Flashback: Reflections from Ground Zero

The recent events in the Gulf States and today’s anniversary of September 11, makes it apropos to republish large format filmmaker Hans Kummer’s piece about his experiences at Ground Zero and the profound impact such events must have on large format filmmaking. Originally published in 2003, in Issue 3 of sfc magazine, as well as other publications, “Reflections from Ground Zero” resonates even more today.

REFLECTIONS FROM GROUND ZERO:
A Filmmaker’s Personal Odyssey & Commentary on the Future of Large Format Film

By Hans Kummer

© 2003 Hans Kummer

“There are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things,
Partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history.”

T.E. Lawrence – “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, 8:55 A.M. ET

Breaking News – The morning television news programs interrupt their broadcasts to report that the top floors of New York’s World Trade Center (WTC) North Tower appear to be on fire. Just a few minutes later, as media crews scrambled to ascertain the situation, “live” cameras aired the unthinkable – the rapid approach of a passenger plane and its fireball impact into the WTC’s South Tower. From that moment on, the day’s events became a surreal montage of epic proportions that would be the first major milestone of the 21st century.

As the chaos continued: an unconfirmed report of an explosion at the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C. A passenger plane then hit the Pentagon, just outside Washington. There was a report of another rogue passenger plane bound for California. Within relative minutes, all U.S. based aircraft are grounded indefinitely. All inbound foreign aircraft are turned back or diverted to nearby countries. The WTC South Tower collapses in a huge cloud of dust and debris, sending people scrambling for their lives. A portion of the damaged Pentagon collapses. White House staffers are seen in frantic escape as evacuation orders are given. The rogue plane crashes in rural Pennsylvania. The WTC North Tower collapses enveloping lower Manhattan in darkness with little to no communications capabilities. President Bush, in Air Force One, plays secretive hopscotch in an effort to keep the country’s central command intact. Trauma and triage centers are instituted immediately in New York. People from around the country converge on local blood banks to “do something – anything” to not feel helpless. Survivors made their way home to tell their stories. Family members of the missing walked the streets in a devastated daze. Search and rescue efforts began, but as hours turned to days, the trauma centers remained empty. There were few survivors to be found. Initial victim estimates ranged wildly from 6,000 to as many as 10,000 people missing or deceased. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani orders 3,000 body bags for the recovery operations ahead. Today, the death toll totals stand at New York – 2,792, Washington DC -184, Pennsylvania – 40.

Many of the towns in southwestern Connecticut were awash in a flood of emotions that day, as they are “bedroom communities” for those working the Wall Street beat. My hometown of Seymour, Connecticut is located just 60 to 70 miles outside of midtown Manhattan. I received several calls and emails from concerned family and friends, as they knew that I travel to Manhattan frequently. Luckily, I was home that day. I too, tried to contact several friends and colleagues who live and work in lower New York City, but could not reach them for days as communications networks for parts of the northeast U.S. had been destroyed. As recovery operations began, a few of my longtime friends were called to report to what many were already calling “Ground Zero,” that afternoon. Among them was Phil DeVan, a former real estate broker, who took a leave of absence from his job at a Canadian nuclear power plant to volunteer for the Salvation Army’s Disaster Recovery Unit. DeVan was recently featured in a New York Times article as one of several New Yorkers to volunteer assistance in the east Texas search for Space Shuttle Columbia debris.

As that first week passed, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from many friends from around the world who not only offered their thoughts and wishes, but also expressed their anguish, anger, sleeplessness, and most importantly – solidarity. In spite of whatever political or religious motivations were the cause of such atrocities, the flood of messages and stories that followed September 11 spoke to the heart of what it means to be human. In a world of physical sensations, I think the thing that amazed me most, during those first few weeks, was the power of silence and stillness. The usual sounds of traffic stopped. Background noise became non-existent. The sounds of silence spoke multi-faceted volumes.

TERRORISM – ROUND TWO: ANTHRAX

The local area of Seymour and nearby Oxford, Connecticut is just 10 to 20 minutes northwest of New Haven and Yale University by car. Known primarily for its quiet rolling hills and quaint antique shops, the region would appear to be remote to any sort of terrorist activity. However, terrorism would once again strike close to home. On November 21, 2001, 94 year-old Oxford resident Ottilie Lungren died of symptoms caused by inhalation anthrax. Lungren’s residence was just a mile and a half from my home. The incident touched off a new media frenzy and had authorities scrambling to investigate the safety and security of the mail system. Lungren’s death is reported to be the first documented case of lethal anthrax poisoning by third party cross-contamination. After a lengthy investigation, it is believed that Lungren’s mail may have come in contact with a letter sent to another local resident that was processed at the same time as either of the anthrax tainted letters sent to Senator Tom Daschle or NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. Lungren was known to have torn up her junk mail and this simple action may have triggered a particle release large enough to impact her elderly body.

THE 2002 WINTER OLYMPICS

As some of you may know, I have been a member of the United States Bobsled & Skeleton Federation (USBSF). Since 1993, I have been a part of the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project team based at Chassis Dynamics, a renowned racecar fabrication shop, in Oxford. NASCAR legend Geoff Bodine created the Bo-Dyn Project to apply auto-racing technology to the design and construction of competitive winter sports sliding equipment. With a background in aeronautics and a life-long passion for racing, becoming personally involved with the USBSF and the Bo-Dyn project was an easy decision. In 1997, I was asked by the U.S. Olympic Committee to author and contribute photography to “A Basic Guide to Bobsledding.” The book was published in 1999 and is currently doing well in its third printing.

In February 2002, several Bo-Dyn team members and I ventured to Park City, Utah to take part in the 2002 Winter Olympics based in nearby Salt Lake City. The 2002 Games marked the debut of Women’s Bobsleigh and the return of Skeleton (think – headfirst luge) to Olympic competition. In the end, USBSF athletes would win a historic count of 6 Olympic medals – Bobsleigh (Gold, Silver & Bronze) & Skeleton (2 Gold & Silver). The winning athletes provided inspiring stories for the international media, including Five-time Olympian Brian Shimer, who after years of losing a medal by hundredths of a second captured bobsleigh Bronze on his retirement run and was chosen by his peers to carry the American flag in the Closing Ceremony. Third generation Olympian Jim Shea, Jr. won Skeleton Gold and, along with his father, presented the Athlete’s Creed and Olympic Torch during the Opening Ceremony. Shea’s grandfather was to be a part of the festivities, but was killed by a drunk driver shortly before the Olympics began. Woman’s Skeleton Silver winner Lea Ann Parsley, a McCoy family descendant (the infamous Hatfield / McCoy feud) and 1999 Ohio Firefighter of the Year, was one of several athletes chosen to carry an American flag found in the WTC rubble into the Opening Ceremony. Women’s Bobsleigh Gold medallist Vonetta Flowers (while pregnant with twins) as well as bobsleigh Silver medallists Randy Jones and Garrett Hines became the first African-Americans to stand on the Winter Olympic medal podiums.

For all of us, the 2002 Olympics was an incredibly memorable whirlwind experience that easily made up for the years of frustrating Sisyphusian work against the odds. Yet, success can be a funny and fickle thing. USA Bobsled’s Bo-Dyn sleds have broken numerous track records, won multiple World Cup medals and have been featured in countless international news articles over the past ten years. However, it apparently takes winning an Olympic medal to be taken seriously by the media and world at large.

Many of you may also know that my company, Wild Child Entertainment, has been in development on a 3D large format film entitled, Racing for the Gold. Using innovative cinematography and special effects never before seen on the giant screen, the film explores the technology, physiology, and psychology of what it means to be a racer on the fast track. Using the Bo-Dyn project as a stepping-stone, the film examines the secrets and similarities associated with the sporting worlds of bobsleigh and auto racing – two of the planet’s most popular spectator attractions. In their pursuit of speed and personal excellence, the film follows a unique group of men and women who are competitors on both asphalt and ice. An international cadre of talent has been assembled and project-funding discussions continue. Like many other large format films, we have endured our fair-share of obstacles and false starts, but those are stories for another time. In spite of the hindrances, the journey continues on.

THE GROUND ZERO CONNECTION

In addition to being a longtime friend, Phil DeVan has also been a life-long racing fan and ardent volunteer supporter of the Bo-Dyn Project. Phil and his twin brother Dan own a small bed & breakfast style house in Park City, Utah. While making my preparations for the Olympic trip, Phil indicated that he would also be out for the Olympics and generously invited me to share the house while I was in town. Situated just off of Park City’s Main Street and just a few miles from the Utah Olympic Park venues, one could not have asked for a better location from which to soak up the Olympic experience. Old friends and new ones from the U.S., Mexican, and Canadian bobsleigh teams stopped by the house frequently.

Phil also invited a friend from Ground Zero to come out to Park City for the last weekend’s four-man bobsleigh competition. Joe DeLuca arrived at the house and helped set future events in motion. A stereotypical hotheaded Italian with a heart of gold from Brooklyn, DeLuca is the Project Director, Special Projects Unit, Structures Division of the City of New York’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC). The DDC was the principal group in charge of the recovery and clean-up operations at the Ground Zero site. Joe was among a select group of people that reported directly to the Mayor.

During his stay with us, Joe made an off-hand comment to the group that he wished he could bring some of the Olympic celebrities to Ground Zero. He indicated that the workers there were religiously following the Games with an extraordinary amount of patriotism. Much of their work was grueling, gruesome, and extremely depressing on a daily basis. The Olympic spirit, the fact that it was being held on U.S. soil and the huge success of American athletes was providing a buoyed sense of purpose and resolve for those on the “front line.” The seed for instituting such an event was now planted.

Over the next few days and post Olympic weeks, DeVan, DeLuca and myself along with Bobsleigh Canada friends Tom Samuel and Allison Stierle would work our connections. Everyone we talked to thought it was a great idea and pledged to help in anyway they could. Prince Albert Grimaldi of Monaco (bobsled driver and bobsleigh / skeleton patron) and Geoff Bodine offered their assistance. Lea Ann Parsley indicated that she had lost a relative in New York on 9/11 and as a fellow firefighter she felt a need to come. Likewise, Jimmy Shea, a volunteer firefighter in Lake Placid, NY, felt a deep need to be there. Skeleton Gold medallist Tristan Gale felt a kinship with the workers as she did a lot of volunteer work in Salt Lake City. Bobsleigh Silver medallist Todd Hays spoke of a bracelet that bore the name of a New York firefighter who was lost on 9/11. He wore the jewelry during his Olympic runs and was planning to go to New York to visit the man’s family. Everyone spoke of coming for a single reason – to say “Thank You” to the workers for what they had been doing.

NEW YORK: A SEA OF EMOTIONS

In less than a month after the Games, plans were complete. Two separate events, designed to provide an entertaining distraction and welcome relief for the WTC site workers, were ready to be staged. Highlighting the events would be a decent into “The Pit” – the sixteen acre / seven story below ground work area of the former WTC complex – to observe search and recovery operations from the last mountains of debris at the footprint of the South Tower.

Ground Zero site access and security credentials would be coordinated with the Salvation Army and the DDC. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) agreed to provide transportation and security escort services. The City of New York Fire Department (FDNY) would provide additional site access and services. Songwriter / New York socialite Denise Rich would provide the funds needed to transport and house the tour participants. Ms. Rich’s assistant Jacqueline Malloy would help coordinate the events. Katherine Saxton at Ivanna Trump’s office would assist with media relations.

On Friday, March 22, 2002, Brian Shimer, Tristan Gale and Lea Ann Parsley presented the Port Authority Police World Trade Center Disaster Survivors Fund with a check for $11,359. dollars on FOX News. The donation will directly assist the families of fallen Port Authority Police Officers and was raised through the U.S. Winter Sport Organizations Relief Fund for New York City, a joint effort of the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation and U.S. Speedskating. The presentation was followed by a tour of “The Pit” and related sites.

On Tuesday, March 26, 2002, Phil DeVan, Tom Samuel, Allison Stierle and I along with Jimmy Shea Jr., his mother Judy & father Jim Shea Sr. (1964 Olympic Nordic Combined competitor), and Todd Hays received our security credentials at the Salvation Army’s Disaster Relief Command Center on 14th Street. NYPD Detectives James Queally of the Brooklyn Juvenile Crime Squad and Herbert Cordero, Jr. of the Bronx Juvenile Crime Squad then escorted us by van to the WTC site. The Manhattan skyline was overcast with light drizzle and a morning chill was in the air.

During the ride to the site, the detectives set the stage for what was to come by sharing stories of their daily work since September 11 – as investigators at the Morgue and at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island (where WTC debris was taken and sorted further). Their stories of sifting through bodies, body parts and charred crushed debris ranged from the grisly and morbid to sad and hopeless. One such tale was that of a firefighter found buried in an air pocket under tons of debris. Realizing his situation, he crafted a makeshift bed, laid his tools beside him and most likely fell asleep to die of asphyxiation. The detectives also took the time to compare and contrast their normal work (street crime, domestic disputes, etc.) with WTC operations – indicating that the more things change the more they stay the same. In addition to oversight of recovery operations and area clean up, they and others also had to contend with various on-going on-site criminal investigations, incidents of looting from the site during initial operations, numerous citywide ethnic disputes, assisting displaced home and business owners, and assuring general public safety.

THE 10 HOUSE

Once on-site, the detectives brought us to Liberty Street Fire Station – Engine 10 / Ladder 10 – directly across the street from the WTC’s South Tower. Despite its location, the “10 House” sustained only minor damage, but the Fire Company lost six men and all of its equipment. The building now served as a staging area for firefighters on recovery duty. Joe DeLuca met us there and brought the group up to the building’s roof for an initial “overview” of the massive site.

To our left we could see The Pit, with the South Tower footprint in our immediate foreground and the Marriott Hotel and North Tower locations in the background. Directly in front of us were The Pit’s southeast corner slurry retaining walls and the beginnings of reconstruction on the number one & nine-subway line. To our right were the footprints of WTC buildings four and five that contained banking and currency trade (gold, silver, etc.) storage vaults as well as several art and artifact archives that were either destroyed or irreparably damaged. {Among the many lost repositories held at 5 WTC were an estimated 40,000 film negatives by John F. Kennedy’s official photographer, Jacques Lowe. The entire archive is believed to have disintegrated. Kodak has been working with authorities to help salvage and clean other film based files that could be saved.} The World Financial Center and its Winter Garden could be seen in the distance to the left while the high-rise buildings along Broadway loomed above us to the right.

Joe was kind enough to describe some of the work that was going on in “The Bathtub” – another nickname for The Pit as the site’s retaining walls were wet in some places indicating that the Hudson River on the other side was breaking through. The surface of New York’s Hudson River is, for the most part, parallel with street level. When the WTC complex was built, a seven story deep / three foot thick retaining wall of slurry cement was engineered to hold back the river and was further reinforced by support columns within the WTC structure. With the removal of the collapsed columns from the debris, the integrity of the walls became further compromised. DeLuca outlined for the group current work to shore-up the existing walls and plans to build an additional six-foot thick barrier, as reinforcement once the site is clean.

Of alarming note, DeLuca also explained that the intense force of the WTC collapse compressed each of the two main building’s 110 above ground floors into approximately fourteen inches per floor. This somber fact and the minute physicality it represents had become a source of intense emotion for those working the site on a daily basis and added considerably to the tensions between various loyalties – all searching for fallen brethren whom they believe to be uniquely special. You could physically see and feel the pain, despair, exhaustion and occasional anger of these people – from the volunteer workers to the Fire and Police Chiefs and other leadership.

At each interaction with someone, it took a few seconds for them to realize they were speaking with people from “the outside” and for their body language to change from slumped and depressed or tense and rigid to straight and energetic. Once that happened, they were eager to speak about their work and of daily life.

For that reason alone, I am glad that we went – to know that at least for those few brief minutes of interaction we were able to bring a sense of “normality” to these people’s lives.

As a filmmaker and photojournalist, always having a camera at the ready is standard operating procedure. However, in this instance, I felt a strong need to curb the instinct to let a camera shutter snap away. The area was still a crime scene where officials hoped to keep disruption to a minimum. Extraneous picture taking was forbidden throughout most of the work zone – functions of purposely-restrictive bureaucratic red tape, a general distrust of the media, and a deep, sacred respect for the dead. Given where we were and the reasons for being there, it was more important for me to be “in the moment” and respectfully interact with the surroundings we encountered. Though the site pulsed with a sense of urgency and common purpose, unfiltered emotion was boiling just beneath the surface. As visitors with our own sense of purpose without a “media” presence, we were able to tap into those emotions in those we met. Today, now that a year has past since recovery operations ended, news reports indicate increasing numbers of post-traumatic-stress disorder and suicidal tendencies among former Ground Zero workers.

THE PIT

From the 10 House, Joe and the Detectives personally escorted Jimmy, Todd, Tom & I down a 515 foot steel ramp to the damp mud floor of The Pit and over to the main recovery work area of the South Tower. Until just recently before the tour, the massive mountain of South Tower debris was left largely untouched as it was used as a roadway for trucks hauling out debris. With the construction of the steel ramp complete, crews were, at last, able to focus their efforts on this main pile of rubble. To everyone’s shock, crews had since found over 3,000 body parts in three weeks – more than any other comparable period since recovery procedures had begun.

In total, 1.6 million tons of debris was removed from the WTC site by the official end of clean-up operations in May 2002 – three months ahead of schedule.

The round-the-clock clean-up and recovery work started with cranes and bulldozers that dug into the main pile. The bulldozers then moved to a flat area and dropped their loads where waiting firefighters combed through the debris with rakes and shovels – stopping frequently to catalog human remains and personal possessions using handheld computers with Global Positioning System technology. The human remains were placed into red biohazard bags, which were then put onto stretchers and draped with American flags. Rescue workers paused and saluted as the stretchers were then carried out of the site and into waiting ambulances.

The entire day was a very humbling experience, but entering The Pit had an incredibly heavy, somber, and sober feeling that will stay with me for some time. While no longer noticeable at street level, the acrid stench of the site (heavily charred rubble, decay, wet earth and a mix of untold chemicals) became very apparent as we descended further along the ramp. We walked over to the main work area and were placed in a “cleared” section as we observed what was going on. I was initially taking in “The Big Picture” – the massive scale of the site; observing crews shore-up the retaining walls; matching pictures in my mind of the towers collapsing and the resulting mountains of debris with the sights, sounds & smells of where I was now standing. All of that came to an abrupt halt as Tom Samuel gave me a nudge and pointed at my foot – I was standing on a crushed cell phone. From the big picture to “The Human Picture,” we began to see very real remnants of the catastrophic loss of life that day all around us:

– A man’s black dress shoe partially buried in the mud just a few feet away; scores of corporate photo ID’s scattered around; a twisted and flattened desk stapler.

These items gave a sense of breath and scope to the enormous volume of small debris and personal effects that must have been found. It was here that the entire trip hit home for me. With vivid memories of September 11 only a few months old, I began to think – Whose cell phone was this? Did they use it to call for help or say their last good-byes? Whose foot belonged to that shoe? We picked up several of the photo IDs and realized that the faces staring back may have died a horrific death.

During a brief respite in their work, we were able to socialize a bit with the firefighters and pose for pictures. The next round of bulldozers with debris came our way and we watched as the men combed through more rubble. The debris included chunks of inch thick glass from the WTC’s unique windows fused with metal shards, melted computer disks as well as a mangled black metal file cabinet that when opened revealed still smoldering paper. We lingered a few minutes more and then proceeded to make our way back. As we reached the ramp, a worker driving one of the bulldozers came over to us to say thanks for coming and offered the group a couple shards of glass recovered from the debris. I decided to pass on taking a glass piece as a token. As a matter of personal preference, keeping such an object did not feel right to me.

THE TAJ & NYPD COMMAND CENTER

We rejoined the others on the Ten House rooftop for some personal pictures and quiet reflection. The morning’s light drizzle turned to a steady rain. Joe and Phil suggested we retire for lunch at “The Taj” – the Salvation Army’s massive food service tent on West Street. As we were leaving, a flatbed trailer loaded with crushed and burned cars pulled-up nearby. A steel cross (two I-beams welded together) found in the rubble loomed in the background over what were WTC buildings four and five. Police, fire and construction crews continued to race about. For a moment, the entire scene reminded me of something straight out of a Hollywood disaster film – very real, yet surreal.

Following a short drive out of then back into the security zone – due to one-way and barricaded streets, we arrived at the Taj. We entered the $3 million dollar, 35,000 square foot facility through a special air vacuum decontamination area where we scrubbed our shoes free of mud and washed our hands before entering the chow line. The food tent was set-up and operated by the Salvation Army, but it became a strategic part of New York City’s civic revitalization effort. A specifically created program allowed local restaurants, cut-off from their main customers of business and tourism, to continue operating by providing subsidized food service to the multitude of Ground Zero workers. The food service program allowed 5,000 meals a day at an approximate cost of $120,000 dollars a week to be served at the “Taj” tent. From salads to sandwiches, hot entrees to ice cream, fellow volunteers served the crews with smiles and constant “Thank Yous.”

Following lunch and more pictures with the workers, we ventured a short distance over to the NYPD Disaster Recovery & Elite Emergency / Rescue Command Center located in the basement of a bank on Vesey Street. The facility was not much to look at. However, watching a bank of television monitors showed us that closed circuit video cameras recorded every facet of the WTC site – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We were able to zoom in on a body recovery and follow its journey out of the Pit. The command center also had a unique “remembrance” table of picture albums and scale models that told the contrasting story of the WTC’s construction against the ongoing 9/11 related work. Our visit with the police chief on duty was respectfully cut short when the widow of an officer killed on September 11 walked in. Her husband’s body had been recovered the day before.

In addition to the command center, the basement also served as the headquarters for the multiple canine search & rescue units that were deployed. Sadly, a few of the highly trained and very friendly dogs have since died or are sick due to injuries or from breathing toxic air. Furthermore, we learned that the dogs can become emotionally depressed, just like humans. The dogs view the search for people as a game and they are rewarded when successful. However, due to the massive force of the towers’ collapse, few whole bodies existed in the rubble. Despite being rewarded for their efforts, many of the dogs still felt that the repetition of not finding a body was a failure on their part. To help combat this, the canine handlers had devised an active program of play and rest for the dogs.

ST. PAUL’S CHAPEL

Following the command center visit, we proceeded to St. Paul’s Chapel, on the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street – directly across from the WTC North Tower as well as buildings five and six. Completed in 1766 as part of the Episcopal parish of Trinity Church, the Chapel is the oldest public building in continuous use in Manhattan and is the only remaining colonial church in the area. On April 30, 1789, George Washington walked to St. Paul’s following his inauguration as President. He regularly attended service there for two years while New York City served as the nation’s capital. The Chapel pew Washington used is marked and the earliest known representation of the Great Seal of the United States hangs above it.

Miraculously, St. Paul’s survived the devastation of September 11 with only minor damage. Closed to the public for nine months after 9/11, the Chapel became a place of refuge for the Ground Zero workers. Outside the building, crowds gathered many deep to view the perimeter’s wrought iron fence decorated with the writings, hand-made objects, and personal possessions from people offering their thanks and reflections. Likewise, the Chapel sanctuary was ornate from floor to ceiling with thousands of notes, drawings, well wishes, thank you letters, and banners from people around the world. Each pew contained a blanket, stuffed animal, or uplifting note for a worker to take.

St. Paul’s Chapel also served as a central distribution point for the tons of donated food, water & supplies for Ground Zero workers. The back of the sanctuary served as a lunch line with hot food and salads. The side aisles were lined with tables loaded with supplies that were free for the taking – bottled water & soft drinks, candy & snacks, assorted toiletries, new pairs of socks and gloves, fresh flowers to take home.

Our group was already emotionally drained by the time we arrived, but once there, a sense of quiet peaceful reverence made time slow down. It was easy to get caught up in the sensations of the moment as one read any of the writings and organ music played lightly in the background. People spoke in soft tones and conversations drifted from casual talk to personal thoughts and inquiries about families. Despite a pressing time schedule, no one in our group was in a rush to leave.

THE 7 HOUSE

After some lengthy good-byes, we headed several blocks over to the Duane Street Fire Station – Engine 7 / Ladder 1. The firefighters of the “7 House” were among the first responders to the terrorist incident and were the subject of the dramatic CBS Television special “9/11.” The unscripted program told the story of French filmmaker brothers Jules & Gedeon Naudet who set out to document the life of a New York fire-fighting trainee. They and the people of the 7 House became unwitting participants in a “reality” show unlike any production Hollywood could create. Despite being in and around the towers as they collapsed, the Fire Company did not lose a single man.

The firemen on duty were as friendly as could be and revealed themselves to be quick-witted jokers to boot. They brought us out to the back patio area behind the building and showed us the remains of their former engine “water pump” truck and fire chief’s car, both of which were crushed flat as a pancake in the WTC rubble. The truck was brand new and on the job for one month, when the September 11 destruction happened.

The firefighters were very candid in their recollections of that day. From the shock of watching both planes fly overhead and slam into the buildings to the feeling of utter helplessness in watching people jump from the upper floors to their death, the conversation was peppered with a mix of humor and held back tears. One particularly memorable story centered on a tragic “Spiderman.” As the firemen on the ground coordinated operations, they began to see people fall from the upper floors of the towers. One particular man climbed out his North Tower window, but did not jump. Instead, he proceeded to slowly “climb” down the building. The firefighters remarked at the man’s small progress when a sudden loud rumble grew louder and they ran for cover as the South Tower toppled in a blinding cloud of dust and debris. It is presumed that the man fell to his death.

As the men of the 7 House invited us to share in their late afternoon snack of pizza from a local restaurant, the alarm rang to respond to a call. Acting like excited school kids; they invited us to come along for the ride in their new vehicles. Unfortunately, we had to decline as Jimmy Shea & Todd Hays had previous commitments they needed to attend. The firefighters graciously invited us back anytime for dinner at the station. Unlike an invitation that could sound superficial from some other people, the offer was genuine and drop-in guests who like to stir-up some fun are always welcome, as Phil, Tom, Allison, and I can personally testify from previous experience.

REFLECTIONS ON HISTORY IN-THE-MAKING

As the rain subsided, the police detectives dropped our group off at various points of call, and we each said heartfelt thanks for their services and candor. Phil, Tom, Allison and I retired to an Irish pub to digest the day’s events over numerous rounds of beer. We made plans to go back to Ground Zero later that night to witness the Tribute In Light (multiple vertical klieg lights strategically positioned at the site to pay homage to the two lost buildings). Once back at the hotel, however, we all fell asleep before the time we said we would reconvene.

New York is a city of eight million people of every race and sect. They, like the rest of us, are trying to fit 25-hour lives into 24-hour days within an infrastructure that is constantly changing. As the saying implies, it is a “city that never sleeps.” Over time, “The Big Apple” has acquired a reputation for being a brashly rough-edged urban metropolis. However, based on our experience, the over-the-top stereotype of New Yorkers as brusque, contentious, sharp-tongued, insular people could not have been further from the truth.

Many outsiders have suspected the rough attitude was a facade, but on September 11 and in the days and months that followed, New Yorkers bravely showed the world that they would do what had to be done without pretense. A gauntlet was thrown – a test of humanity’s soul. A single question, but many answers. How would New York, having become the epicenter of the western world within mere minutes, respond? The citizens and leadership of the area answered with a calm courage and tender toughness. Today’s New York City, while having gone back to the usual commerce, culture and distraction, still exhibits those characteristics, in smaller amounts, every day. The attitude is perhaps a unique combination of modern western culture mixed with Old World dogged determination – ingrained by the countless global immigrants whose many generations created the city. It would serve well as a guidepost for a deeply wounded United States.

Simply stated, our group felt that the personal experience of that day and several other September 11 related interactions we’ve each had since that time are a testament to the fragility & veracity of the human condition and the resilience of the human soul. Our interactions with those on the front line reinforced the feeling that we all live lives of quiet dignity – That there is a nobility in the ordinary moments of our lives and to not take those, otherwise, simple moments with family, friends and even strangers for granted.

The coordinated and specifically targeted violent actions of the terrorists showed just how far the evolution of the human race still has to go. But, the unflinching and selfless dedication of the many people from around the world who gave to the September 11 recovery effort is a testament to just how far the human race has actually come.

In my personal opinion, if there is a single good to have come out of the September 11 experience, it is this. Americans and those of western ideology were dealt a wake-up call that there is a larger world and a greater sense of scope to that world beyond our own backyards and wallets. Perhaps the false sense of security came as a result of many things, including political freedoms afforded by the U.S. Constitution, certain economic freedoms afforded by being a capitalist society, a disassociation with imposing scales of repression, and peaceful borders with large neighboring countries. Worldwide, Americans are traditionally viewed as extremely hospitable and generous people. But, in many areas, we are seen as being too naïve or just plain ignorant of other cultures’ politics as well as how western policies affect other ways of life. Regardless of political, economic or religious viewpoints, perhaps September 11 can serve as a new historical marker for how the international human race continues to evolve – One World, Many Voices.

As in all things, time will tell.

REFLECTIONS ON THE FUTURE OF LARGE FORMAT FILM

So, after reading all of this you’re probably thinking – “That’s nice Hans, but what does it have to do with the large format film industry?” Well, I’ll tell you. In addition to planning future 9/11 related media opportunities, these experiences have served as a reminder and personal wake-up call of my own as to why I chose to be involved in this industry in the first place – emotion: raw, unadulterated, unfiltered emotion.

Large format film has a very unique power to speak to the human soul in ways that mere words or other media cannot describe. We have not even scratched the surface of the potential that this medium has to make people think, learn and experience life in new ways.

Those who know me will note that I am an optimist in general and specifically with regard to the long-term future of the large format experience. Pessimism and cynicism are not part of my vocabulary. However, I cannot help but feel increasing amounts of these two emotions as the short-term viability of our industry continues to be undermined by the actions (or in most instances, inaction) of the industry itself.

I have been involved in our community for ten years now and have made many friends and acquaintances. It has been a privilege to work with many of you and it is always great to see everyone at the annual conferences. But in all honesty, the conversations have not changed in ten years. The same debates come and go in cyclical fashion. Virtually no one contests that LF (15/70 & 8/70) film is the most desirable medium for content origination and exhibition. Virtually no one contests the continued strong need for educational programming. In the process, however, these arguments miss the bigger picture of quality emotionally driven storytelling and avoid dealing with the real problems of economic & programming viability for films that audiences actually want to see. I applaud the GSTA leadership for recently taking proactive steps to address industry issues. I only fear that it may be too little, too late as the changes continue and the outlook worsens.

My company, Wild Child Entertainment, was founded with the express intent of developing and being involved with documentaries and entertainment based faire using advanced technology. However, a single question needed to be answered before I would get involved with any project – Does the film have a strong emotional center (or even better – multiple emotions) from which the audience can be drawn into the action? I, as well as many other creative people in this industry, have continually been amazed, confounded and stymied that the collective intelligence of our community fails to grasp such a simple concept.

Before I continue, I must first preface my thoughts with a heart-felt sense of gratitude to the many original pioneers of large format film. It has been their visions over the last 20 to 30 years that moved me then and continues to inspire my future hopes now. However, paradigms have shifted and continue to shift. It is no wonder that the industry is the mess that it is. It continually refuses to get out of its own way and acknowledge the painful, but necessary truth that times have changed and audiences are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.

Apart from the Hollywood blow-ups (I’ll get to that in a few minutes), today’s North American large format film audiences largely view our medium as bland & generic education with a few “thrill ride” moments thrown in for good measure. It does not matter what the subject of a film is, the “experience” of a LF film is viewed as being the same – a “Been There, Done That, So Why Should I Go Back?” scenario.

Someone once described the general public’s perception of LF film to me using an insightful ice cream analogy – In a world of 31 farm fresh flavors, “Imax” is prepackaged vanilla with an occasional chocolate swirl or strawberry surprise. Even school kids are saying that they are largely bored with the LF films they see. Who can blame them, when the industry says it wants newer, better, more original content, but liberally continues to program and promote generic films that spoon-feed the audience.

This fact was recently parodied on an episode of The Simpsons, in which Bart Simpson goes to the local LF Theater to see a film about “Holes.” It served as an implication and reaffirmation of the obvious.

Several industry-wide studies are currently underway. From a business perspective, the information contained in these studies should be useful, if it is made available to all. However, as with the previously mentioned Simpson’s reference, no survey is needed to point out the obvious. If you do not believe me, I challenge you to speak frankly with your friends and family about their take on large format. Speak candidly with people that you meet or with your children’s friends. I have spoken with families from all over North America and the consensus of opinion is “When are you guys going to start telling some real stories?” Other regions of the world where large format is a developing marketplace may still be facing identity awareness issues. But, our colleagues in these regions would be wise to also be aware of the North American crisis. These developing areas will too experience the stagnated growth of our community, if corrective measures are not taken shortly.

When I was growing up and LF film was in its infancy, themed entertainment meant going to the newly opened Disney World for the thrill of an “E-ticket” ride and educational television meant connecting to something called cable to get a station called PBS. I remember spending hours at the library doing research for written and oral reports. I remember spending 10 minutes waiting for my school’s computer to process information from a magnetic tape, just so I could write basic code. Back then, the business model for LF theater sales and ultimately film production grew out of the institutional desire to expand educational programming.

Today, we live in a mass media world where themed entertainment is all around us. Cable television and the Internet now allow us access to multiple channels of tiered programming 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. At any given time, you can watch an hour long documentary on a variety of subjects on a host of networks. We can now retrieve information and download files from the Internet in a matter of seconds and kids can create their own multi-media reports. Yet, despite all these societal changes, the business and creative logic behind the LF industry has remained the same. Why?

We have spoon-fed our audiences into mind-numbing oblivion. For a time, adding celebrity voice-overs and name musicians to the mix seemed to help. Now, it has just become an over-used formula. We have shown our audiences endless vistas and the ever-present queasy “you are there in the midst of the action” shots. We have taken our audiences on journeys to many of the physical places they can’t go – from the remote corners of the planet to the depths of the oceans and to space and back. Time and time again we have shown audiences generic science applications, generic travelogues and generic history lessons. Many industry insiders feel that we have run out of topics to cover, so there is a need to retread or update previous films. Why? If we continue to ignore the obvious and stick with a 30 year-old business logic and sense of creativity, that surely may be the case. However, if we change our focus just slightly to include a new perspective while giving audiences everything they have come to expect from a LF experience, I believe that we can have a long and economically viable future – eventually.

The time has come to start taking audiences on journeys into their own hearts, minds and souls – specific stories that speak to people on an innate level. Do we really think we are providing “quality” to our audiences? On many levels, yes we are. But, after 30 years of the same formulaic eye-candy “explained” with voice-over narration, the margin of that quality is waning rapidly. We must let the education come through the emotion on screen. We must let the audience think and feel for themselves. If the audience feels intimately connected to the action, they will feel compelled to learn more. In an age of interactivity, why are we so reticent to embrace this simple logic? It applies to the creativity behind both documentaries and the entertainment genres of drama and comedy. A new way of seeing the language of large format film is all that is needed. I am glad to see that recently released LF films with this type of character such as The Human Body, Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey, Ghosts of the Abyss and Bugs! are being embraced by film programmers and audiences alike.

However, the logic and methods of large format film booking continue to be as convoluted and senseless, as they are out-dated and detrimental to the survival of the industry. How does a producer convince an investor to take a risk on an imaginatively creative project, when booking practices dictate that the film will most likely not garner enough rentals to make its money back against the likes of Hollywood blow-ups and the generic documentaries that dominate the field? How does an investor justify funding a creatively intelligent film with heart-felt emotions when poignant, beautifully composed films that speak to the soul such as Loch Lomond, Ocean Men and The Old Man & the Sea (the first LF Oscar ® winner, no less) are barely even considered for exhibition? Why is this? The production value is obviously there on screen.

The potential opportunities for marketing spin are fairly obvious. A unique film like The Old Man & the Sea should have played in at least one theater in every major market for at least one booking contract – if for no other reason than the potential school groups and art students that would enjoy the film and its Hemingway retrospective. Why did this not happen? How does a producer look to fund a technically literate LF science film, when the beautifully poetic and thought provoking look at hard science in Cosmic Voyage is judged by exhibitors to be too technical to show to the masses? How will audiences know that there are “must-see” quality films out there, if the only exposure they have to the medium is through continuous generic faire and whatever blow-ups Hollywood dishes out?

Why has Mysteries of Egypt been such a cornerstone of success? The answer lies in its brief, but unmistakable emotional connection to the audience. In a similar fashion and with all due respect to MacGillivary Freeman Films, Everest became a success partly, if not largely, due to the huge international media coverage of the mountain tragedy. The film’s audience was already emotionally connected to the story. Those of you who were also at the 1996 ISTC conference in Barcelona may recall being riveted by the post expedition work-in-progress presentation. I can only imagine how different and dramatic Everest might have been, if an even more directly emotional approach had been taken, but treated with reverence and realism.

This brings me to my next point. LF films have always been “events” (albeit with minimalist marketing) in that they have been original content that can only be seen in these types of venues. It is my opinion and that of many others I have spoken to that IMAX Corporation’s aggressive DMR platform represents a fundamentally flawed business strategy. That plan seriously degrades the overall LF experience to nothing more than a big screen and better sound system. IMAX executives claim that DMR was developed in response to several years of Hollywood saying no to embracing work in the format – due to bulky, loud and expensive camera systems and cost-prohibitive niche market venues. I am certainly all in favor of more LF entertainment programming and entertainment based theaters. Likewise, DMR and other similar services can certainly be a useful production tool. However, DMR: The “Marketing” Experience is a one-trick pony that while perhaps a popular novelty in the short-term fails to address the primary fundamental issue of original content creation exclusively for LF theaters.

LF films should continue to be Event Pictures in and of themselves, not blow-ups of the same special effects extravaganzas that can be seen on thousands of other screens. If the DMR marketing experience and the MPX theater system leads to many more theaters being built, an increase in original LF production, better marketing and a massive overhaul of the LF business model, I will be a happy producer. But given the various economic and programming realities of the LF and Hollywood markets, the likelihood of that happening is slim to none (and as the saying goes, “Slim left town a few years ago”).

Referring to the previous ice cream analogy, the idea of enhancing and blowing up 35mm Hollywood films in general is like that candy coating that freezes into a hard shell on contact with your favorite ice cream. It looks interesting and tastes good, but the shell cracks easily and does not offer much substance for the additional price. Press releases can continue to tout stellar opening numbers and theaters can continue to boast of sell out crowds, but it is the cumulative box office receipts that tell the real story. What does it mean when the DMR releases of powerhouse franchise films such as Star Wars and The Matrix as well as Disney’s own remastered blockbuster The Lion King have failed to presumably break even? Why is the decline in audience revenue so steep? How do producers and exhibitors justify the pros and cons of the valuable programming slots that these repurposed films are taking away from original content? Some people say that the answer lies with simultaneous LF and 35mm day and date distribution. Hollywood’s current overall release strategy is to open wide with the hope of grossing as much as possible in the first week, or two, if lucky. Given this rationale the opening numbers for a LF version may be higher than previous films to date, but the revenue drop-off may possibly be even steeper than it already is. How long will the charade need to go on?

It is only a matter of time, before audiences see the ruse for what it is – simply a bigger screen and better sound, and start asking once again, “So, when are you guys going to start telling some real stories?” Likewise, Hollywood studio executives are not stupid. The financial bottom-line of a Hollywood blow-up is considered a minimally attractive ancillary venue, at best. If the executives continue to see decreasing returns on investment, they may move-on to other lucrative ventures, which leads us right back to Square One again, or worse. What further long-term damage will have been done to the public’s view of the large format experience? How will future investors and sponsors view the potential of the medium given the already tenuous economics of our industry?

Long story short – IMAX Corp. would have done better to work with Hollywood to re-engineer the camera systems and production processes to make them more palatable and less expensive. IMAX Corp. would also be wise to work with the industry to address the problems of our basic business model. As a self-serving commercial business entity, it is certainly not obligated to do this, but given the continued tepid response to the company’s offerings perhaps it is not unreasonable. Asking people to believe that the industry’s future is tied to the expected success of DMR and MPX is akin to putting the proverbial cart before the horse and expecting that the horse can push it up and down the streets of San Francisco.

Throughout my travels, I have become keenly aware that history has a way of repeating itself. There is an impeding implosion on our horizon. The warning signs have been there for quite some time and the claxons are getting louder, yet little, if anything is being done. When the debris falls and the dust settles, I plan on being a survivor or as Laurence Fishburne so skillfully described MJ in Michael Jordan to the Max – a “last man standing.” But, it is the reaction (or continued lack thereof) by our industry that will serve as the guidepost for our future evolution.

As in all things, time will tell.

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