Lesson 1: don’t forget to hit record
Eight years ago, Mark Power made a short film for a course he was taking at the Film and Video Arts Society-Alberta (FAVA). Not wanting to stop there, he decided to submit his work to a number of film festivals and the short was so good that it actually won at a couple of those festivals.
Spurred on by that first success, Power has since quit his old job to work full time in the film industry. Now, on top of making films and teaching workshops at FAVA, he’s also a production supervisor for the National Film Board of Canada. Had it not been for the incredible mentorship he received at FAVA all those years ago, Power speculates, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
While Power doesn’t guarantee that everyone who takes one of FAVA’s workshops will continue on to such great heights—saying that students will either be bitten by the film bug or they won’t—he’s not afraid to brag about what FAVA can offer to prospective students either. Taking a workshop at FAVA, he states, is a great idea if someone wants to know the ins and outs of making professional-quality films.
“It’s great the leaps and bounds that Apple has made with the iMac and being able to [make movies] at home, it’s wonderful. It’s empowered people to be creative on their own terms,” Power starts, before adding, “but if you really want to take it to the next level and start producing works that you can distribute, FAVA is a great place to go.”
As one of his students soon tells me, FAVA can even help people who’ve never made a film in their life.
Kathy Fisher has been a research lawyer since 1988, but dabbles in poetry and spoken word as well. A huge history buff, she’s always dreamt of telling the world the story of her grandfather—a pilot during the First World War—and she saw film as the ideal medium to do it. Of course, never having made a movie, she had absolutely no idea where to
begin, so she signed up for FAVA’s two-week documentary workshop.
Seated before one of FAVA’s many, many, editing stations, she now appears at ease with the process and happily chats about her experiences in taking the class.
“I knew nothing. I’d never picked up a camera,” Fisher cheerfully admits. “I love the guys here because they talk to you for a few minutes, and then they give you this great equipment and off you go!
“And then you mess up,” she laughs. “You come back, and go ‘I messed up!’ They say, ‘Oh, you didn’t hit record!’ or something like that, and then you never do it again.”
Before I can ask her if she’s joking about forgetting to hit the record button, she quickly adds that one of the things she loves is that the experience is so hands-on. The facilities at FAVA, Fisher says while gesturing to all the machinery around her, feels nothing like a typical classroom.
“For me—I’ve played a lot of sports—it’s kind of like a sports mentality. It’s just get out and play, fool around, and then come back and reassess. It’s learning by doing, which is
The other students I meet have a good deal more experience with cameras and filming than Fisher does, but as Power points out, FAVA is a place where filmmakers of all different backgrounds and skill levels can come together to learn from and collaborate with each other.
“The great thing about FAVA is the resources of people that you find here. You find a community of people who will help you create your new work and work on your project with you. That’s why people come to FAVA,” Power explains. “We have people here who know about lighting, there’s people who know about electricity, there’s people who know about audio. And they’ll really help you make your project shine by helping you polish it.”
It’s at this point that I notice that, while Power is being wonderfully patient in answering all my questions, he’s obviously suffering from a massive sleep-debt. The heavy bags under his eyes say it all: this man is tired.
Power laughingly explains that, as the instructor for the intensive two-week documentary workshop, he was up until 2 am last night helping some of his students edit their work. As we speak, most of his students are working furiously in the background, frantically racing to put the finishing touches on their documentaries, so that the films will be ready in time for their big-screen premiere later that week.
“It’s a crash course,” Power affirms. “I’m not keeping that a secret. And it’s intense, I’ve been referring to it as a boot camp because I’m seeing the exhaustion on our participants’ faces right now. We have a deadline coming up this week and they have to finish their projects.”
He quietly adds that he can only hope that all his students do actually finish in time for the rapidly approaching premiere at Metro Cinema. Besides all the lessons students learn about film composition, lighting, audio and editing, Power says that best part of the workshops, for him, comes when he gets to see a piece of work on the silver screen.
“That’s the great thing about the cinema, seeing it larger-than-life and seeing it become something bigger than what you were working on, on your little computer screen.”
Funnily enough, just as Power says this, Melisa Brittain and Danielle Peers are sitting in another one of the many editing suites, intently focused on a series of computer screens.
The pair, however, doesn’t seem too worried about not finishing on time. They took the last two weeks off work to devote all their time to this project, and as a result, they’re way ahead of the other students in terms of making edits to the mockumentary they’re working on. As I step into the cool, dark room, they’re watching their film on a series of high-definition monitors, fiddling around with a soundboard and calmly discussing what to do for their closing credits.
The glow of the many monitors lighting up her face, Brittain explains that she decided to take the filmmaking course after shooting footage for another documentary and then realizing she didn’t know how she was going to put it all together.
“I shot some footage with a friend of mine in January of 2007, and I had all this footage and thought, ‘I don’t even know where to start.’
“I was going to head away for vacation, and then I saw an advertisement for FAVA’s Doc Shop Intensive,” she recounts. “I thought, ‘Two weeks? That’s perfect for me! I can go
and I can learn a whole bunch about all this stuff and then I’ll know what to do with all this footage [for this other movie] I’m making.’”
As Brittain explains, one of the ideal things about FAVA’s workshops is their short length. Instead of attempting to take a year of courses at Vancouver Film School or at NAIT—something she doesn’t want to do—Brittain says FAVA’s crash courses offer her a great way of learning about filmmaking without having to take a year off her life.
Brittain’s partner, Peers, isn’t officially registered in the workshop, but as the lead actor in Brittain’s movie, she’s been taken along for the ride. Peers jokes that even though she’s not in the class, she’s learned so much just by helping Brittain edit that she feels she should pay FAVA some registration fees retroactively.
Something that amazes her, Peers says, is how interested the teachers and other students are in each other’s projects.
“It feels more like an artist commune than a classroom,” she pronounces wistfully, her eyes flashing excitedly in the dark. “It sort of feels neat to be in a place where there’s so much creative energy bouncing off the walls.”
A few questions still nag in my mind, so I meet back up with Power and ask him about all the amazing equipment I’ve seen the students using.
“I think our machine room is unrivaled by any co-op in Canada,” Power proclaims with a smile and a nod.
At this, Power sets out to prove it to me, and we take a tour through the ancient brick armoury in which FAVA makes its home. Every room we walk through is filled literally floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall with all of today’s newest cameras and all sorts of other apparatuses of all shapes and size. Students, Power grins, get access to all of this.
In the third room, we suddenly step into the past and stumble upon a number of Steenbeck editing machines dating back all the way to the 1930s. Power loads one of the gigantic machines up with film and flicks it on, so that I can see how it works. While FAVA has a lot of new equipment, he explains, it also has an amazing collection of equipment from the past—maybe even enough to make a museum, he speculates.
In the darkened room, as I watch film flicker through the ancient, enormous Steenbeck—a testament to cinema’s long and poetic history—I can’t help but wonder what the future might hold for Power’s students, who until fairly recently, was just a student here himself. V
The Film and Video Arts Society-Alberta (FAVA) offers a range of classes, workshops and screening throughout the year. For full information, visit fava.ca.