tlc: year with
a leather club

a documentary by Randy A. Riddle


Making the Documentary


Randy A. Riddle during the shooting of the TLC video -- photo (c) by Michael Cox

Why a Documentary About a Leather Club? 

In the early '90's, I was volunteering for a statewide Lesbian/Gay newspaper, producing "People Profiles" of individuals in the community. My editor suggested contacting Bill Costomiris, winner of the Mr. Charlotte Leather title for an interview. 

I had seen Leatherfolk at the bars, had seen books and magazines about them at the local bookshop, but was always a little put off -- after all, these are kinky people that look and act so different from everyone else. 

The interview with Bill resulted in my later joining TLC. About the same time, I was starting to develop a direction for my video work that I had pursued in my spare time since college. I wanted to focus on minority issues and people and how emerging lower-cost video and computer technology could open up avenues of documenting minorities and reaching an audience. I also felt that I was ready to put my knowledge to the test, so to speak, in a feature-length video piece that I would try to bring to an audience for the first time -- up to that point, my work had gone unreleased and unscreened for others as I explored and learned. 

In choosing a subject for my first feature-length piece, I wanted to tackle a subject that had not been touched by other filmmakers. It was surprising to me, as a member of one of over 600 Leather clubs and organizations in the United States, that the clubs had not been examined in a documentary. At the time, several books were available on the topic of Leather/SM, some of which dealt indirectly with the clubs, but nothing was out there that would give one a good snapshot of a club on an organizational level or portrait of the people who chose this path. 

Developing a Proposal/Getting My Feet Wet 

Taking on a first feature is an enormous task -- much larger than I initially realized. Using what I had learned over the past few years producing short video pieces and by researching technology and the market, I came up with an outline and proposal for the piece that included a budget, narrative, and timeline. I talked with the leaders of the club about the project and produced a simple "one sheet" outline of the project for the club members themselves. The group voted to allow shooting of the documentary and I obtained release forms from each member. 

Initially, the script was rather vague. My original plan was to follow the club’s activities through a one year period and begin shooting interviews about six months into the project. The first interview, as it turns out, was shot with member Jim P. about two weeks into the project. Looking over the transcript now, you can get an idea of how broad the subjects were that I was considering at the time. Eventually, more concrete ideas developed and I produced a standard set of questions that was used for the interviews. 

I tried to obtain as much background material as possible on the club and the people shown in the video and the project progressed -- one of the high priorities with my work is collecting auxiliary material that could be useful to researchers and historians at a later date. So, some of the material was shot with this in mind, delving deeper than was necessary just for the purposes of the video. Eventually, all of the original videotapes, newsletters, correspondence, photographs, and other materials will be donated to the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. 

I insisted on authenticity for the video. No events were staged for the camera and no supplemental lighting was used in order to make the people in the club as comfortable as possible with the process. Of course, this was a two-edged sword -- individuals were more at ease and did open up about subjects that had not discussed before, but the particular camera I used for the project (a Canon H-800 Hi8) did not perform well under low light. After the editing process, the low-light footage took on a grainy, almost ethereal quality that I aimed for as an overall look for the piece. 

The Editing Process 

Shooting thirty-six hours of footage over twelve months and collecting hundreds of stills and a ream of print material was the easy part. I had to assemble the raw information into a coherent piece. 

The first step was to transcribe and index all of the materials, initially on 3x5 index cards. When my budget allowed the purchase of a $300 used 386 laptop, the information was transferred into a database program where I could pare down what would be used in the final cut. 

One of the most daunting difficulties in the process was my equipment. The Hi-8 camera used for the project did not include time code capabilities (a process where individual frames of a videotape are marked with unique numbers that can be accessed during the editing process). There was no studio in the area at the time that could stripe time code onto my tapes and I couldn’t afford a machine to accomplish the task. So, I came up with the idea of making a VHS dub of each tape, turning on the camera’s HH:MM:SS counter so it would display this quasi time code on-screen. I feed the signal through another VCR first and turned on it’s display with no tape inside, cueing up it’s on-screen display to show a tape number. So, the final result was a set of VHS dubs that included a tape number and on-screen time code for any scene on the tape. 

I purchased an off the shelf consumer product, Video Director, that allowed me to control my VCR’s with the computer. This worked well in some of the initial editing work, but each of the cuts might be off by 2-5 seconds because my equipment did not include time code. It allowed for very rough databasing of the material, but I did not have a full palette of tools available. I could do no supers of titles, no transitions, and could not substitute any audio. 

By far the best method to obtain what I needed -- a rough cut on VHS that I could send to potential donors and foundations to complete the editing -- was to assemble it by hand. I spent about year producing four of these tapes; the first running about two and a half hours with over 400 cuts; the last containing almost 300 cuts and running about 90 minutes. It was a painstaking process of checking log sheets, fast-forwarding or rewinding tapes, and meticulously and carefully dubbing a few seconds of video or audio from one machine to another. 

In order to produce a video for release, I had to find a way to access editing equipment (a difficulty I still face with my work today). Cable access was out of the question -- my local channel was just getting started and barely had the equipment for in-studio productions. I had no access to equipment at the university where I worked. Commercial facilities were available in the area, but cost $100-$200 per hour to rent; a total of 25-50 hours could be required to finish the piece and there was no way I could raise that much money.  One public access video editing facility, which was located two hours away and offered low-cost editing time for individuals putting together "grassroots" video, was a possibility.  Even though I could have afforded their rates over a long period of time, they turned me away and would not allow me to work there -- "We would loose grant money," the director of the facility told me, complementing me on the work I had done so far and calling the footage "fascinating".  Despite the lack of four-letter words, the small amount of nudity present in the footage, and the fact that no actual or simulated sex was shown in the video, the documentary was still too controversial for their mainstream supporters. 

Finally, a small amount of grant funds came my way. The Weinbaum Foundation, set up to fund projects that focused on community education concerning Leather/SM, gave $1,000 to help finish the video. That wouldn’t begin to cover the costs, but I did manage to find an editior with a private digitally-based system that agreed to produce a master in exchange for some funds and a share of any proceeds. 

It took three months of editing before we were ready to show the piece. Material was fed into the editor’s Macintosh Quadra. Then, titles were added, transitions were put in place, and the material was honed and refined further. The Weinbaum Foundation even scheduled a well-publicized New York showing, but the Mac completely crashed just a few days before the premiere and we had to start virtually from scratch. The master tapes were printed in January, 1996, over three years after I had first picked up the camera. 

Reaching an Audience 

The final test of any filmmaker is their ability to bring their work to an audience. I agree with John Waters who once lamented the fact that so many people make films or videos without thinking of this final step -- what is the point in doing a film or video if no one will ever see it? 

My intended audience was outside of the Leather/SM community; I wanted the video to overcome many of the stereotypes that people have in the Gay and Lesbian and larger communities about Leatherfolk. Initially, I went the traditional route of shopping the video around to distributors and entering the piece in various festivals, but with no results. 

So, I turned to the Internet, putting up one of the earliest World Wide Web pages concerning an independent documentary. For the first year after the completion of the video, I distributed the video myself, designing a box cover on my computer, dubbing tapes, assembling and sending them out myself. I offered the video for public showings to any small non-profit group that wanted to use it for fundraising purposes. I mailed review copies to the LGBT and Leather/SM press. 

Ironically, I have had the most success in reaching my audience with the cheapest means available -- direct mail, the Internet, and small public free or fundraising showings. 

Looking Back 

Four years later, I can look back at the experience with some sadness, joy, and sense of accomplishment. I started with nothing and created a valuable document of a subculture and educational tool. Producing TLC: Year With a Leather Club brought to light just how difficult it is for anyone with a different point of view to create and get their work to a larger audience. 

Computers and the Internet may be the final keys in making the true video revolution that everyone talked about in the 1970’s. Until now, equipment for editing video to a watchable form has been prohibitively expensive. Desktop computer-based equipment to allow a full range of expression can be obtained at a relatively cheap rate (though still too high for someone still carrying a hefty debt from shooting a documentary). With its instant access to information produced by the grassroots, the Internet can be a valuable tool in letting an audience know about a film or video. 

Randy A. Riddle, 3/15/97