Gareth Edwards on success, failure and not giving up

Rogue One director delivered final film keynote speech at the SXSW Festival

When Gareth Edwards was a child, he knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up—he wanted to join the Rebel Alliance and help blow up the Death Star. But then his parents told him Star Wars was actually a lie, created by film. Having to change his career path, Edwards decided to become a professional liar himself and make movies.

His name might sound familiar. Maybe it’s because his first film, Monsters, which premiered at SXSW in 2010, did so well, considering its low budget. Or maybe it’s because he directed Godzilla in 2014.

But if his name is familiar, it’s probably because of his latest film,  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which grossed over US$1 billion worldwide and was nominated for both Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects at this year’s Academy Awards.

Edward’s success is indisputable, but it’s not like he took the express lane from dreaming about filmmaking to being at the helm of multi-million dollar mega-blockbusters. That’s something the director continually stressed during his keynote address at the SXSW Festival on March 13. It wasn’t a straight line to success, and he nearly gave up many times along the way.

For all of his current success, Edwards remains humble. And funny. He’s a geek who grew up to direct the franchise he grew up with and who worked hard to achieve what he has. During his keynote, he spoke about the hectic nature of filmmaking, the unforgiving tight shooting schedules and of accidentally walking onto the wrong set. But the main point he wanted to stress to the audience was to continue working towards your dreams and goals until you achieve them.

Edwards said he wanted more than anything to emulate the trajectory of his hero, Steven Spielberg. He had a checklist he wanted to follow: make films with Dad’s camera, get into film school, make a professional short, direct his first movie.

But when he didn’t get to check that last step of directing his first movie, Edwards felt as if he had failed. So he bought the new supercomputer of the era, running on the high-tech Windows 95, and started tinkering with visual effects (VFX) software.

“I did lots of these silly things like animating dinosaurs and robots and putting them in my parent’s driveway,” said Edwards. “And I’d go for job interviews in London and try to get directing work, and they would watch my short films and be very unimpressed. And then suddenly these robots and dinosaurs would turn up at the end and they’d go ‘well what are these?’”

The animations baffled the studio representatives. They were paying exorbitant amounts for professionals to create these realistic, ground-breaking animations, while Edwards could make the same high-quality productions at a fraction of the cost in his bedroom. What initially started out as a fun experiment soon turned into a career. He soon earned a reputation at the BBC as the kid who makes graphics in his bedroom.

Although working in VFX allowed him to work in the movie industry, it also made him idle on his goal of directing a film. His fear of failure made him play it safe, and so, for a time, Edwards concentrated on buying the newest software upgrades, getting the latest lens and, ultimately, postponing his dream.

But in the end, his fear of failure was met head on with his fear of never having tried. And so, with funding from a studio in London which specialized in low-budget feature films, Edwards launched into making his first feature, Monsters, which screened at SXSW and launched his career as a filmmaker. He was eventually was picked up by Legendary Entertainment.

Edwards shared a handful of funny stories during his keynote address, such as the time he rushed onto the set of Planet of the Apes instead of Godzilla, or how he was late to almost every meeting with potential production companies post-Monsters.

But perhaps one of the funniest stories he told was of how he picked the name for a planet in Rogue One. While on break at a well-known international coffee chain, the barista misspelled his name, writing ‘Scarif’ instead of ‘Gareth’ on his cup. And thus, the military planet in the third act of Rogue One was named.

Edwards also admitted to giving himself one cameo in Rogue One. At the end of the film, when Vader is wreaking havoc on the ship and killing everyone in sight, one guy runs down the hall, and pulls down a lever which launches a ship away, saving the entire rebellion. That guy was Edwards.

But for all of his jokes and quips, Edwards was serious about one thing: “Never ever, ever listen to anybody who tells you something is impossible, because if you never give up, you sometimes can join the Rebel Alliance and help blow up the Death Star.”


Virtual reality @ SXSW

Displaying the best and brightest upcoming VR artists, companies and installations

The Positron Voyager chair rotates and tilts, allowing for the sensation of movement.

The buzz around virtual reality and immersive technologies has been building in recent years as more companies and individuals embrace this new frontier. There is a scramble to see who can make it to the forefront of the medium, by creating ever-more poignant VR stories, more immersive technology and more impressive experiences.

The Virtual Cinema at the SXSW festival displayed some of the most innovative game-changers in this budding industry. Included in the exhibition was NASA’s Mars 2030, in which the participant becomes an astronaut exploring the red planet’s rocky terrain.

Montreal-based company and industry leader Felix & Paul Studios was also in attendance, displaying several new works. These included Miyubi, their first immersive narrative experience, and Dream of “O,” a fantastical visual journey featuring Cirque du Soleil’s famous Vegas show, O.

Though the Virtual Cinema exhibition had many works from well-known creators, there were also many newcomers: artists who knew the stories they wanted to tell could only be told through the VR medium.

Fistful of Stars is one such work. You are a space voyager floating in the infinite sea of stars in the Orion Nebula, and get to witness both the birth and death of a star.

“When I first started thinking about this piece, I wanted to make people feel as if they were going on a journey through the cosmos, and I wanted to make them feel as if they were floating in space,” said Eliza McNitt, the director. “Virtual reality was the only way for me to be able to tell that story.”

The work, which had its world premiere at SXSW, incorporates movement that shatters conventional immersive boundaries. It does this by coupling a VR headset with a Positron Voyager Chair, which rotates, spins and tilts to give you a sense of complete weightlessness.

It makes you feel as if you are actually floating in space rather than simply witnessing space.

Whereas Fistful of Stars eloquently and masterfully used the technological aspect of the medium to tell its story, Notes to my Father grips the audience and emotionally invests them in the piece.

This heart-wrenching story tells the tale of a woman whose marriage to a stranger was arranged by her father. Except, when the marriage fell apart, she was sold to an Indian brothel, unbeknownst to her father. Notes to my Father is a story of grief, love and reconciliation between a father and daughter. It is an emotional journey through pain, heartbreak and, ultimately, forgiveness. Despite having a close relationship, neither father or daughter has ever spoken about what happened to her. Yet deep down, both know. Their silence speaks volumes to the pain they both feel.

Notes to My Father is a heart-wrenching story that perfectly uses the VR medium’s empathy-enabling capabilities.

Director Jayisha Patel said empathy is crucial in having an authentic, captivating experience. VR puts the viewer right into the setting, and so this complete immersiveness into the story creates an emotional bond between the viewer and the characters.

“I’d love for different survivor-led organizations to be able to see this and connect, so we’re planning on doing that,” said Patel, who specializes in narratives about women, women of colour and gender violence. “I’d like to reach out to survivor-led organizations in the U.K., U.S. and Canada and get them to create a dialogue.”

VR is a strong medium for its empathy-inducing abilities because, as a viewer, you are part of the story instead of just a passive onlooker. When watching a film, if a character looks at the camera, it makes it seem as if they are looking in your general direction. But with VR, when a character looks at the camera, they are looking right into your eyes, because the camera is in fact a character in the story.

Both Fistful of Stars and Notes to my Father use the VR medium to its utmost potential. Though both pieces couldn’t be more different, they both fully and masterfully conduct their storytelling in an immersive and interesting manner that leaves a lasting impression on the viewer in different, but no less meaningful ways.


Using technology to shape and understand the future

 Immersive technologies and emotional responses can help us plan ahead

How can we prepare for the future when we don’t know what we’ll face? Enter speculative design: designing products, services or scenarios to address future challenges and opportunities.

Sci-Fi by Design: The Speculative Revolution, a panel discussion at SXSW on March 15, addressed the need to design for the future, today.

Moderated by Phil Balagtas from GE Aviation, the panel consisted of Ashley Baccus-Clark and Carmen Aguilar Y Wedge from Hyphen-Labs, a speculative design company, and Jake Dunagan from verynice, a global design-strategy consultancy.

“We have advanced as a civilization so far that we might be able to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs and deflect an asteroid if it were coming towards us,” Dunagan said. “That’s an amazing accomplishment. But I think the big problem is that we are the asteroid.”

Eliciting an emotional response is the most effective way of getting people to seriously think about the future, said Dunagan. Hyphen-Labs and verynice both do this, but with different approaches.

Hyphen-Labs uses immersive technology to present possible futures. In the real world, products are often designed with a demographic in mind. Their latest VR work, Neurospeculative Afrofeminism, challenges today’s designers to consider wider demographics by developing virtual technologies and designs that take into account the security, protection and visibility of, in this particular work, black women’s bodies. Their designs include earrings that record police altercations and scarves that thwart facial-recognition technology.

In contrast, Dunegan fights against apathy and dismissal of the future by using installations that present hypothetical futures in an attempt to emotionally invest people. One such project, set in in Hawaii, invited people to drink from water coolers containing various levels of plastic, representing ocean plastic levels in 1990, 2000 and the forecast for 2030.

The future might seem intangible, but we can use speculative design to start thinking about it now and ensure we steer towards a brighter future.


Bill Nye fights ignorance with reason in new doc

Bill Nye documentary takes a look at the scientist behind the TV persona

Bill Nye the Science Guy inspired a generation of children to pursue science and think critically about the world around them. He made topics that often appear dense and unappealing interesting to a general audience.

But who is Bill Nye? Who is this man who made topics like friction, gravity, chemistry and electricity palatable to elementary school students? Bill Nye: Science Guy, directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, takes a closer look at the man who made science fun.

Nye noticed in the 1990s that America had a bad relationship with science, and he wished to do something about it. Through his educational science show, he wanted to raise a generation of critical thinkers.

But the end of the show in 1998 left Nye in flux. He was struggling to find where he fit in the scientific community. Anti-scientific sentiment was still strong in America, with climate-change deniers disputing the established scientific consensus. Nye has made it his personal mission to counter the voices that are shaping a generation of scientifically illiterate children.

The film looks at how Nye challenges the core beliefs of science deniers by engaging in debates with them. He does this to try to bring awareness to the general community of climate-change deniers, and hopefully change their minds so they in turn can use their platforms to change the minds of others.

Nye struggled with his image as he attempted to transition from kid’s show host to reputable scientist. The documentary tackles who Nye really is, separating Bill Nye the character from Bill Nye the person.

For audiences familiar with Nye and his science show, Bill Nye: Science Guy is a documentary that allows a peek behind the curtain to see the real person behind the character, and explores where Nye ends and the Science Guy begins. It looks at how pained Nye is at the rising scientific illiteracy in America, and how he has made it his personal mission to turn it around and bring science back to the masses by eliminating one dissenting voice at a time through logic and the scientific method.

Bill Nye: Science Guy premiered at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas on Mar. 12.


Drawing a line between truth and fiction in marketing

Drib spins an original tale with a truthful core by embellishing the details

Amir Asgharnejad is a Norwegian Internet performance artist. Or, at least, that’s what he calls himself. He’s more of a provocateur who likes to see how far he can push boundaries.

His videos, in which he instigates physical conflicts with people who are usually much bigger and stronger than he is, typically end with him getting beaten and bloodied.

His Internet fame led to him being called by an advertising and marketing company to help promote Drib, an energy drink. Drib, directed and written by Kristoffer Borgli, tells the story of the events that followed. Facts and embellishments intermingle to create a hilarious docu-fiction that brings the audience right to the middle of the pretentious L.A. marketing world. The film premiered at the South by SouthWest Festival in Austin, Texas on March 12.

In the film, Asgharnejad, who plays himself, agrees to become a spokesperson for this international, American-based ad agency. To him, this becomes the stage for his next great performance. To them, it means capitalizing on the Internet trend of stupid stunts going viral. Their target market is boys aged 13 to 17, and they are positive that Amir holds the key to this demographic. Creative director Brady Thompson (Brett Gelman) has a vision for the energy drink campaign. Describing energy drinks as something that loosely keeps a balance between immortality and collapsing from exhaustion, he flies Asgharnejad over from Norway to take part in the project.

The film makes a farce of the marketing agency and the God complex of creative director Thompson, who keeps insisting Asgharnejad is not ‘part’ of the corporate world—his line of work just happens to be ‘in’ it.

The story is a meta-satirical analysis, poking fun at the unglamorous reality of marketing, but also poking fun at itself. It is a movie filming people filming people, told from Asgharnejad’s point of view. Because of this, there is a slight slant in the ridiculousness, as the characters involved are all over the top. The clients are hard to deal with. The actors are finicky. Thompson’s protectiveness over his creative work is overwhelming. Drib tries to not take itself too seriously, yet the ‘seriousness’ of the situation is what’s funny.

One of the challenges of the film was working with Asgharnejad—a point made clear by breaking the fourth wall to let the audience know. Whenever he felt Borgli’s vision was taking the film in a direction he didn’t agree with, Asgharnejad would improvise and change his lines or actions—the outtakes of which are included in the film. This makes Drib not only a movie about Asgharnejad’s experiences, but his stubbornness as well. It also serves to remind the viewer that, although the core story is true, there were creative licenses taken.

For more information on Drib, visit their website.


Colossal: The real monsters are inside

Premiering at the SXSW film festival in Austin, Colossal is an original take on the monster genre

Colossal is, at its core, a monster movie. But it doesn’t take long for the film to break away from the conventional monster shtick and veer off in a totally unpredictable direction. It is directed by Nacho Vigalondo and stars Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis.

When a gigantic monster appears out of thin air in the heart of downtown Seoul, the world watches helplessly as it destroys everything in its path. The United Nations calls for an international ceasefire of global conflict while the world’s brightest minds convene to decipher what it is they are facing.

With the world watching and holding their collective breaths waiting for the monster’s next attack, washed-up party girl Gloria (Hathaway) notices something odd: she can somehow control the monster on its inadvertent destructive path. Gloria’s shock is quickly overtaken by guilt at the loss of life that she is somehow, inexplicably, responsible for.

When she finally realizes she is at the helm of all this havoc, she tells her childhood friend Oscar (Sudeikis). Together, they have fun making the monster dance and fool around, confusing the millions glued to their televisions watching.

The tone during the first part of the film is light-hearted, in line with your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. But it quickly takes on an unexpected dark tone for the second half.

The film’s strongest assets are its characters, their development and their relationship with one another. While Gloria slowly lifts herself out of the darkness of her old habits and alcoholic tendencies, Oscar embraces his vices, slowly allowing them to take over.

Colossal opens in theaters this April.

Colossal can’t be classified in any one genre. It flows between comedy, science-fiction, action and drama in a fluid manner that leaves audiences on their toes and unsure of what to expect. It is this unpredictability that makes the story so gripping. At times, it is extremely funny while, at others, immeasurably dark.

The monster might be the obvious villain, but in reality, it is a projection of smaller, internal conflicts that have snowballed into bigger issues. Opening in theaters in April, Colossal is an original movie with stellar performances by Hathaway and Sudeikis.

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