Newfoundland filmmaker faces off

Television

Heidi Wicks heidirwicks@gmail.com
Published on May 15, 2008
Mary Lewis

A local filmmaker is in the final stretch of what she calls the "Canadian Idol" of short films.

CBC TV's "Short Film Faceoff" is a six-part series that showcases Atlantic Canada's finest short films. The films were selected and requested by a jury from a list of films that have been showcased at the Atlantic Film Festival over the past five years. For four weeks, 12 films were shown and then evaluated by a panel of three judges, who decide which ones will continue on to the semi-finals.

Newfoundland filmmaker Mary Lewis's award-winning (best screenplay, Flix; best experimental film, Yorkton Film Festival) "The Sparky Book" won in Week 4.

A local filmmaker is in the final stretch of what she calls the "Canadian Idol" of short films.

CBC TV's "Short Film Faceoff" is a six-part series that showcases Atlantic Canada's finest short films. The films were selected and requested by a jury from a list of films that have been showcased at the Atlantic Film Festival over the past five years. For four weeks, 12 films were shown and then evaluated by a panel of three judges, who decide which ones will continue on to the semi-finals.

Newfoundland filmmaker Mary Lewis's award-winning (best screenplay, Flix; best experimental film, Yorkton Film Festival) "The Sparky Book" won in Week 4.

The film is the only one from this province in the semi-finals, and will compete with three other films (all from Nova Scotia) for the coveted grand prize - a $50,000 development deal with the CBC. The winner will be determined by viewer voting, which began Wednesday and concludes May 19. Voting can be completed on the Internet (www.aliant.net/faceoff) or by phone (1-877-876-3636).

"It's kind of like the playoffs, and it's kind of like 'Canadian Idol,'" Lewis says. "The plan is to do the show next year, as well, but they really need to get viewer participation up."

Lewis' film is a live action/animated film that evokes the feeling of a children's book (it's based on "The Sparky Book," by Michael Winter). The story is narrated by a goldfish (voiced by Gordon Pinsent), who is telling the tale of a little girl with a serious illness and her love for her dog Sparky (voiced by Joel Thomas Hynes).

"It's based on my sister. She had two kidney transplants when she was a child," Lewis explains. The aforementioned sister (Leah Lewis) also acts in the film. Winter wrote the story for Leah and Mary after their dog died, making the work especially personal.

The film took two years to edit, as the animation process is enormously tedious.

"I wanted the story to feel like a storybook, which was firmly rooted in reality," Lewis explains. "The fish had this wisdom that got both the dog and the girl's side. He was this omniscience. It's realistic, because it's a bedtime story about the final big bedtime, and yet it's whimsical in the way it's told. And Gordon's voice is this all-knowing, caramel-ly - but also comes from Newfoundland. So the painstaking process of all the animation was definitely worth it to achieve that."

"(Appearing on the show) was a little bit nerve-racking for sure," Lewis admits. "But the judges were overwhelmingly positive, so it ended up being pretty painless. For sure, before I wondered, 'God, do I really want to go through with this?' So I was a little bit reticent. The other part was that it's a little painful to see other people not get a positive response. When other filmmakers get two stars, you kind of feel a little bit sick."

Lewis also believes the show is an important step in sending short film, and even Canadian film in general, into more mainstream media. Normally, the only forum to really see short film is on the festival circuit, and only a certain audience will attend festivals.

"I think there's a real appetite and taste for short films now, and it's really coming back in vogue," Lewis ponders. "I think the Internet is playing into that, but also alternative platforms like cellphones, etc. I think maybe this show is responding to that wave, and I think, as a filmmaker, it's really great - short films are always my priority, because for one thing, you always see new talents and people treading on new territories in short films. It's much easier to take a little freedom in that forum. It's easier to take chances."

For any emerging filmmakers or Spielberg wannabees, short film is the way to dip your toe into the filmmaking pool. Hence, it's important to study the genre to no end. But don't be misled - just because the film you're making is shorter doesn't necessarily mean it's easier than making a feature.

"Whereas a feature film can sprawl out for longer, a short film has to have deeper layers in a much shorter period of time," Lewis says, explaining a lesson learned while she attended the Canadian Film Centre. "They really pushed us to go deeper all the time, and I think that's a really good challenge to have. Once you've done a lot of short films, approaching a feature film then is an easier task - you've got more time, more air, you can go in different directions. But you've still got to cast well, write a good solid script that works, find the perfect location, etc. - all the things for a feature have to be done for a short."

"The Sparky Book" was written and directed by Mary Lewis, and stars Pinsent, Hynes, Maggie Hickey, Leah Lewis, Petrina Bromley, "Aunt" Sheila Abbott and others. See the film and all others on the show at www.aliant.net/faceoff.

heidirwicks@gmail.com