Wednesday, February 8, 2023

‘Where the future of the festival lies’: Shorts blocks at Cucalorus provide a unique film-going experience

Justin Lacy and Sarah Royal created a stop-motion animation of their musical duo Library Baby’s “Cloud Song (for Evelyn),” which will screen as part of Cucalorus 27’s Shorties block at Jengo’s Playhouse on Thursday at 7:45 p.m. (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON — When Cucalorus Film Festival kicks off year 27 on Wednesday, it will present around 130 movies for festival-goers to screen through Sunday. Aside from funny features and moving documentaries, 11 shorts blocks will be presented starting Thursday.

The shorts blocks are the crown jewel of Cucalorus in many ways, according to festival director Dan Brawley: “It’s where you find the most interesting stuff, to be quite honest.”

READ MORE: What’s different about Cucalorus 27? A lot, but mainly a return to in-person events

Considering many of the features at Cucalorus will be available online next year, Brawley said the shorts aren’t always as easily accessible. Thus viewers truly get a unique film-going experience.

“[W]e’ve been talking about for several years that Cucalorus shorts blocks are where the future of the festival lies,” Brawley said. “It would be difficult to go online and find short documentaries, for example, that make an hour-long program and are packaged like this.”

After Cucalorus programmers choose the shorts to be shown in the festival, the staff comes together to curate the blocks. A metal board in the festival offices features magnets of the film names, which are moved around for months to help dictate flow and theme. 

“We’re really looking for those stories that just are unusual or special in some extra way,” Brawley said.

An experimental short, Chella Man’s “The Beauty of Being Deaf,” stands out as a good example. It will screen in the Clarabell Shorts Block on Friday at 10:15 a.m. at Thalian Hall and features an all-BIPOC, deaf cast that performs a poem in American Sign Language. The kicker: It’s shot underwater.

Another stand-out is produced by Jim Henson’s daughter, Heather; “Our Mine” will screen in the Blinky Shorts: Animation Block on Sunday, 10:45 a.m., at Thalian Hall. Directed by Shayna Strype, the film follows the story of mountain miners, as told through puppetry. Specifically, the female body transforms into the landscape of the mountain and its people (toes become the community).

Curating the blocks comes organically, Brawley said. There isn’t a list of ideas ahead of time the team looks to fill, but instead focuses on what the films reveal. Highlighting local and regional filmmakers remains of importance.

“We’re always looking for more Carolina filmmakers,” Brawley said. As such, numerous locals will have their shorts included in the 2021 festival. 

Justin Lacy and Sarah Royal, better known as the musical duo Library Baby, will be returning to the festival with another stop-motion animation flick, “Cloud Song (For Evelyn).”

Since 2018, their work has been part of the film festival, starting with their music video for “Weeds,” followed by “Out of Touch” — “a very Lynch-like Library Baby music video featuring simple, stop-motion animated creatures lurking in an attic,” Lacy described. They also debuted “I Don’t Need Another,” created and animated out of cardboard.

Throughout the pandemic, the duo found inspiration in Royal’s newborn niece, Evelyn. Lacy said they learned the baby loves music, especially when Lacy would play ukulele, guitar or banjo for her.

“We decided to try to write our own children’s song, one that Evelyn might like,” he said.

They landed on clouds as the main feature to help describe emotions, then decided to animate them to be complementary to the lyrics. “Cloud Song (for Evelyn)” is a one-shot video that takes viewers through an ascent into the sky to meet four cloud characters. It will screen on Thursday at 1:45 p.m. at Jengo’s Playhouse as part of the Shorties Block.

Though Lacy had worked in stop-motion before, it was the first time he tackled facial expressions. He said the process was fun, eye-opening, and at times time-consuming and tedious. 

“Ross Page helped us cut out different facial components from felt, and we layered those on top of cloud-like fluff to form our simple characters,” Lacy explained. “Sarah observed me animating, helping me make sure the faces were conveying the right amount of emotion and puffy adorableness.” 

For $40, the almost 3-minute video was finished in a week — just ahead of Evelyn’s 1st birthday.

“We put in some long hours, but we were able to get it to Evelyn right after her birthday dinner,” Lacy explained. 

A songwriter, Lacy admitted his true passion comes in music (he’s performed solo and in many Wilmington bands throughout the years and scored films shown in Cucalorus). But visual art has become another level of expression he has leaned into to help debut Library Baby’s music. The duo has a new music video, “How I Say My Name,” also launching during the festival. It explores identity, and was directed by Royal with cinematographer Kyle Sullivan during Covid-19 isolation. It will be shown Thursday at 7:45 p.m. as part of the Shorties Block at Jengo’s Playhouse.

“There isn’t really another place where makers of short-form content can gather and celebrate their work, stretch their creative muscles, and discover their own artistic style,” Honey Heads Films cofounder Erika Edwards said. “I love how authentic Cucalorus is. I feel extremely proud to be a part of the filmmaking community that has raised such a weird, awesome fest.”

Edwards will have the 9-minute flick “Birthday Cake” shown as part of the Jangles Shorts at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Thalian Hall’s black box theater.

“Birthday Cake” will star Ashley Deuell and Maya Ferrario as sisters who reconnect ahead of a surprise birthday party. (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

It took a year and half from concept to final cut and a $500 budget to complete “Birthday Cake,” according to Edwards. Filmed and produced by Troy Ten Eyck, the short consists of Ashley Deuell and Maya Ferrario who portray two estranged sisters that reconnect only minutes before a surprise party.

“A huge learning curve for me making ‘Birthday Cake’ was working with two actresses who had very different methods for character development,” Edwards said. The filmmaker admitted taking her time getting to know their needs to conjure the most compelling performances.

“That’s something I like about small indie sets and contained premises: You have time to dig into character work, which is my favorite thing to do as a director,” Edwards said.

Edwards has created five shorts to date, three of which made it into previous Cucaloruses. The quick pace of the format and freedom that evolves from its short-film storytelling is fulfilling, she said. 

“[It’s] a slice-of-life, a vignette, of a moment in time that rattles the audience and leaves them thinking: What next? It brings the audience into the story-telling process and engages their imagination to see what wasn’t explored on screen, as opposed to a feature that — for the most part — has time to wrap things up,” Edwards detailed. 

Edwards also extended her cinematography skills to another short on the Cucalorus schedule. Produced by her Honey Heads’ cofounder Kristi Ray and directed by Manasi Prasad, “Bear Your Bias” features four locals, Lily Nicole, Bri Okamoto, Zai Jackson, and Brandon Cagle. The 10-minute film will show Friday, Nov. 12, 10:15 a.m. at Thalian Hall’s main stage.  

It’s an “explorative, earnest look at combating the implicit bias within yourself,” Ray described. More importantly, the project is part of the Honey Head Mentorship Program, which gives young, aspiring filmmakers a platform to utilize their skills, launch their ideas and have their voices heard in the media.

Director Prasad is a 7th grader from Wilmington Academy and the film was edited by Honey Heads’ intern Carson Barclay. The project had no budget or financing, Ray said, and it will be the first documentary short Honey Head has entered into Cucalorus. 

“With a key focus on combating social justice issues from the simplicity of anti-bullying narratives to the complexity of exploring solutions through documentary work, we mentor and facilitate the production of these projects while engaging a handful of promising film students from local universities to assist in production from concept to post,” Ray explained.

Ray praised the thought-provoking inquiries Prasad presented to interviewees, who end up discussing discriminatory behaviors and stereotypes they have faced in life. A world premiere, “Bear Your Bias” truthfully explores equitable change and survival among minorities.

Also about endurance is the 6-minute short produced by UNCW professor and filmmaker Shannon Silva. Making “To Live and Die in the Shadows: Meditations on Ferns, Survival, and Horizontal Gene Transfer,” Silva said, allowed her an outlet to explore how to overcome physical disabilities had to contend with after facing persistent yet unexplainable health issues. While making the short, Silva had to undergo emergency heart surgery which she said shifted her focus on the project to become more personal.

“I went from ‘the world is on fire’ to ‘my world is on fire,’” she said.

Another stop-motion animation, “To Live and Die in the Shadows” took three years to complete. Silva had to deal with an ongoing chronic illness, recovery, as well as the isolation of the pandemic in 2020. Somehow it culminated in a recharge of the film. Silva received the Film in NC grant in July 2020 to help fund it, and even had a few rolls of Super 8mm film donated to the project from Brawley.

“I was thankful that the film style I had selected allowed me to continue working — almost solo,” she said, “and to continue my practice in a way that felt very independent at a time when I needed some sense of control and hope.”

The professor, who oversees Visions Film Festival every spring at UNCW, said working through the shifts and changes with her health and the film had her weighing the true meaning of perseverance. It connected back to the premise of “To Live and Die in the Shadows.”

“On the surface it’s a film about the wild, random, gene transfer that happened long, long ago between ferns and hornworts,” she explained, “helping one to survive in low light and become one of the most resilient plants in existence. Deep down, it’s about the widespread longing and need for connectivity, support, and hope in a world that is burning itself down to a crisp.”

Shannon Silva’s stop-motion animation, “To Live and Die in the Shadows: Meditations on Ferns, Survival, and Horizontal Gene Transfer,” will screen in the JoJo Shorts block on Friday, at 1:15 p.m. at Thalian, as well as ahead of the feature film “The Rest of Us,” screening Saturday at 10:45 a.m. at Jengo’s. (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

The film’s logline is: “80 million years ago, through a chance horizontal gene transfer, ferns acquired a much needed light sensor (neochrome) that allowed them to modify and survive in low light environments.”

“We should all be so lucky,” Silva said.

“To Live and Die” will screen in the JoJo Shorts Block on Friday, at 1:15 p.m. at Thalian, as well as ahead of the feature film “The Rest of Us,” screening Saturday at 10:45 a.m. at Jengo’s. 

For information about the films at Cucalorus, click here. All-access passes to view 130 films — features and shorts — are available, and individual shorts block tickets run $10 each.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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