79 years ago today, the first drive-in movie theater opened in Camden, New Jersey. While drive-ins are a rare sight today, the movie industry is still thriving and indie film studios are popping up all over the world. Before we go any further, if you haven’t already watched the trailer for The Blackwing, stop what you’re doing and check it out. Done? OK, now that you’ve been blown away by the trailer for a movie about a pencil, we can get down to business.
The Blackwing is a film by Outside In Studios about a boy who is obsessed with stationery products and, more specifically, pencils. One day, he finds a Blackwing in a field by his house and discovers that the pencil possesses the ability to bring whatever he draws to life. What precedes and follows is a story that touches on topics as varied as power, bullying and storytelling in general. Intrigued? I know I was.
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Ricardo and Victoria, the filmmakers responsible for this project, and gain some insight into the film and the creative process behind it.
Interview with “The Blackwing” Filmmakers Ricardo and Victoria
How did this project come about?
Well, our last year at McMaster University was approaching and we would have to do our Multimedia Senior Thesis Project. Usually, you wait until halfway through the year to start a project after faculty counselling, but we knew we wanted to make something that would go beyond a student project. We wanted to make something that could stand on its own and have a life beyond being a final student film. So we started conceptualizing the film last summer and gave ourselves (and our screenwriter) one rule – which was to not limit ourselves in any way. Usually, we found ourselves and other student filmmakers write stories based on what they think is possible, what they can get access to, what resources are easily available to them. We decided to work “backwards” and come up with the best possible story first, and worry about getting it on camera later.
How long did it take you to complete the project?
We first thought of the original concept in July last year. And we reached a final cut early May. So, it’s been a crazy ten months.
What inspired the story?
The story arose out of a desire to create a compelling, yet complex character – one who is defined by an obsession. So, we arrived at the idea of a young adolescent who is obsessed with stationery, particularly, pencils. And we wanted to explore what would happen if he found the ultimate piece of stationery – a pencil that could manipulate life itself. At first, Milo was just going to write the stories, but our writer suggested that drawing would fit the story better, and we agreed – it’s much entertaining and visually appealing to see the drawings and have them come to life.
Why did you choose the Blackwing pencil?
We had already completed a few drafts of the script and were already entering pre-production. When we were searching for props for Milo’s room, we were looking for items that were ultra-artistic and out of the ordinary, that really spoke about the character and how deep his obsession was. It wasn’t until we stumbled upon Pencils.com and saw the Blackwing on the homepage that we realized the importance between the artist and their tool. The Blackwing was everything we didn’t know we were missing. We were first attracted to its appearance – it was simple but had this demure quality, it was the perfect balance between power and subtlety. We gathered from its description on the website that it had a rich history, and when we looked into it – all the famous and iconic artists and writers who used it, how it was discontinued – we knew we had to use The Blackwing. As we approached the final draft of the script, we wrote The Blackwing into it, gave it a title (which it previously did not have), and ordered ourselves a pack.
How many Blackwings were used in the making of this film?
We made it a point to have all the drawings done using the Blackwing, and our artist (Ricardo) can definitley attest to its performance. There were also three body doubles used on set and one sacrificial lamb. But somehow, we went through all but one during the course of production.
I LOVED the graphite toned room. Can you discuss the use of color in the film?
Early in pre-production we outlined a colour palette that would fit within the overall mood and season of film – it included dark and light blues, whites, greys, varying shades of brown, and a deep red. When building our sets, props, and wardrobe, we made sure everything fell within the colours of this palette. The main goal of the colour scheme was to emphasize the cold dullness of winter, which Milo has come to associate with Canada – this is intact Milo’s character spilling onto his surroundings. We wanted the audience to feel everything Milo feels, which isn’t all too thrilled with his relocation to Breton heights. Red was used to add a punch out of the dreariness, but keeping with our dark theme, it works to foreshadow the effects of the pencil on the story and its characters (Prudence’s headband, Morrison’s vest).
Milo is an artist, but he’s also a storyteller. How are these two mediums connected and how do you think these two mediums come together in the process of filmmaking?
Well, in our case, we’ve always been attracted to the visual side of things. On top of directing, we split cinematography and art direction between ourselves, and that’s because we love making beautiful imagery. But we also understand, that visuals are nothing without a good, enthralling story. This was our first project in which we worked with a screenwriter to really nail down a story with interesting characters and a good arch for Milo, and we really pushed ourselves to really think about how cinematography and art direction complimented the story and added meaning to its progression. We actually just did a blog post on how we use our lenses, and how they affect the story and impact the audience. Technically, we could use any lens in a given scene and it would’ve looked great, but we went deeper and thought about what we were trying to say through our lens choice. For example, when Milo first finds the Blackwing in the grass, we used a wide angle lens literally an inch away from the pencil because the distortion made the pencil look larger and powerful in the foreground. We think filmmaking IS art and storytelling combined – both are essential and work with the other to create the final piece.
There seems to be some commentary on storytelling in general in the film. Milo finds that he can’t change a story once it has been written and that if he does not end a story properly, it will carry over to the next story. Am I on track with this?
We would agree, although it wasn’t intentional. We attribute this to the magic of the pencil and the “rules” by which its magic works. If “The End” isn’t written, there is no ending set in stone for that story, and its narrative can continue on to the next.
I also LOVED the use of the swipe edit in the opening montage. I thought it was a creative yet subtle way to convey the effect of drawing and erasing with a pencil. Can you discuss this and some of the other editing and/or cinematographic elements of the film?
The opening credit sequence is actually the first thing we storyboarded and conceptualized thoroughly. We had a minute to convey what Milo is about and give the audience a brief insight into his character and a glimpse at his obsession. We though the idea of him isolated in his own world where only himself, the tool, and his drawing are present (despite of all the kids and havoc of the party itself) would be the perfect way to do this. So in each step of the sequence we have each element represented by three different screens – on one, a close-up of Milo (his eyes in deep concentration, etc), the tool or drawing being completed, and some sort of hint at the party (off-focus streamers, stereo, etc). The only sound you hear are those of the pencil drawing, and the eraser, again to signify Milo’s trance-like state and his inability to conform to his surroundings, and the way each screen enters and exits the frame also speaks to the art of drawing – gliding in as smoothly as the lines he draws and the sounds of the pencil. We could write forever about the choices we made in editing the film, but we’ll tackle just one more sequence – those of Milo writing the Prudence story. Once again, we found ourselves with the task of really introducing Milo’s room and finally establishing his obsession. We decided to intercut the drawing of the Prudy Princeton story against establishing shots of the set we had built – Milo’s extensive collection of pencils, papers, stock, and odd stationery items. It all has a very even pace, but even the editing speaks about the process of writing – the smooth slides representing blurts of creativity, the still frames represent the hiccups along the way, the sharpening represents a recollecting of thoughts. And at the same time, it has yet another level of meaning. Two characters are being introduced in this sequence – Milo and the Blackwing. By intercutting shots of Milo’s obsession (his room) with those of him using The Blackwing, we introduce Milo as is, and the tool that will install a definite change in his character by the end of the story.
The characters in the films seem to fall into archetypal categories (spoiled princess, evil troll, negligent parent, etc.). Was this done purely to aid in the storytelling process, or was there something more to it?
The reason for this is twofold. For one, Milo, although being our lead, only has a mere 16 lines in the entire 30 minutes. So, characters like Morrison, and Prudence really guide the audience through the story and Milo as well. It takes an evil troll or a spoiled princess, or even an arrogant parent to lead a conversation where they’re speaking 90% of the time. When we held casting auditions, we were lucky to find David Knoll who fit the role of Milo perfectly, as he was able to express a wide range of emotions through his eyes. That would become essential to bringing the character to life.
Milo refers to the Blackwing as “the black widow of pencils” and the story he tells with it are all very dark. Is this a commentary on the pencil itself or on Milo’s character? On that note, can you discuss Milo’s character a bit? His silence, his borderline sociopathic tendencies, etc.
Definitely Milo’s character. As we mentioned, The Blackwing was one of the last pieces in the puzzle. So by the time it came into the story, the entire film had already been laid out and scripted. Milo’s character goes through a definitive change in the story, from a passive maladjusted seeing things done onto him, to one who actively expresses his anger by altering the world around him. We don’t really get a glimpse of Milo before The Blackwing, but we have hints as to how he once was before moving to Breton Heights, and we can assume he is/was goodhearted. Even when the Blackwing begins to confuse the narratives in the Prudence and Morrison sotry, we find Milo trying to correct his wrongs. What we have is a kid caught up in something that is bigger than himself, unable to identify the right choices, and making all the wrong ones when his anger gets the best of him. By the end of the film, we see Milo truly does regret the events that have happened, but we also see something else. Milo attempts, one last time, to reach out and make an effort to socialize with the other kids in Breton Heights, and instead ends up taking a beating. This is where we think Milo loses all hope, and really puts the blame on the city and its residents, and decides to draw that final picture of the town. Alternatively, the pencil could really be used for anything, and we briefly showed that when he drew the door knob and his mom opens the door – we feel it’s kind of a gift and a curse – it can make real what you wish, but it adapts to the desires of the owner, conscious or subconscious, and imprints that will into the realization of the wish.
The Blackwing has a number of interesting traits in this film. Obviously, it brings drawings to life, but it also has regenerative powers and lacks the ability to erase. What does a never-ending pencil that can’t erase its mistake mean?
When first conceptualizing the story working with our scriptwriter, Todd S Gallows, one of the first things we had to do was lay out the rules of the pencil. In our original talks, we mentioned the idea of the pencil bringing what it draws to life but with a negative impact for its user. This quickly developed into what you see in the film. It’s not really a negative impact, and the rules aren’t ever laid out, but in our heads, it goes: you can draw anything with the pencil and it will take effect; in order to really end a storyline, it must finish with “The End”; if a story is not ended, it carries on to the next one. That’s part of the narrative, Milo discovering the rules of the pencil and not being able to control its power once it begins combining his stories into one. Then, the idea also goes back to our theme of choices, and their definitive consequences. One thing you learn when you’re growing up is all choices have consequences and you can’t really take actions back. Milo’s learning this in the most extreme of circumstances. Again, it all goes back to us deciding what the rules and characteristics of the pencil’s power would be, and we thought if you could just undo what you’ve drawn, it doesn’t really speak for real life, and there’s no lessons to be learned in that.
We tend to think of the pencil as a tool for creation but, in this case, Milo uses it as a tool for destruction. Can you elaborate on this idea?
This goes back to a previous answer. Milo is at first innocently exercising his creative power. Ticked off at Prudence and what happened at the birthday party, he decides to draw a story that, in and of itself, is actually quite innocent. There’s much worse things than wishing someone to smell extremely bad. But when you take the literal meaning of each drawing and the intentions of his words – “Prudy Princeton was never seen by anybody ever again”, you can see how things begin to get out of control quickly. We wanted the Blackwing to serve as Milo’s voice in the film – he never expresses himself, and when he does, it’s when he is in his room, creating these stories. But somewhere along the line, the stories he creates become destructive, and he is aware of it. It’s not really about differentiating between creation and destruction. For Milo, both ideas become synonymous.
Where can people see this film?
We’ve recently begun the process of submitting to festivals. Right now we have our trailer on our website, and we’ll begin posting where and when it will be screening once we start hearing back from festivals in the coming months. We expect it will have a run into the summer of 2013. All details can be found on outsideinstudio.com/theblackwingmovie , its IMDb, or its Facebook page (all links on the website).
What do you think Studio 602ers? Would you watch a movie about a pencil? Sound off in the comments section below!