Category Archives: Exclusive

In Production Design The Details DO Matter

Last night, I was sorting through some old emails I had filed away when I stumbled upon this email my former boss and production designer, Rocco Matteo, had sent a while back. He sent it to all the creative departments involved with one of the biggest sets we had just finished in our studio parking lot of all places and I was quite moved. See email below, published with permission.


The Email

“So a funny thing happened on our last night of shooting, up at the military base set:

As people were shaking hands before wrap one of the U.S military advisors came over to me and started asking me about my role on the show and making the set… I was bracing myself for the worst– did they notice something wrong? Well instead he shook my hand and started reciting a solemn sounding speech.

He had served with a soldier named Leroy Petry in Iraq. This soldier was one of only three soldiers to have received the Congressional Medal of Honour for Valor [the highest military award] since the Vietnam war. Our military consultant, a major by rank, had been commissioned by Mr Petry to commend any persons who represent the Iraq veterans in a true and honourable fashion. So he presented a medallion to me on behalf of the efforts of my crew. He said he was moved to tears by details that he saw in our set that brought him back to the base in Iraq– signage, murals, details, materials. How often have we been told that those little details don’t matter– that nobody sees them?

He wanted me to know that all the vets will notice. I thought all of you should know. GOOD JOB GANG!”

Rocco Matteo


A photo during prep of one of the murals | Photo credit: Rocco Matteo


Have you ever noticed the details on a film or television set that moved you in some way or allowed you to tap into a memory? For those who work in film and television, have you ever had the details in one of your sets recognized in a similar way? As always, I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.

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HOT DOCS 2011 REVIEWS: The Shorts Edition

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My Hot Docs marathon continues this week and I just wanted to make sure that short films got their fair shake as well so I made sure to catch a bunch. Here are some of my thoughts on six of the short films playing at Hot Docs this year.

TWO’S A CROWD

Rating: *****

Directed By: Jim and Tom Isler | Country: USA

Runtime: 19min 41sec

Synopsis: The key to Allen and Collette’s midlife marriage has been keeping separate apartments, 20 blocks from each other, in New York City. But when financial pressures force Allen to move in with Collette, issues of privacy, independence and bathroom usage call into question the viability of relationships in the modern age. A docu-comedy about romance and rent control.

Review: Two’s a Crowd is the type of film so funny and lovable you wish it were a feature. We meet two people, Allen, 56 and a Libra, he let’s us know, and Collette, 55 with a strong sense of independence, who have seemingly walked out of a Woody Allen film onto the screen.  The film catches this couple who have been married for four years but have never lived together just as they are about to make the move. As the economy came crashing down they realised they would have to move in together for financial reasons and reluctantly brace to live together- in the same space- until death do them part. The most interesting thing for me was how much their individual spaces define them and they just can’t let go of that need for separate togetherness. I don’t want to spoil the film so I’ll just finish by saying that this is honestly one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen at the festival largely due to the unique, quirky and comic couple at the heart of the film. It’s a shame it’s only 20 minutes but worth the price of admission.

Playing with: MATCHMAKING MAYOR

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THREE WALLS

Rating: *****

Directed By: Zaheed Mawani | Country: Canada

Runtime: 26 min

Synopsis: Three Walls traces the development of the office cubicle since its inception in the late 1960s to its current status as the dominant form of office furniture in North America. More than a bit of social history, this documentary captures the melancholic absurdity of the modern day office and examines the larger issues surrounding the shifting nature of white-collar work.

Review: Three Walls allows us to understand the nature of the office cubicle and its entrapment of the every day office working individual. The film quotes the inventor of the office cubicle, Bob Propst, “One of the dumbest things you can do is sit in one space and let the world pass you by,” which plays as a thesis statement to the impending film. Every thing after this proves that exact point. The film goes on to interview many people who work in office cubicles as they discuss their spaces intertwined with footage of office cubicles being made and an interview with a representative of Herman Miller which first put cubicles or ‘systems furniture’ on the market and their intentions by doing so (120 degree angled separators- not cubes). While all of this sounds pretty boring the cinematography and the hints at visual humor along with some quirky office workers propel the film to a level you wouldn’t think a doc about office cubicles could go. A must-see for anyone who works in an office.

Playing with: MAIDS & BOSSES

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POSTER GIRL

Rating: ****

Directed By: Sara Nesson | Country: USA

Runtime: 38min

Synopsis: Sara Nesson’s Oscar-nominated debut follows Iraq War veteran Robynn Murray’s harrowing battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A one-time poster girl for young women in combat, Murray’s raw emotion devastates and inspires in this impassioned journey towards healing and self-discovery.

Review: Poster Girl follows Robynn Murray’s journey to reclaim her youth while dealing with the pounding after effects of war. She suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a direct result of the horrors she witnessed in Iraq as she vividly describes her time there spliced on screen with photos of the war. We see Robynn on her good days and on her bad. Some days she struggles to contain her rage and others she can barely contain her sadness. On a good day the best she can do is be hopeful that her future will not be as bad as her past. I am glad the film also shows the lack of social assistance she receives due to illness and the struggle to even receive a dime from the military two years after they were done using her as a weapon. I had slight problems with the end being a bit cliche but overall it was a very well told eye opening documentary.

Playing with: MELISSA- MOM AND ME

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P.S. YOUR MYSTERY SENDER

Rating: ****

Directed By: Benjamin Wigley | Country: UK

Runtime: 9 min

Synopsis: Sir Paul Smith Jr., the English fashion retailer known for creating classically tailored menswear with a characteristic twist, has an anonymous benefactor. For 20 years he’s received a series of highly imaginative gifts in the mail: unsigned, unwrapped, uncanny yet perfectly charming. Who is responsible?

Review: P.S. Your Mystery Sender focuses on creativity in a most unusual form. Paul Smith has been receiving random objects from a total stranger unknown to him since the early eighties. These gifts range from a volleyball to a wagon to a traffic cone, to an E.T doll. I agree with Paul Smith in that there is something very beautiful about this act of randomness. Each object is sent not in a box but with the stamps thoughtfully placed and the address written directly on the object. Even the colour and placement of the stamps are well thought out. What Paul has ended up with over the years is now a diverse, interesting and oddly beautiful museum of random objects. I have mixed feelings about the pace of the film due to some poetic narration that breaks into scenes and some reenactments of the story but overall some of that works in its favour. This part of the narrator’s hypothesis particularly intrigued me, “Objects live too… they travel like hard souls…” This mystery sender has brought new life to seemingly banal objects and changed the nature of which these objects were originally intended.

Playing with: RESURRECT DEAD: THE MYSTERY OF THE TOYNBEE TILES

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UPROOTED

Rating: ***

Directed By: Andrew Moir | Country: Canada

Runtime: 6 min

Synopsis: Tobacco farmer Joe Vanden Elzen was happily tending the land, just like the five generations of farmers who’d come before him. But in 2005, in an effort to curtail the tobacco industry, the Canadian government requested that hundreds of farmers relinquish their crops and say goodbye to their livelihoods forever. Joe was among those who signed the deal and lived to regret it.

Review: Uprooted delves into a family’s regret over taking a government buyout and relinquishing their farm and their livelihood. While I think this documentary is too short and doesn’t give quite enough detail or history on both Joe’s ancestry in farming and why the government was buying out tobacco farms in the first place I think the cinematography saves the day. Almost every shot could be screencapped and hung up on the wall as a beautiful piece of photography showcasing farming life in Canada. The shot inside the tobacco farm is particularly stunning. An astoundingly beautiful film but ultimately lacks depth in some areas.

Playing with: THE CHOCOLATE FARMER

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SURPRISEVILLE

Rating: ***1/2

Directed By: Tim Travers Hawkins | Country: UK

Runtime: 9 min

Synopsis: Welcome to Surprise, Arizona, a study in irony. Make yourself at home in a master-planned, gated community of strict standards and rigorously maintained bylaws. Finally, a community for people who think the grass is greener on their side of the fence and the rest of the world should keep out.

Review: Surpriseville is a quiet doc that lets you make your own opinions but also (in my opinion) visually mocks a gated community in Arizona. Surpriseville, Arizona is a cultivated community founded on the idea of community safety. The community is a mish mash of people from all over basically escaping the realities of the real world. Their goals are to keep the community protected, safe, garbage-free, regulated, ‘beautiful’, and ‘enjoyable’. “I’m very happy to sometimes never leave here. We just don’t think about it,” one woman says. These people believe themselves to be among the happiest in the world  but I see them as the saddest people in the world. It’s surprisingly (pun intended) comic actually when one father says that kids get snatched up in vans “quite often” in the real world and his wife ironically states, “Fear is what keeps people from being productive. I mean it’s stifling.” It begs the question who is the one living in fear? Me or her in her gated community. Also just wanted to mention- who created these houses in ‘Paradise’ because they are particularly drab and ugly if I do say so myself. Just sayin’.

Playing with: THE GOOD LIFE

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What will you be seeing at Hot Docs this year?
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Rose XO.
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HOT DOCS 2011 REVIEWS: Big Buzz Films

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival starts off shortly with Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold about the quantity and persistence of product placement in television and film all while selling branding rights in order to finance that very film. Also playing tonight is  Michael Tucker & Petra Epperlein’s documentary, Fightville which gets to the heart of the MMA fighting world in which fighters condition not only their bodies but their minds and souls in order to be the very best.

I had a chance to see a lot of the films receiving early buzz including the two films mentioned above. Check out my thoughts below on what’s hot and what’s not.

BUCK

Rating: ****1/2

Directed By: Cindy Meehl | Country: USA

Runtime: 88 min

Synopsis: The Horse Whisperer may be the stuff of Hollywood legend but the charismatic horseman who inspired the novel and the film is very real. For Buck Brannaman – a true cowboy who is also part guru and part philosopher -horses are a mirror of the human soul.

Review: In this Sundance Audience Award Winner Buck Brannaman, a famed horse whisperer, proves that almost any horse can perform as an extension of oneself if given the proper training. The magnificent thing is that it is not the horses that need the training- it is the humans. Through intermittent discussion of Buck’s own abusive childhood we come to learn what Buck has been through with his own father which in some sense gave him the unique ability to understand a horse’s fears so he could become one of the best horse trainers working today.  Buck is the type of film easy to fall in love with as it gets to the heart of why horses are gentle and soulful creatures by nature; it is man who has the ability to turn a horse wild, like a father with his son. There is no need to be a ‘horse person’ going into this film- Buck’s modesty will charm you into leaving a grand admirer of both horses and Buck Brannaman himself.

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LIMELIGHT

Rating: *1/2

Directed By: Billy Corben | Country: USA

Runtime: 101 min

Synopsis: The Limelight was one of New York’s most famous nightclubs, but beneath its glamour and celebrity was an underworld of drugs, betrayal and murder. In Billy Corben’s latest documentary, we follow Limelight creator Peter Gatien through his career and the business of clubbing that nearly destroyed him.

Review: Limelight documents Peter Gatien’s humble beginnings in Cornwall, Ontario, Canada and his meteoric rise to the top with clubs in Atlanta and later ‘Limelight’ in New York City. It just so happens that his rise to the top coincided with the rise of the drug Ecstasy which became popular with the generation of club kids that Peter Gatien worked hard to create and populate throughout his clubs. Now while all of this sounds well and good in terms of entertaining subject matter, think again. This doc is a mess- from story-telling to tacky graphics I don’t know where to start. The first half doesn’t know where it’s going or frankly if there is a story arc to be had. Eventually they get to the point near the middle of the film which is the court case against Peter Gatien accusing him of knowingly turning a blind eye (no pun intended) to the drug culture he created which ultimately led to his deportation to Canada. The worst part is the film is so one-sided it feels like a Pro-Peter Gatien propaganda film. In the end it’s interesting subject matter told atrociously with no new details. I wish I could say it was better.

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FIGHTVILLE

Rating: *****

Directed By: Michael Tucker & Petra Epperlein | Country:  USA

Runtime: 85 min

Synopsis: In a small gym in Louisiana where competitors mop up their own blood between battles, Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback are two young fighters with potential and a dream. Through their trials, the nuanced tactics and extreme self-discipline of MMA become apparent. This is a brutal sport but there is a surprising grace and spirituality to it.

Review: Fightville follows two fighters who want to be the very best in the MMA fighting world in order to get signed by the UFC. While violence may dissuade some viewers I think that the film is very respectful in what we see on camera and never shows us brutality for entertainment’s sake. I just want to reiterate that this is not a sensationalist telling of a bloodsport. I really appreciated fighter Dustin Poirier’s passion as redemption from his past and the channeling of his energy into what is now a very well managed and regulated sport. We come to see that the most important thing is not just the physical conditioning these men receive in training but the  technical and mental conditioning. This is proven in one of my favourite scenes where Albert is unprepared and coming up short after he lets life get in the way of his goals. In the end you will leave understanding these men, what they do, why they do it and how they’ve come so far in a sport so often misunderstood.

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BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER’S JOURNEY

Rating: *****

Directed By: Constance Marks | Country: USA

Runtime: 76 min

Synopsis: This Sundance Special Jury Prize winner is heart-warming and fun for the whole family. Being Elmo is the inspiring story of how a shy nine-year-old Kevin Clash pursued his dream of becoming a puppeteer on Sesame Street. Raised in a low-income community, Clash’s talents were evident in his homemade prototypes and the puppet shows he staged for his mother’s daycare kids. But it was after his first gig on a local children’s TV show that he was truly on his path.

Review: Being Elmo is the story about the man behind the muppet. We meet Kevin Clash, a.k.a ‘Elmo’ who shows us his humble beginnings in a low income black community and how he stumbled upon puppeteering at a very young age. He saw his dreams come true so quickly he could barely believe his  luck. What becomes very apparent during the film is that this wasn’t just luck, it was single-minded determination and supportive parents not to mention the puppeteering pioneers such as Jim Henson who took him under their wing and nurtured his innate talent for bringing these characters to life. The film also reminds us that every success has its price and certainly Kevin has had to sacrifice his relationships and his time in order to allow Elmo to ‘love’ the masses. However if you’re looking for a feel good doc to make you feel all warm and fuzzy this is most definitely the documentary for you.

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THE BULLY PROJECT

Rating: *****

Directed By: Lee Hirsch | Country: USA

Runtime: 94 min

Synopsis: The Bully Project follows five kids and families over the course of a school year. Stories include two families who have lost children to suicide and a mother who awaits the fate of her 14-year-old daughter who has been incarcerated after bringing a gun on her school bus. With rare access to the Sioux City Community School District, the film gives an intimate glimpse into school buses, classrooms, cafeterias and principle’s offices- offering insight into the often cruel world of children.

Review: The Bully Project stands up for every kid whose ever been bullied and brings their story to the forefront in a heart-wrenching and beautifully weaved portrait of the bullying crisis in America… and YES- it is a crisis. The filmmakers go in from all sides including child suicides due to bullying. It continues to show us what is and isn’t going on between teachers, principals, students and most importantly their parents. Among the case studies, we meet Alex, age 12, who is picked on and abused almost daily but when his parents finally find out and talk to the principal they are treated with general ambivalence. What’s frustrating is that the teachers, counselors, principals and parents are trying but it takes the parents of the offending child to also appropriately take action. We are made witness to the fact that there are no easy answers,  but also understanding that the ‘boys will be boys’ excuse is not an acceptable response and open dialogue in communities will help to create solutions. From the end of the film: Text ‘BULLYPROJECT’ to ‘30644’ to help make a difference.

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POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD

Rating: ****

Directed By: Morgan Spurlock | Country: USA

Runtime: 90 min

Synopsis: How can a documentary become a blockbuster? Observing that all big Hollywood movies rely on product placements to generate mass awareness, Morgan Spurlock and producing/writing partner Jeremy Chilnick set their sights on the advertising world for their new project, a doc-buster built on branding. Spurlock buys into marketing mania to tease out the myriad methods by which products are woven into the fabric of corporate entertainment.

Review: Morgan Spurlock does it again with a documentary as entertaining as it is informative. Morgan’s goal as he starts out on his journey is to make a film funded by product placement about product placement. Along the way we the audience learn about brand collateral and brand personality and how the film and TV industry sell out daily in order to market their films better and get their project to the masses. While all of this may sound dry and boring the film is largely a comedy about a man on a mission to get a film made come hell or high water while remaining completely transparent as he ‘sells out’. By the end of the film, as we become inundated with advertisements, even Morgan starts to wonder, “Have I sold out?” By trying to exploit big brands (in a matter of speaking) has he gone to the dark side? I will say that working in the art department, this film gave me unique insight into how I myself am affecting the viewer every time I pick up the phone to add product placement to a project. I will think twice.

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Will you be seeing anything at Hot Docs? Do any of these look or sound particularly enticing?

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Rose XO. .

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Art DepartMENTAL @ Hot Docs 2011

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As many of you may know, Art DepartMENTAL is based out of Toronto, Canada and as such we have access to easily two of the greatest festivals in the World. That being the Toronto International Film Festival and of course North America’s largest documentary festival, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. I have been granted special access to cover the festival and thus for the first time I bring you full coverage of Hot Docs 18th year with exclusive previews and insight into the best documentaries of the year.

This year Hot Docs brings us 199 documentaries from around the globe from 3D to animation to re-enactments. “Every year we start with the goal of showing everything documentary can do. Yet, more so than ever, what documentary is doing is re-inventing itself, expanding our notions of its capacity to communicate contemporary stories and ideas,” explains Sean Farnel, Hot Docs Director of Programming. He couldn’t have put it better. We are currently in the golden age of  documentary filmmaking. No longer need we snore through a documentary about a caterpillar turning into a butterfly as we did in elementary school. Documentary is now more than just mere education, it can be as entertaining, shocking, ground-breaking and visual as any non-fiction film around.

If you are not in the Toronto area do not fret. You can check out most of the trailers and some clips on the Hot Docs Youtube Channel. Hot Docs also has an amazing online library of docs that I can’t recommend highly enough. You will find incredible gems on this website that will change the way you look at the World around you: http://www.hotdocslibrary.ca/.

Hot Docs runs from April 28-May 8, 2011 and hopefully you’ll come along for the ride. Live-tweeting has already begun on our Twitter page, @artdepartmental. Stay tuned…

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Do you plan on attending Hot Docs? What is your favourite documentary of all-time? Why?

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Rose XO.

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OF NOTE: I can not talk about documentary filmmaking without mentioning the huge loss of Tim Hetherington, co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, who died alongside his colleague, esteemed photojournalist Chris Hondros during a mortar attack in Libya yesterday. My sincerest sympathies go out to their family, friends, colleagues and all those whose lives they touched through their astounding acts of journalism and bravery.

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EXCLUSIVE: From the Sketchbook of Black Swan Production Designer, Thérèse DePrez

Exclusive to Art DepartMENTAL here is a very special post for all of you hardcore art department geeks like I am. As a huge fan of Thérèse DePrez I knew, and as some of you may have seen in the Black Swan production design featurette below, Thérèse DePrez keeps a sketchbook which basically documents the entire production design process. In fact she does this for all of the films she production designs which I found pretty great. Below are six photos of the inside of her Black Swan sketchbook which beautifully sum up the extraordinary behind-the scenes work of the art department in this case headed by the amazing Thérèse DePrez on Black Swan. Enjoy!

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Left: Mock up of Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) poster | Right: Production Meeting notes, notice the colour-coding of the notes for different departments

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Reference images for the pink visual palette of the film.

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Sun-prints Thérèse DePrez made to turn into wallpaper for Erica Sayers’ (Barbara Hershey’s) bedroom set.

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Stage and lighting plan for Swan Lake stage scenes. Notice the fantastic logo on the bottom right. The UK Black Swan posters are very reminiscent of this.

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Photoshop image of potential drops/graphics for ballet rehearsal room set.

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Initial rough models for Swan Lake set piece. Moving cliff set.

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Are you familiar with Ms.DePrez’s work? How did you feel about Black Swan? After viewing these photos, notes, drawings, models, reference images, don’t you just want to work in the art department (if you aren’t already)? As seen in these photos, it’s pretty fulfilling work if you can get it.
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Rose XO.

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