Film of the future
Local cameraman explores the world of digital documentaries
Independent filmmakers are today what garage bands were in the ‘90s. At least that’s how Andrew Burke, a camera-loving Chico State grad, sees things.
At just 25 years old, Burke has traveled to places many people have only seen on TV. He’s been to Argentina and Bolivia in South America. He’s seen China. And next up on his itinerary is the African country of Tanzania. But he doesn’t travel just for the sake of traveling—he totes around his camera equipment, sets up the right shots and finds cool storylines, all in the name of documentary filmmaking. In other words, he’s the one bringing far-away places to our TV screens.
Burke’s most recent escapade took him and four others to South America, at the bequest of San Francisco-based television station Current (it’s a premium cable channel here in Chico). The crew was sent to Argentina and Bolivia for four months and charged with filming 10 documentaries.
Current, founded by Al Gore, offers a unique opportunity for filmmakers to submit their work and, if well-received, see it aired. Its Web site, www.current.tv, features videos created by users far and wide. Those that get the most “green lights” make it to TV.
“It’s a total two-way street,” Burke said while sipping an iced tea. “It’s all documentaries, and most are made by viewers.” The short format means the videos on Current are limited to about eight to 10 minutes. Most documentaries that make it to the theaters are feature-length—60 to 90 minutes long.
“If you want your story to get out, that’s not the best way right now,” Burke said of longer films. His laid-back confidence inspires faith in his work—and his belief that short format is the future.
The South America crew, consisting of cameraman Burke, editor Morgan Paar (author of the CN&R column Technobabble), a New Yorker and two San Franciscans, focused mostly on human-interest stories and youth culture. Though Current did make a few requests (one resulted in Rate Me, Date Me, which features a scruffy-looking Burke getting an Argentine makeover) were mostly set free to film what they wanted. Another project—one that Burke is particularly fond of—gives a snapshot of grafitti culture in Buenos Aires, through the words and work of one artist. The film, Bombing Buenos Aires, can be viewed online at www.current.tv (as can the aforementioned fashion flick).
“We basically had to plan, shoot and finish these movies on the road,” Burke said. That made backpacking tough, with all the equipment needed. And, although three of their films have aired already, and three are in the paperwork stage, the rest are still in the works, because of their more serious subject matters. Those are the best ones, Burke said. They had a chance to do some fluffy pieces—Rate Me, Date Me—but also did some hard news pieces about issues like the economy in Argentina.
“What’s really cool is that we made these documentaries a new way, with new equipment, and a new form of distribution,” he said. “It’s a brand new media.”
The new equipment he speaks of includes a digital camera that produces film-quality images. In the past, film was always considered superior—not so any more.
The quality of the digital equipment, plus the camerawork, editing and top-notch sound, make the films perfect for TV, and their slightly edgy, tightly packed presentation reaches out to the young-adult audience targeted by companies like Current.
Burke, who graduated from Chico State in 2005 with a communications degree, grew up in the Bay Area. Both his parents were park rangers on Angel Island, so he lived there in a community of about 25 people.
“I had to take a boat to school,” he said with a chuckle. By the time he was in high school, his family had moved to the foothills in Calaveras County. That’s where he started making films—mostly skate, ski and other sports movies. He learned fairly advanced techniques in high school and kept himself in the loop by reading Videomaker magazine, where he now works.
As for the future, Burke was recently approached, along with friend and fellow Chico State grad Nick Strayer, to travel to Tanzania with a local group, including Joseph Chiavelli, a native Tanzanian. They will spend two weeks there in July and will film a documentary focusing on a plan by Chiavelli and fellow Chicoan Kiz Macoubrie to build a sustainable orphanage there. When they return, the film will be shown around town and might air on local public access TV.
Beyond Africa, the opportunities seem endless. Burke hopes to film domestically for a while, including at least one movie in Chico.
“This is a really cool time to be making documentaries and movies,” he said. “I don’t know how any Chico State film student could not be taking advantage of it.”