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Bursting with Life: The Cinematic World of Gemma Lee



Director Gemma Lee tells Natasha Patel about her latest short film Equilibrium, filming her family on lockdown and why she wants to showcase female creativity

Bursting with Life: The Cinematic World of Gemma Lee

Australian production company The Producers are using the time in lockdown to challenge and push the limits of creativity with their Virtual Cinematheque. The screening room and film festival gives talented directors an opportunity to showcase their skills by crafting a 90 second film in these times of isolation. Directors must adhere to a ten-step manifesto, which was written collaboratively by the directors themselves with each new film released weekly. Amongst the rules of the manifesto each shot must be done on a mobile phone, the director must shoot, write and edit their film and amongst a big no to special lighting, optical work and action, each film must be delivered within seven days.

This week Scottish born Gemma Lee showcased her world ‘Equilibrium’, a heart-warming short featuring her husband and daughter and the importance of capturing beauty in the simplest moments. LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with Gemma to hear more about this project and Gemma’s incredible career to date.

Equilibrium | Gemma Lee from The Producers on Vimeo.


LBB> Equilibrium is such a stunning piece of work, what was it like to work on this project with a tight deadline?

Gemma> I was the second person to make the film [for The Producers] and we hadn’t got used to the new restrictions in Australia so I was being really careful and had to work out what I had access to. The whole concept behind it was that there’s still beauty in these moments and I wanted it to be bursting with life but there’s the juxtaposition of some of the images of graveyards symbolising death – or the cycle of life - so that’s really what it was about. The cycle of life represented through some literal and symbolic imagery like nature, sunrises, sunsets and oceans. It was a piece that was meant to emotionally affect you without being too literal. I shot with a wide lens on my iPhone and took inspiration from Terrence Malik’s way of achieving a compressed shot.  I worked out that I couldn’t achieve much, as I can’t act as anything so I made myself write!



LBB > You feature your daughter in the film, how was this for you?


Gemma> Not only are children a real measure of time, but looking at her was a way of coping with the anxiety. When the news was breaking and the world was going into lockdown the one beautiful thing was being with her. Children force you to be in the moment, they’re perfect for mindfulness.


Children are endlessly inspiring and unpredictable. I have so many videos and pictures of her, like all new mums. But this seemed a little special, it’s a record of this period of time.



LBB> You mentioned that Equilibrium is symbolises the cycle of life, but what message do you hope people will take from it?


Gemma> Definitely optimism. I’ve had a few people contact me to say they found it quite emotional and a few people who said they’ve watched it multiple times which is really nice. I think the music is a really strong element to it too and that was a collaboration with composer Lord Fascinator. He just came back from New York and was quarantining on an island in an empty house on his own so it came about naturally. I shot most of it and he sent me the music and I recut the pieces to the track and it told me how the film should be structured.


LBB> So you edited your shots in line with the music. That’s an interesting point, especially as you began your career directing music videos. What impact do you think music has on visuals as a whole?


Gemma> Sometimes I find the short films I’ve made excruciating to watch until the music’s done because I se every single cut and hen you put music on and it binds it, it sticks to together. Music can do so much emotionally. It’s as important as the visuals, its hard because its sometimes an afterthought.

When working with Lord Fascinator I sent him some shots and he sent me three tracks in return, but the Matilda track we went for stood out for me. Through the collaboration of creative minds you can create something really amazing that you wouldn’t before.



LBB> You’ve done a lot of commercial work recently, but Equilibrium is more intimate. How did you find this process?


Gemma> Because I wasn’t working towards any storyboards or script, the intimacy just came from my connection to the things that were in it  - my husband and my baby. I put myself in it because I was desperate to get more talent in there – that’s why you only see only half my face. What didn’t make the cut was me dancing!



LBB> Have you got much experience – other than Equilibrium – of this DIY approach to filmmaking?


Gemma> No, not other than Equilbium. There has been a flood of content that’s generated that way, some of it is very specific to this time but I don’t know if it will last longer than this time. Other than Equilibrium, which was a nice exercise and a challenge and a way to keep us from going crazy, I prefer to make work that has a bit more scope and a bit more cinematic. If we have to shoot in isolation I’d prefer to shoot with a DP and natural light – keeping outdoors and keeping distance but still working to the quality that I enjoy.



LBB> You studied at the Edinburgh College of Art then ended up in directing. What is it about this medium of storytelling that appeals to you?


Gemma> I love the technical nature of it all. I love process and art to me was always process whether it was finding the right medium or subject to work with. Filmmaking is somewhat similar, there’s a process before you actually get on set.

To me its not really a job, it’s part of the lifestyle I’ve chosen.


The artistry is the beauty that comes from the alchemy of filmmaking, whether it’s the way you explore the film or digital, setting a frame, the art direction. Its all very, very artistic and it uses my skillset and my love of texture, light, tone and shape. I find it endlessly fascinating, I love working with DPs and observing their processes while collaborating with them. To me it’s a very enriching experience from beginning to end. I’m a bit of a nerd, I like sitting in the edit suite with editors and cutting, working on the finishing side of things as well. I was really lucky to find it early enough on that I’ve spent the last decade doing something I really, really enjoy as a living.



LBB> Wow. But growing up, did you ever think you’d end up being a director?


Gemma> I tried to direct a school play in primary school! All the kids got bored and just wanted to have fun and play and I got really annoyed because I wanted them to learn this play so my first experience was definitely memorable.


I’d been in theatre and been around a fabulous director when I was growing up in Scotland. I was always trying to act and hating it and not being very good at it. But I kept getting drawn back every year to do these plays and what I realised was that I was much more interested in sitting beside the director and learning his crafts. I kind of knew at that point that I wanted to be a director but I thought it was the domain of old men. I started directing before this new wave of female directors – there have always been some - but I found a few that I would look to as inspiration. It was very thin on the ground, its now a very different landscape which is awesome.


I did have an image of a director being a man with a beard wielding a script. I worked a lot on my self-belief, even when I was trying to do it, I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to do it. I still have a lot of goals, I want to make a feature film, I was very close to making one. We had a script in a very advanced stage with cast and some finance attached and we had two rounds of development funding from screen Australia but we weren’t successful at the last hurdle. My husband and I have just written a new screenplay that we’re hoping to work on post-Covid. Luckily it’s only got two people in the whole film!



LBB> And so thinking about future directors,  do you hope to inspire young girls?


Gemma> Absolutely. I quite often have someone on set, young women who reach out to me who want to get into the industry.


I really have tried hard to not be tagged as a ‘female director’, we just do our jobs and shouldn’t be qualified that way. But at the same time I’m not embarrassed to be called a female director or be given opportunities because of my gender. It is such a different conversation now. When I was first starting out I had production companies say they were rejecting me because I was female – that’s happened to me a couple of times – or they would say we already have a female director, like we’re all the same.


Now it seems like agencies especially are like “it’s really cool, we want to get more women in on these pitches”, sometimes it might feel a little tokenistic. I don’t have an attitude about it, that’s my way of managing it. If someone wants to talk about me being a female director then great, I’m happy to have the conversation about it but it’s not something I lean on and my work - I don’t think - is very gender specific and that’s because of my interests.


People love to categorise. Fashion has been the domain of female directors for so long. I have a bit of fashion in my reel but I started stepping away from that. The last three ads I shot were all automotive. I love shooting cars, action, toys. I’ve learnt a lot form the DPs I’ve been working with recently on car angles, lighting. I don’t see why I couldn’t be one of the top directors in automotive, I think that’s pretty cool for a different perspective.


LBB> What’s your craziest production-related experience?


Gemma> When I was working in music videos I wanted to drive my car off a cliff for a shot – safely. I had an old car, which I absolutely loved and was looking into whether we could drive it off a cliff with no one in it of course! A really dramatic finale. We looked into it but it was not possible in our budget so instead we just cut the top of it. That started my thirst of working with cars.


LBB> You mentioned a script you’ve been working on, but what else do you have in the pipeline?


Gemma> I wanted to do something that was celebrating women’s creativity specifically, a lot of content is based around how we look so I wanted to do something more female-focussed but more about what we make. I reached out to a lot of friends I have who are creative people; a dancer, artists, a trainer and we’re just going to do a very stripped down shoot in line with distancing. Film them in a moment of creativity.


I did come back from a portraiture background so its nice to capture them on film. What this time has taught me is that all these moments we’re recording are sort of a real snapshot into what we’re experience so that will bring a level of mood and emotion to this. I’m interested to see what will come out of this, its an organic experience.

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The Producers, Mon, 18 May 2020 16:00:16 GMT