Inspired Storyteller on Micro Filmmaking

We met Robert David Duncan in San Diego during our fourth annual International Mobil Film Festival™. Mr. Duncan came from Canada to walk the red carpet, meet other filmmakers in the mobile filmmaking community and to experience what it’s like to be a part of our film festival.  The best part about the filmmakers who attended is the unique perspective they each bring to sharing stories through film and their unique experiences using the camera on their mobile phones to shoot their films.

Robert David Duncan Mr. Duncan was unique in his perspective and it was delightful to listen to him during the presentation of his film screened during the film festival on a big screen and his participation during our Mobile Filmmaking Workshop during MFF2015.

During the following interview you may be inspired to try filmmaking using your phone’s camera as a tool to share your stories.

SBP: Mr. Duncan, please share a bit about your passion and your background.

Robert: I’ve always been a very curious person, always wondering how and why things are the way they are. As a child I had a wide range of interests, like animals, rocks, insects, radios, photography and making up stories and games. I’ve always loved stories, and that has been reflected throughout my life and my career choices. I have been a college teacher, public speaker, actor, writer and now filmmaker and film festival director. The funny thing is that I still do all these things, because really they are all just different ways of telling stories! I’ve had some fun adventures in life, like sailing around Cape Horn on a tall ship, and I enjoy sharing those stories and the lessons I learned. Stories move people, and can challenge and uplift them. There’s nothing I love hearing more than someone saying I helped them take a risk, achieve a dream, or that something I shared made them happy.

SBP: In your experience, how popular is Mobile Filmmaking in Vancouver, Canada?

Robert: I think mobile filmmaking is just beginning to catch on here in Vancouver. It takes a lot of us repeating the message that people can and should make films, and share their stories, for people to really believe they can. That’s why I enjoy being collaboratively involved with festivals like the International Mobil Film Festival and our other partner festivals, because I think together we can achieve a critical mass of encouragement for people to try making a film. The biggest reason I wrote my new book “Micro Short Filmmaking: A guided learning journey” was simply to encourage people to take a risk and try to make a simple one-minute film. I was so thrilled when I made my first micro short film and had it accepted into a festival, that I wanted to show others how I did it, and how they can do it too!

Robert David Duncan

SBP: To date, how many short films have you made using your phone?

Robert: I have made over 20 short films to date, and I would say that two-thirds of them have been shot with mobile phones. Many of my micro short films are the result of artistic impulses that happen on the spur of the moment, when I see something cool, and just start filming it without over thinking it. I call these events “filmable moments” and I encourage filmmakers to always be on the lookout for these moments. I love that I always have a quality cinema camera in my pocket wherever and whenever I might need it. I do also make “fancy” films as well (LOL – I can see my crews cringing when I use that word) with higher-end cameras, sound gear and all the other fun stuff, but those are more complex and take a lot longer to produce. A big part of me really likes being able to make a film right in the moment, and have it completed and entered into festivals within a day or so. People can learn a bit more about my films at www.fatpunkproductions.com.

SBP: That’s a lot of films! How did you find out about the International Mobil Film Festival™ in San Diego?

Robert: Wow, was there ever a time when I didn’t know about the International Mobil Film Festival? If memory serves me, I first found out about the festival through the Cinephone Festival in Spain, which was one of the first festivals to select a film of mine, “Every Boat is a Dream.” Through learning more about The Cinephone Festival, I could see there were collegial relationships with other festivals, like yours, and that seemed really cool. From there, I entered the International Mobil Film Festival!

Robert David Duncan

SBP: What made you decide to submit “Mr. Sadheart’s Sad Day” to MFF2015?

Robert: Well, the challenge at the time was to think of only one film to submit, and one that had been filmed exclusively with a phone. That narrowed it down a bit, since I had done some films that were bigger productions filmed on bigger cameras. In choosing between my micro shorts, I saw “Mr. Sadheart’s Small Day” as a film that really supported my belief that stories are all around us, and we as artists – and we are all artists – need only be tuned into them, and have the means to share them. In so many ways, “Mr. Sadheart’s Small Day” was almost an accidental film, yet one that I believe captures a real feeling of loneliness and disconnectedness that people can feel sometimes.

SBP: Share the story behind your film.

Robert: I was riding a local subway train one day to head out to an acting audition. The train here in Vancouver is called the Skytrain, and a lot of the routes are above ground. As the train rounded the corner near Science World, the sun suddenly lit up the window that I was sitting next to and I saw this face that someone had drawn with their finger on the dusty window. It was a sad face embedded in a heart shape. I became quite fascinated by seeing the world go by out the window through this sad face, and started filming.

I first started filming with the phone vertical, then I heard my pal Arnie Bogdan’s voice in my mind saying “Rob, please hold the phone horizontally next time when you shoot!” so I switched (Arnie had recently rescued some footage I shot the wrong way, thanks to his editing prowess). The transition from vertical to horizontal actually looked cool, so I left it in the final film. As we pulled into a station, the light disappeared, and so did the face. That was the entire existence of this poor little soul, who I called “Mr. Sadheart.” When I was riding back from my audition, I wrote out a brief narrative on the back of my audition script that described Mr. Sadheart’s feelings as he journeyed on his train ride to nowhere. When I got home, I recorded the narrative and edited the film together. 

Robert David Duncan

For me personally, this film is important in several ways. It was the very first film I made solo, from beginning to end. I’ve been lucky to work with wonderful people in teams to make films, but I was also eager to learn how to do everything myself, so I could make films on impulse and get them out quickly, without leaning on others for help. Also, it was the first time I made a one-minute film, and began to develop a personal artistic approach and esthetic around that. Finally, it was film that literally happened by chance, and I learned to trust my impulses to shoot first and figure the rest out later. Since then, I am always recording cool things I see, many of which have become other films. “Mr. Sadheart’s Small Day” has now been seen around the world, and people have told me that the film really struck a chord with them and moved them. I wonder if Mr. Sadheart, or the person who drew him, ever dreamed he or she would touch so many people? To me, that is the power of the artistic and storytelling impulse, and how we can work together from the same well of inspiration, sometimes without even meeting!

SBP: When you spoke during our workshop, you spoke about micro short filmmaking. Can you summarize your presentation for mobile filmmakers, and why mobile filmmaking is a wonderful medium for micro short filmmaking?

Robert: My basic recipe for a micro short film is a combination of: passion themes + artistic impulses + filmable moments. The wonderful thing about mobile devices is that they are always with us. This frees us up to become more aware of the stories around us, and to film things on impulse. I call these things, “filmable moments” and for me these are a key ingredient of a micro short film. As soon as you make filmmaking more complicated, then you are looking at charging up all your gear, making sure you have all the right lenses, lights, carry bags, and so forth. All that stuff is fine, and I enjoy making those kind of films as well, but I think the mobile is the best possible device to let you be free to experience random things and turn them into art. As an example, I was at a community garden and was really struck by these beautiful lilies that were gently blowing in the breeze, so I grabbed some short video clips of them with my phone, sweeping in toward the flowers, and then away from them. One of those clips later became part of my film “Deathbed Regrets” which challenged people to imagine something they might regret at the end of their lives, and to make a change to remove that regret. That film has got into festivals in the US and India. So my point is that I didn’t need to understand why I wanted to film those flowers, I just had to film them, and the mobile made that impulse a reality.

Robert David Duncan

Passion themes are another key ingredient of micro short films as I like to make them. These are the things we care about and want to share with the world. As an example, I knew I wanted to explore the theme of loneliness around the time I made “Mr. Sadheart’s Small Day.” I had no

idea that a face drawn on a train window would become a starring character in that theme, but on some subconscious level I probably knew it was important footage to get. By having your passion themes always in your mind and heart, I believe you are more likely to see, and film, the right things. And obeying those artistic impulses to shoot first and figure it out later is the final main ingredient of a micro short film in my opinion. With your passion themes resident in your mind and heart, and your eyes looking around for filmable moments, your mobile device is what will let you obey your artistic impulses and shoot a cool little film!

SBP: What was your experience like during the International Mobile Film Festival in San Diego?

Robert: The International Mobil Film Festival was the very first time ever that I actually got to go to a festival that had one of my films in it, and let me tell you it was a truly wonderful experience! I really enjoyed getting to meet all the filmmakers, organizers and the audience members. We were treated like rockstars and it was very humbling, that’s for sure. Oh, yeah, and more than a little bit fun too! The chance to share skills and thoughts in the workshops and expert panel was priceless, as well as the friendships that developed between people.

Robert David Duncan

SBP: Had you seen a film that you made with your phone on a big screen before you came to San Diego?

Robert: It was the very first time I personally saw one of my smartphone films on the big screen, and it was super cool! I also enjoyed watching everybody else’s films, knowing they were sitting right beside me, and we would have a chance to talk about each other’s films.

Robert David Duncan
Left to right: Adi Spektor, Robert David Duncan, Susan Botello and Prakash Gandhi Natarajan: MFF2015 April 25, 2015

SBP: Please share your experience and what it felt like to attend the film festival as a participant.

Robert: The red carpet experience was totally a first for me, and I will always treasure those photos and memories. They say you never forget your first time, right?

Robert David Duncan
Left to right: Jose Iturriaga, Adi Spektor, Susan Botello, Alicia Hayes, Robert David Duncan and Prakash Gandhi Natarajan. MFF2015 April 26, 2015 Photo credit: 656 Photography.

SBP: As an actor, do you feel it brings something to your filmmaking experience?

Robert: For sure. I am told I am an “actor’s director,” and I suspect that’s because I am able to let the actors do what they do best, which is to follow their impulses. Actors appreciate that. I only need to redirect actors if I feel I am not getting what the film needs in any given scene. I also like to work with the actors behind the scenes on things like back stories and really understanding who the character is. This means we arrive on set fully loaded and ready to work. As an actor, I also know how you can get burned out by too many takes, especially when there is no new information or direction being given. So I don’t buy into the illusion of “safety” by doing a dozen takes of everything because I also know what a headache it is in edits to have too many good takes. I aim for 3 takes max wherever possible, and when I’ve got what I need, we move on. By the same token, I hope I am a “filmmaker’s actor,” because I understand what is going on around me, and can try to do the things that make the whole team process go smoothly.

Robert David Duncan

SBP: Let’s talk about the Miniature Film Festival. What motivated you or inspired you to create and run your own film Festival, and why did you choose to make your film Festival exclusive to Micro short films?

Robert: Well, to be honest, Susan, you inspired me to create the Miniature Film Festival! I saw what the International Mobil Film Festival was accomplishing, and what its goals are, and I realized that I was also totally bought into a similar vision, that of empowering people to feel able to make and share wonderful stories through films. As I got to know more about the history of your festival, its evolution over the years and the network of collaborating festivals you were a part of, I started to feel like I could contribute something to the overall picture. So I decided to try a very miniature first run of a miniature film festival for miniature films. Our one grand gesture was to serve miniature cupcakes!

Robert David Duncan

I focused on micro short films because that was what I was fascinated by. I had felt so empowered by the experience of making my first solo films, and getting them into festivals, that I knew I wanted to share that experience. I was very conscious of the idea that I was creating a festival by and for filmmakers. Of course the festival screening was open to the public, but the focus is really on the filmmakers and helping add to the community building that you and others were already doing. By limiting the festival to one-minute films, I knew we would be able to select and screen a good number of them. In the end we showed 81 films, with entrants from over 45 countries. I secretly hoped that we might be a filmmaker’s first ever official selection, because I can remember how awesome that experience felt! For many of the filmmakers we were indeed their first official selection and for the award winners, their first award.

SBP: How does the Miniature Film Festival connect with mobile filmmakers and mobile film festivals?

Robert: We have a few touchpoints that form the backbone of our community. The Miniature Film Festival website is at www.miniatureff.weebly.com, but the main hive of social activity is on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MiniatureFilmFestival, and that’s where filmmakers can keep in touch with us and each other. Our Twitter handle is @miniatureFF, so please follow us there too. We also have an entry page on FilmFreeway for when people are ready to submit their films, and that is at www.filmfreeway.com/festival/MiniatureFilmFestival. We are really proud to be part of a collaborative network that includes your festival and others around the world, and those wonderful festivals can be found at www.mobilfilmfestival.com/collaborators.html.

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