Friday, March 29, 2013

SVFF 2013 / TREEFORT MUSIC FEST 2013: CINEMA DISRUPTION (ONLINE, IN CINEMA & BACK AGAIN)—The Evening Class Interview With A.J. Eaton, Daniel Ahearn and the Creative Team Behind the Road to Treefort Web Series

"Interesting distributing something like this with the internet and then not really knowing much beyond that."—Zach Voss, Retroscope Media.

My focus at this year's edition of the Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) was both regional filmmaking—as monitored primarily through Idaho-produced short films and music videos—but also the multiple national and international platforms that have become increasingly available to exhibit short form work and, thereby, obviate regional restrictions. The interstitial tension between film production and film exhibition seems nowhere more apparent than in the opportunities afforded short film content, particularly in its capacity to occupy multiple spaces, often concurrently, for different marketed and/or social effects.

As a specific exercise, I arranged for the streaming of Christian Lybrook's short films on Fandor at the same time that his most recent project The Seed (2013) was boasting its world premiere at SVFF. But in the era of digital workflow, a "premiere" is a negotiable term. The Seed's true world premiere was streaming online at Fandor a day before it's in-cinema premiere at Sun Valley's nexStage. Does this mean exhibition potentials are at odds with each other? Or does it further a portfolio aesthetic more characteristic of imagemaking and spectatorship in the 21st Century?

One of the very first Idaho shorts that caught my attention was A.J. Eaton's The Mix-Up (2007), which courted the festival circuit and worked as a successful calling card in helping Eaton secure editing gigs in Los Angeles. In addition, Mix-Up ended up in a Japanese collection of short films frequently screened to a viewing public. The last six years have taught Eaton quite a lot about the industry and so I sat down with him in SVFF's Harriman Hospitality Suite to discuss evolving trends.

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Michael Guillén: AJ, as you know I'm interested in how short films co-habit both online and in cinema spaces, often at the same time, thereby disrupting cinema reception as we once knew it and forcing us to reconsider new practices of spectatorship and distribution. Do you have any thoughts on this trend?

AJ Eaton: Most of the short films that I'm seeing today are basically designed for the small screen. They're edited and made to go out on YouTube and Vimeo.

Guillén: But what about platforms that will pay the filmmaker through licensing fees? IndieFlix, Fandor, VUDU? Are you familiar with or know of any aggregators who specifically traffic short form content to these platforms?

Eaton: Shorts International, the leading shorts distributor out of L.A., has their own TV channel, which can be accessed through cable providers like DirecTV. They'll distribute a short online, on streaming platforms, and try to get it into theaters as well. In fact, one of the most fascinating spaces to place a short film these days is in airlines. You have a captive audience. Sometimes short, hour-long flights aren't long enough to watch a feature. So maybe a 45-minute TV show or three short films will do the trick. But Shorts International is quite selective. Any worthy shorts at Sundance will be picked up by Shorts International.

* * *

I next approached actor / musician Daniel Ahearn who—along with Haroula Rose—traveled to SVFF from out-of-state to accompany the world premiere of Joselito Seldera's No Love Song (2013). I asked Ahearn the same question.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Daniel can you speak to how a short film can exist in-theater and online at the same time?

Daniel Ahearn: I think I can, insofar as the known playing field has disintegrated in such a real way. Robert Redford has talked about this. Now you don't need money to actually buy film to make movies so one of the benefits of that is that more people now have access to making a film, or a record, and the aggregates for it are getting bigger. We're in this really weird place where traditional, capitalist artistic outlets are dissolving and crumbling, but it's creating a platform for amazing new work, which is exciting. There's still a little bit of clunkiness with people expecting atypical results from traditional avenues and traditional results from atypical avenues; but, it's all coagulating in an interesting way. I know that people bemoan about lost money—"You can't make money!"—but as an artist in the world, there's never been a more exciting time.

Guillén: That's the perfect way to put it. It's something I ask fledgling filmmakers all the time: "What are you doing this for? If you're doing it for the money, you're going to be disappointed."

Ahearn: Get a job! The point is that the idea of making money in the arts is a relatively new concept that has existed for maybe 30 years. Before that, in any direction, you were working for the Church or the State, period. This idea of artists thinking they're entitled to a certain amount of opulence, especially talented people—I don't care if you're talented; you can't go to L.A. and shoot a gun without hitting 100 talented people—it's more about how hard you work.

Guillén: Will No Love Song be made available online?

Ahearn: I'm not sure what Haroula wants to do per se. No Love Song is going to a bunch of other festivals. Haroula is a successful producer / writer / musician in her own right and she's seeing if people want to turn this project into something more theatrical and feature-length—she's working on the script—or whether this short will be something they'll sell off to HBO or Showtime. I know it's going to Cannes to be part of that shorts market. It's all a weird thing because you finish a project, months go by, and you're thinking, "Is it over?" But no, it's just about to begin. In this festival world we're seeing a whole new life for No Love Song.

* * *

Finally, a near textbook study of these shifting trends of short content occupying multiple spaces is the Road to Treefort web series developed by Retroscope Media for Boise's Treefort Music Fest. Not only did the Road to Treefort screen in-cinema at SVFF, but was likewise slotted into a shorts series shown at the Egyptian Theatre, in conjunction with Treefort. Having watched these films online several times ramping up to the music festival, I wanted to likewise experience them in a movie theater projected onto a large screen. Zach Voss, Willow Socia, Cody Gittings, Bronwyn Leslie and Yurek Hansen, members of the team responsible for creating the web series, fielded questions after the screening.

Bronwyn Leslie helped with casting and production coordination, as well as acting. Yurek Hansen was the "puppeteer of sorts" who donned the monster costume and ran around the forest. Hansen's been a professional dancer with the Idaho Dance Theatre for the last 13 years and recently returned from field work in Africa. Cody Gittings, who runs Red House Media, was the director of photography and also helped co-edit the first episode and plan the blocking and cinematography. Willow Socia (who "makes anything and everything") was the designer of the monster costume and helped fabricate it alongside Daniel Fo.

Interesting for Voss was that the series went straight to the internet where it was well-received with several views and likes, admittedly shorthanded communication, so Voss welcomed the opportunity to hear questions from his live audience.

I began by complimenting Willow Socia on her iconic monster and asked how she came up with the concept?  How she designed it?  And how she then actually fabricated the creature? Socia noted that the monster was designed upon illustrations by James Lloyd, Treefort's Art Director. She taught herself to crochet and decided to incorporate her new skill into providing texture to the monster. She had never made a costume before. Fittings were interesting because she didn't have Yurek Hansen on hand all the time, though she did have Zach. He spent a lot of time donning the monster's pants so Socia could fit them properly; she had never made pants before. "With crochet you work in the round," she explained, "so I would try one leg on, then the other leg, and made it up around that."

The Monster's head was made out of painted insulation and the beard was made of dangling shoe laces. Voss credited Daniel Fo for the costume's foam components—the head, the feet. Fo had moved into the Oddfellows Building where several artists, Voss included, had studio spaces. Voss watched Fo build rock formations for a train set he was making and offered, "Daniel, jump in on this project with us. It'd be great for you to interpret something we'll be working on." That was another tangent that worked out really well, but wasn't necessarily planned.

Photo courtesy of
Anna Webb asked how Voss got the Shriners to participate? Were they game from the beginning? Voss replied that—when they first launched the series and it became live on the internet and picked up speed—Treefort already had the El Korah Shrine booked as a music venue. At that point it was easier to approach The Shriners because they had already seen the support the web series was receiving (the series helped promote Treefort on Pitchfork and Spin). The same was true for Mayor Dave (David H. Bieter). When Voss approached the Mayor's Office, they knew all about the web series so it became easier to propose where Mayor Dave could play a part and have his office represented. Without question, however, both the Shriners and the Mayor's Office were behind Road to Treefort. With the Shriners in particular, it became a case of having to turn down the amount of participation they were willling to offer. Voss recalled attending a meeting where they offered fire trucks, dune buggies, scooters, all sorts of things, which Voss declined on the caveat that next year they might take advantage of the fire trucks and the elephants.

As for locations, the rustic bar used in the series was Diamond Lil's in Idaho City. Gittings and Voss had driven up to Idaho City to scout for locations and exteriors, including the cabin where the crew hung out. They filmed that cabin exterior in Idaho City, but the interior was actually shot in Willow Socia's parents' home. They stitched those two together. Then the scene where they're running down the field was filmed in the Grayback Gulch Campground. In reality the production was a process of piecing together elements that were available and at hand, to save time, plus meeting locals who were game to help make the film. Diamond Lils was ready to go on the day shooting was scheduled, even though they were still open for business. Several of their bar patrons drank and watched while Voss and his crew filmed and when Voss would shout, "Quiet!", everyone in the bar—including the patrons—froze. They were totally into it. The scene would be shot, Voss would shout "Cut", and the bar would break into laughter and celebratory applause.

Gittings and Voss were setting up the scene where the Treefort Monster first ambushes the crew at the bar after they've downed shots. They had dolly shots of the Monster opening the door, but they needed something else. "What have we got?" they thought, "Fog or smoke or....?" They wheeled around, faced the patrons at the bar and asked, "Who here smokes?" Lots of hands went up. So the shot where the Monster appears in the doorway surrounded by smoke is engineered by the sheer lung power of a crowd of bar patrons who blew out cigarette smoke on cue on either side of the open door. "It's things like that," Voss enthused, "that you can never totally plan for, but when you set yourself up at the right place and the right time, things come together. And that was really one of the charming parts of the project, late at night after a full day of shooting, but we still had so much energy and enthusiasm, including people who smoke who were willing to help out."

I first met Bronwyn Leslie at the work-in-progress screening of An Unkindness of Ravens held at the Sun Valley Opera House during SVFF. The following weekend I saw her onstage as the musical act Lionsweb backed up by Sun Blood Stories in the Linen Building during Treefort and I was blown away by her honest, soulful talent, let alone that she was Visual Art Director for Treefort. In addition, she was on screen running around in a white fur coat in The Road to Treefort. I asked Leslie how she had trained and become fluent in so many different forms of creative self-expression? Admitting she had no training but simply liked "to do it", Leslie moved to Idaho from Alabama. She's been here nine years. She took acting and video classes at Boise State. Her grandparents ran a photography studio while she was growing up so Leslie was accustomed to imagemaking, even though she never knew it would become her art and passion, which blossomed when she met Voss, Socia, Gittings and Hansen.

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