Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer
Given how innovative Pixelschatten is on the technical level alone, Phoebe Raven had a lot of questions for writer and director Anil Kunnel, which he was kind enough to answer in great detail, shedding a light on just how unpredictable a film in the making can be.
Phoebe: Anil, what was your inspiration for Pixelschatten? A real life occurrence or an internet occurrence? Were you annoyed with a blog or something? Tell us the story.
Anil: The idea for Pixelschatten came when I heard about the “Bodybits“ competition by Das Kleine Fernsehspiel, which is the young filmmakers program at ZDF, which is public television here in Germany. They were looking for stories on digital lives, so you could say that I came up with the story deliberately for this competition. They were looking for online submissions and had a jury and an online users vote. I made it into the finale and later on was one of the 5 winners who won a fully financed mid-length feature. So the story evolved through different steps during the competition. I had done some research as a student on web-oriented content, from blogs to Social Networking programs in India. I knew that I wanted to tell a simple story about “normal” people, and not the urban Berlin hipster crowd. So I came up with the story of a local blogger that kind of realizes that no one’s into his blog anymore. To me the interesting thing was making a film about a group of friends that already had a communal past life online, and how this life has a sort of date of expiry. Rather than thinking about blogs, or actual occurrences, I thought about how these characters would define themselves online, and these ideas lead to the beats in the story. A great deal of inspiration came from rather small observations on Facebook and online communities, where you sometimes wonder how people behave or how much they are willing to share.
Phoebe: The flow of conversation and dialog in the movie feels very natural, almost not acted most of the time. Did you give the actors their exact lines or did you tell them what the scene was about and they improvised?
Anil: Both. On one hand, for reasons I can’t spoil, we had to be really precise with each scene, because the film works a bit like a puzzle. It was really important where each scene was leading to and how the relations of the characters were at every moment of the movie. On the other hand, though, I gave the actors a lot a freedom in forming the scenes. We had such a limited amount of time, 15 days to shoot, that you can’t control everything. I knew when I wanted a naturalistic moment, and when it was more important that a certain line was right. We sometimes had only two takes, sometimes we had 24 takes. So although the film hopefully feels sort of naturalistic, it was a lot of work. There were some moments in the screenplay that we tried to shoot like it was written, but it wouldn’t work. So we skipped them and improvised, and somehow these scenes end up as some of the most satisfying ones. The other thing I couldn’t control was how our main protagonist, Pixel, would move. The actor Ben Gageik was wearing a helmrig with the camera on his head all the time, so it was important that he was comfortable with it and to give him the opportunity to try out things and give the character different nuances through his movement.
Phoebe: Why did you choose to shoot the movie from the first-person perspective of Paul, making him basically invisible for almost the entire film? Was that a choice based on the metaphorical level – he is a blogger on the internet and anyone who only reads the blog can never truly know what he looks like – or was it also a conscious decision on the technical level to give the movie a new and innovative look?
Anil: During the screenwriting and development process with the producers Kerstin Krieg and Gerd Haag, and the Commissioning Editor Frank Seyberth, the film changed a lot. First it was written as a standard third-person film, a sort of mumblecore-ish depiction of young German people on the Internet. The beats were the same, but you would see everything from the outside, how the friends would react to Pixels behavior and how one thing would lead to another. It was really observational. But we all felt that the story had more potential, and in one certain meeting at the Berlin Film Festival we came up with the idea that it would be much more interesting to tell the story out of the perspective of the blog. So we, the audience, would be the readers of the blog. As you can imagine, it was really radical, because you would not see the characters any more, but only what they would publish. This step made the whole idea so much more interesting and gave it a totally new kick that would influence the whole story to a degree that I can’t spoil. The film would now work like a diary-film, where the written blog entries would be translated to film, sort of the images we imagine as readers of the blog. The chance was to make it more subjective than ever. In my studies at university I had researched the first-person point-of-view in movies, so I was very familiar with attempts at first-person point of view storytelling in movies, from Lady in the Lake to Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up, and why it mostly did not work in feature-length movies. I always wanted to do a first POV movie, and was talking to a friend about doing a time-travel webshow called 4 Minutes, but had skipped it. When we decided to tell everything from the perspective of the blog, we felt that the film would not work if you would only observe Pixel during the film, you had to be him. One day I saw the Love Deluxe video by Cinnamon Chasers and remembered the whole point-of-view thing and thought that we could be brave and try it with the film, because they actually made it possible with a light DSRL camera. The effect of the ego-perspective is really interesting. It puts you into the head of a person, which makes the whole experience much more personal, on the other hand there is a distancing effect, which was very necessary for the evolution of the story. I like this ambivalence, because it totally describes what the “Online experience” is. It’s really cool when you make theses decision because of script issues or because you want to make the story better, and it then has an overall effect and changes the whole movie. The guys at the channel and the production company were really into taking this risk (no one had tried to do a full ego-perspective feature for a long time) and to create a film that was visually different.
Phoebe: What kind of camera did you shoot with? And was the first-person perspective a particular challenge while shooting?
Anil: We shot the POV-scenes with a Canon 7D and the Online videos with a Flipcam. The difficulty was to not make the POV a gimmick. Not to show off. Instead, we wanted a very naturalistic look that takes you straight into the story. With our limited resources, the film cost only about 100,000 Euros, we had to be really inventive. In most of the scenes we wanted to give our protagonist enough freedom to move, which is really difficult if you have a crew in the same room. So these kind of 360 degree scenes, often in one take, were very tricky. Especially for the lighting, which had to be very reduced or movable. With the wide lenses, you could see much more in a room, which means that you also need to hide more. The great thing is that most people forget about it when they see the end result. The main key to why the camera, in my opinion, works are the actors and the acting style, though. For a POV-film the acting can’t be too dramatic, like in Lady in the Lake for example, because then you draw attention to the “gimmick”. But it can’t be too naturalistic either, because a POV-film is always about attention. An image that has no focal point of attention does not work in a POV-film, because it easily becomes a normal third-person image like in any other movie. So yeah, it was really important to figure out the right acting style. Sometimes you have to stop the actors from playing too broad and dramatic, sometimes you need more tension between the person on screen and the person behind the camera.
Phoebe: How long did it take you to get the financing for the movie together and what was the process like?
Anil: The great thing about the competition was that it was a fully financed mid-length movie and had a fixed airing date. That’s the special thing about the guys at Das Kleine Fernsehspiel, they are not only about business, they really want to find young filmmakers and give them the opportunity to find their own language. As you know, the film now is a feature-length film of 85-minutes, it sort of grew bigger and bigger during the process, so I think everyone who worked on this film can be really proud. There are so many stories on films that only cost 10,000 $ these days, but it’s another thing to sort of have a DIY spirit and still pay people a little bit. So that was a big big challenge, especially with only one year from the first screenplay discussions to the final result.
Phoebe: Based on your own experience, what would be your advice to other independent filmmakers, in Germany and also in general?
Anil: I’m not really in the position of giving advice, being a young self-taught filmmaker myself. From an audience’s perspective I can say that I would love to see more genre films and also visual interesting pieces from German filmmakers. I have the feeling that sometimes the “art” of filmmaking is a bit too serious here, although there are great examples of why films should be serious. But I’m thirsty for those movies that are a bit off, weird or do something risky. What I can say from this production is that besides some juicy work on the screenplay, it helps to think about “how” you produce it and what the film really needs. Which is different for every film I guess. These “production characteristics”, as we called them, can really influence not only the look or the feel of the film, but also the story in its very heart. For our film, we had a really communal DIY attitude, and a lot of my friends joined me in key positions. So we shot in our home town and decided we also wanted to document the summer with this film, and I believe you can see it in the movie.
Phoebe: What are the plans for distribution of the film? Will there be a theatrical release or a DVD?
Anil: Well, first it will be shown on German TV and then we will have one week of free access on our page www.pixelschatten.com [Editors Note: free web access from Monday, May 23rd until Sunday, May 29th. The stream will be a full HD version with English subtitles]. There are no certain plans besides trying to get into the festival circuit. This is a really strange film to market, to be honest. It’s a film about Social Networking, so it should attract people who like The Social Network or Catfish, but on the other hand, it’s a very German coming of age story in the tradition of John Hughes’ films. So it’s a wild mix, not to mention the whole POV-camera, and has a real rapid pace, so I guess the film has to find its audience first, and not the other way round.
If you want to know more about Pixelschatten, go to the Official Facebook Page and befriend Paul Pixel: http://www.facebook.com/pixelschatten.
Author: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer
Born in Germany, lived in the US, now in the UK. Always taking my love for TV and writing with me. Life participator. Blogger. Gaming enthusiast.