The Ecstasy of Decay – Angeline Gragasin documents a mortician's work

ECSTASY OF DECAY №1: Your Mortician from Angeline Gragasin on Vimeo.

ECSTASY OF DECAY №2: The American Corpse from Angeline Gragasin on Vimeo.

I moved to Los Angeles last December as a result of a complex series of circumstances, which together conspired against me realizing my dream as a digital nomad–touring the Great American West in my mobile production studio (a tricked-out 1978 Airstream Argosy Motorhome) -in favor of relocating to East Hollywood and reconnecting with my longtime friend and collaborator, Caitlin Doughty.

Caitlin Doughty (Photo: Angeline Gragasin)

Caitlin is a mortician. We met in our undergraduate years at The University of Chicago, where she directed plays she’d adapted from great works of macabre literature, such as the short stories and poems of Edgar Allen Poe, or Christina Rossetti’s proto-feminist morality poem Goblin Market. I collaborated as an actor.

Years passed, and after dabbling in professional theatre for a year or so after graduation, Caitlin and I both defected and launched ourselves headlong into the funeral and digital media industries, respectively. When I arrived in LA (from Chicago by way of Albuquerque), our eternal collaborative pilot light ignited a new flame, and it seemed obvious that our first new project together should be an internet video series documenting Caitlin’s experiences as a mortuary professional. Death is a universal concept and experience, to which anyone of any age, gender, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic background can relate. It’s therefore inherently compelling; rather than rack my brain trying to invent a worthwhile story and subject, all I have to do is listen to Caitlin and translate her thoughts and experiences into a coherent visual narrative. The best part is, she lets me experiment. It’s a lot of fun.

Caitlin’s website: http://orderofthegooddeath.com

Dan asked me to tell you a little bit about the gear, so here it is:

Self-portrait in a crematory.

BODY: I shoot on the 5DmkII and Harinezumi 2 (the latter, a gift from Philip Bloom)

LENSES: I own only 2 lenses: a 35mm f/2 and 85mm f/1.8. Lenses are expensive, yo!

VIEWFINDER: I don’t own a Z-finder, I own a crappy Hoodman viewfinder, which was very kindly donated to me by my Vimeo friend William Rich and works just fine for reducing glare.

RIG: I have fashioned a kind of shoulder rig for myself out of the cheap plastic handle from a Stedi-stock shoulder brace and what seems to be a homemade (as in hand-welded) steel shoulder rig for an HVX200 (borrowed from my roomate, who is a camera operator). I screwed the handle into the bottom of the metal rig with an extra washer and nut in there to keep it snug without screwing so far as to mangle the camera body.

TRIPOD: No idea, it’s my roommate’s. It might be Bogen, it might be Manfrotto. It’s nice and clearly expensive. I am not sure how many more times I will be able to borrow it before he says, “Buy your own!” I wish I could afford to!

AUDIO: Zoom H4N, Sennheiser EW112P wireless lavs, Sennheiser ME 66 directional mic. I rented all of these things from Samy’s Camera in LA, or else borrowed them from friends in high places.

SOFTWARE: Adobe Premiere Pro CS4, Magic Bullet Looks. I should really bit torrent CS5 soon.

BAG: I bought an off-brand camera bag for $10 at Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market last summer. Does the trick.

As you can see, I’m not exactly working with the most advanced tools of the trade. However, I am adept at making do with what I have, and I’ve really taken to heart that what’s important is not the gear but the how you use it. What makes a compelling video is a well-executed original idea, not a fancy kit. High production value is nice, but also takes more time and money. I went from conception to completion on each of these videos in one week apiece. That means directing, shooting, editing, coloring, and compressing: everything. It’s nice to start out with paperclips and spit and find you’ve ended up with gold and diamonds on the other side, though it often works the other way around when filmmakers are given unlimited time and resources. A lot of people ask me about the technical aspects of my work, but I hesitate to answer those questions as I’m really just improvising and problem-solving most of the way through. That stuff is just the means to an end. I’m no DSLR guru. I’m a pair of eyes and a brain with a camera and whatever else I can get my hands on in time to bring my ideas to life. I guess you could say I make it up as I go along!

More about the inspiration behind Episode 2 on Angeline’s blog.
More about The Ecstasy of Decay at The Universal Order of The Good Death.
More about ANGELINE GRAGASIN on Vimeo, on Twitter.

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