Today: 6pm, ground floor Cube

In the lead-up to the special film screening of the work of the 2018 intake of Otago Polytechnic Certificate of Film and TV students at City Library, we interviewed some of the film-makers involved in the project.

Iain Frengley is a lecturer at the Otago Polytechnic School of Art,  currently tutoring the Certificate in Film & Television, Mini documentary module.  He invited students Charlotte Page, Molly Roffey, Noah Graham and Callum Mercer to offer us some behind-the-scenes insights on the making of their documentaries. 

The brief I gave the students was quite broad, so as a result this year we have a more diverse range of films. First of all they had to consider what is a documentary? What does it contain?  It's been really nice to see some rough edits coming through. The process is we'll discuss these as a group  and then begin, finessing them up, ready for the screening at City Library.  - Iain Frengley

For the first public film screening on Thursday 26th July, Iain’s aim was for it to be a valuable experience for the students.

I wanted them to see what it’s like making something for an audience, and getting feedback from a live group of people. It should be a rush when you play to a crowd, showing them something that you’ve made, getting those butterflies before the 'performance'. When you present the film that you’ve made, you’re going to need to be able to answer some questions about it, and stand in front of an audience, which takes a lot of practice. This is something that the group wanted to do, rather than it being prescribed as part of the course. The students were really keen to show an audience what they’d made. This contributes to the students’ learning, because I think it’s really vital to understand the different perspective of an audience, and to get that live.  And the more times I personally do that, the closer I can get it to how I want it to be behaving ‘out in the wild’, shall we say. Learning to see it how an audience does. It’s about fresh eyes. It’s about learning to get that perspective while you’re editing. You kind of need to throw something out to an audience and feel those things first-hand to get that practice. And so that’s the thing that I’m hoping will be happening here. 

Ian believes the audience will get some really unique perspectives from this cohort of learners around the things that they’re interested in, and the way that they see the world. 

I think that’s why I like documentaries the most. When they’re authentic, you get someone else’s perspective on the world. They’ll get to see how these people see things. 

Charlotte explains the brief:

We were basically asked to do a three-to-ten minute documentary on whatever we wanted...within reason. We got the opportunity to work in pairs or by ourselves, so it was an opportunity for everybody to see what we could do working with a partner, or on our own.

Noah outlines the students' approach to deciding on a style for the films:

The actual format of a documentary is quite varied. Some people are doing a mockumentary style, some people are doing a very structured almost news story style documentary. And then we have others who are interpreting it as getting an interview and then distorting that a bit, putting their own narrative over it, or creating a video essay. We had to figure out what is a documentary to begin with. Is it based on truth? Well, not really because some of them are fictitious. We looked at an Elmore Morris film, who does a lot of recreation, and we discussed if whether you’re recreating scenes, is it still true.  In terms of the difference between a documentary and a video essay, it’s a hard one to say. A video essay is probably more commentary on a specific thing from that person’s point of view, and it’s very clear on that. Whereas a documentary would have some sort of narration, where the voice-over is the link between interviews, rather than the underlying person talking. It is a blurred line. And considering the time-frame, we had to consider visually what it’s going to be like? We needed to choose something that would have visual interest for the audience. Joe and I chose the tropical forest at the Museum, and we thought hard about what would be good visually, what would be quite interesting to tell. I wanted to put together a story, almost a news story in that traditional sense. 

With no limit on subject matter, the students had to allow for other factors when choosing what to film. Charlotte is impressed with the wide range of subjects being covered in the films: 

I think for all of us it was more a case of what were our interests, and for those who were working in groups, what could we do that interests us both. I think it’s a good way of getting our own personalities across in a completely different way. So we’re all showing our own styles, as well as working with other people. Since we had the chance to do whatever we wanted, we decided to do something that was more ‘us’.

It will be interesting for an audience to be able to see this unique film screening at the Library, because all of the films will be so very different. As Noah says: 

We have someone doing a haunted house type of ghost story up at Larnach Castle. And then somebody doing something about a gym instructor who has their own YouTube channel. You know, it just is that variety. 

Molly and her partner gave themselves the nigh-on impossible task of filming a recluse. She wanted to create something which is more narrative and tells a story to uncover the truths of their subject.

 Yeah, there was a visual effects artist who worked on big productions, and then for 12 years he didn’t have any major credits, so our documentary is about trying to find out what happened to him.

Callum says he chose to make a documentary about cosplay because he thought it sounded 'cool', and would be interesting to film.  

My documentary subject is about Cosplay, which is something that has a big place in Dunedin, coming out of the local Armageddon scene. So it has a Dunedin element to it, but it also has international appeal.

Noah found the process of working with a partner had some surprising results: 

It’s interesting to see how, when you’re working with other people, we’ll have the same footage, exactly the same tools, but we’ve each come up with something completely different. So we’re learning from each other in the process too.

We wondered how much the prospect of the public screening influenced the students' choice of subject material. Did they make their films with an audience in mind?

I think mine was probably slightly from a more selfish point of view in that I wanted to do something that interests me. I thought it would be fun to put together. But also I think if you’re really interested in something, then if you put it together well,  you can channel that degree of interest so it gets portrayed and shown to the audience...if you’ve done it right. - Noah
I feel like I’ve been different, because the entire time I’ve been working on my video essay, I’ve been taking into consideration that it’s going to be shown. Because we’re doing this on a vfx artist, and a lot of his work can be quite gory and quite graphic, I’ve had to try and find certain shots that aren’t as bad and can be shown. And if you know the scene in the movie it’s taken from, you know what happens, but you don’t necessarily see it happen. There’s been a couple of times where I’ve been a bit defiant and tried to insist on having certain footage, but Noah has persuaded me to reel it in a bit. - Molly

The students found a number of challenges in the film-making process that they hadn't anticipated, and for many of them it was a huge learning curve. Film-makers are heavily reliant on other people, and other factors – the weather, the light. There isn't always an ideal time, and they have to make the best of a given situation.

There were challenges – for example, the first time we took our cameras into the butterfly enclosure it took almost three hours for our cameras to defog, so we had to wait for that. So basically we had to commandeer all the Polytech’s equipment for the day so we could have two cameras specifically for that. - Noah

They had to learn to adapt and work around these challenges as they progressed. And while many of them had planned carefully for their film project, they also learned to think outside the box along the way.

It’s stressful trying to get it all set in stone, anything can change. The whole plan can completely shift an angle to something completely different. It was difficult finding people to interview, especially trying to find a time and place to suit them, and then they’d cancel on you. So you have to have a plan B. It was probably even more difficult for those who were working as a group, because you also have other people’s opinions to battle with as well. That was why I chose to work alone to be honest. Also, if I mess it up it’s my fault, not because someone else has messed it up - I won’t mess it up though! There's the constant threat that it’s not going to be good enough, or if it’s ok to show.  - Callum

All the students agreed that having a plan in place from the start was crucial, but they also learned not to stick to it too rigidly - having a plan is good, but having a 'plan B' is even better.

We found it useful that we planned quite meticulously, and I think it would horrible to imagine what it would have been like if we hadn’t! There is a certain element of going on the fly – certain shots that you’ll decide to do once you’re there. Something that someone mentions in an interview, and you decide to get footage that correlates to that. It’s always beneficial to have a plan, but it is a balancing act. It was stressful, but fun. - Noah

Molly found the same, because of the challenging nature of the subject she and her partner had chosen:

Because it’s very difficult for Josh and I to shoot footage for our documentary, we had to plan it around archival footage. And we had a plan for shots around an interview we were going to do, and then circumstances changed, and we didn’t get actual video recording of the interview, just because the interviewee wasn’t keen on the idea. Things that we storyboarded and shotlisted fell away, and so we’ve adapted. And we’ve had to explore what archival footage works with what we’re saying. It’s been a difficult one to plan. My subject lives in California and is a recluse – he doesn’t have an email or anything. We haven’t been able to go out and get footage like the others on the course.

They also found working to a deadline had its pros and cons:

Having a deadline is hard, definitely. I kept forgetting there was one! - Molly
Without a deadline you could spend an eternity tweaking your work. There has to be a point where you go “no, that’s it!” Otherwise you drive yourself mental trying to adjust that audio, or that colour – “is it blue enough, is it too red?” So a deadline makes you prioritise. - Noah

What came out of the project was the amount of enjoyment the students got from it personally. As they progressed, it grew from just being an assignment to something deeply personal:

We finished filming on a Friday, and then spent 12 hours on the Saturday editing, and six more on the Sunday. I’m not sure about everybody else, but it probably took me about three or four hours just to organise the footage, what I wanted to use, just for about 9 minutes of film. - Noah
A lot of us put a lot of effort in out of hours, so most of us have spent 30 or 40 hours outside of the course doing it. We enjoyed it. We’re doing it because we want to. We’ve done this course at the end of the day to make something we’re proud of and to make something that we want to make. This has definitely been one of those times where yes, we’ve spent a lot of time on it, but we’re actually proud of what we’ve made. - Charlotte
We want to get the best final product that we can. So you’re not going to get that from just putting in a couple of hours. - Molly

The public film screening is a chance for the students to say “I’m really proud of myself”. We asked them if they were looking forward to having their films screened at the Library for a public audience. Charlotte admitted to some nerves about the prospect: 

I think we’re all a little bit nervous to some extent, because the majority of us haven’t done public screenings before, although some of the group did work on the Nook & Cranny Festival at the Library this year. So this project was us more pushing ourselves to do this, putting ourselves out there, so we could get the reactions and people’s opinions.

The students are in two minds about feedback from the audience. Noah is pragmatic, knowing that the audience could 'tear his work to shreds', but also eager to see people’s reactions to their work:

Hopefully that’s what people will see on 26th July, when we screen these for the public. I think it will be good to show our films and then see what questions the audience has for us.

Charlotte is pleased to have the pressure of the public screening to make her up her game:

Definitely. It makes you make the best that you possibly can. 

Perspectives: Documentary Film Screenings
Presented by students of the Otago Polytechnic’s Certificate in Film & Television, this is a chance to enjoy a selection of locally-produced short films on an eclectic array of subjects.

From cosplay to butterflies, these mini documentaries will let you explore life from a new perspective.

Thursday 26th July, 6pm-8pm
The Living Hub, Ground Floor, City Library