It used to be that only a sliver of the population was capable of making a movie. Whether they had the chops or not was irrelevant; the obstacles that mattered most were equipment and distribution, both of which required money and connections that most pie-eyed cinephiles simply couldn’t swing. Now the era of DIY filmmaking is upon us, though, and the rules have changed. Affordable cameras and editing software, as well as gloriously free YouTube, are well within reach. All that matters at this point is the spark of creativity, and for the right person to recognize it.
The first time Ron Howard teamed up with Canon for Project Imaginat10n, movie fans participated in filmmaking by submitting photos that would inspire a short movie. Now, the collaborative effort is back–and the stakes are raised considerably. This time, fans also have the opportunity to submit short films inspired by the photos they’ve chosen. Project Imaginat10n is no longer just asking them to play muse, it’s giving them a platform and possibly a big break.
Created with help from agency Grey New York, Project Imaginat10n launched last fall with a photo contest, inviting consumers to filter 10 storytelling themes through the prism of their own photography. Thousands of submissions trickled in, from which 91 winning photos were culled by Ron Howard and a panel of judges. These photos then went on to form the basis for several short films. Directors of all skill levels could choose any nine photos–each representing a different theme—and use these as the foundation for a film. In order to ensure a thread of continuity, however, all aspiring filmmakers also had to use the same Discovery-themed photo as their tenth, a photo picked by Howard himself.
“I’ve always benefitted from studying great images while dreaming up my approach to a film,” Howard says. “But since this project began, I’ve definitely recognized that there is even more inspiration to be gained by identifying pictures that speak to me, and then digging deeper to ask why they relate to the subject and what other influences they might offer.”
Before the project expanded its scope to accept films from fans, the photo contest was only supposed to influence one director. When Canon initially approached Howard about a partnership, the company wanted him to direct the resulting short himself. As he was slated to begin production on the film Rush at the time, though, he agreed to mentor another filmmaker to do the job. This brash young apprentice ended up being his daughter.
Bryce Dallas Howard is best known for acting in films like Spider-Man 3 and The Help, but she has also been quietly cultivating a knack for filmmaking. She made several shorts before joining Project Imaginat10n, and has since gone on to direct a music video for M83, as well as other projects.
“It’s usually when I’m pregnant or on maternity leave that I make short films,” Howard says. “One day I’d love to make one when I’m not pregnant!”
Howard’s father didn’t automatically choose her to be the first graduate of the Project Imagin8tion experiment. As Ron Howard was narrowing down his short list, producers Kevin Chinoy and Francesca Silvestri, who had helped out on Bryce’s previous short films, floated her name. The Hollywood legacy had enough naiveté to underscore the themes of the project, but enough experience to give the 25-minute drama, When You Find Me, a professional sheen and depth.
“The thing I kept saying was that I didn’t want it to be Mad Libs,” Bryce says. “I wanted it to be a really cohesive story that stood on its own, without audiences knowing about the photos. At the same time, I was hoping that if people did know about the photos, they might go back and look at them and find out about those artists’ work.”
In addition to the lesser known artists who submitted in this year’s round of Project Imaginat10n, Howard and his team also invited a handful of celebrity guest directors to make films inspired by photos, including former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, and Jamie Foxx.
“I was encouraged that Canon wanted to push the experiment by recruiting creative people from various disciplines for the second year of the project,” Howard says. “And I was blown away by the degree of dedication all five artists demonstrated.”
Like their non-famous counterparts, the celebrity guest directors had to choose images from the photo contest’s 91 winners, each tied to a theme. (For the record, the themes are: mood, setting, backstory, goal, time, character, obstacle, relationships, the unknown, and discovery.) Freestyle Picture Company then produced the five celebrity directors’ films, aligning them with the proper talent to see their creative vision through to the finish.
“One of my personal aphorisms that I live by is that a lot of creativity comes from constraint,” says guest director, Biz Stone, who proved his commitment to restraint by introducing the world to Twitter’s 140-character limitation. “The idea that I would have to pick nine photos and use them to tell a story was really interesting to me.”
In the spirit of the project, the first-time director dove in with both feet. He looked through the winning photos and picked ones he found compelling, regardless of whether they seemed conducive to a story. The next thing he did was have a panic attack when he realized the photos had nothing to do with each other and might not neatly fit into a film.
The transliteration of pictures into stories is a rather complicated procedure that each director in the project handled in their own way. In his winning entry, A Day In the Country, for instance, filmmaker Kalman Apple took inspiration from a picture of two deer separated by a fence–from the “Obstacle” theme–for a scene in his short in which two sweethearts find an invisible border between them. As someone who struggled with how to approach turning images into story elements in the first outing, Bryce Dallas Howard was uniquely qualified to gauge how well the current crop of directors did with the task, by judging submissions and offering tips to the new intake.
“We wanted it to be clear that these stories wouldn’t have existed if they had not been inspired by these photographs,” she says. “It didn’t need to be the exact photo onscreen; for me, it was that a significant part of the story was inspired by the photograph. It could be the feeling of the image, or it could be an interpretation of the image. I care less about the exact image than I do about whether it’s worked its way into the story in a way that elevates the viewing experience.”
Eventually, Biz Stone arrived at a visually-driven, Edgar Allen Poe-themed story and collaborated with Howard-approved screenwriter Dane Charbenuaeu on the screenplay for his film, Evermore. Even with a team of experts all doing their part, though, the man whose tech start-up changed the way people communicate in the 21st century was surprised at the enormity of the endeavor.
“The work was a lot harder than I expected,” Stone says. “Filmmaking is a glamorous artform, but we’re up until 4AM, it’s cold out, and I’m on my 19th cup of coffee of the day, and it’s not very glamorous.”
Despite any hardships along the way, Stone was ultimately able to make his movie–as were the non-celebrity entrants who lacked the resources he was provided for the job. Watching the various films of Project Imaginat10n side-by-side highlights the current paradigm shift in cinema, where technology has democratized the process of putting one’s inspiration onto a screen.
“It is a great creative workout,” Ron Howard says of his collaborative experiment, “and it gives a platform for anyone looking to explore the process.”
All 10 Project Imaginat10n films will have their global premiere at Lincoln Center in New York City on October 24, but those unable to attend can watch them on Yahoo Screen from October 25 through the end of the year. See some of the images that inspired them in the slides above.