For their final project in the 2016-17 Film Production programme, four filmmakers travelled to Iceland to tell a heart-wrenching story about bullying, broken homes and hope, making full use of the skills they had honed over the previous nine months. Watch the video and read Catalyst storyteller Temi Hollist Rest's recap below.
When Gobi, Will, Julia and Minka walked through the door on day one of the Film Production course in September 2016, none of them had much experience making films. Gobi had made a couple shorts and Julia dabbled in photography, but Minka had spent more time in front of the lens than behind it, and Will had barely even touched a camera before. By the end of the course nine months later, all four walked away with the year’s top awards for their final projects – including Best Picture for Gobi’s Icelandic film, Chain Reaction, on which they all collaborated.
No Tutelage Required
I flew to Iceland to document part of the production of Chain Reaction. On the way over, I told myself to exercise restraint. I do enjoy being on set, and it would be tempting to hold their hands during production. But I also knew it was critical they learn by doing it themselves. “They’ve got to make their own mistakes,” I reminded myself. “You’re just a fly on the wall, not a member of the crew. Hands off.”
To my surprise and delight, I found that not only was I redundant, I actually had to work to stay out of their way.
This once-timid quartet was now a dynamic, well-oiled filmmaking machine. They had a solid plan and a tight schedule dutifully marked off on a clipboard, but they stayed flexible for when creative inspiration or unforeseen mishaps took them in a different direction. For instance, several of the lenses they had rented didn’t work as expected, so quite often the shots changed drastically on the spot, and when one scene didn’t look as good on location as on paper, they took a half hour break to completely rethink the scene and its place in the film. They worked long days, slept short nights, but always managed to keep spirits high; they didn’t take themselves too seriously, but also didn’t allow for idling. Considering they were working with underage actors, this was no small accomplishment.
On the few occasions that I did have a suggestion to make – say, if the actor moved this way through the shot, then the light should be over there, or to ask whether they had allotted enough time for a complicated setup after lunch – the most common reply was “yes, we’ve already thought of that – can you go sit over there please?” They were capable, confident, and most importantly: professional.
How did this happen? How did a group of newbies become pros in less than a year?
Practice Makes Perfect
They’d be the first to give you the answer: work. In this inaugural year of the new Film Production course, ten filmmakers made almost 150 films in nine months. That’s an incredible number. If Malcolm Gladwell is right and we need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a subject, then these guys put a significant dent in that in a very short period of time.
And it wasn’t easy. The majority of the projects were extremely limited in scope: one day, one week, and two weeks to make films, which is painfully little. They didn’t shoulder these tasks without complaint, either, and I can understand why – it’s frustrating to be thrown in the deep end. For the longest time, it feels like you can barely keep your head above water, no matter how vigorously you flail around.
Emerging From the Deep End
But they stuck with it, and their persistence paid off in a big way. When you can conceive, prep, shoot, and edit a complete short film in a day, making one in six weeks becomes a breeze. You can put your well-toned creative muscles to precise, focused use, and that’s exactly what they did.
In a course without tests, grades, ratings or scores, it can be difficult to measure your progress. I often worried that without such metrics the filmmakers might feel like their year had been spent toiling with no reward. But I was happy to be proven wrong. The laughter, tears and joy of the audience at our final year-end screening was all the validation these filmmakers needed. What more accurate measure of cinematic success is there?