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  • Ben Tobin

Refinement

Updated: Oct 3

I tend to avoid looking back at old work. It's a painful exercise because more often than nought I see a million things I'd do differently. What seemed brilliant at the time becomes cringeworthy. I prefer to keep my rose-tinted glasses firmly on, and rose tinted earmuffs when it comes to looking back. Over the weekend I took a look back and there was plenty to cringe about but also ideas I can see developing that I have improved upon.

It's been a while since I've made a film. The pandemic took away my momentum, and I've also been working on a short film for about five years...or rather waiting on the animation to be done. It's felt wrong to really start something when there's a project still on the plate, glaring up at me. I feel as rusty as I am. I've keep some creative muscles in shape by doing a lot of photography (which I consider my sketchbook). I've been using photography to explore certain images or concepts I'd like to use in a film. For a while I've felt like all of this has been practice for something, but the more I think about a feature film or something bigger I get stuck. So far I really haven't ventured out of the short format, partly because I don't feel like I've mastered it yet and partly because I don't feel ready to go big.


I've so far explored more experimental territory as well as the family film and horror genres. I'd say poked at the genres more than anything. My last two films, one of which is the film still under construction, have been Pixar-inspired because Pixar is a company on my bucket list of places to work. Going back through what I have I realized how long it's been and how these earlier shorts that I was so proud of at the time were more like Iron Man's first suit of armor made of scrap metal from a cave. There were ideas and visuals and moments and elements that I still like that were compromised by a microbudget. Said microbudget didn't stop me from trying to make a period film set in the 50s/60s.


It feels a world away, and excluding some earlier college efforts when I first started trying to make films, 2016 was my first attempt at trying to do something bigger with a narrative short with The Sky on His Back. I was still primarily working by myself on sound and camera. This one was especially hard to watch. It was my first actual script written in a script-writing program. I was lucky to have the amazing Carlos Uriona on as a wizard who can turn into a bird and Devin Henry as the boy who wants to fly. The idea was to create a fable set in 1948. I must've hit about twenty different film student cliches in the first few minutes alone. Looking back at this one I still like the idea, but it all comes down to how I executed it and how I shot it and my writing. There are still moments that land for me, and the score by Nicola Royston is still marvelous. I like the performances. The structure and the story and the dialogue and how I shot it left me wanting to go back and do an overhaul.



I've always been interested in telling stories about introverts and dealing with themes of isolation and imagination using magical realism. I'm also a visual effects nerd even though I have no skill in this area. So far my rollback has been useful as an exercise in seeing what worked more clearly with the benefit of hindsight...as hard is it is watching all the things that don't work. My next project came about in film school, and was meant to be an MOS (silent movie). I veered into the horror genre for a ghost/possession type of movie. Seeing them back to back I realize I walked away from Sky with a newfound interest in improving my production design and costume design. Sky was the first time I actively tried to establish some mise en scène and where I purchased costuming...as opposed to relying on what actors could bring themselves.



With Summoning (also 2016) I still had to rely on actors bringing costuming. I have always felt really uncomfortable asking people to wear costumes...especially if I'm getting them and asking for sizes. I hadn't yet met any costume designers at this point, or production designers. I was able to get some props for the seance scene and I settled for more carefully curating the costuming. The story involves a sorceress (Jacinthe Connor) conducting a seance. She has a young ward (Emmett Ruth) who she treats as a servant. I hadn't read Sandman, and this is years before the Netflix show, but the character of Alex ended up feeling like a similar character...a son that is treated more like a servant by a fairly malevolent magical caregiver. I noticed going through all the same limitations on my part. There's something that prevents it from feeling cinematic in the way I had hoped, but the things I aimed to improve, costuming and production design, do feel like a step up from Sky. I feel I managed to scratch the surface of the kind of atmosphere I was looking for. For all the care I put into at the time, it still feels like I didn't exit the amateur zone. This is another story that stood out as one I'd like to go back and remake and flesh out properly with a crew and a budget. It is an initial film school exercise, and I couldn't help but notice my reliance on familiar faces and familiar tools like my Blackmagic Camera.


I had a brief, and disastrous film experience in 2017 where the fates seemed to be conspiring against me at every turn (not Lost in La Mancha level but it was painful). This is My World. The concept was a fairly bizarre experimental film about a young man trapped in a house that wouldn't let him out. The film ended up mixing in archival footage of 1950s social conditioning videos to fill in all the gaps. It was a mess and it is the one piece I really couldn't go back to because the lessons from that film were hard learned. The only major turning point was meeting a very talented costume designer and finding some success in creating an authentic vintage look. The vintage 40s/50s piece from Sky on His Back still had a strong hold on me. This is one story I will probably not return to, but will definitely take pieces for reuse and repurposing.



Both Sky on His Back and Summoning were hard for me to watch, but painful as it was, I could see that I learned some lessons from both experiences. I could tell that I subconsciously wanted to improve on the period quality of the film and the student/teacher type relationship between the magical character and the young man...only with a darker take on it. I didn't make another film until 2017 and it represented a big step forward as I was using the RED and 5K. The Curious Incident of Everett Wilder benefited from the technical improvements and my having more practice with a camera. The film isn't done yet but I already know some of the things I'd like to change about how I shot it and wrote it. Comparing it to Sky on His Back, it was represented another attempt to make a fable set in the past. This time I really made a conscious effort to improve the production design and the costuming. I took what I learned on This is My World very much to heart.


With my last costume outing in Sky, it felt a bit like a rough draft for the costumes in this film. I was able to find some period clothing (some of it too large) and some pieces that were sort of close to the period but I really just assembled a pile of clothing and the sizing was all over the place. It looked like an attempt to make a period costume. I unabashedly took the same design concept from Devin's character and applied to the Everett character (Nate Ruth) in the new film because the costuming there was close to what I wanted but not quite there. The first time I went in 1) not knowing much about the period aesthetics and 2) I was aiming for authenticity. This time I went in wanting to create the impression of the era, but leaving room for it to be a bit more theatrical given my lack of access to truly authentic period clothes. I also got a few different sizes to avoid having anything look too large. I wanted to feel more like a fable than a pure period film and the similarities ended up with both characters having bow ties, knee socks, and sweater vests and being overdressed. I can also see the DNA connecting this batch of recent efforts, especially with the fussily dressed protagonist who is an imaginative lonely nerd. I'm quite the opposite of fussily dressed, but the rest falls into that write what you know trap.





















We ended up finding actors (Ry Armstrong and Vanessa Libbey) to play the older versions of the characters played by Nate Ruth and Ripley Dresser and there it was possible to get some authentic period costumes that added a whole other dimension to the proceedings.



I feel a lot better looking at the changes I made between these films. It was the first time I really felt like a saw a more sizeable jump forward in my craft. I hadn't intended on making another film while still working on Everett Wilder, but I ended up needing to do a thesis film for film school. I initially tried to go back to the horror genre with a more Vicotorian vibe. I had met some collaborators I really wanted to work with again, but ultimately that script didn't happen and I ended up more directly cutting the next project from the fabric of Everett Wilder. I brought back the same cast and the same 50s/60s aesthetic. While part of me wishes I'd had the chance to branch off further, this new project A Home for Curiosities, gave me a chance to further refine what had worked in Wilder. I also made sure that this story wouldn't require digital effects.



Curiosities ended up being more dialogue heavy and less reverie focused. I ended up bringing back the dynamic of the child and the older, magical character...and it ended up this time falling somewhere between the whimsy of Sky On His Back and the darker turn in Summoning. The story involves a boy finding a home full of forgotten imaginary friends and the main imaginary friend fits the bill of a sort of sorceress in the woods. I'm happy with this evolution.


I did consciously try to avoid duplicating the costuming and production design. I found very different locations and leaned in more to the early 60s. The last film ended up seeing Nate's character Everett in a pretty consistent signature look, though some overlap was of course inevitable. Given Nate was returning as an admittedly similar character––a nerdy, self-isolating bookworm with a big heart––an effort was made to not make his look identical...though the bow tie and vest found their way back in at the end.


Going back to Curiosities was relatively less painful in comparison to the other work, and this vintage fused aesthetic is something where it's becoming more refined as I go. I find myself still wanting to improve upon this recent line of work, but the notion of charging forward into less familiar territory is also nagging at me. While I've found that my craft improved since I've focused on this aesthetic and improving it but I also worry about becoming stagnant from a lack of challenge. I don't feel I'm done refining this particular look either.

I'm not sure where my next projects will take me, or when I will get back to filmmaking. I do know I wouldn't tackle a film again without having a proper budget and a crew and more planning time in place. I hope the future will hold an adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time.


Oh...and we can't forget the Double Life of Hugh which was the last project I undertook before the pandemic...the story of a father and son mime duo played by Nate Ruth and Collin Allen. This project emerged from a fake commercial I made for class, and by request of the actors to suit up as mimes again. The elaborate story possibilities has me thinking about tackling this story again from another angle at some point. It goes without saying that those themes of isolation, identity, and imagination found their way into the work...which makes me think I really need to bring on a writer and other team members to steer me away from that comfort zone.


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