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South By Southwest 2011 Interview - "The City Dark" director Ian Cheney

The City Dark - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

""The City Dark" chronicles the disappearance of darkness and the extinction of starry night skies. Through visits with asteroid-hunters, biologists, philosophers and cancer researchers, the film unravels the ways in which humans and the planet are impacted by the rampant spread of artificial light. As the world becomes more and more urban, is it time to ask if we need the night?" Director Ian Cheney on "The City Dark" which screens at this year's South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend the festival screenings?

Our film "King Corn" premiered at SXSW in 2007; we had a terrific time, and I'm thrilled to return and attend our festival screenings in Austin.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I grew up spending a lot of my childhood in rural Maine, where I grew infatuated with the stars; I attended astronomy camp, built my own telescope, and taught myself a bit of astrophotography. As I grew up and spent more and more time in cities, though, my connection to the stars faded. This film is an exploration of what we lose, as individuals, and as a culture, when we grow more disconnected from the starry night sky, and even risk losing darkness altogether.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …”


What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

The human relationship to the night, the dark, and the stars is complex; it contains multitudes. Winnowing away dozens of fascinating topics to give the film more breathing room was brutal, but it always is!

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

Shooting in the dark is tough. Shooting with a low-budget in the dark is wicked tough. Fortunately, much of the film relies on time-lapse photography to capture the beauty of starry night skies, or the sprawl of city lights, and much of this we decided to shoot using SLRs to shoot sequences of still images with an intervalometer. These time-lapse sequences, of stars tracking across the sky as the earth rotates on its axis became the visual backbone of the film, complemented by cinematography on the Canon 5D, the Sony EX-1, and an inexpensive infrared rig.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

I've long enjoyed Monteith McCollum's work, and while I can't say "The City Dark" mirrors or mimics the style of his actual films, I'm inspired by his rigorous approach, his attention to visual detail and continuity. In contrast, many other contemporary films patch themselves together with myriad styles or media, which can be fun and undoubtedly entertaining, but I'm not sure that's my style.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

I'm open to anything, but I've found the artistic and journalistic freedoms of independent filmmaking pretty infectious.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

The Strand, in Rockland ME.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Start small! Make something small, beautiful, and irresistible. Your first project - or your fifth - needn't be your masterpiece.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

You know, I really wouldn't mind seeing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan a few more times.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2011 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 11-19. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte Facebook: jasonwhyte

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originally posted: 03/10/11 07:00:01
last updated: 03/10/11 07:00:42
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