My name in lights

November 21, 2009

My name isn't Karen Holness.

Although Rule 4 prevents me from accepting money for the Roadshow’s labour, I am sometimes offered free stuff in turn for my work. Usually food or booze. Or sometimes swag. (The legal swag, not the other kind.) And I happily accept these tokens. Last night, I was invited to the screening of the short film Wood If, which I worked on a few weeks ago. I thought it was very kind of them to include me on the guest list.

It was a good party at Grace Gallery on 3rd and Main. I was given wine and popcorn (two of my favourite things) and got to see some familiar faces from my day as a swing. The film turned out great and is playful and fun as Judson’s furniture. Overall, a pleasant evening. But little did I know, there was another surprise in store for me. As we watched the credits role, I noticed I had been given a shout out–a very sweet gesture by producer Liz Levine and director J.B. Sugar. So it looks like fame and recognition, albeit minor, is also one of the Roadshow’s perks.


Wood If

November 10, 2009

Roadshow stop: Set of Wood If
Roadshow role: Swing


Low-flying helicopters in Chicago

There were military trucks everywhere. Police cars. Ambulances. There were even two tanks parked on the Clark St. Bridge. It was downtown Chicago, August 2007. Crowds of people lined the banks of the Chicago River to watch the action. Two helicopters buzzed past flying so low they were amidst the skyscrapers. I pushed my way to the front of the crowd.

The helicopters did another dive along the river. And two minutes later, again. Was it a terrorist attack? Was there an important political figure in town? Was the city under siege? Then I noticed the cameras. And it turns out, it was all three. They were filming a scene from the The Dark Knight. I stayed and watched the helicopters make their pass between the buildings for another hour. They shot the scene at least two dozen times. The scale of it all floored me. I see movies being filmed in Vancouver on a regular basis, but rarely do I spend more than a cursory glance to see how they’ve re-fashioned Gastown to resemble New York City, or if there’s an actor I might recognize. But this was such a grand, over the top production. I had never seen anything like it.

A year later, when The Dark Knight opened in theaters, I was eager to see the scene I witnessed. I figured from the amount of time, effort, and money devoted to shooting it, the scene would be pivotal to the movie, or at least part of an epic action sequence.

It was less than three seconds long.

The shot had no real relevance to the film. It was filler. Or what in the ‘biz’ would be called an ‘establishing shot’. Perhaps in one iteration of the film, it had more significance. But if so, it never made it out of the editing room.


Judson's 'Beaver Cabinet' (Photo ©Kyla Day)

For this next stop on the Roadshow, I had mostly forgotten my behind the scenes glimpse at The Dark Knight. But it all came back to me when I stepped on set—the cameras, the lights, the sound equipment. The big difference, of course, being I wasn’t on the set of a major blockbuster film. Quite the opposite. It was a short (two-minute) film being made for Bravo!FACT Presents, a branch of CTV that produces short films highlighting Canada and the arts. The short, Wood If, featured the Dr. Seuss meets Guillermo del Toro-style artwork and furniture of Judson Beaumont and his company Straight Line Designs.

Judson's Dr. Seuss meets Guillermo del Toro-style (Photo ©Kyla Day)

There wasn’t a multi-million dollar budget, a crew of thousands, a 12-month filming schedule, or any on set divas. It had to be filmed over the course of three weekends with a budget of $15,000 and the crew, which was less than 20 people, were all volunteer. They weren’t paid for their long days or hard work, but did it because they believed in the film and in Judson’s art. Comparing the two productions seemed like an exercise in apples and oranges.

But there was one big similarity–shooting a film of any scale or budget requires a lot time and effort. A smaller production, however, doesn’t have the luxury to sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into a three-second scene. Instead, they have to maximize each second of their day as they shoot on a limited budget with limited resources. Creativity, innovation, and dedication take the place of ample bankrolls.


Composer & Sound Recordist Dany Gagnon on the sound stage (Photo ©Kyla Day)

Our first location was a 2800-square foot all-white sound stage. Judson, dressed in black, was being shot with one of his dressers. The white stage with its curved corners took away all depth perception and made Judson and the dresser appear to be floating in nothingness. The abstruse setting seemed an appropriate backdrop for Judsons’ playful and logic-defying furniture. The crew was filming a long shot, which had Judson walk towards his dresser, open a drawer, and then walk toward the camera. The scene had to be shot over and over again to ensure everything was just right: from Judson’s walk to the camera angle to the correct lighting to the optimal sound capture.

Director of Photography, Henry Chan, preparing for the long shot (Photo ©Kyla Day)

It was a lot of repetition. And a ton of ‘hurry up and wait’. But no one seemed to mind. It was just part of the process–and vital to the end result.

My role for the day was Swing–meaning I would help out wherever I was needed. There were only ten people on set that day, so an extra set of hands was in high demand. After shooting the scenes on the sound stage, we tore down the equipment, packed it into a half-ton truck and headed over to Judson’s workshop. At the workshop, I assumed the role of grip (or lug would be more appropriate) and spent the next two hours hauling equipment into Judson’s studio with one of the crew’s actual grips, Melissa Beaupre. And there was a ton of equipment to haul: cameras, cranes, dollies, lights, cables, scaffolds, electrical boxes. Just because a film is only two minutes long, doesn’t mean it needs any less equipment.


Getting the light just right (Photo ©Kyla Day)

When all the equipment was unpacked and organized, Melissa and I watched from outside Judson’s office as the director, J.B. Sugar, and director of photography, Henry Chan, filmed Judson sketching. It was almost 6 pm and they had been going steady since 8 am. But there was no waning of enthusiasm. J.B. and Henry were keen to make their own art from the art being created in front of them. And they shot take after take to ensure they got it right.

Judson sketching in his studio (Photo ©Kyla Day)

There were no helicopters or tanks on this set. But it didn’t need these big price tag props. Because all day long there was an air of exhilaration of something big happening, something important being created. The crew was charged with the possibility of accurately portraying Judson’s spirited personality and artwork. And even though the process was slow going and ate up their weekends, the crew was driven by the prospect of playing a key role in the creation of this two-minute final product.

The Crew
Writer / Director J.B. Sugar
Producer Liz Levine
Artist Judson Beaumont
Director of Photography Henry Chan
Steadicam Bob Findlay
1st AC Francis Kramer
2nd AC Jeremy Lundstrom
Assistant Director Matthew Blecha
Composer & Sound Recordist Dany Gagnon
Gaffer Rory Soderman
Key Grip Benoit Lamarche
Grip Melissa Beaupre
Grip Garrett Lalonde
Grip Richard Burton
Grip Dawson Oatt
Location Manager Oliver Rappard
First Aid/Craft Service/Props/F.A.C.S. Sara Quine
Driver Jameson Parker
Editor Jason
Stills Photographer Kyla Day

Lookin’ good

October 10, 2009

My Mentor: Kyla Day
My Mentor’s details: Freelance Designer and Developer

Looking good isn’t easy. Sure, there are a few natural beauties that can spring out of bed perfectly quaffed–every strand of hair in place, looking dewy fresh with breath smelling like hibiscus and roses. But I’m guessing most people’s blank palette is closer to mine–roll out of bed with hair that could be mistaken for a glam band from the eighties, pillow wrinkles on the cheek, a faint stream of dried drool on the chin, and breath that makes you wonder where the cat came from that defecated in your mouth some time during the night. It requires some effort to transform that into something even remotely attractive.

And this doesn’t apply to just people. Making things look good also takes a lot of work. More than most people realize. And this is particularly poignant with the everyday things we see. Websites. Newspapers. Magazines. Logos. Brands. Books. Blogs. And who is responsible for all this hard work? For keeping print and web from looking like this? Graphic designers. These often unsung heroes are responsible for preventing the assault on our senses and infusing art into our daily lives. They give so much to our visual world and we don’t even realize it: order, beauty, simplicity, vibrancy. And unlike a visual artist, who gets to dictate their own vision or inspiration, a graphic designer has to answer to someone. They have to fulfill the needs of a client or a boss or a board. And that’s tough. Because most people have no clue what they want until they see something they don’t want.

The Language of Tact
So a designer needs to gently coax out the desired direction from their client and lead them to an appropriate aesthetic. It’s harder than it sounds. And usually requires figuring out what a client needs and not necessarily what they say they want. After a lengthy discussion intended to decipher these needs, a designer then visually translates it, and hopes that she creates something that is both effective and pleases the client. Since mind reading is not an option, designers have to speak a lot of different languages, and perhaps the most important is the language of tact. Because a surprising number of people like ugly design. Or at least they think they do, until a professional gives them something better.

For this leg of the Roadshow, I got to witness a designer in action: Kyla Day. Kyla’s been a designer for ten years and a freelancer for the past year. Her clients range from political parties to musicians to doctors to marketing firms. On the day I shadowed her, she was doing a layout for a friend’s blog. And as usual, her client had no idea what she wanted.

For this particular client, Kyla didn’t get to go through her usual routine of research and questions. It was a rush job. And the client claimed to not care what it looked like, as long as it was ‘cool’. According to Kyla, this lack of direction usually doesn’t forebode well. While it sounds like free-range artistic license, it usually just means more work to try and decipher what exactly it is the person unwittingly desires.

Indecisive and Difficult
Kyla had put together three thumbnails, each representing a visual direction the blog could take. I sat in on the meeting where she pitched the looks. Normally, Kyla would organize a more formal encounter but since this was a rush job for a friend, things were more casual. But certainly not any easier. As soon as the client looked at the designs, it was clear she was going to be difficult. She was enthusiastic about them all. But unwilling to commit. She waffled. Back and forth. Twenty minutes passed. Still indecisive. She turned to Kyla for advice. “Which one do you like?” she asked. Instead of choosing for her, Kyla diplomatically and patiently pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of them all. It was clear the client was in agony. She was wrought with worry because choosing meant committing to something that would become her brand, her visual representation, her face to the online world.

After another 15 minutes of flipping back and forth Design Two was rejected.

Design Two

Design Two

Another 15 minutes: Design One was rejected.

Design One

Design One

But with conditions. The client wanted to combine parts of Design One into Design Three.

Design Three

Design Three

Revisions are more work than you would expect. It’s not a simple click of the mouse. It’s labour intensive. It takes time. Some changes, regardless of how minor they seem, might involve hours of work to achieve. But Kyla maintained her calm and professional manner at the requests. At this stage in the design, revisions are expected and encouraged. And can be done quickly. It’s when the client begins making revisions to the revisions that things get sticky.

Again, because the client was a friend, things didn’t follow the normal course of action. Kyla would usually take the client’s feedback and then rework the design on her own. But in this case, the client sat in on and directed the changes. But since she didn’t know what she wanted, her directions were vague and indecisive. She made suggestions and then second guessed herself. She wanted things changed back, and then changed again.

“I’m just not sure about the colours,” she said. “What if we change the yellow?”

“And maybe a different font?”

“Okay, no. I like the yellow.”

“I’m not sure. Which one do you like?”

“I hate the yellow. Can we change it?”

Design Four

Design Four

After an hour the original thumbnail was no longer recognizable. It was amazing to watch the transformation. Kyla created something brand new from the ambiguous suggestions. She had managed to piece together the client’s cloudy vision and give her not only exactly what she wanted, but also what she needed to look good.

Looking good isn’t easy. But with a professional’s artistic eye, even a pillow-wrinkled, drool-covered mess can emerge into something attractive and dewy-fresh.

Final Design

Final Design

To contact Kyla Day, you can email her or check out her website at