I recently “sat down” with the 2012 Short of the Week Award Filmmakers to talk about what it means to be a filmmaker in today’s fast-changing landscape of technology—what changes and what remains the same.
First, if you haven’t yet, you must check out these award-winning films in our SOTW Awards series: Best Animation | Best Live-Action | Best New Media. Second, all the interviews were conducted individually and then stitched together into this “virtual roundtable” discussion for your convenience. Lastly, I want to give a big thanks to all the great filmmakers who participated. Find out what they’re doing next and how to follow them at the end of the post. I hope you find this roundtable as enlightening and entertaining as we did!
DAVID OREILLY (Winner! Animation—The External World)
EDDIE O’KEEFE (Best Drama—The Ghosts)
JESÚS ORELLANA (Best 3D Animation—Rosa)
JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS (Best Comedy—Successful Alcoholics)
JULIA POTT (Best Traditional Animation—Howard)
KIRBY FERGUSON (Best Crowdfunded—Everything is a Remix)
MATTHIAS HOEGG (Best Student Animation—Thursday)
PENNY LANE (Best Essay—The Voyagers)
QIAO LI (Winner! New Media—Kitty & Lala, 80 Impression)
SEAN DUNNE (Best Doc—American Juggalo)
SHAWN CHRISTENSEN (Best Festival Film—Brink)
THE GOGGLES (Winner! Overall, Best Interactive—Welcome to Pine Point)
TOM JENKINS (Best Stop-Motion Animation—Address is Approximate)
Many of you had little or no exposure in the film scene before your current film. We want to know, Can you really launch a film career from a single online film?
JESÚS ORELLANA—When I started Rosa I had no experience in filmmaking so my whole film career started from that, in less than two years I’ve passed from making graphic-novels to Hollywood and been nominated for a Goya (Spanish Academy Awards), it’s been so crazy and fast! I’m extremely grateful for all the attention and support that Rosa is receiving.
TOM JENKINS—It’s early days at the moment as we only uploaded Address is Approximate a couple of months ago, but shortly after releasing it we were signed by William Morris Endeavour in LA—the largest talent agency in the world! We’re having a lot of meetings in LA and London, so this year could be very interesting.
EDDIE O’KEEFE—Thanks to websites like Vimeo and Short of The Week, The Ghosts did wildly better than my producers and I could have ever imagined. We knew from the beginning that our movie was better suited for an online audience as opposed to the old fashioned, stuffy festival circuit — but we didn’t expect anywhere close to the number of views we ultimately achieved. The Ghosts is essentially a really weird, twelve minute, black and white advertisement for leather jackets and so when people responded to it we were sort of taken aback. I guess it has altered my “career” in a a number of ways. The biggest of which is that I found representation from the film and that’s allowed me to continue to peruse film-making for the foreseeable future (and in a larger, more visible fashion hopefully).
THE GOGGLES—Our work was mostly in print [Adbusters], which is probably evident in the book-like nature of Welcome to Pine Point. The success of Pine Point showed us there was a void in long-form storytelling in the online world–we have made an almost wholesale shift into the creation of immersive digital experiences.
KIRBY FERGUSON—It’s been everything for me. It’s allowed me to become a self-employed filmmaker, to travel around the world, and to meet countless wonderful people. It’s changed my life utterly.
Some of you were already fairly well-known and “successful” in your fields. What did your film mean for you?
DAVID OREILLY—People maybe don’t know, but I had been making short films for a long time before [The External World] came out—and when it finally did and reached a certain point I decided to quit that world entirely. I basically shifted gears into what will hopefully lead to bigger challenges. Oh, and I moved to the US+A!
JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS—Successful Alcoholics opened up a lot of doors for me. TJ and I made it right after we moved from Chicago to LA and we wanted to demonstrate that web content had the potential to greater invest people in themes, characters and story. So much web content at the time was 2 minute sketches that were all about the jokes and we wanted to try something new. What I definitely can attribute to this short was the experience of traveling around at film festivals, meeting other great filmmakers and growing from those experiences. I think that’s a long winded way of saying that Successful Alcoholics was definitely a tipping point for me.
SHAWN CHRISTENSEN—In essence, it has encouraged me to lean towards directing and to take control of my work. I think I will probably look back at Brink as a turning point in my career in film.
JULIA POTT—To me, every film I make is a way of exploring a subject matter i’m obsessed with and developing my storytelling skills—so I think that learning process has the biggest impact on my career because I come away from each film having learnt something, even if it’s something very small… like how to animate a sandwich.
PENNY LANE—I wouldn’t have guessed that The Voyagers, which was made in such a personal way and was addressed specifically at one person, would have gained such a large audience, and especially not in the vastly impersonal space of the internet. This is surprising and wonderful, but I can’t say exactly how it will change my career just yet. It makes me happy that Vimeo can be such a wonderful place for short film lovers to connect and discover films, since there are so few venues for short films in the world.
SEAN DUNNE—I’ll tell you what, I’m a fucking hero in the Juggalo world. Those clowns love me. For the most part people seem entertained by the film and that’s what matters to me. Makes me keep wanting to make them.
What’s your interaction with your online fans like?
JULIA POTT—It is interesting to hear feedback about Howard. Some women get in touch with me and tell me it was exactly their story and they’re so glad other people feel like they’re in that position. Some men get in touch and say that the lady in the film is immature and needs to get her act together and learn to compromise or she’ll never settle down.
There are a number of legitimate new genres and formats for storytellers today than there were just a year ago—branded films, interactive films, fashion films, etc.
How is a branded film different from a commercial?
QIAO LI—Well [branded film] is definitely more subversive in so far as you’re appealing to a different range of emotions and desires in your audience. Or at least you’re trying to engage your audience with a slightly different tool set and create that desire in a different way. What interests me in branded films is the relative freedom to explore a theme or a character a little deeper than you can with a 30 or 60 second spot, it definitely gives me a little more space to tell my story. I’m not a very succinct storyteller… Well, this style of branded film is certainly picking up steam in China where I do most of my commercial work. The internet and the huge surge of online participation that China has seen recently has made these videos incredibly popular since they allow you to have a direct connection with your audience.
Are interactive films here to stay?
THE GOGGLES—We absolutely think [interactive film] is a direction that more storytellers will go. Once they realize they don’t have to play the technology game, and that their storytelling skills are valuable, and there is a reward to telling their stories in this way, things will improve. This is what we are telling ourselves these days, anyway.
We’ve seen technology accelerate over the last year and affect the filmmaking process from the way films are made to the way they’re distributed and seen by millions.
How are new technologies changing filmmaking today and what does it mean for filmmakers out there?
TOM JENKINS—I think the major thing is the ever increasing democratisation of home grown animation, I mean anyone with a basic DSLR camera and good concept & idea can create something now—which is what I did. So long as the idea’s sound and good, that’s 90% of the hard work done!
MATTHIAS HOEGG—The evolution of digital animation technology over the past decade has definitely been very empowering for film-makers who want to produce short films off their own back. The time you invest is now the main limiting factor rather than the cost of production kit. This puts students—who can dedicate all their time to non-commercial work—in a better position than animation professionals wanting to explore new avenues in their short films with the limited funding that’s available. Perhaps this is also reflected in the fact that all three nominees for the short animation BAFTAs were fellow graduates last year.
PENNY LANE—Every day, it seems that there are more archival riches to be found on the internet and remixed into all sorts of things. I love this. I hardly ever shoot anything. I feel like there are so many images already, too many to ever fully explore and enjoy, and I love scavenging for them. I think this affects all genres of film but especially art films, zero-budget documentary films, personal films, essay films, remix films…
QIAO LI—In China the content is still heavily focused on using alternative lifestyle or an edgy character to sell your product and for me that’s getting a little tired. I’m really into the concept of crowd-sourcing at the moment so it’d be interesting to see if something like that could work with big brand clients.
Each of you show a mastery of craft such that the technology or techniques you use take a back seat to story, mood, and character. How do you maintain that human touch in an increasingly technology-driven world?
DAVID OREILLY—Ideas haven’t perceptibly gone anywhere in the last year, there’s few genuine risk takers. The shift towards everything becoming digital is happening more. Year-by-year theres so few projects that aren’t run through and manipulated by computer.
THE GOGGLES—It seems that more and more, animation is focusing on interesting stories. There’s also a nice move to simpler, more human expressions of aesthetic—rough edges and object oriented stuff—a refreshing shift away from the hyper-computer generated material that dominated for such a long (and depressing) time.
JULIA POTT—Stop motion seems like a medium that will never go out of style as there is just no way of mimicking that charm in 3D. I feel the same way about pencil animation, but I think the move over to flash and after effects has some people compromising the charm for efficiency, which I suppose sometimes is fair enough because it is a very intensive, foolish process… I recently met someone who said they loved the mistakes of hand drawn animation, and didn’t use flash because they weren’t clever enough to think up ‘fake’ mistakes on their own. I feel the same way. There is a certain charm in the smudge of pencil, or the quality of the paper coming through, that perhaps other people watching don’t notice, but it’s satisfying to the creator.
Are online films different from festival films?
EDDIE O’KEEFE—I think the online community for filmmakers is incredible. The tools at one’s disposal today are insane. There is no reason why anyone who wants to make a movie, can’t do so. The networks of blogs, websites and hosting services is so vast it can be a little crazy to navigate sometimes. But it’s also helped nurture a different kind of short film. Shorts that I see blow-up on the Internet are very different than the ones I see do well at festivals. And a lot of movies that would otherwise go ignored—movies with strong music and design elements, like The Ghosts—are celebrated and promoted within the idiosyncratic tumblrization of the web. The Ghosts got into like three film festivals, but it was viewed thousands and thousands of times online because with the Internet you can seek your audience out yourself. You’re in control, not a festival programmer. And over the last year I’ve seen this method of “distribution” be embraced more and more by filmmakers.
JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS—There’s content on youtube getting millions upon millions of views that I think is pretty subpar. I think a lot of people in the entertainment business see high view counts and think that a talking orange is the future but those are probably the same executives that are greenlighting movies that pander for an audience. The next few years on the web will be fascinating. It’s our inevitable future but it’s also still the wild west. There’s so much to still figure out. I think that’s exciting.
How has technology changed the distribution side of filmmaking?
KIRBY FERGUSON—For crowdfunding, Louis CK proved that selling directly to your fans can work at a scale beyond what many people thought possible. It was exciting to see that someone could sell those numbers without having a media corporation as an intermediary. I thought that was a real triumph. KickStarter also went mainstream (for the young-ish demographic at least) and produced some real success stories.
SHAWN CHRISTENSEN—As far as screening the film online for a film festival, the filmmaker has to weigh their options. For example, with Brink, once we agreed to allow Tribeca to showcase it online, we knew our festival run was over. Most of the larger festivals will not show your film if it has been publicly viewed online. Damon and I felt, that with the Tribeca name behind it, and with the amount of exposure we would get from it, it was worth it.
What advice would you give to the upcoming generation of filmmakers?
JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS—I think the web has really changed things and will continue to change things. Most of the stuff that gets attention outside of film festivals are short & comedic or effects based but the web is so fragmented that it’s possible for just about anything to find an audience. With technology like the 5D it’s easy for just about anything to look great and to have seemingly high production value behind it. What I hope this ultimately means is that the playing field has been equalized and that great content and storytelling will rise to the top. Everyone has the tools to make something look great and now I feel like there’s a call to arms where it’s on us as filmmakers to generate content that truly invests people.
SEAN DUNNE—Well, it seems that anyone with a DSLR, some ethereal music and an eccentric neighbor is making a documentary. Access to cheap equipment is great but it’s also what is causing the market to be flooded with godawful bullshit “films” right now. But I think the best eventually will rise to the top and they’ll be a new generation of filmmakers who are doing something different and not just falling in line. I hate to sound negative but things seem a little stagnant right now. I think you’ll see that changing in the next few years, I have hope.
THE GOGGLES—Storytellers must understand that technology is not content. It can enhance, magnify or even diminish the message depending on how it’s used. The best thing about the internet is seemingly that it can deliver every media that came before it with some authority—sound, motion, photo, video, writing. But then it adds a few more layers: interactivity, digital doodads, etc.—temptations you must resist! Insist on story.
What’s next for each of you?
JESÚS ORELLANA—Right now I’m writing the script for the live-action feature version of Rosa that I’ll direct for Fox. Of course I’m extremely excited about the whole project! [@JesusOrellana_]
MATTHIAS HOEGG—Over the past year, I’ve been dividing my time between designing and directing Animations for pre-school kids with Beakus and freelancing around London with different creative agencies. Over 4 months in the summer I’ve also directed a section of “A Liar’s Autobiography” an animated feature about the life of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman with Beakus, which is due to be released sometime this autumn. [matthiashoegg.co.uk]
JULIA POTT—I moved to New York in October and so i’m mainly just spending my time researching the best brand of root beer and where to get a good bagel. In between that I have just signed as a director to the New York based produced company Hornet Inc where i’m currently making a Valentine’s Day Viral for MTV’s Liquid Television. There’s a lot of little jobs in the pipeline but I am eager for a stretch of free time so I can develop a new short/series idea—right now my brain is spiraling around the idea of a gorey rom com. [@juliapott]
TOM JENKINS—We’re having a lot of meetings in LA and London so this year could be very interesting—specifically we’re looking to produce our feature project, a grounded sci-fi with a major twist, and all I can really say at the moment is that it’s very different from Address Is Approximate! [Facebook Page]
JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS—I just shot 4 tampon commercials that I hope will be the funniest tampon commercials in existence… which is a pretty weird sentence in itself. Comedy Central bought a show from me and my friend Thomas Middleditch based on some shorts we made, so we’re writing that right now. A different show I directed looks like it’s getting a full season order, but we’re still dealing with all the legal nonsense on that so I can’t really get into it. The feature i’m doing this summer is definitely the most exciting thing though. In between all of that I have a bunch of small little shorts I want to make. [@VogtRoberts]
SEAN DUNNE—I’m actually writing this from Oceana, West Virginia where I am scouting for my next doc. I’m not going to give away what it’s about, but if you look up Oceana you could probably make a pretty good guess at what I’ll be shooting here. [Facebook]
PENNY LANE—I hope to make another personal short soon (I have one in mind), but am deep in production on three feature-length documentaries at the moment, all of which have to do with mining the archives and rediscovering lost histories. The first, in post-production, is called Our Nixon and is made up of the Super 8 home movies of some of Richard Nixon’s closest staff (and fellow conspirators). The second, in production, is called Nuts—the true tale of an eccentric genius doctor who builds an empire using goat testicles and a million watt radio station. The third, in development, is called The Rules of Evidence and is a longer essay film about the use of motion pictures as courtroom evidence. [@lennypane]
EDDIE O’KEEFE—Right now my focus is on the rewriting process for a screenplay I co-wrote called When The Street Lights Go On. It was optioned by Imagine Entertainment this fall. It’s a 1980′s coming-of-age murder mystery which takes place in a kind of subverted-Norman Rockwell suburb like The Ghosts. I always pitch it as American Graffiti meets Zodiac. And so right now my writhing partner and I are working with the director (Drew Barrymore) and Imagine on completing a new draft. On top of that, my goal in the next few years is to direct my first feature. My writing partner and I have written a script which I feel is—kind of like the best thing I’ll ever write—so I’m hoping to get things moving on that as well. Who knows. I could also wind up opening a sausage and Italian beef shack back home in Chicago. Which is another dream of mine. [@theteenagehead]
THE GOGGLES—We are working on another digital documentary project, this one on the death of print, and what it means to us when all culture moves behind glass. [@thegogglesmedia]
QIAO LI—I’ve just finished a punk rock documentary called No Anaesthetic which will be out soon and I’m working on a feature science-fiction script which I’m very excited about. We are currently preparing a short film as a teaser for the sci-fi film that we plan to shoot in China in May. [Tumblr]
KIRBY FURGESON—Up next is a political series that will be distributed in a fashion similar to Everything is a Remix. I’ll be using history, science, psychology and economics to create an accessible, entertaining and hopefully edifying narrative about politics in the 21st century. [@remixeverything]
SHAWN CHRISTENSEN—Our next short film is called Curfew, and it is just beginning its festival run, starting with the Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival. This film is another step for me, because I’m acting in it, as well as directing, which will make my festival screening experience about ten times more nerve-wracking. I also found a gem of an actress in co-star Fatima Ptacek, who plays my ten-year old niece. We are almost finished with a feature-length screenplay version of the film, which we will begin sending out to independent financiers next month. [@dreamsick]
DAVID OREILLY—Heading to buy a chicken sandwich. [@davidoreilly]
Thanks for joining us!