What do you do when you’re sitting in the same room with quite possibly the most legendary filmmakers of all time? Well, you listen to every word… Every word.
There is a painting in France that historians believe is 32,000 years old. The oldest surviving film, on the other hand ⎯ incidentally, also French ⎯ is only 128 years old. A film called Roundhay Garden Scene. 2.11 seconds long. Filmmaking has obviously come a long way since 1888; but compared to painting, it’s still in its infancy. There’s plenty of new territory to explore. It’s only fitting that a painter-turned-filmmaker is one of the people breaking new ground — for example, by creating a documentary about a New York street football team in the style of a Beats by Dr. Dre ad. That’s what Bennett Johnson set out to do, and the result ⎯ Coach Pamz ⎯ is a beautiful statement about life, sports, and the brotherhood of amateur athletes.
The best stories are often the ones we find by accident while we’re working on something else. We don’t force them into being. They already exist. We catch sight of them and can’t get them out of our head. They’re a gift. Or, in Diego Contreras’s words, “a miracle.” And he would know. It was only after abandoning two fully formed concepts and scouting a completely unrelated project that he came upon the subject of his recent short film, The Sandman. Pound for pound, it’s one of the best films we saw last year. And it was a total accident.
Writing about authors, Annie Dillard warns: “He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns because that is what he will know.” It seems there is such a thing as useful ignorance. It is possible for artistry to be spoiled by intellect. Or maybe what we’re trying to say is simply this: Be careful what you learn in film school.
We’ve been fans of Diego Contreras since before his breakthrough film Islands nabbed a Vimeo Staff Pick in 2013. Since then, his career has been on the rise, taking him briefly through one of the most well-respected ad agencies in history (BBDO), and more recently into the realm of professional filmmaking. Not long ago, he directed two stunning short films for The Lincoln Motor Company, Bloom and Open Your Eyes. And he’s done it all within two years.
It’s very hard to tell what makes a film great. Students spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to learn the secret. Critics write hundreds of thousands of words trying to explain it. And still, it usually remains a mystery. But we had a revelation recently while talking to Diego Contreras about his “Unimpossible Missions” series for GE, an ad campaign meant to show off GE’s ingenuity by accomplishing seemingly impossible tasks. What makes Diego’s work great is how he invests a staggering amount of meaning into even the smallest details of his films. There is nothing trivial in his work. Even the snowballs have backstories.
The Oscar-nominated Body Team 12 would be a sci-fi horror film if not for the fact that it really happened. The short documentary follows the eponymous Liberian body team tasked with the most grueling job in the fight against Ebola: collecting its victims. Their work was dangerous and controversial; but more than anything, it was heroic.
Two of the latest trends in film have existed for centuries in the theater. Plays are all done in one take. And plays are 3D. But while the medium has been around since before anyone can remember, it hasn’t changed all that much. In the end, it’s actors on a stage telling you a story. Which is what makes theater an ideal training ground for film directors. Stripping something down to its essential components teaches you how it works.
There is always more to a place than what you can see. There are the sounds, the tastes, the smells. There is — maybe most importantly — the way a place makes you feel. In Brandon’s Li’s recent travel film, Gateway to the Ganges, he used Musicbed artist Ryan Taubert’s “We Wish It Was Never Light” to bring a feeling of darkness and foreboding to the otherwise vibrant and beautiful Indian landscape.
There are plenty of filmmakers exploring the blurred line between fiction and reality, but far fewer explore a much more interesting phenomenon: fiction that creates reality. The most iconic example being Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds,” which became instantly legendary for inspiring mass panic in listeners who didn’t realize the broadcast ⎯ a live reporting of a Martian invasion ⎯ was fake.