The Right Footage

A “Long Strange Trip” with Archival Producers Annie Salsich & Jim McDonnell

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Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia recording an early album in 1966. Photo courtesy of Roberto Rabanne.

The summer of 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of “The Summer of Love,” when over 100,000 people, largely consisting of post-beat-generation youth who came to be known as “hippies,” converged on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood. The summer came to be defined by experimental rhetoric against the government, experimental drugs consumed by fans and musicians alike, and experimental music, performed at festivals like the now-legendary Monterey Pop Festival by groups like The Who, The Grateful Dead, The Animals, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. The 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love also coincides with the Anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s exponential rise to fame, as masterfully portrayed in Amir Bar-Lev’s six-part documentary on the band, “Long Strange Trip,” executive produced by Martin Scorsese and released in January 2017. 

Archive Valley caught up with Annie Salsich, the project’s Supervising Archival Producer, as well as Archival Producer Jim McDonnell, to find out more about the project’s research and production phases, which spanned 13 years for Director Amir Bar-Lev and resulted in the discovery of never-before-seen footage and audio clips of the band. As the production crew’s main goals was to make “Long Strange Trip” accessible and interesting to experienced fans and Grateful Dead novices alike, rather than trying to include all of the details chronologically, Bar-Lev decided to highlight the moments in the Dead’s history that truly defined their experience, ranging from displaying the early Dead’s performances at “The Acid Test” to Jerry’s battle with drugs leading up to his death.

“There’s nothing wrong with making a point by point documentary,” says Salsich. “However, that wouldn’t be interesting to people who aren’t fans. I love this film because it’s accessible to people who weren’t fans before.”

Regarding the makeup of the production crew itself, “it was a mix of Deadheads and beyond,” says Salsich. “But this was a good mix, because if you had only Grateful Dead fans it wouldn’t work. There would be too much arguing about what should be in the doc – which version of Althea was performed better at which concert venue.” While not originally a deadhead herself, Salsich says that she is definitely a convert now.

“I work on several projects at once so I wouldn’t always work in the office,” Jim McDonnell said, “but Annie was the brick wall that wouldn’t leave and made sure everything got done right. My specialty is to find music footage and hard to find footage.”

McDonnell, referred to by Salsich and much of the production crew as the “footage guru,” previously worked on “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week,” the Rick Hall documentary “Muscle Shoals,” Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A love Story,” “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” and much more. Annie worked on this project for 3 years, following her experience working as a production associate on “Koch,” a documentary about past New York City Mayor Ed Koch, as well as on “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” which is about activist Jane Jacobs. According to Salsich, “going from a bio piece [on Koch] to a story about an entire band was very overwhelming because it seemed so big.”

Originally intended to fit a ninety minute format, “Long Strange Trip” ended up being three hours and fifty-nine minutes long, split up into six episodes of varying lengths.

“What happened was that as [the editors and Amir] were editing they just saw a much bigger story there – it happens organically. Unlike narrative films, docs can change so much because there is no script,” says Salsich. “I don’t think that Amir could have made such an amazing film with such a time restraint. Ever since the ‘OJ: Made in America’ Doc came out as 8 hours, anything is really possible.”

According to Salsich this fluidity in creation is heavily supported by the increase in attention from streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix, who are now more willing than ever to “take on long films, not affected by the ninety minute format.”

“I think there’s a new golden age of tv and film as these documentaries have a place within the streaming services,” Says Salsich. “There’s a hunger for docs. And there are docs that aren’t only factual but also entertaining. Some take a hands-off approach while filming, while some think this is inherently impossible. These different methods try to make it a fun and hopefully emotional, emotive film. They have a really interesting place in the greater television world.”

Within “Long Strange Trip” we see this sort of documentary free-styling first hand, with animated ‘Dead-esque’ mandalas adorned with moving archival photos spinning around the screen, varying degrees of animation applied to each photograph, and recovered tickets and concert-flyers stitched together into grand mosaics. “New doc film-makers are blurring the line between narrative and factual styles,” said Salsich. “What’s cool about ‘Long Strange Trip’ is that you have the present and past talking to each other in a really effective and also aesthetically pleasing way.”

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Throughout the film, interview audio of the late Jerry Garcia is looped in, so his retelling of the Dead’s journey feels as natural and modern as that of his living-bandmates. This seamless integration was crucial to the film’s overall effort as Jerry was the defacto leader of the Dead and his testimony was necessary for the successful retelling of the Grateful Dead’s experience. According to Salsich, “Jerry gave a lot of interviews over the course of his life. He was very generous and gave a lot to lesser-known journalists. Once we found one and were granted permission to use it, that was really gratifying. When you are dealing with people whose personal archive it is, they rightfully feel protective of it and skeptical of filmmakers. There’s a process of assuring them that it’s in good hands, which I take very seriously.”

Additionally, Amir Bar-Lev experimented with the format of this project, structuring the 6-piece documentary like an actual Grateful Dead Show, with some of the more fun and lighthearted aspects of the band aimed at pleasing the crowd revealed in the first half, followed by a transition into more pensive and emotional aspects of their experience shown in the second half. According to McDonnell, the types of footage used and their respective aesthetic mirror this change, with the introduction of VHS and digital giving the footage a “harder look than earlier film does.”

“When they reunited in ‘75, the band was very much a different entity,” McDonnell said. “It was now much more a corporation than the family mode that had been set up before that. Particularly towards the end when they have their number 1 hit, Touch of Grey, we see a change from something that was very beautiful and free-flowing to corporate and black and white. This change reflects the change in what the band was, the size of audience, and the reaction from the police and public.”

When “Long Strange Trip” was picked up by Amazon in late 2016, it wasn’t all celebration according to McDonnell. “The reality that we’re gonna have to finish set in,” he said, “and we rushed to start legal and licensing. I love doing the research, but the hardest part is the back end. Making the deals and getting your master elements is absolutely grueling. We had a lot of work to do in a very short amount of time. I think we had 2 months.”

A large portion of this work was spent performing the Telecine process, transferring old film reels into higher quality video.

“One of Amir’s marching orders was that he wanted to do all new film transfers wherever possible,” says McDonnell. “He wanted ‘Long Strange Trip’ to look better than anything before. Even if what we used was more common footage, it has never looked like this.” For example, “all of the footage from Egypt, which is hundred of reels, was shot in Super 8. It was painstaking to have everything rescanned. However, the transfers are night and day from then to now.”

Thanks to this laborious process, every clip and photo given to Stefan Nadelman, the animation director, was of the highest possible quality, allowing for the film’s archival material to take on an almost magical appearance as old was stitched together into new. Additionally, after a call for footage from the Dead heads was put out when the project began, any interesting material of the band that people owned rights to, largely consisting of Super 8 from the 60’s and 70’s, was rescanned from film to HD and 2k and given back to the owners.

“Part of the deal was that we would give these people back the new enhanced footage,” McDonnell said. “Until 10 years ago, tech to do these scans wasn’t out there, but the places who do it now are amazing in the quality they produce.” For some lucky Deadheads, this digital restoration hugely benefited their personal archives, while fans everywhere can now relish in the uniqueness and unparalleled quality of these clips.

One piece of the story that expanded its presupposed mold was that of the “Deadheads,” the band’s eccentric and supremely loyal followership who religiously attended concerts across the world and were instrumental in the Dead’s rise to superstardom. “So much of it was about the love of the music,” McDonnell said. “The community of Deadheads all goes back to how good the music is.”

“It’s no small task to feel out a story and what aspects you want to tell” says Salsich. “However, every subject, whether an individual or band, has its different challenges. There is so much to the Grateful Dead’s story, so i’m glad that we could split it up and dedicate a section to the fans.” Jerry Garcia was once quoted, “We’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.” Thus, forty-six minutes and one episode of the 6-part project was dedicated to “Deadheads,” covering the diverse ecosystem of the band’s following, ranging from a sort of religious cult called “Spinners” who worshipped Jerry Garcia as a god, to “Tapers,” who would record every performance of the Dead via tape-deck recorders, leaving what Salsich refers to as a “windy road map left by fans.”

Because the Dead didn’t want to be policed, they allowed Tapers to continue their practice because “this was just the easiest thing to do.” As early Tour manager Sam Cutler says within Act 5, ‘Dead Heads,’ the Dead’s “subliminal desire not to be successful, shown through allowing anyone to record audio of shows, ended up resounding to their benefit and credit.” The Tapers mass-recordings created not only a new type of archival community, but also a new business model rooted in the Grateful Dead’s relaxed principles. In dedicating an entire segment of the project to the fans, Amir Bar-Lev and his team of producers were able to mirror the Dead’s emphasis on a connection between fan and performer. Rather than a point by point analysis, “Long Strange Trip” avoids illustrating the Dead as recording artists or pop stars and instead becomes a melodic and graceful retelling of the band’s intentions, successes, and challenges.

In addition to utilizing this archival user-generated footage and audio for the project, Salsich and McDonnell said that much of the archival material came from the Dead’s vault located in Burbank, California, which the production crew was given full access to. According to McDonnell, the vault is an “astonishing storage facility that just feels like it goes on for miles and miles.” “The Dead are in some ways the most documented band out there because of their strong fan base,” he says. “There wasn’t an instance where we were scratching our heads trying to figure out if footage existed because everything is well documented regarding what exists and often where.”

Much of the footage shown in the documentary from the 1970 Hollywood Festival in North West England was discovered in the vault and had previously never seen the light of day. Also, a lot of material and information was discovered through, which McDonnell says “was a really great resource to know what the best shows and best recording were,” as well as through San Francisco State College’s Archive, local San Francisco news networks for earlier recordings of the band, and through Nick Paumgarten’s extensive coverage of the Dead throughout his years at the New Yorker Magazine. A bit of sporadically filmed footage was also discovered from the mysterious circumstances of the Warner Brothers film crew who had been slipped LSD and fallen victim to the psychedelic aspects of the drug. It is estimated that this was the band’s doing.

With all of this material out there, a lot had to be cut. “Documentaries are like a puzzle because you have interviews in present day to integrate,” says Salsich. “Those are long, and you have to pick what to use. A lot of archival we had to say goodbye to because it just didn’t fit into the story that we wanted to tell.” The crew had over 5000 hours of footage and 20,000 photos to choose from for the project. Salsich’s personal favorite find from the project, or her self described “Archival Baby,” is a clip proudly displayed in Act 1 of the 6-part project, and shows super-close up footage of all of the band members; Phil, Jerry, Pigpen, Billy. “It’s in focus and just really pops. It came from a 16mm Kodachrome and I found it through a non-heavily circulated documentary” says Salsich.

While Salsich was unable to go into details on her next project due to confidentiality, she did say that it’s “very different from the Dead.” “However,” she said, “I do really miss the team and subject matter!” For his part, McDonnell offered a special shoutout to the Deadheads: “When you’re working with a band like the Grateful Dead, there is very much a community of Deadheads who all talk to each other and know what’s going on, as opposed to other artists I have worked for. All the Deadheads wanted the Doc to be good and succeed.”

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