Documentarian's skills just keep rolling


April 05, 2009|By DAVID ZURAWIK

He has been called "Ken Burns' cinematographer," and that's pretty high praise in its own right. But the career of Allen Moore, a 57-year-old documentary filmmaker from Baltimore, extends beyond serving as principal photographer on such Burns epics as The Civil War and Baseball.

The most fascinating part of that career today is the way Moore, a faculty member at Maryland Institute College of Art and owner of the Allen Moore Films Inc. production company, is changing with the new media times - even as he remains at the pinnacle of nonfiction documentary cinematography.

Moore's schedule in coming weeks offers a snapshot of an artist in transition, who is both learning and still producing at the highest levels. There's a lesson here, and not just for documentary filmmakers. The evolution of Allen Moore has something to say to everyone from journalists to auto workers about how to survive and thrive in a climate of revolutionary change.

On April 13, millions of PBS viewers will see Moore's work showcased in a sweeping five-part series titled We Shall Remain. The documentary series on the Native American experience offers excellent examples of Moore's landscape photography, which, at its best, is a kind of visual poetry suggesting a deep spiritual connection between the land and the tribes that shaped it and were shaped by it. Maryland Public Television (MPT) and other PBS outlets across the nation are offering a 30-minute preview of the series, which will air under the American Experience umbrella, tonight at 10:30.

We Shall Remain is also representative of Moore's work in its emphasis on multiculturalism. Trained as an ethnographic filmmaker in the 1970s at Harvard University, the Gilman School graduate has long been a favorite of other directors interested in exploring underrepresented cultures. Last month, his work as cinematographer was featured in A Class Apart, a Mark Samuels film on PBS. That film powerfully chronicled a landmark Texas case that guaranteed legal standing and civil rights to Mexican Americans. It is considered the Brown vs. Board of Education for Americans of Mexican descent - and Moore's photography helped bring a project that was desperately lacking in moving images to life.

"It is a trend for the media now to be aware of the cultures and classes that have not been subjects of your conventional programs - and that is good," Moore said in an interview last week. "But there's another little twist in my case. I worked for years with anthropologists making films about other cultures. So, when you look at the way directors have sought me out to work on projects that are multicultural, it's partly because they know that I have an affinity and understanding of what the other culture is really about."

Later this month, Moore will be exploring the terrain of Camden Yards and the Orioles tribe of baseball players who call that place home as he begins photography on Burns' Tenth Inning, an update to the acclaimed filmmaker's nine-part Baseball series for PBS.

But for all the high-end, multi-part documentaries that he works on, Moore is just as enthusiastic about a three-minute experimental film he's making for next month's Maryland Film Festival and a five-minute piece he did for the Web on a cultural exchange program between graphic arts students at MICA and their counterparts at a university in Dubai.

"It's really about how all people in the media have to learn to adapt to the ever-changing landscape in terms of the presentation of their work," Moore says, talking about some of his new online projects and the way even a filmmaker like Burns is changing, due in part to the loss of longtime funding last month from General Motors as a result of the automakers' financial troubles.

"I'm in the tradition where I would make a film in 16mm - a documentary. Then, it would be projected in a theater - hopefully, at several film festivals. It might win a few awards. If there was enough buzz about the film, maybe public television would pick it up," he says.

But that distribution model is no longer viable, even for many top documentary filmmakers.

"Now, you have to think about Web streaming, about doing preview productions, or having your director, like Ken Burns, literally canvassing the country to pre-sell his upcoming film on the national parks, as he recently did here by visiting The Baltimore Sun," Moore says, referring to a preview presentation Burns did for Sun staffers last month of The National Parks: America's Best Idea, a 12-hour series that will premiere in September on PBS.

"Or, you have American Experience showing a 30-minute 'the-making-of' documentary on PBS to promote We Shall Remain. This is all part of the new way to attract audiences, because there is so much out there, and you have to use new and old media in different ways to compete."

Moore says for all he has learned working with legendary directors like Burns for more than two decades, he is coming to appreciate more and more the lessons his students have to teach him about new media.

When he went to Dubai with the MICA students, he went with the idea of making a 30-minute documentary about their experience.

"But the first thing they wanted," he says of the students and their graphic design teachers, "was a five-minute short to put on the Web. And then, that was on, and it drummed up a lot of interest, and I ended up creating the half-hour, finished, 'full-length' documentary. But, again, it was Web first, completed project second. There's this learning curve, and I actually rely on my students to teach me a lot, especially about the new technologies, because there is so much changing all the time."

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