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New Talent: Aaron Wilson

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Director at Airbag Productions

New Talent: Aaron Wilson

At the age of 13 while growing up in rural Australia, Aaron Wilson finally saved up enough money to buy his first camera, which, in his words, drastically changed his view of the world. He’s now ditched the farm for the big-city-life of Melbourne, but his camera’s here for good – there are multiple ad campaigns under his belt, he’s bagged a couple of Spikes Asia awards and has just completed his first feature film, which is set to premiere at next month’s Toronto International Film Festival. Addison Capper chats to the all-go Airbag Productions director to find out more. 

LBB> Where did you grow up and what kind of child were you?

AW> I spent the first 17 years of my life in rural Australia growing up next to the Murray River. Spending my childhood within a vast natural place gave me lots of time and space to think, which did wonders for my imagination. Everything happened outdoors, sometimes with friends or my younger siblings, but a lot of the time by myself. I saved to buy my first camera when I was 13, so my view of the world changed drastically with the arrival of a viewfinder and a zoom lens. Also, growing up on a farm, I learnt just how important it is to do something you’re passionate about, regardless of the hours or work that are involved to make things happen. This is a lot like directing for me. Making films and commercials requires a dedication to working on and developing your craft. Setting aside time to write and think, working long and often odd hours, and being spontaneous are vital. It’s anything but dull. 

LBB> How did you get into filmmaking and why were you drawn to it?

AW> I started acting in student theatre productions when I was at university, mostly to escape the monotony of my electrical engineering studies. Pretty soon, I tried directing some theatre, then making small films with friends and crewing on several short film shoots. From there, the filmmaking took over and the engineering was relegated to yet another life experience. 

Travelling to film festivals with my shorts has made me realise just why I’m so drawn to making films – it’s capturing the interaction between people and communities and the environments that shape them. From small country town to big city, to countries all over the world, I’m fascinated by the everyday things that connect people and are common to us all. It sounds simple, but I find that film allows me to show the minutia of the everyday through new eyes, re-imagined or with greater emphasis on the things we often take for granted. 

LBB> Your work for Care Aware is moving, honest, shot beautifully and it deservedly bagged you two Spike Awards. You've managed to get those on camera to fully open up and give a frank view of their lives - how do you achieve such depth in a project like this? 

AW> Everything starts with speaking to people. With the Care Aware short films, I needed to meet the carers I was going to film and just talk to them. I had to find out who they were as individuals and what made them tick before I could possibly start talking to them about their role as a carer. They also needed to get to know me and to find out how and why I make films. The look and feel of the films came later, after much planning and pre-production, but then new things often happened during the shoot that ultimately changed the way we went about filming. 


Working with McCann Melbourne on the Care Aware project was an exciting and creative experience in itself. McCann were very supportive of me and my process. They trusted that I was respectful of the carers and they believed in the way I went about capturing their stories. What resulted was a collection of documentary shorts about engaging individuals – who just happen to be carers with heart-wrenching tales.  


LBB> Your debut feature film, CANOPY, is soon set for release. What's it about and when are you hoping for it to go out to the public?

AW> CANOPY is about the wartime experience of one Australian soldier in the hours after crashing out of the safety of his plane over Singapore during the Japanese invasion of February 1942. It explores the psychological effects of the sudden change in circumstance, injury, disorientation, and fear on the individual’s psyche. 


The story is inspired by first-hand accounts from Singaporean and Australian returned service men and women. In a broad sense, my film is speaking about humanity's constant battle with war and nature, the legacy of which continues to impact veterans and their families. And core to the film’s story – and this wartime legacy – is the essence of mateship borne out of a shared struggle for survival. 

It’s been a long journey, beginning with the script’s development during a filmmaker residency program in Singapore in 2006. I’m very excited because we’ve just found out that our world premiere will take place at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival in early September. 

LBB> How does feature directing compare to shooting commercials? Do you prefer one to the other and if so, why?

AW> My feature film shoot required, let’s say, a different type of match fitness to commercials or shorts. Shooting continuously for weeks at a time and holding such a massive script in your head is challenging in itself. But what I think I learnt most from making my first feature is just how much I need to listen and react to what’s happening in the moment. When torrential rain halts shooting in the Singapore jungle for half a day, you need to improvise and allow these challenges to work for you in moving forward. Because you can’t just stop: there’s too much relying on forward momentum, and all eyes are on you to creatively make things work. Carrying that philosophy across to commercials has meant that when stuff goes wrong and it’s out of your control – and it always happens – you allow the challenges to creatively guide you. I’ve always been a planner, but being creative on your feet is just as important to me. Someone once told me an important phrase that always seems appropriate for my shoots: “Hold on tightly, let go lightly.” 

Which do I like best? I just prefer directing. Commercials and films are very different beasts, but they’re not incompatible when it comes to directing. Both have their charms and rewarding struggles. Balancing the two worlds has meant that I can try out different approaches and techniques in commercials, which ultimately feeds my work in films, and vice versa. One inspiring figure for me will always be the late Malaysian filmmaker, Yasmin Ahmad, who was also executive creative director at Leo Burnett Kuala Lumpur. Her work successfully spans the film and commercial worlds, strongly informing each other with delicious elements of creative flair and controversy. 

Having such a nurturing and creatively collaborative environment at Airbag Productions has also meant that I’m afforded the space to develop my films in conjunction with my commercials work, ultimately allowing me to continue growing as a director. Their attitude is to encourage quality work from a variety of directors offering different styles and approaches. And that’s extremely exciting. 


LBB> Which of your projects are you most proud of and why?

AW> Any project that is creative is always rewarding for me. I’ve made quite a few short films – both independent and agency-driven – and I’m proud of how they continue to help strengthen my voice as a director and create work that resonates with people. I’ve been very fortunate to have had a dream run with some innovative cause-related work this past year and a half. 

The Care Aware campaign and, more recently, the Problem Gambling Awareness campaign for McCann Melbourne have rewarded me with strong creative input into dynamic, multi-layered work; incorporating films, live events and traditional TVCs. They’re also exciting because they don’t conform to the typical advertising model. I think there’s so much more opportunity to explore originality and fresh approaches with campaigns like these: for client, agency and production company. I’m really looking forward to the future of commercials directing, whatever form these new projects may take. 

LBB> How would you characterise your style of directing?

AW> I’ve typically been very structured when it comes to directing, in terms of blocking, framing, production design, lighting and sound design – but it’s very hard to describe your own style or approach when it's consistently evolving from project to project. My films tend to be about human connections and the ties that we create and share, so I love working with talent - be they experienced actors, or first-time performers. I try wherever possible to bring environments into frame as character, both in pictures and sound, to help create a distinct mood and tone. This has helped to give me a strong foundation when faced with restrictions or changes that arise during the production process. Ultimately, I like to think that I’m quite collaborative with all of the creative people that I work with on a project, from agency to crew. I really just try to plan my best and then be open to what shooting brings. 

LBB> Outside of filmmaking, what do you like to get up to and why?

AW> It’s very important for there to be a world outside of filmmaking, because it can get very consuming. Family, friends and free-time are necessary for me. Down time just to watch people passing by or spending time with my niece and nephews is a great respite from my own thoughts. Australia is such a culturally rich place, so it’s important for me to be out in the world that I purport to tell stories about, rather than always locked away in some dark room. 

Oh yeah, and let’s not forget exercise. I’m quite a hyperactive person, so I think I’d become very frustrated and make no sense to anybody if I couldn’t ride my bike or swim regularly. 

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AIRBAG, Wed, 21 Aug 2013 19:39:46 GMT