new filmmaker Tobias Gundorff Boesen: “Ghost” (full interview)

Interview in parts

Full interview

maja@tnf: How did your adventure with film-making start? What’s your artist’s statement and motivation for making films?

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: I’m an animator, so my filmmaking background and approach stem more from visual storytelling, drawing, effects, stop-motion animation, design, movement, etc. than from the disciplines of dialogue, scriptwriting and “live-action”.

I love telling stories with visual metaphors. I’m very technical and hands-on, involved in all stages of filmmaking, and I have a deep appreciation of craftsmanship. But craftsmanship should serve, first and foremost, storytelling, good ideas, abstract concepts, etc.

Most of all I just love being moved and touched, and I think films are a great medium for this.

maja@tnf: What’s the story behind the film of yours we featured?
Tobias Gundorff Boesen: I spend a lot of the year in and around a small town called Viborg, where I grew up and studied. At night it was often deserted, like a ghost town. This atmosphere impressed on me visual ideas, situations and feelings, which I found closely connected or bound by surprising similarities. They all pointed in the same direction… Slowly, these associations formed a little universe and, slowly, that universe became the basis for a film. The film started out as an emotion, not a script, and I just sort of went with the flow and tried to see where I’d end up.
maja@tnf: What was the inspiration for your film?

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: I love strong visual storytelling and powerful aestethics which are more than just “pretty pictures”, but convey abstract meaning, stories, emotions, and generally involve the viewer. If a script is the idea of a film, the visual storytelling is the language used to convey that idea.

In the case of “Ghost”, I looked to the aestethics of directors such as Chris Cunningham, Martin De Thurah, Tim Burton, Lynch, Von Trier, and other visceral directors renowned for involving the audience’s senses. But mostly my inspiration was Viborg, as I experienced it.

maja@tnf: You, your DOP Andreas Berg and the sound-designer Thomas A. Andersen all come from the small Danish town of Viborg. You aimed to transpose the city’s mood into visual language of your film. Please, tell us about Viborg’s history and geographical situation. How might these have influenced the feeling of the place in your opinion?

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: Great question…

“Ghost” was very much the product the many years I spent in Viborg, where I grew up, and stayed to earn my bachelor’s in Character Animation… A lot of my friends had moved on and away, to larger cities with universities. Sometimes it felt a bit lonesome there.

Viborg is a small town of about 30.000 in central Jutland. During the day, it’s a nice and cosy place, with lots of shops, access to great nature, etc. But at night something weird happens: You can go quite a while without meeting a soul, and if it’s really late, you’ll feel all alone in the town. This is quite powerful, especially if you’re drunk – I remember having to walk home through Viborg after parties, in the fall or winter. There was an enormous contrast between being inside, together with friends, and all of a sudden walking through what felt like a ghost town, just wanting to get home. Being drunk and out of my everyday context enhanced the feeling of being “stuck” in a parallel world, which would vanish as soon as the sun came up.

> “Ghost” is not about being drunk (though aggressive drunk grown-ups do inhabit the world), I think a lot of that feeling of solitude and quietness in the film came from having walked through Viborg at night.

maja@tnf: Your film aims to tell a story without words. Pictures play a significant role in conveying meaning. Some of them constitute the storyline, while others form symbolic layers of the movie or stand for things which could be described as irrational. How can one distinguish the pictures with symbolic meaning from those standing for the irrational elements occurring within the story? What role do irrationality and symbolic elements play in your visual storytelling (not only for “The Ghost”)?

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: Great question again.

Well, one can’t really distinguish between the two… I sure can’t, anyway. 🙂 To understand the use of symbols, it’s important to understand the intuitive approach I took with “Ghost”.

I decided early on not to worry too much about plot, dialogue, storytelling rules, etc., and just to do story beats and situations which I felt resonated with me emotionally… Afterwards, I would structure in editing. It might just seem like an excuse for omitting clarity of storytelling or a script, but it was quite deliberate. The film is basically a Freudian experiment, trying to dig into the subconscious, and then just going with whatever appears there, without disrupting the process by attempting to mold it into a “hero’s journey”, or any other storytelling model. The downside of avoiding structure is that, well… you lose structure! And structure often produces twists which can be enormously important to films. The upside is that stuff comes out which otherwise would never have surfaced.

So the short answer is: I have no idea what the hell was going on, but I know this much: you’d be better off asking a shrink than an art historian…

Sadly, I’m no Stanley Kubrick, meticulously crafting symbols and references, embedding visual cues in the film which can be decoded through reason or knowledge of history and art. The value of my symbols doesn’t nescesarily come from being able to decode them rationally; they can be interesting, but should be regarded as secondary layers. I’m more interested in what things feel like, the emotional response I get to seeing things… Which is more in line with David Lynch’s way of working, employing props.

In “Out of a forest” for instance, I placed jagged knifes and scissors in all the trees: This wasn’t any rational reference, but more to add the subconscious feeling of sharpness, of pointiness/aggression, of danger, that I needed the outskirts of the forest to have, in order for The Wolf to belong there. It had to first and foremost feel threatening/sad/wondrous/etc.. Of secondary importance is the rationalisation and contextualisation.

maja@tnf: Please describe the relationship between the two realities blended together in your film – the worlds of the living and the dead. Tell us more about the visual metaphors you used for characterising each. What are the roles of recurring motifs (dogs, ducks, plates) and playing with time by reversing or freezing motion for people and objects?

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: They gradually meet and meld, making it difficult to separate the two realities. Whether this is because of the mother’s descent into despair, her state of mind influencing both worlds, or whether there’s something else going on, is intentionally not fully explained.

However, I needed a progression and development, so the cutting, sound design and art direction support the “blending” of these two worlds. There is a bit of a journey and a climax, wherein the mother is grieving and the daughter finds her home, followed by a kind of “resolution” and a hope of things getting better. But the direct relationship between the ghost world and the mother’s state of mind is left unclear, and I wouldn’t want to go into too much detail there.

My subconscious working process favours intuition and scenes which resonate in the mind. I think it’s a part of the charm in “Ghost'”s experimental approach that, whereas I might have a clear idea of what it means to me, I strive to encourage other interpretations and involvement from viewers.

If I’m forced to interpret my own symbols, then let’s take the toy ducks as an example: Towards the ending, it’s revealed to us that the little girl had most likely drowned. The ducks are leading her to the lake where this took place and, as she nears, the frequency of ducks increases, “pointing her along”. Who placed the ducks there? Is it the mother somehow “calling” her daughter?; the daughter’s needs to relive her memories before she can rest? Is she being guided by a kind of fate or higher intelligence? The fact that the ducks deliberately lead her to a place (they’re not positioned unintentionally) introduces the idea that someone or something deliberately wants her to travel backwards in time, reexperiencing events and finding her peace… But I offer no solution as to what that might be.

Then again, you could say all the standard stuff about white ducks symbolising purity, cleansing (ponds) and all that… but that would be an intellectual approach to symbols, and that’s not where I’m coming from.

Manipulation of time is second nature to me, because of my animation background. I love it. Time reversal, slow-motion, etc. It all gives a magical sensation, as we perceive changes in our own perception – a slow motion movement is still the same movement, but when slowed down it gives us the experience of seeing it differently. All of this made sense to me in “Ghost”, as I needed to indicate the mother’s state of mind, the fact that we we’re not in the real world, and that, all of a sudden, time seems to slow down as we become trapped in our own emotions or reflections. So it’s a “lost in the moment” thing… And it looks cool.

maja@tnf: The significance of the elements water, air, metal and light/darkness:

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: I needed the water early on, to hint at the fact the daughter had drowned, building up a bit of plot. The water, the funeral and the water running over her body in the hospital basement are all forebodings (or reminders) of her death, giving cause for grief. Thomas, my sound designer, was quick to pick up on this, and utilized water liberally in the film’s theme. Different kinds of water, but often close-up recordings of water.. It’s a recurring theme in the film. The water is a reminder of the drowning, but also a cleansing thing.

And then there’s my fascination with the senses: a lot of it is simply to provide substance, and particles always help to involve the senses of the viewer. There is a big difference between seeing an arm, and seeing an arm with water running over it. In the latter case, our “physiological memory” (for lack of a better term) steps in, and we automatically feel the arm as described by the water. So it’s a sensual thing, drawing the viewer in through the senses, rather than through intellectual involvement.

maja@tnf: Regarding the significance of non-verbal elements in storytelling, we shouldn’t overlook the role of sound in your film. Please share a few details with us about the sound design process for “The Ghost”.

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: I worked with Thomas Arent, who I known from Viborg. He wanted to use only “close” sounds – sonic close-up centering on certain sounds, as the mind and senses do when we’re really taking something in. This was very much in sync with my vision of a subjective, intuitive film, where we really needed to be in the world, experiencing it from the characters’ outlook. The whole world of “Ghost” reflects how the characters feel, so we needed the closeness and focus to be present in the sound design. He spent so much time finding specific things and objects to record, that would give him exactly the sounds he needed.

At some point I wanted to use music, as I feel really comfortable with it, and think that it can lend structure to sequences, as the edited film follows the music’s emotional hills and valleys… Think of music videos – How many of them make sense? But just insert music, and all of a sudden we have structure.

However Thomas talked me out of this, and I’m very happy we ended up focusing on the sound design, as it’s more of an experiment the whole way through. Music would have made it a whole other film (perhaps even give it a more emotional dynamic) but it would have sabotaged the intention of the experiment. Besides, I love what he ended up doing; he’s very talented.

maja@tnf: Does sound play a role in indicating whose point of view your film’s action is shown from?
Tobias Gundorff Boesen: I almost answered this previously. Our “close” sounds reflect the focus of the characters or the viewer. Whatever’s heard is what we focus in on, almost like tunnel-vision. This works when trying to portray the mental state of mind of a character, or just enhance the film’s visceral and sensual character: It’s about experiencing, and contact with emotions and impressions.
maja@tnf: Why did you choose a young girl as the main protagonist of your film? What was your approach in directing the little actress? Did any funny or difficult situations take place while rehearsing or shooting with her?

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: Somehow I just find that I have a strong, sort of… understanding of how children feel and think. It may sound corny, but I think I’m still very much in touch with my inner child. 🙂 The straightforward, innocent, trusting, open and observant approach with which children view the grown-up world is extremely interesting, as it reveals something to us about how all the world was before we got so used to it and started taking everything for granted. So there’s a loss of innocence there: For most children, there is a clear desire to feel loved and safe, and a belief that the world is a good place with meaning and purpose.

When you get older that gets fucks up. Exempla gratia, grown-ups getting drunk, having a blast… When I’m drunk and partying, things seem totally normal to me, and I’m not even sensing the other people all around me, fighting, partying, drinking and arguing, with their manifold motives, agendas, values and opinions. But nothing could be scarier or feel more unsafe for a six-year-old, than being left alone without parents in the middle of the night, surrounded by drunkards, discovering how grown-ups really are. So seeing ourselves through the eyes of a kid (unaware of being wathed) can tell us something about ourselves. Generally, kids are just great protagonists for existential stories: They’re more “tabulæ rasæ”, and somehow more genuine.

Alberthe was really cool to work with. She lives near my parents in Viborg, which was a big advantage, as it saved us a lot of going back and forth. I decided early on to talk to her about character motivation, even though she was very young. Using language she could understand, we talked about how it would feel to wake up without any idea where you were, what was going on, etc. I actually think this was a good decision, and helped her understand what we needed her to express, as opposed to simply instructing her to perform given actions.

However, she sometimes understandably became distracted, as it’s extremely difficult for a 6 year old to stay focused past her bedtime 🙂 I tried to help motivate and encourage her, and it helped a lot that her parents were around and took care of her while preparing scenes. At one point, during the running scene in the birch forest, she totally lost interest in the film and hid under a camping chair, refusing to come out.

A bit of trickery was needed, and I convinced her to come out and play catch instead of shooting the stupid film. So I ended up running through the forest behind Alberthe, or her after me, trying to catch me, with poor DOP Andreas five meters behind Andreas, trying frantically to keep up with us and film Alberthe, without filming me. At one point, when I’d gotten too exhausted, I used a laser pointer, and convinced Alberthe that we were playing a game in which she was supposed to locate and reach whatever tree I was pointing at. This was damned effective, although it could be mistaken for bad film directing – haha!

maja@tnf: From idea development to finished film. A step by step short guide to your film-making process:

Tobias Gundorff Boesen:

  1. Following imagination and intuition: idea development

    I spend a lot of time just doodling and searching. This is the intuitive phase of the filmmaking, when I don’t have any clear script or plot – just dozens of ideas, visions and situations that make up a universe, and a belief that if I keep drawing and searching for the underlying “story”, the film will reveal itself. So it’s more a process of discovery, as I try to put the pieces together.

  2. Visual language development: storyboarding

    Then I spend days storyboarding, fleshing out the film. I’ve yet to do a script. I wouldn’t even know how to do one. I write a lot, and formulate my ideas and vision. But the storyboard is the blueprint, not the script… which might sound like madness, but it makes sense from a visual storytelling point of view, and a lot of sense from a production point of view (giving me a complete overview of how to realise the film). So I’m often pretty far along with boarding before I start applying for funding, or crew up. I need to have a sense of control and a vision. Thanks to my animation background, I can do a lot of pre-production work for free in my spare time, which makes it possible to do visually-impressive, low-budget stuff.

  3. Juggling tasks: directing and shooting, while line producing

    Then I shoot the thing, often with Andreas Berg, my DOP. In the case of “Ghost”, we produced the whole thing ourselves, trying hard to be line producers, while directing and shooting. This is not advisable. It just happened that way; it was my first live-action film. I thus learned the hard way why a good line producer should always figure prominently in the film credits!

  4. Loads of coffee recommended: simultaneous editing and composing

    After shooting, I simultaneously edit and compose the rough version, often on my home computer, drinking loads of coffee and staying up late. This is a lonely process, but a rewarding one, during which the film starts taking shape up and revealing itself. Compositing myself enables me to get what I want visually, and make sure the film reflects my vision.

  5. Final postproduction

    When I’m pretty far along with compositing, I start involving the other crewmembers in postproduction, sound design, editing, compositing, etc. I often set up a parallel workflow, in which I continue to compose, while spending time supervising and directing the other postproduction crewmembers. Then everything goes on my home computer and is rendered for the internet! Violà! – low-budget indie filmmaking.

maja@tnf: Your film technique – its pros & cons, and why you chose it:

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: I’ve already touched upon the heavy focus I place on preproduction; this is essential when making animation and effects on a small budget with limited resources. I always try to think in terms of technical solutions. So the storyboard is an important tool for me, as a storyteller, as a visual artist and as a producer.

On “Ghost”, I hadn’t prepared a finalized board, because I wanted to leave room for experimentation. But usually before shooting I have a completely finished, timed animatic, where everything from acting, shot flow and staging to framing, compositing, etc. is decided on. This style definitely comes from my background in animation, and might seem inflexible to some. But, since I’m really good at imagining and visualising, I feel that the better prepared I am and the better I plan my film, the better the chances of getting exactly what I imagined, and not having to clumsily improvise through production. Plus, my boards reach all the way to postproduction, anticipating compositing solutions and how to carry out shots.

Of course there’s still room for change and trying out different shots and editing, but my starting point is just strong; I know I have something that works, that just needs to be executed and realised. So basically my films are made in preproduction.

My love of aesthetics and imagery can be something of a crutch though. I believe that the next step for me would be to try and direct something which has dialogue, plot or at least less dependency on good cinematography.

maja@tnf: Your cooperation with other crew members (DOP, etc):

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: With my love for imagery, I couldn’t have made “Ghost” without Andreas, my DOP. Though most everything is boarded, he makes sure it comes out great, lights everything beautifully, and improves on shots. Here again, my preproduction workflow helps us, as I know exactly the minimum we need to shoot. So we’re a really effective team, which is important on a low-budget film. I have a totally clear idea of how to composite the scene and what postproduction demands to consider during production, so there’s little fooling around.

I’m more open and flexible with sound design, as I realise my sound designer knows his field way better than I do, and capable of solutions I’d have never arrived at myself. If I have concrete ideas, I’ll talk them over with him – but his challenge is to formulate the dramatic purpose of the sound design – what it’s supposed to do, what its aim should be. I let him find a solution that works and meets the dramaturgic needs of the film, allowing a great deal of creative freedom.

maja@tnf: Your shooting equipment (camcorders, lightning, etc.):
Tobias Gundorff Boesen: I made all of my films with a Canon 5D MkII and with a Canon 7D. The stop-motion films were shot with more average cameras like the D550, but when you shoot frame by frame in RAW format, you have all the information you could want. In postproduction I use Adobe Masters Edition for all my digital needs.
maja@tnf: Your film funding (budget) & your post production:

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: My films are rarely fully financed, but rather made possible through favours, friends helping out, borrowing cameras, etc. Though it might sound amateurish, I think that the key to actually getting a film done is not to sit around for a year waiting for the bureaucracy of fund-seeking to magically give you the possibility.

I get extremely impatient, and just want to go ahead and get my hands dirty. So far it’s worked well, but I do acknowledge that this is possible only with low-budget stuff, and far more difficult as you progress, become dependent on an income, need a bigger crew, etc. But I think there is a lesson to be learned, which is: if you want to be a filmmaker, just start making making films. Waiting around for full funding and “the opportunity” won’t help that much in the long run. Go-get mental will-power.

maja@tnf: A few details about your film studies and workshops you attended:
Tobias Gundorff Boesen: I’ve drawn all my life, and have a BFA in Character Animation from the Danish school The Animation Workshop. Before that, I attended a drawing school and learned classical drawing techniques. I used to do graffiti, which pretty much sparked my interest for graphics and aestethics. Lately I’ve been flirting more and more with live-action film, approaching it from an animation point of view.
maja@tnf: Other important advice for those starting out with filmmaking:

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: Most importantly, just do it and start making films. Even if you only have a crappy DV cam. Your equipment is not as important as you think. Learning and trying stuff out, getting to know actors, staging, storytelling, editing, compositing, etc. and doing it again and again… That’s what makes the difference.

A lot of people have warned me about the dangers and possible failures of starting to make films., like: “If you make one bad film, or if you slack off for half a year, you’re done for!” This is completely devastating and counterproductive, and makes filmmaking seem like such a hard task. Striving to improve is honourable, but fear of not producing something perfect halts your development and makes filmmaking painful, as you’re constantly afraid to make mistakes, not live up to your own expectations, or somehow equate yourself to the success of your product.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, fool around and make tons of crap. If you love what you do, you’ll learn from all of it, and improve quickly. A fearless, playful, genuinely interested approach to the arts is the best approach, and what will make you better in the long run.

For me, filmmaking is something personal – something I do because I love it. This might seem obvious, but it’s easy to lose sight of. We need to be passionate about it and have fun… Because otherwise, it’s too much work for too little money 🙂

I do think that good craftsmanship pays off, whether in studying acting, screenwriting, art, or photography. I use all of my knowledge of these things, and find that this shapes my films. So whether studying in college, or just in your spare time, I’d say that keeping an open mind and exploring different art forms is of the essence. Everything you learn will be a part of your films, either consciously or subconsciously.

maja@tnf: Please share a few details with us about your forthcoming efforts. Are you planning an upcoming full-length film?

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: I don’t care too much about format. Don’t get me wrong – it would be great to make a feature film, but the “feature film” format is no great goal in itself, at least not to me. I want to tell stories and do stuff that I find deeply interesting and moving, be it drawings, comics, music videos, short films, feature films or interpretive dancing on a dinosaur! The format is secondary but of course, if one day I find I have a story which takes ninety minutes to tell, and feel I have the confidence and experience to execute it, I’ll go for it wholeheartedly!

I have a bachelor’s in Character Animation from The Animation Workshop, so I know quite a lot about animation, but not quite as much about directing actors, for example… And I really want to step up and improve, so in a month I’m starting as a member of Super 16, a Danish independent film school which accepts sixteen students every other year (hence the name) where I’ll study directing for the next three years. So hopefully, during the next years I’ll produce more short films, music videos and artwork as I try to improve and expand my knowledge about filmmaking. I’m just getting started 🙂

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