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Three independant directors passionately defy the odds

By Jonah Bettio

Dawn shooting with camera
Independent film isn’t a genre or a style, it’s a reality: one that requires a dedicated and unique approach to filmmaking. Indie directors are passionate about their work and are willing to sacrifice, put in extra work, and explore new ways of creating and financing their films in order to translate their artistic vision to the big screen.

Creative Independence

Some filmmakers run their own production companies which allows them more creative and budgetary freedom. “Being a short filmmaker, I’m usually dealing with small budget productions,” says animator Jeff Chiba Stearns. “I definitely do not do it for the money but for the love of filmmaking.  I have a small studio called Meditating Bunny Studio and I remain independent and avoid working in the industry so I can focus on making my films the way I want.”

Chiba Stearns is an animator and director based in Vancouver and Kelowna, BC. He’s produced several short, traditionally animated films that have appeared on CBC including his latest, Who Are You Anyways? By producing his films himself, Stearns not only gains more budgetary freedom, he gains creative freedom as well.
Director Samuel Kiehoon Lee’s approach is to use industry resources as needed, and keep the scale of his productions small. “Working as an artist and not a profit-driven industry director, I get to use the tools of the industry but I still get to make my own vision come to life.”
Lee is able to pursue his projects by working with as small a crew as possible, often doing many different tasks himself. His latest film Hannah for example, was shot with him operating a single camera and working with a lone actor.

Financial Independence

“Never put your own money into a film. It’s too much that you’re involved in it already as a director,” says filmmaker Rafal Sokolowski. “It’s very difficult to write a successful grant proposal, but it’s a very valuable process to the project because you really question your ideas on all sorts of levels and helps you get rid of things that aren’t necessary.”

Sokolowski spent a lot of time writing art council grant applications to raise the most money possible for his film Lightchasers. He also managed to put money away for an extra day of shooting in case of rain, which turned out to be critical.

“Within a small budget and 5 day schedule, we still managed to put money towards a 6th day of shooting in case of rain,” says Sokolowski. “That came in handy; one day during shooting we had a local tornado touch down and winds of over 100 kilometres an hour. During the storm we had six PAs holding a tarp over the camera and the actor is nearly being blown away. His hair was horizontal.”

In the end, Sokolowski felt like more footage was needed, but they had already used up their rain day. He decided to shoot and go over budget because he felt this was less of a risk than proceeding with a film that to him was incomplete. It turned out to be the right choice; the footage he got that day was some of the best of the shoot, and Sokolowski ended up using it to convince more people to invest in Lightchasers and eliminate his budget overruns.

Knowing the Audience

What Are you Anyways? is an autobiographical film in which Stearns chronicles his life growing up in a small town while being a Hapa (a person of mixed Japanese and Caucasian decent). Stearns mixed a lot of cultural elements as a means of appealing to a wide audience: “The film reflects my cultural backgrounds so the music is a combination of traditional Japanese instruments and a western hip hop beat.  The style of the animation is also a blend of Japanese Animation and North American Saturday Cartoon style, which I’ve coined Hapanimation.”

Stearns had to decide if he was going to target a young audience or a mature one when creating the film: “In the end I toned it down because I wanted the film to appeal to youth and be used in schools as an educational resource. I’m glad I made that decision, because the NFB later picked it up for educational and public sale. Teachers around Canada are now using Who Are You Anyways? as an educational tool to help teach students about multiculturalism and diversity in Canada.”

Most of Samuel Kiehoon Lee’s work consists of films that are based around a unique narrative and film structure. For example, in 5 x 90: The Wake, five different conversations between family and friends at a wake narrate moments in the life of the deceased. This occurs within a single frame that was created by digitally combining several scenes shot separately.

Lee takes a lot of satisfaction when seeing artistic vision realized on screen. He also takes inspiration from people he works with: “The guy who ran the digital compositing company that I was working on 5 x 90: The Wake with told me: “you made it, you made your film. Most of us sit around and think about how to make our film. But you made your film.” It was really refreshing to hear that they were being inspired by me.”

Living the Dream

Sokolowski is an actor and teacher by trade. He decided to embark on making a short film after a powerful event in his life. He had a dream that he was in a car crash and wrote down the details of it. A year later, he was involved in a real-life road accident. When Sokolowski compared his notes about the people in his dream to those involved in the crash, he found many similarities: “The parallels between the two worlds were too meaningful to be dismissed as coincidence.”

After working on a draft for a story, Sokolowski decided the best way to express his experience was through a fictional film, which was the beginning of Lightchasers. The film was shot entirely outdoors in a rural area and as such it was totally weather-dependent.

“If you really believe in a project, than it almost feels like it has its own need to be completed,” says Sokolowski. “It really validates what you do, and it gives you a really great feeling. It helps you feel like you belong to a universal bank of thoughts and visions. When I get a good idea I get ecstatic, I feel that I’m doing the right thing, and that it’s important and it’s going to matter.”