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Is the Secret to Better Short Films Inside Seattle's Fly Filmmaking Challenge?

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 9, 2011 at 8:0AM

The Seattle International Film Festival's Fly Filmmaking Challenge sounds like a well-meaning recipe for disaster: The festival selects a handful of local filmmakers and give them the tools to churn out short films in three days.
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SJ Chiro's "The Epiphany," part of the Fly Filmmaking Challenge. Photo courtesy of SIFF.

The Seattle International Film Festival's Fly Filmmaking Challenge sounds like a well-meaning recipe for disaster: The festival selects a handful of local filmmakers and give them the tools to churn out short films in three days.

However, as this year's selection proved the challenge has more value than a gimmick. The three 10-minute shorts, which screened at SIFF earlier in the week, are actually pretty good. "These shorts were significantly better than a lot of the crap I've sat through," said an audience member during the Q&A following Tuesday's screening.

The program was designed to respond to a problem inherent to large cities and their diffuse communities: They can be difficult for filmmakers to find support to create new work. The Fly Filmmaking Challenge creates an opportunity by teaming with Washington Film Works (the office that coordinates the state's productions), selecting a handful of local filmmakers and giving them the tools to churn out short films in three days.

"The cool thing about it is the its ability to bring the community together, whether it's the crew or the filmmakers, writers and composers," said one of the selected filmmakers, Matthew J. Clark. "One thing we lack in Seattle is a good, solid, and strong film base for people to mingle on both the commercial and non-commercial sides. This allows us to develop that relationship and make it stronger."

The productions must resolve a series of constraints, called "flies in the ointment" challenges: Two of three days of shooting must take place at The Production Shop, a recently opened studio in neighboring Tukwila, Wash. The filmmakers must incorporate SIFF sponsor Burlington Coat Factory into their shorts. The crew can no more than 12 and each script must include a stock character, as picked out of a hat. The one challenge they don't face is budget: SIFF sponsors provide everything from film reels to editing stations.

Speaking before the screening, Washington Film Works executive director Amy Lillard said, "This has always been an opportunity for local filmmakers to get cameras into the hands of local filmmakers. But it's also a chance for audiences to see their work."

SIFF and Washington Film Works put a significant effort into selecting the participants. Other Seattle organizations, such as the Northwest Filmmakers Cooperative and 911 Media Arts, submit names for consideration. "We'll look at reels and we'll look at previous films," said Dustin Kaspar, SIFF's educational programs coordinator. "We're looking for diverse filmmakers. These are three very distinct artists."

So it would seem. In the touching and unexpectedly humorous "After All This," Clark follows a wisecracking young woman (Alycia Delmore, "Humpday") through her final days as she dies from cancer in a hospital room. (Clark drew the word "journalist" from a hat and gave the profession to Delmore's character's boyfriend.)

SJ Chiro's "The Epiphany," a transcendent blend of pop culture and personal psychology, adapts Jonathan Lethem's short story of the same name and deals with a lonely bachelor who imagines himself as a superhero. (Chiro drew the word "superhero.")

Tim Watkins' "Tilting at Windmills" begins as a farcical take on Don Quixote, with a modern-day homeless man wandering the Seattle streets looking for his damsel in distress before it takes a topical (and tragic) turn. Preceding the shorts was a satirical behind-the-scenes documentary produced by the youth filmmaking group Reel Grrls, "Little Peter Needs to Fly."

Kaspar emphasized the need to ensure the shorts' quality. "We want to give local filmmakers a space to create something that's not disposable," he said. "They have enough time to create something that will have festival play, and isn't so short that they can just toss it out."

When Chiro, an admitted superhero amateur, discovered her stock character, "I freaked out," she said. On a whim, she wrote to Lethem, who got back to her the next day and suggested his short story as a basis for her project.

Clark, meanwhile, went into the challenge with the idea for his short already in mind and simply inserted the requisite character into it. "I just figured I would make this story work one way or another," he said. His biggest challenge was creating the set. The story takes place entirely within the constraints of a hospital room, which he and his crew had to build from scratch. "We spent more time building it than shooting in it," he said.

This is the sort of quick thinking that the organizers want. "The filmmakers chosen are filmmakers we want to put into a pressure cooker, and just let instinct drive them," Kaspar said. "We want to let that creative process flourish."

That they do: The filmmakers retain ownership of their work and SIFF invites them to submit it to other festivals. All three filmmakers expressed interest in tweaking their results. "It's not like this has to be the final cut," Kaspar said.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit, Seattle International Film Festival , Production, Seattle International Film Festival