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How to Shoot 64 Documentaries a Day | by Warren Goldie

An article in Past Forward, the newsletter of Shoah Visual History Foundation. Chairman: Steven Spielberg

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Effusive, bespectacled Mike Engel resembles Shoah Visual History Foundation chairman Steven Spielberg so uncannily that he is seriously considering getting contact lenses to curb the comparisons. But, really, how often does this crop up? “Only every day,” laughs the 40-year-old Director of Production on the worldwide project (and no relation to Mr. Spielberg).

m-engle

Mike Engel

Mike and the Production department begin their day at 6 a.m., checking in with all the regional offices to ensure that the project’s complex logistical challenges are being met. The department schedules interviews in more than 20 countries, deals with financial and legal issues in multiple languages, processes mountains of paperwork and troubleshoots all issues that interfere with the taping of testimonies.

“My job is to make sure the interviews happen,” says Mike. “That involves checking in with Paris, Amsterdam, Sydney, Toronto, the U.S and Eastern Europe. The challenge is keeping all the balls in the air without dropping any.”

Mike manages not only the project’s 225 videographers but also the high-tech tape transfer and collection management operations that duplicate and preserve the testimonies for viewing by future generations.

A veteran filmmaker who has worked on documentaries, movies, corporate films and TV commercials, Mike is nevertheless awed by the scope of this project. “Essentially, we are shooting 64 documentaries a day — for 750 days. That’s mind boggling when you consider that the shooting schedule for the average film is 8-12 weeks.”

Chairman Spielberg

Chairman Spielberg

The Project’s setup is more complex than standard film production due to the involvement of so many foreign countries and the length of the production. “Filmmaking is usually more consistent and pattern-like,” explains Mike. “This Project keeps growing with new challenges. For example, how do we get a cameraman in Odessa? Okay, we locate two, but neither speaks English. What now? My motto has always been ‘There’s got to be a way.’ We find it.”

Like many of his co-workers, Mike was drawn to the project for personal reasons. “My grandfather left Poland in 1939. He was among just 10,000 Jews admitted to Canada. We we lost family in the Holocaust.”

Though Mike’s family settled in Los Angeles, the Old Country remained close at hand. “My father was a philosophy professor and translator of Yiddish Holocaust literature. He kept the traditions going.”

How does Mike handle the responsibility of running an international production that is always running against the clock (most survivors are in their seventies and eighties) to capture the crucial testimonies? “I love the challenge. I try to sleep when I can. Otherwise, I work as much as I can.”

Most of the relationships of Production’s global family exist exclusively by phone and e-mail. Some regional staff have never seen Mike or the other personnel from the Los Angeles home office.

If you happen to be one of these people visiting our offices on the Universal Studios back lot, please be kind to Mike and don’t tell him that he looks like a certain somebody. He already knows.

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