Category Archives: Little Theatres


Well, I’ve delivered the tapes to Bravo.  As of yesterday at 4:30 pm, Little Theatres:  Homage to the Mineral of Cabbage, the film, is officially complete!

I am feeling:  tired, relieved, ecstatic, anxious, breathless, proud, sad, empty,  excited, listless.  When I dropped the package in to the Shipping and Receiving department of CTV, I was almost in tears.  OK there may have actually been a tear or two shed.  But I felt instantly lighter after the package was out of my hands.  Plus the cycling of emotions listed above.

I’ve spent the past 24 hours or so either conked out in a deep sleep or reflecting on the past 3 years.  Yes, it’s been almost 3 years since I first had the crazy idea to start this project.

I remember in the early days.  At first, while writing the proposal, I was enthusiastic, energized, high on the process of coming up with fun ideas.  Then, when I was awarded the grant, it finally hit me that there was a lot of work ahead of me.  I wasn’t sure whether or not I could handle it.  Well, in the early days I was pretty sure I could get through just about anything, that I could figure out whatever I didn’t know how to do.  I had an optimism, a sense of adventure, and a carefree idealistic belief that anything I put my mind to, I could do.

But as I started working on it, the reality of how enormous this project was started to sink in.  I started to scale down my initial ideas and techniques.

I used Google and animation forums like to find out how to make puppets.   I read tonnes of blogs, like Sven’s, and Shelley’s, and Mike’s.  I researched which sort of cameras and lenses to use.  I met up with strangers, friends of friends, and people whose work I’d admired, to find out how they did what they did.  I asked a lot of people for help.  When I didn’t know what to do, I would do everything I could to find out how to do it.  Sometimes I didn’t find the answers and was stuck in a frustrating place of not knowing how to proceed.  This happened quite a few times, but most memorably during the puppet-making stage… I really didn’t know what I was doing, and was finding the process really difficult.  Each solution led to a dozen new problems.  I didn’t know how to keep it simple.  It took two months before I found materials and methods that would work.  And they still had faults — my very first shoot had a puppet crisis… The puppets needed to be redesigned at this point.  But then, once rebuilt, they were fine, and they lasted throughout.

Then came the shooting.  Again, I was fairly ignorant.  The most important and complicated feature of photography is lighting.  Where to begin?  Here I was lucky to have a very kind friend (whom I hadn’t seen in years) come to help out… but still, couldn’t entirely rely on such generous favours.  So I would, at first, work on paid gigs between times when he was available, and just wait to set up the next shot whenever he had time… Trying to learn as much as I could as the process unfolded.  This blog came in handy for this — I enjoyed putting together lighting tutorials, to try and preserve and practice what I was learning.  But I still felt incapable.

Eventually I realized that if I was ever going to finish the project, I needed to just go ahead and light scenes myself.  Marcus had lit the most complex ones… so really, how hard could it be to take the bits and pieces of Lighting 101 that I had gleaned from him, and start lighting scenes myself?  How hard could it be to light a single object, a cabbage, on a stage?

Well it turned out to be difficult, but not impossible.  I was imagining a film of 2 or 3 awesomely lit scenes, amidst a bunch of really badly lit ones.  But to my eyes, anyway, it ALL looks really good!  I’m so, so happy with how the little film has turned out.  I could not be more proud of it, or more satisfied.  It feels really, really good to have put this little 3 minutes of imagery (and sound, and music!) out into the world.

I now know how hard it is to make a short film.  I know the feeling of being overwhelmed at the enormity of the project.  In the early stages, when building the sets, I was halfway excited by the ideas still, and halfway terrified of all the unknowns that were ahead of me.  The first two months of set-building and prop-making were easy peasy — I know what I’m doing when it comes to making stuff by hand, and painting little things, and planning and designing.  No problem!  The days flew by, and I got lots of stuff done.  But as I ventured into any sort of new territory, like puppetmaking, and eventually lighting, the doubting started.  What if I can’t do it?  How will I know how to do such-and-such?  And this is just the beginning… look at all there is left to do after that, so many more things I’ve never done before.  Panic!  Abort mission!  Let it drift away!  Go back to designing endtags for Product X!  Forget this artistic stuff, it’s too hard!  And where’s the reward?  Every day I panic and worry and sweat and I’m not even getting paid!  It’ll never get finished anyway.  Every day, there were more and more doubts.

I really don’t know how I stuck to it.  I’m not even really the sort of person who always finishes every project I start.  I have many unfinished paintings.  I have unfinished books, outlines for novels, screenplays, series of poems that have just died away.

A few things blossomed for me while working on this film.  The concept of just doing a little bit every day, and not thinking about the big picture all that often, really helped.  I learned that from my partner O, who realized halfway through his years and years of education that he didn’t want to stay in the world of academia.  How many people start PhDs and actually finish them?  All that work, meanwhile knowing that it isn’t going to be the right path?  Well, somehow he did.  Plus, he finishes books that he starts, pretty much every single one, even if he realizes on page 5 that the writing is horrendous or that he can’t stand the main character.  I mean, conceptually I can say that I get it, I know to take it a single, small step at a time and just do the best I can, but it really took making this film to learn how to actually do that.  How to not get overwhelmed and panic and give up.

I also learned how to ask for help.  I usually dive right in to any foreign element of a project, with the idea that I can figure it out myself… But a project of this size simply can’t be done alone.  So I am indebted to a lot of people, and grateful for a lot of talented offerings that came along.  Sometimes such offerings were in response the desperate cries for help that came out of my mouth, against my usual stubborn working-solo nature.  But sometimes people just offered to help, in any way they could, out of nowhere.  So I learned, as well, a sense of grace and generous creative spirit, that I intend to keep alive for others.

So, I’ve written a little essay here…  Obviously I have more time on my hands for blogging, now that the film is finished… Ironic?  Appropriate?  You decide.

A big, giant, ginormous thank you to you, and you and you.  I’m so happy to have completed this project, and so happy to be feeling so good about it.  I owe this happiness to a lot of people… So, thank you!

(BTW…  I know I have to get back to the working world, back to design, which I obviously enjoy as well… but I’m also starting to plan the next short film, to be worked on during my down time.  So it’s addictive, this filmmaking thing.

Also… going to try and show Little Theatres in some festivals — this is why I haven’t shown too much final footage here.  It’s only a 3 minute film, so every second counts!  I will, however, show off a few stills, as you can see in this post… though they may be somewhat familiar already…)

I will keep you posted here on festivals, the process of applying for them,  whether or not it will be showing at any of them; as well as on any sort of website or trailer that will emerge in the near future.  And of course when it’s airing on Bravo! I’ll be spreading the word about that, too.


Dinner at Susie’s

I had dinner at my friend Susie’s last week.  What is the significance of this, you ask?  Well, I’ll tell you.

Sometimes I feel like I was meant to make this film.  There have been many, many magical moments when things fly out of the universe towards me in a way that make me stand back in awe.  An example of this would be my friend Susie’s latest revelation.

The film, as you may know, is based on a Galician poem.  So I’ve been trying to incorporate Galician elements, here and there.   Until reading the poems from the book Little Theatres I had never even heard of Galicia before.  So I don’t know much about the culture, other than the brief glimpses given in Little Theatres.  Susie heard about this important aspect of the film — its language — and suddenly came out with the fact that she herself is Galician, even though all along she has been saying that she’s Spanish.  As far as I had always known, she spoke Spanish, and grew up there… but all this time she had sneakily been born in Galicia and not told me.  Or “Galithia,” as she pronounces it.

So, we were both thrilled at this discovery — she at the fact that I’m making a film in her parents’ native tongue, and I at the fact that she still visits there, and brings back beautiful Galician ceramic artwork and craftspieces.  Last week she offered to cook me a (semi-)traditional meal, introduce me to her kids (whom I’d never met before) and show me her lovely ceramics.

The relevance of this dinner, and the ceramic pottery, to the film will become apparent soon.  I will (later this week) show pictures of my dining room set, which is looking smashing, if I do say so myself.  More pictures from Dinner at Susie’s behind the cut…

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Text and Sound, Silence and Understanding

Mike Brent wrote a post a couple days ago about how difficult it is to tune out human voices, and the effects this has within the context of a film.   I’d never thought of this before, thinking of film as a medium that fills in the visuals for you where other mediums don’t.  But film dialogue and — especially — voiceovers can sometimes give too much away, filling in the silences that draw the viewer in, allowing them to be co-creators of the film.

This got me thinking about my own film.  Translating between different languages of voiceover, text, and image is central to what I’m attempting to work with.  I wrote before about how the poem on which the film is based is written in Galician, and how the poem’s author uses language as different dimensions of mind…  each language concerting its own thought patterns, and each non-English language providing escape to the drone of the Big Voices (commercial media, political speeches).

What happens when the voice in a film is speaking another language?  If there is silence, or another language, or if the voice is too quiet, then the viewer’s mind tends to either ignore it completely, or it becomes occupied in trying to understand.  The mysterious sound of a foreign tongue becomes a puzzle for the mind to focus on, trying to interpret or make sense of what it hears, like trying to find an image inside an ink blot.  We can’t just let things be.

I used to practice something which may seem kind of odd…  I don’t have the advantage anymore of being able to enter the dimensions of other languages (I used to speak fluent French, but have almost completely lost it.)  So my breathing space away from the Big Voices of English involved pretending I was a fish.  (!).  Walking down a city street, which is flush with signs and posters, sandwich boards and stickers, I would pretend that I was a fish, crawling along the bottom of the ocean.  All living beings were other fish and fauna, swimming along; all sandwich boards, signs, and posters were simply flora and rocks of the ocean.  They became shapes and colours, with no meaning beyond these visual properties.  Suddenly text becomes unreadable; text is no longer text.  It’s just a bunch of colourful symbols, no different from any other image on a flat plane.

This way of seeing takes practice.  But I found it incredibly soothing.  I stopped trying to understand or problem-solve the images of my own language.  There is a difference in my mood when I’m walking along a busy downtown street, bombarded by visual imagery and text all vying for my attention, vs. walking along a busy downtown street and not absorbing any information.  Of course, I am aware of my surroundings, and not about to walk into traffic or anything… but it takes a different kind of awareness to disorganize visual language and see it from the perspective of an illiterate being — illiterate in the sense of not being able to read text OR flat visual imagery.

Often on public transit I hear people speaking languages I don’t understand.  Lots of them.  In this case, I enjoy listening but trying not to create stories in my head of their dialogue.  I allow myself to be content not understanding, but just enjoying the sounds of language, of people’s voices.

This breathing space becomes essential to me.  Even when it seems impossible to do suddenly unlearn a language, like when walking down a busy(ish) street such as this:

I’d like to turn down the loudness and simply walk down the street, a quiet and neutral observer.

I did an oil painting a while ago that was partially about this practice of non-understanding, or seeing only solid values of shades and tones, concrete things, without joining them with meaning; or wanting silence.  I went to a subway station in the city that was under construction, and took some pictures of the open ceiling.  (A subway cop actually approached & casually questioned me while doing this… I think it was 2002 or so, so too close to 9/11.)

I then flipped the scene and disguised the text into something unreadable…

Make what you will of a figure fallen on an unreadable sign, with the world upsidedown…  Not my happiest image…

But back to the film.  There will be moments in there where I’ve planned to let the v/o run on its own, without the crutch of the written text to translate, for a brief period.  Just to have that space (for non-Galician-speakers) where the mind tries to understand, but isn’t able to.  And perhaps the viewer gives up, just seeing the image and the sounds of a voice, but not taking in meaning, for a moment.  Or rather, perhaps, she provides her own meaning to the voice, for that moment.

The Big Picture of Little Theatres

I’ve been working on this project full time since June, so I’m starting to become aware of the phases I go through while working on longer-term projects.  One thing that’s interesting about taking on such a huge project essentially by myself is that I have to stay extremely focussed on very small things for a sustained stretch of time.  The attention to detail, in all stages of the production, is what makes a film.  And stop motion is nothing but details.  In building miniature sets, it’s the details that make them authentic and interesting and lived-in.  In making puppets, the details turn them into living creatures, and make them functional — one slip and they’ll be falling apart in no time.  In animation, well, all movements are being broken down to 24 images per second, so one can spend hours deliberating and creating a second’s worth of motion.  Details, details.

So, my vision becomes stunted.  I can only focus on tiny things so intently for so long.  I need to step back and breathe every now and then.  Writing this blog helps, but I need to write more, to stand back further.  Perhaps work on the animatic for a while.

Yesterday I switched from making the tiny hands to designing the final set of the film.  It’s a dining room.  I have a solid idea for it, but have to organize the details:  colour palettes, structure, etc.

But that’s not stepping far back enough.

Today I need to think about, and write about, why I’m making this film.

Helpfully coinciding with this phase — Erín Moure, the poet on whose work the film is based, was in town last night, to give a reading at a local art gallery.  This reading was just what I needed.  A door has opened and I’m staring back into the bigger picture.

She had told me her reasons for writing in other languages before.  Little Theatres was written in 2003, following the US invasion of Iraq.  Watching George Bush talk of the weapons of mass destruction, and other phantoms of political jargon, made her not want to speak or think in English anymore.  English is the language wars are waged in; noone has ever waged a war in Galician.  So she went to Galicia for a while, to live in a different language, and write Little Theatres.

The Big Theatres, she says, are those of war and commerce.  George Bush speeches are written in English.  Advertisements are blaring in English.  The language becomes associated with everything that’s loud out there in the world, everything that has a “mass media” voice.  It becomes mindless chatter in the big voices of the everyday.  The Little Theatres are where where blades of grass speak.  Where a little girl making a soup out of cabbage is very important.  Where the internal voice is important, in its pre-language stage.

Erín said that she used to work at Via Rail, in the customer service department, listening to people yell and swear about train problems.  The way to talk to someone who’s yelling is to speak very softly and slowly, so that they can only listen.  Listening calms people down, while responding with a loud voice keeps them angry.  If the antidote to anger is softness, perhaps the antidote to war is something similar.

I don’t think paying attention to detail, to the small matters of everyday life, is a withdrawal from the world at all.  It’s a refocussing.  Read Vandana Shiva, Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, or (especially) Sharon Astyk for a while and you’ll see how the personal is political.  There are no solid lines between inner and outer, between domestic and public.  We’ve drawn (and redrawn) the lines arbitrarily.  Pay attention to where your food and water are coming from, and you’ll see how the simplest thing like the details of cooking a meal is of vast importance.  The simple things in life are not so simple.  Socially, politically, globally, these tiny details really matter.

So, in the end, taking a break, stepping away from the tiny puppet hands and set elements for a while to look at the bigger picture will take me right back, full circle, to the little picture.

Last night Erín said,

If you don’t understand Galician, it sounds like water.

In the end, I want this film to be like watching, and listening to, water.  Not that it’ll be impossible to understand or anything — there will be animated text to translate the Galician v/o — but I’m hoping that soft, fluid voice of life and simplicity and essentialness shines through beyond anything else.