InFocus Film School Blog


There is a dedicated team of on set film crew members behind every moment of movie magic. From lights, to sound, to art direction, each department is essential in its own way. But what role do production assistants and others in entry level film positions play?

They may not get the same accolades, but their dedication is no less admirable. Especially when it comes to some of the odd jobs they are asked to do on set.

83074344The Dog Whisperer

Heard from an on­ set sound professional with decades of experience in the industry. Even though he is now a well­ respected sound person and an instructor, he had a humble start just like everyone else. One of the first films sets he worked on as a sound PA had an on location shoot in a suburban, residential area. On this particular shoot the sound department faced an unusual challenge. The majority of households had large dogs in their yards that barked through the entire shooting process, rendering most of the location sound unusable. On the second day, the sound PA brought his bicycle on set. Armed with sausage links provided by the production department, he toured the neighbourhood throughout the shoot, hurling links at the barking dogs to keep them quiet – a solution to keep both the production and the dogs happy.

The Apple Stand

Unfortunately this is a fairly familiar tale for grips, especially in low budget productions. A nighttime scene was being shot during the day. The problem was the building had several big windows that had to be blacked out completely; no easy task with a limited amount of equipment. The grip department used everything they had and even had to throw on furniture pads and secure them with duct tape. After all that effort and time a sliver of an opening was still letting in daylight, and ruining the illusion of night. One grip armed himself with a flag and stepped on a stack of apple boxes, found the offending sliver and covered it with the flag. However, before he could call over another grip to help secure the flag in place the production, which by then was already anxious about time, started rolling the camera. The grip had no choice but to hold the flag over his head on his tippy toes on top of the wobbly apple boxes until the scene was completed.

The Spit Catcher

Vancouver is a beautiful city and we often see TV shows shot on the streets of Gastown. This episode included a shot of a character spitting gum on the ground as she was talking. The shot, of course, required multiple angles and takes. The production couldn’t let the actress spit the gum out on to the actual street – out of respect for the city as well as for continuity. So a PA had to kneel in front of the actress, just out of frame, holding a brown paper bag for her to spit the gum in. If that wasn’t quite bad enough, the actress’s aim wasn’t exactly perfect either. The PA actually had to pick a piece of chewed gum off the ground and put it in the bag multiple times, all while being showered with saliva.

The Wardrobe Malfunction Attendant

Some odd jobs on set may not seem so bad. Occasionally, movies are required to target certain rating by the executives. This particular one was to be rated PG­13, which meant a woman’s breasts couldn’t be fully featured on screen. The hard part was it had several sex scenes, which required the actors to be topless. In order to make sure the actress’s breasts were never exposed on screen, the 1st AD had to sit right next to the actress, barely out of frame, and stare at her breasts the whole time. His job that day was to yell cut every time he saw her nipples.

Written by Freddie Kim

Director Alexander Payne squeezes humour like a pimple in his bleakest comedy to date. “Nebraska” reveals embarrassing family truths that are hard to ignore. Shot in black and white, stark desolate farms populate the Midwest plains and Interstates forming the backdrop of this unlikely tale. The quiet, persistent landscape is home to small town folk who yearn for enchanting gossip to spark excitement and jealousy. The film’s bleak and uplifting moments are reminiscent of “About Schmidt”, another Payne road­trip saga.

11176448_oriWoody (Bruce Dern) is a luckless alcoholic riddled with vacant spells which indicate early stages of dementia. His marriage to an ego­killing bully wife (June Squibb) shows us why Woody finds a good friend in alcohol. When Woody receives a bogus sweepstakes winner letter, he sets off on a journey to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his million­dollar prize.

Woody cannot be persuaded by his soul­searching son (Will Forte) to abandon his road trip to Lincoln. The sweepstakes winning ticket is an obvious marketing fraud ­- obvious to everyone except perhaps, a senior with a failing mind.

Father and son eventually hit the road and the journey turns into a family road trip that stops in Woody’s old hometown, Hawthorne. Woody’s spirited determination is laudable; all he wants from his winnings is to buy a compressor and four­wheel truck for his kids. These are modest aspirations for a man who was often written off as a financially unstable alcoholic who scrambled to repay debts by fixing automobiles. Dern inhabits such a complex role with an uncluttered and gentle performance, and deservedly earned the award for best actor at Cannes.

Despite the critical praise, this subtle film will not be universally praised. The laughs are low­key, the pacing deliberately slow but the characters, particularly Woody and his wife are indelible. Director Alexander Payne was once described as the compassionate thinking face of American humour. Unremarkable heroes beating the odds has never felt so real.

Every great film begins with an idea – but the work really begins when you start turning that idea into a film, as Documentary Diploma alumni Javier Ojer discovered. A collaborative project between Javier, classmate Mik Turje, and the Pull Focus mentorship team, “Hands in the Dirt” explores issues around urban farming and agriculture.

“In the beginning there were a lot of points that Mik and I wanted to look at in relation to urban farming, like gentrification and colonialism. So we had to narrow it down. We began by writing down all our ideas, and then tried to figure out what the main issues were. What stood out is the disconnect between this image of urban farming and VertiCrops as solutions for food security, and what was actually happening to agricultural farmland in Richmond,” said Javier.

Mik’s ties to the farming community in Richmond allowed the team a firsthand look at the obstacles that farmers in the area face, including illegal dumping on Agricultural Land Reserves and sky­high land prices. A mere 20­minute drive from Vancouver, which proudly touts itself as a green city and actively encourages urban farming, the reality faced by local farmers in the Lower Mainland provided a stark contrast. Conveying all the issues involved on film however, turned out to be learning process.

“Mik and I both come from an academic background, so the initial cut was 35 or 40 minutes because we felt like wanted to explain everything. After getting a lot of feedback from our instructors, we managed to edit it down to ten minutes or so, while still keeping the relevant content intact.”

It was during the editing process that Javier realized the inherent responsibility of making a documentary film. “It’s very important to honestly represent the issues involved; as a filmmaker you have this power to show stories from a certain bias – it’s almost scary when you realize that this is possible. As a filmmaker you have a responsibility to tell a story as truthfully as you can.”

And after countless hours of filming and editing, Javier and Mik have managed to do just that – tell an untold story about urban farming that honestly represents the issues involved.

Based on a true story, Fruitvale Station has won numerous awards since it began the festival circuit at Sundance this year. The film tells the story of Oscar Grant III, a 22 year old from Hayward, California who was shot dead by Bay Area Rapid Transit Police (BART) on New Year’s Day in 2009.

Fruitvale_Station_posterDirector Ryan Coogler has said that he wanted to make a film about Grant’s last day: “I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean?”

Based on audience reaction in the theater, Coogler has emphatically succeeded. The majority of viewers likely know how it will end – but that only makes the build up to the climax all the more heartrending.

Coogler approaches his subject matter with a steady gaze. Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan, is depicted as neither a hero nor a villain – he has his faults, as we all do, but he also has the self­-awareness to recognize them.

At the center of the film is his relationship with his girlfriend Sophina (played by Melonie Diaz), with whom he has a four­ year ­old daughter. We understand that Grant has let them down in the past – yet Sophina acknowledges Grant’s willingness to be honest with her, and they spend New Year’s Eve with his family before heading out for the night.

Grant’s relationship with his mother, played by Octavia Spencer has also seen strain. One of the most striking scenes in the film takes place in a flashback when she visits him in jail. Jordan truly excels here – we see Grant’s vulnerability contrast with the harsh necessity of maintaining a tough exterior ­something that Jordan conveys with just a subtle shift in his gaze. Grant’s deep affection for his family is evident here too. He is visibly upset after learning that his daughter doesn’t understand why he isn’t around, and when his mother states that it’s the last time she’ll be visiting him in jail, he has to be restrained by prison guards.

As the film reveals Grant’s last hours, we’re left with a compelling portrait of a life that ended far too soon. The intelligence of Fruitvale Station lies in its ability to touch on something deeply human: those small moments of tenderness and understanding that occur in everyday life and that, in the end, are also what connect us to Oscar Grant.

Every now and then a film is mistaken for a masterpiece and achieves international acclaim despite an unimaginative and tedious plot, such as “Amore”. Then there is the case of the hidden masterpiece: warmly embraced by festival audiences only to disappear without a flicker of publicity shortly thereafter, such as “Like Someone In Love”.

LikeSomeoneInLoveFilm-300x251Like Someone In Love, set in Tokyo, is directed by Abbas Kiarostami, a man who barely speaks a word of Japanese. He doesn’t have to speak Japanese because he is too busy inventing a new cinematic language that relies on tone and subtext rather than plot. This is a director confident enough to spend twelve minutes in a taxi while Akiko, a fashionable college aged, call­ girl listens to eight phone messages while staring blankly at the neon lit Tokyo streetscapes. The repeated messages are from her visiting grandmother politely wondering why Akiko is a no ­show for their meeting at the train station.

Akiko is on route to visit her next client Takashi, an unassuming eighty­-one­ year ­old widower. He is a lonely man in search of a one­ night girlfriend experience, an elegant dinner companion. Takashi is flawlessly polite. Sex is the last thing on his mind. Akiko rejects his homemade eel soup and slumps into bed waiting a further call to action. Sex never materializes. It’s a polite film, even by Japanese standards. All of the characters, even Akiko’s ruggedly handsome mechanic boyfriend are painfully polite, and painfully lonely.

Loneliness is at the heart of this film, a feeling we all must face. It’s a hard thing to crush. There is little moralizing about prostitution and a multitude of gaps that leave the viewer pondering the subtle actions by these luminous characters. “Like Someone To Love” is a complex stylized film, by a gifted director.

Social media has revolutionized the way people market their business, and documentary film is no exception. It’s true that little can replace the buzz created by a festival appearance or jam­packed screening, however social media can help you market your documentary in other ways, perhaps even helping you land traditional opportunities like those all ­important festival screenings ­­ if you use it right.

The power of social media is undeniable and failure to take advantage of these platforms in your marketing strategy can be a serious misstep. Is social media marketing becoming more powerful than promotional screenings and festivals?

social-iconBuild Marketing Ability Into Your Project

Many doc filmmakers might cringe at the idea of building a marketing scheme into their content before they start shooting, but considering how you’ll market your film before you make it doesn’t have to be unethical or detract from a relevant social issue.

In fact, considering marketing before you start shooting can actually help increase awareness of a serious issue – the primary goal for many documentary filmmakers. By capitalizing on the relevant social issues present in your documentary, you’ll be able to build a social media marketing strategy that can coordinate and connect with other movements and/or organizations that might relate to your film. Or, better yet, you can reach an audience already informed on your hot button topic and let them serve as a springboard to bring attention to your film.

Promotion via Social Media

If you use social media personally, you’ve surely seen somebody’s marketing campaign, whether they’re promoting a musical act, the release of a film, an event or a social cause that’s important to them. While some promotions work, many also fail.

Those that promote their work via social media and fail, usually do so because their outreach lacks passion – they’re simply repurposing a lacklustre post in hopes that someone will notice. Considering how many people promote their stuff via social media, these types of marketing campaigns are doomed to fall flat. ­People don’t have time, and they’re flooded with that kind of marketing already.

That’s where documentary filmmakers can take advantage of social media. By making part of your marketing campaign about the issues, and not solely about the film, you’ll draw people into the action and community surrounding the cause.

Social media is a necessary marketing tool for documentary filmmakers.

Sharing Work Through Social Media

Sharing clips and snippets of your documentary film is integral to building visibility. With so much content posted on social media sites these days, few people are going to march out to a theatre and buy a ticket for a film they don’t know much about. Give them something to snack on first.

When you present clips on social media sites, it’s important to make them as sharp as possible. Present high­quality clips of finished material to generate interest on any social media platform. Make sure your film has it’s own dedicated page on each social network you use, and that the page isn’t cluttered with personal posts and off­topic tweets.

Having clear links between each social media site ­­ and especially clear links to your film’s website, if it has one ­­ is extremely important.

At the same time, sites like Vimeo in particular can be helpful for uploading longer, HD clips for publicity and for submitting work to film festivals ­­ or even getting the attention of producers and distributors.

GUEST BLOGGER: Marcela De Vivo is a freelance writer and accomplished online marketing professional in the Los Angeles area. Her writing covers everything from social media marketing, health & wellness, real estate and technology.

In the summer of 2011 In Focus Film School students Katrina Chowne and Suzanne Street interviewed Compassion Club of BC participants to discuss how the program has changed their lives.

What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think “marijuana advocate?” Chances are pretty good that it wasn’t a senior; the Compassion Club of BC is looking to change that image. Many seniors and people with debilitating, chronic pain see it as a viable alternative to pharmaceuticals that often have unpleasant side effects. Acquiring marijuana for pain relief can, however, be challenging for some. As Pearl, a North Vancouver resident at a senior’s home notes, she’d prefer not to buy pot from a teenager on the corner.

That’s where the Compassion Club comes in. Not only do they offer numerous different strains of high quality marijuana at a reasonable price, they also offer it in a variety of forms. If you don’t feel comfortable actually smoking pot, you can also consume it in pill form, or even baked goods. It’s all part of the organization’s efforts to de-stigmatize the plant, and highlight its benefits. And an improved quality of life for people living with chronic pain is certainly worth standing up for.


Crowdfunding your indie film


Funding independent films is never easy. The difficulties receiving grants and finding other sources of funding is a full­-time job beyond the time it takes to actually work on the film itself!


Salam Films is a Vancouver-­based international film production company that’s less than 48 hours away from ending our first crowdfunding campaign an alternative financing tool for creative and start­up projects that’s emerging in North America, Europe and the Middle East.


We’re running our campaign to raise post­-production funds for feature documentary, WAJD: Music, Politics & Ecstasy. The film traces Syrian-­Canadian director Amar Chebib’s journey through Syria and Turkey to learn Arab­ Ottoman music. There he discovers its deep connection to Sufism and the socio­political influences that led to its suppression. The film is ultimately a story about this music’s ability to invoke a heart ­opening experience of universal beauty.


We’re making this film because we’re inspired to share the beauty of this music that has inspired us with the rest of the world. On September 4th we gratefully reached and surpassed our goal of $15,000, a few days before our campaign deadline of September 8th. This was not an easy feat, and we’re dedicated to continuing our work at the same pace until the end of our campaign. We have only 2 days left to reach our new goal of $20,000 so that the funds beyond our initial goal can go towards hiring an editing/story consultant and to doing a final sound mix at a professional studio.


Here’s a list of tips that incorporate some of what we’ve learned along the way:


Read more


Whistler and Pemberton are renowned for their majestic mountains and scenic beauty. As tourist destinations that draw over a million people every year, any damage to their reputation can cost residents their businesses and livelihoods.

A high profile incident of a dog sled owner accused of killing over 50 of his animals in April 2010 has Dominic Ball looking for answers. Does dog sledding, by its very nature, subject animals to undue risk? Or is it possible to run an ethical business that treats dogs humanely?

As Dominic notes, “This was a huge international case and gaining access to people to tell the story was not easy. They might say in an email or on the phone that they would speak to me but when I would show up with a camera they would change their mind. I also tried to have some Whistler local businesses or media talk to me and they flat out refused or would not get back to me after my continuous attempts to contact them.”

One person who didn’t turn him away was Jamie Hargreaves, who once worked with Bob Fawcett, the man who is charged in the case. In the film, Hargreaves offers her insight on both Fawcett, and the dog sledding business.

In April 2012 Fawcett was formally charged with causing unnecessary pain and suffering to a number of sled dogs under the criminal code of Canada. Due to appear in a Pemberton court on May 24, 2012 Fawcett’s lawyer requested the trial be moved to North Vancouver, citing security concerns and recent threats to Fawcett’s safety.

Municipal elections tend to have the lowest voter turn out, and Vancouver is no different.

As one campaigner in The Doorknockers notes, voter turnout in the city’s 2008 municipal election was a paltry 28%. Braving the cold, hostile dogs, and sometimes even hostile homeowners, this documentary follows doorknockers Aaron, Angela, Annie, and Tim in their efforts to fight voter apathy.

Representing the COPE team, these valiant doorknockers burn the midnight oil by knocking (or buzzing) on as many doors as possible, in the hope of garnering voter support for COPE on election night. They race to the finish line with only 25 minutes until the polls close, but they’ll have to wait and see if their efforts paid off.

Was it worth it?