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  • Writer's pictureBryan Tan

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

Diving into the deep end here for Post #2, scratching my head as I try to remember my art history classes. In thinking about the question "how ought we make films?" I want to widen the perspective. Answering this question will necessitate us talking about art in general, and it shall not be futile to look at the artistic world beyond film in search of examples that pertain to our interest.

The art world spent much of the 20th Century attempting to answer the question "What is art?" This question was not simply an academic exercise for art critics but a constant thematic question for the artists themselves. There may be no work which so embodies this question as Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. Fountain is a work that seeks to stretch the bounds of how art can be defined, and to a great extent, actually succeeds in arguing for a very broad definition of the word "art" in a formal setting. However I do not think I am alone in finding a great discomfort with affording this work and others like it, the respect to the same degree that we would the work of a more classical master. In fact I will be so bold as to assert that for any viewer who is unfamiliar with the very specific context and intent of Duchamp, it shall appear to be nothing more than a bad joke, and the art world, a realm of gullible, pretentious nonsense. Of course those who are familiar with Duchamp will assert that there is far more going on than that, and in this they are probably quite right. However I think this is where the conversation often stops, right in the midst of a great divide between popular and scholarly opinion. I am convinced that we should not be satisfied with this divide. If art is to remain both an intellectual pursuit and a positive influence within culture, this common place reaction to such a work needs to be understood and reckoned with, rather than being dismissed as the simple uninformed position of the artistic laity.

Fountain: ruffling feathers since 1917. Blame Marcel.

If I take a pine cone, I remove it from nature, and place it on my mantelpiece, does the pine cone become art? This is in essence the question Duchamp asks with his infamous toilet, the Fountain, an otherwise entirely normal urinal which he placed on a platform and exhibited as though it were a sculpture he created. The question is that of context. Is the content what defines art, or the context? For those who would assert the more obvious position that it is the content that matters, consider the following. How does the pine cone on a mantelpiece differ from a photograph of a sunset?

You might protest that a photograph had to pass through the collative eye of the photographer, it was a moment, one out of an infinite number, that was selected by the skilled and trained eye of the photographer, and captured in a fraction of a second that shall never come again; a totally unique work that cannot be replicated. But then, if we think more about the pine cone we shall find again that this particular pine cone is entirely unique, and it also required a specific eye to find it, to select it; one out of many, as preferential above all others and worthy of display. Like a photo, the pine cone may have sentimental value attached. It could be from a day when its selector climbed a certain hill and met his significant other. The pine cone could also serve as a symbol of growth or any number of interpretations once its selector has pulled it out of its natural setting and chosen to place it deliberately within a new one.

In practice we find that it is quite hard to show logically how the pine cone differs from the photo. Yet none of this shall prevent me from scoffing at the "Fountain" of Duchamp. But while I find myself needing to concede Duchamp's point, I also find myself raising my fist at him. This conversation about what can be defined as art continues in a similar manner across the 20th Century. Another high water mark for this conversation is the John Cage composition 4:33, in which the performance of a "musical composition" consists of no notes, only a pianist sitting at a bench silently for four minutes and thirty three seconds. The piece consists of the sounds of the audience breathing, the AC of the concert hall, and whatever other ambient sounds are present. In 1952, that was considered the music of genius.

A few decades later we find that we perceive a great decline in interest of contemporary classical music, painting, literature. In both work and in the realm of critique the discussion seems to have ground to a halt. There is no more avante-garde in our age of artistic pluralism. To my knowledge, contemporary works are not selling or entering the popular lexicon to the degree that we are familiar with works of the 20th Century, even decades later. There are of course exceptions to this but I don't want to be dragged down into a debate in the weeds of whataboutisms. I assert this decline on the basis of my general awareness of culture, I concede that my awareness is limited and your opinions may different from mine, but you will fail to convince me that there is a living equivalent to Rachmaninoff, or to Vincent Van Gogh. This decline should not surprise us when works like Fountain and 4:33 come to be celebrated by the supposed artistic elite.

I don't think anyone has quite come up with such a definition of art that satisfies everyone, but permit me to suggest my own, despite it being neither first, nor final:

Art is a morally neutral thing that has nonetheless attained a moral aspect through its selection or creation by an intellect.

I admit this is a very vague and general definition, and you will see that it would necessarily include works like Duchamp's Fountain, and Cage's 4:33. It would even include paint splattered on a canvas by an oblivious elephant. What this definition does not, and cannot do is tell us if these works are good or bad. Indeed, the question "what is art?" does not go any length to tell us what works are worth our time and what works have less value than a child scribbling on a wall. What this definition does require is that art has value. Good or bad, it has a significance to us. We can be morally repulsed by it just as much as we can be uplifted by a different work. Art bears meaning.

By this definition, Fountain is art, yes. But it could be bad art. It could be morally and artistically detrimental to the human psyche. The totality of the work might cause the lay person to close down emotionally or stunt their receptivity toward other works of art. It could be conceited, alienating, and narcissistic. I might argue that Fountain is guilty on all of these counts. It would take me another essay to fully expound upon why. What is important is that, whether or not one might agree with me, the discussion that would follow would be a discourse on the actual merit of the work or its lack thereof. This is precisely the discussion worth having, not an endless quibble over what is or isn't art. Like so much of public discourse today, a discussion of this sort ends up dancing around the real conflict and devolving into a battle of pure rhetoric.

We need to appreciate our gut reaction to art. Bad work is off putting to us. It isn't important for us to argue over whether or not a work constitutes an artistic pursuit. What is important is how we react to it, how it affects us. We have been so preoccupied in dealing with the question "what is art?" that we have forgotten the more important question, "what is good art?"

- Bryan

  • Writer's pictureBryan Tan

Updated: Apr 13, 2019

The Emissary was such a massive effort for me that I thought it would be worth the time to put some of the journey down on paper. If you've arrived here without seeing the film, I encourage you to watch it first, here!

I also cut together some of the b-roll from the film shoot and my time building the set into this video. I was so emaciated when I recorded this interview! Or go directly to vimeo here.


Before I discovered filmmaking, I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I loved space; to read about black holes, neutron stars, and Europa, Jupiter's strangest moon. Mostly, I dreamed of going there -- of floating above the Milky Way, able to take in its whole spiraled shape with my own eyes. But I do not regret that to study such things was not ultimately my career path. I realized that a filmmaker is much more likely to travel to these places than a physicist. For there is no other person who can more vividly appreciate how stuck we are here on Earth than the physicist.

The Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Courtesy of Hubble.

Prior to The Emissary, I had never been able to marry my love of space with my love of filmmaking. I spent the better part of 2016 writing a feature script The Basilica, which is in many ways the predecessor to The Emissary. Upon finishing The Basilica, also a film set on a space ship, I knew the visuals would appear too ambitious and difficult to achieve on a limited budget, so I set about finding a cost effective way to prove that they would be doable in a striking and effective manner. Out of this, was born The Emissary. I did not want The Emissary to be a simple scene or two from The Basilica. Rather, The Emissary is a standalone film with a tone and message unique to its story and to my mental state at the time.

Nonetheless, The Emissary allowed me to test a scaled down version of the methods and techniques that I plan to employ on The Basilica.

So began 2017, which shall always be for me, the year of The Emissary. Making a film has a way of taking over your entire life, and never was this more the case for me than on this film. Indeed, it is only now, two years later that I am truly stepping out of the shadow of this project.

The first three months of 2017 consisted of planning, learning new software, and laying the groundwork for what would come. I first approached Viviana Chavez, an actress and a good friend who immediately responded to the material and who I knew would be able to bear the burden of the central character, Liv Laika. Vivi's husband, Travis is incidentally a cinematographer and regular co-worker of mine. I knew the experience of our countless projects and years of lighting together would be invaluable to capturing the interior of the space ship. I next met with Sam Laubscher another talented cinematographer friend, and we set about creating a unique palette for the Earth portions of the film. In the mean time Holly Patterson, production designer on my SCAD projects, and I designed the look and layout of the spaceship in Sketchup. All the while, Matt Finley and I discussed how we would render the complex space imagery outside the windows of Liv's ship.

At the end of March we filmed at Lake Lanier on 35mm film. This was my first time shooting film for my own project and there is little I can say about celluloid that would be new. I simply echo what has been said about it by its proponents. It is beautiful, almost magical, and brings an entirely different energy to the process of film making that makes for a heightened experience unlike anything else. The look of film suited the memory-like quality that I wanted for the earth sequence.

It occurred to me that memories do not unfold like dialogue scenes from a movie. We often remember little snippets of what a person says and these snippets are not married to close ups of the person speaking to us. We remember rather, the visual palette of where we were: the details, the wind, the weather, a smile. We remember how we felt.

In April began the real work of constructing Liv's spaceship, the set where most of the film unfolds. I knew the room in which we built the set would be key. Because of my greenness in set design, I knew I would need far longer than a professional crew to build the set. I also wanted to have the space available for an extended period so that we could take our time with production and have room for reshoots. On our thin budget, this ruled out any professional studio space. As it turned out, the best place to build the ship was right next to me, the garage of my parent's house. It was an environment that I had constant access to and for free. In indie filmmaking, I am constantly reminded of the Teddy Roosevelt quote, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Over the next four months, I made no less than forty nine trips to Home Depot. I learned how to build the set as we went along. The Sketchup model was the groundwork, but provided no basis for actual execution. I am a freelancer so any day that I was not on a job, I was building the set. Each day was new territory, a new challenge of measuring, cutting, painting, measuring again, cutting again, and so on, for months on end.

I was not entirely alone in constructing the ship. I was helped at key moments along the way by a great number of people. Justin Torrence helped me figuratively break ground on the first day of the set build with a crash course in carpentry. Phil Dunlop performed the nerve wracking drive across town with the massive cardboard sonotube that would become the Sleep Tube. My brother David spent his weeks' vacation putting in 12 hour days with me to construct the cockpit set. Jesse Scimeca built the entire corridor set for the ending scene, with minimal direction from myself. Matt Finley sacrificed many countless hours of sleep, compositing the visuals of the film for projection, on top of his full time job. Months later, and across the country, Brittany Ellis and Kyle Lammerding gave up their concert trip to complete the sound design in time for delivery of the finished film.

This is only a fragment of the full picture of effort friends and family put in; day in, day out toil through the hottest summer days. I couldn't possibly name everyone who helped here. Even my parents helped along the way, my dad frowning at my carpentry and filling in the gaps with his caulk gun. My mother worked many of the finer details of the ship, like the labels of the cockpit switches and the sewing of the translucent garden screens. With any less effort, the film could not have existed.

We built the cockpit on wheels so that we could transport it to other locations. This was our studio day. We filmed at BrandRED studios where we could have better control of the environment as opposed to the backyard of my parent's house.

I wanted as many of the film's special effects as possible to be captured in camera, without green screen, so this meant that the visual effects we created had to be completed before we began filming. The visual effects process is normally reserved for the months after the film is shot. This meant that we had double the pre-production workload compared to a normal film shoot.

So when it grew dark and the bugs came out, I would go inside, into the next room and hunch over the craft table where I worked on the miniature, a beast in its own right, but absolutely pivotal to the film's climactic moments.

The miniature is of a space station – actually a space elevator, which travels from orbit, down to the surface of an icy moon, where presumably, the people of Yaghan have taken up residence in a colony underneath the surface.

Enceladus, one of the moons of Saturn, served as inspiration for Navarino, the mysterious final moon of Liv's journey. This moon is covered in ice beneath which there is a liquid sea of water. Although it appears inhospitable, some scientists actually believe it is strong candidate to support life.

I wanted the space station to look unlike anything we have seen in a film. I wanted it to have the feeling of a massive oil platform at sea, with a strange, irregular shape, impossible to take in at a glance; a platform with no aesthetic concerns in mind, only brute function. In depictions of space elevators, we almost never see the rendering of the top. It occurred to me, the top of such an elevator would not be a simple door. It would be a great hub, like an airport, where ships could come and go. There would probably be staff and living space and a great number of amenities necessary to support the function of the station. By the time of the film, this station is abandoned. At this isolated moon of Yaghan, there is no need to go into orbit, no one to trade with, nowhere to go.

I first modeled the station in Sketchup, and then constructed it out of foam-core, styrofoam, and styrene modeling plastic. The stiff odor of the solvent which bonds the styrene forms together shall never leave me. I felt great dread every time I looked at the miniature, sitting unfinished on the desk. Of all the challenges of the film, I was the most skeptical that the miniature would be convincing.

Despite all this effort, we were not ready to film until September. The shoot itself is all blurred together for me, I remember it like one long day, but it was actually five. We wrapped the night before Hurricane Irma hit. I remember the scary drive across town to return the gear the following day, only hours before the storm arrived. We later shot several pick up days, and the final shoot day was not until late October, when we had our effects for the space station completed. It was not until this last day of shooting, when I held up the camera, looking through the cockpit of Liv's ship, where I could see the projected image of the station, that I thought, “Wow, we made that.”

Post production was completed in March, 2018, in time for our premier at the Atlanta Film Festival. After which, I continued to make subtle changes to the effects, the edit and the sound mix. I made my last and hopefully final changes as recently as March 2019.

Now after a year of film festivals, looking back on it all, I wonder about the take away. I wonder if the immense effort we put in comes through on the screen. Whole features have been made in the time it took for me to make one short film. I wonder if it was all worth it. The trouble with a project like this is that when you talk about it, you don't talk about the film and its story. Conversation just becomes about how difficult it was to make. “Wow, good job, that must have been really tough.” “Looked awesome, mate. Can't believe you did that in your garage!” Of course I appreciate these comments but I'd hate to say that all this was about was getting a pat on the back for a hard days work.

The Basilica looms large over the future. I am six drafts into the screenplay. I want to incorporate every lesson I learned from The Emissary. I now appreciate the challenges it shall present so palpably. But then, what about The Emissary? Was this stepping stone really justified as a film in its own right, or was it all just an elaborate screen test for The Basilica? And how long will it be before I can make The Basilica anyway?

When I have these thoughts I think back to an interaction I had following our screening at the Rome Film Festival. After The Emissary played, I was approached by a group of high school students from the audience. Their teacher bought them tickets to go to the film festival. (Props to that teacher!)

“Are you going to make a sequel?”

“Why do you think the people left the Earth?”

“What's on the other side of the door?”

“If I were rich, I'd give you a billion dollars to make whatever you want.”

Their bubbly questions and genuine interest must be among the most edifying things I have ever heard. For these kids, there was no question of the set or miniatures, or how we did it, or shooting with projection instead of green screen. For them, the world of the story existed and nothing else: a woman alone on a spaceship with only her memories and the fading hope of finding her ancestors.

- Bryan

  • Writer's pictureBryan Tan

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

In the past year I have set about starting a director's journal, a space where I can write down lessons I have learned over time concerning filmmaking. These lessons can come from anywhere, mostly from my own projects and mistakes, or from talking with other filmmakers. But also from observing others on set, and of course, from simply watching films. Some of these lessons are very simple and practical, but I find I am increasingly interested in more open ended, theoretical concerns of filmmaking.

Because so many of us millennial filmmakers are largely self taught, we are often seriously lacking in understanding of the foundational principles that underlie our creative filters. We trust almost entirely in our own intuition and yet despite this we seem to adhere quite readily to the conventions of a shared cinematic language. We follow these conventions subconsciously, often without even knowing which ones we are embracing and which we are rejecting. I am interested in trying to elucidate these concerns and this journal is my effort to do so. I began this with no intent of ever making it public, and these thoughts will not be presented here in neat chapters and cogent sections, but rather, as they occurred to me and, with some revisions, as I wrote them.

I remember from the moment I realized I wanted to be a director, I felt there was a better way to make films. A heightened state that could be achieved, yet so rarely is. Now that I am a little older, I am skeptical this better way exists. I presently feel that we already have the tools of cinema set before us and that we must merely learn to wield them properly. This is perhaps a life long task. The better way that I was dreaming of was actually something that already exists, yet as a fleeting thing, as lightening in a bottle. I was thinking of particular scenes in films where everything comes together, where you lose awareness of yourself as a viewer. For its duration, it feels that life will never be the same. It is the thrill, it is what we filmmakers mean by that elusive word "cinematic." I have a hard time actually identifying sequences that achieve this, surely it will differ for everyone. I think of something like the lighting of the beacons in Return of the King, or the ending of Gravity. The opening of Gladiator, the rotating hallway scene in Inception. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a quiet scene like in Unforgiven, as Will Munny and the Kid wait by the tree, or as Jesse James waits for the train to arrive in Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

What exactly is that feeling that hits you when you are so engrossed in a film? There is a newness, an unfamiliarity, your imagination is awakened even as you are pulled deeper into the moment. There is that palpable feeling of possibility. If the hero is in danger, the film has managed to actually trick you into believing their life is truly on the line. There is of course, that buzz word that screenwriters love; the stakes. A cinematic moment is when all of these elements have been properly set up and arrive at precisely the right moment.

When I was younger, I was convinced that every film ought to achieve this moment, that there must be this arrival at a singular moment when everything coalesces and all is achieved, revealed, and resolved. But, as I am older now, it is easy for me to see this is only the visceral component of a good film. In fact many great films function on entirely different levels. I think of a film like Ida, quiet, stark restrained and in the end, devastating. It exists entirely without the thrills of the Hollywood films we discussed above, yet is utterly compelling.

So with great films varying from the likes of Lord of the Rings, to Ida, how is it possible to draw any kind of coherent thread between them concerning what makes for a compelling story? Let us not reduce everything to the mantras of screenwriting, like the stakes and the Hero's Journey. Before all of that, what makes a film good? I mean this in the most general, most conceptual sense. What should the audience feel? What thoughts and emotions do I want them to have? How does one establish empathy with a character? Is it enough to simply entertain our audience and make back our budget, or are we after more? How ought we make films? These are difficult, probably unanswerable questions, but I still find it is worthwhile to try. Often it is the hard questions that produce the best work.

- Bryan

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