Case Study: Dalía Brúsi Olason's thesis film has already found its way in the international festival circuit.
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Case Study: Dalía

Brúsi Olason's thesis film has already found its way in the international festival circuit.

A charming anecdote from his own childhood became the spark for a short film, that's been going around prestigious festivals. Icelandic director Brúsi Olason looks back at making Dalía, his thesis film that explores masculinity from a child's perspective.

"The art of filmmaking is at its best when the collaboration between all involved is harmonious and effective."

24 februari 2021

A child's mind at work

"When I was around 4 years old, my father had to put down a horse. He decided to talk me and my older brother through what was happening. He showed us the wound on the horse's leg and told us that he would have to shoot the horse and put it out of its misery. He explained everything about it carefully and in detail, for us to understand. A few weeks later we saw some old machines that belonged to my then deceased great grandfather. I asked where this great grandfather was and my father told me he was dead. We walked a little further down the field and I turned to my father and asked 'who shot him?'"

This story has been told in my family my whole life. It is a comedic anecdote about how a child's mind works. When the time came to produce my thesis short film at Columbia University, I decided this story would be an ideal starting point. I asked my friend and frequent collaborator at Columbia, Leticia Akel, to write the film and we explored lots of avenues within this frame of a child understanding the world. We eventually ended up wanting to explore masculinity and how some of its traits can be viewed as positive and negative depending on how they are put to use. So even if the core of the idea was this anecdote from my childhood, the real work of the writing happened in Leticia's work and our conversations throughout the process."

Advantages of a video call

"The script did not change much during the production but there were moments where we thought we might have to cut some scenes for time. Working with a child and a horse takes more time than you anticipate but luckily our crew was amazing and we got through everything that was scripted."

"Preparing for production for me begins with making a shotlist with my DP Magga Vala. This happens over Zoom because we are always based in different countries. I have found that doing a shotlist over Zoom is incredibly helpful since the conversation is already happening within a frame. So me and Magga place our laptops like the camera and walk around the frame to explain the shots we have in mind. We work through the whole script and figure out our approach and make a floor plan for our AD, Katrín, to keep us on schedule. Then once we are on set, time becomes a greater factor and we often make changes on the fly if we feel like we need it, or if either me or Magga has a better idea once we are working within a location. The long conversations on Zoom are probably mostly for us to tune our filmmaking instruments, so we can quickly and efficiently make decisions on set."

Young actor's first steps

"The most challenging part of the shoot was obviously accommodating our child actor Baldvin. His father is a comedian in Iceland and I had seen him appear on his dad's Instagram, so I reached out to see if he wanted to audition. He was great, but had never really acted before so he was really excited to try it out, to at least have a beginning. One moment I remember fondly now was on the last day of shooting, when Baldvin laid in the grass and looked up at me and said 'I'm so happy this is not a real movie'. When I asked why he said that, he answered: 'Because if this were a real movie, this would be a whole summer'. He had already gotten sick of the monotony and repetition of a film set after only five days." 

"I did hear that on the drive home, he was already talking about working on the next film. And I have seen him do some sketches with his father, so we at least didn't ruin acting for him completely. He also did an amazing job throughout the shoot for us and even got up and did great after his complaint about a real movie."

Sound design for Iceland

"I do a lot of editing in general, so I decided to edit the film myself and use the resources of my classmates at Columbia and other filmmaker friends to test different ideas in the edit. I ended up removing one scene that had been really important to us in the writing and shooting. But I fundamentally believe that you have to follow every single idea you have in the editing room because you never know what might really just work. And the film flowed better once the scene was out, despite the expectation we had going into the edit. That is usually the first advice I give when asked for editing advice: a bad idea is still an idea."

"The music in the film is composed by Jóhann Vignir Vilbergsson, a hometown friend currently based in Sweden. So that was another round of video call meetings and thankfully Jói was willing to experiment a lot with me to find the right score. We knew we wanted it to be minimal and we tried out a lot of different instruments. While doing the sound design with Lidia Tamplenizza in New York, I realized that wind is a huge part of sound design in Icelandic film. Wind creates and maintains a lot of the atmosphere in Icelandic cinema and especially rural films from Iceland."

This obsession of mine about the wind led me to the idea of wind instruments. Jói suggested woodwinds since they have a sort of earthy quality that is quite fitting for our film, and that is how we arrived at the final version of the score. Working with Lidia was also amazing because she gave an outsider's perspective on the sound of the film and was super accommodating."

Harmonious and effective

"Once the film was finished, we started sending it out to festivals and got to be a part of the Future Frames program at Karlovy Vary, which promotes the 10 best graduation films by European filmmakers each year. While the festival itself was cancelled, there was a week of virtual events organized by European Film Promotions that was incredibly helpful. After that we managed to premiere in person at the Reykjavík International Film Festival, right before Iceland was hit by the second wave of COVID. This pandemic has definitely been an issue but things are looking up now with more online festivals."

"Last but not least, I want to mention the fact that I fundamentally believe that film is a collaborative medium. I have mentioned a few of my collaborators on Dalía, but there are many more that were integral to the project along the way. From my teachers and classmates at Columbia to the cast and crew, and even friends and family that gave their time in some way. Collaboration happens not only with the ones closest to the project, but also with someone who is willing to take a look at a cut of the film or read the script."

"The art of filmmaking is at its best when the collaboration between all involved is harmonious and effective. Which brings me to the collaborator that is almost impossible to place in a case study like this, because he is there the whole time from idea to script to shooting, editing and beyond: our producer Kári Úlfsson. Kári is a childhood friend of mine that graduated out of Columbia as a producer with Dalía as his thesis film. We work on everything together and he is right with me every step of the way, reading every draft and seeing every cut."

"So I'll leave you with his words of wisdom that he dispensed to our crew the day before we started shooting: 'We are stoic when we make movies. Things can and probably will get stressful at points during the shoot, but if you start to worry about anything please let us know and we will figure it out together.' Which in my mind is the best advice I can give fellow filmmakers. Be stoic and figure it out together."

(c) All visual material is used with the filmmaker's permission.

Watch this short via Euregion Film Festival 2021.

March 1-7, online.

Tickets & more info.

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