At first blush, it seems like something out of a Hollywood movie. Just over a year ago, Mark Feenstra quit his day job as an inventory analyst for Mountain Equipment Co-op in Vancouver to pursue more creative endeavours. If it were a movie, his decision would have been a spur-of-the-moment, dramatic impulse that caused his doting girlfriend no end of financial and emotional distress.
“It really wasn’t a last-minute decision or impulsive thing. There was definitely some soul-searching that went into that,” said Sarah Pawliuk, Feenstra’s girlfriend of two years. “I wasn’t freaked out that it was going to be a big disaster because he’s a really responsible and almost overly-thinking person.”
Feenstra described his position at MEC was a “stepping-stone job,” the kind of job people take when they’re looking to move up in the company.
“One day, I realized that I didn’t want to be where I was going next,” he said. “I loved everything about the company except what I was actually doing when I was sitting at my desk.” So he started making plans to leave the company. He saved money for over two years before he actually quit.
“I knew I needed to make a change while I was still young enough to do that easily. You can do it an any age, but I don’t have kids, I don’t have a mortgage. Now is a pretty good time to take on a high-risk endeavour.”
Feenstra said that he initially took time off to work on his writing. He went to Costa Rica for three months to surf and get himself into a “more creative headspace.”
When he came home, he realized that fiction writing wasn’t going to pay the bills. Even if he wrote the next great Canadian novel, found an agent and a publisher, it would still be at least two years before he earned any money.
“Rather than go back to work this year, like I had originally planned, I’ve decided to use that incredible, gripping fear of having to go back to an office to kind of push me into photography and trying to make a living at it,” he said.
Photography had been a passion of Feenstra’s for as long as he could remember. It was a hobby he shared with his mother, a cancer researcher-turned-biology teacher. He still has the nearly 30-year-old Nikon SLR camera he grew up using.
Feenstra is science-minded – another thing he inherited from his mother – and mechanics of operating a camera really appealed to him. “It’s kind of a way for me to approach more artistic endeavours but still have an element of control,” he said.
Another thing that appealed was the way photography forced Feenstra to step outside himself.
“I hate public speaking, I hate having to show up and meet strangers. Even just going to a party where I don’t know that many people, I get weird anxiety before I have to go. Yet I really want to shoot people. I like portraits, I want to do fashion photography, these are the things I want to do. And I’ve lately just been throwing myself into these scenarios where I don’t know anybody,” he said. “It always turns out to be these amazing experiences.”
Shyness isn’t the only thing Feenstra struggles with.
“One thing that still hasn’t gone away with writing or photography is just huge creative fear barriers. That kind of feeling that you’re not good enough, that you shouldn’t be doing this, that you don’t deserve it,” he said. “At the end of the day, the biggest challenge is just getting over my own inhibitions and just kind of feeling like I shouldn’t be doing this and doing it anyways. And getting through that every time has probably been the biggest challenge. Everything else, when it actually happens, is easy.”
But he sees the challenges as being an important part of the creative process.
“If you’re not a little bit scared of not pulling something off, then you have to question how worth doing it is,” Feenstra said. “If you’re trying to be creative and you’re trying to do something interesting or something that other people can interact with, then you have to be going out into at least your own unknown a little bit. Because if it’s just too easy, then why should anybody else be interested?”
Feenstra wants to break into fashion photography, in part because there are some fairly lucrative career opportunities in the industry, but also because it allows photographers to be creative.
“You flip through magazines, some of the stuff is just garish and awful, and you don’t know how anybody would publish something just so hideous and weird. But it’s great that that’s what somebody got to do,” he said.
He hopes to have his own studio one day, but his dreams are both bigger, and smaller, than that.
“I’d love to be ‘that guy’ in Vancouver where, when celebrities come through town, it’s like, ‘Oh, can we get Mark Feenstra to come in and shoot for the day?’ And I think it’s important to always keep that in mind and believe — act — as though that’s where you’re headed. I think it’s really important to pick a completely and seemingly unobtainable goal, and everything you do should build a foundation to get you in that direction,” he said.
Feenstra said he sees himself as being on the road to his dream, but he’s not hung up on achieving it as soon as possible.
“There’s a certain level of general fashion photography and editorial work that I’d be very happy with for a very long time. I don’t have to get up there, but that’s the general direction. And still, the really important thing for me to do is not get lost in that, and doing everything just commercial work.
“[I want] to pursue some of those personal creative projects without monetizing them,” Feenstra said. “If I want to take a couple months off to go shoot tribes in Borneo without trying to make a lot of money and be worrying who to sell that to, that would be a great place to be.”
Feenstra is not one of those people that’s putting himself all over the Internet in hopes of making a little money. But he is confident that he will eventually turn his passion into a lucrative career.
“If you have a good product, people will find you,” he says.
If you’d like to see samples of Feenstra’s work, you can visit his profile site at www.markfeenstra.com.
Quentin Tarantino taught himself the history of film. Sir Ridley Scott worked on roughly 2,700 commercials before he made it big with Alien. Robert Rodriguez sold his body to science to fund his filmmaking.
These guys are incredibly passionate about film. It’s easy for them to make movies because they have lots of money. But they didn’t always, and if you want to make your own films, you don’t need to be rich either.
Rob Hunt is a local independent filmmaker. Like Tarantino, he didn’t go to film school. He says he would have if he’d had the money, but film programs are really expensive.
“I think that the problem with a film program is that you go and you spend all this money, and you don’t walk away with any equipment. So you really have to be aware of that. If you’re going to be in a film program, you have to be there 110%. You’ve got to be using the equipment, you’ve got to be making friends and contacts,” Hunt says.
And, of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a job once you graduate.
Hunt, who has a degree in computer science from the University of Victoria, has filmed two feature films and purchased all of his own equipment in approximately the same time as a film program would take.
He’s currently directing Standard Action, the Dungeons & Dragons-themed webseries he co-created with girlfriend Joanna Gaskell.
Hunt isn’t afraid of a little competition. In fact, he welcomes it.
“I wanna see cool stuff, and I don’t like what the big studios are doing,” he says. “You’ll see ideas come from independent film that studios are not willing to take a risk on.”
If you want to make your own film, Hunt says you only need a few simple things.
The first is a digital single-lens reflex camera that shoots HD video. Hunt shoots Standard Action on a Canon T2i, which costs around $800. The 7D is also a good option, Hunt says, but it’s a lot more expensive.
Buying a cheaper camera means less of a financial loss if the camera is broken or confiscated. It also means you can buy a second camera, which saves time because it allows you to shoot a scene from two angles at the same time.
Hunt quotes Stu Maschwitz, the man behind filmmaking blog Prolost, as recommending the T2i over the 7D because it has recently been hacked, which has unlocked (for free) a lot of features that would ordinarily come on cameras that cost thousands of dollars more. The hack is pretty recent, so he advises waiting a few months before using it on your camera to make sure it’s stable.
If you buy your camera in a kit it will come with a couple of lenses, but Hunt advises upgrading them. He says a fast 50mm lens, which costs around $100, will work well in low-light situations. It’s also a good idea to get a wide-angle lens, he says, and a “reasonable” tripod.
DSLR cameras shoot beautiful video but the audio quality isn’t very good, so you’ll have to buy an external recording device of some kind. Hunt uses the Zoom H4n (around $350) on Standard Action, but he says he’s seen sound guys using even simpler devices with good results.
Hunt says that, in addition to the recorder, you’ll need a microphone. “You need a basic boom mic and boom pole. A boom pole is like 50 bucks, and boom mic or shotgun microphone, those are like 200 dollars.”
And since you’ll be recording your audio and video separately, you’ll need a slate (also known as a clapboard) which is basically a piece of plastic or wood with two pieces that click when they’re brought together. It makes adding the separate audio track to the video easy during the editing process – you just line both up at the click.
“That’s kind of old school and it’s come back again as a real requirement,” Hunt says.
If you’d like to dabble a bit in lighting, Hunt recommends starting with a good bounce (also known as a reflector) to hold under actors’ faces for close-ups. “It just makes the face a little bit lighter, and more professionally-lit looking,” Hunt says.
A basic lighting kit can come in handy, too. They have just three small 300-watt lights, but DSLR cameras are so good in low-light that that’s all you need. Hunt just bought one for around $300. He’ll be using it during the production of Standard Action episode four.
There’s also a nifty little camera-mounted LED light that’s great for making actors’ faces pop when shooting close-ups. According to Hunt, it’s handy for filming in forests because it maintains the dark, spooky atmosphere, but lights the actors very well. And in daylight situations, it provides more control over the quality of the light. Hunt says he found his for around $40 on eBay.
“If you want to make film, you need a friend who is gullible enough to come out, hold the boom mic, and learn how to use whatever thing you’ve got to record sound,” Hunt says.
“You need a guy who knows how to make sure that he knows that he’s recording and not just listening to the sound, cuz there is that big difference. And to be able to not shake the boom mic around, cuz that’s important.”
Another handy person to have around is a set decorator. Hunt says that the addition of a set decorator has made Standard Action look that much more professional. And if you hire someone who can also do other things, like design costumes or operate your second camera, it will make your life that much easier and save you a lot of time.
Hunt found his set decorator on Craigslist. “I’ve seen some great miracles happen from the people I’ve pulled off of Craigslist. I’ve had some incredibly talented and enthusiastic people,” he says.
“Don’t be afraid to try to find other people, just be ready to have a little bit of friction or find people who don’t actually help.”
Hunt advises posting the “gigs” section, because you have a better chance of finding people who share your passion for filmmaking and will volunteer their time to help you out.
If you need to fundraise, Hunt says IndieGoGo is the way to go. Creators set up pages on the fan-funding site and then anyone, anywhere can donate as much money as they like to the project. Hunt says it allows filmmakers to approach people they normally wouldn’t for funding, and thanks to IndieGoGo, he is now looking at being able to afford a premiere for his movie, The Director’s Project.
“That website alone has changed the whole game in the last year, and i really look forward to how that’s going to expand. I think that’s just going to get a lot better for us,” Hunt says.
And for those interested in special effects, Hunt says Video Copilot is a great site to visit. It’s run by Andrew Kramer, who created the title sequences for Fringe and the Star Trek movie. The site offers free tutorials in Adobe After Effects, which allows filmmakers to “make someone’s leg or head blow off” without any danger.
Hunt speaks very highly of the DV Rebel’s Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap. He says “it’s like 80 bucks, but it’s like the Bible, or like a textbook. It’s not necessarily a storybook, but it’s everything you could need.”
He also highly recommends Robert Rodriguez’s memoir Rebel Without a Crew. “It’s the kind of book you read if you’re feeling down and you don’t want to make film any more. You read it, and then you want to do it again. ‘Cause, like, he sold his body to science to do it, and lived in an institution…it’s pretty epic.”
Hunt reads a lot. “Buy books on amazon and read them,” he says. “That’s how you really become a good filmmaker.”
DVD commentaries are also a great source of information. Again, Hunt recommends Robert Rodriguez’s movies, because his commentaries and extras are geared toward filmmakers.
And the Lord of the Rings, with its 12 hours of commentary, “is such a huge wealth of stuff.” In addition to directors and actors, there are commentaries by the set designers, costume-makers and art designers. Hunt says that the ideas in commentaries are a good way to learn about what does and doesn’t show up on-camera so that you can pull off professional-looking special effects and costumes without having to spend a lot of money.
Hunt also recommends the DVD boxed set of The Middleman. The show, which ran for a single season in 2008, was based on a comic book about a girl recruited by a guy who fixes weird problems for a living to be his replacement.
Kwantlen doesn’t offer any filmmaking classes, but Hunt says there are still some useful courses in the calendar.
The first, and most basic, is an introductory English course. Hunt says he once read a screenwriting book that advised writers to use the same essay-writing techniques he learned at university.
“Writing scripts for me…is very similar to writing a ten-page essay,” he says. “I’ll make notecards and I’ll lay them out on the ground, and it’s exactly the same as how i used to write long essays.”
Hunt doesn’t personally have a problem generating story ideas or writing fiction, but he says that if it’s a skill you need to work on, creative writing classes are a must. Kwantlen offers several that might interest filmmakers, including Introduction to Creative Writing I and II (CRWR 1100 and 1110), Drama, Fiction and Poetry I and II (CRWR 2300 and 2310) and Screenwriting I and II (CRWR 3120 and 3220.)
Jason Lieblang, who teaches German Culture through Film (CUST 3300,) thinks that his course would be beneficial for aspiring filmmakers too.
“You definitely don’t learn the practical skills necessary to make films in a class like mine, that is, editing and how to work a camera and those types of things,” Leiblang says. “You do learn about the history of cinema, about the great directors, about great sort of shifts in filmmaking that were crucial and important and affected the way that films were made after that.”
He also teaches students how to analyze films as texts, looking narrative and form so that students can understand film in a “a deeper, more profound way.”
On top of that, he teaches his students how to “communicate clearly, effectively and persuasively” by writing short argumentative essays.
And rather that writing a final paper, Leiblang says that students can do other kinds of projects, including making a film, if they can prove that they will satisfy the requirements of the assignment.
Kwantlen’s course calendar promises that Introduction to Film Studies (ARTH 1130) will teach students about the “history and development of world cinema” and about “film as a visual language and art-making practice,” and says that students “will learn methods for exploring aesthetic function and for considering the social, political, and technological contexts” of movies. This, like Lieblang’s German Culture Through Film class, will teach you some basic film terms and give you a good grounding in the interpretation of film.
If you’re interested in understanding film and having a lot of control over the way your films are interpreted, Eryne Donahue’s Introduction to Visual Culture (FINA 1167) course may be for you. Donahue says that her class will help students understand films from a variety of perspectives.
“[Filmmakers] could sort of get a sense of how that stuff is put together and then how it’s read by the public,” she says. “They could from there get a sense of what’s already out there and how they could maybe contribute to it.”
Donahue also teaches Photography I (FINA 1170) which is the closest thing Kwantlen offers to a filmmaking class. She says it would be very beneficial for anyone who wants to make movies because a lot of the the language and principles involved are the same.
“It gives a pretty good understanding of how film works. They’re based on the same sort of principles, right, technically. And if they’re taking the course it also sort of slows them down because we’re dealing with film-based cameras instead of digital to start. They really have to kind of focus and put a lot of emphasis on the choices they make and that would set them up really well for storyboarding and planning for film,” she says.
She has some advice for students who want to get into film, too.
“The student should be prepared to do a lot of work,” Donahue says. “There’s no sort of standard path, really, with film or any of the arts, so you have to have a strong vision in mind to know really where you want to go with it.”
For more of the Chronicle’s coverage of independent arts in Vancouver, click here.
To watch Standard Action click here
Click here for Rob Hunt’s website.
Stu Maschwitz’s blog is here.
Video Copilot, which offers free special effects tutorials for filmmakers, is here.
Check Kwantlen’s course calendar for useful courses.