film. He got the idea about 20 years ago while working on ad campaigns for a television network and its local affiliates. He was mainly filming warm and fuzzy images of people and landscapes, including time-lapse shots of day-to-night transitions and cityscapes at magic hour

“I was basically chasing the light and recording beautiful images designed to evoke emotional responses,” he says. “While traveling around the country, I discovered there are interesting people doing important work everywhere. They are unsung heroes, and each of them has a story to tell. I began collecting the building blocks for my film.”

Schwartzberg tried selling his idea for a nonfiction film to the Hollywood studios, without success. Around 1990, feature film director Richard Donner embraced his concept and got involved as executive producer. He urged Schwartzberg to create a reel with a montage of images and music. A few studio executives professed interest, but it didn’t lead anywhere. During the 1980s and ’90s, Schwartzberg concentrated on building a stock film library, which ultimately contained millions feet of film that he and other cinematographers had shot around the country and in other parts of the world.

His company, Energy Productions, licensed use of those images to ad agencies and documentary and narrative filmmakers. After Schwartzberg sold Energy Productions several years ago, he focused on finishing America’s Heart and Soul. It was a voyage with no preconceived destination. The common threads were that the stories had to be visual, with themes about freedom and people overcoming adversity.

Initially, Schwartzberg found stories in newspapers and magazines. Later, the Internet became a rich resource. After identifying a candidate, Schwartzberg used the phone to establish contact.

“I was honest,” he says. “I told them I was an independent filmmaker, and I wanted to speak with them about their work. No one turned me down. Everyone loves to talk about their jobs and their passion for their work or their art.&rdquo

He ultimately filmed some 100 stories, using more than a million feet of film. Schwartzberg generally traveled to locations with a sparse crew, including a gaffer/grip, soundman, first and second assistant cameraman and field producer, and hired a local production assistant. He was the director/cinematographer/camera operator, and also did the interviews. Everything was produced in 35mm film format.

“Sure it costs more, but life is short, and chances are that I’m not going to be filming stories like these in Appalachia or Alaska again,” he explains. “If there’s a beautiful rainbow, a storm cloud or a bolt of lightning that’s exactly the right background, I don’t want to kick myself years from now wishing I had shot it on 35mm film, because that moment will never be repeated. I don’t think of my film as a historical archive, but I believe it is important for these images to endure, because the people and places are part of the history of our times.”

Schwartzberg averaged two-and-a-half days filming each story. He would scout locations, while getting to know the subjects, and decide where he wanted to be with the camera at different times of day to take maximum advantage of natural light.

“I used as much natural light as possible,” he says. “The people we were filming aren’t actors. I tried to make the impact on their space minimal, so they were as relaxed and comfortable as possible. We lit big rooms with a few Jokers [HMI, or daylight, lamps] with Chimeras [lightbanks], which we could set up in minutes.”

Schwartzberg explains that lighting is an important part of his stories. “Our eyes are much more sensitive to light than the fastest film, and they see a much broader range of contrast. When we light, what we are trying to do is bring the images we record up to the way the human eye sees reality. Your lighting should also establish an emotional connection between the audience and the subject. Sometimes that calls for a softer look, and other times hard light or a grittier look. It’s instinctual, but the key is understanding that your lighting helps to define both the environment and the character.”

One story was filmed in a mineshaft. The crew consisted of Schwartzberg, a soundman and an assistant cameraman. Besides the camera, they had a 1K light linked to a generator by a long extension cord. They filmed a group of grimy miners walking towards them down a long, dark shaft. The flashlights on the miners’ helmets revealed their faces as they walked and talked. Schwartzberg placed the 1K close to the ground where it created a shaft of light that illuminated the fine dust hanging in the air.

“Besides being a beautiful image that detail was important,” he explains. “It is the same dust that causes black lung disease, and miners breath it all the time.” 

Schwartzberg worked with a single camera whenever possible, and it was generally hand-held. If he felt he needed images from different angles, or wide, medium and close-up shots, he simply explained why he needed to retake a shot.

“That wasn’t hard for people to understand,” he says. “And most of them enjoyed the process. There were no rehearsed lines. People were speaking from their hearts. A lot of times, we used voiceovers recorded during one conversation over B-roll or shots taken from different perspectives. I hand-held the camera whenever possible, because it allowed me to put the lens exactly where I wanted it. A fraction of an inch can make the difference between a perfect shot and one that is just ordinary.”

His workhorse camera was an Aaton III with a customized 17:35mm zoom lens. Schwartzberg modified the joystick so it could be used as a zoom control. That left his other hand free for fine-tuning focuses. He also carried an ARRI 3 camera mounted with a Cooke 10:1 zoom lens, which he put on a tripod for longer lens shots.

“I usually carried six or seven cameras on my truck,” he says, “including my trusty old high-speed Mitchell that I used for slow-motion shots at up to 120 frames per second. I bought that camera after I graduated from UCLA [in 1974], and used it for my earliest experimental work with time-lapse photography. We used multiple cameras to film landscape and sunsets. I always had a second camera loaded and ready to roll. And the Aaton quick release pre-threaded magazines reload in seconds, so we didn’t lose the flow with the sync-sound interviews.”

The negative was processed at CFI labs, where it was converted to digital video for off-line editing. Schwartzberg had all the audio tracks transcribed. He read every page as a reference for selecting sound bites that best conveyed each story. His first cut was about two-and-a-half hours. He subsequently pared the film down to 84 minutes.

“Many stories didn’t make it into the film,” he says. “They aren’t necessarily weaker. It was just a matter of balance. Each one is like a bridge, connecting the audience to the next story. It’s all about emotional connections.”

Schwartzberg put the final touches on America’s Heart and Soul at FotoKem Film and Video in Burbank, where the final cut was scanned and converted to digital files. Schwartzberg explains that he opted for a digital intermediate finish because there are some 500 dissolves, fades, various visual effects shots and skip printed shots. For instance, an aerial shot overlooking Monument Valley filmed from a helicopter would have taken 30 to 40 seconds to play out on the screen in real-time. For expediency, Schwartzberg compressed it to 10 to 15 seconds.

Schwartzberg color-corrected and fine-tuned the images for consistency in a digital suite. He says it was an extension of his role as cinematographer. While timing one story about a dancer, Schwartzberg felt the framing of part of a shot was a little too tight. He re-composed part of the shot to give it a little more headroom.

“It was just a small adjustment, but it makes a big difference,” he says. “I also used Power Windows to isolate part of the sky in several landscape scenes and made the blue a little richer to more accurately reflect the mood. Occasionally, I isolated a face within a frame to emphasize some detail, someone’s blue eyes to spark a connection, or I deepened a shadow on a face to add more intrigue and mystery.”

We asked Schwartzberg the million-dollar question: How did he get a major studio to distribute his film? His answer was perseverance. He arranged to screen the film for Jake Eberts, who was the executive producer of Open Range, Dances with Wolves and other notable narrative films. Eberts loved it, and he helped organize a screening for Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. Cook shared the vision for a theatrical release, and the rest is history.


Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.