A Beautiful Flower Growing in a Crack of Concrete – Wetlands Preserved with Jonathan Healey
“Whatever some may claim, criticism is a subjective art, and even if it weren’t, the flowers in the cinema’s garden are so various that there’s no such thing as one standard by which to judge them.” – A Century of Film, Derek Malcolm
“It is the Celtic Way to find the middle ground between the beautiful and the ugly.” – Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman
Wetlands Preserved marks the documentary film debut of Relix Senior Editor and Jambands.com Editor, Dean Budnick. It goes without saying that the project is close to this writer, as well, as a) many of the best live acts of the 1990s are represented in the film; b) as a West Coast head, I was never able to make it out to New York to witness a show at the legendary club located in Tribeca; c) the Vermont Fab Four gigs have always been a fascinating story in Phishtory (1,200 in a 600-capacity club?!); d) like Wetlands in its heyday, the Rays have a retired VW bus located in the backyard which is vacant yet filled with many smoke-filled stories of yesterday painted in psychedelic surreal colors; e) and the venue supported a $100,000 per annum environmental activism budget. Budnick has made a film that accurately portrays a critical point in recent music history with shitkicker Wetland’s live tunes collected by Audio Archivist and Jambands.com Editor, Jesse Jarnow segueing into various colorful stories from musicians who played the hotter-than-hell joint to club owners to talent brokers to environmentalists to neighborhood real estate overlords to fans in a warm, humorous, honest and modern light.
The film is a fine representation of the club which lost its lease to a furniture store and encroaching gentrification, basking in skateboard film visuals and groundbreaking cinematic animation that layers multiple elements to shock photographs to life like some celluloid Dr. Frankenstein. Whereas the many eclectic live clips from Agnostic Front to moe. help showcase the various invigorating acts that former owners Larry Bloch and Peter Shapiro were able to corral, the animated visuals, numerous interview sequences with Bloch, Shapiro, musicians, writers, scenesters, Wetlands employees and activists help give the living history book a complex yet very appetizing flow.
Jonathan Healey served as the film’s Director of Photography and Editor while working with Budnick to get his vision onto the screen. Budnickupon introducing the film at its premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre at the Green Apple Music Festival to the audience along with producer, Peter Shapirowent out of his way to acknowledge Healey, prompting a beaming editor to stand from his seat and wave to the near capacity throng. Jambands.com takes an opportunity to investigate Healey’s experience on Wetlands Preserved, his additional production background and future projects. The documentary will next be aired at the Rhode Island Film Festival on August 10 followed by a screening at the Breckenridge Film Festival on Seprember 9.
Part I Wetlands Preserved
“A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun” – The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
RR: Wetlands Perserved had layers upon layers of meaning from music to activism to a timeless vibe that made the experience almost three-dimensional. The film echoes this imagery while delivering a lot of information. What are your impressions of how the film turned out?
JH: I was incredibly pleased with the final cut of Wetlands Preserved. Dean
Budnick and I videotaped about 80-hours of interview footage and married that with countless photos, archival footage and animated music sequences. It was a daunting task to filter through these assets and determine which pieces of dialogue would best articulate Wetlands’s story. It took us a lot of time to compile still photos and video footage and animate them in a style that would complement the dialogue we chose to use. Indeed, Wetlands Preserve did have layers of meaning from the music that was created there, to the activism and social justice causes the nightclub would champion to the hundreds of anecdotes people shared with us. The film actually depicts all of these described “layers” using hundreds of layered animations. Take that and add a person’s dialogue and musical soundbed and you have quite a complex piece of art divulging lots of information. Think about it: An interviewee is telling the viewer about an account at Wetlands while underneath that audio is a live recording from the nightclub that either directly references this particular story or mood. Finally, you have all this visual information literally flying around the screen, or changing colors, or dissolving in and out. It can be a lot to comprehend; however, we did a great job keeping it understandable to anyone who might view the film. Plus, all of this maintains the movie’s entertainment value by keeping everyone interested in what’s they are seeing and hearing.
We had a few private screenings a year prior to the Ziegfeld premiere. These intermediary viewings always generated great ideas and response to this piece of work. Judging from the audience’s reactions we were able to determine whether or not something worked or that something did not work, or the audience really likes these two characters or a particular thing we thought was funny in the edit didn’t play on the screen. I’m glad we did these screenings as it’s important to get outside eyes on early drafts of edits. This is because myself, as editor, and Dean, as director, would spend thousands of hours in front of the material and the decisions you make on what stays or goes can become increasingly more difficult to make since you become attached to certain elements or jaded by others (since you’ve watched it over and over and over).
By the time Wetlands Preserved screened at Ziegfeld Theatre, I thought it was ready. What I didn’t expect was the tremendous turnout. From what I was told, somewhere between 800-1,000 people attended the screening. I was nervous that the room might look empty, but it certainly did not. In many cases where a lot of time was spent to create a particular storyline, or sequence, hearing the reaction in a small, private screening would really please me, but hearing roars of laughter, or even an incredible amount of hissing (in the case of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s shakedown on Manhattan nightlife) was truly satisfactory to me. Of course the direct compliments I received from people were humbling. I was so thrilled to see the, albeit brief, reunion of all the people who were so inspired by the club. Watching old-timers share remembrances with one another, after the screening, really showed that film needed do be made. In a way, I was able to contribute to this gathering.
Annabelle Lukins, a longtime Wetlands local, made a statement that was unfortunately cut during the edit. Lukins said something to the effect that Wetlands provided an arena for many people, whether it was the musicians, the talent buyers, the photographers, whoever, to get opportunities that might not be afforded to them in the typical, tough, New York City environment. It was because of the club’s open-mindedness and freedom to give anyone a chance that many folks got the break or breaks they needed to be doing what it is that they do now. That statement hit home with me because during my own personal residence at the club I was not really involved with anything other than watching my favorite bands perform. I’m truly thankful that this documentary presented itself to me and gave me one final chance to give back. I think I’ve done this and that’s what pleases me the most about the film.
RR: What was your take on Richard Gehr’s comment that Wetlands was "nostalgia as a camouflage for people that really didn’t need to be there." I don’t think Wetlands was a nostalgia trip. Did you?
JH: Do I think it was a nostalgia trip? Perhaps to those, like Gehr says, “who didn’t need to be there.” No. Wetlands was not a nostalgia trip. Wetlands served as an incubator for a lot of what we see in the live music arena, today. Sure, there were some silly murals on the wall, a VW Microbus, and they created psychedelic prints ads, but it’s my understanding that Gehr is saying nostalgia’ was applicable to those who didn’t really know the venue’s true mission Music and Activism. Someone who might stumble into the club unknowing might easily assume that Larry Bloch had created a 1960s throwback themed nightclub and leave. So be it. More room for everyone else to dance.
Part II Soul Shakedown Party
“I need your concentration
Just to feel your vibration” – PHISH, Chairman of the Boards and Big Red, Nassau Coliseum, 2/28/03
RR: What is your background in production?
JH: I started attending the Walter Cronkite School Of Broadcast Business Management at Arizona State after I recognized a void in the live music landscape Video. Back then, I wanted to be a station owner/manager and, perhaps, create a live music-oriented cable channel. The Internet was in its infancy. I launched an on-line music show dubbed Groove Tube. After college, I worked for [Saturday Night Live founder and executive producer] Lorne Michaels at his college-oriented cable network, Burly Bear Network. I wanted to get into the business any way I could, so I took a sales job assisting the sales team with their spot advertisement efforts.
I eventually found myself as a Director of Marketing, working on PR initiatives, as well as the company’s corporate and consumer branding objectives. It was at this time I started working with a lot of still photographers and started to enjoy what these folks did for a living. I started writing letters to jambands, for the most part, asking if I might take photos for Burly Bear’s website and, in some cases, write some editorial. Widespread Panic gave me my first break at Fleet Pavilion in Boston giving me the opportunity to shoot the first three songs of the first setsomething I’d become utterly familiar with in the years to come. Later, guys like Kevin Shapiro would offer opportunities with Trey Anastasio and the Vermont Youth Orchestra or Vida Blue. Eventually Chris Zahn and Jake Szufnarowski permitted me into Wetlands to photograph the Disco Biscuits, John Scofield and Soulive/Lettuce.
I spent a year or so only photographing bands and portraits of fans and became a little restless. I wanted to do more with my art. I reached out to Andy Navarro who, at the time, was managing Tom Marshall’s Amfibian. I told him my situation I’m making the move from still photography to video and I’d like to film Amfibian’s next performance at Wetlands Preserve and create some sort of short documentary or story for Burly Bear’s website. He obliged and I ended up creating a wonderful four-part series showcasing interviews and performances from Amfibian's 2000 Wetlands Preserve and Higher Ground shows.
It was after that piece that Burly Bear gave me a lateral move within the corporation and offered me the Producer role for the Burly Bear Comedy and Film Festival. It was a great opportunity for me since it merged incredible amounts of marketing efforts with not only live production, but television production, as well. This event traveled from college to college showcasing up-and-coming stand-up comedy and comedic short films. We were kind of like a band. We traveled around in two 15-passenger vans, advanced shows, managed/booked talent, had load-ins and load-outs, and videotaped everything for on-air interstitials and industrials. I took a very hands-on approach with the videotaping, photography and audio recording for these events and realized I wanted to be working in production full-time.
Once the tour ended, I decided to leave the company and pursue my interests full-time. I took almost one year off learning how to edit, compose shots, and animate video and stills. During this time, I called upon a lot of my friends in the industry to help me out with jobs. I took anything I could get: still photographer on movie sets, editing EPKs for athletes, producing corporate films for various ad agencies and so on. I was really intrigued with all the new DVD technology that became readily available to consumers and took the bull by the horns since now bands could be offered increasingly cheap rates to produce, film, edit and author concert DVDs. Vermont rockers, RAQ and Seth Yacovone Band, reached out to me. I created some in-house concert DVDs for each of them that really gave me the opportunity to showcase my talents to other bands and companies.
Come 2002, an old contact of mine from Burly Bear Network, Nick DeNinno, was currently working with National Lampoon Networks and was searching for a producer to re-launch their music magazine show, AV Squad. I took the job and I’ve been producing the show ever since. It was that year, I also began working for the Jammy Awards.
RR: How did you get involved with Dean Budnick and Wetlands Preserved?
JH: When I was living in Boston, Dean wrote The Phishing Manual: A Compendium to the Music of Phish. After reading it, I thought it would be a nice Christmas gift for some friends of mine. I reached out to Dean, asked if I might get these books signed and he obliged. We met up at John Harvard’s Brew House, in Cambridge, MA, had lunch and talked about all sorts of music-related topics. We stayed in touch by trading bootlegs and even catching the occasional moe. show at Boston College, or a Mike Gordon signing at the Harvard Bookstore.
I transferred to Arizona State and kind of lost touch, but when I returned to New York, I saw Dean at a Relix re-launch party at Spa, in New York City. It was there that I mentioned an idea for the Jammy Awards. Why not introduce video nominee montages and give the awards portion of the event some additional excitement? I think Peter Shapiro and Dean kicked the idea around for a Jammys or two, but I eventually received a Budnick/Shapiro tag team phone call, in 2002, that the idea was green-lighted. I spent a couple months working directly with Peter and Dean, cutting together high-end motion graphics for jumbotrons. And, now for some shameless self-promotion: there’s an excellent photo of the inaugural screens in the June issue of Relix (“Jam of the Titans”). About a year and a half later, during a brief Jammys hiatus year, I received another Budnick/Shapiro tag team phone call. I thought they were going tell me the date for the next Jammys, but, instead, they were more interested if I owned camera, lighting and audio equipment. I did. That’s when they shared with me their concept for Wetlands Preserved and asked me to shoot and edit the film.
RR: What was your role on the documentary?
JH: I served as Director of Photography during production and Editor in post-production. It was my job to light each interview, videotape it, as well as record sound. That’s sort of my niche in this business. I’m like the Keller Williams of videography a one-man crew from soup to nuts. I really enjoy it, though. It’s a great daily exercise to try and create something different for every interview whether it’s the setting or the lighting and I believe I accomplished this in Wetlands Preserved. I tried to give every person their own cinematic feel based upon their role with club. For instance, John Dwork was highly involved with the club’s lighting. His interview features incredible contrast as well as use of color gobos (light patterns) in the background. Sublime’s Eric Wilson performed at the club, so we filmed him in the foreground with his crew loading in and setting up at a nightclub in the background.
As for post-production, I worked directly with Dean putting all of his notes and ideas together in edit. It really is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together and getting the perfect fit to tell the best story. In addition to editing clips together, I was responsible for most of the non-musical animations. I spent a lot of time creating the various animations that call to different photos, or advertisements, or video while a person is speaking. Wetlands Preserved probably had one of the smallest crews in the history of cinema, so everybody had to play a lot of roles.
Part III The Men with a Movie Camera and an Editing Machine
“a film that need only be seen once to be understood and enjoyed but demands to be studied on an editing table to be fully appreciated. The Man with a Movie Camera has the remarkable effect of encouraging the viewer to identify with the filmmaking process.” – The A List, edited by Jay Carr
RR: How much film did you have to review?
JH: Ugh. Tons! We videotaped about 80-hours of interview footage featuring 100-interviewees. I would output “dailies” onto DVD, for Dean, who in turn had to watch every interview, with a time code, and then send me the timings for each clip he wanted to use. I’m blown away by Dean’s directing talent to generate the Wetlands story in the fashion that he did. In essence, Dean served to log all of the content in addition to his directing role. Dean also reached out to Wetlands photographers who documented the countless concerts and events held at the club. We accumulated thousands upon thousands of still photos and about ten hours of archival video. Again, Dean reviewed everything and made the crucial decisions as to when and where to present this material. All the while, though, Dean gave me the freedom to alter or tweak, and in some cases, completely change the delivery of these images. In computer terms, there’s almost a terabyte of content residing on my machine.
RR: How did you choose the edit sequence? What were some of the challenges in choosing the material?
JH: The concept of the first cut was to take everything relevant to Dean’s idea of the Wetlands story and incorporate it in the edit. This resulted in a two-plus-hour film that was much too long; however, the story was there. We needed to simply cut it down under 100-minutes and still retain the important components of the feature. The next step or steps, rather, were several versions of the film 120-minutes, 110-minutes, etc. It became increasingly more difficult between the 100-minute and 90-minute phase. We really needed to “kill our babies” and that’s the hard part of the editing process. [Author’s Note: No real babies were harmed in the post-production of Wetlands Preserved.] It’s a practice where some of your favorite bits of dialogue, or an animation sequence you spent days working on has to be cut. This is the method we used to hit our ideal film length.
As for the story arc, it was Dean’s job to write a plot using chapters so viewers can easily understand the components of the club, the musicians who played there, the activism that was taking place, as well some insider anecdotes from former denizens. The film is broken up into an easily digestible format even for a Wetlands novice: the concept of Wetlands, the building of Wetlands, the club’s vibe, understanding Larry Bloch, the music that was created there in all its varieties, examples of the various social justice actions, TriBeCa and, yet all the while punching in highly-animated musical sequences.
RR: Describe the non-musical animation process?
JH: The animation process begins with dialogue. Whether it’s one person speaking or several, we cut together clips from interviews to tell a particular story. Once we created a working piece of spoken word we’d reference photos to better visualize what a person was talking about. These placeholders were still photos or archival video left untouched or, in some cases, utilized a basic virtual camera pan or ready-made effect such as a camera flash or film leader. In fact, the first cut of the film was entirely made from basic cuts of interviewees talking to these placeholders. Once we determined the basic visual delivery, meaning we approved of which photos or video were going to be used in a particular sequences, we would then export these sequence from Final Cut Pro HD into Adobe After Effects, using Automatic Duck, [Author’s Note: No ducks were harmed in the post-production of Wetlands Preserved.] to better stylize or animate the sequence. I wanted every animation to be different or, at the very least, demonstrate all the different types of effects, coloring techniques, pan-and-scans, or 3D space.
Choosing how to animate all the various assets was usually determined by a story’s feel as well as using a material’s (such as a photos or archival videos) feel. For instance, several Wetlands Preserve strip advertisements, like the ones placed weekly in the Village Voice, are narrow, one-third of a page ads. In this case, we felt a simple pan-and-scan from top to bottom or bottom to top would suffice since this is how people read these sorts of advertisements in magazines and newspapers. In a more complex scenario, such as describing Wetlands’ Inner Sanctum, we wanted to depict all the facets of the basement all the while giving them effects that held true to the spirit of that particular section of the nightclub. This meant providing the viewer with a hazy and psychedelic feel using several animation techniques.
RR:How were you involved with determining the animation style and content?
JH: Very hands-on. Dean and I both had similar visions for the way we were going to present the still photos. Rather than using the simple, pan-and-scan technique folks like Ken Burns use in their documentaries, we wanted to instill an electricity similar to the one that the club invoked in its customers. In recent years, films like The Kid Stays In The Picture and Dogtown and Z Boys utilize a foreground/background separation and movement technique (something you see a lot of on DVD menus, too) which, in my eyes, could easily be expanded and incorporated into our film. At the risk of being too clichI wanted our animations to look like The Kid Stays In The Picture’s animations on acid.
With this concept in place, Dean provided me with an outline of what picture he’d like to be shown at what time in the movie or when a particular piece of dialogue was being said. At that point, it was up to me to bring these photos and video clips to life. Every animation in the film is different and took a lot of time, and a lot of time away from the project, to keep the ideas fresh. The film was edited with Apple’s Final Cut Pro HD and utilized Automatic Duck’s conduit to bring these sequences into Adobe After Effects and animate them. An incredible amount of masking and rotoscoping were used, in addition to several motion graphic effects. Even though every animation is different and has a unique touch, they still uphold to the movie’s overall stylistic theme. As Editor and Animator, I was allowed a lot of freedom to run with any idea I had. I also had the assistance of John Koltai and TJ Sochor to take on some animations of their own as well assist me with mine.
As for the musical animations, Dean worked with RESMedia Group to commission more animators to create these sequences. 14 different animators were hired to create the 16-music montages. Dean supplied these animators with the music soundbed for each clip, told them a bit about the band, gave them a bit of context and in a few cases some creative ideas but let their artist approach determine the outcome of the segment. I worked with these animators on a technical level as a Post-Production Supervisor providing them with specs and guidelines for final outputs and such, as well as offering constructive criticism for their revisions.
RR: What choices did you have to make to synch the music and audio synchs?
JH: Dean culled from his personal archives of Wetlands recordings, as well as Larry Bloch’s archives. He also called upon Jesse Jarnow to assist with some of the soundbed calls. Just as the visual animations were created to complement a person’s story, so is the music. Whether it’s a direct reference to what a person is seeing or hearing or whether it’s music to better instill the mood within the viewer, all of the music contained in the film serves a purpose. Did I mention that all of the music featured in the film was recorded at Wetlands? As amazing as it is that our team was able to aggregate all of this live music material, it did pose some challenging fine tuning in the edit. Not to mention certain, on-the-fly shooting set-ups created for interesting background noise that also needed to be tweaked and/or removed. Ever try filming or recording interviews at Bonnaroo? We really had to take into account everything about our audio.
RR: Did you have to balance music with activism in the edit?
JH: Absolutely. I think one of the early struggles with the story arc was determining how much of each to use. There are many stories and anecdotes about Wetlands and if you ask, or in this case, film interviews with different people about it, you’ll get a different story: It was the place that started the neo-hippie movement, or it was a place that nurtured the third wave of Ska. Some will tell you about a place that spearheaded eleventy-one-million social justice causes, while another describes it as that place down the street where hippies smoke weed and make lots of noise. The first cut was well over two-hours in length. Dean wanted to cover every aspect of the club even down to the would-be defunct kitchen. On the activism side, we had several interviews detailing specific actions The Activism Center at Wetlands were taking. Plus, everyone has so many complimentary statements to make we had to make sure the movie wasn’t some puff piece that stroked the egos of the people that made it happen. Finding some of the more “dramatic” pieces of dialogue and developing them into the story line took some time.
If you look at the film in terms of its subplots, there are three stories: the story of Larry Bloch/Wetlands, the music and the activism. I think every cut we made along the way focused too much on one of these subplots. It was challenging finding the right balance. At some points, Dean and I often wondered if it would be a better film if, say, we focused strictly on the activism or focused more on the amazing performances, but that wouldn’t be right. The more and more we worked on the film the easier it became to balance these topics out and present just enough of all of them.
Part IV Exile on Tribeca Street
“I blame it on Jimmy Page,” said drummer Charlie Watts. “Led Zeppelin had come to the Statestwo or three hours on stage was what we heard they did, and it became something of a norm for anyone doing a concert.” – According to the Rolling Stones, edited by Dora Loewenstein and Philip Dodd
RR: All the stars align during the Phish animated graphic sequence. Your thoughts on this particular scene?
JH: The Phish animation was created by Phoenix Perry and Jeffers Egan. The stars and undualting photos are a particular style that they brought to the table. I know Dean and I, being big fans of Phish, took special care with the final output. We didn’t want it to be too kitsch and thought that expectations from the fans would be high. Phish performed at Wetlands Preserve seven or eight times between the club’s opening in 1989 through 1990 so I’m not sure if I’d honestly draw some sort of parallel to the stars aligning, Phish gigging at Wetlands, and the success of the club, but I can say that Dean and I were quite pleased with what Perry and Egan produced. [Author’s Note: this is a particularly sublime sequence.] That reminds me…the set-up to this scene features Mike Gordon talking about the club’s desires to keep Phish playing until 4am. Gordon goes on to say how the band would play three sets and end around 2am; however, not long before being asked to return to stage to play until closing. Too bad these four set shows aren’t in circulation. [Author’s Note: Perhaps, because they never played that many sets? ;-)]
RR: What was your favorite sequence to edit? Memorable passages?
JH: There are several. From an Editor’s perspective, I really enjoyed the on-the-fly editing of the Rodney Speed Power Jam story. Dean had just received a small amount of video from the 2000 Power Jam where Wetland’s barback, Rodney Speed, was being celebrated as the night’s super, secret, surprise guest. Dean wanted to insert this clip and utilize some dialogue we had of Jake Szufnarowski describing the night and, especially, Rodney’s emergence. Dean sort of had a concept for this sequence, but I asked if I could spend five or ten minutes alone with it. Using some comedic timing and back-and-forth editing, the story comes across as both cute and funny. On a personal note, I can be seen in the front row of the crowd giving Rodney the devil horns hand-signsomething we didn’t realize until weeks later.
From an Animator’s standpoint, there are many sequences I enjoyed making and love watching. Just about anything where rooms or people are cut-out from the background and utilize z-depth is something I’m proud of. Some examples of this are the floating urinals in the bathroom photo while Zen Tricksters/Phil Lesh and Friend’s Rob Barraco discuss the stereo, audio mixes in the bathroom. Perhaps a worthy “memorable passage,” taboot! There’s also a cool pan-and-scan of a New York Times newspaper article about Wetlands Preserve. After zooming around to different parts of the article, the virtual camera trucks back to reveal the entire full page and actually zooms into the picture of people dancing thus, bring the viewer instantly from a 2D to 3D environment.
There is one animation I’m extremely proud of, though, and I feel it connected with everyone who viewed it and that would be the “Where Are They Now?”-esque final credit roll. I spent one hot, summer month, locked-down in my air conditioned editing suite, working on this nine minute and 20-second animation. The reason it took so long was I needed to use a technique called rotoscoping. This is a time-intensive process of extracting the subject and removing the background video. Once this was done, I inserted older photos of the subject and presented it in a 3D space which is rotating 360-degrees. Sounds weird on paper, but looks great on the screen. It was a concept I wanted to execute from the beginning and wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. The fact that I accomplished this made me extremely happy. Plus, since the film’s first public screening, the response to that animation was great, also.RR: What projects are you working on, now?
JH: I’m continuing to produce, direct and edit National Lampoon’s AV Squad. AV Squad is Lampoon’s music video, interview and live performance magazine show. During the weekly 30-minute cable program, viewers are entertained by music videos, live, in-house performances and interviews. On top of that, this month I’ll be producing and editing a music video for a very hard working jamband, as well as trying to expand AV Squad into a live settings. Finally, I’ll continue to solicit more film projects like concert DVD or, perhaps, Dean and I could do another documentary together. Time will tell.