Art of the Moment

Check out my new documentary: Art of the Moment.
The film premiered on arts and culture website BOOOOOOOM last week and is on Vimeo now.

Gert Johan Manschot is based outside of Austin, Texas. His paintings are born from a period of deep contemplative meditation in front of the canvas.

As a lifelong meditator and student of Zen Buddhism, Manschot has interwoven the process of his work with his practice of meditation.

The resulting work are paintings informed by the ancient style and formal techniques of Zen Buddhist monks but with the extreme personal quality of contemporary minimalist abstract art.

In this short documentary Manschot describes the events that led him to turn towards the path of meditation, and how the lessons he learned helped him find a quiet harmony with life.

Shot on the Varicam LT - Native 5000 ISO

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What is “Art of the Moment” about?

Art of the Moment is a short documentary about the Austin based Dutch painter Gert Johan Manschot.  Johan has studied meditation for many years in the Zen Buddhist tradition.  As a young man he had a spiritual crisis that led him to seek a quiet life in a monastery to find a peace and stillness that he was missing in himself.  

When he returned to the world outside the monastery he continued to practice meditation and eventually took up painting.  As a lifelong collector and lover of art, Johan found a way to fuse his meditation practice into the process of his art making.  

Before he paints he sits in meditation before the canvas.  After time passes something erupts from inside of him and he is moved to paint.  In a furious moment one or two large kinetic strokes of paint are cast on the canvas.  The painting is born and finished in those moments.  Johan’s work is very much in the tradition of Zen painters but also fits well within the landscape of contemporary minimalist and abstract art.

In our documentary, Johan shares his reflections on his art and his life.  We show his practice of working and film Johan working on several canvases at his barn studio in the hill country outside of Austin, Texas.

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How did "Art of the Moment" come about?

One of the highlights of living in Austin is an annual open studio weekend in East Austin.  Every year homes, galleries, studios, and venues open up all over east Austin as artists show there work.  Unlike a lot that Austin has to offer, the East Austin Studio Tour, is one of the rare events that is more for the local community than for outsiders or tourists.  Each year is always packed with revelations and inspiring work by the vibrant voices that base themselves here in the east side of our city.

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My creative partner, Brody Carmichael, met Johan Manschot at this studio tour several years ago and heard his story.  Johan talked about the role Zen Buddhism played in helping him through a personal crisis, and how his art work has become a process oriented approach to combining meditation and artistic expression.  Brody and Johan became fast friends and in the following year Brody produced an excellent short documentary about Johan’s work to accompany a gallery opening in Dallas.  That documentary became the structural skeleton and prototype for this current iteration of the project, several years later.

Brody introduced me to Johan and I had the pleasure of studying meditation for many months at his weekly meditation group.  Brody and I felt like there was still a lot of value in revisiting his previous project and going deeper in some ways with how we could commit his work and story to film.

In Art of the Moment I feel we’ve achieved our goal of demonstrating the process of his work while also balancing the gentle narrative of what Johan went through that brought him to his unique perspective in life.  I think the result is a quiet film, a reflective film, and something that aspires to capture the vibrancy of personal feeling and energy that Johan has brought to his thinking and that somehow leaps off of his canvases.

As an artist, Johan is working in both an immediately contemporary capacity and a tradition that is ancient, storied, and highly traditional.  For centuries there have been Zen practitioners who used the techniques of painting that Johan explores.  Johan told us Zen masters would often be able to be identified by the energy the infused into their work.  While the object of a simple black circle on white paper might seem anonymous and simplistic to our eyes, amongst those who are fluent in the language of the Enzo the energy of the teacher shines through their markings.

In Johan’s work I found that he took many of the powerful spiritual ideas of these traditions, but combined them with the sensibility of contemporary minimalist and abstract practices.  His impulsive but deliberate style of approaching the canvas is Pollock-esque in that it is a working method which absorbs the whole of his body.  His work demands a special kinetic energy be infused into his bold, swift, gestural painting process.  The result is a performative quality to the work that is unique and leaves an embodied impression on the canvas.  It contains his identity in a way that is different from the Zen painting tradition, but still in harmony with its aspirations.

It was seeing Johan at work that initially inspired Brody to recognize that only in the moving-image-medium could the full expression of what this work is be revealed to an audience.  The canvases speak for themselves and stand on their own, but there is an added special quality to observing Johan practice the work.  Filming his working process at a high-speed frame rate gives us a special insight into the state of mind and heightened headspace that occurs in this “moment” when a painting is born from his meditation. 

As filmmakers did meditation influence you at all?

I think meditation has had a profound impact on the way we see the world and this project in particular.  Brody and I have both been meditating with Johan for a while now, and prior to my meditations with Johan I would visit the Shambala Center in Austin and have meditated there for several years.

I think without our modest experiences with meditation it would have been hard to find the right cinematic language to communicate Johan’s worldview.  There is a quietness, a patience, a discipline, and a solitude that is demanded out of the tone of the film.  

This is something that one might be able to understand abstractly without a first-hand experience of meditation, but would find quite difficult in capturing formally without some kind of embodied experience of what that actually means and feels like.  In meditating we found the physical sensation of what we want to give to the audience.  We found a stillness we wanted to put on screen.

We work primarily in a narrative capacity as filmmakers, but have done documentary work over the last several years on the side for both commercial and personal purposes.  I definitely think as we move forward back into narrative filmmaking we will be bringing meditation into our process oriented approach to filmmaking.

What does "process oriented filmmaking" mean?

My sincere belief is that the act of making a film is a significant art-act independently significant of the film that results from the process.  The two are interwoven and interdependent.  

As filmmakers we often take a brutal and utilitarian approach to the way we make our films.  This is a tradition born out of the commercial studio system through which the process of making films was standardized in America and internationally.  

While many of those production practices are useful, important, and valuable in ensuring that the film reaches its potential and avoids egregious technical errors, it is also clear that there are important and artistically significant ways in which this process can be adapted or altered in order to enhance the artistic integrity of the finished film.

By colonizing the act of making the film, and allowing the community of artisans who work in the film’s production to be active participants in a creative dialogue, I believe that the act of making the film can be a process of discovery and revelation about the subjects and stories we’re trying to tell.

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The power structure of a film doesn’t have to be a dictatorship.  It can, I hope, be a laboratory of invention, discussion, and exploration.  We all have roles to perform on a motion picture set, but that doesn’t need to preclude engaging in the mystery of discovering what the film is together.

For Brody and I, the act of working on the film with Johan, meditating with him, staying with him at his barn studio, were all a part of considering the film we were making and allowing the action of making it, the process of making it, to take on its own shape and become its own meaningful journey.  

I think the result is a different film than one in which we began from a fixed position of certainty about what it is we were trying to accomplish. 

Efficiency is good, but if it becomes an end that serves the destruction of mystery, ambiguity, and the film finding its own identity through the process of making it, then I think efficiency can become a defect rather than a feature of any filmmaking process. 

What do you want an audience member to take away from this film?

I hope they consider the speed at which we live our lives.  The rapidity that is at the foundation of our modern world and economy.  

Johan has found a way to live in which stillness and reflection have taken on a primacy that very few of us allow them to.  These primal forces are available to all of us and are waiting for us to re-discover them, but in lieu of the rest of modernity vacuuming up our time and energy we lose sight of our natural faculty for intentionality and quietude.

If they take away a little sense of his peace and stillness, maybe they’ll develop a curiosity about how they can foster it in their own lives.  I know that contemplating his work has done so for me and helped encourage me to build a space in myself that can contain more stillness and mindfulness.

Is there any lesson you feel you particularly walked away with from the film?

Editing the film over a period of months, there was a statement that Johan makes that resonates with me above all others.  “You cannot grasp anything.”  He says it with an earnestness that comes from a lesson he must have learned many times over many years.  Its a moment of intensity that always stands above the rest for me when I think about the many things he said in our interview.  

Filmmaking can be a frustrating endeavor.  There is failure and collapsed opportunity at nearly every step of the journey.  In considering Johan’s statement, I am increasingly trying to remind myself that the grasping is futile.  We can only do our best work where the universe allows us to move forward, and give up futile grasping.

“You can only wait until it comes to you.  The better you are in waiting, the easier it will be.”  I think about that a lot these days.  The skill isn’t in becoming a better “grasper” so to speak.  It’s becoming more comfortable with the waiting, the sitting, and the space we find ourselves in. 

Why did you choose to shoot the film in black and white?

This was one of the insights that my creative partner and cinematographer Brody Carmichael had from the time when he first produced the original documentary profiling Johan’s work.  Brody’s a brilliant cinematographer and extremely skilled in thinking about visual language.  He recognized that in placing the entire film in a black and white context several advantages were immediately gained by the film.  

Firstly, the audience is brought into the world of the canvases themselves, which are all black paint on white canvas or white paint on black canvas.  

Secondly, the paintings themselves pop out and emerge as distinctive living elements when the entire frame is in black and white, but would otherwise recede into the background of any shot had we introduced color into the visual vocabulary.  

Thirdly, the black and white image is a less activating force than color images.  We’re brought to that special space of contemplation, stillness, and quiet mindfulness by absorbing these images without the distraction of color.  

We did consider doing this project in color at the beginning of principal photography.  We shot the project on Brody’s Varicam LT, which has a spectacular representation of color and skin tone, so in a way it felt like we might be discarding one of the key advantages of our toolset.  All of those reservations however immediately vanished as I began seeing the richness of these black and white images.  

I’m sure there will be some who are unable to connect to the film because they haven’t traditionally watched much black and white photography, but my goal has always been an accomplishment of depth not breadth in our impact on an audience.

Are you worried that a subject this contemplative will not connect with an internet age audience?

I don’t ever try to make films that reach a wide audience.  I think doing so is a recipe for uninteresting filmmaking.  The film that aspires toward universal appeal will ultimately satisfy no one.  In the internet age there are many who feel overwhelmed by content.  So many who feel that time is moving faster every day and simply want it to stop.  Those who connect with these sort of feelings will hopefully find our film, and, I hope, connect to the tone and feeling that we have tried to cultivate in telling Johan’s story and showing his work.  

The Sea of Time

The greatest of directors in the canon of cinema are not those who see their work as primarily being with actors, locations, shot-designs, or even story.

The great directors are those who see time, and the construction of it in cinematic language, as their primary material.

Ackerman, Linklater, Tarkovsky, Davies, Malick, Weerasethakul, and Tarr are all carefully constructing a reality in the films they direct.

This reality inevitably involves performance, the camera, and some form of narrative, but much more vital and perhaps even informative to all those other elements is the way that these filmmakers construct realities scaffolded over the passage of time itself.

Time is that force which never leaves us. It lurks inside every moment of our experience. In the cinema, authorship means creating a succession of images that can only be understood over the course of seconds, minutes, and hours. Through this eventuality, the medium grants unique privileges to filmmakers to inform our understanding of the very cosmic forces to which we ourselves are always beholden to.

Unlike other inescapable forces, the perception of time and the passage of time are uniquely subjective. In life, and in the cinema, we all experience the passing of moments, and the memory of experiences, with unique latitude.

It is this realm that a cinema informed primarily by time can transcend mechanics and enter the arena of poetry.

For a filmmaker like Linklater this means observing the effects of time on people and places. The Before Trilogy remains one of the greatest examples in cinema of the human experience of time. Each film exists like a capsule, floating in-between the nine years of silence that connect and inform each continuing episode.

For Ackerman, time is something that dictates each grueling moment. It is recognized as an oppressive force, deadening our reality and imprisoning us alongside so many other cultural and economic forces.

Davies’ experience of time is more concerned with the construction of memory, and how our subjective experience of moments takes on its own life and power. There is a sacredness to the vignettes that comprise his best known works. They feel like recovered documents, recounting a lost past that has defined the author’s present.

Each of these directors is keenly aware of the power and flexibility of the whole language of cinema. But rather than remain content solving narrative problems with the tools at their disposal, they meditate on the forces of nature themselves which are at the core of the DNA of cinema.

The cinema is multifaceted. It can express many different kinds of experiences, tell many different kinds of stories, and there are certainly directors whose work may be described as conventional but nonetheless contain unique splendors which have little to do with the manipulation of time.

That said, I think that for a film to offer something extraordinary, or something uniquely cinematic to the audience, it must account for time. It may choose to do so subtlely or incidentally, but it cannot ever truly escape the burden owed to time, no more than it can ignore the necessity of light to expose an image.

Understanding these things has helped me come to terms with the cinema of Tarr. When I first encountered Tarr I had not endured nearly as much of slow cinema as I have now enjoyed. I found the experience grueling, and grating. I am used to films that demand a lot out of the audience, but watching Damnation I felt as if I had met a film that was asking too much.

Revisiting Tarr in the Turin Horse, I find a filmmaker who is anything but deadening. His images, his construction of moments, seem now vividly alive to me. There is intensity and certainly a demanding quality to the film, but letting the film work on me and tuning into the wavelength of the film’s conception of time, transported me emotionally in a way only Tarkovsky, Davies, Malick, and Linklater have done.

These masters of time offer us experiences that speak to the core of our humanity. They aspire to make poetry out of the nature of our consciousness.

In the words of Pynchon: “…yet there is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever.”

A Field Guide to Texan Cinema

I recently wrote an article exploring Texan cinema as a cohesive scene and film community.  The article was printed in Almost Real Things Magazine's first quarter of 2017 edition and was featured on their website.  I've frequently been surprised how few of my fellow Texans have been made aware of the interconnectedness and the richness of our local film communities, so the article hoped to explain these connections to someone with only a small background in film viewing.  I hope it convinces more locals to put a high value on the good work that is being done here by filmmakers.

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A FIELD GUIDE TO TEXAN CINEMA

by TRAVIS LEE RATCLIFF

Austin is a city most commonly praised for its music scene, its tacos, and its many species of rare and exotic facial hair, but the truth is that beneath the Austin and the Texas you might expect is one of the richest communities of filmmakers working in American cinema today.

In 2015, Austin was named by Moviemaker Magazine as the best American city to live and to work as an independent filmmaker.  Despite the climate of innovation and the diverse cache of exciting new film voices in the Texan community, many are unaware of the storytelling that has become concentrated here.

In this article, I intend to examine my local film community and explore the rich filmmaking that is happening here outside of traditional film institutions or cities.  

I believe in Texas we’ve set an example that can be emulated in other regions of the United States for the establishment of film scenes that speak to the local culture while reaching a broader audience outside of its place of origin.

WHY DO LOCAL FILMMAKERS MATTER?

It may not be immediately apparent to a casual fan of the cinema why local filmmakers are important or valuable.

The reason is simple.  The stories we tell shape the way we see ourselves.

The way we represent our communities in our culture of images plays a vital role in forming our identity as persons of a specific time and place.  

Local filmmakers are capable of molding and challenging our vision for ourselves in a way that has an enduring impact on how we think about and describe our culture and communities.  

For the first century of its existence, the American cinema has been and remains heavily concentrated on the West and East coasts.  While filmmakers frequently bring productions to regions around the United States, these visitations often represent the localities they photograph as backdrops for whatever story was being told at the moment.  

Only in the last several decades has it become possible and inevitable for communities outside of Hollywood and New York to produce and sustain viable enclaves of filmmakers.  

These communities are interested in the regional culture to which they belong. 

Out of the specificity of these local spaces, new and innovative stories can be discovered.  The resulting films often have broader appeal beyond their locality, while still speaking to the immediacy of under-represented communities in our midst.

At the forefront of this development in localized filmmaking and cinematic storytelling is the rise of filmmaking enclaves in Dallas, Austin, and around the state.

Let’s explore some of the filmmakers that make Texas a frontier in film today.

THE FOREFATHERS

At the top of the list, we have an obligation to mention the filmmakers who have laid the groundwork for the cutting edge film community we now enjoy.

These filmmakers helped create the language that has emerged as a part of the unique Austin and Texas film culture.  In addition to the work they’ve done on screen, many of these filmmakers have built the institutions that have allowed filmmaking as a craft to flourish throughout the state.

RICHARD LINKLATER

 A discussion of film in Austin is almost inevitably a discussion of the work and influence of Richard Linklater.  The filmmaker’s extensive list of accomplishments include: Slacker, Boyhood, The Before Trilogy, School of Rock, Waking Life, Bernie, Dazed and Confused, and this year’s successful spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused: Everybody Wants Some.  

Linklater’s fascination with the impact of the passage of time in cinema is evident in his best films.  His ability to walk the line between his experimental sensibilities and his humanist character-driven narratives are what make him one of the great film voices of his generation.

In the context of Texan cinema, he has almost always prioritized the exploration of unique stories and representations of our local culture.  His decision to remain in Austin after his early successes with Slacker and Dazed and Confused have helped create a viable example of pursuing a successful career outside of Los Angeles and New York for filmmakers all over the country.

For local filmmakers and film lovers, Linklater’s contributions to the cinema are almost overshadowed by the incredible work of the institution he’s built in the Austin Film Society. The Austin Film Society, of which Linklater was a founder and remains an artistic director, has perhaps been more influential than any other institution in the state for promoting and building a sustainable community of independent Texan filmmakers.

ROBERT RODRIGUEZ

Rodriguez made a name for himself out of his fierce independence from studio filmmaking.  In order to fund his first feature film, Robert Rodriguez participated in medical experiments.  El Mariachi, made famously for $7,000, helped establish the first waves of indie-auteur success in the 1990s.  

Like Linklater, he refused to yield to the temptation of establishing himself with Hollywood filmmaking and remained based in Austin in order to build his own studio infrastructure.  

With the recent launch of his own television network, El Rey, and his continued success in producing his own feature films, Rodriguez has laid down an infrastructure that has in many ways allowed for the expansion of the local film community.  

As Rodriguez has continued to produce work in Texas, including television shows like From Dusk Till Dawn, the viability of living and working as a filmmaker in Texas has been substantially increased.

TERRENCE MALICK

It has almost become cliché to call attention to the influence of Terrence Malick on contemporary cinema.  The visual language he established in early films like Badlands, Days of Heaven, and refined in late-period masterpieces The Thin Red Line, and Tree of Life, seems inextricably woven into the visual stylings of contemporary independent cinema. 

Malick came of age in Austin, attending St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, before studying philosophy at Harvard and Oxford with an emphasis on the work of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein.  

After departing Oxford, Malick began his film career with one of the most memorable debut films of the 1970s: Badlands, a love on the run thriller starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek.

Malick’s narratives are often loose, free floating, atmospheric exercises.  A pre-occupation with plot is de-emphasized in exchange for a more abstract, almost spiritual exploration of theme and tone.  The presence of the natural world is more powerfully felt in Malick’s cinema than in almost any contemporary auteur in the American cinema.

In looking at contemporary Texan filmmakers there is often a clear reaction or absorption to the language of Malick’s films that is often commented on by critics and writers on independent cinema.

Malick has been protective of his privacy throughout his career, making virtually no public comment on his work since the debut of his first film.  He remains based in Austin and frequently sets his films in Texan communities.


THE RISING STARS

These filmmakers have broken through and made names for themselves nationally as independent filmmakers who are shaping the conversation around cinema today.  All of them have either built their reputations here in Texan cinema or remain here to quietly pursue their work.

DAVID LOWERY

David Lowery has most recently come to prominent attention in the American cinema as a result of his successful 2013 Sundance film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and his critically successful 2016 Disney film Pete’s Dragon.  Prior to his recognition on the national stage, Lowery created many short films and collaborated frequently with filmmakers in the independent film scene in Texas and around the country.

Lowery is one of the iconic filmmakers to emerge out of an enclave of Dallas and North Texas in the last ten years. This community included rising cinematic talents Shane Carruth, Eric Steele, Toby Halbrooks, James Johnston, and Yen Tan, among others.

His work often provokes comparisons to Terrence Malick for his atmospheric and tone-poem style minimalist aesthetic, but there is no doubt that the cinema he has created stands totally apart from comparisons to other American auteurs.

His work has often been deeply reflective of Texan environments.  The atmospheric quality of much of his films gives the viewer an intense emotional connection to the worlds he explores.

His 2011 short film, Pioneer, is one of the strongest Sundance short films of the last several years, and features Lowery’s incredible ability to work with child performers.

However, perhaps what is most ripe for re-discovery is his debut feature film St. Nick. 

St. Nick is one of the most lyrical and powerful films to come out of Texan cinema in the last fifteen years.  Following two children on the run from an unknown danger, we follow their near silent escapades through North Texan landscapes and abandoned houses.  

The film provokes comparisons to Laughton’s Night of the Hunter but placed against the backdrop of our own Great Recession.  

St. Nick is a film riddled with innumerable mysteries and wonders and it remains a great curiosity that it is not better known.

Lowery is a master of creating disillusioned fairy tale landscapes.  Darkness and majesty go hand in hand in his cinema.  There is a powerful romanticism and nostalgia to every frame, but parallel to it is always this looming sense of loss and sadness whose causal roots remain illusory to the characters and to the audience.

At the 2017 Sundance Film Festival he reunited with his Aint Them Bodies Saints leads, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, for the debut of his newest feature film: Ghost Story.  Shot on the sly in Dallas, the film represents a return to his independent filmmaking roots, and received widespread acclaim as one of the great discoveries of 2017 Sundance crop.


SHANE CARRUTH

No one was more shocked to learn Carruth had won the Grand Jury Prize at 2004’s Sundance Film Festival than Shane Carruth.  It was an unlikely victory, at least according to Carruth’s own expectations for the evening.  Primer was an underdog at the festival.  The scrappy $7000 movie was the debut feature film by the writer, who also served as the film’s director, lead actor, editor, and composer.

The film was a remarkable success, developing a cult following and becoming one of the most rigorously logical time travel films in the history of science fiction cinema.

Carruth manages, with Primer, to take the mumble core aesthetic and bring it to life within a genre.  The characters are totally unique in science fiction cinema for their disregard to explain their thinking or their logic to the audience.  They speak in the technical language of the world they live in and the film dares the audience to keep up with them.  

This is the nature of the puzzle box cinema of Shane Carruth.  The audience is never talked down to or given easy answers to complex problems.

While the do-it-yourself mode of production arose primarily out of the low-budget nature of the work, it would continue into Carruth’s second feature film Upstream Color.

After years of struggling to finance a follow up to Primer, Carruth went back to the fiercely independent methodology that had allowed him to succeed with Primer.  Upstream Color debuted at the 2013 Sundance film festival and is a marvel of a film.  

Carruth once again wrote, directed, scored, acted in, and worked on the editing of the film.  This time, he did have the assistance of producers and a co-editor in Dallas filmmaker David Lowery.

The resulting film is like the effervescent free floating amtospherism of Malickian cinema seen through the lens of totalizing paranoia.  

Upstream Color follows two individuals who are drugged and brainwashed by a hypnotist who strips them of their identity and all of their financial resources.  Clueless, the characters are left to re-build their lives and re-discover their identities.  The film explores the nature of identity and attempts to uncover what is at the core of our identities.  

While exploring these themes, the film captures North Texan suburban landscapes and interiors with a specificity that creates a greater portrayal of alienation and loneliness in the contemporary world.

Carruth is currently in post-production on his follow up to Upstream Color known at this time as The Modern Ocean.

Previously he was based outside of Dallas, Texas in Plano.

JEFF NICHOLS

Based in Austin, Jeff Nichols graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts and soon after began making powerful independent dramas and thrillers.  His films include Shotgun Stories, Mud, Midnight Special, Take Shelter, and the recently released and academy award nominated: Loving.

Nichols is originally from Little Rock, Arkansas but is based in Texas and has recently taken to setting his films in the state.

Nichols has had a great track record of producing and directing the sort of medium budget independent films that were once quite common, but have recently evaporated from the American cinematic scene.

ANDREW BUJALSKI

Bujalski is commonly referred to as the godfather of the American mumble core movement.  His early films do seem to predict the wave of movies that would gain popularity out of South by Southwest in the mid 2000s.  Bujalski’s movies in this period include: Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha, and Beeswax.  

After re-locating to and basing himself out of Austin he began to take an even more formally experimental direction with his filmmaking.  

2013’s Computer Chess adopted some radical visual choices, including using early cathode ray tube digital cameras to build a totally unique visual aesthetic for his period piece set against the rise of computers competing against chess masters in the 1980s.

Computer Chess took advantage of the director’s brilliant way of adapting improvisation into the tapestry of his films, building the entire film off of what originally existed only as an eight page treatment and using a cast of non-professional actors to give radical realism to his film.

Bujalski remains in Austin and released his most recent film, Results, which was also set in Austin, in 2015.

DON HERTZFELDT

Hertzfeldt may be most iconically recognized for the viral success of his “Rejected” cartoon series, which was originally nominated for an Oscar in 2000, but achieved a cult status with the rise of video sharing and YouTube.

His influence as an animator can’t be overstated.  His 2012 debut feature animated film: It’s Such A Beautiful Day was named runner up for best animated film of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and named in 2014 by Time Out as ranking #16 on their list of the one hundred best animated films of all time.

The way that Hertzfeldt takes a tactile, hand-drawn approach to the medium of animation, while simultaneously playing with black humor and existential dread make his work totally unique in the field of animation.

Hertzfeldt, in what is now no doubt becoming a characteristic trend amongst these selected Texan filmmakers, is also unique for his fierce independence from traditional institutionalized filmmaking or animation.  Hertzfeldt animates his work by hand, by himself, and often self-distributes or directly distributes his work to his audience.  He has successfully built a brand for himself with his own cult following in a way that sets him apart from other animators working in cinema today.

His 2015 short film The World of Tomorrow was nominated for an Oscar for Short Animated Film and ranked by Rolling Stone at number ten for best animated films of all time.  The film marks a shift in his style and a transition into a digital arena that is both exciting and deeply moving in the context of the story he’s chosen to tell.

Hertzfeldt is based in Austin. 

PIONEERS

These filmmakers are doing some of the most exciting work in independent filmmaking around Texas, right now.  While many of them have been working in cinema for much of the last fifteen years, it is exceptionally exciting to see what they will produce next as they are given bigger and bigger canvases from which to tell their unique stories.


ZELLNER BROTHERS

For years, Nathan and David Zellner have been producing, directing, and acting in short and feature films that are incredibly rich with humor, energy, and a distinctive voice.

Their work is voluminous and has been awarded grants by the Austin Film Society, selected by Sundance and South by Southwest, and received limited theatrical distribution.

Despite the high output they’ve maintained and the institutional attention the Zellner brothers have received, it still seems far too often that their work is less known than it should be.  I feel their films are essential viewing for anyone interested in independent cinema in Texas today.

Over the last eight years, they’ve given us three incredible feature films, all worth watching.  

Their debut feature film, Goliath, is a character study in a man whose marriage has broken down and whose cat has gone missing.  

The 2011 follow-up to Goliath, Kid-Thing, follows a young girl who discovers a woman who has fallen down a well.  

Most recently, their 2015 film Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, was a breakout success.  The film follows a Japanese girl who interprets the film Fargo as a treasure map and travels to the United States to seek out the lost treasure depicted at the end of the film.

The hallmarks of their filmmaking are the incredible minimalism and restraint in the way their stories and scenes are constructed as well as the wicked sense of wit and wry humor that each film contains.

Nathan and David Zellner are based in Austin.


TREY EDWARD SHULTS

Upon first viewing Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha earlier this year, I could barely prevent myself from immediately buying another ticket and watching the film a second and third time.  The intensity of my experience with this debut feature film can’t be overstated.  

The film, which follows an estranged family member returning for a Thanksgiving dinner, only to be haunted and undermined by her demons, dazzles you with its performances, its elegant balancing of an ensemble cast, and its dizzying sense of subjectivity.

Borrowing some of the best elements from the cinemas of Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and Terrence Malick, Krisha emerges from its influences still feeling totally unique and new.

Perhaps what is most exciting about Shults’ debut film is his incredible use of his own family members (his aunt, his mother, his father, etc.) as his principal cast members, while also appearing in the film himself.  The story, inspired by his own life and experiences that happened to a family member at a family reunion, accomplishes a sense of intimacy that is hard to rival.

Shults was born and raised in Houston, Texas.  The film, set in his family’s Houston home, manages to paint a powerful picture of suburban Texan life simply by the specificity to which it pays attention to the landscape of the home it’s set in.

Shults learned some of his craft working under the camera department for Terrence Malick’s most recent film: Voyage of Time and Jeff Nichols’ recent film Midnight Special.

The film debuted at South by Southwest and played with great success at the 2015 Critics Week program adjacent to the Cannes Film Festival before being acquired by A24 Pictures and given a limited theatrical release across the United States.
 

KAT CANDLER

When you speak to young filmmakers in Austin, chances are very high they’ve studied under Kat Candler at the University of Texas.  Her influence as a mentor to young filmmakers can’t be overstated.  

As a filmmaker, her work represents one of the most exciting voices in Austin today.  Her stories are often grounded in what feels like under-explored Texan communities.  Candler built her reputation directing some of the best short films to come out of Sundance in recent years (Black Metal, Hellion).  

One of those short films, Hellion, was adapted into her 2014 feature starring Aaron Paul.  As a film, Hellion seemed to crystalize the talent she has for humanist character studies that feel deeply engrossed in the atmospheric world building of their locality.  

Most recently, she has joined the exciting roster of female directors for Ava DuVernay’s television series: Queen Sugar.

YEN TAN

Yen Tan is a Malaysian born filmmaker who immigrated to the United States at age 19.  Prior to his film career, he worked as a graphic designer in Dallas.  Yen Tan has been at the heart of the rich community of filmmakers that have emerged out of Dallas in the last fifteen years, collaborating with David Lowery, James Johnston, Eric Steele, and Toby Halbrooks among many others.

Yen’s work is exceptionally poetic.  2013 saw the release of his feature film Pit Stop.  Set in rural central Texas, Pit Stop follows two gay men who slowly build a meaningful relationship at a gas station they both frequent.  The film premiered at Sundance.  

Pit Stop is one of the most beautifully restrained and emotionally rich portrayals of the human experience in rural Texas that I can recall seeing in cinema, and it is beautifully photographed by Texan cinematographer Hutch.

Pit Stop is a perfect example of the complex emotional balancing act that Yen Tan manages to effortlessly accomplish in his work.  Yen’s immense talent as a director is in his ability to bring out intense vulnerability in his characters while also showing their reluctance to exhibit that vulnerability. 

His most recent short film: 1985, was one of the break out successes from 2016’s South by Southwest film festival and a perfect example of why Yen’s filmmaking is so exciting to lovers of independent cinema.  1985 follows a dying man who seeks out the aid of a consultant to cover up his symptoms before he returns home to see his mother.

Yen Tan is currently based in Austin.

CONCLUSION

There are many more filmmakers who could and should be profiled extensively for their work in telling innovative films in the Texan community.  Consider this an introduction to the richness of creativity that can emerge in a non-traditional scene.

In the time of deep alienation we are confronted with, there are few things that have the power to bring us together once more into a public square than shared stories in the cinema.  

The darkened theatre surrounded by your fellow community members remains one common space where we explore and try and make sense out of our culture together.  

As filmmakers, we have often built our careers on competing for the limited resources and attention of external institutions.  We pack up our cars and move to Los Angeles or New York City, we apply for grants and one in a thousand slots in festivals, we compete alongside every filmmaker in the nation for scarce success and national attention or glory.  

In Texas I see another model for us to explore and perhaps emulate.  Rather than assuming the distant dream of Hollywood is the only path to success, we may instead consider building our local film communities, and creating new institutions and opportunities outside of traditional pathways.  

It has worked for a great many of the filmmakers here in Texas, and could perhaps help us changing the landscape and economics of modern independent cinema in a positive way.