In conjunction with the 20th annual Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival, As Seen By is launching a new feature called Highlighting Filmmakers. In this feature, the authors of As Seen By will select short films from local filmmakers or themselves, post the video and a description about their techniques, processes and inspirations. It is my pleasure to be the first to introduce you to our new feature with a documentary short I made in 2010 titled The Ivory Role.
Developing the concept for “The Ivory Role”
Initially, The Ivory Role was supposed to be a documentary project focused on the role Asian elephants play to the St. Louis Zoo’s popularity as a key exhibit and was to coincide with the “Zootennial” (100th anniversary of the zoo). The short was supposed to explore the historical aspect of elephants in the zoo dating back as far as 1917 when they were housed in the historic Elephant House on Historic Hill, to Raja’s birth in 1992, to the grand opening of The River’s Edge habitat in 2001. The story was to be told through interviews with zoo docents and personnel intercut with B-roll (footage) of the zoo’s elephant herd and was to be a gift on my behalf to the St. Louis Zoo.
The day of filming arrived, as did I, complete with a camera, tri-pod and interview release forms for the interviews I’d secured. I was met by a member of the zoo’s public relations staff and was told that because the elephants “are a sensitive subject” (likely due to the highly controversial 2009 herpes outbreak among the zoo’s elephants) the interviews would not be permitted afterall but that I could “film as much B-roll as needed.”
With that, I headed to The River’s Edge, where I spent a glorious day filming captive elephants and lucky me, the youngest elephant of the bunch decided to play in the water, what a showgirl! After my filming concluded I went back to the storyboard, inspired, and decided that The Ivory Role would become a documentary short with a message of conservation and that’s how this film was finally born.
Selecting the score for “The Ivory Role”
I am a firm believer that music is a vital part of anything creative, it determines what is drawn, filmed or acted and influences our moods at any given moment. Knowing my film would deal primarily with Asian elephants, it came as a no-brainer to select a soundtrack titled Putumayo “India,” which I felt worked extremely well with the footage I captured. I used a softer, more subtle background under the voice-over narration while employing a joyful song for the playing elephant and part of a harsh, striking song for the grotesque, mutilated images of poached elephants. Music for me is all about maximizing the effect and I think my selections did that.
Creating the artwork for “The Ivory Role”
I’ve always enjoyed drawing. So once I had the concept down, I took to paper and developed the concept art for The Ivory Role. I knew I wanted something both abstract but literal, so I developed the image seen in the poster. Feeling there was something missing, I noticed on the Putumayo “India” case there was a small heart. I replicated the heart and incorporated it into the elephant as a symbol of passion and love and selected the color blue to represent the calm nature of elephants, creativity, tranquility, truth and wisdom.
Mishaps that an elephant would never forget…and neither will I
It happens to everyone, those truly unfortunate mishaps, especially in film. Unfortunately, there’s a glaring mistake in the pronunciation of Jean de Brunhoff’s name. De Brunhoff was a French writer and illustrator most recognized for creating the stories of Babar, sadly, I don’t know what I was thinking (especially after four years spent learning French!) – the H is silent! His name should sound something like Jean de Brun-off, not Jean de Brun-Hoff, oops!
I’m aware that while the video is about Asian elephants and that there are pictures of poached African elephants. These were the most graphic images available at the time and regardless of their international location, for elephants, poaching is a widespread problem affecting them all.
Here’s another fun fact for you, the version of The Ivory Role seen here is a second cut of the film. I spent six hours in an editing lab piecing together footage, underlying score and voice-over, adjusting volumes, intercutting artwork and so much more only to have severe, tornadic weather kick off the power and erase all six of those hours. Needless to say, this film had to be finished, so I went back to the lab the next day with a very clear vision and finished the second cut (which turned out better, though I bet the French mistake wasn’t in the first cut) in only four hours!
And so it goes…
Now you have the official “inside scoop” on my most prized film. Hopefully you enjoyed watching The Ivory Role, learning about my process and reading our newest feature. With any luck, maybe one day I’ll be able to create Plan A of this project or better yet, expand Plan B and make a documentary about elephants in the wild. Thanks for reading and if you have any comments or questions please offer them in the comments section where I’ll gladly respond.