Trusting The Images — A Miniflix Interview With Felicia Lowe
Asian-American documentary filmmaker talks about using 360° technology and the importance of preserving history through film.
If you had told Felicia Lowe that thirty years after the release of her PBS documentary Carved In Silence she would still be using that footage for new projects with groundbreaking technology, she probably wouldn’t have believed you. However, her long and storied career in broadcast journalism and documentary filmmaking has often come down to being “at the right place at the right time”, and taking advantage of the opportunities that come along.
Starting out as a journalism student and local news reporter, Felicia worked up the ranks, eventually helming several feature-length documentaries on the Chinese-American immigrant experience, particularly during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). She has also used her documentary footage for new music compositions, museum exhibitions, and most recently, a 360° short film called Pacific Gateway. Produced and distributed as part of a collaboration between Facebook, Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), and “American Experience” on PBS, this Virtual Reality short brings the poems at Angel Island (the immigration station on San Francisco Bay once used to process immigrants coming in from Asia) to life.
Felicia talks with us about preserving Asian-American history through films, the nuts and bolts behind her first 360° film and walking the fine line between immersive and overwhelming.
Miniflix Interviewer: You first had experience as a journalist and on-air reporter. What were the circumstances that led to you directing your first documentary?
Felicia Lowe: My undergrad was in journalism…but I quickly realized I was excited by the dynamic possibilities of film video. So I moved to New York to learn the business. I was able to get a job as a secretary/production assistant job on The Electric Company at Children’s Television Workshop, the same space as they used to shoot Sesame Street.
Later, I worked at KNBC, a Los Angeles station, where I was a newswriter. I eventually made my way up to San Francisco, where I was also a newswriter and then became a street reporter. Again, this gave me a wonderful, but intense, experience. You would do three or four stories a day, even though they were often just 90 seconds. The process of telling a story, directing the cameraman, writing the script in the field and then writing up the instructions to the editor; it was all there. After a few years of having done thousands of little films, I realized I wanted to go deeper into stories and produce longer pieces, so I got another TV job where I was a field producer. I produced 10–20 minute pieces. Those were the steps that led to producing my first documentary.
Miniflix: Wow. That’s a cool journey. It’s great to see the incremental steps you took, going from minute-and-a-half segments to 20-minute films and so forth. You’ve had the opportunity to see technologies and filming methods come and go throughout the decades. Are you generally pretty open to embracing new methods of shooting, editing and distributing your films? Are there any things you still hold onto no matter how “old fashioned” they may get?
Felicia: As a filmmaker, we all have to be open and aware of what’s going on in the industry. When CAAM proposed the idea of a VR piece on Angel Island, I embraced the challenge.
I was being paid to learn a new way to engage and draw someone in through the power of storytelling, and with 360°, I learned you have more visual assets to deal with. Because there’s so much more visual information coming at you, I kept cutting down the narration.
M: You do a great job of re-purposing footage for new media experiences. This is particularly true in Angel Island Passages and Pacific Gateway. Are you always consciously thinking about how you can use your past work in a new way, or do these groundbreaking projects just happen?
F: Carved In Silence was shot in 16mm in 1988 and focused specifically on the Immigration Station. As time has passed, I have been able to, as you say, re-purpose that footage in new ways…you don’t need to reinvent the wheel if what you started with already works. As a filmmaker, if my work has a long shelf-life, that makes me very happy, because it takes so much time to produce our pieces. So if it stands the test of time, that says something about the strength of your work.
M: Can you speak to the collaboration with the composer on “Angel Island Passages”, a new music composition that premiered alongside a three-screen projection of clips from Carved In Silence?
F: “Angel Island Passages” was an original new music composition by Chen Yi.New music is extremely abstract. I was commissioned by the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus who performed the piece and did not collaborate with the composer. I saw my task as providing context and support to the emotional content of the music through images. It excites me that this new opportunity provided so much value.
M: In Carved In Silence, you mention the press as being a part of the catalyst for inflaming the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. As someone who has been part of the media and communications world, do you feel a responsibility or burden going into each project of honoring the truth and a truthful perception of things?
F: The history of my body of work has been on the Chinese in America and I was one of the pioneers in the sense that I was one of the first who had been given an opportunity early to learn the craft. I had also known so little about my own history of Chinese in America, outside of the occasional bits, such as the Chinese working on the railroad. So I think many of us who came in at the beginning felt an obligation and responsibility to telling our own stories — because who else is going to be more vested? I have had the privilege of learning as I was making the stories. And the challenge that comes with production is how can I do this in such a way that anybody, even a farmer in Iowa, could relate to the Angel Island story.
M: I’d love to know about the genesis of Pacific Gateway. It was for a PBS special via Facebook stream. What convinced you that 360° filmmaking was a proper way to tell a story you’ve told before?
F: It was commissioned by the Center For Asian American Media (CAMM), co-producers of a documentary by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu on the Chinese Exclusion Act. It had a huge promotional budget but what CAAM wanted to do was produce a little piece about the poems of Angel Island. So Don Young, the program director, told me, “I never thought about anyone other than Felicia to do this because she knows everything about it.” I shot Carved In Silence, I’ve also created soundscapes for the site itself and have been intimately involved in the preservation of the site. I feel that committed to the place because of what it represents. It’s like our Plymouth Rock.
So when Don said that he’d like to do this in 360°, he also said that he would provide me with the team because it’s such a specialized way of shooting and editing. As I thought about it, I started wondering what were the visual resources I could use and what I could bring to it besides the obvious clips. I had to think through and learn (as I saw the process unfold), how to best use 360° to our benefit. How it would it work in tandem with the other visual elements and make it look seamless…
M: Did you decide to add in animation for this? What was your involvement with that?
F: One of the immediate things that came to mind was to have some animation done. As it turned out, I had seen the work of the woman animator we chose, Ruth Lingford, in another documentary. Her work impressed me because it was simple, elegant and really helped tell the story. We brought Ruth out to San Francisco (she currently teaches animation at Harvard), and took her to Angel Island so she could experience the space and see the poems.
One example of our collaboration was in the room that was re-created to show the sleeping quarters of the detainees and where the poems were written. I found find a wall where I wanted to show a “ghost” of somebody writing a poem. We staged the action with a real person and sent it to Ruth to interpret. She’d send a drawing and I would say, “you know, he looks a little skinny, can you fatten him up a little bit?” And she’d make adjustments; it was a process and an overall collaboration.
Another example was an animation I needed of someone pacing. It was in a room where you could see both a wall of poems and an office space where we superimposed a scene from my film. I wanted to convey how nervous one would be while awaiting an interrogation.
Ruth really pulled it off. It was exciting to me, because it was the first time I’d ever worked with an animator. It was a wonderful feeling to see concepts I imagined come to life.
M: What is one thing about VR/360° technology that excited you? What’s one thing that challenged or frustrated you?
F: If anything, I was a little bit skeptical, because I wondered if it was going to bring something to the table or if it was just going to be bells and whistles..I had to learn how it worked. After we took location stills, Justin Chin demonstrated the space that I had to work with. It opened up the frame for me, and made me think about how to use that space effectively.
For example, if you’re looking here, what can I add to the scene to give you more information, or is it necessary to add more? In seeing other pieces at the New Orleans Film Festival, I was sometimes overwhelmed because one can only take in so much information at one time. I didn’t know where to focus. If the point was just to plop me there and see all the things going on around me, then that’s not very satisfying. If I’m going to invest my time to watch something I want to know what I’m learning or seeing or getting. The way in which I used 360° VR might be considered conservative, but it served the story telling. It was focused; there was a beginning, middle and end.
In terms of the negative, honestly I can’t think of any…I fortunately was able to work with a very experienced shooter/editor in Justin, so he could tell me what the pitfalls were going to be. At one point, for example, I did have to add some basic information…I made it spare, and tried to use music and natural sounds as much as possible, but at one point the executive producers were saying that I should use text instead of voice over. I thought that would clutter up the screen and ruin the aesthetics of how I wanted it to look…so there was some horse trading from that aspect. But I struggled with that too at first. I thought I had to have all this information crammed in there, but then I realized that I can’t. Because if you’re listening then you might miss the visual information. So I had to trust the images.
From that standpoint, it was a valuable lesson for me. Learning to create images that were powerful enough to tell the story.
Most of the virtual reality films I’ve seen are ambitious, but not necessarily effective. We still don’t know the full potential because it’s in its infancy…but it’s important that people experiment with these things. I’m reading now where they use it for people with PTSD, or for other medical applications. It’s still to be determined what the most effective uses of 360°and Virtual Reality will be.
M: Since we met each other at last year’s New Orleans Film Festival, I was curious if you had a favorite short documentary that you saw there?
F: There were many great films. I think that it’s one of the best festivals, and I really enjoyed myself there. I made a point to go see a lot of shorts, because I think that’s the way films are really going now. I love feature films and feature docs, but if you can do that story with economy and get your point across all the better.
One I really liked was Come + Take It, by PJ Raval. It’s a film about the response at a Texas college to allowing people to carry guns on campus. So these girls launched a counter-campaign with dildos. It’s a fun and deceptively deep film.
De Colores by Luz Zamora was another story I liked about a woman who was living in New York and cleaned apartments, but she owned properties in her native country. Zamora shot it all on her phone and it looks great! I was inspired by what she achieved.
Watch Pacific Gateway here.
See a live performance of “Angel Island Passages” here.