Filmmaker Heath Tait: Portrait of a Vancouver Vagabond

Published On November 21, 2010 | By admin | film, film distribution, Film Festival, film production, Filmmaker, filmmaking, Independent Film

Last June I had the pleasure of meeting Canadian Filmmaker Heath Tait at the Las Vegas Film Festival when he came to accept an award for his autobiographical documentary “Vancouver Vagabond”.  He impressed me then as a passionate, opinionated individual, who like many had struggled a great deal while trying to become recognized as an indendent artist while producing this project and an earlier one called “Pictorial Forest” that took years to finish.  Because of this I thought he’d be an interesting person to interview I believe you will find that to be the case when you read Part 1 of his Filmmakers Notebook Q&A.

Considering the amount of time and effort it took to make both “Pictorial Forest” and “Vancouver Vagabond”, what do you consider to be the most valuable lessons you’ve learned both personally and professionally from these experiences?

Filmmaker Heath Tait with award

My generation of artist and filmmaker has to be most lessoned by the rate of technology and its change of esoteric film craft into the ubiquitous internet- based media explosion that we have known for several years now. With the transition from analog to digital, standard definition to high definition, we have undergone a destabilizing period of change, and while technology has allowed for greater accessibility and affordability, this has also allowed for greater competition from an ever-increasing number of amateur media creators and free releasing avenues. This “fragmentation” of the once easily guarded media landscape is forcing us all to revise everything from production to releasing, monetization, promotion… even how we conceive of the media subject matter itself- how we dream and the limits therein. It’s surely been the most unsettling transition period in media history for those invested in traditional filmmaking. With my strengths and background in the tangible creative, the virtual aspects of what media has become in such short order has been both liberating and devastating.

When we refer to the short animation “Pictorial Forest” and the first of the feature series “Vancouver Vagabond”, we are dealing with a huge chapter of my life comprising 20 years during which time I first completed a 5 year arts and animation degree at the Emily Carr in Vancouver, followed immediately by the internet’s premier, the CGI explosion, the change of the workflow and craft of film production etc… Digital changed all and my background in making things as best expressed in “Pictorial Forest’s” traditional 35mm animation techniques was no longer the way in which films were being produced.

The method and the economy of movies changed, and is changing, ongoing.

For the last decade, reality shows inexpensive containing real-life elements, and an explosion of cost effective documentary approaches to content creation has made the production of traditional drama (and all its inherent industrial facets) strained to survive. The tendency, as in all times of economic strife, has been consolidation with a slant toward safe derivative product (sequels, prequels, big brand recognition franchise themes) in order to please the faceless shareholder base. Fragmentation, social media and piracy (for profit or hobby-based file sharing) is not hurting the studios so much, which are large enough to absorb loss, but rather the small independent producers who are scrambling to find ways to survive in a market which no longer exists. For over 30 years, hard copy home entertainment allowed for a strong indie film market, and thus the emergence of challenging, unique filmmakers and extraordinary visions in professional media. Now, this foundation is largely gone, the shelf life of DVD’s has dropped dramatically as governments struggle to clearly debate, understand, and draw comprehensive solutions to the issue of intellectual property management. Even copyright law can no longer be properly quantified for lack of the ability to prevent personal copying efforts of ones own purchased media files, which opens the door to the sharing and proliferation of those same files online or otherwise. In Canada, the debate continues at the federal level and is a constant struggle as new gizmos enter the scene and upturn our concept of intellectual properties, media, and their inherent value and therefore their protection. Bottom line, the internet is an incredible gift to all who are NOT engaged in professional media creation, but to all else carrying the burden of production other than the studios, it is largely a destroyer. In fact, I think it may be benefitting the large studios- that are able to saturate theatrical exhibition and push out smaller competitors- even after they have accounted for piracy losses, as it is destroying the hard copy competition they have known for the last 30 years.

Has your love for animation grown or diminished because of the challenges and the length of time it took to get “Pictorial Forest” made?

The adverse effects of the internet for producers has made me rather bitter but my love of traditional animation will never leave me, nor the feeling that it rouses. More than ever, old animation approaches are romanticized and will surely become more so as digital techniques supersede the work flow of artisans once engaged in the creative process.

But this is my educated view. Most people do not understand or even sense or care about the look and style of animation or live action. They respond only to the basic narrative story-telling qualities. Because of this, technical approaches to content creation typically lean toward the most cost-effective solutions, defaulting to digital. The result is a factory approach of “nerds” at computers working in virtual space with digital programs and files rather than approaching the problem solving process using traditional tools and actual cameras and film wherein actual pictures were created.

Several years ago I rescued an old, but perfectly preserved and functioning, Oxberry Animation Stand Camera, able to shoot super 16 and super 35mm. It is the large, heavy monster camera on a stand that classic animation was shot on by Disney and others.

It’s an enormous burden of an instrument, weighing almost a ton and are laborious in their use compared to using a computer program. Everywhere, they have been practically discarded to make room for digital animation. But the film approach results in an entirely different aesthetic. I became very good at using this camera system in the 90’s at the Emily Carr and on “Pictorial Forest” and wish to preserve this vanishing art and technique.

The 1999 “Pictorial Forest”, 16 minutes, 35mm, (Traditional painted cel, Optical FX, Rubber Puppets, CGI) was a hybrid, which reflected its time having been produced through the 90’s, historically straddling the radical change from the hands-on tangible world of making things, and that of the emerging digital approach to content creation.

It was very expensive to make, took twice as long as I had originally conceived, and by the time it did emerge in 1999, everything had changed. CGI had been used and abused through the 90’s from 1993’s “Jurassic Park” forward, a rash of CGI FXploitation blockbuster type movies numbing people’s appreciation of animation and FX work.

Many people that saw “Pictorial Forest” assumed that the multi-pass optical FX work shot on a traditional rostrum animation stand camera was all CGI; their appreciation and respect for the once unique, esoteric and truly magic hard-won field of FX content creation had fallen away. Supply and demand: mass abundance creates devaluation. Only a decade earlier I could remember people stricken with awe when confronted on screen with an amazing effect. The magic was real and people’s appreciation was evident. What I miss most in today’s super-heated media world is the appreciation factor. It leaves me wondering why I continue in this difficult and dangerously expensive field, as the reason why all filmmakers get into this “profession” is to be able to affect people with their creations. Desensitization due to media overload inevitably reduces the passion factor that has always been the very core that drives filmmakers (now “content creators”) to continue in an all too often punishing pursuit of brilliance.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Q&A with Heath and in the meantime, you can learn more about him at his website http://www.pictfire.com/index.html or by visiting his Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/heath.tait.

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