25 Mar 2021

Crip Camp - Nominee in Academy Award for Best Documentary

The upcoming Academy Awards ceremony scheduled for April 25, 2021, is keeping FRENDER’s team on tenterhooks since it is rooting for one of the Best Documentary Feature nominees — Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. FRENDER was privileged to make a contribution to the post-production of this inspiring documentary, which has already earned many accolades and which is now on its way to the well-deserved Oscars.

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The Crip Camp movie tells the story of the disability rights movement through the lens of personal experience and inspiration that its future activists gained in Camp Jened — a real summer camp attended by disabled children and adults as both campers and counselors. It opened in 1951 in the environs of New York, in the Catskills, reopened in the 80s in Rock Hill, and was closed for good in 2009 because of financial difficulties. However, the Camp Jened history captured in the film is mostly limited to the mid-60s and 70s when the local community was greatly influenced by anti-war protests, hippie values, the civil rights movement, feminism, and other cultural, social, and political changes of those times. They spurred a discussion about problems disabled campers and counselors were facing outside the camp, which happened to grow to a kind of a social model with no boundaries for crip.

The documentary traces how the free-spirited community built in the camp began to expand to the outer world and eventually morphed into a struggle against segregation in society, special needs schools, parental overprotection, and the lack of a barrier-free environment in cities. The movie features Judy Humann, a former camper who became a wheelchair user due to polio at the age of 18 months and who sued the NY Board of Education for discrimination in 1970, making the Board recognize her as the first-ever wheelchair teacher to legally work in the NYC. The story goes on by showing the famous 504 Sit-in of 1977 when hundreds of disability rights activists protested against the failure of The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to provide regulations for the enforcement of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. Many of Camp Jened’s members took part in the protests, with some of them playing a key role in their organization. Later, a group of protesters marched to Washington in an attempt to attract greater attention to the everyday problems of disabled people.

But Crip Camp doesn’t stop here and illustrates both sweeping changes the American society underwent on its journey to building a truly equitable future and the further struggle of mentally and physically disabled Americans they went through during the 80s and 90s. The story lands at the present day when former Camp Jened’s members return to their source of inspiration, which is now an empty building site. They flash back to the camp full of games, debates, music, love, jokes, and freedom, which gave them that strength and dream required to literally change the world for the better. This cool spirit of revolution and the insightful look at how a personal experience snowballs into social transformations makes the film stand out from many other documentaries about disabilities.

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The person who lets the audience into the camp’s unique atmosphere is one of the film’s co-directors and a former "Jenedian", James LeBrecht. Bound to a wheelchair from the very childhood, he became a disability rights activist and managed to make it into the film industry, working as a sound designer with a focus on documentaries. In this field, he repeatedly collaborated with Nicole Newnham, documentary film producer and director with multiple Emmy awards and nominations under her belt.

The two got support from Higher Ground Productions, a production company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama, which won Best Documentary Feature in 2020 with the American Factory documentary. As the company signed a contract with Netflix, Crip Camp was released on the channel last spring, though it actually premiered a bit earlier, within the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. There, it earned the first from its many awards, acknowledged as the best US documentary in the Audience Award category. Later, the film got even more recognition, from great critical acclaim on major aggregators to the already mentioned Academy Awards nomination.

Post-production in Documentaries

Unlike modern Hollywood blockbusters, where creating stunning VFX is usually the most time-consuming and costly part of work, post-production in documentaries often comes down to a more tedious technical side. However, it doesn’t mean that editing and polishing a nonfiction film requires less time or skill. The more so that today’s documentary embraces CGI to the fullest, when it needs to visualize complex ideas and processes, to show how some things work, to present statistics, or even reconstruct historical events.

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Yet, documentary movies tend to include many different-type materials, from photocopies of historical documents and audio recordings to present-day interviews shot with digital cameras. It makes a post-production team work with materials of different quality as well since video pieces used in a documentary can be filmed with various types of equipment. As a result, specialists have to get through a lot of painstaking work while restoring colors, removing damaged areas, reducing noise, or adjusting a playback speed. And FRENDER’s artists had all these in excess when they joined the Crip Camp production squad. However, they were happy to become a part of the team and help in implementing the directors’ ideas within this cool and valuable project.

Specific of VFX for Documentary Films

Having vast experience in working with documentaries, including those produced for Netflix, the FRENDER team is very much aware of the post-production peculiarities described. And this time, the collaboration on the project didn’t center around creating wow effects and inserting CGI to fascinate the audience. On the contrary, FRENDER’s expertise was employed to lock an authentic feel captured on old footage and to seamlessly integrate different visual pieces into a consistent storyline.

Those who at least watched the Crip Camp trailer know that the movie is constructed with multiple videos and photos shot at different times and on separate occasions. Some of the parts were filmed over 50 years ago, and the footage was not only old but also of low quality and quite damaged. The frames shot on different cameras had to be brought into sync with each other, not to mention video remastering. There was a lot of meticulous work since about 80% of the footage had to be processed. FRENDER’s specialists were kept busy with basic video processing, noise reduction, retouching, color correction, and removing unwanted objects like billboards or lighting equipment, which had got into the frame accidentally.

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Thanks to the excellent work done by FRENDER, all those chaotic pieces were elevated to the best possible quality and incorporated into the film smoothly, with no transitions visible for viewers. When watching the movie, the audience isn’t distracted by jumping between frames shot at various times, which is FRENDER’s contribution to the project’s success and proof of the company’s knowledge and skills. We are always ready to share our expertise and help with a project, no matter how challenging it is.

Crip Camp review from Max Colt

We could show some footage from the film before and after VFX, but that wouldn't be fair to you and the entire production team that worked on this project. This documentary makes a huge impression on anyone who has seen it. If you have not seen it, we recommend you do so soon and appreciate the work done.

Max Colt gave a brief interview about the film Crip Camp:

"It's an honor for me and my team to be a part of this project and an amazing opportunity to work with archival footage and documents. A lot of technical post-production work has been done by the team and you won't see any Hollywood high quality VFX shots here. This is the very specifics of working with documentaries and archival materials. Our FRENDER team are very happy to participate in this project and it's great to see Netflix supporting documentaries. I'm sure this movie has a great mission and has all the chances to win an Oscar this year."

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