Vancouver Film Festival 2012 Interview - ASSEMBLY director Jenn Strom

By Jason Whyte
Posted 10/10/12 02:59:57

“A flatbed editing table is snapped on. A woman’s hands reach in and out of the frame, cutting and editing a reel of film. She splices, scrubs, rewinds and rolls the sound and images. Fragments of animated archival footage flash across the screen: women walking in chains, protesting with placards, speaking at podiums. We hear bursts of words and the percussive whir and click of the Steenbeck—until a “message” is finally revealed. Assembly features a rhythmic soundscape and paint-on-glass animation. It was inspired by Studio D filmmakers and is dedicated to the memory of Kathleen Shannon.” Director Jenn Strom on “Assembly” which screens at this year’s Vancouver International film Festival.

Is this your first film in the Vancouver International Film Festival? Do you plan to attend Vancouver for the screenings?

This is the first time a film I’ve directed has been selected for VIFF, though previously some shorts I’ve edited have been in the festival. Assembly is playing as part of the Canadian Images program “Clean Break” and I plan on attending both screenings.

Could you give me a little look into your background and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

My whole life I’ve been involved with different art forms, including visual and performing arts. I first became involved in film and animation through the Gulf Islands Film and Television School on Gailiano Island, where I got a job doing administration in 1996. I met many wonderful storytellers and film artists there, and was inspired by what they were teaching, and the vibrant, challenging videos the students were making. I had the opportunity to make my first film there, which was coincidentally also an experimental feminist short, and fell in love with editing, sound design, visual storytelling and multimedia animation. I decided to pursue it as a career and 15 years later, I can say it’s been a wonderful choice, full of interesting creative people and opportunities.

How did this project come together?

Making a hand-painted film for the NFB had been a dream of mine for years, and I’d been kind of stalking Tracey Friesen, introducing myself whenever I had the chance. So when she was looking for an emerging female director for a special project, she called me, much to my excitement. Tracey had the idea to do a short project that would honour Studio D – the NFB’s feminist film studio that was operational from the mid 70’s to the mid 90’s. They wanted someone from a younger generation to do a riff on some of that earlier feminist filmmaking. I’m sorry to say that I had not been aware of Studio D, but I launched into learning about it and was amazing to see these documentaries that showed how much things had changed for women, and women in film, over the last 4 decades. The body of work created in Studio D reflects a sea of issues and incremental steps in a wave of awareness and activism that changed the fabric of our society.

I was particularly inspired by Gerry Rogers’ biographical film on the founder of Studio D, Kathleen Shannon: On Film, Feminism & Other Dreams. I was moved by her early experiences of frustration, before sexual harassment was even a term, of being a skilled editor and sound editor who was constantly training men who were promoted above her, and her struggle to facilitate women making films about the things that mattered to them, which was not always the things the male producers found interesting.

Assembly is my tribute to Kathleen Shannon, and to those tiny moments in darkrooms where decisions and comments are made that can affect the fabric of reality. It is a film about the way words can cut, and what it feels like to have your point of view, your truth, dismissed. It is a film about authoring your truth. It is a film about rage and defiance and bravery in the face of repression. And it is not just about women, as this is a fight that ‘ordinary people’ across the world are continuing today.

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.

The biggest challenge was the hand painted animation, which was time consuming, much more than I originally thought, and it was all done by me. Every frame of this film was hand painted, using oil paint and dry erase marker on glass. In total, 1200 paintings were done. The images were sometimes painted in layers, photographed using a digital camera and a stop motion software, and then composited together digitally using Photoshop and After Effects. The circular patterns in the editor’s hands and the “film grain” are my finger prints. The painting was “rotoscoped” over live footage; archival footage from Studio D films, and footage of the editor’s hands which we shot on one of the remaining Steenbeck flatbeds in Vancouver. The footage was shot by one Vancouver’s few female DOPs, Kim MacNaughton, who was wonderful to work with. The hands in the film belong to Ileana Pietrobruno, a female editor and filmmaker who has a history of working with the NFB.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are? Any inspirations for this film in particular?

I’ve long been a fan of the NFB animators and experimental filmmakers who were inventing and working with optical and hand-made, mixed media techniques: for example Norman Mclaren, Co Hedeman, Ryan Larkin. Caroline Leaf, who made several beautiful paint-on-glass and sand-on-glass films at the NFB, was specifically the inspiration for this project.

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, and especially for those with films in the festival circuit?

Pay attention to what peaks your curiosity, interest and passion, and pursue it. There are many different things you can do with film, and it’s a lot of work to make a film, so put your energy into things you really care about. For practical advice, I’ve found it helpful to diversify what I do so that I have work in the industry that provides my main financial stability, and then I have passion projects, which allow me to experiment and make things that are more my own art pieces. The two situations inform each other in terms of contacts and skill building. Also, promote the work you want to do more of, and turn down work that doesn’t fit the direction you want to pursue. And when you get a piece in the festival circuit, try to travel with it, promote it, and enjoy!

How can people keep in touch with the film at this point in the festival circuit?

My website is and I’ll post news about it on my site.

”Assembly” plays in the short film package “Clean Break” Wednesday, October 10th at Granville & Thursday, October 11th at Pacific Cinematheque.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VIFF ’12 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #viff12 is the official hashtag.

Jason Whyte,

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