Field Notes Interview #29: Preston Kanak, Filmmaker
Spontaneity doesn't always mean not having a plan. Sometimes planning ahead can give more room for unintended and adventitious moments in any project you're working on. Filmmaker, Preston Kanak drives this point home in his recent film Embargo.
While filming in Cuba and telling the story of "home," Preston and his filmmaking partner Brent Foster captured the unique landscape through visual storytelling. He used the track "Anchor" by Glass Wands as a driving force in conveying the mood of such a complex and beautiful setting of Havana and its rural outskirts. This is a strong and powerful piece, and a lot of it has to do with approaching the project with pre-planning.
We chatted with Preston Kanak about his process of filming and how music plays a role in his projects. Read on.
M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
PK: The desire to be a filmmaker came late for me. I started my education wanting to be an optometrist but never felt passionate with the schooling. I switched gears and enrolled in a media production and studies degree program. It was here where I started to learn more about filmmaking. In my third year with the program, I started a film a day project and it was during this project that I became hooked.
M: What's your favorite moment of the filmmaking process?
PK: My favorite part of the process is in meeting all the people along the way. Each person has such a unique story to tell and it excites me to see others passionate about what they do.
M: How did this Embargo come into form? What's the story behind this project?
PK: Last January, Brent Foster and I headed to Cuba to tell the story of home. We wanted to try showcase that unique feeling that comes with this idea. For ‘Embargo', I wanted to reinvestigate this story but through visual storytelling rather than rely on a voice-over to drive the story.
M: What do you think defines a filmmakers' "voice"?
PK: That is a tough question. For me, that voice is what wakes you up every morning and keeps driving you forward. It is the passion that drives and connects to the world around you. This voice may or may not be attached to a specific style of storytelling. Everyone has a unique story to tell based on their life experiences and this voice is what shares it with the world.
M: Do you always have a clear vision in mind when filming?
PK: Through my film a day project, I have definitely developed systems and processes with the work I produce. Regarding the clear vision, this is visible through the pre-production I do with every project. For me, a clear vision up front is critical to ensure the success of a project. I know that projects evolve through each step of the creative process but by having a plan up front, it is much easier to gauge whether or not I want to work on a project as well as how I want to approach it if it is a project I indeed want to work on.
M: Were there any happy accidents when filming?
PK: Happy accidents happen all the time when you are prepared from the start. If you are not scrambling to make things happen, happy accidents are inevitable.
M: What role do you feel music has in film?
PK: Music plays an integral role in any project. Much like the other audio elements, it can affect the way in which people interpret your message.
M: When do you know that you have something ready to show the world?
PK: My work is never 100% complete. I use deadlines for releasing content to the world. Because I am a perfectionist, I have to do this or nothing would ever get released. I think that by producing the film a day project, I was able to let go of the fact that nothing will ever be perfect. I focus more on the idea of ensuring that my last project is always my best and I am able to do this as I am always pushing myself to learn something new.
M: How do you feel music is misused in projects?
PK: Music is misused when it is used as a crutch. If the film changes the intended purpose of your film, it shouldn’t be used.
M: What's coming up?
PK: My next 6 months is pretty crazy. With my business, Cinescapes Collective, we have just opened up an office locally and have some commercial work taking us across Canada. Beyond this, we are committed to shooting a personal short a month spanning many genres to continue to push our creative side. The next of the series is slated to fire up the end of March in NYC with others being filmed in such places as Canyonlands and Peru.
Have your story to tell? Share your recent film with us at email@example.com. We'll feature our favorite on the journal and the winner will receive a Marmoset shirt and Field Notes notebook. C'mon, Share the love!
Field Notes Interview #36: Brent Foster, Filmmaker
Stories are all around, it's just a matter of finding the one ready to be told. For filmmakers, Brent and Tammy Foster of Foster Visuals, their new While I'm Here | The Legacy Project beautifully captures modern day figures telling their stories for future generations.
Brent started off his career as a photojournalist and fell in love with film as his career progressed, ultimately switching gears to work with moving picture. Having storytelling at the forefront of his craft, he's travelled to more than 20 countries, shooting images for The New York Times, LA Times and TIME.com. Now as a father of two with his wife Tammy, the other half of Foster Visuals, Brent has focused his attention to this story-driven passion project.
We chatted with Brent about how he finds stories out of thin air and how music helps elevate his films.
M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
BF: I knew I wanted to tell stories at a very early age, but started as a still photographer. I grew up in a small town in Ontario, Canada with a weekly newspaper that was dropped off to our home. I saw the paper sitting on my parent’s kitchen table one day and noticed how unique the black and white image was on the front page of the paper. It was a truly photojournalistic moment. Nothing was posed or contrived. I was hooked and have never looked back.
M: What's your favorite moment in the filmmaking process?
BF: I absolutely love spending time with people that I likely wouldn’t have the chance to meet if I didn’t have a camera in my hands. The filmmaking process is amazing, but the personal experiences that come along with the work are what I value the most.
M: What do you think defines a filmmakers voice?
BF: I prefer to let the subjects in our films define the pace, feel, and emotion of the story.
M: Tell us more about the Legacy Project.
BF: While I'm Here | The Legacy Project is a series of videos that profile living legacies while they're still doing what they do best ... turning life into legacy.
I decided to start this project after missing out on the chance to tell the story of a man from my hometown who dedicated his life to helping others. That man's name was Frank Dymock. For years, Frank opened his garage to the public and sharpened skates free of charge. He wouldn't accept a dime. He was an icon in the place where I grew up, and I always wanted to tell his story while he was still here.
Regretfully, I let time pass, and Frank passed away before I had the chance to tell his story. This project is dedicated to him and to countless others who live selflessly and truly leave a legacy, forever impacting the lives of the people lucky enough to cross their paths.
M: Are there any happy accidents when filming?
BF: For sure. I think the happy accidents come with hard work and putting yourself in the right place so you’re ready for magic to happen on camera.
M: What's one of your favorite scenes in film and why?
M: What role do you feel music has in film?
BF: Music pushes a film forward, evokes emotion, and is a fundamental part of every film we make.
M: When do you know you have something ready to show the world?
BF: Sometimes I wonder if I ever have something ready to show the world. I tweak, and re-tweak films over and over before putting them out there. They never feel perfect, but sometimes you just have to give them wings and let them fly!
M: How do you feel music is misused in film?
BF: The wrong choice of music can completely ruin a film. If it’s unnecessarily emotional, or trying too hard, it can really distract from a piece instead of helping it.
M: What's coming up?
BF: We're on a huge mission with the While I’m Here | The Legacy Project to try and tell the stories of 6-8 amazing living legacies over the course of the next year or so. So far, we are funding this ourselves, and producing the project alongside our work that pays the bills, so expect a busy year with a lot of updates!
Field Notes Interview #57: Matt Johnson, Filmmaker
When you watch any given film from Texas-based filmmaker, Matt Johnson, you're watching every ounce of his time and energy devoted to that project. Whether it's a wedding film in Dallas, or a travel film exploring the Oregon coast, Johnson places equal amounts of intention and thought in each piece. Matt's path as an artist is an intense one, guided by a personal and spiritual calling and it speaks in each of his films.
Keeping up with his inquisitive wanderlust, he's developed a travel drone film series that gives the audience a unique perspective a sense of place and landscape. We were floored by his recent film Pacific and how he paired beautiful aerial footage of our home turf with the atmospheric sounds from Josh Garrel's.
We caught up with Johnson when he came into town and we got a chance to dive into his artists path and what drives him and his compelling stories.
M: Why film? What compelled you to be a filmmaker?
MJ: I've always enjoyed the emotions that a good scene generates. My parents have VHS tapes of me at 10 years old, directing my mother to hang some black trash bags in front of our fireplace to make it look like outer space. Once the set was properly dressed, I directed my brother and friends to have a lightsaber battle in front of it while John Williams' Star Wars theme played. There are multiple takes of me yelling "cut" and telling them to start over because the choreography wasn't up to my high standards. Video creation continued as a hobby, but it wasn't until I won a video contest my university was holding in 2008 that things really took off. Texas A&M's Division of Marketing and Communications hired me as an intern and I started making videos for them, and anyone else who wanted them. That trend has continued to this day.
M: What's the toughest decision you've had to make as a filmmaker?
MJ: I had been at my university for around six years earning my bachelors and masters degrees. Graduation was rapidly approaching, and I realized that I really didn't have a plan to do anything other than film making. Even though many people have done it before, going freelance and starting my own business was terrifying. In college I had a comfortable excuse of "being a student", which kept me from having to commit to freelance video full time. At the same time, many friends of mine were graduating and still having difficulties finding jobs. They felt like their degrees weren't worth the paper they were printed on. I had to make a choice to either make videos or get a job doing something I didn't want to do. It was difficult, but only because it was unknown. After making the leap to freelance everything got a lot easier. I no longer had classes taking up the time that I could spend editing. It was a scary choice, but I'm happy I chose film making.
M: How do you feel music has a role in film?
MJ: Music, and sound in general, play a HUGE role in video. There are many studies out there showing that music provides emotion to a film. How many times have you been watching something and you feel yourself emotionally respond? The hero defeats the villain as the music swells to a crescendo. *Spoilers* Old Yeller dies while a really sad horn plays and we all cry. The emotions of a scene nearly always match the music and without it, video isn't really complete. Oh, and music is always great for montages. Any time there's a need to skip ahead in the story and they decide to do a musical montage I usually find it hilarious. Examples: Rocky's training scene, Remember the Titans, any '80s movie in general.
M: How do you feel music is misused in film?
MJ: One of my biggest peeves is when a new movie comes out and it extensively features a new song from an artist just because it is new. In a less Hollywood sense, I find that I'm now recognizing most of the songs that other filmmakers are using in their videos. This isn't only because I listen to a ton of tracks on music licensing sites (although I do that), but it is because they are going to the page that lists the most popular tracks on the site and using them. This isn't like Google search results where everything past the first page is not relevant. If you go past the second page of music licensing sites there are some amazing tracks that not many people are using in their films. I even hear other filmmaker friends of mine complaining that there aren't enough options on music licensing sites, or that all the songs sound the same. Of course they do if you only go to the popular page! Go listen to the least popular tracks on the site, listen to songs that aren't favorites of the staff, hear an entire artists library, you'll find amazing songs I guarantee it.
M: How do you feel your films are different than others?
MJ: Oh man, this is a good question. Remember that I'm trying to make the best videos that I can, no matter what. I would say what makes my videos different from others is probably my rampant perfectionism leading to my desire to only post something when it is finished. At least in my mind, my videos are the best they can be. There's this electronic band called The Glitch Mob and their work is amazing. A big reason is they aren't a part of a major label and they have time to perfect their work without having to worry about deadlines to release their albums. I was listening to a podcast interviewing one of the members and he shared that they go through at least 300 revisions of each song before they are finally happy with them! I have the same mentality when I am creating. It may not take me 300 rounds of changes, but I always find myself with at least 10 revised versions before I am happy with the finished product. In the case of Pacific or my other travel videos, it's more like 20 to 30 revisions. Most of these changes are usually me altering a clip length by a couple frames, or straightening something; really tiny stuff that only I notice and am
bothered by. Eventually I have to just release what I'm working on or I would be editing it forever.
M: What's the most recent album you've listened to?
MJ: I'm gonna be that boring guy and say that I don't listen to a ton of new music in my free time. About 90% of the music I listen to is on music licensing sites. When I hear music, my brain makes imagery to go with it, so it is nice to know that the songs I am listening to I can now use in a video. If you go to the newest releases on popular music licensing sites like Marmoset and I've probably listened to them. Otherwise, I spend a lot of time listening to Podcasts. My current favorites are Undisclosed, The Tim Ferriss Show, and The Adventure Zone.
M: How do you know when you're finished with a project?
MJ: This is so tough. How do I know when I am finished? Possibly when I realize that I can't make any more revisions. I am usually unhappy with most of my projects until they are about 98% finished. Let me explain my usual working style: I make a rough cut and revise it multiple times. Then I ignore it for a few days and work on something else. When I go back to it I see more things I would like to change. This whole process can repeat. Everything starts coming together after I do this a few times and I really begin to like the video. Eventually, I realize I need to move on to the next project and should send it off. That's about it. Of course then I'll watch it a few months later and see more things I should have fixed, but it is too late. In my head things are never finished, but for clients I usually have a deadline I try to stick with.
M: What makes a good story?
MJ: I would say a good villain. Or in a story where there isn't a specific villain, I would say it is critical that the main character have a strong adversity they are facing. People love Star Wars because of Darth Vader, The Avengers because of Loki etc. I re-watched The Imitation Game last night, a movie about cracking Germany's Enigma machine in World War II. This was such a good story because the problem was so complex for the main character to solve. The better the adversity the main character has to face, the better the film's story will be.
M: What's coming up for you as an artist?
MJ: I'm leaving on August 11th for Colorado/Wyoming/Idaho, for a week with my dad and brother. I'm bringing my video gear, but I don't know if I want to release another film so soon after my Pacific video. Otherwise, I'm going to be enjoying a month where I don't have any shoots before things get crazy again filming weddings most weekends.
Share your story and join the conversation at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll feature shared work on our journal. Featured filmmakers will get some sweet swag.
There are so many verbal ways to express appreciation, yet artist Jason Jägel takes another route -- he chooses painting. In this beautiful new short film by director, Noe Chavez, we get to see an artists' way of giving back to a neighborhood he loves: the Mission District.
Brimming with meditative, slow moving shots of San Francisco, Jägel's voice narrates his artistic process and "deep, personal conversation" with himself. Paired with the beautiful soundtrack of "Sun Through The Clouds" by Matthew Morgan, Jason Jägel not only tells his personal story, he tells the story of a city. Enjoy.
What do you think about this film?
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Guest DJ: Luke Randall, Director + Animator
When it comes to pairing music and picture (especially in short films), sometimes the presence of music needs to be more felt than heard. We present 10 tracks full of pictorial pondering and subtlety in our new Light + Reflective mixtape.
In our interview with featured filmmaker, Luke Randall about his film The Walrus, we chatted about the powerful use of using restraint and pacing in storytelling. When using light and atmospheric music, it can provide a powerful and complex emotional substance to any given scene without taking over. Enjoy.