Every year around this time I used to submit my film school projects to various film festivals that caught my attention. Part of my student experience was about reaching out to different sources for validation and promotion. It sounds needy, and that's because it was. I wanted to know that I could find work in video after university, and film festivals proved to be the ideal testing grounds for developing my skills in self promotion. As it turned out, that was the least of what I got.
The very first film festival I submitted my work to in 2005 was the Student Video Competition portion of the Medicine Hat Film Festival. It was always a pretty small gathering with no more than 30 or so submissions, but it ended up becoming a testing ground for my work before submitting my projects to bigger student festivals. I submitted my experimental short, Keys to Existence in the 2005 festival and ended up winning the popular vote for the Audience Choice Award and 2nd place in the video category from the jury vote (the other category was animation). I still have the small plaques on my wall as a reminder of that competition and what it ultimately lead to. Keys went on to screen at Youngcuts International that year in Toronto, followed up by a digital media festival in South Korea in early 2006. My success in my hometown festival is what I credit with opening the flood gates to the other venues that I avidly pursued in the few years that followed.
One of the other benefits of the Medicine Hat Film Festival came later in 2007, when Stream Media was one of the key sponsors for the fest. After returning home to Medicine Hat after university in 2008, I contacted Stream about potential employment opportunities. My involvement in the festival became my foot in the door, and after a brief interview I was offered a job working alongside a small team to help shoot and edit promotional videos for corporate clients. It was an amazing opportunity, and the start of a business relationship that I still benefit from today. I always tell people who ask about my start that I never had a very stable plan after film school, but I had hoped that the film festivals I participated in had helped me cast a big net. I became really opportunistic, and I jumped at any opportunity that seemed even mildly related to the things I was interested in in the hopes that I could make them even more relevant. I owe that mindset to the experiences I got from my participation in student film festivals. The Student Video Competition in the MHFF hasn't run for years now, and it's simply due to lack of sponsorship and organization. It's a big undertaking, and it does take a lot of work to drum up enough attention to get quality submissions. It's a shame, because as a student who was just starting out it was a great experience. Before YouTube, before I ever screened my work at venues outside of Canada, and before I found work as an editor, I shared my work at the MHFF.
Story: This corny trophy was supposed to be this corny when I received it. It's from my second year in university when my film profs selected my short, Keys to Existence as the best personal project created by a 2nd year production student. It was handed out at the year end screening in April, and while it was far from a grand affair, at that time it was certainly something.
When I was told I won, I got a little certificate and this make-shift trophy. While I'm sure many don't even remember the screening, that early achievement felt huge to me. I've held onto this memento for that very reason. Before I had done any festivals or contests, this little award felt like my first tangible piece of acknowledgment. I've spoken a lot about Keys on this blog and how it helped me promote myself. It is without question that my experience in 2nd year film encouraged me to push myself harder and submit my work to numerous venues.
If this blog is any representation, than I think there's a lot to be said about what I've accomplished and worked towards in the last 5 years since this was given to me. It's enough to make this ridiculous trophy shelf worthy.
Project:Keys to Existence Shot: February 2004 Location: Parent's House - Medicine Hat, AB Revisited: April 2009 Of all the locations I've shot, this one is probably one of the most unique. Were it not for the success of Keys to Existence, I would have omitted this location because of how insignificant it seems. But, therein lies the lure of the project. The fact that so much could be said and patterned using the literal 'keys' of the piano, resulted in the most critically acclaimed short of my film school career. See the 2005 version of the movie below.
My most decorated film, my first major film school project, and what I like to say is the movie that established my professional film portfolio. Keys to Existence is an experimental short I shot in 2004 as part of one of my film production classes. The full story behind the project can be read here. Notice the brand new poster and view the promo for the project, as well as the full film, below.
With some of my early film school projects now several years old, I'm able to look back at them with nostalgia and appreciate how much my promotion has evolved. With some of my newer projects like A Chill and the Air and Give it Time also receiving new credits this year, I'm excited to think about how the possibilities for new venues and credibility increase when my work is critically received by multiple sources in completely different parts of the world. Keys to Existence makes me proud because I know how much I grew when I went through the process of making it, refining it, submitting it, and promoting it as a student. Like all artists must feel, even though some of the projects that have followed have been more time consuming and complex, there's a lot to be said about roots and the personal projects that let you see things in new ways for the first time.
Since creating this blog along with a YouTube channel to share my work, I've said countless times that I considered this all to be part of my online portfolio. The hope being that a wealth of new people would see and give feedback to my work, and in some way push my credibility a little higher a single view at a time. So far it's all been quite a motivation boost, with over 17,000 blog views and well over 60,000 video views in just a year, and keep in mind that it's largely from talking just about myself and my movies, but until last week I had never been on the other end of the promotional spectrum when I was presented with direct opportunities to accept or decline.
Up until now I've been playing the festival/competition game, and really I'm still playing it. To have 2 different people contact me in a week from my YouTube channel just seemed so out of the blue, that when I first opened the messages I was skeptical to say the least. Before I explain the details of each, I will preface this by saying that both opportunities have been finalized on my part and will be going ahead later this year. Getting curious yet?? haha.
The first message I received came from a segment producer in Minnesota who is responsible for a short film series on television titled Short Cuts. He inquired about having my films on the program after seeing Keys to Existence and A Chill in the Air on YouTube. My first impression was that someone was pulling my leg, but after talking with the producer further the opportunity only sounded better and better. The program is out of Rochester, MN and is 12 part series, an episode a month, in which several filmmakers have their work shown each episode (the episode repeats several times throughout the month). My work would be appearing later this year as the series is already in progress. Now this is no national broadcast or anything, and I'm not making money on this, but as far as I'm concerned it's exposure to a handful of new people, and in the producer's words that's over 35,000 households or about 85,000 people. Hello Minnesota!
The second message came only several days later from a completely different part of the world. Again, I received the message from someone who had just watched Keys to Existence and wanted to know if I'd like it to be part of their festival. In the midst of my high with the Minnesota show I did a bit of research on the festival and accepted soon after. The festival is Aeon 2008 and is a mixed media festival including art, music and film from around the world all showcased over a weekend in a giant field in Crediton in the United Kingdom. Keys to Existence will screen on rotation in the 'video-dome'. A theatre set up in a giant tent that will serve as a point of interest in between performances throughout the day.
Needless to say I'm excited about both opportunities. Even just the simple gesture of someone asking to share my work, as opposed to me going through the promotion process, has proven enough to re-energize my creative energy and has left me scribbling out several new ideas for a couple of short films to share and submit, both on YouTube and abroad.
When I thought of myself leaving university I pictured myself in a job that was just a job, doing work that took away from the creativity that I really wanted to pursue. To my surprise, I'm shooting and editing for my day job, and still have the energy and passion to pursue my personal film goals at my leisure. I've never felt more satisfied with the direction I'm in. I may be broke, but I sure am happy!
In my 2nd year of film school one of the core assignments was to make an experimental film. As I remember it was all open concept, so you could pretty much do whatever you wanted to. I'm no experimental film buff, but the one thing that drives me crazy about avant-garde is that so many films just seem like random imagery that the filmmaker throws in, hoping that the audience or critics will give it meaning. I didn't want to do this. So in establishing my idea I got thinking about how I could create obvious symbols that would make my experiment a bit more accessible.
I woke up in the middle of the night a few days after the project was assigned, and I'm not sure why exactly but I started writing. I was thinking about the piano that my parents had, and I started working out different patterns that I could make between the piano keys and my hands playing them. A list of comparisons and contrasts evolved into a symbolic depiction of how humans interact with the planet. With countless hours of revision, it was these random bits and pieces of concepts became the basis of my project, Keys to Existence.
Everything seemed to go pretty fast after that. Suddenly I felt I had a fresh and exciting idea, although it's always tough to make others see what you're thinking right off the bat. I remember going around the table in production class to share what we all planned on doing, and I recall some blank expressions. "You're making an experimental film about playing the piano"? In retrospect, had I been on the other end of the table I probably would have questioned the exact same things. As I refined my idea, and worked out my finished storyboards and shot lists it became more clear that I'd come up with something pretty original. It also met my criteria for being meaningful and poignant without seeming too cryptic or unnecessarily arty for the purpose of faking a message. At the end of the semester my completed film received a 95% which is probably the highest mark I've ever got on such a major assignment in university. I'm pretty sure that was the highest mark of any assignment in our class, because as an added bonus I won the 'Jury Prize' that year (Best Personal Project in 2nd Year Production) as selected by my film profs. The award was a certificate and a secondhand trophy.
This is the original 2004 version of Keys that I submitted in class.
In the spring of 2005 I submitted Keys to Existence to the Medicine Hat Student Film Festival (back in my hometown) where I ended up winning 2nd place overall in the festival. However, the real highlight was winning the Audience Choice Award. That festival, although it was the first that I had ever taken part in, became the primer for several larger events. Over the summer of 2005, I decided to improve my short further by cleaning up some of the filters and adding several brand new scenes to broaden to the scope of the project.
Due to my success at the MHFF I next submitted my film to the Youngcuts International Film Festival, a competition for filmmakers 25 and under held in Toronto that year. Out of hundreds of entrants, I received an 'Official Selection' as part of the Top 100 movies, which meant that my film was screened in a movie theatre for the event. All this was quite a rush, because for the first time I experienced what it was like to have the support of complete strangers. Even more exciting, and remember that this was before my blog, it was great to feel like I was actually doing something with my work besides storing it on a shelf.
Several months later, I submitted Keys to BUDi2006 - an international digital media festival in Busan, South Korea. Out of 280 global submissions, I was thrilled when I heard that Keys to Existence was selected. Furthermore, out of 31 films in my category, I was shortlisted into the Top 7 and had my film played in an open exhibit with an estimated 10,000 people in attendance.
*Update 2008: Thanks in large part to this blog and my YouTube channel, I was contacted directly to have Keys screened at a giant outdoor multi-media festival/concert in the UK this summer. Only days later I was contacted again to have my movie featured in a short film series broadcast in the USA. See Mom and Dad? Those piano lessons in elementary school paid off after all.
This project continues to mean a lot to me because it symbolizes the start of my film festival pursuits and it got me thinking about my career seriously. Perhaps most significant though, Keys has influenced everything I've made since. It was this project that gave me the confidence to acknowledge my own potential and push through the criticisms and doubt that hit head on in early film school. Although filmmaking is as simple as merely filming something, being a filmmaker is something else; Keys helped me realize that.
Without further delay, please enjoy Keys to Existence.
Keys to Existence (2005) Keys to Existence Promo (2008)