Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Emmy™Award-Winning Documentary Film

"Broadcast" version now airing on most public television stations.

"Uncensored" version now on DVD and in film festivals.

Synopsis: A charismatic figure featured in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, Florence "Pancho" Barnes was one of the most important women in 20th Century aviation. A tough and fearless aviatrix, Pancho was a rival of Amelia Earhart's who made a name for herself as Hollywood's first female stunt pilot. Just before WWII she opened a ranch near Edwards Air Force Base that became a famous -- some would say notorious -- hangout for test pilots and movie stars. Known as the "Happy Bottom Riding Club", it became the epicenter of the aviation world during the early jet age. Chuck Yeager celebrated breaking the sound barrier there in 1947, and Howard Hughes and Jimmy Doolittle caroused in the bar. The Club's destruction by fire in 1953 is seen by many to mark the end of a Golden Era in post-WWII aviation. In the same fashion Pancho herself has become something of a legend, a fascinating yet enigmatic icon whose swagger is often celebrated, but whose story has been largely unknown. Until now.

A documentary film produced and written by Nick Spark and directed by Amanda Pope. Featuring interviews with test pilots Bob Cardenas, Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and biographers Barbara Schultz and Lauren Kessler. Narrated by Tom Skerritt with Kathy Bates as the voice of Pancho Barnes.

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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"
23 June 2008

Getting It All Organized

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People often ask me how you make an historical film like this one. It's simple, I tell them, you just have to be organized. When you're dealing with thousands of pages of documents, hundreds of photographs, miles of feet of film footage, and scores of interviews, it's easy to get overwhelmed. So organization is key. Making a film like this one, after all, comes down to sifting through all these haystacks to find the few needles needed to make your acupuncture work.

Now, it was after doing a lot of research and our first round of interviews, that I began to concentrate on the organization problem. By then, even though we'd only scratched the surface in terms of what we hoped to do, we already had a lot of material to go through. Seven large binders full of photocopies sat on my shelf...precariously I might add.

What was in these binders, you might ask. Well, the first couple contained word-for-word transcripts of everyone we interviewed. That's a lot of paper, depending on how garrulous each person was! Other binders contained transcripts of interviews done with Pancho by several different individuals in the late 1960's and early 70s, a transcript of the night she spoke to the Lancaster EAA (see 6-03-07 entry), a copy of Pancho's unfinished autobiography supplied courtesy of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate, and dozens of other documents, from personal letters to and from Pancho, to her FBI file.

Photo (Above): The four books we ended up making while working on the film. No, they are not books you can buy (now or in the future), but for us they may as well have been on the New York Times bestseller list. We poured over them like kids on Harry Potter!

Photo (below): Interior of the "Archive" book, containing newspaper clippings about Pancho.

Now, I hate binders. As you work with them, pages start to rip and fall out on the floor. They're awkward, and hard to transport. I kept wondering, is there any way to work, such that I won't have to carry twenty binders in the back of my car?

Well, while I was writing the script, I read about something that sounded like a solution. There was a new internet-based company that printed out large documents in book form -- and for cheap!

I looked at the website, and thought it looked good. And, after some trial and error, I was able to upload the transcripts onto their servers, and ordered up some perfect bound books. Just for the heck of it, I used some of our nicest-looking photos of Pancho on the covers. Guess what? The transcripts came out beautifully. They were not only easy to read, but they were half the size of the binders -- and printed on both sides!

In short, they completely exceeded my expectations. I soon ordered additional sets for the director, Amanda, and our editor Monique.

I don't mean to be immodest, but we quickly discovered that these books were a godsend (yes, I love it when an idea works out). They were compact, very readable, and flexible. We could write in the margins of the pages, and quickly flip to what we needed. We could also -- since we each had identical books -- always be "on the same page". Literally!

The next challenge would be a bit more significant: to make a book out of the photos, photo negatives, and scrapbooks in the collection of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate. I knew this would be a daunting task, since the Estate only had a small percentage of these materials in digital form, and many of the originals were fragile. Fortunately for us, a wonderful woman named Pam Dotson, who had some experience with photographic archives, expressed an interest in helping out. Pam ended up scanning hundreds of images, including a lot of the most fragile negatives, and organized them by era.

Photo (above right): The interior of our photographic archive book. The "3" in the corner matches a folder in our Final Cut Pro project, and signifies that this page is covered with photos from the 1930's era.

Still, even with Pam's assistance, it took us literally hundreds of man (and woman) hours to get the job done. That was okay, though, because it had to be done. All that scanning was not just going to create a book. Once everything existed in digital form, we could get it into Final Cut Pro and start editing our movie.

After getting all of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate's photos and clippings into digital form, we decided to bite the bullet, and add hundreds of other items to our hard drives and, eventually, our books. These included photos from other private collections as well as USC, UCLA, the L.A. Public Library, and a score of other public archives across the United States.

The scanning effort ended up being prolonged, since every week something new seemed to arrive in the mail. It was a judgment call, but once I'd determined we had achieved "critical mass", we made proof sheets using all our digital files. We saved them in Portable Document Format (PDF), created a huge document containing all the pages in roughly chronological order, and uploaded that to our internet publisher...

Photo (above left): Close-up of the page seen earlier. Notice the jotted note on Cliff Henderson's photo. Yes, in this library you are allowed to write on all the books!

It took some doing, but pretty soon we had two "archive" books. The first contained newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and other textual material such as Pancho's letters. The second consisted entirely of still photo "thumbnails". These would prove to be invaluable in the cutting room. Whenever we needed a photo to help illustrate a story point, we could flip the pages of this book...and boy did we flip them...for over nine months it seemed like that's all we ever did!

In fact, we flipped so hard that (despite being fairly well-made) our books began to fall apart. Amanda, Monique and I have all had a cover or two come loose, and Monique's transcript file is a wreck. I told her recently that if it bothered her, I'd be happy to order up another copy of the transcripts, so that she wouldn't have to content with all those loose pages. To my surprise, she declined, explaining that she'd written too many important notes in the book. Maybe the thing to do, she said, would be to put all the pages in a binder!

Photo (right): A page from the transcript book.

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