Perhaps it is the youthful enthusiasm that drives Central Coast filmmaker Jason van Genderen, now forty-something, to make world-class innovative short films.
van Genderen chalked up another pair of wins on the weekend, taking out two awards and $20,000 in the Moment Invitational Film Festival in New York.
This global smartphone film festival had attracted entries from all over the world, and van Genderen was the only Australian among the finalists. Entrants had to make a short film on a smartphone that ran for three minutes or less.
van Genderen's film, Beholder, is about rediscovering his deceased father's sculptures. It took out best mini documentary and was also crowned best film in the Filmmakers Choice section.
van Genderen is no stranger to Hunter short film fans. He was multiple winner of the innovative Shoot Out short film festival in Newcastle, where entrants were challenged to make a film in 24 hours.
His first international festival win was also in New York, winning Tropfest NY in 2008 with a film captured on a Nokia N95. Van Genderen runs Treehouse Creative agency in Terrigal, which is Australia's first video production studio to switch entirely to iPhones as their broadcast-capture cameras.
We asked him some questions this week after the MIFF awards victory.
You've been committed to the iPhone for a long time now. When did you get your first iPhone? What model was it? By the way, what iPhone model do you use now?
I think I was only able to afford my first iPhone in 2009, it must have been a 3? Looking at that and the iPhone XS I shoot with today, it's such a leap in camera technology... but the fundamental attraction of the iPhone as a filmmaking tool has never changed, the "always-on-you" convenience of a production studio in my pocket has been the biggest enabler for the films I've made.
When did you make your first "movie" on an iPhone?
I think my first one would have been a mockumentary in 2010 called Design Crimes, which followed a small uniformed squad of militia police aiming to rid the streets of bad design. It was so much fun to make but sadly I tend to suck at comedy so it never enjoyed any festival success . . . but the lessons we learned shooting it always benefit every project you make afterwards!
When was your lightbulb moment of using the iPhone to keep telling stories?
At first, using smartphones to make films was an absolute curiosity, and I admit I totally jumped on that bandwagon and milked the medium to my benefit as a budding storyteller.
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But that's migrated into a different reason for me these days. I often say smartphone filmmaking found me (rather than the other way around) because it wasn't until I stopped obsessing about bigger, better cameras that I discovered a style of movie making that really worked for me. By working with simpler tools, I was able to create more visceral stories and - in many aspects - iPhoneography actually liberated me to be able to tell the kinds of stories I could tell well.
If you could have a chat with Steve Jobs, what you like to learn from him?
Steve Jobs was the King of Simple. There's legendary stories about how he'd brief his software engineering teams about creating highly complex outputs with a very simple interface (for the user).
I think a great example was when burning your own DVDs used to be a time-consuming, onerous task. Steve's brief to his engineers was drawing an outline of a box on a whiteboard, and a single circular button inside it. "Make it this easy" he said . . . forcing his software team to find a way to give consumers the ability to burn a DVD with a templated menu system with just a single click-through function. Unheard of in that time, but Steve demanded it.
I think Steve could teach me how to be even simpler in my storytelling ethos. I feel like he would demand it and I would want to show him I could. He had an aura that brought out the most creative philosophy in the people close to him, I really respect that.
What would you want to convey to him about yourself?
I'm not sure I would need to convey anything about myself, Steve was the kind of genius that just figured you out the minute he met you. I think the greatest compliment would have been his interest in you, let's be honest. How many people in the world think and act like him today? He was a beacon in the tech world, a cryptonite.
Your father has been part of your history of iPhone films? How many minutes of your father and his artwork do you have? What kind of longer film do you envision about him - just a longer short film?
It's true this is the second film I've made about him. The first was a video letter I wrote to him as he was dying (in place of delivering a eulogy once he'd passed).
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A wonderfully talented friend (and Newcastle cinematographer) Gavin Banks shot the initial vision for that film, titled The Unspoken. For this film I projected some of the unused vision over the top of my dad's sculptures - to help build his presence into his work and the film. I also have about 3 hours of interview footage captured and never edited. I sat both my parents down for a family history style interview when we knew he didn't have long with us, specifically to capture his narrative and - ironically - it also ended up being the last chance we had to capture my mum's memories as shortly after dad died she developed Alzheimer's.
The longer story I'd love to make is actually quite a different film. Beholder can almost act as an introduction scene, but then the vision is to build a story that questions our connection to art of a deeper, global level. The plan is to gift 6 of his works to new homes around the world, to people who have expressed a connection to his art and a desire to reach out and secure a piece. The new documentary would then follow each of my dad's works on its journey to its new home, and (through the eyes of the new owner of his art) how and why they connect to it, using the sculpture as a window into their world and their life. My dad detested naming and pricing his work for galleries - he just really craved someone's connection to his work so I think this would be a wonderful way to make that happen. Winning the Moment Invitational has absolutely opened this doorway now, and I'm a big believer in leveraging this prize to help find new permanent homes for the sculptures that otherwise may end up going back into storage again.
Are there any specific sculptures that your father made that are dear to you?
So many, and for different reasons. This whole process has opened up many memories of times in my youth when he would be lost in his work for weeks on end, and I just craved his attention so much. Now I remember those specific artworks and I feel a connection with them because it feels like his energy lives on inside them, almost like he put pieces of himself and his life inside those stones.
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Two pieces that are my personal favourites include the self-portrait plaster carving - it really encapsulates him and is the only self portrait piece he ever did. The other piece I adore is a concrete hand, cupped and balanced on a cement plinth, holding a bird's nest and two plaster eggs. It's such a nurturing piece, and delicate. I see this one everyday and it reminds me to be mindful of my actions, and be grateful for what I create with my hands everyday. And although I missed the sculpting talents he had, I feel my calling is crafting stories through films. My work still craves the same connection his does, so in a way I hope it's continuing his legacy too.
Your father lived in Balcolyn. Is that the garage door was shot?
The opening scene in Beholder was shot in the garage of where we moved to once Dad died, and we needed to find a new home where we could have my mum living with us as well. My wife Megan's and I are now her full time carers. The boxes I unpacked were as they were when we packed up everything in Balcolyn, so it was seven years since we'd given them daylight once more.
How many minutes of footage did you shoot or work with to make Beholder?
I think I spent a solid afternoon filming, then an hour here and an hour there for the remaining week before the festival deadline. Then 3 days out I re-shot about half the footage and completely started again with the edit. I really didn't know if I had a story in my hand until the final day!
You run an entire agency based on marketing through iPhone imagery, right? Are projects like Beholder on your own time, or essential to informing the world about what can be done on an iPhone?
Yes we run a video storytelling agency called Treehouse Creative out of Terrigal and we transitioned to all iPhones about 18months ago, and never looked back. IPhones have been transformative in the way we capture everything from high-end broadcast TV commercials to short-form social content and films. Short films have traditionally been something I work on more after hours, however we're seeing the cross-over with our branded work and I believe we'll bring this into our mainstream work too. And yes it's essential we make stories like this as examples of what's possible, it's the only way we'll empower more wonderful writers and creators with the ability to make films in an accessible, affordable and shareable way.
You were ahead of your time with iPhone movies? How do you keep that "edge" for your business? What is the next biggest development in technology or social trends that you see coming over the horizon (or hovering right on top of us)?
The miniaturisation of cameras has been on our horizon for a while. This year is my 11th year since shooting my first short on a smartphone... and it's still largely an uphill struggle to get the "industry" to take small cameras seriously. I believe it's my mission to keep this conversation fluid and to keep showing what can be done with very little. As we step into a world of shrinking budgets and smaller crews, I know there's great opportunities here for creatives to continue making and to flourish in the film space by simply expanding their thinking about the tools they consider 'cameras'. It's a democratisation of a century-old industry, and that's taking quite some convincing to get an industry (with traditionally high barriers to entry) to re-shape mindsets. One thing's for sure and that's everyone I've trained or convinced to try filming professionally with a smartphone hasn't turned back, in fact they've liberated their thinking and created more possibilities not less. It's a new film grammar, and we've started a community on facebook for it too - called 'Filmbreaker'. Since March 2018, we've over 30,000 like minds gathered there now, and that's hugely exciting.
How did you/are you celebrating your MIFF win?
There wasn't a whole lot of sleep for the day following the festival to be honest, but that's the magic of this journey. Here I am in New York with 14 other spectacular smartphone filmmakers all brimming with ideas and conversation. I'm taking this opportunity to soak in their worlds and reflect on what's possible for the future of our craft. And my wife Megan is travelling with me, we're expecting a new arrival in 8 weeks so it's a special trip for so many reasons. This is all about new beginnings, and I'm waking every day with eyes ears to soak the world around me. There's so many stories I want to tell, and that iPhone in my pocket is burning to see them with me. Shoes on. Battery charged. Open the door New York - I'm coming for you!