My first semester at Lesley University was extraordinarily revealing as I began to understand my motivations, interests, and identity as an artist. Throughout the semester, I found important influences, developed and honed new skills, and spent time thinking about my current film more than I had with all previous films combined. The program’s self-driven nature is not for every artist, but I found it ideal for my already diligent studio practice, and genuinely appreciated Lesley’s trust in the students to self manage, while guiding us towards new experiences and ways of thinking.
As expected, it took some time to find a good balance between my professional, academic, and personal life. While working on animations for clients, I was also wrapping up a fantasy film, three years in the making, which needed careful consideration for setting up and promoting the premiere. Prior to grad school, I felt myself moving towards more commercial work, with a focus on improving my skills in cinematography, lighting, animation, and directing. The animations within my films were becoming more polished and realistic, but mostly used as a visual effect. This may have been a reaction to my experiences attending film festivals, which gave me the impression my films were out of place and lacking commercial appeal. This semester has clarified that I need to revisit the raw, creative path I originally set out on. In addition, I better understand how to successfully implement multiple, meaningful, themes in my work, while becoming more experimental in my approach to animation and effects.
In the first few months of the semester I created three looping animated GIFS that will also be placed within a larger narrative film that will span my time in the program. These animations were a great excuse to try out new techniques such as 3D environments in After Effects, time-lapse photography on my iPhone, and exaggerated and abrasive sound design. I created a George Méliès inspired loop, where my head disappears then reappears, a pixilation animation of my teeth grinding, inspired by Švankmajer’s disturbing and grotesque emphasis of the body, and even grew and photographed my beard over the course of twenty-one days, reminiscent of the humorous dream transitions of Michel Gondry. Because all of these artists have magical qualities to their work, I interviewed professional magician and friend, Wayne Houchin, to learn the different types of illusions, how our minds perceive magic, and the thought process when creating astonishment.
For now, I am calling this larger narrative film Elevator (A new title is coming soon). It is loosely outlined, so that my future research, feedback during residencies, and advice from mentors, can alter the activity within my developing dream world. The film centers on a man, played by myself, who falls asleep after experiencing a particularly bad day, caused by his frustrating relationship and dependency on technology. In his dreams he is a repairman who must fix the connections within his mind by traveling down his memories in an elevator.
This semester, I was extremely fortunate to have Jay Rosenblatt as a mentor. Jay is an award winning filmmaker whose films have had theatrical runs at the Film Forum in New York and at theaters around the country. Eight of his films have been at the Sundance Film Festival and several of his films have shown on HBO/Cinemax, the Independent Film Channel and the Sundance Channel. Articles about his work have appeared in the Sunday NY Times Arts & Leisure section, the LA Times, the NY Times, Filmmaker magazine and the Village Voice.
Working with Jay forced me to question my decisions with regularity, producing valuable revelations. His criticism was always directed toward making Elevator more understandable, often times to myself, and guiding me to search much deeper when I couldn’t articulate my intensions. He asked many questions of my decisions until I either had an answer or said, “I don’t know.” If I reached that point, I would alter, eliminate, or give serious thought to my choice. Jay’s biggest influence on the film was in suggesting I develop an opening montage to build my character’s background and motivations. As I began filming mundane shots of my morning routine, I realized how dependent I was on technology, which soon became the central theme that informed the dream sequences of the film. This exercise in filmmaking clarified that an audience can receive a considerable amount of information with a quick succession of images. In addition to his technical advice, Jay gave me valuable tips on how to economically navigate the film festival circuit, and we had informative discussions on sustaining yourself as a non-commercial filmmaker.
Another influence this semester came through my research of Jan Švankmajer. Though I had been familiar with his work for years, I only recently watched his 1988 film Alice. It completely shifted my perspective on what stop-motion is capable of. All of his choices in this film were fascinating and exciting, while providing me with a template for what I was originally and instinctively trying to do when I first started making films. He unapologetically edits live action shots, next to time-manipulated or animated sequences, without attempting to hide his techniques. This is somehow more magical in its engagement with the audience, despite the almost common knowledge of how the effects were created. Švankmajer was also an influence with his abrasive, exaggerated, and almost hostile use of sound effects, used to create discomfort in his viewers. Before evaluating his work with a critical eye, I had not consciously given thought to sound as a generator of emotions, in place of a musical score.
It is hard to put into words everything that happened during my first semester, but I am forever changed and grateful for this experience. I now identify myself as a sculptural filmmaker who wants to use moving images to create magic. It’s thrilling to be aware of how little I actually know and that Lesley University has the resources to help me answer those questions.