THE SHORT CUT: An Interview with Director Colin Levy

TheSecretNum

The Short Cut is a new column on Under The Gun that showcases the careers of short film directors. Shorts are often overlooked when it comes to the entire spectrum of film, and by including interviews with the directors themselves and information about their creative efforts, this column will highlight the work of some of the category’s dignitaries that we feel deserve your attention.

Colin Levy has been making short films since the age of thirteen and upon discovering the wide world of digital effects and 3D animation, he took advantage of opportunities presented and made a career for himself. Levy is an adept artist and a truly passionate individual when it comes to his hearty work ethic which has landed him a job with Pixar and millions of views between his efforts online. Levy’s most recent short, The Secret Number, has only furthered his popularity in the short film realm beyond his Blender Open Movie project, Sintel.

Levy himself took some time to speak with me about his beginnings in the film-making field, his work with Pixar and his thoughts on short films in general, so read through and familiarize yourself with an impressive creator, director and artist in this installment of The Short Cut!


THE INTERVIEW

For those who aren’t familiar with your work, can you explain what it is that you do?
For my day job I help make virtual puppet-show versions of sequences in animated films. On the side I like to put on my director hat and make short films of various shapes and sizes!

What first made you want to become a film maker and how did you get started?
Life is rarely linear and though the whole film-making thing looks linear in retrospect, it definitely took me a while before I realized “this is what I wanna do!” I was influenced by a lot of things growing up. Probably the drawing that my grandfather had me do, the movies I watched (or didn’t watch). I think my 10th birthday was a turning point because I got a [still] camera, and for a long time afterwards I carried it everywhere! I started playing around with a video camera when I was 12 or 13 probably, and for years I was always the one shooting our home movies. Birthdays, vacations, family visits.

Then I discovered editing, and later video effects, and then 3D animation… and my stories got more and more sophisticated (read: less and less stupid). By the time I was applying for colleges I knew I wanted to keep making films! It was really the process of discovery that I enjoyed most. As much as I like movies and watching movies, it was the act of “figuring it out” and “making something” that I really fell in love with.

What is your favorite step in the creation of a short film?
I’ll tell you what my least favorite step is; Production. Shooting. Actually wrangling all the people, all the resources, all the props and set dressing and gear and food and extras and vehicles and all the standing and all the waiting and all the pressure and all the money flying out the window and people volunteering their time who you will always be indebted to and all the cutting of the shotlist and and stress, stress and lack of sleep.

I mean, in all honesty I’ve been lucky to have worked on so many smoothly-run productions, and most of my shooting experiences have been very positive, but I’m definitely more of a “sit and think alone, preferably in front of a computer” type, so for that reason I greatly prefer production and post-production. I think I’m gratified by all parts of the process, and in the past I would’ve definitely said I enjoy editing and visual effects the most. Making things work, making things look pretty. But now, to finally answer your question, I love the “dreaming” stage of film-making. Dreaming about how things will work, how a scene could play, how a story could twist and turn. It’s the part where so much is still open, where you can make changes, where the movie is still abstract and therefore demands imagination.

I feel that shorts are somewhat overlooked when it comes to film as a whole. Do you think that short films get enough recognition or that they’re more deserving of attention?
I am definitely in love with the short form. I think short films are awesome. They’re bite-sized movies. If I’m not into it, it’ll be over soon, and if it’s amazing, it leaves you wanting more! Which is always a great place to leave the audience. I think short films definitely deserve more attention and respect and financial backing. Right now it’s just a really difficult space to figure out how to monetize, and therefore there are only a select few YouTubers who’ve figured out how to make a living doing short films.

But I do think all that could change! I think, for example, it would be awesome to see short films on Netflix Instant as part of my subscription. If nothing else, short films are a great place to learn the craft of film-making. At this point I’ve made over 20 short films and I still don’t know if I’m ready for a feature! Perhaps that’s because only one or two of those shorts are actually… like, even mildly entertaining.

You’ve been involved with both live-action and animation. Which form do you prefer and why?
Right now I’m definitely in an animation mode. Live-action and animation both come with different challenges, but with animation I feel like there is significantly less compromise. I think, for example, that it is “literally” impossible to craft a live-action film that is as tightly constructed as the average Pixar film. It’s literally impossible. As the director of an animated film you can change a line, a word, a syllable, an expression, swap out a prop, recompose the background, shuffle the extras, redesign a character, restructure the movie… all before lunch. Big changes get made all the way till the end of the process! Decision-making happens in a more thoughtful way, and you’re less likely to be “stuck” with wrong decisions.

Even at the bottom of the totem pole, I can line up a shot that would work way better if part of the set was cheated through the floor. Takes a half a second to try in CG, whereas it might require a bulldozer to replicate in live-action. Animation is also just an incredible process from a technical perspective, and it’s fun to be a part of that. To create something out of nothing.
 
You’re currently working for Pixar, right? What do you do there and what is the experience like working with such a hugely popular and beloved company?
That’s right! My title is “Camera and Staging Technical Director” but it’s also called “Layout Artist” equally often. My job basically involves character blocking and cinematography. Figuring out how to stage a scene and how to shoot it in the way that’s right from a storytelling point of view.

It’s an absolute privilege to be working here! The physical campus is pretty incredible, and the people I work with every day are some of the most talented, brilliant, and… friendly group of people I’ve ever met. Like, I guess I expected the first two, but everyone’s so darn friendly! I’ve been a huge Pixar fan for… well, most of my life. I came here with high expectations and honestly, I’m still pinching myself every time I walk into work.

Which of your projects are you the most proud of or holds the most personal weight for you?
I think I’m most proud of the work I did on Sintel, because I think it was the most challenging project I’ve undertaken, and I think I grew a lot in the year it took to make. Whether or not the film is any good, the experience was unforgettable and the fact that we even finished the thing is a serious accomplishment!

A beautiful still shot from Sintel.

In the sense of look and feel, The Secret Number is one of the biggest shorts I’ve seen. It’s roughly 15 minutes and easily feels like a feature full-length. What was your goal when beginning work on the film and how did you make it so massive in a short time frame?
Thanks very much! I’m someone who cares a lot about production value and so we took every opportunity to try to push the quality. I didn’t want it to feel like a student film… I wanted you to forget you weren’t watching a feature!  For a student short, there are a lot of locations and a lot of practical production challenges. We had a an asylum, an alley, an apartment, a hospital room, a psychiatric office, a 50’s car, a bar, an elevator… it was a lot of stuff to organize!

Any considerations for turning it into a full-length?
I’d be interested, for sure! But there are no concrete plans.

Martin Scorsese watched one of your high school shorts that you considered to be “silly.” This led to a pretty impressive experience. Can you explain the occurrence and what kind of effect has it had on your career?
It was a pretty darn cool experience. It’s had absolutely no affect on my career except the fact that it made me realize something really important, and that thing is this: filmmakers are real life human beings. Martin Scorsese is a real life person, and so am I. He’s just a mortal. An intimidatingly sharp and brilliantly talented mortal.  

Who are some of your favorite directors that influence your work?
Spielberg, Zemeckis, Brad Bird, Niel Blomkamp, Duncan Jones, Ridley Scott, David Fincher.

What are you working on now and when can we expect it?
Got a few things in the cooker, but who knows if they’ll amount to anything or if they’ll ever get off the ground! Thinking mainly in terms of animation these days, but I’ve still got a hankering to do stuff in live-action.

What has been the biggest blessing of your career?
I think the moment that Ton, the producer of the Blender Open Movie projects, approached me about directing Sintel was probably the most fortuitous moment of my career thus far. I really felt like that opportunity fell in my lap and the experience has changed my life entirely. Apart from the privilege of working on that project… if it wasn’t for Sintel I wouldn’t be at Pixar. One thing leads to another, and I have been very lucky!
 
What has been the biggest challenge for you as a film maker?
Being decisive. Picking my battles. Writing stuff that doesn’t suck.

What do you hope to accomplish that you haven’t been able to thus far?
Well, I wanna someday direct a feature film that lands in actual theaters! That would be so cool…


[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRsGyueVLvQ&feature=player_embedded]

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ae2ghhGkY-s]

 

Written and conducted by: Brian LionFollow him on Twitter

Brian Leak

Editor-In-Chief. King of forgetting drinks in the freezer. Pop culture pack rat. X-Phile. LOST apologist.
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  • Reynante Martinez

    Thanks, Brian for this wonderful and insightful interview with Colin.

    – Reyn

  • You’re very welcome and thank you as well for reading. I really appreciate it!