News Column

Former Memphian brings lost photos to life for must-see documentary

June 11, 2014

By John Beifuss, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.

June 11--A Memphis-born filmmaker whose career is in its early stages is helping the world discover a Chicago artist whose work was hidden almost until her death.

Chris McKinley, 35, is an editor and associate producer of "Finding Vivian Maier," a documentary that has earned almost universal acclaim as one of the must-see movies of the year, in part because of the fascinating, mysterious life at its center.

The film, which screens at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, tells the story of Vivian Maier, an unassuming Chicago nanny now recognized as one of the great street photographers of the 20th century.

For some four decades, Maier, who died in 2009, shot tens of thousands of photographs, storing her increasingly unwieldy trunks of negatives in the homes of her employers.

Her work was unknown until 2007, when real estate agent John Maloof bought a box of the negatives at auction, on a whim.

Maloof discovered evidence of not just a hobbyist but a gifted artist with a keen eye and an appreciation of all types of people, from the upper crust to the inner city to even herself: Maier shot many unusual self-portraits.

Maier's work began to be exhibited to much praise in the U.S. and Europe, and the nanny with a secret identity became a posthumous contemporary art celebrity. "Every time one of her photos flashes on the screen, the woman's genius is undeniable," wrote Tom Long of the Detroit News in his review of "Finding Vivian Maier."

Directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel, "Finding Vivian Maier" examines this surprising story, while also providing a rich, lavishly illustrated portrait of an idiosyncratic single woman who earned her keep raising children who had no notion of the scope of their nanny's achievement.

Siskel worked on "Bowling for Columbine" with Michael Moore and Bill Maher's "Religulous," but he's found steady commercial success as executive producer of the hit series "Tosh. 0" on the Comedy Central cable network. McKinley is an editor on "Tosh. 0," so when Siskel realized he needed a new pair of eyes to take a look at structuring the massive material accumulated for the Maier documentary, McKinley got the call.

The son of Jim and Linda McKinley of Germantown, McKinley originally grew up in the Raleigh area before his family moved to Germantown, where he became one of the many students involved in teacher Frank Bluestein's Fine Arts program at Germantown High School.

"I loved the theater, but Germantown got me interested in film, and I gravitated toward the film and television work we did there," McKinley said.

After graduating from high school in 1997, McKinley entered the film program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, the city where he still lives. At USC, "everybody's making student films, and everybody's falling into the roles that they like," said McKinley, who discovered he was particularly interested in editing.

Although few film editors achieve any sort of mainstream celebrity, editing -- the cutting, structuring and pacing of shots and sequences in a film -- is absolutely crucial to the art of filmmaking and as important as the cinematography, the design and so on, even though the viewer "is not really supposed to notice what I do," McKinley said.

"There's a clichÉ that the editing is the final draft of the script," he said. "I enjoy the organizational aspect of it. You get a ton and ton of footage shot on set, and your job is to take it and honor what the original intent of the writer or director was. If you have a movie that's not that great and you give it to a good editor, hopefully they can turn it into something good. If you have a movie that's already great, hopefully they can make it even better."

McKinley got one of his first good "Hollywood" jobs through a Germantown connection: Martin Cutler, another graduate of Frank Bluestein's program, was an editor at VH1. McKinley became one of Cutler's assistants; later, he found editing jobs at the WB network, Comedy Central and so on.

The credited editor of "Finding Vivian Maier" is Chicago-based Aaron Wickenden, the first editor to tackle this truly daunting assignment, with its hours of new footage, thousands of photographic images and the invaluable 8mm and 16mm footage that Maier herself had shot and stored in her trunks.

Originally, Siskel asked McKinley to edit the film's trailer, but eventually the directors decided the editing needed to be moved to Los Angeles, so McKinley and another credited "additional editor," Nora Gully, went to work. "They at first had a cut that was really, really long, like six or eight hours. So he gave me that and a bunch of raw footage." Finally, "Finding Vivian Maier" was whittled to 83 minutes; McKinley stayed with the project until its completion, earning an associate producer credit.

A film editor, especially on a documentary, has several responsibilities. These include: a responsibility to the audience, to produce a coherent and compelling work of art; a responsibility to the filmmakers who employ him, to help them realize their vision; and a responsibility to the subject of the film.

"We wanted to create an entertaining movie that didn't feel like the moving-picture equivalent of a Wikipedia entry," McKinley said, "but we wanted it to have documentary integrity. We wanted to be very respectful of her artwork, which feels very primary and is very powerful. We tried to be very cautious about changing her images (through cropping or other techniques). I feel really very lucky that I got this experience and was able to interact with these images."

"Finding Vivian Maier" has been available as a Video On Demand offering via Comcast and other services, and it played for a week in May at the Malco Studio on the Square. An art gallery auditorium is an especially appropriate screening venue, however, and McKinley will be in town for the event. He will introduce the film at the Brooks, and may answer questions after the screening.

'Finding Vivian Maier'

The documentary will screen at 7 p.m. Thursday at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Overton Park. Memphis editor/associate producer Christopher McKinley will attend. Tickets: $9, or $6 for museum members and students. Visit


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Source: Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)

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