Review: Roma

DIR/WRI:  Alfonso Cuarón • PRO: Nicolás Celis, Alfonso Cuarón, Gabriela Rodriguez • DOP:Alfonso Cuarón •  ED: Alfonso Cuarón, Adam Gough • DES: Eugenio Caballero • CAST: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey

The whole concept of auteur theory has come under increased scrutiny. Auteur theory considers how the worldview and work ethic of a director shapes the film he makes (canons are almost always crafted to be exclusively male for some mysterious reason). This approach is limited in its gender bias and in over-simplifying the complexities of the film production process. Those two issues certainly became prominent throughout the #MeToo revelations, where it turned out placing some directors on a pedestal facilitated their abusive behaviour. Over numerous high-profile cases of such abuse, there is now less trust in the auteur.

Many auteurs also happen to do their most pretentious and alienating work when making more introspective films. So as a fan of Alfonso Cuarón, I was worried that Roma would become Cuarón’s notorious “personal film”. After winning the Oscar for Best Director for Gravity, he could do virtually whatever project he wanted next. Why did he want to make a black-and-white portrait of an indigenous Mexican housekeeper shot in locations from his childhood? I think I may know why. And it may have a lot to say about the role of film auteur in the modern world.

Roma is named from the middle-class neighbourhood of Mexico City where Cuarón himself grew up. It follows a year in a family’s life, from 1970 to 1971, based on memories of certain moments or images from Cuarón’s childhood. He brings a twist to this very auteur-sounding concept by not following the experience of the ten-year-old son who is presumably his own stand-in. In fact, the children of this semi-fictionalised family are background characters to the main story. Roma focuses on Cleo, an indigenous housemaid of Mixtec background, played by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio. Her story is based on extensive interviews with the maid from Cuarón’s own childhood.

By placing a First Nations character at the centre of this story, Cuarón has found a form of self-reflection that feels very timely. It also anchors the story around a character arc that builds momentum. This gives Roma a sense of direction and payoff lacking in, say, Boyhood, even though the films have some similarities. Both address a quirk of narrative cinema, where moments are selected to convey a story’s significance. As we ourselves experience life, we don’t live through moments thinking of them as significant to a greater whole. Roma is deceptively mundane as it shows many seemingly inconsequential moments, only to pay off what they reveal towards the film’s moving finale. There is also a sense of dread built through bad omens and sudden dramatic surprises.

At times, Roma feels like the other side of the coin to Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl. That 1966 black-and-white film follows an African maid in France and was notable for being one of the first widely-seen feature films directed by an African filmmaker. Black Girl explored how marginalised peoples struggle to articulate their own stories without the approval of privileged gatekeepers. In the case of Roma, Cuarón is part of the privileged ethnic group, when compared to the Mixtec maid Cleo. In recreating his childhood from her perspective, Cuarón brings a fresh and valuable approach to the tropes of the auteur’s semi-autobiographical film.

Roma explores Cleo’s relationship with the family becoming closer. The conclusion is ambiguous about the nature of her acceptance by the family. Whether or not it can truly be free of what the status quo dictates is an uncomfortable question from which Cuarón does not shy away. It’s hard to explain without revealing more of the story, but it appears to be an issue with which Cuarón has struggled. Is this Cuarón being honest about guilt over his privilege? About revisiting his childhood from a perspective that highlights his privilege? About how much is expected from certain marginalised groups for so little in return?

The relationship between personal and political is illustrated so much better in this film than when other filmmakers attempt such films. If this is what Cuarón does when given full creative freedom, then it reveals the rawest expression of the compassionate humanism present in his other work. The slow-paced tone of the story may be challenging for what seems set to be a mostly Netflix audience. I would strongly recommend either finding a cinema screening or at least committing to watching it through in one sitting.

Cuarón, acting as his own cinematographer for the first time, holds a confident command of visual storytelling. There are also self-aware visual nods to Cuarón’s other films throughout, including a short clip from 1969’s Marooned for an on-the-nose reference to Gravity. Present also are many trademarks from Cuarón’s body of work; babies and young children, uprisings and Pietà poses, outdoor restaurants and hospital stairs, indigenous languages, infidelities among the middle class of Mexico City and of course, visually-stunning extended long-takes.

But wait, didn’t we begin by questioning the modern relevance of auteurs? Well, the perspective Cuarón brings to Roma, such as we can attribute this film to his vision, does something of value. It highlights how such projects can be used for self-reflection that’s actually relevant to society. If it can be used to examine privilege, then it can lead to striking, honest works of beauty such as Roma. Roma manages to take the audience in a time machine to 1970s Mexico, while being less of an exercise in escapist nostalgia and more of a fresh confrontation with pressing, modern issues.

So consider me relieved because I usually find this kind of film problematic. If any filmmaker was going to pull it off well, it would be one as skilful as Alfonso Cuarón. With all the caveats about how auteurs are constructed, it can sometimes help us identify when a truly special filmmaker is in our midst. We are lucky to have a filmmaker like Cuarón making films at a time like this.

Jonathan Victory

134 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
Roma is released 29th November 2018

 

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The Other Anne Frank House

An international day of remembrance for Holocaust Memorial Day was observed on 27th January 2018. Filmmaker Jonathan Victory released a short film to mark that day’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust.

The Other Anne Frank House visits the Frank family home in Merwedeplein, south of Amsterdam’s city centre. On the fateful morning they went into hiding, they walked for around an hour to reach the “Secret Annex” on Prinsengracht. This came to be known as the world-famous “Anne Frank House” for the two years she spent in hiding there.

Filmmaker and south Dublin local Jonathan Victory was filming in Amsterdam for his upcoming documentary “Why Do We Forget?” This film is still in production, exploring the preservation of historical buildings in Ireland. The Netherlands was visited to provide a contrast to Irish policy. Even in Merwedeplein, there is now a statue to Anne Frank in the square where she played as a child. Jonathan Victory explains the inspiration for his visit:

“After the moving experience of visiting the Anne Frank House, I was curious to see the home she was driven from. The statue in Merwedeplein is itself a touching tribute and the buildings have been preserved much as they were when the Franks lived there. I had seen a wedding film that briefly captured Anne Frank looking out at the celebrations from her apartment’s window. This is the only known footage of Anne Frank. On location, I was looking at screenshots of this footage, trying to match the original framing. The effect is quite eerie, not just for showing the community still living in this neighbourhood. It hits home how the Frank family were living a normal life in their community until persecution drove them into hiding. Holocaust Memorial Day is worth observing because it highlights how open societies could turn barbaric. This must never happen again.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=9mRQZ_Old9g
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Review: No Stone Unturned

 

 

DIR/WRI: Alex Gibney  PRO: Trevor Birney, Alex Gibney • DOP: Stan Harlow, Ross McDonnell • ED: Andy Grieve   MUS: Ivor Guest

No Stone Unturned opens with a recreation of a massacre shot on the location where it happened. On 18th June 1994, The Heights Bar in the small town of Loughinisland, County Down, was showing the Ireland v Italy match in the 1994 World Cup. Members of the Ulster Volunteer Force burst into the bar and sprayed it with gunfire. Six Catholic men were killed. Five other people were wounded, including the barman who works there to this day. The gunmen were never brought to justice and this new documentary from Alex Gibney sheds light on why.

The Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney shot a re-enactment of the massacre and then began to research more into the mysterious circumstances surrounding it. Gibney is a good fit for this material as it addresses the psychology behind cover-ups that so much of his work explores. He is lauded for his exposés on the abuse of power in cults, be it Scientology in Going Clear or the Catholic Church in Mea Maxima Culpa. His documentary We Steal Secrets cast a critical eye on both the US military-industrial complex and on Wikileaks.

Gibney navigates murky subjects with clarity. He does not shy away from rattling cages. His interview skills allow him to be firm yet calm, drawing out insight and honesty from his subjects. Gibney is in his element with No Stone Unturned even though it deals with particularly sensitive issues. He is able to establish trust with interview subjects who have much cause to feel on-guard. He begins by interviewing family members of the victims of the Loughinisland massacre. It establishes not just their grief but the creeping realisation that the police investigation is stalling them. Years go by without leads being pursued, prompting the families to campaign for justice with a lawyer. This culminates in revelations captured in this documentary.

Gibney’s outsider status to Northern Irish politics comes across in clunky choice of language here and there. For the most part, he lays things out quite effectively, making excellent use of archive footage. Gibney establishes a sense of cautious optimism for peace in Northern Ireland around the time of the ’94 World Cup. The harrowing impact of the Loughinisland massacre is conveyed through its universal condemnation. British government ministers declare the attackers will be found and sent to prison. A widow is assured that no stone will be left unturned in police investigations.

Gibney ponders whether the broader political context of the time and the eventual pardoning of paramilitary combatants under the Good Friday Agreement, had an impact on the investigation. The investigation was quieting down, perhaps in service of making a peace agreement easier. There is a more chilling possibility that Gibney chooses to investigate. In the course of interviews with local law enforcement, it is revealed they actually had quite a lot of promising evidence. An abandoned car was found in a local field. So was a bag of weapons. These were not wiped down nor were they burned as would typically happen.

Leaving behind such abundant forensic evidence is suspicious. What’s even more suspicious is that the police had the car destroyed before fully examining it for DNA evidence. Reports begrudgingly released refer to suspects and their interrogators by letters and numbers instead of names. The police are not forthcoming with details on what happened in the investigation, even after a Police Ombudsman report. Journalists and whistle-blowers lay out more context around the restructuring of the police under the power-sharing government.

This matrix of interviews weaves together a suspenseful mystery that uncovers more and more political intrigue. It does this without losing sight of the loss to humanity at stake. Gibney is sensitive towards his subjects throughout. He does however raise an interesting ethical issue when he reveals new information about the case to victims’ family members. This is done on camera on the basis of his own research. After taking the chance they’d appreciate any and all new information, Gibney then has to set out the evidence for his case. Gibney names three suspects and reveals where they live, with one gunman still living in the Loughinisland locality. The chilling dread the locals feel about this is conveyed starkly.

Gibney captures a press conference that confirms his suspicion that the British government was involved in a cover-up. Shocking revelations ensue about collusion with UVF informants and the gun-running of the very weapons from Loughinisland. These are bold claims sure to have a very real impact on the investigation. No Stone Unturned makes it clear how uncovering one strange cover-up leads to uncovering another. There is most likely more of that to follow if more revelations emerge following this film’s release. After all, We Steal Secrets wasn’t out of cinemas for a week when the Edward Snowden revelations happened.

Stories like this keep evolving so if they are going to be captured for a moment in time, you want it laid out like this. You want a filmmaker like Alex Gibney, who understands that a documentary is a film, who understands that you need intrigue without being vague. Building suspense without coming up short on pay-off is a challenge for writers of fiction. Presenting true events in this fashion, Gibney delivers a suspenseful mystery with chilling twists, striking the balance between provocative and tactful that is his hallmark. Fearlessness and a commitment to truth is what’s needed for pieces demanding justice from power like this.

Jonathan Victory

15A (See IFCO for details)

110 minutes
No Stone Unturned is released 10th November 2017

 

 

 

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Conor McGregor: Notorious. Director Gavin Fitzgerald & Producer Jamie D’Alton

 

Jonathan Victory talks to director Gavin Fitzgerald and producer Jamie D’Alton about making Conor McGregor: Notorious.

 

Filmed over the course of 4 years, Conor McGregor: Notorious is an access-all-areas account of McGregor’s personal and professional journey from claiming benefits and living in his mum’s spare room with his girlfriend to claiming multiple championship belts and 9-figure pay packets. Featuring exclusive interviews, unprecedented access and fight footage, this is the ultimate behind-the- scenes look at a sporting icon and his meteoric rise.

 


 
 
You can listen to an audio podcast of the interview below:

 

 
 
In cinemas across Ireland from Wednesday 1st November 2017

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Irish Film Review: Conor McGregor: Notorious

DIR: Gavin Fitzgerald  WRI: William Nicholson  PRO: Jamie D’Alton, Graeme McDonnell • DOP: Gavin Fitzgerald, Darragh Mccarthy • ED: Andrew Hearne  MUS: Hugh Drumm • CAST: Conor McGregor, Dee Devlin, Dana White, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jose Aldo

Going into this documentary on Conor McGregor’s phenomenal UFC career, I was on its side. I find Conor McGregor a more interesting and complicated figure than some give him credit for. I have mixed feelings about him, reflecting society’s division between his adoring fans and those who find him insufferably obnoxious. Notorious, following McGregor’s meteoric rise will not change anyone’s opinion of him. If he grates with you, Notorious will rub your face in his success and seemingly abundant happiness. If on the other hand, you’re a fan of his… You might not get anything new from this.

Director Gavin Fitzgerald and producer Jamie D’Alton have footage going back years of Conor’s early fights, leading up to his first fights with the UFC. Much of this formed part of an RTÉ series and seemed to have intimate access to McGregor and his family. The arrangement of footage here is edited so frantically, few moments are given time to sink in. It also doesn’t explore Conor as a divisive pop culture figure, which is surely part of his “Notorious” public image.

Notorious opts instead to take an observational approach, following press junkets, physiotherapy sessions and training. There is lots of great footage of McGregor training. It reveals the determination with which he physically pushes himself, even to the point of taking repeated punches to the abdomen to toughen up. It also shows the infectious positivity with which he influences the entourage around him. These two attributes inform his charismatic personality alternating from playful excitement to driven focus. McGregor is engaging to watch, it just might be ‘engaging’ in the wrong way for some viewer’s sensibilities.

This feels like a missed opportunity to produce something of more depth. The same free-spiritedness behind McGregor’s playfulness makes him insensitive towards others. This leads to backlashes of controversy around him using a homophobic slur in trash-talk or calling a black man ‘boy’ or so on. There is a context to trash-talk in which the narrow objective is the opponent’s emasculation. There is the broader context of the way words bring harm to people. Plenty to explore there in terms of this neurosis that makes Conor a divisive figure. It’s not the only thing a documentary should focus on but it’s notable by its absence here.

The thing is, I’m not sure if this was ever intended to be some deeper look at what it means to be a sports role model or whatever. It doesn’t even get that much into what it means to be a celebrity. McGregor’s journey here is depicted as rags-to-riches with few complications or setbacks. Don’t get me wrong. Notorious shows the sacrifice, ambition and focus McGregor needed to overcome challenges. But it runs through the highlights of a career you already know the progression of if you’re even a little interested in seeing this.

Notorious doesn’t really show much change to Conor’s personality from the impact of becoming a celebrity either. From living with his parents on dole money to being a global star, he acquires more garish tattoos but his gleeful anticipation for great feats yet to come remains about the same. He talks about how he feels so in his element while training, he needs it in his life, exercise being the healthiest addiction of all. There is a psychology to athletes pushing themselves to their limit and in Notorious we don’t get much more than surface-level examination. Likewise for any interrogation of McGregor’s values beyond his defence of materialism. Likewise for any impact his early life would have had on his values. The cursory glance here on his life before MMA doesn’t even get into the living conditions in his neighbourhood nor the fact he went to an Irish-language school.

Again, is that what Notorious was ever meant for? A lofty examination of cultures of masculinity, challenging the media image of a restless psyche with an uninhibited mouth? No. This is more like one of those WWF VHS tapes I got when I was little, where it told The Rock’s story or something. It is UFC material, executive produced by Conor McGregor. It is a celebration of his career and it’s not without its moments. It’s not just the bemusing cameos. The cage-fights themselves are imbued with cinematic life through good sound mixing and use of slow-motion. They somehow got clean audio of coach John Kavanagh’s ringside talks to McGregor. These moments are revealing about their bond. The pause Kavanagh gives before offering reassurance. The admirable dedication McGregor puts towards his goals.

Unfortunately, Notorious comes together flat. It rushes over the cultural moments around trash-talk and it skims over the Alvarez and Mayweather fights. The story of the Mayweather fight alone would have provided ample material for a feature documentary. Notorious begins with McGregor training with champions of sports where there’s no money to be made and no funding from the Sports Council. His fights attract enough buzz for the UFC to identify their eccentric superstar to bring more focus to MMA. The arc followed focuses more closely on the Jose Aldo fight and the two Nate Diaz fights. It’s possible you’ll find more insightful footage typing ‘Conor McGregor’ into YouTube. Though Notorious is fine to watch, it’s just not the fascinating documentary we could get some day.

Jonathan Victory

15A (See IFCO for details)

90 minutes
Conor McGregor: Notorious is released 27th October 2017

Conor McGregor: Notorious – Official Website

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4uZNtUw4K4

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Irish Film Review: The Farthest

DIR/WRI: Emer Reynolds • PRO: John Murray, Clare Stronge • DOP: Kate McCullough • ED: Tony Cranstoun • MUS: Ray Harman • CAST: Frank Drake, Carolyn Porco, John Casani

Winning the Audience Award at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival this year says a lot about The Farthest. Many films were well-received at the festival, yet a science documentary is the one that left the biggest impact on the audience. This is not only because of the mind-blowing implications of its subject matter; the story of the farthest man-made object from Earth. The assured direction of Emer Reynolds (http://filmireland.net/2017/02/19/podcast-interview-with-emer-reynolds-director-of-the-farthest/) presented the story with cinematic presence. When documentaries feature impressive visuals such as those here, it commands its place on the big screen.

The Farthest tells the story of the two Voyager spacecrafts, launched into space by NASA in 1977 and currently leaving the outer boundaries of our solar system. In marking the 40th anniversary, The Farthest gathers an impressive assortment of interviews from people closely involved in the Voyager program. The purpose of the project was to send two spacecrafts on a reconnaissance mission of the solar system’s planets, transmitting new discoveries back to Earth before leaving the solar system and hurtling off into interstellar space forever. If not strictly “forever”, the spacecrafts were designed to last for billions of years and could potentially outlast planet Earth itself and be the only trace that we ever existed.

Not one to miss the bigger picture, Carl Sagan realised the Voyager program had an entirely unique but time-sensitive opportunity; sending a time capsule of Earth’s civilisation into space. With only months to go before the launch, Sagan received NASA’s blessing to lead a team producing a Golden Record that would be stored onboard with visual instructions on how to play it. It is virtually impossible that Voyager will ever be intercepted by an alien civilisation but IF one discovers it, they could transfer frequencies on the record onto a screen and see 115 images of Earth. They would also hear a selection of the Earth’s noises and human languages as well as a 90-minute selection of music from across the world’s cultures. It is worth listening to the record’s contents online and reflecting on humanity’s presentation of itself in the 1970s.

Since the chances of its discovery by extra-terrestrials are miniscule, the Voyager Golden Record is primarily a statement for ourselves; a reflection of our higher values and an invaluable thought experiment on how we would present ourselves to a galaxy many have yearned to explore. It was created during a very specific sliver of time in the 1970s; the threat of environmental destruction loomed, the threat of nuclear holocaust persisted. The world was being torn in all sorts of directions amid an unprecedented technology boom yet it was beginning to be perceived as a global community facing common responsibilities. Sending a message in a bottle to outer space was a bold statement for the time, suggesting a species optimistic enough that it would triumph over its problems.

So fascinating are the implications of the Golden Record that it often gets the most focus over Voyager’s scientific team and their amazing discoveries about our solar system. Emer Reynolds weaves these threads together, each given equal weight to the Voyager’s physical journey of mind-blowing proportions and to the stories of the people who worked on this incredible project. Candour is drawn from a diverse range of people involved in this project and distilled into a two-hour running time packed full of information presented with clarity and momentum.

The thrill of discovery that scientists felt about each planet is conveyed with great impact. The long stretches of travel between planets are when the focus shifts to broader issues at play or the contents of the Golden Record, whose selection could justify a documentary of its own. This narrative structure allows The Farthest to take a broader view of the project and build chronologically towards the stunning realisation that objects made by human hands are now outside of our solar system.

As incredible as this story is, a lesser director would not have made the subject come alive as a cinematic experience. Emer Reynolds crafts a strong audio-visual sensibility to The Farthest. A soundscape of radio frequency noises and an eclectic soundtrack engage the viewer. Ray Harman’s poignant compositions complement music taken from the Voyager Golden Record’s collection. Other licensed tracks, apart from the closing song, all come from 1977 or earlier, grounding the film’s vibe in the era during which Voyager left Earth never to return. This imbues the Voyager with a character insofar as it can be but the visual sensibility on display here is anything but dated.

Opening shots of the sky are beautifully sharp compositions by cinematographer Kate McCullough. That McCullough has worked primarily in documentary before illustrates that strong visuals needn’t be absent from the form of documentary nor should they be. Visual effects are refreshingly alternated between CG shots of Voyager in space and close-up footage of paints, chemicals and dyes mixing together in fabulous galactic tableaus. The latter technique was pioneered by Douglas Trumbull for stunning sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life.

A particularly jaw-dropping visual accompanies the approach to each planet by showing the actual approach to each planet. Black-and-white photos from Voyager during their long approach towards planets are edited into an enthralling montage as each grey world looms out of the immense darkness. There are so many surprises from Voyager’s images and from rich archive footage precisely selected to build the story’s momentum.

This is all edited together into a superb cinematic experience and one with a far more global consciousness than any Irish film to date. The cosmic perspective it instils makes threats to the environment seem inexcusably reckless and national boundaries seem petty. It also makes space exploration seem daunting yet utterly captivating for its possibilities. The Farthest has a profound impact on viewers such that it would make them appreciate these words of Carl Sagan, “How lucky we are to live in this time, the first moment in human history, where we are in fact visiting other worlds”.

Jonathan Victory

120 minutes
PG (See IFCO for details)

The Farthest is released 28th July 2017

The Farthest – Official Website

 

 

This review originally appeared March 22, 2017 @ http://filmireland.net/2017/03/22/adiff-2017-irish-film-review-the-farthest/

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Podcast: Interview with Niamh Algar

IMG_5067

 

Actor Niamh Algar joined Jonathan Victory to talk about 3 films she features in at this year’s Audi Dublin International Film Festival as well as her nomination for the 2017 ADIFF Discovery Award.

In Lorcan Finnegan’s debut feature Without Name, Niamh plays Olivia, the  apprentice to a middle-aged land surveyor, who takes up a job in a remote forest. Deep in the woods, he becomes aware of a malevolent presence, an intelligence of sorts. A silhouette flits between trees. The place fascinates the fragmenting Eric  as much as it disturbs him. Is his mind playing tricks on him or is there some ancient horror wishing him harm?

Niamh also talks about the short films she appears in, Gone and Pebbles, which are also screening at ADIFF.

In Patrick Maxwell’s Gone, Paul returns to his hometown to find that his ex-lover has a child with another man. As old sparks reignite, jealousy and revenge lead to fatal consequences.

In Jonathan Shaw’s Pebbles, on her 50th wedding anniversary, Ruby returns to the hotel where she spent her Honeymoon. Will her estranged husband return to honour a promise?

Niamh also talks to Jonathan about the craft of acting, the industry and loads of other lovely stuff, including Niamh’s favourite curse word (spoiler – it’s “bejinges”)

 

Without Name screens on Saturday, 18th Feb 2017 at 6:00pm at the Light House Cinema.

Gone and Pebbles screen as part of ADIFF Shorts 3 on Saturday, 25th February 2017 at 6:15pm at the Light House Cinema.

Without Name is released in Irish cinemas in April.

Check out our preview of all the Irish films screening at this year’s festival.

The Audi Dublin International Film Festival runs 16 – 26 February 2017

Check out the full programme here

 

 

Check out Film Ireland Podcasts here

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Subscribe to the Film Ireland RSS feed

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ADIFF 2017 Irish Film Review: The Farthest

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Jonathan Victory voyages to The Farthest, Emer Reynolds’ documentary on NASA’s Voyager mission.

Winning the Audience Award at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival this year says a lot about The Farthest. Many films were well-received at the festival, yet a science documentary is one that left the biggest impact on the audience. This is not only because of the mind-blowing implications of its subject matter; the story of the farthest man-made object from Earth. The assured direction of Emer Reynolds (http://filmireland.net/2017/02/19/podcast-interview-with-emer-reynolds-director-of-the-farthest/ ) presented the story with cinematic presence. When documentaries feature impressive visuals such as those here, it commands its place on the big screen.

The Farthest tells the story of the two Voyager spacecrafts, launched into space by NASA in 1977 and currently leaving the outer boundaries of our solar system. In marking the 40th anniversary, The Farthest gathers an impressive assortment of interviews from people closely involved in the Voyager program. The purpose of the project was to send two spacecraft on a reconnaissance mission of the solar system’s planets, transmitting new discoveries back to Earth before leaving the solar system and hurtling off into interstellar space forever. If not strictly “forever”, the spacecraft were designed to last for billions of years and could potentially outlast planet Earth itself and be the only trace that we ever existed.

Not one to miss the bigger picture, Carl Sagan realised the Voyager program had an entirely unique but time-sensitive opportunity; sending a time capsule of Earth’s civilisation into space. With only months to go before the launch, Sagan received NASA’s blessing to lead a team producing a Golden Record that would be stored onboard with visual instructions on how to play it. It is virtually impossible that Voyager will ever be intercepted by an alien civilisation but IF one discovers it, they could transfer frequencies on the record onto a screen and see 115 images of Earth. They would also hear a selection of the Earth’s noises and human languages as well as a 90-minute selection of music from across the world’s cultures. It is worth listening to the record’s contents online and reflecting on humanity’s presentation of itself in the 1970s.

Since the chances of its discovery by extra-terrestrials are miniscule, the Voyager Golden Record is primarily a statement for ourselves; a reflection of our higher values and an invaluable thought experiment on how we would present ourselves to a galaxy many have yearned to explore. It was created during a very specific sliver of time in the 1970s; the threat of environmental destruction loomed, the threat of nuclear holocaust persisted. The world was being torn in all sorts of directions amid an unprecedented technology boom yet it was beginning to be perceived as a global community facing common responsibilities. Sending a message in a bottle to outer space was a bold statement for the time, suggesting a species optimistic enough that it would triumph over its problems.

So fascinating are the implications of the Golden Record that it often gets the most focus over Voyager’s scientific team and their amazing discoveries about our solar system. Emer Reynolds weaves these threads together, each given equal weight to the Voyager’s physical journey of mind-blowing proportions and to the stories of the people who worked on this incredible project. Candour is drawn from a diverse range of people involved in this project and distilled into a two-hour running time packed full of information presented with clarity and momentum.

The thrill of discovery that scientists felt about each planet is conveyed with great impact. The long stretches of travel between planets are when the focus shifts to broader issues at play or the contents of the Golden Record, whose selection could justify a documentary of its own. This narrative structure allows The Farthest to take a broader view of the project and build chronologically towards the stunning realisation that objects made by human hands are now outside of our solar system.

As incredible as this story is, a lesser director would not have made the subject come alive as a cinematic experience. Emer Reynolds crafts a strong audio-visual sensibility to The Farthest. A soundscape of radio frequency noises and an eclectic soundtrack engage the viewer. Ray Harman’s poignant compositions complement music taken from the Voyager Golden Record’s collection. Other licensed tracks, apart from the closing song, all come from 1977 or earlier, grounding the film’s vibe in the era during which Voyager left Earth never to return. This imbues the Voyager with a character insofar as it can be but the visual sensibility on display here is anything but dated.

Opening shots of the sky are beautifully sharp compositions by cinematographer Kate McCullough. That McCullough has worked primarily in documentary before illustrates that strong visuals needn’t be absent from the form of documentary nor should they be. Visual effects are refreshingly alternated between CG shots of Voyager in space and close-up footage of paints, chemicals and dyes mixing together in fabulous galactic tableaus. The latter technique was pioneered by Douglas Trumbull for stunning sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life.

A particularly jaw-dropping visual accompanies the approach to each planet by showing the actual approach to each planet. Black-and-white photos from Voyager during their long approach towards planets are edited into an enthralling montage as each grey world looms out of the immense darkness. There are so many surprises from Voyager’s images and from rich archive footage precisely selected to build the story’s momentum.

This is all edited together into a superb cinematic experience and one with a far more global consciousness than any Irish film to date. The cosmic perspective it instils makes threats to the environment seem inexcusably reckless and national boundaries seem petty. It also makes space exploration seem daunting yet utterly captivating for its possibilities. The Farthest has a profound impact on viewers such that it would make them appreciate these words of Carl Sagan, “How lucky we are to live in this time, the first moment in human history, where we are in fact visiting other worlds”.

The Farthest screened on Sunday 26th February 2017 at the Savoy as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.

 

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Podcast: Interview with Emer Reynolds, Director of ‘The Farthest’

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Jonathan Victory talks to Emer Reynolds about her stunning documentary on NASA’s Voyager mission, which screens at this year’s Audi Dublin International Film Festival. 

It is one of humankind’s greatest achievements. More than 12 billion miles away a tiny spaceship is leaving our Solar System and entering the void of deep space – the first man-made object ever to do so. Dying within its heart is a nuclear generator that will beat for perhaps another decade before the lights on Voyager 1 finally go out. But this little craft will travel on for millions of years, carrying a Golden Record bearing recordings and images of life on Earth. In all likelihood Voyager will outlast humanity. The Farthest will celebrates these magnificent machines, the men and women who built them and the vision that propelled them farther than anyone could ever have hoped.

The Farthest screens on Sunday, 26th Feb 2017 at 2:00pm at the Savoy cinema.

Director Emer Reynolds and Voyager Project Manager (1977) John Casani will attend this screening.

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Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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DIR: Gareth Edwards • WRI: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy • PRO: Simon Emanuel, Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur • DOP: Greig Fraser • ED: John Gilroy, Colin Goudie, Jabez Olssen • DES: Doug Chiang, Neil Lamont • MUS: Michael Giacchino • CAST: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk

Does anyone else think calling it Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is underselling it? “A” Star Wars story? Implying it’s only one of many such stories? “What? This old thing? Oh, we just threw it together.” Of course you don’t, because the words Star Wars guarantee box-office success, even if your movie reveals the young Darth Vader’s vendetta against sand (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tLf1JO5bvE ). The question over Rogue One is whether it will demonstrate that the universe of Star Wars provides rich opportunities for storytelling and can produce many classic films outside of the central saga. The answer is clearly… Maybe.

Rogue One reveals the backstory to how Zion received the final transmission of the Osiris, detailing a Machine plot to… Sorry, that’s The Last Flight of the Osiris from The Animatrix.

Rogue One reveals the backstory to how the Rebel Alliance received the plans to the Death Star. While the fate of this Death Star thing remains unclear (to nomadic peoples as yet untouched by technological civilisation), Rogue One focuses less on suspense around the mission’s success, more on the gripping personal decisions that had to be made getting there. These dilemmas are faced by a cast of new characters alongside some surprising returns by characters from previous Star Wars films. It’s impressive they managed to keep some of these reveals under wraps. Some of these cameos are well-executed with good performances, while others are awkwardly lingered on in a more grating form of fan-service.

Star Wars is built on fan-service so there’s not much use complaining; Particularly not when it leads to Rogue One’s standout moment with Darth Vader that almost undoes the damage to his gravitas from his aforementioned sand phobia. In between easter-eggs, Rogue One tells a new story about Jyn Erso (Oscar-nominee Felicity Jones). Her father, Galen Erso, (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist forced to design the Death Star by the Empire. She was successfully raised in hiding by Clone War-veteran Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker) but has since lost contact with both of them. The Rebel Alliance compel Jyn to re-establish contact with both of them, in the hope that rebel factions throughout the Empire can unite in an attack to take down the Death Star.

The tension in this story, set right before the events of Episode IV, is driven by audience investment in the decisions and risks Jyn and her team will make. What’s peculiar about the writing in Rogue One is that it’s very good at making the situations that characters are in complicated yet the characters themselves are mostly one-note. Exceptions to this include Alan Tudyk’s K2-SO, a charming performance of a droid character that could so easily have been irritating, and Mads Mikkelsen’s Galen. Galen is imbued with the unease of a morally-compromised man but also the humane warmth not typically associated with Mikkelsen’s performances elsewhere. Rogue One’s other characters aren’t as consistently compelling and often lack a clear motivation for why they do what they do.

The moral greyness of the Rebel Alliance’s actions and the professional infighting among the Empire’s officers do add some depth to the context of the original trilogy. But there isn’t much depth given to individual characters here. Saw Gerrera is particularly disappointing because of Forrest Whitaker’s distracting performance. Portraying a tortured soul with eccentric quirks and strange speech patterns is a delicate balance, and the choices Whitaker makes here, the long inhales, the anguished raspy voice and so forth, are just too artificial.

Jyn on the other hand feels too reserved, like a textbook example of a “Strong Female Character”; a badass woman with fighting skills, steely determination, and… not much else to her character. Her scenes involve her either demonstrating her steely determination or giving a rousing speech that rings hollow, as if it feels out of place for this character to encourage anyone. That’s not to say she doesn’t have moments of emotional resonance. Indeed, every character gets their moment to shine; they’re just generally a bit flat. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen may play one-note characters, but they do have a delightful dynamic together and they pull off a fresh spin on Jedi mythology. Their casting in a project of this size possibly signals moves from Hollywood to cater more to Chinese audiences. The racial diversity of the cast is outstanding by Hollywood’s standards. However, Jyn is the only major female character, which only places more expectations on how much depth she is given.

The characters are functional enough to lead to emotional pay-offs and their journeys are portrayed in style. Although the initial bombardment of planet names you couldn’t possibly remember doesn’t bode well, it actually holds your interest throughout the movie to see such a variety of physical environments depicted. It was particularly innovative to see the Maldives used in scenes of warfare on a tropical island planet. A location typically used to depict tranquil paradise is now the arena for classic Imperial machines to stomp around among the shallow waters and the palm trees. Rogue One will serve as a poignant reminder of their beauty before preventable man-made climate change drowns them.

Urban landscapes are also a setting for thrilling action but there’s sleekness to this new take on iconic Star Wars production design that makes it look more like a video game from the Jak and Daxter series (or a far more up-to-speed reference from someone who still plays videogames). There is a balance between bringing a new war-movie aesthetic to this universe in that instance and recapturing the aesthetic of the saga films in other scenes. In either case, it goes over-the-top when it is appropriate to and does demonstrate that bringing in a director such as Gareth Edwards, can lead to a fresh perspective on existing intellectual property.

Rogue One therefore encourages the notion that anthology films can be a worthwhile direction for the Star Wars franchise. If the output is anything like this, it will at least be better quality than blockbusters typically released. But there must be a renewed focus on new storytelling with well-rounded characters from this point on. The Han Solo prequel is going to disappoint people because it’s all going to be laboured contrivances depicting his first meeting with Chewbacca, his first time seeing the Millennium Falcon and so on. But aside from that, there is cause for cautious optimism given how Rogue One brings new style to iconic imagery and characters from Star Wars. Rogue One packs an emotional punch and shows much promise for stories to come from a rich universe with an astonishing cultural impact.

    Jonathan Victory

133 minutes
12A (See IFCO for details)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is released 15th December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Official Website

 

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Podcast Interview with Séamus Hanly, Writer & Director of ‘The Middle Finger’

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Ahead of its screening at A4 Sounds, Jonathan Victory talks to Séamus Hanly about his film The Middle Finger.

Dennis, a lonely and frustrated teenager, is reluctantly transformed into a superhero, embedded with the symbol of a hand showing its middle finger, and must awkwardly endure his training and save his world from extinction in The Middle Finger, a superhero comedy feature film, written and directed by Séamus Hanly.

 

The Middle Finger screens at A4 Sounds, Dorset St., Dublin 1 at 7pm on Friday, 23rd September 2016, limited spaces so RSVP here

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Irish Film Review: Pushtar

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Jonathan Victory takes a look at Alan Lambert’s film Pushtar, which screened at the IFI’s monthly Irish Focus on new Irish film and filmmakers.

In the distant future climate change has devastated the Earth. Pushtar, a tundra on the outskirts of the Himalayas,
 is home to a disparate settlement Among them, a breed of hypersensitive children acting as weather vanes to atmospheric changes that are guided by 8ft tall ‘Pteradogs’, and governed by a council of Elders.

 

This is one of those films. It’s good but it’s too weird to get the audience it deserves. Experimental film often eschews sequential narrative structure in favour of evoking an emotional journey; the viewer is meant to be engaged by the aesthetic or imagery rather than by the characters or story. Yet the story of Pushtar is not only one that could be followed, it should be followed for its approach to an issue so important yet surprisingly difficult to explore on-screen; climate change.

Acting as his own cinematographer, Irish director Alan Lambert explores the future of Earth and humanity should we allow greenhouse gas pollution to continue unabated. Set in the year 2365, Pushtar opens with space imagery that evokes the spirit of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The planet Earth has changed so much that for all intents and purposes, it is a different planet from the one we know and human behaviour has changed along with it.

Three centuries ago, our culture, technology, lifestyle and language were vastly different from what they are now. So why do films set in the future rarely deviate from characters who talk and behave like we do? Of course, to project what speculated changes humanity will undergo in centuries to come runs the risk of alienating audiences if the characters are too different from us. But that is precisely the challenge Pushtar runs towards.

The context of life is different now that climate change has ravaged the planet. The remnants of humanity live in the world’s highest mountains, avoiding merciless heat, ferocious storms and lethal clouds of methane, as they struggle to survive in living conditions similar to our cavemen ancestors. And that’s the part of Earth that’s still habitable.

The film opens with a group of racially-diverse nomads seeking the titular Pushtar, a community of humans living in a Nepalese cave. Children have evolved the ability to detect changes in the weather, making adults dependent on their guidance for survival. As they travel across rugged mountains, they must avoid speaking to conserve oxygen which is now low in the atmosphere. Much of the film’s dialogue in the first 20-odd minutes is through the sign language of American Plains Indians.

When they finally reach the oxygen-rich refuge of Pushtar and are inducted by an Elder, his deep, Caribbean voice says, “History is Dust” and relieves the tension of eerie silence. This film suggests that we take more than just speech for granted. The Elder outlines how little knowledge remains of the civilisation that came before theirs, intoning that “Passion is Dust. Requiem is Dust. Symphony is Dust.” Theirs is a “scientifically-run society” where survival is such a conscious priority that there is simply no time for prejudices of ethnicity, religion or ideology. Yet their technocratic mindset is itself ideological and leads to tension between those who trust the Children to keep them safe and those who advocate the use of genetically-engineered Pteradogs.

The Pteradogs are an interesting concept but are clearly wolfhounds super-imposed to appear larger. This is one of many times where the film’s budgetary limitations show in its special effects, which often just consist of the imposition of stock footage. At other times, the special effects are impressively seamless. The Pteradogs themselves are a disappointing aspect of the film, moreso for how repetitive they become. They do very little other than stand around panting so we never see them use the abilities they are prized for. Whoever first said directors should “never work with kids or animals” might take some consolation that at least the young cast playing the Children convey so much effectively in their silent scenes.

One could imagine this premise being approached any number of ways such that it would make for a compelling but more conventional genre piece; Some YA fantasy where the Children protagonists realise the Pteradogs are being pushed by some shadowy conspiracy; An eco-conscious Leonardo DiCaprio drama where he’s trying to keep the frayed community together; and so on. This story could have had a big budget to match its big ideas and yet we are presented with a low-budget experimental piece with an ambiguous ending.

At times, it evokes qualities of Terrence Malick and Nicholas Winding Refn. Indeed, its aspirations towards transcendence with its philosophical contemplations, striking visuals and racially-diverse cast, lend it a spirit similar to films like Ron Fricke’s Baraka or Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. The form ends up meshing with the content well. The budgetary constraints may lead to tighter framing but that leads to a greater sense of claustrophobia, intimacy and intensity.

Indeed, a recent talk by Alan Lambert at the IFI revealed more insight into the filmmaking process. The camera is usually static, yet snowflakes and wisps of smoke give scenes a sense of motion and energy. The size of cavernous spaces is conveyed through echoes. The landscape’s shifts from calm to hostile back to calm are conveyed by the pulsing soundtrack and diverse yet consistent changes in colour palette.

And although some vista shots were captured with Australia standing in for Nepal, most of the location filming was actually done on Killiney Hill. A lot of interior scenes were shot in the basement of Filmbase. This is an outstanding contribution to Irish cinema if for no other reason than demonstrating what kind of high-concept genre-piece can be accomplished when funded by no more than crowdfunding and an Arts Council grant.

And what of the film’s message? Does Lambert effectively communicate the dangers of climate change by focusing on how human behaviour would be impacted? When asked at the IFI talk, whether the film presented an optimistic or pessimistic scenario for humanity, Lambert’s conclusion was that the whole point of the film was to depict a society completely different from ours. Therefore projecting our own value judgement onto it would be missing the point.

The film expects a lot from its audience to engage with such ideas on such an advanced level. Pushtar stands out among Irish cinema for its visionary sweep and global consciousness. It is worth seeking out, even if it doesn’t have mass appeal, it has mass relevance. Irish film would benefit from more thought-provoking genre pieces like this.

 

Pushtar screened on Tuesday, 16th August 2016 @ 18.30

 

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Review: Weiner

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DIR: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg • WRI: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg, Eli B. Despres • PRO: Josh Kriegman, Sean McGing, Elyse Steinberg • DOP: Josh Kriegman • ED: Eli B. Despres • MUS: Jeff Beal • CAST: Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Julia Sawalha

Is electing politicians the right means to the goal of democracy (http://www.headstuff.org/2015/12/we-do-not-live-in-a-democracy-but-heres-how-we-could/)? The need to build up contacts and maintain a political support base makes them vulnerable to influences other than the common good. It also puts these candidates under intense scrutiny from the media, magnifying any of their imperfections. Is it healthy for democracies to focus so much on personalities rather than problems? The documentary Weiner provides a relevant case study by following the New York mayoral campaign of Anthony Weiner.

Anthony Weiner was a firebrand Democrat Congressman for Brooklyn and Queens, his championing of liberal causes being demonstrated by the film’s opening montage. He furiously berates Republicans voting to cut aid towards 9/11 responders. He is praised for challenging conservative doublethink without the timidity common amongst other Democrats. He speaks passionately for affordable healthcare, housing and education. In cosmopolitan fashion, he is a Jew married to an Indian Muslim, Huma Abedin, herself an accomplished political figure as a close advisor to Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton even officiated their wedding. He has all the makings of a major figure in the mainstream American left. This montage then crashes to an end with the infamous “dick-pic” for which he is now known.

After accidentally posting a picture of his bulging underwear to his Twitter account, Weiner eventually lost his seat in Congress and became a punchline for every comedian and news show on American TV. The surname Weiner makes the nature of this controversy all the more absurd. One could understand a viewer watching Weiner and thinking it was a mockumentary from Armando Iannuci at his most cynical. This is not only because of the film’s darkly comic tone but how naturally fitted to cinematic narrative so many of the moments captured play out. For example, a cringe-inducingly awkward silence between him and his wife drags on and on until he asks the documentary crew for a moment of privacy.

The crew have seemingly total access to Weiner as he launches his campaign for the 2013 New York City mayor’s race. Weiner makes for a compelling subject aside from his eccentricities. He has a relatable desire to overcome his public embarrassment and campaign on the social issues for which he had fought so passionately. Far more compelling however is his wife Huma Abedin and the relationship they share. Weiner’s mayoral campaign gets off the ground largely because of her support. To this day, she is one of Hillary Clinton’s closest assistants and could be influential in the Hillary presidency the American media has hyped for at least a decade. Therefore, when she manages her husband’s campaign, many are joining more for the chance to work with her than him.

Why did she agree to this? There is the possibility that she sees it as a way to restore her husband’s good name and by association hers. What does become apparent is that she is an absolute saint for putting up with him. Weiner must have some kind of secret for keeping women in love with him (that he must share) because she stands by him even after repeated public humiliation.

Just as he’s topping the polls he is embroiled in further scandals around his use of dating sites for “sexting” and further dick-pics. It is considered not only a betrayal of his wife’s trust but the public’s trust. The documentary captures thorough footage of his campaign’s subsequent meltdown while maintaining sensitivity towards its subjects.

Weiner believes he can ride out the controversy once again by focusing on “the issues” that are surely of more immediate concern to voters’ lives. Yet he is met with silence whenever he asks the press for on-topic questions. When he opens up to all questions, several voices at once shout about his trustworthiness. This creates a challenge for him in that anything he’s likely to be quoted on in the media will be about his scandal. The tabloid press harass his staff and threaten to fabricate stories about affairs. Meanwhile, bigger outlets link the story to their ongoing obsession with Hillary Clinton, speculating on what advice Hillary would give Huma about being humiliated by your husband.

Feeling snookered by the media focus on his scandal, Weiner reverts to his combative tendencies and refuses to back down from hecklers, unreceptive crowds and tabloid journalists. The campaign spirals from one controversy to another, building towards a tense climax involving a confrontation with one of Weiner’s texting partners.

There is a craft to the editing of this documentary which realises an arc to Weiner’s journey and his relationship with his wife. The pacing is steady and engaging but also builds dread each time viewers realise that what seemed to be a disastrous low-point for the campaign is still weeks away from the election. The neat ordering of events into a very cinematic narrative along with frequent moments of spontaneous humour make this a more accessible watch than one would expect from a politics documentary.

Earlier in the race, personal attacks from Weiner’s opponents were booed by crowds. Towards the end, his personality was all anyone would talk about. Weiner does demonstrate some introspection, pondering whether the pressures of political life influence personality quirks or if it works the other way around? Are people with emotional issues somehow drawn to politics? Weiner does not avoid responsibility for his transgressions but still feels aggrieved the media “don’t do nuance”. He warns that no matter how much this documentary tries to shed light, it will still be framed in terms of the guy with the funny name who did weird things.

This documentary is about more than that. It is about what role the media should play in democracy. It is about how election campaigns strategise to navigate the media. It is about the boundaries between public and private life. It is about a woman who deserves a trophy for World’s Best Wife. And it is about how much political power depends on so few people, each with their flaws, each subjected to a bizarre nightmare of constant scrutiny. Maybe there’s another way to do this democracy thing.

Jonathan Victory

96 minutes

Weiner is released 8th July 2016

Weiner – Official Website

 

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Podcast Interview: Katie Holly, producer ‘Love & Friendship’

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Jonathan Victory talks to Katie Holly, producer of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, about how Blinder Films became involved in the Irish/French/Dutch co-production, what Ireland has to offer as a location and working with Whit Stillman.

Katie also talks about the need for the government to increase funding to the arts in Ireland.

 

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Love & Friendship is currently in Irish cinemas
 

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Podcast Interview: Michael Kinirons, co-writer of ‘Strangerland’

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Jonathan Victory talks to Michael Kinirons about co-writing the Australian-Irish drama suspense film Strangerland, directed by Kim Farrant.

The film stars Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes, whose two teenage children disappear into the remote Australian desert, pushing their relationship to the brink as they confront the mystery of their children’s fate.

Strangerland is in cinemas from 5th February 2016

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Review: The Big Short

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DIR: Adam McKay • WRI: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay • PRO: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Kevin J. Messick, Arnon Milchan, Brad Pitt • DOP: Barry Ackroyd • ED: Hank Corwin • DES: Clayton Hartley • MUS: Nicholas Britell • CAST: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt

Adam McKay, co-founder of Upright Citizens’ Brigade, SNL writer and director of Anchorman is now an Oscar nominee for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. His career in the world of comedy led to this recognition for a film that straddles between comedy, drama and at times documentary. The Big Short is an exploration of the American housing bubble building up to the 2008 Financial Crisis, brimming with the righteous anger of McKay’s liberal politics, as glimpsed even in his more light-hearted screenplays like The Other Guys or The Campaign. This is a turning point for his career now that his big heart and sense of humour meet the intellect necessary to have clarity in explaining the drier details of financial regulation to a general audience.

These details are not explained well at first. The narrator acknowledges that most people would have trouble keeping track and that the financial world’s trickery depends on impenetrable terminology to either bore people or deter them from challenging so-called authority on such matters. Techniques of documentary filmmaking such as stock footage and explanatory text are used to outline crucial details as is Ryan Gosling’s narration. Eventually, the filmmakers attempt an even more daring tactic in breaking the fourth wall with vignettes that address the audience directly. Celebrity cameos break down financial instruments through simplistic analogies. Characters stop scenes to tell the audience about historical inaccuracies in how events are being portrayed.

Ryan Gosling’s character not only narrates but addresses the camera. His character is a deceptive antagonist so giving him the role of audience guide is an innovation. He is luckily one of the few actors charming enough to pull off talking to camera and his taunting responses to the “energy” and “judgement” of the audience carries the same weight of an actor on-stage in the theatre.

These moments of breaking the fourth wall just about work. It’s a fun device that forms the essence of this film as a playful but unflinching statement on the Financial Crisis. This statement alone explains its success in Oscar nominations which also include Best Picture and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Christian Bale. Bale plays Michael Burry, a real-life hedge-fund manager who identified discrepancies in the American mortgage market in 2005. The “big short” of the title refers to the strategy he and the other main characters employ, to bet against the supposedly-unassailable housing market and make huge earnings once the property bubble bursts. Seeing them trying to convince their investors of the impending crash as they get closer and closer to being proven right, provides the dramatic tension of this film.

Bale comes across as a stereotype of autistic people bordering on Rain Man territory. Socially awkward, mathematically genius, eccentric, abrasive, sees something everyone else doesn’t. We’ve seen this kind of character before and it is far from the standout performance of this film. That recognition should go to Steve Carrell whose portrayal of another investment expert Mark Baum carries weight, vulnerability and great comic timing from his introduction onwards. When one struggles to follow the dialogue, his reactions will tell you what you need to know. Carrell disappears into the character, continuing his recent blossoming as a dramatic actor.

Aside from these two characters and Gosling’s unapologetic banker, the other story we follow features producer Brad Pitt starring as mentor to a start-up seeking to pull off the big short. Pitt doesn’t get much screen-time and for much of it he is silent in the background but he has the reliable screen presence to give his character weight as a mentor figure with the biggest social conscience of any character in the film.

It is somewhat muddled to jump between several unconnected protagonists especially when the ethics of these characters aren’t all that clear. Are they really doing enough to raise awareness that would avoid an economic crisis? If they’re literally betting on the collapse of the financial world, how are they “the good guys” if they stand to profit from it? How exactly were they “sticking it to The Man”? Admittedly, these are questions the characters openly struggle with but they don’t seem to arrive at any definitive conclusions. The Big Short also has a shortcoming that many films on the modern financial crisis have; it doesn’t articulate the voices of people worst-affected by the crisis and if they refer to these people at all, it is in simplistic terms.

On one level, it does seem to side with them by highlighting how much of the property bubble was fuelled by charlatans deliberately misleading poor people and immigrants. Ultimately, it defends poor people and immigrants, pointing the finger at corruption in the financial sector and the politicians who defend it (while having the gall to blame poor people and immigrants for the financial crisis). It even goes as far as suggesting the financial sector failed to predict the 2008 meltdown not because of negligence but deliberate fraud.

Having maintained a mostly light-hearted, adventurous tone throughout the film, the ending strikes a bleak note, reflecting on the lack of accountability since the crash. So little has changed in fact, that the epilogue notes many of the same policies that led to the crash are thriving once again. While this serves as a sobering wake-up call, it does not have the tone of a call-to-arms; more of a horror-movie ending where the bad guys win. The jarring nature of this ending contrasted with the semi-comedic tone of the film is deliberate. It simulates the experience of blissful ignorance as we march towards catastrophe oblivious to the dread.

This is a mostly enjoyable film with a sucker punch of a stark ending. It is also, given there’s already turbulence on the financial markets this year, a timely warning about the dangers of groupthink and systemic fraud. It condemns fraud as both unethical and impractical, since fraud is always discovered sooner or later. Yet its persistence in human culture is truly terrifying.

Jonathan Victory

15A
130 minutes (See IFCO for details)

The Big Short is released 22nd January 2016

The Big Short – Official Website

 

 

 

 

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Review: The Hateful Eight

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DIR: Quentin Tarantino • WRI: Quentin Tarantino • PRO: Richard N. Gladstein, Shannon McIntosh, Stacey Sher • DOP: Robert Richardson • ED: Fred Raskin • DES: Yohei Taneda • MUS: Ennio Morricone • CAST: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Channing Tatum, Bruce Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Quentin Tarantino hates you. He really hates your guts. His hatred for humanity is all too clear from this hateful film The Hateful Eight, coincidentally his eighth feature film and by far his worst. He feels no shame for this utterly brazen and immense hatred. He is proud of it. This film is his best expression of contempt for his audience and indeed life itself.

Do you agree with Danny Boyle’s rule-of-thumb that there’s rarely a good reason for a film to be longer than two hours? Quentin Tarantino loathes you. He will punish you with a pace slower than the melting of glaciers for more than two and a half hours for a story easily told in half the time. He will draw scenes out as long as they can be with over-written repetitive dialogue bereft of any charm it had in his other films.

Do you love the characters he and his collaborators have brought to life on-screen before? Tarantino’s had enough of that for now. The clue is in the title. Every character in The Hateful Eight is hateful in a literal sense, so despicable that there is no reason to be invested in what happens to any of them. When a mystery unfolds surrounding the poisoning of coffee, that could still have been an interesting dynamic to see play out, had it not taken almost two hours of tedium for the film to reach that point.

Do you invest in his reputation for writing strong female characters? Among the male-dominated cast of characters, the outlaw Daisy Domergue has tenacity and roughness in the hopes that these superficial traits hide that she is a damsel-in-distress and a plot device. She is also loathsome in every way, giving you no reason to wish her success in overcoming the captors bringing her to justice. At the same time however, you have no reason to enjoy the really distasteful and repeated violence inflicted on her.

Do you appreciate his attempts at writing strong characters for people of colour? He wants you to shove it. Sit back and watch Demián Bichir wasted on a stereotype of Mexicans so egregious, that even Robert Rodriguez would surely reprimand him and that’d be coming from a director who once cast Willem Dafoe in brown-face. Hear so much about the vivacious shack-owner Minnie and then discover an outdated black mammy caricature when she shows up. Assume Samuel L Jackson’s character is an upright bad-ass who walks the path of the righteous man, as it were. Turns out he’s a lying scoundrel who rapes people as punishment.

Oh yes. In what has to be one of the film’s most bizarrely misjudged scenes, of which there are far too many to choose from, he recounts to the father of a man he murdered that he had forced the man to fellate him. This man was a racist confederate so that might make one less inclined to care about his well-being. If, however, Samuel L Jackson’s character reveals that he considers rape a fitting punishment, hilarious in its symbolism, one also cares significantly less about his. As you should any character who considers rape appropriate in any circumstance ever.

But perhaps you like it when Tarantino pushes limits? Well just because a film is “challenging” does not make it good and the circular logic that anyone who doesn’t enjoy a film like this is either a baby or a prude is such a lazy strawman defence. Tarantino still hates you though and he seems intent on making you regret what you wish for. It’s not just wounds and severed limbs that gush with obscene amounts of blood; poisoned characters vomit blood in such ludicrous quantities that it passes beyond the cartoonish fun of his previous films and just becomes obnoxious.

Did you like how brilliantly Pulp Fiction played around with chronological order? Tarantino hates that you did, so very much and this time around, he is going to have a clumsy, snail-paced flashback entitled “Earlier that morning…” more than two hours into this bloated mess.

Do you care about film in general, as a medium for visual storytelling? Tarantino despises you. This brings us to the moment where he atrociously fails as a filmmaker. There are several scenes of characters talking about each other’s back-stories. We do not see these past exploits; we see characters sitting in a coach or a shack talking about these past exploits even when they sound like more interesting stories to see than the film we got. Characters are not revealed through action but through other characters talking about them. This is not how film as a narrative medium works and it is astonishing that a seasoned filmmaker with Oscars and a Palme D’Or needs this explained to him.

The truly unforgivable lapse in competency comes long after the film’s half-way point when we hear a narrator’s voice that had not been introduced previously, explain additional details about what different characters are doing. Rather than conveying that information visually. LIKE A FILM. Who is the narrator? Quentin Tarantino himself, of course. This is basically a filmmaker of iconic status, openly admitting that he has failed as a filmmaker. The film got to the point where his footage was no longer good enough and he personally stepped in to fill in the gaps. That this voice-over is established so late in the film is what makes the crutch so glaringly obvious.

This, along with so many other baffling decisions, amount to such an abject failure in basic, fundamental, visual storytelling that it could only have been deliberate. It is as if Tarantino is intentionally, purposefully trolling the world by setting out to frustrate audiences as much as possible. And the only defence flimsier than “you just didn’t like it because it was challenging” is “I don’t make films for audiences; I make films I want to see”. This is a new low for him and you can absolutely afford to skip it.

Jonathan Victory

18
167 minutes (See IFCO for details)

The Hateful Eight is released 8th January 2016

The Hateful Eight – Official Website

 

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Irish VFX + Animation Summit Podcast: Aidan Gibbons, Mill+ Director

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Jonathan Victory chatted to Mill+ Director Aidan Gibbons at the recent Irish VFX + Animation Summit.

Aidan Gibbons is a Mill+ Director working out of the London studio. Aidan moved into Direction after working as a senior member of The Mill’s 3D team, where he was a CG lead, and has led artists on a number of high profile advertising campaigns for Lexus, Santander and Brother. Most recently Aidan has directed commercials for Lexus ‘Geneva Motorshow,’ Ssang Yong ‘Tivoli’ and Jaguar ‘ACST’.

His other creative highlights as a CG artist include, Guinness Music Machine, Audi Economy Drive and O2 Broadband’s Niggles and Narks.

Aidan is also noted for having created a number of short films, including Diversion, which went on to win Best VFX at the Global Student Animation Awards.

 

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Check out our other podcasts from the Irish VFX + Animation Summit:

Paul Timpson, Visual Effects Artist

Andy Hayes, Head of FX at Framestore

Mark Ardington, Animator, Rigger/TD, Animation Director & VFX Supervisor

Stuart Sumida, Professor of Biology

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Irish VFX + Animation Summit Podcast: Stuart Sumida, Professor of Biology

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Jonathan Victory talks to Professor Stuart Sumida, who was at the Irish VFX + Animation Summit to give a workshop/masterclass on Animal Anatomy and Locomotion for Animators and VFX Artists.

Stuart Sumida is a Professor of Biology at California State University San Bernardino. He was named CSU System-wide Wang Professor of the Year in 2008, and Carnegie Institute of Washington California Professor of the Year in 2011. He is a vertebrate palaeontologist with over 60 peer-reviewed publications, and is the most sought-after animal anatomy consultant in the animation and visual effects industries, having worked on over 60 films, video games, and theme park rides. His film credits range from Lion King, and Tarzan, to How to Train Your Dragon. Recent work includes Life of Pi, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as the upcoming Zootopia with Disney Feature Animation, The Good Dinosaur for Pixar, Mrs. Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children with Double Negative, and projects with DreamWorks, and MPC.

 

The Irish VFX + Animation Summit took place 20-22 November 2015

 

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Subscribe to the Film Ireland RSS feed

 

 

Check out our other podcasts from the Irish VFX + Animation Summit:

Paul Timpson, Visual Effects Artist

Andy Hayes, Head of FX at Framestore

Mark Ardington, Animator, Rigger/TD, Animation Director & VFX Supervisor

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Virtual Reality Filmmaking

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In the wake of the Irish VFX + Animation Summit, Jonathan Victory asks, are we witnessing the birth of an entirely new medium?

The Irish VFX +Animation Summit was held this November at Google’s Dublin Headquarters. The talks over the weekend covered a range of topics highlighting the change of pace for technology in animation and visual effects. There was one area that was explored through several talks, practical demonstrations and the weekend’s closing panel discussion that shows just how advanced this technology has become. The generation of virtual reality (VR) content is now viable for a range of applications. Are we witnessing the birth of an entirely new medium?

When the Lumière Brothers began showing their first films to the public in the 1890s, it must have been a challenge to promote the experience of seeing a film. There existed optical illusions comparable to moving images but how well could you explain to people of this time that a rectangle of light projected on a wall could show anything happening? What fundamentally happens when people buy in to a new form of media?

Aidan Gibbons, a Dubliner now living abroad, works for The Mill, a company pioneering VR. He gave a talk at the VFX Summit that demonstrated his knowledge of film studies and visual cultures in general. As he put it, there is a concept in theatre known as ‘the fourth wall’. A theatre set will typically have three sides to it but the fourth side at the front of the stage is where we the audience look in on the action. This hypothetical fourth side is not acknowledged by those on stage unless the play has a reason to draw attention to it. Gibbons compared the fourth wall to Alberti’s Window, coined by the Renaissance scientist Leon Battista Alberti. This concept is also important to the history of visual storytelling because it deals with the perspective within a painting as well as the frame of the painting. The frame is where viewers consider the boundary between the painting as a self-contained entity and the rest of the world lies. Suspension of disbelief depends on consumers of art being able to temporarily ignore the frame and concentrate on the artwork within it.

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Alberti’s Window

From the Renaissance till now, theorists explore such concepts as key to understanding different forms of media even if they sound obvious or second-nature in practice. The practice humans have of spending time wilfully watching something they know is make-believe is curious in the grand scheme of things. More curious still is the development of VR technology where a 360 degrees panoramic view of an artificial environment can be seen through a headset. Such a device, the Oculus Rift being an example, is placed on your head to completely cover your eyes so that Alberti’s Window, as such, surrounds your field of vision entirely for an immersive experience. How did such technology become possible?

Investment into research and development for such technology has come from tech giants like Facebook, Google and the usual suspects but also from the video games industry with Sony in particular planning to incorporate VR into the Playstation. Other companies bankrolling VR experiments will do so as a means of promotional event; the recent film Jurassic World had a tie-in VR experience to promote the film and companies from the alcohol industry like Red Bull and Dos Equis have also used VR for promotional events. The medical industries also have a stake in developing VR as the closing panel discussion of the VFX Summit explored. Gibbons was part of this panel and they explored the varied projects that have incorporated VR thus far.

Psychologists are researching whether a VR environment could guide a person with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or a similar condition through a guided meditation so that they can learn to feel safe again. This therapeutic application has already been applied to an app that trains users in public speaking by projecting crowds of larger and larger size in front of them as they practice speaking. There could be a bright future for educational, medical and psychiatric applications of VR, assuming motion sickness or any other psychological effects are manageable, research into which by the medical community is ongoing.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are apps that intend to excite you as a means of recreation. The Void in California is a live-action roleplay game similar to Quasar in that you and your friends shoot at each other with toy guns but with headsets that allow you to see a fully-rendered spaceship environment.

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The Void in California

I asked Gibbons what it would take for VR experiences like The Void to become as commonplace as IMAX cinemas and he cautioned that the technology may not necessarily develop that way, saying, “Personally I don’t feel there’s a space for people to get together and put on a VR headset unless it’s for an event of some sort. I think people will get together in the virtual world. You could be at home, you could put on your headset and in there you could be with other people, a group of your mates for example.” Or family members who have emigrated or a business meeting that’s too far away and so on. So there is potential to be explored for VR as a means of communication, a kind of turbo-Skype where Alberti’s Window can show you an entire room in every direction, not just the view of a webcam.

Entertainment is the obvious application that comes to mind and abundant examples of this emerged in the panel discussion. Qantas Airlines provides first-class passengers with a VR headset for watching films that shows them the film on a virtual IMAX screen within the view of the headset, complete with proper perspective, scale and so on. The BBC allowed viewers of Strictly Come Dancing to watch an episode with an interactive panoramic view. Director Justin Lin of the Fast and Furious series directed a sci-fi action short called Help where each scene had a fully-viewable 360 environment. Gibbons was a technical consultant on that project and explained to me that in order to shoot a panorama in this fashion, a camera rig must consist of no fewer than 4 cameras shooting in each direction but all timed in synchronicity. He observes that, “Everyone seems to be making their own rigs, there are loads of GoPro rigs that are 3D-printed. We ended up designing a rig with four RED cameras.”

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He predicts consumer cameras such as the GoPro will have to become higher-definition or high-end cameras such as the RED and Arri Alexa will have to become lighter in order for VR rigs to become more commonplace. The more cameras a rig has, the higher the quality of the panorama captured. Such a rig can capture a panorama in all directions, as in a completely spherical view of an environment in its entirety. Nozon is a company developing VR environments where viewers can look under and above things, up and down and so on for a more interactive experience. Lytro is another company developing a rig that instead of using multiple cameras merely has panels that capture light, creating an ever higher resolution panoramic image. All the while, organisations like vrtogether.org continue to research applications of VR.

A VR panorama is fundamentally achievable by a low-budget filmmaker with 4 or 6 GoPros. Applying it to the medium of narrative film however comes with its own set of contradictions. Gibbons astutely observes that the fundamental grammar of cinema entails directing the audience’s attention to precisely framed and edited images within Alberti’s Window. If Alberti’s Window now encompasses an environment where you can look anywhere, all the visual tools from a century of cinematic storytelling can no longer be used. You might be able to direct attention through a sound or a dramatic piece of action but it just isn’t the same way of telling a story as cinema is. Nor should it be, Gibbons argues, feeling that cinema is here to stay and VR will find its own audience separately:

“As a director, you design for the frame. You can hide things behind it, you can change the angle, you can change lens, you can edit. We’ve gotten used to it and film is going nowhere. We will keep making films forever, I think. With VR, as soon as you realise as a director that all those tools don’t work, it comes as quite a shock. Now we’re trying to figure out how do you tell those stories? Or do you tell those stories? Do you tell that sort of linear narrative story or do you focus on experiences?”

VR may supplement cinema and will certainly develop alongside it but can it ever be a narrative form to rival cinema? Or is it better-suited to non-narrative experiences? Gibbons and the entire panel were open-minded about people trying different applications for VR; they just had different expectations for what would catch on. Narrative zombie-horror films that were shot for VR were brought up and the observation that this would make a horror film ‘too scary’ was considered to just further encourage horror filmmakers to try it.

There is a currently a low-budget feature film production in Ireland that is shooting through VR. It is a dark comedy called Joanna VR , directed by Jeda de Brí, a graduate of the National Film School at IADT Dun Laoghaire. De Brí is currently crowdfunding for the project with a minimum target of €12,500 making production viable. Any further donations will improve the production’s access to necessary technology. Having already shot 15 minutes of test footage, de Brí is confident this is practical on a low-budget but acknowledges some of the challenges:

“All sound equipment and lights had to be hidden as well so it was a very new way of working. The best thing is that there is a new language and rules emerging with VR. Because you don’t necessarily have cuts, art direction and blocking come into it a lot more.”

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On the set of Joanna VR

De Brí explains that there will be some directed attention for viewers “by placing entrances or knocks on the door ‘behind’ the scene, so they would have to physically turn around to see who was there.” In this sense, any narrative form of VR is perhaps more comparable to a play than a film except this time the viewer is surrounded by all four of the theoretical walls. Fittingly enough, the story of Joanna is based on a play written by Neil Sharpson. De Brí contends the limited amount of actors and locations made for a smooth adaptation:

“The script is purposefully sparse, intense and claustrophobic and it’s these qualities that made it perfect for adaptation to Virtual Reality. For VR, the monologues that normally would be said directly to the audience, now instead can be said to a character in POV; giving them an even greater impact. POV in VR is particularly effective as – when viewing – you are actually in the shoes of the character. You can look down and see the characters body. Some of the scenes in Joanna VR are the perpetrator [of crime] actually being tortured.”

Joanna VR is a local project to watch in what will amount to the early history of VR. Projects like this, within and outside the traditional film industry, are pioneering a technology that could become a major form of culture in years to come. This is a new frontier to explore with people currently working who will be remembered the same way the film industry remembers the Lumière Brothers or Thomas Edison. They may not know where the technology is heading but new things are being tried and one approach, one brilliant use of VR, might be around at the end of the 21st century still developing and evolving as it is now in a nascent state of discovery.

 

 

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Irish VFX + Animation Summit Podcast: Andy Hayes, Head of FX at Framestore

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Jonathan Victory talks to Andy Hayes, Head of FX at Framestore, a Bafta and Oscar award-winning creative studio that offers a range of visual effects, production, direction and post-production. Andy has worked on features such as Happy Feet, Gravity, Rise of the Guardians, The Martian and Jupiter Ascending.

The Irish VFX + Animation Summit took place 20-22 November 2015

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Check out our other podcasts from the Irish VFX + Animation Summit

Paul Timpson, Visual Effects Artist

Mark Ardington, Animator, Rigger/TD, Animation Director & VFX Supervisor

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Report: The Irish VFX + Animation Summit

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Jonathan Victory went along to the Irish VFX + Animation Summit, which hosted masterclass sessions, presentations and discussions, bringing industry talent from both Ireland and overseas to share their experience and techniques.

Google’s Dublin Headquarters played host to the Irish VFX + Animation Summit, a gathering of leading figures from the worlds of design, animation and visual effects (VFX). This summit is becoming an annual fixture for those working in the animation industry here, providing an opportunity for training and networking as well as for promoting Ireland as a talent hub for this field. The work that animators do has become increasingly important to the audio-visual sector and meeting the speakers at this summit, seeing their openness and infectious energy, reveals the vibrancy of their field.

Sponsors included the American Embassy in Dublin, suggesting some international interest in Ireland as a location for developing this industry. There was also support from our own government with Screen Training Ireland and Animation Skillnet facilitating many of the talks and an appearance from the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan. She told Film Ireland that, “There is a misunderstanding that there aren’t careers from a variety of arts subjects” and that creative subjects are something she wishes to support throughout all levels of education. When asked what specifically this government has done to support creative industries she highlighted that, “The government introduced some special tax breaks earlier on this year which I know from some of the discussions I’ve had here today are encouraging filmmaking here in Ireland and I think we will see a considerable growth now that those tax changes have been introduced.”

Yet it is not just the increased use of VFX in film and television that provides career opportunities for animators. As Andy Hayes and Paul Timpson of the effects house Framestore outlined, there are also skilled people needed in the fields of advertising, design and even bio-medical research, as imaging is a crucial way to communicate with patients. Timpson is shortly setting up a new effects house in Dublin called Studio TM, while Hayes is Head of FX at Framestore, one of the world’s foremost VFX companies. Their experience covers a range of feature films that required practical shot sequences tailored to augmentation with VFX.

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They collaborated on the fantasy-sci-fi film The Golden Compass (2007) in which the young heroine rode on the back of a polar bear that was animated later. They had to design a rig the actress could ride safely that would then match up with animation. Gravity (2013) is a more recent project Framestore worked on and Hayes explained that not only was the outer-space environment pre-lit ahead of time but the entire movie was pre-visualised years in advance. The challenge for the film crew then was to shoot the elements that required actors but with precisely programmed camera movements and LED lights that matched the computer-environment’s lighting.

The precise work required in designing such movies along with the thousands of man-hours in then animating completed effects has employed more and more people in recent decades, becoming something of an economic behemoth in its own right, a field in which Hayes and Timpson insist there are plenty of job opportunities. Initially, VFX were intended to achieve what couldn’t be done with practical in-camera effects but now VFX are prevalent throughout all sorts of movies, at least in Hollywood’s output. Is it possible that with all the investment in VFX, film productions are pushed towards relying on VFX?

Paul Timpson believes this is an aesthetic choice that comes down to each individual filmmaker. The experience of Mark Ardington, a VFX artist with Double Negative, seems to have been positive in this regard as he worked with director Alex Garland on the relatively low-budget Ex Machina (2015). He gave a talk about his work on the sci-fi film, in which Domhnall Gleeson’s IT man is introduced to an artificially-intelligent cyborg Ava, played by Alicia Vikander.

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The seamless effects in this movie have parts of Ava’s torso become a translucent mesh, which were achieved by animating the footage frame-by-frame, following marked points on her costume. Ardington said that they tracked movement with basic “rubber black rings that are in the design of the costume and they’ve got these little reflective studs in them” so that they didn’t “impose any restraints on how they filmed it by having to set up motion-capture settings or anything like that.” The result is VFX that serves the story, something that Ardington feels can get lost in more bombastic blockbusters:

“Visual effects films fall into one of two categories. Most of them fall into the ‘I’m a visual effect, I’m all-singing and dancing’ and they really want you to see it and notice it so they can show off they spent all this money on the visual effect. Ex Machina is different to that. The visual effect is there in your face the whole time you’re watching the film but it’s seamless and it’s subtle and you accept it. It doesn’t grab you and go, ‘Aah! I’m a visual effect!’ If the visual effect was always trying to take over, it would take away from her performance and the believability of her character.”

Is such a balance between practical effects and VFX lost in larger-scale productions? Are modern movies and modern computer-generated imagery (CGI) itself suffering from a decline in quality? There are those who argue for this idea and those who argue against it insisting that each production find its own needs when it comes to effective VFX design.

This summit also featured showcases of design on animation projects like the upcoming Danger Mouse reboot from Anglo-Irish animation house Boulder Media and graphic design for live-action film. A talk on design for live-action film was given by Dublin-based graphic designer Annie Atkins who worked on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which won the Oscar for Best Production Design. She has since worked on Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies building on her specialty in replicating historical documents. While she highlighted that working in an art department can mostly entail unglamorous paperwork and intense research (she recommends scouring books and flea markets as opposed to Google Image search), she was able to share delightful details about her work with Wes Anderson.

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The Mendl’s pastry boxes were mass-produced with a spelling mistake (you’ll know you bought a genuine one off eBay if “patisserie” is spelt with two Ts), highlighting the importance of proofreading. The calling cards of Willem Dafoe’s character were based on contemporaneous cards that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun used. So much work went into properly aging, stamping and marking an envelope in front of Harvey Keitel’s character. When asked why an art department must build so much detail for seemingly inconsequential props that are unlikely to be noticed she said that if historically-correct details hadn’t been added, you would be left with a blank piece of paper for an envelope. Were this to be reflected across the board, sets would start to look to very sparse and low-budget. Details that build a world go unnoticed but a world without details is very noticeable. She also told Film Ireland that, “We’re not always designing directly for the people in the audience. We have to design for the actors and director and the people on-set in order for them to do their work.”

Two highlights of the summit came from the United States. The first of which was Professor Stuart Sumida, a professor of biology at California State University, renowned for consulting on the anatomy and movement of animals for films such as The Lion King (1994) and Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (2015), which screened at the summit. His study of physiology and movement informs animators’ efforts to create believable characters on-screen; even fictional animals such as dragons are typically designed by combining attributes of existing animals. Basically, the characters must be grounded in reality as best they can before they open their mouths and talk and stuff.

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When Sumida spoke to Film Ireland, he explained how you get an animal’s mouth to move like a human’s; “It usually involves studying both a human’s way of communicating and the construction of an animal’s face and then making some design decisions about how we’re gonna move lips and cheeks and so on. The farther you get from a human, the harder it becomes.” One would think that motion-capture performance such as that pioneered by actor Andy Serkis when playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy would help in this regard but Sumida warns that you can still lose authenticity when it comes to other aspects of animal movement. His trained eyes found inaccuracies in the recent Planet of the Apes series too distracting, saying that, “Although the digital effects were massively impressive, the physical movements were appallingly incorrect. The posture was incorrect. Even the hand motion was incorrect. So with all due respect to Andy Serkis, he’s been much better in other films.”

When offered the example of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) in which Serkis also performed motion-capture for a primate character, Sumida was more positive:

“Some of the facial animation in King Kong was stunning. It was beautiful acting. It was what animation should do. You looked at the face of that character and you saw that character. You didn’t think that ‘Someone was captured for this’. I was very impressed. The flipside of that is an animal that big could never have done the things he did. So if you want me to believe he lives in my universe I don’t buy it. He’s too heavy.”

This highlights the importance of plausible physics as well as biology when it comes to animation. This was something touched upon throughout the weekend, including Andy Hayes’ tale of a day where they set off fuel explosions and filmed them so that they could get a better understanding of how fire moves and how far you could exaggerate the physics in service of a director’s brief before it starts to look wrong. Scientific research is crucial to developing VFX and animation that looks good and sometimes that striving for perfection can lead to surprising reciprocal rewards for the scientific community. The medical profession’s need for improved imaging technology was touched on throughout the summit. The recent sci-fi film Interstellar (2014) had characters travelling through black holes and in designing a black hole the animators contributed to advances in understanding what a black hole actually does look like, according to the film’s scientific consultant Kip Thorne.

Sumida told Film Ireland it is very important to promote and support the link between the scientific community and the creative arts. A scientifically-literate arts community can promote scientific literacy through their work, which increases scientific literacy and support for science, which continues to support the arts and so the positive feedback loop goes on. Sumida wants such an interaction between science and creative industries to continue:

“That interaction is not yet as appreciated as it should be. One of the things I like to do is remind people in the animation and visual effects industries just how much science they are doing. It helps us convince the youth of today that art can be scientifically exciting and it helps us convince the scientists of today that science can be artistically beautiful. And it gives a greater appreciation of both and when that appreciation exists, the collaboration begins and we’re always better when we collaborate than when we stay apart. Always.”

The spirit of collaboration and collegiality was high at the VFX Summit but another speaker from the US united the summit in reverence. Jim Morris is the current President of Pixar and delivered a masterclass on the history of VFX on which he is an unparalleled guide of great clarity. He is a towering figure in the industry having been present for most of the advances in VFX since beginning work in this area at ILM in the 1980s just as the transition from photochemical post-production to the digital revolution began. He oversaw key advances made on films like James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) in which computer-animated creatures of liquid were realised, using processing power that Morris notes is probably available on an iPhone now. Death Becomes Her (1992) saw the first transplanting of Meryl Streep’s face to the back of her head and Jurassic Park (1993) was the game-changer that ushered in the modern era of VFX.

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Having been there at so many iconic moments in the history of VFX, he is now the President of Pixar and still speaking highly of technological advances made on their projects, notably the use of real geological survey data from Montana and Wyoming to create the backgrounds in The Good Dinosaur. I asked him how Pixar approaches the writing of its most successful films and he outlined how they will have a handful of projects in production at any one time which allows directors to give feedback on each other’s films. The process from pitching a story to cinema release takes roughly five years for them and much of that time is spent on rigorous refining of a rough-cut assembled from storyboards so they can essentially see their finished film before taking it to animators. This is a luxury their unique set-up affords them, allowing them to refine stories well but often the story comes from a place of emotional resonance to the director. He cites Finding Nemo (2003) and Inside Out (2015) as movies whose directors were dealing with the challenges of parenthood and expressing themselves through the story.

Animation is in its own right a great medium for storytelling and an area for growth in Ireland with companies like Cartoon Saloon and Brown Bag Films already finding international success. VFX and animation offer exciting jobs for creative projects and are open to anyone with the interest, passion and commitment to contribute, with scientific literacy being a huge bonus. The effects houses represented here all said they need to recruit more talent. If the people at this summit were anything to go by, it’s good company to be in.

 

The Irish VFX & Animation Summit took place 20 – 22 November 2015

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Irish VFX + Animation Summit Podcast: Paul Timpson, Visual Effects Artist

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Jonathan Victory talks to Paul Timpson, a veteran of the VFX industry.

Paul has worked in companies such as MPC, The Jim Henson Company, Framestore and Dreamworks on features such as Harry Potter Order of the Phoenix, Robocop, 47 Ronin, Shrek 4 and Megamind.

Paul has worked in Animation and VFX on three continents.

The Irish VFX + Animation Summit took place 20-22 November 2015

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Check out our other podcasts from the Irish VFX + Animation Summit:

Andy Hayes, Head of FX at Framestore

Mark Ardington, Animator, Rigger/TD, Animation Director & VFX Supervisor

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Green Filmmaking: Part IV

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Jonathan Victory concludes his series on green filmmaking with 30 practical tips to make your project a greener shoot.

 

This series has outlined how green filmmaking, the practice of producing screen projects in an environmentally-friendly way, is an emerging field internationally but requires effective planning on the part of filmmakers. Film crews could start taking on eco-managers [as discussed in Part II] to implement policies that will improve workflow, cut energy costs and reduce waste. Such policies could include those outlined in the list below of 30 practical tips for green filmmaking. These could be pursued without an eco-manager but having a dedicated crew member to focus on sustainability will increase the likelihood of actually making your project a green shoot.

They have been arranged into three sections; tips that are easily implementable, tips that require more planning, forethought and research, and tips on managing the production wrap. Plan for green filmmaking throughout pre-production and see how many of these you can do on your next project.

Should Be Easy To Organise

1. E-MAIL
An explanatory e-mail on Green Filmmaking to each crew member before shooting starts

2. TALK
An explanatory talk on Green Filmmaking to an assembly of crew members before shooting starts

3. DAILY REMINDER
A daily reminder on call sheets about the Green Filmmaking protocol on-set

4. DRIVING
When walking between locations isn’t an option carpool between locations; vehicle drivers should drive smoothly, change gears efficiently and avoid roadworks and rush hour whenever possible

5. REUSABLE CUPS
Provide each crew member with a name-marked reusable container for drinks

6. PACKAGING
Catering, along with products used by all departments, should have as few packaging materials as possible

7. PLUG OUT
Appliances/computers/equipment should be turned off and plugged out if not in use for a while – Certainly if not in use overnight

8. PAPER
All departments should limit their use of paper (or exclusively use recycled paper)

9. ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION
Send out call-sheets, scripts and other important documents electronically and only print them when you absolutely have to (be advised that this may or may not hinder efficient communication)

 

May Be Harder To Organise

10. RECYCLING
Have 3 reusable containers as bins, distinctly marked and brought to each set, so that waste can be sorted into general waste, waste for recycling (clean paper, cardboard etc.) and composting waste

(be advised that a crew member should be assigned to set this up at the start of each day, take it away at the end of each day and ideally monitor the bins to ensure they’re being used properly)

11. ELECTRONIC RECYCLING
A fourth bin for electronic waste such as batteries or printer cartridges should be available when necessary

12. WASTE COLLECTION
Either locate a convenient waste disposal centre or contract a waste service to collect recycling & composting waste at the end of each shooting day (or week or at the end of the shoot)

13. CATERING
Catering should avoid red meat and other energy-intensive foods and should consist of food that originated in Ireland or as locally as possible

14. CUTLERY
Use plates & cutlery that are either reusable or biodegradable so that they can go into the compost waste

15. LEFTOVER FOOD
Donate leftover food to a homeless shelter

16. COSTUME
Costume department should source existing clothes as sustainably as possible and avoid the use of dry-cleaners or inefficient cleaning practices

17. SETS
Production design department should source suitable aesthetics from existing locations and source their materials as sustainably as possible

18. LIGHTING
Shoot with natural light insofar as possible and use energy-efficient lighting equipment insofar as possible e.g. LEDs, Kino-Flo etc.

19. FIRE EFFECTS
Use propane rather than liquid for fire effects

20. VEHICLE FUEL
Using vehicles powered by electricity or waste cooking oil will dramatically reduce petrol costs and carbon emissions

21. CREW INCENTIVES
Incentivise crew members to be green by awarding a weekly prize to the crew member who did the most for environmental measures

22. DIESEL GENERATORS
Avoid the use of diesel-generators by using grid-power or sourcing an alternative energy-source for generators

23. CLEAN ENERGY
Have clean energy provided to locations that are on the power-grid insofar as possible (Airtricity and ESB assisted Filmbase with this last year)

24. BUY IN BULK
All departments should purchase anything they’re likely to need in bulk so as to avoid multiple journeys to re-supply

25. AVOID POLLUTANTS
In make-up and hair, special effects and any other department, avoid the use of chemicals that pollute the atmosphere, soil and immediate working environment of crew members

26. AVOID PETROLEUM
In make-up and hair, special effects and any other department, avoid the use of chemicals that originate from petroleum

 

Organise for the End of Shooting

27. SHOOTING-WRAP DISPOSAL
Organise the sustainable disposal of any scrap gels, dead batteries or other materials that are not going to be reused on another shoot and retain materials that can be used on another shoot

28. SHOOTING-WRAP REPORT
Produce a report detailing the savings in kilowatt-hours of energy, kilograms of waste, gigatonnes of pollution and financial costs

29. CARBON OFFSETTING
Calculate the carbon footprint of the production and pay a reputable carbon-offset company to offset the carbon emissions by investing in renewable energy or forestry projects (though it is questionable whether such an off-set would be tangible and whether one would be better to wait until after distribution of the film so that the entire life-cycle of the production can be taken into account)

30. PASS IT ON
Replicate these practices on other productions and in home-life insofar as possible

 

You can read Part I here Part II here & Part III here

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Green Filmmaking: Part III

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Jonathan Victory continues his series of articles on green filmmaking by looking at investment in this emerging field thus far and the incentives in place to support it.

 

This series of articles has explored how film studios around the world are starting to see the sense in applying principles of environmental sustainability to filmmaking (part I) and how some are even hiring crew members with a specific role to oversee it (part II). Looking at the investment in this emerging field thus far and the incentives to support it should indicate that the time has come for a substantive transition to sustainable business practices.

In September, John Gormley will be launching GAAVA, the Green Arts & Audio Visual Association, as an advocacy organisation to promote green filmmaking in Ireland and throughout Europe. This is to further research on international developments in this field from groups such as the Netherlands’ Strawberry Earth who hold an annual green filmmaking competition and Germany’s Green Filmmaking Initiative, who publish an annual journal at the Berlinale Film Festival.

The broad international picture provides plenty of material for research but also suggests that Ireland is set to be left behind by more resourceful film industries if we don’t seize the opportunity to be world leaders in this field. With other industries moving towards sustainability initiatives, political, economic and technological momentum could see legislative frameworks emerging around them. Preparing for this shift would be beneficial for the film industry, as the British Standards Institute advises that staying ahead of changes in regulation keeps businesses competitive and reduces reputational risk.

Major Hollywood studios that are preparing for this shifting context through the renovation of their facilities include Universal (Green is Universal), Warner Brothers (Sustainability) and Sony Pictures (Sony Pictures a Greener World). This follows on from work the Producers’ Guild of America has done in bringing industry stakeholders in America together to advance energy-efficiency. They also set up a website (Green Production Guide) that provides information, publishes reports and produced an app that provides access to a database on green businesses that can support the US film industry.

Further north in Canada, the organisation Green Screen Toronto has been doing similar work in connecting businesses and publishing research (Green Practices Handbook), as have Greening the Screen in New Zealand. Meanwhile Australia has seen the emergence of Green Shoot Pacific, a company providing sustainability consultancy and training for the audio-visual sector. This includes not just media productions but music gigs and festivals, an approach which is very worth considering for the Irish context.

In Europe, countries are used to public investment in film industries and therefore a range of initiatives have taken place to encourage green filmmaking. International experience so far would suggest that such initiatives are most successful when there is buy-in from industry practitioners and clear guidelines for measuring progress such as the ISO 14001 or the BS 8909. But there must also be financial incentives as the goodwill from corporate social responsibility and immediate savings from reducing waste may not be enough to convince hesitant producers. Three approaches to funding incentives from the European film industry are worth noting.

The Green Shooting Card scheme  from Germany’s provincial funding authority Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein appears to be promising, as it is a standardised way of assessing the green credentials of a film production. It is awarded to film productions that achieve a certain level of resource-efficiency, in much the same way energy ratings are given to buildings. In order to achieve this distinction and the rewards it comes with, film productions must submit reports on what efficiencies they have achieved in at least 3 of the 5 following areas: Production Design, Catering, Equipment/Transport, Production Office/Crew, producing an eco-balance sheet.

There is a variation on this approach to come out of Belgium from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund. Rather than assessing the environmental impact of a production after it has wrapped, the Flanders regional funding authority is asking producers to estimate upfront how much carbon emissions the production will produce and have made a section of allowable funding contingent on the submission of such a report. While it may be harder to estimate a shoot’s environmental impact before it has even started, this could well be an effective way of getting producers to consider such issues from the outset.

There was another funding scheme from the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (PACA) region in southern France where producers received additional public funding of up to €50,000 if they signed up for sustainability objectives. Altogether, 36 productions took advantage of this green incentive, among them documentaries, shorts and feature films. Although this funding scheme ended in 2013, there has since been a Sustainability Development Training Programme for local professionals in Nice and Marseille which includes a workshop on stage lighting as well as sustainability training sessions for stage managers and production managers. So even though the financial incentive from the regional funding body is no longer there, there is still important work being done in that region to up-skill crews in how to conduct their shoots in an environmentally-conscious way, illustrating the persuasive impact the funding scheme must have had on professionals working in that region.

 

jonathan victory soundThe Masters Students of Filmbase being awarded first prize at the 2014 Green Film Making Competition for European Students

 

In terms of the Irish film industry, The Irish Film Board has produced a Green Production Toolkit with advice for film productions but so much more can be done. We presume to think that since we are associated with natural beauty and the colour green Ireland gives the fullest support to initiatives that are environmentally green. While we are well-positioned to develop renewable energy and the green sector we are in fact, in terms of per-person greenhouse gas emissions, one of the top 10 worst polluters in the world. Our holistic planning for sustainability is not up to speed with international best practice and there is much more we need to do.

The upcoming rebranding of the Irish Film Board as Screen Ireland is intended to facilitate more cohesive industry development between productions in film, television, animation and the audio-visual sector as a whole. If the expanded remit of this body will allow for more cohesive planning of industry infrastructure then this would be a golden opportunity to implement environmentally-sustainable business practice throughout the audio-visual sector.

Measures that Screen Ireland could take to position itself as a world leader in green filmmaking include:

 

  • Promote Ireland internationally as a place to make ‘green’ films
  • Assign someone with the role of fostering green innovations
  • Produce a database of Irish businesses that can provide green services to media productions, aiding the economic development of green enterprise, both generally and in its collaboration with the audio-visual sector
  • Encourage and facilitate the role of eco-managers, particularly on high-profile productions
  • Renovate existing film industry facilities and plan future ones to be zero-carbon
  • Consider recognising certain shoots with a Green Shooting Card, much like an energy-rating system for buildings, as practiced in Hamburg
  • Consider making some funding contingent on submitting a report on the environmental impact of one’s production, as practiced in Belgium
  • Lobby government, industry and communities to invest in green technology and sustainable planning

 

There is much that can be done to make green filmmaking not just feasible but standard practice throughout the audio-visual sector. As with many green issues, genuine investment appropriate to the scale of the challenge from government and business is needed. Public pressure to act on this responsibility is a defining challenge of our generation. Filmmakers can also contribute in the sense that they can begin normalising green filmmaking by taking practical steps on their next shoot.

Our next article will conclude this series with a list of 30 practical steps to make your shoot green so that you can start taking ownership on this issue.

 

 

You can read the first part of the series here and the second here

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Green Filmmaking: Part II

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Jonathan Victory continues his series of articles on green filmmaking by looking at the role of an eco-manager.

Last week the concept of green filmmaking was explored as a way to reap the financial, organisational and social benefits of reducing the environmental impact of the film and television industry. Industries around the world should identify substantive ways to contribute to this emerging field if they do not wish to be left behind by other resourceful film industries. A novel approach would be the appointment of an eco-manager to set: a crew member with the specific role of maximising sustainability.

Efforts to maximise the environmental sustainability of film sets will be difficult to implement and hard to measure without assigning a specific person or team of people to organise them. Conceivably, the unit production manager could be assigned the additional duty of overseeing sustainability policies on the film set but there could be concerns that this would add to an already considerable workload. Production accountants could also be tasked with some kind of auditing of a set’s waste production, energy consumption and carbon footprint but implementing the environmental measures necessary to mitigate these is most likely outside the skill-set of accountants. Thus a relatively new phenomenon has emerged on certain film sets whereby a single crew member oversees environmental initiatives on-set.

This role has been referred to variably as “eco-manager”, “eco-supervisor” and “green production manager”. A specified term has not yet emerged nor has a recognisable framework for how this crew member does their job. But a clearer definition of this role may emerge in years to come if film productions seek to maximise their environmental sustainability.

This person would be responsible for researching and implementing sustainability solutions and facilitating ease of compliance on-set. They could oversee the responsible disposal of waste during and after the shoot. They could even promote this work being done on-set through social media, press engagement and where possible, the application of celebrity endorsement, in the hopes that it would raise awareness for the feasibility of green filmmaking.

The advantage of assigning these duties to a specific role is that responsibility can be delegated to a crew member of expertise who can monitor the progress of green initiatives in order to audit savings in energy, waste and finances and to identify the practices that would be most effective when applied elsewhere in the industry. If net savings can be secured for the production then this should justify the salary of some kind of eco-specialist who understands the particular challenges faced by film and television production.

This role has already emerged in a variety of production contexts. It has been performed on big-budget Hollywood productions such as Noah and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 by Emellie O’Brien, whose New York-based social enterprise Earth Angel NYC offers sustainability consulting and on-set eco-supervisors for film and television productions.

Emellie graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with a B.F.A. in Film and Television and a minor in Producing. Her passion for film production and her passion for the environment were combined as she pioneered the role of organising responsible waste disposal on film shoots around New York. This caught the attention of the Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky who was shooting the Biblical epic Noah near New York with a particular focus on the environmental themes of the Noah’s Ark story. Insisting on an environmentally-friendly shoot, he contracted Earth Angel to work on this large-scale Hollywood production. The Earth Angel website claims they ended up avoiding the use of 67,485 plastic water bottles, recovered 10,038 meals of leftover food for local homeless shelters and reduced waste overall by 55%.

She then worked on The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which ended up being virtually carbon-neutral in spite of it being the largest-budget production ever filmed in New York. With such resources behind a superhero franchise blockbuster one would think the environmental impact couldn’t be mitigated yet Earth Angel claims to have reduced the production’s waste by 52%. They also set up the Twitter account @ecospidey to promote the work they were doing through social media.

Those still of the mindset that environmentalist policies are costly could make the understandable assumption that while blockbusters backed by major studios have the money to invest in them, lower-budget projects have no time or money to be spared trying to organise something new like this. Yet in Ireland we do in fact have a case study on applying the principles of green filmmaking to the production of micro-budget features under great pressure.

Students based in Dublin on the Filmbase Masters in Digital Feature Film Production Programme produced two feature films in 2014, Poison Pen and The Light of Day. Sustainability on these films was overseen by a student and former Green Party politician John Gormley, who acted as a green production manager. Over his political career, Gormley had built up many connections in fields of green innovation having been Lord Mayor of Dublin, leader of the Green Party and Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. He used these connections to provide Filmbase students with resources such as an electric car, reusable drinking flasks, vegetarian catering and locations powered by renewable energy through Airtricity.

Savings were made which helped the production of two features, each of which only had a five-figure budget largely acquired through crowdfunding. Challenges remained regarding the differences in circumstance between the two productions. For example, Poison Pen accessed many on-grid locations which could be powered by renewable energy, whereas much of The Light of Day was shot on one off-grid location that made the use of a diesel generator unavoidable. This is due to the lack of provision of sustainable alternatives to diesel generators as was discussed in last week’s article.

Nevertheless, crew members were open to pioneering green filmmaking in Ireland and in any event completed their films on schedule for premieres at the 2014 Galway Film Fleadh. The Filmbase students were eventually recognised by winning 1st prize in Strawberry Earth’s international Green Filmmaking Competition.

Productions of all sizes could make significant reductions in cost and environmental impact if this role becomes more commonly practiced and accepted within the industry. The experience of eco-managers thus far suggests that someone performing this new role must have a consistent, agreeable presence on-set, demonstrate the benefits of their measures and communicate clearly throughout pre-production, the shoot itself and production wrap, particularly when it comes to organising the responsible disposal of waste. On the other hand, there is a responsibility on the part of industry to help facilitate this role. For a start, assigning them the status of a head of department would afford them the respect needed to implement their policies.

In general, there is much more that is needed to support the transition to green filmmaking. While introducing eco-managers to film shoots is one worthy avenue to pursue, there are a range of policies and investments that could be made. We will explore the emerging international best practice next week.

 

 

You can read the first part of the series here

 

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Green Filmmaking

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In this first part of a series of articles on green filmmaking, Jonathan Victory introduces the concept, explains the need for it in the industry and discusses what measures have been taken so far.

 

This is the first in a series of articles about a new phenomenon in the film industry called “green filmmaking”. Productions across different continents and contexts have been exploring how to minimise their impact on the environment and maximise the efficient use of resources. This series will explore what has been done in this field so far, how its benefits can be practically reaped and how a specific crew role would be ideal for introducing the film industry to this concept.

There’s a need for every industry to minimise the destructive impact it’s having on the natural world. Living standards need to be improved, man-made global warming needs to be stopped and the environment we depend on for life needs to be protected. Only the most sheltered, irrational contrarian would contest this, yet one might wonder where specifically the film industry would fit into this.

For a start, the film and television industry likes to think of itself as ahead of the curve when it comes to pressing social issues and how we treat the environment this century is going to define civilisation itself. Secondly, environmentalism is gradually being considered less a luxury and more a necessity for sensible planning. The benefits of an industry infrastructure that adopted green filmmaking should become apparent as this series goes on.

It is also important to consider just how energy-intensive the audio-visual sector is because success for green filmmaking could have a positive knock-on effect by setting an example that other industries would have to follow. For example, large-scale screen productions employ hundreds if not thousands of people for many months, placing quite a significant demand on resources and making any achievement of sustainability a significant accomplishment. Sets and costumes are developed during the pre-production phase while locations are scouted, often remote outdoor locations that are ecologically sensitive. During the shoot itself there is a huge logistical challenge to provide transport and catering for the cast and crew (before disposing the waste they produce), to heat or cool sets as needed, to generate electricity for lighting and other equipment and to provide water to the set for consumption or in some cases for special effects’ purposes.

Focusing for now on this specific context of a film or television shoot should show industry practitioners a way forward in practically implementing green business practices. Given that post-production work is largely based in offices or post-houses it’s a more manageable context in which to source a sustainable energy provider. The introduction of digital to the shooting process itself not only makes the transfer of footage to post-production less cumbersome, it also reduces a shoot’s environmental impact as film-stock cameras require certain industrial chemicals in their manufacturing, usage and preparation for post-production.

On the other hand, there are aspects of filmmaking where high consumption of energy is currently considered unavoidable, most notably the use of lights and generators. Lighting equipment has historically been inefficient, often expending more of their energy on heat than light which can make film sets uncomfortably hot working environments with an occasional risk of fire hazards. Manufacturers of film lights such as ARRI and Kino-Flo have begun producing more energy-efficient lights and Warner Bros. have recently renovated their studio facilities to feature more energy-efficient house lights.

The film industry however is used to certain kinds of lights and energy-efficient models that give off softer light can create unusual colour temperatures a camera-crew would have to adjust for. If a transition is ever going to happen, service providers and rental houses in the Irish film industry need to make more of an effort to accommodate alternative forms of lighting.

While energy savings may potentially be made in the area of lighting, generators that are used to power film sets typically run on diesel fuels at a huge cost to the environment. The use of fossil fuels creates particulate emissions and smog formation that adversely impact not only the Earth’s atmosphere but the immediate working conditions of a film set. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an alternative available to the Irish market even with international developments in biodiesel, solar panels and battery storage. A possible solution might be to use synthetic recycled fuels that could run in conventional generators.

One such fuel comes from Cynar Plc who operate a plant in Portlaoise. They have a process for heating plastic waste, liquefying it and distilling it back into a substance that has virtually all the same combustible properties of crude oil. Substituting petrol with this synthetic fuel would reduce carbon emissions by more than a third by harnessing the carbon molecules already in plastic which would have otherwise been contributing to pollution in landfills. Another company in Spain, Biopetroleo, actually reduce global warming by capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and developing a synthetic fuel through the chemical reactions between carbon molecules from CO2 pollution, algae and high levels of barometric pressure. This synthetic fuel not only has the same combustible properties of crude oil but actually goes beyond being carbon-neutral by reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Another large piece of the puzzle remains in making production facilities themselves sustainable. There has been investment in this area internationally and has been successful both in the construction of new facilities and the renovation of existing ones. Matrix directors the Wachowskis invested $6.8 million in Kinowerks, a facility housing their pre-production and post-production work in their home city of Chicago that is partially constructed out of recycled materials and powered by solar energy. It has very high standards of energy-efficiency that were recognised by the U.S. Green Building Council, arguably justifying the initial cost of investment.

Bavaria Film Studios in southern Germany also invested a substantial sum in renovating their studio facilities that have been in operation for over 100 years. Yet after investing $30 million in renovation, their buildings reduced their carbon emissions by a staggering 97% between 2011 and 2013. Such investments carry a high initial cost but the savings in waste and energy typically pay off in the long-term. Questions remain about introducing such measures to Ireland’s film industry but not from a technical standpoint; only in terms of how resources are prioritised.

Before such a large-scale investment could be made, the film industry must be familiarised with the practice of green filmmaking. Film crews work under high pressure with restrictive budgets and must be assured that a transition like this will improve the efficiency of work, not encumber it. A novel approach that has proven successful in a variety of production contexts from the large-scale to the micro-budget is to make green filmmaking the responsibility of a single crew member in a brand new role. This practical step will be discussed here next week.

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Film Ireland Podcast: Episode 10

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In the latest Film Ireland podcast, Richard Drumm and Jonathan Victory are joined by Natasha Waugh, whose short film Food Fight recently screened at Cannes.

In between chatting about film news and reviews, Natasha talks about setting up her own production company, Fight Back Films, getting her film into Cannes and rubbing shoulders with Woody Allen.

Along the way, the trio look at Irish horror The Canal, while Jonathan and Natasha go head to head over Gerard Barrett’s Glassland and catch up on Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Tribe, Mad Max, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and the box-office phenomenon Kung Fury.

Meanwhile, Donnchadh and Ruairí are at large having escaped from the basement leaving only a poster of One Million B.C. in their wake. Gardaí are warning the public not to approach the men if seen talking about film in the Dublin/Limerick area.

 

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