Field Notes Interview #53: Simon Biswas, Filmmaker
There is no one way to find the perfect story.
When it came to figuring out a way to create a life as a filmmaker, Simon Biswas chose the sell all of his belongings, hop in a car with his fiancée and fellow producer, Karen Nagy, and hit the road out of Brooklyn with all of their camera and camping gear. They've been exploring new places and making films for clients ever since.
Both Biswas and Nagy started their film company North + Nomad and their work immerses you completely in whatever story they're telling. Through their work with music videos, portraits and short films, their films are compelling because they, as filmmakers, throw themselves completely in the process. Each piece they work on is a testament to living the story and finding the authentic roots within it.
We caught up with Biswas and chatted about his life as a filmmaker and his interesting trajectory.
M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
SB: I never thought about being a filmmaker. I always wanted to be a commercial photographer and my journey evolved into where I am today. I don’t consider myself a traditional filmmaker. I think I am curious and I like to make things (whether it be photographs, videos or music). For me, filmmaking is a perfect crossover between disciplines and I can incorporate my knowledge of visuals and music together in a really fun, moving way. I’m from the new school of motion. I don’t have a lot of formal training when it comes to filmmaking but I have spent so much of my life on set as a photo assistant and photographer, and my best friend is an award-winning sound designer who I have worked with for years. For me, making films was a natural progression and it all came together in a perfect way. With North and Nomad, we’ve spent the last year really focusing on making films that we wanted to make and finding stories we wanted to tell, and that’s been really exciting.
M: What's your favorite moment of the filmmaking process?
SB: These days my favorite part of the process is being behind the camera shooting with my FS700 and Odyssey 7Q. I’ve been working on my camera kit for a long time and I have lived and worked with my specific set of tools long enough now that I understand them and know how they are going to work. I know how long something will take to build and how far I can push the camera. All of those little details help me make better decisions. It’s a constant process of shooting, editing, coloring, evaluating and then remembering what did and didn’t work and paying more attention the next time around. I’m always testing and always practicing.
M: What do you think defines a filmmakers' voice?
SB: I think when you follow what feels good for you, you begin to channel your voice. It takes practice and time and a lot of mistakes and wrong turns. When I’m shooting I try to follow what I’m drawn to. It’s a good compass when making my work. If it feels good I’m generally happy with it later on down the road.
M: Tell us more about your process when creating your reel?
SB: I like to collect footage from commercial as well as personal work, and I also like to gather visually appealing footage as I see things that I like. When it comes to putting my reel all together, I think about it as a visual mixtape in a sense. I spent all of last year in an electronic music program and it was fun to make my 2015 reel the way I would now think about making a music track—by adding different elements together until they create one cohesive thing. I found a remixed track that I really liked from a producer friend who was my instructor the year prior, and that began to set the mood and pacing of the reel. I chopped all the best parts of the footage I had and began to lay it out until all the puzzle pieces fit nicely together.
M: What's the toughest decision you've ever had to make as a filmmaker?
SB: I’ve had a lot of difficult moments for sure, but there was one early on that comes to mind. I was supposed to shoot a limited edition custom Ferrari on a green screen for an ad. I had never really worked with a green screen or a car before. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed, and there were so many problems that day. The green screen wasn’t painted on the cove for some reason so we had to get four 12’x12’ chroma green rags and lay them down and if we damaged them it was going to cost a fortune. We were driving a car on them, so it was inevitable they were going to take a beating. The metal in the car had green contamination (green reflection in the surface adjacent to it) in the paneling, which makes for a more difficult matte process in post-production. We also needed a 40 foot x 40 foot silk, but it was a Sunday and no one was open. Our key grip pulled some strings and made it happen, but I had never rigged something that big before. We lit the shot, got the car into place, and then realized there was a miscommunication and no one had one had cleared the shot with Ferrari to use it for the ad. The creative director and I decided to cut the shot at the last minute. Everything felt so rushed and we didn’t have the proper clearance. Making the call to scrap the shot entirely was definitely a difficult moment.
M: What role do you feel music has in film?
SB: Everything. Sound is the life force to a video piece. It is the unseen glue that holds the entire thing together. It sets the tone and rhythm of the whole piece. Music (and sound) is great because it is so ethereal. It’s like magic. We can’t see it but it’s so important to the whole experience. I like to think of it as a sonic landscape that you can ground your visuals in. There is so much room for creating an amazing fully immersive experience by choosing the right soundscape. Watch a horror movie with the sound off and it’s nowhere near as scary. Sound is so influential in our daily human experience yet most people don’t pay much attention to it. Everything is in our universe is vibrating and emitting some frequency or tone. It is constantly playing a role in our existence. Music is the same in film.
M: How do you feel music is misused in projects?
SB: I think there are two things that really stick out to me. It seems people have a hard time appropriately pairing music with footage and folks use music and don’t license it. There is a lot of work where the music doesn’t fit the vibe of the overall piece and it feels discordant. I find a lot of the pairings are often heavy handed with the music choices. Music comes with it’s own emotional baggage from whatever associations we have from it and it’s personal. Sometimes people don’t license music and that’s a real no-no; the music industry takes copyright infringement really seriously, and using someone else’s work to elevate your own without their permission feels cheap and wrong to me. I also think using a popular track that everyone knows or is familiar with is a soft toss. Whatever your personal connection to that track immediately influences how you feel about that video you are watching. It’s easy to make your work feel bigger than it is by using someone’s fully produced, recognizable anthem. It’s difficult to make your own music that feels authentic to the work. I struggle with that all the time.
M: When do you know that you have something ready to show the world?
SB: I’m never really ready. I could tweak and refine until then end of time. But I have to remind myself not to time travel backwards and keep changing everything; I am usually done when I realize I’m obsessing over minutiae and force myself to walk away. I try my best to remember the bigger picture rather than noodling on one tiny detail. I’m trying to work on fussing less and trusting my decisions more.
M: What's coming up?
SB: It’s going to be a busy summer for sure! Karen and I are just finishing up shooting a ten-day documentary project we’ve been working on with North and Nomad about an Oakland tattoo artist. We are in post-production on two other video projects we shot in Austin, Los Angeles, and Portland. I just colored a music video that premieres in a few weeks. I’ve also been working on music when I can and there are always more projects in the works. We have travel booked to Seattle, Montana, NYC, London, and Ireland in the next few months, followed by our first visit to Burning Man. No complaints whatsoever.