Stephen Dunn’s done it again

    Posted on: Sunday, September 1st, 2013


For the second year in a row, there’s a Newfoundland filmmaker in the final round of the CBC Short Film Face Off.


Stephen Dunn’s “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” a warm, charming film about a young girl coming of age while under the custody of her eccentric grandfather, played by Gordon Pinsent, and his pet pug, King Henry, is up for the $40,000 top prize. The film has won numerous awards, including the Best Live Action Film Student Showcase Award at TIFF, the Student Visionary Award at Tribeca, and the Arte Film Prize at the Munich International Film Festival.

Last year, Jordan Canning’s brilliant stop-motion animation film “Not Over Easy” was in the finals.

The winner of the Short Film Face Off is determined by a public vote, which is presently underway. So head on over to the CBC Short Film Face Off website and click in your vote for “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” and tell all your friends to do the same. Each IP address gets five votes, and voting closes in just a few hours.

If he wins, Dunn plans to use the prize money to make his very first feature film, “Closet Monster.” In the meantime, his latest short film, “We Wanted More,” makes its world premiere at TIFF this September.

Y’know, NBD.

Arthroscopes and macro lenses: landscapes OutSideIn the body

    Posted on: Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

Anne Troake, whom you probably know as the wonderful mind behind Pretty Big Dig, is presently working on a stereoscopic dance film. Yes, you read that correctly. And, yes, she is amazing. The project is called OutSideIn and it’s an up-close and intimate look at the human body dancing in natural environments, using high-powered macro-lenses and 3D imaging. I caught up with her to ask her all about it.

Troake5So, tell me about this project.
In a nutshell, it’s a 3D dance film, it’s a stereoscopic dance film. It’s the first time that I’m aware of that we’ve shot with this kind of technology here in the province. The film is…. I’m trying to come up with the perfect sound bite.

You’re making a 3D stereoscopic dance film. Don’t worry about the sound bite, you’re good.
[Laughs] I’ve been working with two utterly incredible dancers — Carole Prieur, with the Marie Chouinard Company in Montreal, which I think is the best dance company in the country, and Bill Coleman from ColemanLemieux Compagnie — who do incredible work for the stage, but they also do really interesting environmental installation pieces. They did a big project in Gros Morne in 2008 or 2009 where they brought a whole bunch of top-notch visual artists, composers and installation artists and brought them to intriguing locations where they made a performance. I got involved with Bill on those off-the-beaten-track projects. He and Carole have been exploring a movement technique that is based on moving from the fluid systems in the body: they’re getting right inside the bones, getting right into the interstitial fluid and figuring out how to move from there. Working with those guys in the studio, my impulse was to get out a microscope and look at the little changes that were happening, to get as close as you possibly could. So, that’s what I’ve been pushing all my technical people to achieve visually, to get onto and into the body as a landscape unto itself, and to look at those structures and movements that are a continuum with the surrounding environment. The entire film is shot outside in various locations around here in Logy Bay, and it’s really about the body and landscape as a kind of continuum. As opposed to having beautiful dancers doing really groovy dances in gorgeous places. It’s not that. It’s trying to break down the barriers of putting a frame around a human body. [Laughs] This is the point at which is make less and less sense.


So, are you using microscopes on the body while people are moving?
We’re using macro lenses. It’s been a long and difficult film to produce because there is stereoscopic technology that is in prototype for medical uses. There are 3D arthroscopes in prototype right now — those arthroscopic cameras used during knee surgery are now able to produce a 3D image, which is obviously very useful to a surgeon. But it’s in prototype now, and I was not able to access them.

So you used macro lenses.
There are better and better macro lenses being produced all the time. I worked with a wonderful D.O.P. and stereographer named Alain Baril who has a light micro rig for shooting stereoscopy. I think there are only four others in the world. So, he’s part of this exclusive group that is using this specialized stereoscopic technology, and he also happens to be a fabulous guy who loves doing this kind of work. So, we just had such a wonderful week pushing to see, ‘Can we get this image if we put this person over here, can we get the camera in here?’ He’s an experimenter and an explorer, and it was a real delight to work with him.

What kind of visuals are you getting, what are we going to see?
I’m waiting to see for myself! [Laughs] Actually, I’ll be looking at the footage for the first time next week. But, based on looking through the monitor on set, it’s a bit like a bug’s eye view of natural places. If you have a dancer in a rocky crevasse, and you happen to be a mouse travelling around the corner of the rock, and the rock becomes a forearm which becomes a wrinkle in an elbow, and then a breeze comes and goose bumps come up. It’s very sensual.

And I don’t mean sexual.


What inspired this project?
As a kind of intellectual theme, the relationship between place and landscapes, and how they make us into certain types of people who think and do and move in certain ways has been an itch that I’ve been scratching for a long, long time. Just going into the studio with Bill and Carole and moving from a traditional dance technique, where you think about shape and momentum and weight in space, and really dropping right down into things that we can sense, but are less concrete and tangible. Like walking into a room and feeling different but there’s no sort of empirical reason why. It’s those territories that are full of really delightful surprises if you can coax them out.

What have you learned from this?
That shooting stereoscopically is incredibly technically complicated. [Laughs] In terms of my own practice, it was very interesting to discover how much I look that the world with a frame, putting a frame around things, and that includes working in theatre. I mean… we talk about breaking the fourth wall, just discarding that kind of plane, and then navigating that space and making aesthetic choices without that being as fixed as it is.

You mean, without there being a separation between the person and the space that the person is in?
Yes, there is definitely that. I spoke to another filmmaker friend of mine who has been working with shooting stereoscopically, and I said, did you find that after a shoot, you’re looking at depth all the time, you’re looking at the z-axis? I walk into Atlantic Place to get a coffee and I find that I’m really looking at the depth of that corridor and really looking at the difference between the people in the foreground and the background, and looking at the shapes of them in that z-axis space. I’ve re-calibrated back to normal now, but there was about a week after the shoot where my vision was changed and my way of looking was changed.


This is maybe a dumb question, but do you see microscopic changes in the skin or in the way the hair stands up when people are dancing? Dancing is kind of a special thing, I always feel mentally different after I dance, but did you see any unexpected microscopic physical changes?
Well, I mean, you can certainly see physical changes in people’s skin, we’re responding to the environment all the time and I think we have this nice mental idea of skin being this nice, cosmetically finished, even surface when in fact, as soon as you start looking closer, there are all these stories there, there are birthmarks, scratches and scars and mosquito bites. Sometimes there are scratches on your dancers because you made them crawl on things that are scratchy. But yes, you can see that. I don’t think I’ve answered your question, though.

There is a beta software being developed at MIT than can be applied to video in post production, and one of its applications is that it detects the presence of fluid movement in the skin and it will enhance those movements. One of the demos that I saw was of a baby sleeping in a crib, and you could see the blood pumping through the blood vessels in the baby’s skin.


Will you use that?
Well, I want to play with it. The whole film is an experiment and I can confidently say that it’s very beautiful, the stuff that’s been shot is very very gorgeous, so I think as long as there’s some kind of quality, you can mess around and take some risks. So that is one of the things that we’re going to be playing with, just to see how far we can push the idea.

How will OutSideIn be presented? Will it be a film, or a film with dance performed alongside it… ?
It will be presented as a film, and it’s also going to be presented as a gallery installation. I’ve been working with Charlotte Jones, a curator at Grenfell, and she’s booked it in and she’s working with some other galleries to look at a tour for 2015, I think.


How will the installation work?
When you have something like this as an installation in a gallery, you don’t really need to worry about beginning, middle, and end. You can create an environment that people will enter into and stay as long as they want. So, it would be more of a looped, ongoing series of visual events, whereas the stuff that will go around to festivals will have that arc; that’ll have a definitive start and finish, and an internal logic.

What do you think that narrative arc is going to be?
I intend to approach it as a choreography. There are reasons why it feels right that the dance finishes when it does.

OutSideIn should be ready some time in early 2014. You can follow the project on twitter @OutSideIn_NL.There is a camera test video here, too.

Zen through Clown

    Posted on: Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

SarahTilleyI know quite a few people whose lives have been changed — like, CHANGED FOREVER, in a genuine enlightenment kind of way — by clowning. Specifically, by clowning with Sara Tilley, via her Clown Through Mask workshops. Tilley, who is also an accomplished author and playwright, is trained in the Pochinko Clown method, which she explains in the following interview way better than I ever could. Her one-woman clown show, Fruithead, opens at the LSPU Hall tomorrow night, and it will probably change a few lives, too.

(The images below, and the picture above, are stills from the stop-motion animation films, made by Jason Sellars, which accompany her show.)

How did you get into clowning?
I saw two solo clown shows at the Halifax Fringe Festival when I was 19 years old or so. I loved both of them, and they were both directed by the same woman. And when I left university and decided that I wanted to start a theatre company, I wrote to her blindly, and asked her to come here and train some of us, and she did! That’s actually why I named my company “She Said Yes!” But it just came out of seeing other people’s work that excited me in a way that a lot of theatre didn’t. It was so immediate and so alive and just full of life energy and weirdness. It was really, really exciting.

Can you tell me about the type of clowning you do?
My kind of clown, you basically make masks with your eyes closed, so it’s all about going inward into a feeling of something and not caring what it looks like. Then you wear these masks that turn you into creatures — not human, usually, but some weird thing. You wear them for a while until they become real to you. And then you replace those masks with noses. So the clown doesn’t come out of some idea of what might be funny, but actually out of trying to embody another creature. And that could be a plant life, it could be anything at all, it could be something that doesn’t even exist. Basically, you take your body, you let your body do work, and it takes your imagination into some place where you draw out a character. And usually, it’s very surprising.

I don’t know where it comes from, but I have this memory of someone saying that clowning is the height of acting, and that many actors really revere people who do clowning.
Well, I guess it depends who you talk to. [laughs] I would say that was true for some people and, for other people, they look at clown as almost a lower form. But that’s also due to the fact that there’s so many different clowns. The type of clown I do is character-based, and I definitely do it because I find it to be the hardest thing that I can challenge myself to do. And it’s also the most fun and the most surprising.

In what sense is it hard? From what I’ve gathered from people who have done your workshop, it seems like you really learn how to step into yourself and just erase everything else.
It’s really an internal journey into your own psychological landscape where you encounter these versions of yourself that are very different from your everyday self. When you’re making a clown show, the real purpose of this work is to break down boundaries between ourselves and our world and to create more bonds of empathy between ourselves and other people. That is the core philosophy of this work. The clown shows the audience humanity. It shows us a lot of its pain, its heartache, its fears, as much as it delights and makes then laugh. In this work, it’s all coming out of very dark stuff that we all have to deal with, and it’s meant to be cathartic, it’s meant to make you think about your own life, but in a way that’s not preachy, that’s not boring, but absolutely delightful.

How is it different from acting?
Well, for me they kind of blur together, honestly. But this work is not about what it looks like. You’re going with a feeling first, it’s from the inside out. It’s all made physically, there’s no script beforehand. I actually physically improvised the character for a year before I made the story, but it comes from the body first, not the brain. Usually, acting is very psychologically based, at least in the beginning stages of the rehearsal. And also, for my show, while there is a very set narrative that I follow moment to moment, every night there is going to be a lot of surprise. For example, my costume is full of balloons, and they pop at random times. So, sometimes I pop them on purpose and react, but other times they will just pop and that forces me as a clown to just be completely in the moment, no matter what, because you can’t have a balloon pop and not react to it. So, there’s a spontaneity to it, and that’s a little different.

So, when you say that you were improvising this character for a year, you were being this character for a year before you figured out what this character’s story is?
I created the character in 2008, and it came out of my Clown Through Mask core character that I made with my teacher Ian Wallace in Vancouver. And then I would take this character out sometimes on little improvised walks around Signal Hill or go somewhere and play outside, but I never did anything serious with him/her — it’s a character with both sexes — until I got an RCA Seed Money grant to do a workshop and then some NLAC money last year to work the way I need to work, which is over a long period of time. What we do is, I go into the physical character and we talk about the themes we want to touch on maybe or maybe a prop that I think I want to use and then Mark White, my collaborator, would videotape me. Then we watch the video, we take notes on what things we really like, and we make a giant map on the mall cutting out pieces of paper and writing on them with Crayola markers — it looks very silly — and just moving everything around for days and days as we keep videotaping and adding to what we know until a story comes together. So the end result is a little more surreal, and perhaps a little more surprising, than if I sat down and wrote it. So it’s coming out of my body and my body’s experience of the character, rather than my brain.

FruitheadFrom what I’ve heard, that seems to be a big part of clowning: your body, rediscovering your body, and then rediscovering objects around you through your newly rediscovered body.
Yes, definitely. My teacher would say that the first thing you have to do is cut off your head, by which he meant you have to stop thinking. Which is an impossible task, so there’s also the knowledge that you will never ever fully achieve what you’re trying to get to, which is this state where your body and your emotional self is doing everything and your mind is like a little helium balloon trailing along and watching the show. When you’re in a really good state of present moment in clown, it will often feel like an out of body experience. Then later, it’s almost like I can’t remember exactly what happened. It’s like I go into some weird trance because I’m just letting my physical self do its work without thinking too much.

So, what’s your relationship with this Fruithead character?
[laughs] Well, it’s called my ultimate clown, which means it’s got all of my different clown energies in one. So it’s kind of more complicated than some of the other characters that I’ve done, but at the same time, it’s incredibly simple in a weird way. When I watch the video of myself, sometimes I forget it’s me because I have transformed. I don’t recognize certain sounds that I make, or certain movements, as being me, but then there are other moments where the character is really an amplification of my own personality, and certainly of my own preoccupations in life, my own fears. The clown is really a medium to be vulnerable. You’re not putting on a character, in a way, the character really is you in some funhouse mirror permutation. So, it’s very naked. We go to some dark places and those dark places have to be fully alive, so it’s been pretty awesome to get to embody my own fears and my own boogie men.

What’s the narrative arc in Fruithead?
Basically, we wanted to have a microcosm where Fruithead is the only creature. There’s one tree, there’s one island, there’s one of her, and there’s one little plant that grows. It’s from birth to death, essentially: the birth of the world and the character and the whole life story of those two things. So there’s a lot going on in the disguise of a very simple show wherein somebody in a clown nose plays with balloons. But we deal with a lot of major themes that would be in a lot of serious plays.

What are you hoping that the audience gets out of all this?
Well, first of all, a really, really entertaining night at the theatre. Hopefully a new experience, something that they have not seen or thought about before. I want people to laugh, but I also hope that they are taken in by this character and moved by her journey, because it’s not just a silly sort of light thing, we are making a work of it. And that goes throughout the entire design of the show, it’s going to be just beautiful. There’s stop motion animation dream sequences, there are sounds made out of my character’s voice and it’s going to be, hopefully, very dreamy, so that when you’re done, you’re not sure if you hallucinated some of it.

Fruithead opens at the LSPU Hall on Wednesday, July 17th, at 8:oo pm. Here’s the Facebook event, and here’s where you can buy tickets. It runs until July 21.

Live joyfully

    Posted on: Sunday, July 7th, 2013

That’s the advice Dave Jones would like to give everyone if he could. That, and go to church. Not enough people go to church anymore, he feels. To encourage the churchgoing, he stands at various outdoor locations throughout the greater St. John’s area holding his trusty sign.



He doesn’t care which church you go to, just so long as it’s Christian.

And if church just isn’t your thing, you can still live joyfully. That would solve all the world’s problems, Jones believes, if we were all to live joyfully.

Can’t say I disagree with him on that one.

This is the eighth year Jones has been holding his sign up in public. He started doing it because he felt he had been called by God to do so. To do The Lord’s work. He also volunteers driving elderly women to and from church.

He likes to move around the city, finding different locations to hold his sign, which he’ll do for about an hour or so, and only in places with high traffic. Sometimes it’s Kenmount Road during the morning rush hour. Other times it’s outside the Cotton Club at night. This was Jones’ first time at this particular location, just down the road from Keith’s Diner in The Goulds, where I had a 20 minute wait on an order of fish and chips.

Don’t let the stern look on his face in the picture above fool you, he’s actually a very approachable and kindly man. I think he’s just over having his picture taken – he gets the request a lot, and it’s not always under the most respectful conditions. For the most part, though, he says the reactions he gets from people are positive. By his estimation, only about five percent are what he tactfully refers to as rebukes.

In the time I spent chatting with him, Jones and his sign received plenty of friendly waves and car horns — and not a single rebuke from what I could tell.

Jones spent the first 20 years of his working life as a land surveyor. But then the going got tough. There were a lot of younger people coming into the industry and as an older man he felt he could no longer compete in that workforce, so he changed careers and got into security, where he clocked in another 20 years. He says he didn’t really enjoy being a security guard, but it was a living and it contributed to his pension, which he now lives off of.

He’s often offered money between his sign holding and his volunteer work, but he never accepts it. For Jones, life’s not about money. It’s about doing good work and trying to make the world a better place.

If you ever see Jones and his sign in your travels, I recommend stopping to say hello and ask him a few questions. He’ll be more than happy to talk to you. It’s hard to know where he’ll be next since he does like to move around, but he tells me he will be at The Regatta this year with his trusty sign, so be sure to have a lookout for him there amidst the crowds and the kiosks if you’ll be out to cheer on the racers that day.

Filmmaking for $400

    Posted on: Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

One April evening, as I was heading up Freshwater Road, I happened to bump into filmmaker and anthropologist Latonia Hartery. Latonia has production managed/field produced huge documentary projects, including two docs for CBC’s Doc Zone.

When I ran into her, she was gearing up for a shoot of an entirely different kind: she had written a short film called “Wind Money,” and she had assembled a small cast and crew, some of whom had no experience, to film the script. Most of the gear had been donated or borrowed, and all of the people were volunteering their time.

“Am I nuts?” she had asked me.

I caught up with her to find out how it all went.

So, tell me about “Wind Money.”
“Wind Money” is about a new Cuban grad student in St. John’s who is having a really awful day. She’s trying to form relationships, but she’s continually blocked from doing so by a series of obstacles. Her luck changes, though, when mother nature comes through for her. That’s the plot anyway, but the subtext is about feeling isolated in a place that’s foreign to you, and about being lonely.

How did you make this movie?
Well, essentially, we shot this film for $416.16.

The only reason we could do that is because a number of established and really talented professionals like Duncan DeYoung, Matthew Thompson, Aaron Elliott, Rachel Deal and Tamara Segura, volunteered their time. As a team, we want to get it into festivals, sure, but at the end of the day, the film is destined to be on file at the International Student Advising Office at MUN, so they can use it for orientation in September, and as a way to show students that they understand the transition period from a foreign country is really hard.

So, we brought together any gear that we had, and all the talent that we had, and we put it all together. We tried to do it as a community service and, in that spirit, we took on a few people that didn’t have much experience. I asked my friend Darcy Ward to be a Production Assistant. He said, “I don’t have any experience!” and I said, “You’re perfect!” This is sort of what we’re trying to build, a community of people who appreciate each other with this film.

In total, during the day, there were 6, maximum 7, crew.

Two shoot days?

16 hours or 17 hours, including lunch and breaks.

How did you go about food, did you make it all yourself?

Actually, that’s where the $416.16 went! [laughs] We also got a light and a couple of batteries from Atlantic Studios Cooperative.

So, how did it go?
It really was something quite special. I’ve been working in film now for almost thirteen years, give or take some time, and I’ve worked on projects that really do have a great amount of financial support. And with that kind of money comes a certain amount of stress. But when you take something on just for the love of it, and you realize that okay, you have to do the best that you can with what you’ve got, the stress kind of goes away, you can do it for the love of it. You can also roll the dice on people that don’t have a lot of experience because you don’t really have anything to lose. You’re fostering and you’re mentoring up-and-coming and emerging talent, and I think that’s as important as anything else because everybody needs that chance. I was given that chance, and… when it’s something simple and it’s not as complicated as a real big, bustling film set with a couple hundred people, you really can focus on that individual, you can take that moment to explain to a person why you’re doing something a certain way.

When I bumped into you on Freshwater Road, you were really nervous about it!
Yeah, I wasn’t sure because, as I said, I’ve had a lot of experience working with financial support, so when you don’t have it, you do wonder if you’re getting in over your head. But it probably was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Even when it came to making decisions about the film, I didn’t worry about it. People would offer me suggestions, and I’d say, yeah, I like that, and we didn’t need to deliberate because there wasn’t much to lose. And there was all kinds of room for people to voice their opinions because there’s no producer overlooking things and we didn’t have a production manager calling every shot and forcing your hand to make a decision. Every single decision was a collaborative, and I had never done anything like that before. It was really, really fun, I enjoyed it so much.

Also, as a director, I got to try lots of different methods of directing. Lots of time, I find I’m tied to a monitor and I very much let that go. I looked into a monitor a few times to see how the shot looked and if we got what we aimed to achieve with a certain frame, but lots of times, I let it go, I just trusted the cinematographer — I just trusted the people and their talents.

That being said, I wouldn’t continually make films for no money, because people need to be paid for their talents, for all the years that have gone into making them as good as they are. Artwork itself is a hallmark for a characteristic of being a human being, we’ve making art for much longer than we’ve been building bridges or going to the moon, and the people who maintain that and keep that going in our society are as important as any other career people out there.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
The Film itself wouldn’t have been possible without the help of some really great women in my life. I only moved here just over a year ago, and I myself have been adjusting to life back home. Ruth Lawrence did some associate producing for me, and Wanda Nolan did some script consulting for me. All of our locations were donated. The Metrobus gave us a bus to use for two hours. And then Memorial University gave us the student centre to use, their campus, and one of their residence buildings. There are two women there: Jennifer Dyer, she is a professor in the department of Humanities and Communications, and she helped me navigate through the university aspects. And a young woman named Gillian Angel, who is one of the managers of the student centre, she helped me set things up as well. It’s a nice collaborative effort by a group of women. This struck me yesterday as I was reading the percentage of women in the film industry. Last year, there were no female directors in the feature film competition and this year there was still only one. So I feel like, even though this is only a small project on a local level, it’s still working towards getting more and more women involved in film.

Here’s Latonia Hartery on why she writes films with strong female characters. This video was taken during our panel, Finding Your Voice in Music and Film, which was held in partnership with WIFT Atlantic and Lawnya Vawnya. The panel featured filmmakers Hartery and Elsa Morena, and musicians Amy Rigby and Lisa Bozikovic. It was moderate by author Elisabeth de Mariaffi.