POV’s 2008 lineup received a record 10 Emmy nominations, including one for a short film entitled Ars Magna in the New Approaches to News & Documentary Programming: Arts, Lifestyle & Culture category. The amazing thing about Ars Magna is that it was produced in five days as part of the International Documentary Challenge (IDC), an annual timed filmmaking competition where filmmakers have a long weekend to make a short nonfiction film. Ars Magna received the POV prize at last year’s IDC presentation at the Toronto Hot Docs film festival. We emailed director Cory Kelley to ask him some questions about Ars Magna.
POV: What is it like to make a film in five days? Did you know you were going to make the film about Cory Calhoun ahead of time, or was that decided on that first day of the competition?
Cory Kelley: Making a film in five days does pose some very large obstacles, but it has a few advantages as well. The hardest part is coming up with a subject that is compelling, has interesting characters, and making sure that there is plenty of access. The way the Documentary Challenge works is that you don’t know your genre or theme until the first day of the competition. I suppose one could try to cheat the system and have a subject all lined up in advance, but in the spirit of things we had no idea what our subject would be going into it. There are other obvious challenges, most of them having to do with time for editing and pre-production.
There are some upsides to only having five days. It is much easier to get talented people to commit themselves wholeheartedly to a five-day production as opposed to a documentary schedule that goes on and on. We had a great team of very dedicated people and most people filled multiple roles. Another benefit of the short time period is how quickly decisions have to be made. There is little time to deliberate and dwell on ideas. This creates a certain energy and spontaneity that can come through in the final work if you harness it.
POV: Did you know Cory Calhoun, the subject of Ars Magna, before you made the film, or did you discover him on the Internet, as many people in the film did?
Kelley: Cory Calhoun is a friend of Tim Boyd, our director of photography, and the idea that he might be an interesting topic came from Tim. We had other ideas as well, and spent one day doing pre-production on multiple ideas to see which idea yielded the most content and had the best access.
POV: What drew you to him as a subject? Are you an anagramist yourself?
Kelley: I am not an anagramist. I can hardly spell my own name correctly. In Cory we saw a story that fit the scope of the project. It was a great small story about an everyday man, but in that everyday man and his anagrams we could extend that story and create other subtle ideas. It was also an opportunity to use our visual talent with subtle motion graphics, creative cinematography and fun editing.
POV: Ars Magna is beautifully edited, with a whimsical soundtrack and great wordplay in the graphics. Tell us a little about your aesthetic choices. Why did you make those choices?
Kelley: In the idea of word play we saw an opportunity to bring a great mind’s thought process to life on screen. Cory is an everyday guy with a magical way of seeing the world, so creating a magical space was important. The pacing of the edits, the jump cuts and the motion graphics helped us establish a sense of Cory’s mind. In terms of cinematography, we stayed tight. When we weren’t tight, we were tighter — only letting the viewer relax and escape the magic when Cory was working at his job. Jonathan Wright’s original score came through with a playful edge that drove the pace and kept everything tied together.
POV: If you had had more time to make the film, what do you think you would have done differently, if anything?
Kelley: If we had more time it would have been a very different film. The energy and spontaneous feeling of the piece comes from the timeline. It comes from everyone moving quickly, making fast decisions and the general optimism that can be maintained for five days. I wouldn’t change anything because I think adding more time to the piece may improve it technically but would jeopardize the overall guts of the piece.
POV: What do you hope people take away from this film?
Kelley: I think this little film shows that there are great minds and at work all over and that the world really can be a magical place full of potential. It just depends how you look at it.
POV: What are you working on now?
Kelley: I am currently a digital associate creative director at Publicis in the West in Seattle. This job has been keeping me fairly busy, but I am working on a pet project involving creative phone applications for a national non-profit. My next film project, while undetermined at this
point, will focus on bringing a more interactive component to my storytelling.) Next project will be bringing a more interactive component to my storytelling.