The Lost & Found Series | Buzz Blog

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Lost & Found Series

A look at a documentary film series by three directors

Posted By on December 19, 2014, 7:00 PM

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With the local film scene kind of taking more of a pendulum swing toward slow or inactive, it's been hard to figure out over the past year what's been working and what hasn't. Many individuals seem to be content working on their own material in privacy and haven't shown much beyond film competitions while others have been collaborating together for something big on the way. This week we're going to focus on a collaborative effort that's been a few years in the making, as The Lost & Found Series has been making small documentary films for the past few years to be released into a DVD collection when they've been completed. Today we're chatting with the founders of the series about their careers and the films they're working on. (All pictures courtesy of L&F.)

Travis Low and Torben & Marissa Bernhard (L-R with Andrew James)
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Gavin: Hey everyone, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

This is always a hard question for me to answer! My mother is Thai and my father is from Utah, but he speaks Chinese and Thai. I grew up mostly in Hong Kong and Thailand, but then spent my summers in Utah with my American extended family. Bangkok feels the most like home, but I'm a traditional TCK who never quite feels settled anywhere. I do think that my semi-nomadic, multicultural upbringing has instilled in me lenses that help me to hear people's stories on their own terms, and I think this value is at the core of most of the projects that we make.

Torben: I’m originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan and the son of parents who essentially lived at the theater. Growing up, I wanted to be a hip-hop star and performed in a group for many years, along with my older brother. When I was 18, I moved West and ended up on a Mormon mission in Thailand. Years later and I’m still in Utah. I travel a lot. I’ve been to over 30 countries in the last ten years. When I graduated from school, I took off and traveled the world for a year. I’m curious and always working on one project or another.

Travis: I grew up in Cache Valley in a town called Smithfield, just north of Logan. I studied at Utah Valley University in Orem. In the early 2000s, I played bass guitar in a metal/hardcore band called Parallax. Parallax was based in Provo and we were able to tour around the western US on a few summer tours. We recorded a few demos, a 7" and a full-length album. I have lived in Salt Lake City since 2008 and have been working on documentary films since 2007. I have always been interested in the arts, particularly music, photography, and film. I've been able to travel the world a little bit through my documentary filmmaking and through the relationships that have formed around that. I like to read a lot, and I currently work full-time at a bookshop in downtown Salt Lake City called Ken Sanders Rare Books.

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Gavin: What first got each of you interested in film and what were some early influences on you?

I grew up in a big movie watching family, so film has always been a part of my life in one way or another. If you would have snuck a peek at my room and movie collection as a teenager, you’d find all the requisite posters and cliche VHS: A Clockwork Orange, Goodfellas, Scarface, The Usual Suspects, etc. At some point, my casual interest became serious and I launched into foreign films with all the faux sophistication a teenager can muster. To this day, I’m an avid watcher. I watch many dozens films a year. After sitting in front of screens for a long time, in my early twenties I decided I wanted to try my hand at filmmaking and dove in, head first. My early influences were Scorcese, Coppola, Bergman, Godard, and Herzog, to name a few.

Travis: I have always been attracted to visual and audio media, and have always been excited about the creative opportunities they presented. It is hard to pinpoint when I took a serious interest in film. When I was younger I was just enthralled by the spectacle of it. Sometime in my early high school years I discovered the world of independent, international, and documentary cinema. Around the same time, I started following specific directors and screenwriters closely over time. Werner Herzog blew me away when I first encountered his work, especially his documentaries, his film Stroszek, and Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams (which is about the madness and audacity of Herzog’s epic filmmaking endeavour that became Fitzcarraldo). Over the last decade or so, international and documentary film has been most interesting to me. Salt Lake City is pretty lucky to have the Salt Lake Film Society (at the Broadway and Tower theaters)…I've been able to see hundreds of great movies there over the years.

Marissa: My best friend in Middle School introduced me to Hitchcock films and they completely opened my mind to the artistic possibilities of filmmaking. In High School, I tried to watch as many classic, independent, foreign, and art films as I could get my hands on. There were long stretches when I would forego sleep to obsessively watch three films a day, trying to soak in as much film history and aesthetics as I could. As a teenager, I wasn't necessarily planning to be a filmmaker, I just knew that film would be an important part of my life forever.

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Gavin: Prior to your education, did any of you experiment with making your own pieces at home or in your spare time? And how did those projects turn out?

Haha. In High School I started out writing surrealist screenplays and making non-narrative/experimental films with loads of iMovie effects, all set to heady progressive rock. I love them as time capsules.

Torben: I absolutely did. I tried to make a documentary about teenagers smoking weed when I was in high school (aka I brought my huge camcorder out with me on the weekend and turned it on at random points throughout the night). I never succeeded in bringing my potential masterpiece to the big screen, because the tape was eventually confiscated by my Vice Principal. If I recall correctly, the tape had a mix of camera experiments and “avant-garde” bizarre scenes mixed with the high ramblings of Michigan teenagers. I’m positive it would have not turned out well. Most of my time, prior to receiving an education, was focused on making hip-hop music, but watching films. I took one class on filmmaking as a high school student, but failed, because I kept missing the bus.

Travis: I had no filmmaking or storytelling experiences before I started working on my first documentary film (The Sonosopher: Alex Caldiero in Life…in Sound, a collaboration with Torben and Marissa). But, I did have some experience with still photography, some basic camera theory and technique, and processing film negatives and prints, which helped the learning curve to some extent. I also had some experience with audio gear, a little bit of recording and editing audio—so that knowledge carried over as well. I've learned most of the filmmaking process by diving into it…a lot of trial and error and learning from mistakes.

Gavin: Where did each of you go to college to study film, and what made you choose your respective institutions?

I went to Utah Valley University and studied Integrated Studies, with three emphases: philosophy, communication, and humanities. It was my way of writing and thinking about film through a philosophical lens. I chose UVU, at the time, because they would accept an alternative high school graduate who never took the ACT. It ended up being the very best thing for me. I was closely mentored by many amazing people, such as Alex Caldiero and Scott Carrier. I had a uniquely hands-on education and was able to co-direct my first feature, with Travis, while still a student. Most of our equipment and nearly all of our funding came from the school. They were invaluable to my growth as a filmmaker and artist.

Travis: I went to Utah Valley University for Integrated Studies with emphasis in Philosophy and Humanities. There was very little technical training associated with that, but it did get me thinking a lot more critically and practically about art and the creative process. I met Torben and Marissa at UVU. UVU provided a fantastic group of mentors and professors who opened my eyes and inspired me to do more. We were able to make our first feature-length film, The Sonosopher, at UVU as our senior thesis project.

Marissa: I studied film at BYU. BYU has a good blend of options for both production and theory and I was deeply interested in both.

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Gavin: What was it like for you to learn the craft, and what got each of you interested in documentary films?

While studying film at university, I would float from (fiction) set to set working in various departments. It was a great learning experience, but somehow the thought of being a fiction filmmaker didn't feel like the best fit for me. I enjoyed capturing stories from real people and I liked the idea of being in more improvised situations where I didn't have to artificially create everything from scratch. It seemed to me that the element of the unknown, inherent in documentary filmmaking, was the thing that could allow my work to potentially transcend my own abilities as a maker. I think being in a space where you are not in full control is a scary and lovely place to create from. As far as learning the craft goes, it's an ongoing process. I think learning one's craft is often as straightforward as the process of: making something, reflecting on what you have made, noticing that it doesn't feel quite right yet, and then problem-solving to figure out how to make the necessary adjustments until it does feel right. A major lesson we learned from creating our first doc, The Sonosopher, was ridding ourselves of the romantic idea that working in the arts was all about feeling inspired to create. Even when you are making a project that you feel passionate about, it mostly requires work. I think all of our projects have gone through at least a phase where we felt discouraged and felt like we were merely laboring through parts. Working through this time is instrumental as I think you come out the other end smarter and more capable of being inspired in an authentic way.

Travis: I learned the filmmaking process by doing it… again, a lot of experimentation, trial and error. I don't know if I'd recommend learning in this way, but it was really the only option for me, and it isn't a bad road to take if you are persistent and willing to put in the time. Basically, an opportunity presented itself, so I took it. Torben asked me to work on a film with him (The Sonosopher), so I just dove in and figured that I could rely on my collaborators, my intuitions, and my sensibilities to get me through it. At the time, I already had a serious in documentary film, which started back in high school, so I was pretty familiar with the form and the various approaches to the form. But, it didn't really occur to me that I might be able to make a film until Torben approached me about it.

Torben: Learning the craft was a crash course. There is a quote in Nietzsche’s Geneology of Morals where he explains that, “pain was the most powerful aid to mnemonics.” That pretty much sums up my experience. At the beginning, all I had was the will to make a film, but lacked all technical experience. I trusted my sensibilities and energy and dove in blindly. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. However, each mistake carried a painful new lesson. Over time, I’ve become more technically proficient. I still am learning lessons. If you talk to any professional for a while, you will inevitably get into a Jaws-like conversation where you exchange your scars and tales of previous wars. In the end, I suppose, the goal is to eliminate those mistakes in the product and carry the lessons from the process forward with you. I’m craft-obsessed and constantly reading/consuming anything I can get my hands on related to process. The difference, to me, between being in love and having a crush is the sincerity with which your approach the relationship over time. My relationship to making is always evolving.

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Gavin: How did each of you break into filmmaking after college? What were some of the projects you worked on before starting up L&F?

After I graduated from film school, I got a job producing a documentary based, historical television show. Shortly after, we founded OHO Media, the production company from which L&F is being made.

Torben: I broke into filmmaking during college. By the time we graduated, we all had a feature under our belt. I co-directed it with Travis. Marissa produced and creatively advised in a number of ways. I’m still proud of the film, because I know what we went through to make it. After finishing a feature, we had the basic skill sets necessary to pursue making documentaries professionally. I completed very little before starting L&F. We’d completed The Sonosopher and I’d served in a variety of capacities on friends’ films. L&F, in many ways, was the direct product of having worked on a feature for three years and wanting to get out and experiment further with documentary storytelling without committing to another lengthy process.

Travis: After college we continued working on a number of short film ideas that came up organically as we finished up our work on The Sonosopher. Those short films comprise The Lost & Found Series.

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Gavin: How did you all meet each other and become friends?

I met Marissa Lila early on at UVU, when she was just starting at BYU. Our relationship was first romantic. It took a while for us to collaborate artistically, but when we started, it was a perfect fit. We’ve now been married for nine years and work on most projects together, in one way or another. I met Travis through an international cinema I started at UVU and through enrolling in multiple classes together. When I asked him to co-direct The Sonosopher with me, I knew that he had no previous experience, but I trusted his taste. Years later, we also collaborate on most projects.

Travis: I initially met Torben and Marissa at an international cinema series that Torben organized at UVU. Torben and I had a few classes together, had similar interests, and we always had a lot to talk about. I started spending more time with them, and our friendship really solidified as we began work on The Sonosopher. We spent three years making that film, and we’ve remained close friends and collaborators ever since.

Gavin: When did the idea of The Lost & Found Series come about?

We began working and planning each of the short films in The Lost and Found Series independently of each other. Over time, it made sense for us to try to bring them together as a series that could be viewed together, like a short film program at a film festival built around a theme. The “Lost and Found” theme fits each film uniquely but also provides a context and conversation between films in the series as a whole.

Torben: The idea for the series came after finishing The Sonosopher. I think we all felt a little overwhelmed having only one film out there that said to the world, “this is the total sum of what these people can make.” At first, the documentaries were not tied together by a theme; they were simply separate short documentary ideas we were interested in pursuing. After working on them individually for a while, we realized that they all tackled the theme of losing and finding. We were driven toward topics that were at risk of being overlooked in one way or another. Storytelling is a bridge between the lost and the found, because it has the power to create memories and breathe life into the previously ignored.


Gavin: How did you go about choosing the topics for each documentary and how you would shoot them?

The projects arose organically. They came to us one by one. Each documentary has a behind-the-scenes story that readers can check out on our website. In general, we adjust the form to fit the content. For example, it was really important for me to shoot Tarkio Balloon in 8mm. I wanted the film to feel like a dream and have a childlike quality. Boomtown, on the other hand, was shot completely in HD, because we wanted to flesh out the way modern Frisco looks and sounds (it has the most elaborate sound design of any of short films as well). Each film has a slightly different aesthetic, because the content or process of making necessitated a different approach.

Travis: For me, it seems like we don't choose the topics or stories as much as they seem to find us. Once in a while you just come across a story or an idea that you know is worth exploring. Sometimes an idea excites you enough that you just begin working on it, and it takes you to unexpected places. Each story and subject presents a different challenge in terms of how you might approach the shooting, the editing, and the overall aesthetic. I have also found that you have to be able to adapt or reimagine your craft and aesthetic along the way as you gradually discover how the final story is going to take shape. I think this is especially true of documentary film, because you are constantly discovering the story as you are filming, editing, and trying to figure things out. I would imagine it is a lot different with making fiction films, where you have a script or a storyboard to work from and have all of the technical and narrative details planned beforehand.

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Gavin: What was the process like in filming your first one together and what challenges did you meet along the way?

The first film presented a lot of challenges for me in that I was still learning so much the whole process of filmmaking. From shooting and capturing sound, to editing, and all of the technical details that go along with it; the learning curve can be daunting. At first, I was very surprised at the extent to which you have to shape each scene in the editing room. In the beginning I sort of had the sense that if you captured something interesting with the camera, then it would translate directly on the other end — which is very rarely the case. The magic is in juxtaposition. Now when I go to shoot something, I try think, "how are we going to edit this?" Or, what does this have to do with the story? Approaching things this way saves a lot of time and stress in the editing room later. But, there are always unpredictable discoveries along the way. The trick is to try to be as open as possible to that serendipity and to learn how to create space fort and be able to build on it. For me, the collaboration with Torben and Marissa has been a crucial motivator to keep me working because I know that I have a trusted team to rely on. Collaboration ensures that you have people to bounce ideas around with and to get feedback from. Active collaboration keeps me focused and on task. When I work alone, I can become disillusioned, unmotivated, or can lose sight of the larger picture. Disagreements always and necessarily come up in collaboration, but I think that is generally a healthy sign. We’ve been able to use disagreements to our advantage; when we disagree we just work harder on the material and reshape it until we are all happy with it. Other times you just have step back and trust a single person’s decision making and give your feedback and support rather than trying to always hash things out as a committee. Each project has a unique dynamic.

Torben: Because we had already completed a feature together, I think we had a good sense of our respective personality quirks. If you are being honest in your collaborations, you are always going to have elements of conflict. It’s just part of being passionate and holding individual visions. However, when I think back on our multiple collaborations, I’m grateful that so much of my creative life has been spent with these two people. We all push each other in different ways and bring different perspectives to productions. Resources have always been an issue for us. Luckily, we successfully ran a Kickstarter campaign to put the project out, but most of the funding for production has come from our day jobs. It’s difficult to sustain the necessary energy to create when you are simultaneously working and trying to figure out multiple ways to fund projects. You are also, of course, always running up against indifference. How is the thing you are creating adding to the dialog? Why should people care? In the end, we always push forward, because we feel compelled to tell these stories and continue honing our craft.

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Gavin: For those unfamiliar with the series, what are some of the subjects you've covered?

The series has five films ( that cover a range of topics, from the slow vanishing of a town in Southern Utah to a vibrant Western cowboy culture in Thailand.

Travis: The following links have brief previews, while Scavenger and Tarkio Balloon can be streamed in full, along with summaries and taglines, etc. ScavengerBoomtownTarkio BalloonThe Gospel According to Ralphael and Thailand Cowboy.

Gavin: What were the first reactions you received from people checking them out online?

The responses have been quite good so far. Online distribution and social media provide a lot of new and exciting opportunities for filmmakers and the landscape is changing all the time. The audience is pretty much unlimited, and you have a lot of power in your hands to help get the film out there. You do have to deal with a lot of competition for people’s attention, and attention spans are also limited. On the whole, I’d say that we have had a great experience sharing films online. We have also played our films at a number of film festivals, and have had various levels of success there. A film festival provides a unique and focused experience, and establishes connections with people that seem to be solid and long-lasting. But, at times it can be tricky to get momentum for a film on the festival circuit, and the audience can be a bit unpredictable or limited. These days, each project has to find its own balance between traditional and online distribution. Short films often get overlooked or forgotten, so we've tried hard to find the widest possible variety of approaches for distributing the shorts in The Lost & Found Series. One of the reasons we decided to put these five short films together as a series was so they would have a larger context to survive within. We have recently been having a huge amount of success online with a film called Transmormon, which was co-produced with KUER's VideoWest series. The film received a ton of media attention after it was posted on, and it has now been viewed over 1.5 million times.

Torben: Our first reactions came at film festivals. Each film we’ve put out so far has had a healthy festival life. Scavenger has toured the world. Boomtown has won awards, including Utah Short Film of the Year and a City Weekly Arty (we’ve won both two years in a row now). Tarkio Balloon has screened at fests and been used to help raise money for SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Responses have been overwhelmingly positive. After the first three films of the series had their festival run, we put them online.

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Gavin: The current plan, as I've read it, was to release three documentaries online and two on a DVD. What's the progress on the DVD?

Torben: Yes, our plan is to release a DVD. We’ve shifted a bit now, where we plan to create an eBook with the films embedded, but also release a limited run of DVDs. From the beginning, we’ve collaborated with an impressive selection of writers to pair essays with the shorts. Each writer is using one of the docs as a jumping off point for their own musings on the theme of losing and finding. We are going to announce the writers this coming year and also plan to release the DVD/ebook in 2015. Most importantly, we want to experiment with different approaches to short documentary distribution and see if we can find an audience.

Travis: The full series of five short films will be published in a limited edition DVD, which will be packaged with a booklet of images and essays written to accompany each film. We will also create a digital book that will marry the streaming films with written and visual content to create a unified digital experience. Scavenger and Tarkio Balloon are currently available to watch online, Boomtown will soon be available online as well.
Tarkio Balloon:

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Gavin: What can we expect to see next from the series, as well as yourselves?

We are currently working to finish production on The Gospel According to Raphael and Thailand Cowboy for The Lost and Found Series. I am about to publish a book called The Fifth Goal which is an anthology reprint of a beautiful graffiti zine of the same name that ran for eight issues between 1998 and 2004. My friend and former bandmate, Blake Donner (aka RIOT), was the creator of the zine. Blake passed away tragically in 2004. This project is one way that I am trying to pay tribute to him and his legacy. The book will be released this February. You can learn more about The Fifth Goal project here, and you can follow the project's updates on our blog here.

Torben: We just completed another short this year called Transmormon that also won Utah Short Film of the Year and a City Weekly Arty for Best Short Film. Additionally, the film was featured by The New York Times, The Atlantic, People Magazine, Upworthy, The Huffington Post, and many more. We are now sitting at about 1.5 million views. The next film that will be released online, from the series, is Boomtown. We are wrapping up production and post-production for the remaining two films and will put them out in 2015. I now freelance full-time and am always looking for potential funders and collaborators.

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Gavin: Do you have any projects coming up that you'd like to hype?

Sure, I’ve been busy this year. I am co-producing a documentary entitled Street Fighting Man by the SLC-based director Andrew James. I also followed the legal team and main plaintiffs in the Kitchen v. Herbert case over the last year and plan to put it out as either an hour-long TV piece or feature film with my co-director, Kendall Wilcox. I am finishing post-production for a short documentary called The Sixth Man that will be featured as part of The Leonardo’s current exhibit "No Fixed Address." Finally, I am working on a short documentary that tells the story of Gilgal Garden along with the tale of my personal faith crisis simply called Gilgal. If it was my choice to include one of the above, it would probably be Gilgal or The Kitchen Case (working title) because of their local relevance.

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