For whatever reason, asking a director to define their visual style often doesn’t spur the most in-depth or pointed of answers. But that can’t be said of Jason van Bruggen. That isn’t to pigeonhole him into a particular style of filmmaking but asking him that question reveals a very particular thing that informs every piece of visual work that he makes as a director and photographer.
“I have always been obsessively fixated with the quality of light in the natural world,” he tells me. “So many emotional memories for me are formed by what the light was doing on a certain day in a certain moment. I’ve travelled extensively and the places that I have been most drawn to and chosen to revisit tend to have a unique quality of light. I love for instance deserts like Bolivia, Tibet or Afghanistan. They have such a unique and special quality of light that’s transformative in terms of a landscape and I do try and build that sort of appreciation into my work.”
Jason is a director and photographer based in Canada but repped globally for commercial work. His work is an intriguing balance of commercial projects, long term photographic art projects and exhibitions, and documentaries framed around different areas of environmental awareness. Repped by Suneeva in Canada and Community Films in the US, just the tiniest of digs into his work
backs up his point on light and the world - no matter the project, his reel is full of huge, visual storytelling that hints at an appreciation and knowledge of the environment and the world that we live on.
“It lives deep within me,” he says. “It informs every moment of my life. I can almost drive off the road because I become so distracted with something on the horizon and I’ll be chasing it in my mind. It’s a magnet.” He adds that he always makes sure to have numerous cameras on a shoot in order to be ready to chase the light at any given moment. If something amazing is unfolding over the horizon, it’s part of his practice as a director to be flexible and lean enough to actively go after and capture it. “That process of discovery on jobs, which is core to the way that I work, tends to lead to the most amazing visual moments. You have to be receptive to it.”
That isn’t to say that he manages every time - the natural world is a wickedly unpredictable place and my question of the most striking ray of light that he’d encountered is met with a story of one that never made it into his lens. “There are so many that I have seen and been able to capture but then there’s this one,” he says. “I was near Mount Kailash in eastern Tibet. There was a farmer’s field at the base of this massive granite face and one single beam of light came down and lit this fellow working in the field. It was like the most beautiful painting by a Dutch master that you’d ever seen. I didn’t get to my camera in time.”
Jason’s appreciation of the natural world and for travel is something that has lived deep within him from a young age, eventually leading him to documenting it via visual mediums. When his dad arrived in Canada from the Netherlands with no money or formal education, he fought fires in Alaska and spent a lot of time in the Yukon and Canada’s far northern areas. “That inspired in me a romanticism about those places and a desire to visit. An appreciation of the natural world and travelling definitely led me to it [filmmaking],” he adds.
His love of the natural world and efforts to document issues affecting it has led to him being named a Fellow International of the Explorers Club and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. The fellowship in each of those organisations was given to him in recognition of the contribution he has made as a visual artist to conversations around environment, exploration and wild places. What’s more, his first commercial directing job was to produce 100 tourism films across Canada over the course of seven months, meaning he saw the entire country, capturing an enormous spectrum of human moments and painting a contemporary picture of what Canada is. It was the first clue that he could merge these two passions and interests. “My love of wild, austere places and characters that inhabit them has motivated so much of my work. Nature is the architect of such incredible perfection,” he says. “You can’t engineer a flower, you can’t engineer a snowflake. These are things that exist in such a pure form.”
A recent example of Jason’s efforts to document environmental issues is ‘Keeper of the Flame’, one of a beautifully shot two-part companion piece that offered differing perspectives on climate change from opposite sides of Baffin Bay, the stretch of ocean in that separates Europe from the very north of North America. ‘Keeper of the Flame
’ focuses on Derrick Pottle, a 63-year-old Inuit hunter and carver. “He was for me a great talisman of the emotional and cultural impact of climate change on Inuit communities, particularly in the north where they are experiencing real loss and remorse and a lack of access to traditional lifestyle and all of these things that were entirely derived from an increased amount of sea ice.” The other film, funded by NASA
, was about Dr Konrad Steffen who is arguably the world’s most famous climate scientist and has starred in the Al Gore films on the subject. “One was science, one was emotion. Two radically different perspectives from two very knowledgeable people but knowledgeable in different ways.” These films toured festivals in over 50 countries and aired on major networks around the world.
I ask Jason about the differences of working with actors against real people, especially when dealing with subject matters like climate change and the way that it’s affecting age-old ways of life. At the end of the day, both are about seeking out truth and authenticity and while trained actors may sometimes be helpful in getting a project across the finish line in the required time, he is always keen to bring real characters into his stories where possible, “be they jockeys on a horse track or third generation cod fisherman in Newfoundland”.
“I would rather utilise real characters to tell those stories than trained actors,” he adds. “Working with people in remote places, especially members of the northern communities, has allowed me to create the work that I am most proud of. I’ve been able to share respectful stories of northern life to the world. One of my strengths is being able to build, quickly, trust and complicity with people that I meet because hopefully they see in me an integrity and desire to tell their story in an accurate and respectful way.”
At the end of last year, Jason headed to Shanghai - one of the world’s least remote locations - to shoot a film for the League of Legends Shanghai 2020 World Championships. Working directly with the client (Riot Games), the process proved to be an interesting journey of understanding into the world of esports and gaming. The production involved a crew of almost 500 people, full takeovers or downtown streets, access to the Shanghai stadium and the opportunity to create his own narrative. It’s a captivating piece of film that’s incredibly appealing to look at but the one thing that struck me upon first seeing it - and before speaking to Jason and heading about his appreciation of light - was the way the film was lit. It’s somehow dark and dingy but vibrant and and intense at the same time.
“We work in a world where a lot of what is considered to be artful productions these days is very dark and underexposed. That gritty, cinematic look,” he calls it. “I really want my style to be a bit of a departure from that. I want to shed enough light on my subjects that they feel like they are isolated or illuminated in-frame and their expressions and emotional intentions are clear. I wanted to create that balance between being cinematic but still feeling like the lighting was intentional rather than accidental.”
The year ahead is set to bring much of the same, in a good way. He has two short films in the works, hopes for more interesting and compelling commercial work, and he’s set to launch a large series of photography exhibitions that will be launched in Canada and globally to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands, where he is also a passport holder.
Despite the fact that it seems as though his deepest passions form much of his working life, I ask Jason what keeps him busy in his spare time, and am greeted with an answer that further speaks to his love of the world - except this time it’s more pointedly focused on its interpretation of Canada and how his home country’s culture is defined outside its borders. “We’ve had a multi-generational identity crisis and deep seated insecurity here,” he says. I ask him why, already convinced that I know the answer. “I’m not much of a social scientist but I think my thesis would focus on some measure of insecurity about our American neighbours. There’s something in this country that has led us to believe that in some cases we’re not good enough. Something that I see in so many cases is that Canadian artists and creators are not successful here until they’re validated in an external market. It’s a bit of a bucket of crabs.
“One of my missions, particularly through visual work but also maybe through some long-term institutional building, will be to make Canadian culture more important to the outside world and more compelling and mobilising for Canadians themselves.
“The small role that I can play will be to continue to tell stories of great Canadian places and people.”