SFS Films

Finding an audience for student films

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By Peter Galvin

We talk to three prize-winning graduates from 2016 about finding an audience for their films and their career pathways.

Professional filmmakers often debate the question: what’s harder? Getting a film made? Or getting it out into the world, so an audience can see it?

The question is just as important for emerging filmmakers. In the best imaginable outcome a successful festival appearance can lead to career development – a contract with a production company, prize money, recognition, or a distribution deal.

Still, there are practical hurdles to consider. There are literally 1000s of festivals available to the filmmaker, both traditional and online and just working through the options costs time and making submissions can end up costing money, too.

“I think it’s really important to be selective [and strategic] when considering where to send your film,” suggests Jonathan Wilhelmsson, who graduated in the SFS Advanced Diploma in December, after specialising in editing. His major project, Waltzing Tilda, a spectacular post-apocalyptic comedy-fantasy, laden with intricate visual effects, which he wrote and directed, earned him the Best Director prize at the SFS Festival last month.

raquelWilhelmsson explains that he will, alongside Tilda’s producer SFS AD graduate Raquel Linde (who shared the best producer prize) will be seeking out ‘niche’ and ‘destination’ film festivals for their film – that is those events that specialise in showcasing a certain kind of cinema. “In our case we will look at sci-fi, fantasy and comedy,” he said.

Adds Linde: “I think its really important to research and research before sending off your film.”

It’s about finding the right audience for your film, she says. SFS has a mechanism in place in order to deal with festivals and advice available from industry experts like Nick Szmidt, a distribution specialist, but Linde believes that filmmakers need to take a ‘hands-on’ approach in the goal of getting their film into the world.

Linde who left school in 2010 came to Australia at the start of 2016 from her native Spain to study at SFS after earning a BA in film and working as a fashion photographer. Her AD major work, Atomic Garden, an ambitious and poetic film, won the Best Thesis prize at the SFS festival in December.

She said that distribution is like any other aspect of filmmaking: it’s about being sensitive to the complex subtleties of each element and working as a team.

Originally from a small town in Sweden called Mockfjard, Wilhelmsson first came to Australia in 2010 for the SFS Diploma straight after graduating high school. Since then he has returned to Scandinavia where he setup a small business specialising in editing and visual effects. He came back to Australia in January 2016 to complete the AD. Now he plans to stay here and develop Waltzing Tilda into a feature with Linde.

Wilhelmsson says that initially there was some scepticism about the achievability of Waltzing Tilda, a view shared by staff and students. This only made him more determined: “I think it’s important to aim high…it forces you to be better.” He says it’s a credit to his cohort, Linde and the School, that in the end, he was given full support. A demonstration, he says, of the community culture of SFS.

Petra Lovrencic, AD producing graduate who shared the Best Producer prize with Linde and fellow graduate Afreenish Shahid agrees that SFS is a ‘safe space’ to explore, challenge and define one’s filmmaking practice: “We could be as ambitious as we could be,” she says of Ill Rittorno, a melodrama about betrayal and revenge set in a remote province in the Fascist Italy of the 1930s, which she produced.

Written and directed by AD graduate Alex Giblin, the film, says Lovrencic, had enormous logistical and practical issues to resolve not the least of which was the choice of making the film using Italian dialogue: a language not shared by any of the key crew members!

“I think the mistake I made during the production was taking on too much,” she says now. “I learned to delegate and the importance of lining up the production with the vision so everyone is making the same film. It was the hardest film I was involved with…and the most rewarding.”

Lovrencic who left school in 2004 has been in the work force (specialising in human resources) since 2005 and came to SFS two years ago wanting to write and direct. What she found was a vocation: “It was the first time in my life where I had to really work hard at something.” Her own film as writer/director Tesla, Revisited! won an audience prize at the festival in December.

Last Spring Lovrencic joined the SFS community as a staff member. She accepted the role of Executive Producer of the SFS Studio. “The role is about sourcing clients, pitching ideas to clients, writing treatments, organising shoots,” she explains.

Her advice now to grads and film students is to see distribution and festival going as part of career development: “Part of the reason you enter your film in a festival is to actually get to the festival!”

Festivals are an important opportunity to network, she says. It’s a chance to meet other filmmakers and share experience and insights.

Big festivals are attractive because of their visibility, and they are hotly competitive as a result. But sometimes a large international festival can demand exclusivity based on territory and region (that is, a film can be disqualified if its already been screened by a similar festival in the same city, and or/country.) This is where the film student needs to read the small print, when selecting a festival, says Lovrencic.

“I think when you are new to the industry you really need to take every chance – in makes sense to enter your film into as many festivals as you can,” she says. “Its far more achievable than just focusing on getting into ‘the Big One’.”

ENDS

 

 

Life after Film School

By Peter Galvin

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Leaving study to find work is an exciting and scary moment for any graduate. In film, TV and media the stakes are notoriously high, the competition fierce.

Still, Sydney Film School graduates have experienced a particularly high success rate in making the best of available opportunities.

Eight-five per cent of candidates who have completed their Advanced Diploma at SFS in the last three years are now finding regular work in the media industry – especially film and TV.

Part of what has made this possible say recent graduates like Jonathan Martin, was that SFS offers a strong culture of support where skills are emphasised and collaboration is a core value.

A full-time editor at production house Broken Yellow Martin has had the job since the beginning of 2016 after a short period freelancing. He told me he started thinking out a career pathway strategy from his first day at SFS…and he suggests that current students do the same.

Martin came to SFS with a degree in film and media from Queensland’s Griffith University.

“I was frustrated (with my situation there) because you couldn’t get entry level jobs in the film industry-unless you specialised,” he says.

“As soon as I got to SFS I decided to learn as much as I could – I wanted to specialise in editing,” he says.

“I invested in some gear and built up a portfolio of work.”

Fiona Gillman, originally from Queensland, left school in 2009 and came to SFS last year with a degree in musical theatre.

For her, SFS was a turning point – both personally and professionally. There she formed powerful bonds with teachers and fellow students. These relationships now define her post-grad career.

“The teachers encourage you to be yourself and find your voice,” she said, adding: “I love the place.”

While at SFS Gillman met Holly Fraser, who left high school only four years ago but was already a film industry veteran, since she began her career as a child actor aged 10 and has worked steadily in movies, TV and stage since.

“I think the most rewarding thing about SFS was the trust that were given,” Fraser says.

“We were treated with a lot of respect from the teaching community – they were mentors and gave us a lot of advice.”

Fraser and Gillman and their team completed an ambitious musical comedy short called To the Top at the end of 2015. It caught the attention of SFS tutor, producer Heather Ogilvie (Accidents Happen), who proposed developing a new project.

Now Gillman, Fraser and Ogilvie are preparing a six part web series called The Virgin Intervention. With financial support provided by Screen Australia through the Gender Matters program, the comedy will shoot next year with Gillman starring and writing and Fraser producing. Meanwhile both Gillman and Fraser are preparing new projects as writer-directors.

Advanced Diploma graduate Jovan Atanackovic, now an emerging cinematographer, has already had industry recognition, even if he admits now he did not quite have a precise plan for a career on graduation. Recently he shot a pilot for a web series called Amy Danzig. Written and directed by SFS grad Josh Sambono and featuring Holly Fraser the show has just launched a kickstarter campaign.

Earlier this year the prestigious Australian Cinematographers Society awarded Atanackvovic the prize for best student cinematography for his work on SFS short Harvest (2015).

Written and directed by SFS graduate Amaan Hassen the film has been selected to screen at the Cameraimage film competition in Poland, a festival dedicated to the art and craft of cinematography. Atanackovic, will be travelling to the event. He says its ideal opportunity to build connections.

“There’s no one to one relationship between getting an award and work,” he says. Atanackovic, who moved to Australia a few years ago to study film from his native Ireland, says he is now getting steady freelance work. He recommends new graduates make the effort to connect with professionals though guilds and associations like ACS: it’s a way to learn what is important about the job, and the values of the people who do it every day.

“Doing good work is essential,” he says, “but the important thing – in terms of getting work – is that the professional world needs to be able to trust the new filmmaker.” They need to get to know you so they are certain you share similar values about the art and craft, he says.

Martin agrees: “You have to be able to work with everyone and people have to be comfortable to work with you. Professionals aren’t going to involve you in projects unless they feel you are going to work well together.”

He says graduates need to make the effort to understand the workplace. Don’t over estimate your knowledge but don’t undersell your ability either, Martin suggests.

“I think when you are entering the workforce you need to keep an open mind,” adds recent SFS advanced diploma graduate Stevie McDonald.

After leaving high school in 2008, McDonald studied film and media in Queensland before coming to SFS.

She feels that many undergraduates become fixed on a career in a specific discipline, like say directing.

This focus has its obvious virtues she says but it can be a serious disadvantage when attempting to discover the diversity of jobs on offer in the film and TV industry. A multiple skill set can lead to discovering new creative talents.

“I think it’s important to step out of your comfort zone,” she explains. “I think grads need to try out different skills and disciplines.”

McDonald is speaking from experience. While at SFS she specialised in cinematography. Like Atanackovic McDonald did not have a career pathway worked out once she left SFS.

Now she works full time as an assistant editor on reality TV series Married at First Sight (Nine Network). SFS grad Arnold Perez recommended McDonald to the shows producers Endomol Shine Australia, a significant player in television both here and Europe: a perfect example of the SFS network paying off, she says!

“I think diversification has certainly help me as a pathway into the industry,” adds Johnny Grace who left high school in 2010 and graduated from the advanced diploma at SFS in 2015.

Based in Melbourne, Grace has spent his post-grad life making corporate video, producing shorts at VCA and working in entry-level jobs like production runner.

This job allowed him close up access to the day-to-day subtleties of the camera and art department. This he says is an invaluable experience. Grace learnt what each crew member needed from the other in order to do their best work.

“A top director gave me some good advice recently,” he adds, “she said ‘don’t be in a hurry and spend your first three years out of film school learning as much as you can’…it made me feel good about where I’m at.”

Right now Grace is nearing completion on a new short as writer-director. Called Astronaut the production was developed as the winner of the SFS IAB short film competition. It will screen at the SFS Festival in December.

Grace believes the best advice he can give to graduates entering the freelance market is to use the time between jobs working on their own projects. He wrote Astronaut between writing to every production house in Melbourne.

“I think there will be things that come along that scare you,” says Fraser, who completed an internship at Matchbox Pictures after finishing her diploma last year. “You have to be prepared to take every opportunity, take risks and take all the work you can…and consider that no job is beneath you and at the same never turn down a gig because you think you aren’t good enough!”

Even if all the SFS graduates here have experienced very different pathways in building their careers all of them agree that the school instilled virtues like self-reliance and perseverance: values that have helped them in the hard times.

Still, it’s the network of SFS grads and teachers that they know will always play a significant part in their past and future careers.

“I think when you are talking about pathways,” says Fraser, “I would say to grads: ‘cherish the relationships you have made in the time you have spent at SFS’.”

“The best thing about SFS is the community – it is much easier if you need help to get help,” says McDonald.

Martin adds: “Who really gets to leave SFS? You can walk out of the building…but you never leave…SFS is the people!”

Dr. Alejandra Canales talks about the importance of documentary as an art form.

An Interview with Alejandra Canales

By Peter Galvin

“Pealejandra_1032-largersonally, I don’t see a difference between documentary and fiction films,” explains filmmaker and teacher Alejandra Canales.

“They are both cinema.”

Canales, who is Head of Documentary at the Sydney Film School, explains that the essential values of storytelling are the same between the two forms of fiction and non-fiction film.

“The important things are the same,” Canales said. “The various story elements meet in this sharing space with an audience.

Amongst the many rewards of teaching she explains is watching how emerging filmmakers develop a unique vision for their work. This is one of the best things about film school – it’s an ideal place to “develop a voice.”

Canales is particularly proud of the fact that SFS can boast a history of success in producing documentary filmmakers whose work has been widely seen on the national, and global festival circuit. These include the films of SFS grads Maya Newell (Gayby Baby) and Gracie Otto (The Last Impressario).

This tradition continues with the 2016 Antenna Documentary Film Festival. Beginning in Sydney on 13 October it will travel to Melbourne and Brisbane later in the month.

The program features How History May Come, a deeply personal animated short produced in the SFS Diploma program in 2016.

Written, directed and narrated by Olesya Mazur, a Russian national, it is a personal history that recalls the tragic impact of the Great Famine of the 1930s on her great-great grandparents in the USSR.

Canales latest short For the Kids will also screen. It tells the remarkable story of a couple from the mid-north coast of NSW who spent the last 25 years caring as foster parents for vulnerable kids.

Canales, who has been involved with documentary for more than a decade, said that she did not set out to be a filmmaker. Her career began working in theatre and advertising in her native Chile.

There she began experimenting with documentary and developing a very personal relationship with the form.

“I know it’s a cliché…but what I found once I started making documentaries was that life really was much weirder than anything you might possibly imagine,” she said.

For Canales what she discovered once she began working in non-fiction film was a ‘special tension’ between the ‘subject’ and the filmmaker.

“It was that uncontrollable aspect of dealing with a ‘lived reality’,” she said.

That is, she said, documentary filmmakers have to have a constant sense of improvisation…going with the moment, thinking on their feet and responding honestly and openly to the unanticipated event.

“For me that is really appealing.”

For Canales the importance of documentary as an art form has to do with,

“leaving an imprint about the way we live in a particular time.”

“You get inspired when you teach a lot,” she says of her SFS experience. While respectful of journalism and investigative reportage, Canales feels that documentary is an opportunity to explore themes with a strong point of view that has nothing to do with objectivity.

Which is to say that for Canales the tradition of ‘documentary’ is rich, varied and personal.

“I have this fire inside me where I try to approach each subject in an individual way – you always bring something of yourself to each film,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SFS Alumni Liu Tianrong talks filmmaking in China

Sy051400005333EC3D67379F7DDE0628F5dney Film School alumni, Liu Tianrong  and his success in China

Sydney Film School equips their students with the tools they need to work not only in the Australian film industry, but also on a global scale as alumni, Liu Tianrong has discovered.

Currently living in Beijing, Tianrong graduated from Sydney Film School in 2011 and found not only that he was able to apply what he learnt to make his films in his homeland, but also that the filmmaking education he received was superior to that of his colleagues in China. His two films The Stormy Night and Illusions have recently been released in China and we are grateful to have been able to talk to Tianrong about his journey so far and how Sydney Film School has contributed his success.

Congratulations on your films, The Stormy Night and Illusion! Both of these films were made and released in China, so what can you tell us about them?

The Stormy Night is about a girl who was stuck in her car because the rain had made her car’s electrical system not work so she could not open the doors or windows. The water is getting higher and higher, she must find the way out of her car otherwise she will drown. This is a true story, every Beijinger knows it. Film is a kind of art about moments. This film is about survival, life and death and memory. Illusion is a mockumentary. I shot it within 15 days. They were very cold days in a winter mountain village. That was a very hard and unforgettable experience. That experience told me filmmaking is very practical. You have to make it if you want to truly understand it.

Your film, The Stormy Night is a horror film. What made you decide to make a horror for your first film?

Why I chose to make a horror film at the beginning of my career?  I think there are two reasons. First, horror film can be made for a very low budget. Secondly, I believe film must be very stylized. Horror film is very stylized. That means you can make a real film with a very low budget. That is great for every new filmmaker.

What is something you learnt about making a horror film?

I found a very interesting thing and that is that humour and horror are very similar. I had read a book about Humour Psychology when I was kid. In that book, it gave me a very vivid metaphor about humour… humour is, at the beginning, making people believe you will lead them to A, but at last you lead them turn to B suddenly. The point is you have to make people believe you are leading them to A as much as you possibly can. Same as in a horror film. Making some things beyond audience’s expectations, but you have to hide them well at beginning.

Is horror the direction you wish to take your upcoming films in?

No. I want to try another type of film if possible. I am looking for a change.

What do you find are the biggest differences between working in the Chinese film industry and the Australian?

As a Chinese filmmaker, we often say that “horror film is one thing, Chinese horror film is another”. Why? In China we have censorship.  For example, In China you cannot create a real ghost in the film, but in Australian horror films real ghosts are very common. Hence sometime we describe filmmaking in China is like “dancing with feathers”.

Did you find that what you learnt at Sydney Film School could be applied to global filmmaking and if so, how?

In Sydney Film School, we shot and edit film. That experience was very important to me. That makes me like a craftsman. It gave me deep thought in image, which is hard to explain. I work on every detail; I treat my film as an artwork. In China, no film school teaches filmmaking so I believe these young filmmakers cannot really understand filmmaking as an art and it’s beauty.

Why did you choose to study at Sydney Film School?

It is great school and has friendly and lovely teachers. It’s like a big family. I learnt things in a very practical way. An unforgettable memory.

What was the process like beginning your career in China after you graduated from Sydney Film School?

My first job was as a writer working at the Beijing TV station. In the beginning, I had to earn the respect and trust from the investors and making my own networks in the industry.

What are you currently working on at the moment?

I am working on a few films as producer. Some new directors will shoot these films.

What advice would you give to students studying at Sydney Film School?

The most important thing in the beginning of your career is stamina. Sometimes you feel lonely because no one asks you to be his or her filmmaker and sometimes you feel angry because no one trusts you could be a good filmmaker, but you have to believe yourself and stick it out. Keep your dreams and your dreams will come true.