Photo by Kipleigh Brown.
Filmmaker James Kerwin on-set directing the short film R.U.R.: Genesis.
James Kerwin is a standout filmmaker, director, writer, producer, editor and public speaker whose projects have earned countless awards and prizes. Critics who have reviewed his work have praised him as an innovator and risk taker, describing his approach as imaginative and inspired. James was named Best Director and Best Screenwriter by New York Visionfest for Yesterday Was a Lie, his feature film debut from Entertainment One.
Fans of the Star Trek franchise are likely familiar with Kerwin’s award-winning work on Star Trek Continues, where he served as a writer and director on several of the web series’ most memorable episodes. An upcoming project, When the Train Stops, has several well-known Star Trek alumni in the cast as well, including actors John de Lancie and Michael Forest, who also appeared in Star Trek Continues.
In addition to his many creative endeavors, Kerwin gives back to the community through his involvement with the annual Young Playwrights Festival at the Blank Theatre Company in Los Angeles. The nationwide competition gives aspiring playwrights, ages 9 to 19, an opportunity to see their vision come to life on stage in a professional production featuring known actors from film, television and theatre. The 2018 competition is currently accepting submissions through March 15.
Photograph by Cheryl Spelts.
Promoting the feature film Yesterday Was a Lie with actress and producer Chase Masterson.
Let’s talk a little bit about your education. In Part 1 of this interview, you mentioned the importance of aspiring filmmakers doing some formal study in the field and not just diving in without any knowledge or training. Where did you get your education?
I went to TCU – Texas Christian University – in Dallas-Fort Worth. At the time, they had a combined radio/television/film program and you could specialize in your choice. I specialized in film production. I’m still in touch with a lot of those professors and I actually went back there a few years ago and gave a lecture after the film I did for Entertainment One came out. It was a great school and a great experience. It was a very hands-on school, as opposed to a lot of other film schools. They very much encouraged getting in there, getting your hands on a film camera, learning how to load the camera – put that film in there, start shooting, edit it yourself, post it yourself, all that kind of stuff. I was very lucky to have a lot more hands-on experience than a lot of people I know who went to film schools.
Hands-on is the best way to learn.
It really is. The theory is important and I don’t mean to say that it’s not – in fact, it’s incredibly important. I learned so much in my film theory classes and in classes studying cinematography, shot composition, so many things that were burned into my mind in those theory classes – if you shoot a person this way and there’s a horizontal line that cuts them at this point, how does that look, how does this look – I think those are things that people who just jump into it, like you were saying, don’t think about. Composition is so important. It’s like doing a painting. It is an artform in and of itself.
All of that theory is important, but you have to combine it with the real-world experience of how you achieve that. When you’re in the trenches, so to speak, on set, and time is ticking, and money is burning through the camera, and you only have so many hours of daylight to set these shots up, what’s the most efficient way of doing that? It is an artform that combines all these different artforms together and I love it.
You’ve done a lot of public speaking on topics related to filmmaking. I’d like to know more about one of the topics you present on, the Science of Film Perception.
Tying in a little bit with my obsession about cosmology, I’ve always been fascinated with the nature of reality and what constitutes the fiber of the universe. I have been fortunate enough, twice now, to be invited, along with Robert J. Sawyer – who is one of the top, if not the top science fiction authors in the world and wrote our Star Trek Continues series finale – Rob and I, and one year Chase Masterson and one year Kipleigh Brown, got to go to a Science of Consciousness Conference held at the University of Arizona. I presented some research on frame rate perception when an audience is watching a film in the theater or even watching something in 24 frames per second on their television set at home – why it has a certain sheen to it as opposed to higher frame rates and lower frame rates, and how consciousness comes into play and gamma synchrony in the human brain – I won’t get into all that here, but I am kind of fascinated by that.
If you’ll remember, there was a whole thing several years ago where they were saying there was going to be a revolution in film frame rates and films were all going to be shot at 48 or 60 frames per second from now on. They experimented with that in the Hobbit movies and others, but it crashed and burned terribly. People didn’t like it and even the people who did like it weren’t enough to maintain the extra cost, so they stopped doing that. That was right around the time when I started studying this and started doing these presentations. In fact, I said it was not going to take off, and here’s why: Because of the way our eyes and our brain perceive conscious moments, the higher frame rates are going to make things look hyper-real and, therefore, artificial. We’re not going to be able to suspend our disbelief anymore when watching these films. Audiences need a suspension of disbelief. We’ve kind of figured out that the 24-30 frame-rate range is ideal for that, and I said back then that I have a feeling, as filmmakers, we’re going to stick to that range, and we have.
Last year at the Consciousness Conference, Kipleigh and I did a couple of different presentations about the nature of artificial consciousness as it has been depicted in science fiction films throughout the past century. That was super cool, also.
It is a fascinating topic and it makes me wonder if you have any predictions about where things are headed in the world of filmmaking or what we might see five or ten years from now. Is there anything you’re experimenting with or hoping to see in the future?
It’s hard to say, because things come in waves and get very trendy, and then they fall off the map. For a while, the future of filmmaking was the high frame rate, and then that didn’t happen. Then they said the future of filmmaking is 3-D television, but that didn’t really take off. We still see a lot of 3-D films in movie theaters, but it hasn’t taken off that much in the home. Now, of course, they’re saying the next thing is high dynamic range, and I can see value to that, and 4K and 8K and increasingly high resolution.
4K is already starting to take off, but I will say that I think the reason 4K is taking off is because it has been marketed extremely well and it doesn’t change people’s viewing habits very much; all they have to do is buy a new television set that has 4K. Here’s the interesting thing though: If you actually study the way the human eye picks up images – both the retina and, even more importantly, the lens, and fine aberrations within the lens – you can’t see a 4K picture on a TV at your house unless you’re sitting right up next to it. The average distance that a person sits from a television now – there’s all sorts of equations behind this – to actually see a noticeable difference between 1080P, which is True HD, and 4K, which is Ultra HD – twice the amount of horizontal pixels – you have to be so close to the TV that you couldn’t even see the whole picture.
4K, 5K, 8K and so forth have a place in computer monitors and in movie theaters – IMAX films and so forth, especially in true, genuine IMAX movie theaters – you do need that higher resolution. But, in most theaters and most home viewing environments, you don’t need it. What’s really interesting is that the vast majority of movie theaters across the United States don’t even have 4K projectors. They have 2K projectors. So, even if you hear, “This movie was shot in 4K,” you’re not seeing it in 4K. But you’ll never notice the difference.
I will say this though. The great thing about these advances in resolution is that it allows us, as filmmakers, more malleability in post-production. This film that I am going to be shooting in April with Rekha Sharma and Vic Mignogna and Michael Forest – we’re shooting that in very high resolution – not to finish it in that resolution, but, because you shoot it in that high of a resolution, you can play with the image more in post-production. You can crop, you can zoom, you can reframe, you can do all sorts of things without any resolution loss that you wouldn’t be able to do if you just shot it in 2K like we used to. I’m a huge advocate of acquiring the images in the higher resolutions – 4K, 5K, 8K, whatever – but having that as a release format is a little bit of hype.
I think a lot of the advances are going to be in computers as opposed to film or television, with virtual reality in particular – virtual reality experiences and so forth. Computer technology, gaming technology and artificial environments are proceeding so rapidly. The realm of visual effects also ties in. Doing facial replacements is a zillion times easier now than it was literally one year ago. That opens up a tremendous amount of tools to filmmakers for stunts and things like that – situations in which you don’t have an actor on a given day, or an actor is doing something dangerous that a stunt person could do easily. Before, to do a simple facial replacement was a massive process. It’s getting so much easier now, and that’s just one example. I think the field of CGI, computer graphics, and making it more realistic – which is important – is going to be a direction that we go in, because CGI has always had a bit of a realism problem, in my opinion.
When you talk about all the technology available to filmmakers today, I think back to a 1960’s-era science fiction movie like The Time Machine and the challenges director George Pal and his team had creating the special effects – which won an Oscar – with fairly primitive tools by today’s standards.
There’s an art form to it and we did some of that in Star Trek Continues, too – we tried to avoid doing visual effects that felt out of place for 1969. Even though we did a lot of our visual effects as CGI, we would try our hardest to make them look like they weren’t, if that makes sense. They were done on an optical printer or done on a green screen with models. That’s one of the things on the R.U.R. project that I’m working on developing right now. We did that a lot in our short film and we’re doing that – if we are able to turn it into a feature – to have that kind of vintage late-‘60s feel to the visual effects, which gives it a warmth and a realism.
At the Burbank Film Festival (from left) Michael Forest, Lisa Hansell, Kipleigh Brown, and James Kerwin.
Let’s talk about your current projects. I think you were referencing When the Train Stops when you mentioned another project with Michael Forest?
As Star Trek Continues came to an end and we finished the series, some of the people on the project – particularly Michael Forest, his wife Diana, and her sister, Bernadette Hale, who is a great writer – were talking with Lisa Hansell, who was not only the makeup supervisor but the producer on Star Trek Continues; she and I were the producers of the series and Vic was the executive producer. Lisa was talking with Michael and Diana and they said, “Hey, let’s try and get a project off the ground.” So, Lisa started assembling a team and she brought Vic, Rekha and myself on board, as well as John de Lancie and a great actor named Darren Jacobs – whom I have not worked with before, but she has.
Bernadette wrote this great script, and I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s like a Western Twilight Zone – like a Longmire-feel modern Western – but also shows you see today like Black Mirror, the anthology series, that have a little bit of a sci-fi or fantasy twist to them. That’s kind of the feel of this piece. We’re working hard on that right now. We just started pre-production. We did an Indiegogo to raise the financing for it, which is actually still going on. We’re still looking for a little more to meet our post-production stretch goals, so people should check that out. We’re planning to shoot in April.
Another project that I’ve been working on long term is the Karel Čapek play R.U.R. That’s a short film that I did with Chase Masterson and with Kipleigh and Vic a few years ago. Kipleigh and I have fleshed it out into a feature screenplay and we’re working right now to try to get that off the ground, which would be awesome. That’s kind of a dream project of mine. I’ve always wanted to do R.U.R. since I was in school. I’m just fascinated by that piece and the history of it.
Are you crowdfunding the R.U.R. film as well?
We crowdfunded the short film that we did as a sizzle reel to show as a proof of concept, but this would be more of a traditional financing model, because it’s a little too ambitious to do as a crowdfunding project. People should check it out at RURfilm.com.
Co-stars Kipleigh Brown (left) and Chase Masterson (right) from a scene in R.U.R.: GENESIS.
About James Kerwin: A filmmaker, director, writer and producer, Kerwin is a member of Mensa, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Discover more about James at his website www.JamesKerwin.com and Facebook page. Find out more about When the Train Stops at the website and Facebook page.
R.U.R. depicts a world populated by genetically engineered workers ("artificials") — perfect, made-to-order people who lack fundamental rights. Against this backdrop, a young activist struggles to come to terms with her own identity… a natural human who finds herself torn between the artificials' plight and her unresolved feelings for the man who creates them. With tensions rising and the world on the brink of atomic warfare, Helena Glory must decide where her loyalties lie: her fellow naturals, or the workers with whom she has more in common than she dares to reveal… In R.U.R.: GENESIS, the creators of the award-winning cult science fiction noir film Yesterday Was a Lie present a sexy, retro-futuristic take on the classic Čapek tale. R.U.R.: GENESIS serves as both a standalone short film adventure and a "teaser" for the full-length feature currently in development.
If you are interested in learning more about R.U.R., click here.