Coney Island Documentary 'Zipper' Chooses Film - an Interview with Director Amy Nicholson

Published on website: September 27, 2012
Categories: 16mm , Documentaries , Matt Stoffel , The StoryBoard Blog
Jerry Risuis & director Amy Nicholson on location for "Zipper". © Myrtle & Olive Productions

Please introduce yourself to our readers. What's your background? How did you get into filmmaking?

I’ve worked in advertising for 15 years. I had started freelancing in 2001 when a friend of mine recommended I take a film class at NYU. Cut to: me in a room full of 19-year-olds feeling really, really old. But a few of the students convinced me to take the next class where we had to make an actual short, and I made a little film called Beauty School about dog groomers in training. The night it screened at Hot Docs to 250 people and they all laughed, I was hooked.

You recently completed Zipper, a documentary about Coney Island's future. Tell us about the film and how you became involved in the project.

© Myrtle & Olive Productions

The film I made after Beauty School was called Muskrat Lovely. It was a feature doc about a small community on the Chesapeake Bay where they have a pageant at a muskrat skinning championship. (Yes, I can say that with a straight face.) It premiered at the Hamptons and was broadcast on Independent Lens, but I got a little burnt out working full time and making it on the side. So I went to visit my professor - from that first film class - and he suggested I do something local for my next project. Zipper was born after I read about the ride leaving Coney Island in the Post just riding the subway one day. I had no idea it would become such a big project. Even while I was shooting, I didn’t really completely understand what was happening. I just got obsessed and determined to put the story together.

With all the origination options available you chose KODAK film to shoot a documentary. Can you describe your decision process? How did budget factor into it?

Well, film was a viable option for several reasons. First of all, I was shooting mostly with Jerry Risius who shot Muskrat Lovely with me. Jerry is an amazing one man band; and with only an assistant, we moved pretty fast and worked very smoothly. I tend to really plot everything out ahead of time anyway. Sifting through 700 hours of even the best footage in the world sounds miserable to me.

In terms of budget, most of the film I ordered initially was used up by the time we got to the interviews. However, the people we were interviewing were pretty prominent, so they were only going to give us limited time. We typically shot 3 to 4 rolls for each. It didn’t seem that bad.

Secondly, we started five years ago, so at the time, the technology was not what it is today – there was no hiding a video look, and dealing with cards and drives was a hassle and just as expensive as film.

But the third and the most important reason was really the look. Coney Island is what it is because it’s an analogue place in a digital world. It’s like the difference between recording something old school that you listen back to on a record vs. an MP3. Maybe a lot of people won’t know the difference, but I think everyone can feel the difference. I felt like it was critical to capture it in a way that made you feel what it was like to be there. I don’t believe the film would work the way it does any other way.

You shot interiors, exteriors, and under variable weather. Which stocks did you use, and how did film help you capture the scene?

We used VISION2 50D for all the exterior stuff and VISION3 500T for the interviews and the big interior shoot of the city council vote. (I would just like to point out that there was no way to light anything that day – considering the crazy lighting situation in the rotunda, the images are amazing.)

We also shot some older 7218 when we went to Honduras, but not really on purpose. We had packed all brand new daylight rolls and then got there and found out that people in Honduras don’t really ride the Zipper during the day. After Jerry and I had mutual heart attacks, we used the few rolls of old stock I threw in the bag “just in case” and said a prayer. Of course it came out great. You do not want to know how long it had been in my fridge…

Describe a typical day of shooting. What kind of crew did you have? What equipment, camera, and lenses?

For location shooting in Coney Island, we would head out with a crew of three: a cinematographer, an assistant and me. I also double as driver and craft services. A few of the days we had location sound, but that was rare – Coney Island is full of music you would need to get clearances for! For interviews we added a grip (my husband) to carry lights and some fabulous sound recordists. We did a couple two-camera shoots, but the rest was single camera coverage. We used Jerry’s Aaton with a nice zoom lens and rented an extra camera when needed. Ruben O’Malley and Mark Schwartzbard also shot a good portion of the film.

Describe your workflow. Did you have dailies made? Where did you color time? Are you finishing with prints?

DuArt did our dailies and put them on DVCAM and we digitized from there. When we locked picture, we went back to the negative and transferred selects. DuArt cleaned the neg and transferred it as a flat pass and Technicolor did the color. It actually looked pretty good as a rough cut compared to most documentaries. I was blown away when I saw the final transfer. We probably won’t go back to a print unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Where can we find out more about the film and screenings?

The website for Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride is We’ll be posting the screenings as they roll in!

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