Ross School - Senior Project 2007-08

Student: Alexandra Fairweather

Mentor: Marie Maciak


Title: Playing Around the Corners

Description: "Playing Around the Corners" will offer glimpses into the dynamic life of Hal Mckusick as a legendary musician, teacher, woods craftsman, pilot and a jazz griot whose stories embody the atmosphere of 20th century jazz.  Hal McKusick is a a world renowned musician who has worked with the big bands of Les Brown, Woody Herman, Boyd Raeburn, Alvion Rey, Buddy Rich, and Claude Thornhill.  Hal has also made musical contributions as a studio musician, recording as a leader for Jubilee, Bethlehem, Victor, Coral, New Jazz, Prestige, and Decca.  Through Hal's story, the film casts light on how novel technology resulted in the demise of the big band era.  To complete this project I studied the Jazz era, documentary writing and production techniques.  The trailer will be developed into a complete documentary that will premiere at the Chamberlain/Fairweather Scholarship event which I will co-curate.

Details: For my project I used HD, DV, and MPEG footage.

Documentary Proposal







During M-term of last year, My first idea was to write a substantial paper about International relations. However, after listening to the advice of Chris Engel, the Ross School Middle School art teacher, who suggested that I do a film project, I decided to do a film. I had made a few digital video projects before. I had created a documentary on my stepfather, John Chamberlain and Miss Lucy Pink, which was shown in August at the Ross School to benefit the Chamberlain/Fairweather Scholarship. I also worked on a documentary about a developing line of eco-friendly resorts called "IQ Resorts"  and a moderniy film.  I showed the modernity movie to my class as apart of the modernity presentation. I thought film would be a great thing to further explore, especially because I think that film is a powerful vehicle to spread awareness on particular issues or social causes as well as raise funds for those in need and in this case the documentary screening would benefit the Chamberlain/Fairweather Scholarship during the summer of 2008.

My ideas for a movie project ranged from traveling to different countries, and interviewing professionals working on social issues including ambassadors and environmentalists to creating an interactive website, which would prompt viewers to learn about several social issues and get involved. I soon realized that the Senior Project time allotted to us wasn't enough time to do such a project, but I do think that it would be a great project for the future.So, I then thought, "Why don't I do something in the United States?" I wanted to focus on a social issue through the eyes of an individual or individuals. Thoughts ranged from doing a documentary on Jena 6, City Year, Human Rights Watch, or even interviewing Ross students, who were passionate about social causes.But, then again, Chris Engel was able to show me the light and encouraged me to do a project on Hal McKusick.

I thought doing a project on Hal was great, because Hal has had a life full of rich jazz experiences. I also had already had some footage of Hal at the Pace Gallery in New York playing with his band, so I felt I had a start. In March of 2007 I started going over to Hal's house and then continued to go over for a few times throughout the summer to interview him and shoot him giving his lessons to students and working in his woodshop. I also interviewed a few of his students at his home.

Once we got back to school, I developed my initial senior project goals. My goals were to develop a written proposal/treatment for a documentary video that merits an outside audience and to synthesize all stages of pre-production, production and post-production to produce a cohesive documentary.

I began pre-production for creating a full length documentary by doing research. I researched jazz, Hal McKusick and his role in the jazz era. I learned that since the early 1940s, he has played with every jazz great you can think of, and the sheer number of top recording sessions he's on is staggering. Starting in 1943, Hal has recorded with bands led by Les Brown, Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Rey, Ralph Burns, George Handy, Buddy Rich, Claude Thornhill, Terry Gibbs, Neal Hefti, Bill Harris, Charlie Parker, Gil Evans, Don Elliott, Elliot Lawrence, Billy Byers, Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins, George Williams, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Krupa, Andy Kirk, George Russell, Nat Pierce, Urbie Green and Erroll Garner, and that's not even the whole list. Hal has played at the Apollo theatre and Bird land. I also learned how Hal McKusick was fought over because he had an easy going personality, his ability to swing, and sight read, which was crucial because groups were in recording studios for limited times and were expected to get it right.

I reviewed the footage I had shot of Hal during the spring and summer of 2007 and felt that I needed footage from different time periods, and ultimately more diverse footage. Use to shooting with no plan or structure, developing content for the documentary beforehand, as well as a conflict was challenging to say the least. I didn't understand why I needed to plan out the documentary before hand, but now realize that having a structure and plan of what materials you need allows you to focus on what you need to shoot, instead of ending up with unnecessary footage that lacks direction.

I watched "Rock School," "Music, Inside Out," and "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan", and "Grey Gardens" for approaches and techniques to documentary film-making. I really liked "Rock School," because it showed the teacher-student relationship and the conflicts that come with authority vs individuality, and felt that the confrontations between Hal McKusick and his students would be interesting to explore especially when it came to dedication to jazz and interests in other activities or even other types of music. I didn't particularly like "Music, Inside Out," because the orchestra it was focusing on had 105 members and I felt that it tried to incorporate all of them into the group in some way or another either by a short blurb about music or through a more in-depth character analysis. However, I found it distracting how the character focus changed and there was no real main character, but rather music was the main character. I was left feeling that I didn't fully understand the characters, and I wanted to go more in depth with the characters. I liked "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" more, but struggled with connecting to the characters. However, I think the main reasoning was because most of the characters besides Bob Dylan in his interviews were providing historical and cultural context, so there was little development of other characters. I did like the observational style and intuitive hand held camera work of "Grey Gardens" and would like to use that approach in shooting Hal and his jazz band during the months to come.

For my written proposal I developed a hypothesis and concept for my movie: I believe that jazz is a key element of American culture and it should be apart of basic education. I wanted my documentary to show this in action by documenting one of the last remaining masters of the big band jazz era, Hal McKusick, and his dedication to education jazz students. My film's main conflict is between the individual impact of Hal's teachings and the impending extinction of jazz education. I expect my film structure to be determined by the development of jazz classes, interviews with Hal, two jazz experts whose lives are focused on preserving and sharing jazz culture, and students. The subject and point of view suggest a style that is overall formalistic including observational material, interviews, and stock footage. Ultimately, I want the audience to be drawn into jazz and to understand that jazz education must be encouraged.

I soon noticed that there was a lot about film making that I didn't know. I hadn't taken a film class since I was in 9th grade, Creative Camera, and the movies we made then were 1 minute films, in camera edits, with no sound equipment. All of the documentaries I had made on my own were shot without lighting, a proper sound recording. I was determined to learn.

I began learning how to use a wireless lavalier microphone and a shotgun microphone. Sound for this project was very complex, because the microphones had to be on different levels for speaking and for music. I also learned to manually control camera functions on a High Definition Camera such as iris, gain, shutter sped etc. I also began to learn how to use Final Cut editing software which I would need to edit my movie.

However, my plans of creating a full documentary were prevented. In the end of September throughout October I was very sick with bronchitis which resulted in me missing a lot of school and put me behind in my senior project progress.  I decided that if I wanted to stay healthy that I needed to postpone the full-length documentary and instead create a trailer/preview. I wanted to create an upbeat trailer that resembled jazz in its montage and felt  spontaneous.

Although, I had roughly 7 hours of footage that I shot through out the year,  I noticed I was lacking a jazz expert who could fill in all of the historical gaps and stories about Hal.  I decided to interview Marc Myers, a journalist and creator of Marc Myers had just done a 5 day story on Hal, and Hal thought that Marc would be able to share a lot about jazz and Hal's life. Marc Myers similar to Hal is trying to preserve a musical art form. Both of them are transferring their knowledge either to students or in Marc's case through his blogs.

However, my projects' progress was again cut short. During one day in early November at the end of the day, I had difficult breathing and started shaking. Resulting in me being taken from my math class in a stretcher, to an ambulance, and then to the hospital.

Once I got back to working on my Senior Project I interviewed Marc Myers. Marc Myers not only provided me with a lot of great footage for my project, such as funny stories about Hal playing jazz in a strip club when in high school. Marc also taught me the role technology played on the rise and fall of jazz. Marc Myers explained how with the introduction of television music became less focused on musicianship and more focused on image, which appealed more to the baby-boom generation.

The Ross School Archives contain footage from over the years of Ross School projects, classes, and performances.  While looking through the archives, I came upon a master class that included Hal McKusick playing with Clark Terry and Percy Heathe, which in many ways is a historical gem.  Percy Heathe died in 2005. I was also able to find great footage of Hal working with students on the sonic convergence which was a collaboration of student composers from Ross, Shanghai and Stockhom to write a composition for the new millennium, and Hal was one of the mentors for this project.The Ross Archives were really useful to me, because it showed Hal at a different time, working on different projects, and playing with jazz greats. The material I used was shot by Spiral Pictures, Ross Institutes production company. 

In addition to my footage from Ross archives and my own material, I was also able to use public domain videos, which were available on through Creative Commons, which allows artists, publishers, creators of products, and owners of a projects' rights to allow their videos, pictures, or music to be shared online and reproduced and used.   I was able to get access to shots of jazz musicians dancing, singing, and playing music, which was important because I wanted the viewer to fully feel the jazz scene and also as corresponding images to both Marc Myers' historical jazz insight and Hal's personal jazz experiences. I was really lucky to find such a great resource, because stock footage can cost up to $1000 per 30 seconds so this was another gem.

By the 17th of December I had edited my selects of clips, roughly about 15 minutes. I now needed to start fine-cutting down, editing, making titles. Over winter break, I practically lived with my mentor Marie. I had finished the sequence and began to do a sound mix and title design . Marie showed me the Thomas Crown Affair Trailer, which I really liked because of its use of title graphics and the use of multiple frames inside the screen. It was upbeat, had interesting graphics, and wasn't always linear, meaning images and sounds didn't always correspond.

I also decided to shoot a scene of Hal driving in his van over the sag harbor bridge, because Hal's van is iconic to his charismatic personality and has been with him for several decades and thus is a big part of him. I was finished.  Or so I thought.

On the 14th, files started to become unrendered and wouldn't render, and files went offline, which we believe was due to the mixing and the complexity of various formats such as HD, DV, M-PEGS, etc.  I spent the next few days in the tech department, on the phone with MAC and at Marie's house trouble shooting.  At the end we had to rebuild my project using a different computer. I was so upset. Skipping school, I stayed at Marie's and reconstructed my project.

In addition to completing the film I wrote a documentary proposal for the full documentary based on Baringer's "Directing the Documentary." In this document I describe my filmÕs structure and stylistic approach in detail.   My proposal has the following elements: a working hypothesis, topic description, action sequences, details about all subjects conflict and ways in which it will be visually presented. The film also has to have a social significance, thus in my proposal I explain MY motivation for making the film, the film's audience and audience's prejudices, the film's tone, structure, and resolution. Documentary proposals are important because they allow the film maker to clarify any concept ideas, and forces the film maker to question the film's structure.

Some of my biggest challenges included getting sick, which I tried to deal with my limiting my project, having little time to practice  film-making skills including sound, lighting, camera functions, and editing, and ultimately the biggest challenge was having to deal with re-creating my project.

My plan is to complete my documentary and show it in August at the Ross School to benefit the Chamberlain Fairweather Scholarship and hope that you can all make it. My plan for the future beyond Ross is to study political science and international relations. However, I would like to continue film because I think it is such a great political tool to spread awareness, encourage dialogue, and raise funds for those in need.

Works Consulted

Grey Gardens. Dir. Albert Maysles. DVD. Zeitgeist Films, Rialto Pictures, 1975.

Jazz. Dir. Ken Burns. DVD. PBS, 2001.

Music From the Inside Out. Dir. Daniel Anker. DVD. Alfred Music Publishing, 2004.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. Dir. Martin Scorsese. DVD. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2005.

Prunes, Mariano. "Editing." Yale Film Studies. 27 Aug. 2002. Viewed 10 Oct. 2007. <>.

Rabiger, Michael. Directing the Documentary. Oxford: Focal Press, 2004.

Rock School. Dir. Don Argott. DVD. Newmarket Films, 2005.

The Thomas Crown Affair. Dir. Norman Jewison. Perf. Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo. DVD. MGM, 1968.

Community Member (Details)

My community member Don Lenzer is a documentary film-maker, who for two years worked with Hal McKusick. My initial community member was Molly O'Brian, but I decided to change, because Don Lenzer knew Hal and had worked with him before. November 25, after switiching community members, I contacted Don Lenzer and he was willing to offer me insight on my project. I decided that I would wait until I had created a trailer before showing it to Don Lenzer. At the start of January, I asked Don if he would be willing to watch my trailer and give me feedback. However, Don Lenzer was then in Atlanta. After, Don returned I gave his daughter the DVD, but initially unknown to me she lost it. Wondering why I hadn't heard from Don Lenzer I e-mailed him to inquire about the trailer and his thoughts, but because he didn't get it, he had no idea what I was talking about. He soon realized his daughter lost it. Unable to give him a new copy right away, because my project had to be rebuilt due to computer issues, I gave him a new copy a few days later. Don Lenzer and I talked via phone on January 18th and he was able to give me feedback on my trailer as well as ideas for my documentary proposal and treatment. I wish I would have been able to talk to Don Lenzer earlier, but due to his traveling and my project getting lost in transition it influenced the level of involvement he had in the project. However, I am very happy, because as I am planning to complete the full documentary in the months to come I look forward to getting his advice on concept, shooting, editing ideas. Since after the showing I have talked to him via email about possible individuals I could interview for my documentary.