Are Preconceptions Affecting Your Film’s Creativity?

“Just do what is best for the film.”

Lights Online Film School caught up with Lasse Martinussen, a successful filmmaker who’s produced so many different projects we weren’t sure how we wanted to frame this interview. Even so, it was his work with Red Cross, “Karma”, that really jumped out at us.

This is also the first time we’ve profiled a nonprofit piece, so we thought it would make a nice addition to the blog.

Without further ado, take a look at “Karma”:

Thanks for chatting with us about your work, Lasse! First of all, I’d love to hear how you got involved in such a unique project.

I’ve been collaborating on music videos together with Danish production house Spoiled Productions, which is part of the agency DDB. They approached me with this very open and honest project that I, of course, couldn’t turn down.

The goal was to help vulnerable and exposed young people in the country, which simply has a personal interest to me. The vulnerable youth was something I could relate to and something I would like to portray on film.

So it was very personal. From a filmmaking standpoint, do you feel this is an area that’s more or less under-explored by filmmakers?

When producing work for a good cause, it seems like it sometimes narrows the idea down to just the very goal of the campaign. Which on one hand makes sense, but doesn’t help the quality of the film.

On the other hand, this kind of project gives you the opportunity to get something extra from yourself when relating to that exact cause on a personal level. It gives you the ability to work with something bigger than the actual film, which helps add another level of relevance and perhaps even magic around the final film. The challenge with these projects is that it’s always pro bono, and you really need to believe in the cause in order to make it work, which is probably why we see so few of them and even fewer good ones.

Interesting. How involved was the organization in coming up with the look and feel of the piece? Were they clear about wanting to deliver their message in a specific, fresh way, or was the concept something you developed independently?

More generally, should filmmakers be the ones approaching organizations, saying, “Look, I want to work with your organization, but I want to feel cinematically challenged, and I think I have a good idea to get through to audiences”?

Well, we never actually discussed the cinematic feel. I only described the different scenes and the different moods in the film, that’s it. The scenes and the mood naturally were filmic and found their own shape when working with them. It was more of a natural way for the film to unfold, rather than a stylistic and directly conscious choice. The idea was quite open from the beginning and I was only introduced to the outer concept and the overall approach of the agency. Then I got back to the agency and Red Cross with my own, kind-of-atmospheric, portrait of youth approached from a certain angle.

I think the terms “filmic” and “cinematic” became a gigantic misunderstanding through the last couple of years, as they’re thrown around everywhere, in music videos, commercials, short films, etc. Filmic and cinematic can mean a variety of expressions, which makes both words totally indifferent. Does it mean huge lighting setup with 100 extras and crane shots, or does it mean grainy and gritty hand-held poetry? Does it need to have a plot-driven story? Real actors?… etc.

It doesn’t really mean anything, and it’s not really interesting anyway. I think it’s misused and misunderstood the same way the term or even the style “documentary” is being used. Everything with video and audio is film, so let’s focus on that and talk about what we feel when we experience it.

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From “Karma” | Lasse Martinussen

In other words, moving away from these terms that have lost a degree of specificity and gravitas and don’t have as much meaning today.

I’m curious to know more about your working relationship with Red Cross. You mentioned you worked pro bono on “Karma”. Do non-profits ever have budgets? So much of what non-profits do is outreach, and what better way to communicate your message than with a powerful video, right?

I’ve only done this one non-profit film, so I couldn’t tell about the average budget. But I know the budgets on “cause” films and the deals with production companies, agencies, etc. vary enormously depending on the client and the project.

Some setups only allow a small budget, like the Red Cross, where other clients find direct interest with an agency or productions house or vice versa, and they can both support the project in different ways. Other organizations just have loads of money that they shoot into huge productions, but rarely I would characterize those setups as “good cause projects”, but maybe I’m wrong.

So it runs the gamut. How do filmmakers find out about work in the non-profit field?

I really don’t know. I never really pursued it after Red Cross. Although, any organization would probably be interested in hearing what you have to say if you approach them without the idea of making money.

Returning to process, what were some of the differences you found between working on a non-profit project and working on, say, a commercial or music video?

I think it’s nice to have gathered a team that is only at the shoot for the cause and for the film. It’s a different weight compared to promos and ads.

You automatically also get more value for the money, because the crew knows that their effort doesn’t go into the wrong company or the wrong label. So it makes sense, and you can get creative with a crew under these circumstances.

Nice. Can you tell me a bit about how the concept for “Karma” came about? Did you submit a treatment, or was the concept presented to you?

The agency had the concept of colored lights from the outdoor campaign, and a written voiceover to go with the film. So I constructed the film around those elements first, by writing my concept for the film by submitting a treatment and then I wrote a very specific script for the idea.

Tell me about that writing process – how long did it take, and what did the process of script approval look like?

I think there was more looking at photos and listening to music than actual writing in that process. Although the final script was precise and pretty short and to the very essence of the action in the film. That was essential in order to make the VO, the sparse dialog, and the action in the scenes work together.

Was this an entirely storyboarded process?

I don’t like storyboarding too much. Sometimes it takes the energy and the life out of things, everything becomes so constructed and predictable sometimes.

I like to stay fresh and have an open approach at all stages. I like to set up the boarders with a rather strict concept, script or likewise, but give myself the ability and the freedom to play within those limitations and without forcing “pre-taken” decisions on a shoot. To me, everything changes when you’re at a shoot, and the script never converts directly into footage. I like being open to impressions on shoot days, it makes me adapt better to the mood of the film and the direction it’s heading.

Interesting! You have some characters with really unique looks in “Karma”. How did you go about the casting process?

We had a very wide range of casting, but we were going for personalities and the right energy. The casting was actually quite hectic because we were pretty short on time, and at the same time the cast was so crucial to the film. So we actually ended up finding the final cast while shooting to get everything just right.

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From “Karma” | Lasse Martinussen

Wow! You also have many great locations in this video, for example, the graffitied bathroom at 00:24. How did you go about location scouting for this project? How long did it take?

Many of the locations, including the bathroom, are simply places that I know very well, and I knew they would work for this film, everything shot in Copenhagen.

Both the car scene and the fire scene were naturally scouted by the production. I remember when we got to the location with the car driving in circles, just about to shoot, and the whole driving path was covered in water – which made the ocean and the cloudy sky melt magically together. We were quite lucky with that shot and the rain actually. In fact I remember constant rain from the two days of shooting, every scene from the beach to the final scene in the old street. You don’t really pay attention to it when watching the film, but everything and everyone was soaked in water. Quite tough for the production, but looks beautiful in the film.

Haha. I actually want to ask you another question about that bathroom shot – how did you light it? There seems to be mixed colors.

Yes, I think that the lights inside the actual bathroom was the natural fluorescent maybe with a filter, but the red light visible on the doorframe by the edge of the frame is actually the red light of a small bike light. There wasn’t enough space for actual lighting so we simply used a hand held bike light – and it worked.

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From “Karma” | Lasse Martinussen

I love the mixed color layering on shots such as that at 00:20. How’d you do it?

The simple color graduations were made in Photoshop, then we added some flicker in After Effects, created a film loop from that and projected the light on the faces with a projector.

To fixate the light properly and to control the opening and closing of the light in a natural and organic feel, I simply shaped the light with my hands in front of the projector.

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From “Karma” | Lasse Martinussen

I see. So that’s how you did the flickering effect at 00:55?

Yes, that was all done in After Effects and then projected with a projector on her face, like the previous color shot. The more visual flickering or kind of fast fading of the light is actually my fingers rapidly blocking the light coming from the projector. Low-tech often looks so much better than CGI.

Ha! That’s amazing. And what are you using to stabilize your camera for your shots with movement?

I think the only stabilized shot is in the beginning where we travel through the tunnel in slow motion. That shot was stabilized in post-production, I think with After Effects. The shot was done through the sunroof of an old sports car to give it that special feeling of really being outside and moving fast, almost flying through the tunnel, almost abstract and in slow motion.

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From “Karma” | Lasse Martinussen

It’s beautiful. How are you lighting outdoor shots in the middle of nowhere with minimal available light? For example, when the guys do their chest-bump at 00:31?

We used a single lamp, a smaller, handheld sunbeam with a filter of some sort. That would do it actually. Sometimes colored filters of course. We also had the beautiful city lights as the backdrop to compliment this rather primitive but effective lighting.

Shifting gears into sound, here – did you plan what shots would sound like? The reason I ask is because of the last shot. The woman’s eyes, combined with that audio crescendo, make it especially memorable! In fact, there are multiple times throughout the film where I felt sound and image danced together too well to have been improvised.

Yes, I had a clear idea of how picture and sound should work together from the beginning.

The VO was of course prewritten, but also preconceptualized for each shot. And because everything was so well-timed in preproduction, I wanted to be as little prepared as possible for the actual direction of the shoot in order to make the film come alive. It might seem a bit backwards, but it gives me the ability to evolve with the film and with the production.

A bold approach. Before you leave today, I just want to ask you one last question. If you could give some advice to new filmmakers about the pre-planning process, what would they be?

The best advice would be to really find out where the interest and the excitement are when thinking about film. What is the personal relation to the given film and the project you are about to do? Just do what is best for the film, whether it takes a lot of planning or a more open approach.

I personally love knowing just enough about the film, so that I can shoot it while staying open and interested.

I think film production can quickly become endless checklists and that’s a mistake, and that’s where magic gets lost. I would encourage people to think less about format, genre and formal ways of filmic production, because they don’t really exist. Keep the focus on the film and what it needs, really, and adapt to that instead of what you are supposed to do.

When film was invented people experimented more with it in the first 10 years, than people have been doing the last 50 years.

Some humbling perspective. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on the filmmaking process, Lasse! Lots of nuggets here to help us all become better filmmakers.

For more from Lasse, explore his website.

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