Jake Houston Harris is an Australian filmmaker whose short film Three Poems is an experimental narrative “with elements of fantasy and surrealism.” The movie is a 3-part visionary poem that examines universal themes and showcases Australia’s outlandish shores. It won the Audience Award at the Reel Good Film Festival in Melbourne on April 13th, and will screen at Cannes Festival Short Film Corner between 14th and 25th May. Harris and the film’s cinematographer Jonathan Haynes were really kind to give filmslie.com exclusive access to clips and production stills, as well as technical insight into the film’s most complex shot, a crane shot that juxtaposes a person’s close-up to the vastness of the surrounding landscape. Zayd Thring of the Australian band Pets with Pets composed and performed the film’s original soundtrack. The film also features the native Aboriginal actor Jack Charles. Here is the trailer for Three Poems:
The crane shot in Three Poems
Three Poems’ visionary cinematography uses a lot of close-ups and static or almost static shots. The film’s visuals complement the poetry, which is delivered by voice-over and occasionally through non-diegetic text. By far, the film’s most complex shot is the ending sequence for the second part, called Rose Arcadia. Here it is, thanks to Harris who agreed to upload the shot for the readers of filmslie.com:
Jake Harris said the idea for the shot was his, but cinematographer Jonathan Haynes executed it.
We probably shot it about twenty times before we really nailed it. It was by far the most difficult shot in the film. We wanted the shot to start as a close-up and slowly reveal the environment that the characters were in.
Haynes described the technical side of the shot and gave all the intricate details of how he achieved a shot like this:
I was excited by the complexity of the shot. I knew that the shot size and lens choice would be important to achieve the shot. We had a set of Cooke S4i’s [camera lenses] and I decided to use the wider lens (25mm) to achieve a nice close-up at the start of the shot and still have a wide [finish] effect once the crane started to rise.
I wanted to end the shot at the top of the tree line and from pre-production we knew we needed a fairly large crane and remote head to get the most out of the shot. I controlled the remote head at the foot of the crane and myself, Jake and the focus puller sat in front of monitor. After a few rehearsals we went straight into it the takes.
The Alexa and Cooke’s as a package really complemented each other in some of the natural environments we were shooting in. About 90% of the film was shot under natural lighting conditions, except for small detail shots and close-ups. Mostly bouncing light and added diffusion to the sun as a nice soft light source.
The crane shot depicts the characters dwarfed by their environment. The extreme close-up of the character’s face is eventually diminished by the vastness of the space around. The shot is probably a visual lesson against human ethno- and egocentrism.
Australia is a vastland and a harsh part of the world. We get everything from severe droughts to floods and hurricanes — and the land will still be here long after we’ve all disappeared. You can’t own it. Our presence is fleeting, momentary, insignificant in the greater plans of nature.
The camera for Three Poems
Director Jake Harris said Three Poems was shot with an Arri Alexa camera.
I was really excited to use the camera after learning Lars von Trier filmed Melancholia on one. It’s a great camera, and I’m guessing von Trier feels the same given he used the Alexa Plus for Nymphomaniac.
Here is a post that discusses Trier’s use of the Alexa Plus. Jake Harris said Swinburne University provided the camera for Three Poems, but the film crew also rented additional equipment from elsewhere.
It all started with poetry
Harris explained how the film’s idea started:
I have always held a love for writing lyricism, and over the years I have written predominantly to entertain myself. I find writing a wondrously therapeutic treatment—to decode my own emotional train of thought, and reason with it. […]
As my passion for filmmaking gained momentum, I started looking at different ways to fuse both my lyrical content to accommodating visuals, which also told a story. Three Poems is essentially the concoction of those experiments. I hope the visual element will aid the viewer in understanding the language, while still allowing them to find their own meaning within the pieces.
These poems are how I feel about the poisonous affects of the Australian identity, how our psyche subliminally defines us and demands unrealistic expectations.
Three Poems: the Influences
Jake Harris listed a wide array of influences for Three Poems, of which Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg is probably the most well-known. Both films examine Australia’s wilderness and oppose the contemporary urban lifestyle.
Sydney’s experimental film collective Ubu Films, and the works Albie Thoms inspired me a lot. Thoms’ Marinetti is an extremely interesting film, it’s both poetic and philosophical and well worth a watch.
During my time at film school I became slightly obsessed with Australian silent film, reading a lot about Raymond Longford’s productions, some of which have unfortunately been lost. His cinematographer Arthur Higgins used a lot of in-camera trick-photography, which was very influential. I think the best example of this is during the Three Poems title sequence, where we created a “cloud tank” by dropping different color food dyes into a fish tank, shot at 50 fps [frames per second] to create a space-like atmosphere.
Three Poems stylistically borrows a lot from films like Walkabout, Manganinnie, and Ten Canoes. I’ve enjoyed recent films such as Bran Nu Dae, The Sapphires, and Ten Canoes because they invite the audience into the Aboriginal way of life, something that rarely makes it into our cinema.
At the moment I’ve been enjoying Lars von Trier. Melancholia is probably one of my favorite films. I always keep an eye out for anything by Tom Tykwer, namely because Run Lola Run was the film that made me want to make films.
Albie Thom’s Marinetti is an experimental psychedelic feature film named after the author of the Futurist manifesto Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The movie’s style reminds of the psychedelic documentary directed by Johnny Depp about John Frusciante. Here is the full Marinetti film:
The Budget of Three Poems
For its running time of less than 13 minutes, Three Poems has an impressive budget and cast.
The budget was about $8,000 AUD [$7,500 USD], and we gathered about a third of it through the crowd-funding website, Pozible. My parents and extended family were extremely supportive. A good friend of mine, Shane Millhouse […] worked as the film’s Executive Producer and contributed the voice-over for “The Grey” [the third section of Three Poems]. I am extremely thankful to have such supportive friends, who appreciate and understand the arts—the film really wouldn’t have happened without them.
The Locations for Three Poems
The film is shot exclusively on location, which is important for its atmosphere and themes of wilderness.
We shot a majority of Three Poems on the Mornington Peninsula [south-east of Melbourne], except for “That Ominous Water,” which was shot near Koo-Wee-Rup, about 15 minutes further down the road. I really like the Mornington Peninsula, it reminds me a lot of Tasmania, where I grew up.
The Editing of Three Poems
Although Three Poems was shot between October and November 2012, it spent a full year in post-production because the poetry for the film kept evolving and required multiple recordings. The editing of Three Poems is smooth and linear. The three separate parts of the film (the three poems) are unified by the title sequence —the “cloud tank” effect the director described. Just like Drew Christie for his animation Allergy to Originality, Jake Harris chose Adobe post-production software.
Lydia Springhall edited the film using Adobe Premiere Pro CC. As an editor myself, I was excited by the prospect of editing without the use of proxies. The software was great coming from a Final Cut Pro background, it was a really smooth transition. Of course there [are] problems with the interface that still annoy me, but I’m optimistic Adobe will iron these out in future versions.
Working with Jack Charles
Jack Charles is a native Aboriginal actor, whose casting emphasized the film’s themes. The tagline of the 2008 documentary movie Batardy about Jack Charles described him as “Addict. Homosexual. Cat burglar. Actor. Aboriginal.”
Working with Jack Charles was a fantastic experience. He is such a great guy. My friend Charlie Ford, who worked with Jack on his short film Stone […], suggested I call him. Jack loved the concept and has continued to be extremely supportive of the film. His voice-over for Rose Arcadia is delivered with such conviction and honesty. His presence really made the film.
The cultural gap between the native population and white Australians still largely divide the “Australian identity,” and although we agree that the land itself is a beautiful place, we can’t seem find a way to stop comparing each other and just enjoy it together. Jack understood my philosophical standpoint, and his interest and presence in the film enforces that we shouldn’t be pigeonholed by the way we look for what we “represent” in race, class or gender.
Jack Charles, who is also an Aboriginal elder, gave the film a certain authority that myself, a young white male, couldn’t deliver with authenticity.
Contemporary Australian Cinema
As it turns out, Australian cinema maybe shares some of American cinema’s issues. Here is how Harris described the Australian cinema landscape:
Competitive, dictated by non-creatives. The same as it’s ever been, to my understanding. Australian film typically enlarges our flimsy cultural identity and its discrepancies, which is why I think people here don’t like seeing Australian movies. Australia makes on average 31 feature films a year, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a single cinema here that screens even half of that number. Distribution for Australian content is also a problem, which is outrageous given that two of the world’s major distributors—Village Roadshow and Hoyts Distribution—are Australian.
Screen Australia does offer some very appeasing film funding, although only to those who have already made notable landmarks in their careers. Funding for independent short films is scarce, and that is the beauty of sites like Pozible, where you can really get the community excited about projects. If Screen Australia were to offer something where they matched privately generated funds, like how I understand it works in Germany, perhaps more people would be able to get their films made. In the world of DSLR’s and Blackmagic Production Cameras however, filmmakers’ dependency on the film bodies is waning.
In July or August, Jake Harris plans to start shooting his next film, the short The Spirit. “It is about a ghost who can’t walk over a bridge until she has come to terms with her own death.” In the meantime, catch up with Three Poems’ Facebook page for information about upcoming screening.