Archive for the ‘Regional Film’ Category

Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Brian Bolster

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Because short films are often neglected in film festival press and buzz, the next two installments of this series focus on powerful films in short-form packages. First up is an interview with Brian Bolster, a native of Boston and graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His film, The Lookout, premiered at Slamdance and recently took home the “Big Sky Award” at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

The Lookout is a sixteen-minute documentary about a fire lookout–a term which describes both a person and a place–in a remote area Montana’s Flathead National Forest. Lookouts serve to detect and fight wildfires and, despite their ongoing use, seem a thing of the past.

Bolster’s film is a reflection on solitude and voluntary simplicity in a landscape where, as the lookout puts it, “weather dictates life.” Told with stunning cinematography of big skies and mountains, stars and sunsets, it is a carefully crafted film that celebrates quiet and natural beauty.

 

The Lookout2

 

It was your awesome hand letter-pressed card that first led me to want to watch this film, and in the film’s press kit, you also included a letter-pressed business card. Why did you make this aesthetic decision to represent a digital film/filmmaker? How does this style of printing relate to your work?

This was the first time I have used letterpress printing for any of my projects. Initially, I was going to follow the formula that many filmmakers use at festivals, a glossy postcard with a still from the film on the front and standard screening information on the back.  However, I truly felt that this particular project warranted a less traditional feel promotional-wise. The Lookout has a rustic sensibility, and I wanted the marketing materials  to embody that as well. It was Fiona Otway’s beautiful film Kiss the Paper about a letterpress printer in Hunterdon County, New Jersey (which incidentally also screened along with The Lookout as part of the documentary block “Americana” at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival), that served as my inspiration to give letterpress a try. [Note from Ashley: This film, Kiss the Paper, is the subject of our next fresh filmmaker interview!]

Using an older, nearly forgotten art form to bring an element of nostalgia to the collateral materials just felt right, and in the end, I couldn’t be more pleased with unrefined texture of the output and how well both the postcards and business cards represent the film’s aesthetic. Fire lookouts and letterpress printers are similar in that both can be considered dying breeds of sorts, and I’d like to think that I played a role in preserving both of their crafts to some extent, by making a documentary film about one and successfully promoting that film with the other.

Most of my films examine an individual or group’s relationship to structures and/or the environment in which they work, live, worship in, etc. Given that spectrum, I don’t think letterpress print would be the right medium for every project.  For me, the film’s aesthetic should really dictate the look and feel of all its ancillary touch points. That said, my next project profiles the owner/operators of an old fashioned mercantile, situated at the end of a long dirt road in rural Montana. It definitely has a rustic feel similar to The Lookout, and I’m certain that letterpress print would, again, yield tools that would both perfectly complement and promote the film.

You made The Lookout with a one-person film crew and had to hike twelve miles to and from Thoma Lookout to bring up the equipment for you shoot, not to mention you went without bathing for the week of filming on the mountain. Knowing these challenges from the start, why did you pursue this film? Why did you feel this was a story you had to tell?

Fire lookouts and the individuals that staff them are an important part of our nation’s history, and I really wanted to showcase their work to audiences who may not be familiar with their unique, yet often times unnoticed, role in fire management. Additionally, though they remain  critical front-line components of our forest system’s detection and prevention of wildfires, they have recently dwindled in numbers, due largely to the proliferation of advanced technologies.  Because of this, I knew that I not only wanted to document the working life of a fire lookout, but also play a part in preserving their history in doing so.

As far as the physical challenges of getting this film made, backpacking and hiking have been a part of my life for a long time, so the camping and making the two 4-mile one way trips (personal belongings on one, film equipment on the other) up and down the mountain on the front and back-ends of the shoot were definitely much more a welcome adventure than an issue.  Also, while not showering for a week may be have been a little unpleasant, that too is something I’ve become somewhat accustomed to over my years of being an avid hiker.

 

The Lookout

 

The subject of your film, Leif Haugen, is a fourteen year lookout veteran, who chooses to spend solitary summers in a remote post with only a two-way radio as his connection to the outside world. Haugen is surprisingly natural on camera and I imagine there had to be some sort of negotiation for you sharing the small, tiny hut for a week of filming. Tell me about that process. Given his habitation to solitude, how did you achieve the intimate footage in your film, which gives a strong, cinema verite impression?

To my surprise, Leif was very comfortable in front of the camera.  While we had talked briefly on the phone once or twice about logistics and such, we had never met in person until the first day of shooting.  The hike up to the lookout gave us a chance to talk, and Leif was nice enough to accompany me on both trips up and down the mountain, allowing us to get to know each other fairly well in a very short period of time.

Overall, the weather at the lookout proved to be a real challenge and in many ways ‘co-directed’ the shoot, if you will. We experienced everything from wind and rain to snow and sleet, with one or maybe two warm and sunny days over the course of the week. On the days where the weather was particularly bad, we stayed inside the lookout and shot Leif’s interviews which ended up taking much of our indoor time. Other than that, our days would mostly involve discussing Leif’s plans for the day over breakfast, followed by my doing my best to shadow him as his went about with his routine, whether it was a trip to get water, chop wood or cook dinner.

Thoma Lookout is very small and tight space, and that, coupled with the fact that Leif is used to spending so much of his time in complete isolation at the lookout, often times left me with a sense that I was invading his world with my presence. Fortunately, due both to his dedication to his work as a lookout and our mutual desire to share his experience at-large with others, we were able to successfully navigate any discomfort.

In addition to being a fourteen-year veteran of the Hungry Horse/Glacier Ranger Districts fire lookout program, Leif also helps train newly hired lookouts as well as restores older lookout structures back to fully operational states. After Leif saw the film screen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, I asked him what he thought of seeing it for the first time in such a large format. Though he was beyond pleased with both the end product and the audience reaction, he also mentioned that the film left him feeling a bit melancholy because he missed his life at Thoma – a clear demonstration to his passion and commitment to his work as a fire lookout.

 

The Lookout5

 

How did you prepare for your week of filming at Thoma Lookout. (I imagine you wanted to get everything in one trip, given the struggles of getting there!) What forms of previsualization did you use (e.g. storyboards, shot lists, etc.) to plan your shoot, if any? Did you plan any sequences ahead of time, such as a stunning time-lapse sunsets or nighttime skies?

I did have some pre-visualization of what the end product would look like, but it was minimal since I had never visited this particular lookout and had no idea what to expect other than being told that the views from the site were stunning. I did find some inspiration from the films of Terrence Malick and John Ford’s film “The Searchers” before and after the shoot, and I did have a good idea as to what I thought was important for viewers to experience – but that information was primarily gleaned from Leif’s interview. Additionally, I also knew that I wanted as little camera movement as possible because I wanted viewers to be in and experience Leif’s world. The time-lapsed night time sequence in the middle of the film was the only segment that was preplanned before I left for Montana, and I knew I would include it in the finished film – although, it was pure luck that I happened to catch an electrical storm passing through that particular night. Other than that, everything was shot on site at Thoma.

To complete this film, you worked with an editor, Amy Glickman Brown. How much footage did you have to work with for this 16-minute film? What was your process of collaboration for winnowing down the footage?

This is the second time I have worked with Amy, and she definitely has a knack for finding the heart of a story.  At all points throughout the editing process, I always sense that she is just as invested in the project as I am, and she has never shied away from arguing her points when she feels that I may be making decisions counter to the project’s overall message.  I place great value on the pacing of my films, as I find that central in setting the mood for the entire piece.  With The Lookout, the only instructions I gave Amy were to edit the film with a pace that was slow, deliberate and with a very “day in the life” feeling.  She found the pacing quickly, and with limited footage (only about twelve hours total), was able to add a breadth to the end product that I never thought was possible.  In the end, I felt that the final cut of sixteen minutes captured my story perfectly – and I had originally envisioned a total runtime of only about eight to ten minutes prior to our post-production work.

The Lookout is a quiet film, whose soundtrack is composed by the wind, rain, and other elements of Montana’s Flathead National Forest and the crackle of the dispatch radios. When and how did you make the decision to not use music? Was this a directoral decision or one you made in tandem with Drew Fuccillo, your sound mixer?

If nothing else, I really wanted viewers to experience the same sights and sounds as Leif, so the decision to not use music in The Lookout was indeed a deliberate one. Perhaps I should also credit some of my inspiration in this regard to the soundtrack from Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds as well, as I have always admired Hitchcock’s choice of using the sounds of the birds in place of a musical score.  However, my choice to use the crackle of the radio was made while shooting at Thoma. I loved how the radio would suddenly disrupt the quiet solitude. The crackle was jarring, and I wanted to incorporate that noise into the film as an auditory reminder that Leif was still connected to the outside world.

The budget for your film, $2500, seems fairly modest given the travel that must have been necessary for the filming. Do you often make work with small or micro-budgets? Do you produce work this way for practical, aesthetic, or other reasons?

In many ways this shoot was really an extension of a typical backcountry camping trip. The only difference being that I had a camera and tripod with me. Air travel aside, a hiking and backpacking trip is inherently a non expensive outing. Therefore, taking on a film shoot on such a trip definitely assisted in helping me keep costs low during production. While this helped me to keep costs down, it was by no means an aesthetic choice but rather a practical choice. Most of my costs for The Lookout were post-production related.

After its premiere at Slamdance, your film went gone on to screen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where it won the Big Sky Award. Where else do you plan to screen the film at this point? Do you have any long-term plans for VOD or digital distribution?

Currently The Lookout is making the rounds on the festival circuit. After the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, it screened at the Durango International Film Festival and will have two screenings at the Florida Film Festival next month in April and screenings at Independent Film Festival Boston. To-date, there has been some initial interest from a couple of distributors, but I’m definitely still open to exploring and discussing any short or longer-term distribution opportunities which may present themselves. Down the line, I’m also considering packaging The Lookout with some other similarly-themed short films in which I am currently in post-production. In the meantime, I welcome anyone interested in learning more about the film to please check it out at facebook.com/TheLookoutMovie.

 

The Lookout3

Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Isaac Brown

Monday, February 20th, 2012

I met director Isaac Brown and producer Ana Paula Habib at the Slamdance premiere of their hour-long documentary, Terra Blight. This duo is regionally based in Jacksonville, Florida, and is committed to producing socially-conscious yet nuanced documentary films.

Their latest work, Terra Blight, is a compilation documentary that sheds a light on the global impact and dangers of e-waste. Using a combination of archival, live-action, and animation, viewers meet a cast of compelling characters, including, George Laurer, a retired IBM engineer who invented of the UPC symbol; Mike Anane, a Ghanian journalist, fighting to end e-waste dumping in his country; a sales manager at CompUSA; a middle American family of computer gamers who make an annual trek to QuakeCon; and the endearing Isaiah Atta, a young boy who supports his family as a metal scavenger at and who one days hopes to become a preacher.

More essayistic in its approach than propagandistic, Terra Blight highlights both the innovation and peril brought by America’s tech-obsession and desire to constantly upgrade to the latest and greatest. Viewers are challenged to find their own ways to solve the film’s great paradox: in a world in which we have become computer-dependent, how do we temper our addiction before it leads to self-destruction.

Below is an email conversation I had with director Isaac Brown shortly after the premiere.

 

Shoppers test out computers at Comp USA in Jacksonville, Florida.

 

At your Slamdance premiere, you described the making of Terra Blight as a four year process that began with reading news articles and culminated in a trip to Ghana. Describe for us what initially sparked your interest in this topic and how the film took shape over that process. (I’d be especially interested in your recounting one of the challenges you mentioned at Slamdance–your agonizing over the decision of whether or not to upgrade to HD and to start over shooting this project.)

I think the process of coming up with the idea/concept of Terra Blight started years before. I was a photojournalist major doing a photo essay on American waste. A couple years later, when I started making documentaries, that interest manifested itself into a project called Gimme Green. This was a 27-minute short I co-directed that explored America’s obsession with the residential lawn and all the resources it takes to keep them green.

We were very successful with this project; it won over a dozen awards and screened on the Sundance Channel. When looking for another object in our everyday lives that we take for granted that we could build a film around, we naturally started gravitating toward the computer. We read numerous books, articles, and blogs and started writing a treatment/proposal.

After shooting for a year (and 20 hours of footage) on the same DVX100a that we filmed Gimme Green on, we realized that the film would be pretty dated by the time we got it done (standard def, 4×3, interlaced lines, etc). So we made the agonizing decision of starting over and investing in new equipment (the HVX200 with p2 cards).

It was painful at the time, but I’m really glad we did. I always think you should shoot a film with the nicest equipment you can manage to obtain. Our budget was small, but we put the entire thing on the screen.

Your production company, Jellyfish Smack Productions, is based out of Jacksonville, Florida. What regional influence, if any, shaped your production? Where there any challenges you had to navigate (e.g. funding, equipment, etc.) that were either hurt or helped by your FL home base?

Northeast Florida is our home, so naturally our company is based there. I love it. We have the woods, the beach and international airport 20 minutes away. (what else can you ask for?)

As far as locating funding for the project, living in Florida actually helped us. Ana [the film’s producer] and I are both recipients of Florida’s Individual Artist Fellowship for Media Arts. We both feel very supported by our state.

 

QuakeCon is the largest Local Area Network (LAN) party in North America

 

One of the strengths of Terra Blight is the rich cast of characters, who represent several different perspectives on the issue of computers’ utility and their life cycle. How did you identify/connect with/discover the key characters in your film? Was the multi-character structure carefully planned or envisioned by you, or did this come out in the edit? How did you, from an editor’s perspective, go about structuring and combining these seemingly disparate stories?

We knew from the beginning of the project that we wanted to have a rich cast of characters in Terra Blight. We very much envisioned the film as the life cycle of the computer and all the different hands that helped it along its journey. Of course we filmed many more folks than the ones that appear in the movie; the real challenge of editing was finding the narrative arc in the massive amount of footage that we accumulated. We used a lot of index cards, had dozens of conversations, and spent hundreds and hundreds of hours editing.

When I’m working with student-filmmakers, I often ask them before they embark upon a documentary project to define what impact they hope to have on their viewers–that is, what is it they hope the audience members will do after they see the film. What is the impact goal of Terra Blight? Was this goal the same when you embarked upon the project? If not, how was it shaped along the way?

We have always had the intention when making this film of raising awareness about the dangers of e-waste. We want the audience to think about all the resources it took to make their electronics, and to be responsible consumers when their machines become obsolete. Please don’t just throw them away! Find a responsible recycler from www.ban.org.

We also hoped that the computer would become a metaphor for the countless products we create and dispose of at the expense of the earth.

Finally, how can interested viewers hope to see Terra Blight in the near future? How else might they connect with you and your work? And what else should we look for from you down the road?

We have just begun our distribution/outreach journey for Terra Blight. Check out www.terrablight.com to see where the film ends up. We are hoping for a traditional broadcast and plan to eventually have DVDs/streaming available.

We have a couple other projects in the works; check out Jellyfish Smack Productions to follow our future/past projects.

And of course, like our Terra Blight page on Facebook and help us get the word out. It is going to take all of us working together to stem the tide of e-waste from flowing to the wrong places…
IsaacBrown05

On Plex: National Film Board of Canada and Snag Films

Monday, May 23rd, 2011


I’ve been setting up a HTPC on a new MacMini. Nothing fancy, it’s basically a MacMini running Plex, which (if you’re not familiar with it) is a free media server application similar to XBMC and Boxee.

I used Plex about a year and a half ago, when it was in rougher stages. Today, it seems both more robust as an application and also offers more variety in terms of the content available.

In addition to stuff like Netflix, TED, and South Park, there are “channels” from Snag Films and the National Film Board of Canada, which has an amazing library of films online, including works by Michel Brault.

Vimeo’s HD channel looks amazing, too — it looks as good as any HD cable I’ve seen. So far there’s no Mubi support. Hopefully soon.

You don’t need Plex to watch these videos, of course. Click the image below to watch Pour la suite du monde (aka Of Whales, the Moon, and Men).

Of Whales, The Moon, and Men

Launched: The New Self-Reliant Film.

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

The new and improved SRF.

If you’re looking at this website in anything other than an RSS reader you can probably tell that we’ve completely overhauled the website. Thanks to our wonderful designer friends at Nathanna, we’ve both expanded and simplified the Self-Reliant Film website.

As we mentioned a few weeks ago, our new look is based on some new directions for the website.

Today, with the launch of the new site you can do a few things that you couldn’t do before:

 

Sign up for the email list. Our new email newsletter will have exclusive content we don’t put on the blog. We’ll share tips on great films we’ve recently discovered, we’ll provide some extra filmmaking tips, and you’ll get access to see our films for free. The newsletter is only sent once a month, we never sell or share others’ email addresses, and it’s ad-free. Subscribe!

 

Watch our films: Some folks that visit this site do so because they’re fans of our films. Others visit the site because of the blog. If you’ve not seen our work, or you want to see our films again, or you want to see more of them… we’ve spelled out all the ways to watch.

The easiest and least expensive way is to sign up for the email list. But there are other ways, too. Find out more here.

Must reads: Look to the sidebar on the left. These are a few of the most popular posts on the site. Check them out if you’re new here or if you’ve not read these. The Declaration of Principles was the first post on the blog, and it’s still pretty much as relevant today as it was when it was drafted in November 2005.

 

Resources: If you click on “Resources” (look to the upper left of this page) you’ll see some of the more helpful pages we’ve assembled for filmmakers (and everyone) since beginning the site. Over the coming weeks we’ll be updating and expanding these pages.

 

Submission guidelines: We’ve always received emails from readers wanting us to watch and/or review our films. This has been done pretty much catch-as-catch-can in the past. We finally drew up some ideas about how to do this, as seen in the sidebar on the left. We want to review and put a spotlight on great films more than we’ve been able to recently. This is a way to encourage this. Click on the Submission Guidelines and and let us know if you’ve got a film you want us to watch.

 

What hasn’t changed?

 

Our blog still features all the same stuff that we’ve championed and discussed from the beginning — DIY, regional, and personal filmmaking. We’ve moved it to selfreliantfilm.com/blog, so update your bookmarks.

(If you bookmarked an old page from the blog it should automatically redirect to the new permalink structure, but if you encounter a broken link, let us know!)
 

Finally, one other thing that hasn’t changed: This site is still ad-free.

For us, self-reliance has always gone hand in hand with the idea of simplicity. While filmmaking is a vocation that often resists even our attempts to simplify the process of making movies, we feel the least we can do, sometimes at least, is keep our tiny corner of the internet quiet from flashing banners, pop-ups, and google ads buried within our own reflections. This website, like our films, continues to be a labor of love.

We hope you like the new site, and the things to come. If you do, spread the word by sharing with a friend by using facebook, twitter or, you know, by actually telling someone about it face-to-face.

Photo Essay: The Souths, Part II

Sunday, March 20th, 2011