In the run-up to this year’s Dublin Web Festival, we decided to check in with some of last year’s attendees to get an idea of what they’ve been up to since the festival!
We were very lucky to get in touch with directors Atsushi Ogata and Jack Jewers, who gave us a very in-depth insight into the production of Mona Lisa Cowboy (pitched at last year’s DWF), as well as both their thoughts on pitching projects at web festivals.
Dublin Web Fest: Hey guys! For anyone who doesn’t know you, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Atsushi Ogata: I was born in Japan and raised partly in the U.S. I’ve worked in the U.S., Holland, Germany and Japan as a screenwriter, film director, web series creator, video artist and an actor/comedian. My screenplays received funding in Germany and Holland, and I appeared weekly as a comedian on Dutch TV. My comedy feature “Cast Me If You Can” was released theatrically and screened in airlines and on TV. I expanded into web series with “Trick or Treat: I LOVE America!”, “Yukata Cowboy” (30 episodes in both English and Japanese versions) and “Mona Lisa Cowboy (7 episodes).
Jack Jewers: I’m a director and producer, working in film, TV, advertising and digital series. A couple of years ago I made a web series called Night School, based on the bestselling books by CJ Daugherty, and it ended up in competition at around a dozen festivals – including Dub Web Fest, which is how I eventually became involved in the festival as a judge.
DWF: Could you go a bit into the production experience of Mona Lisa Cowboy?
Atsushi: Mona Lisa Cowboy builds upon the backstory for the Yukata Cowboy series. It came about, partly through a chance encounter en route to the Sicily Web Fest. In August 2015, both of my web series “Trick or Treat: I LOVE America!” and “Yukata Cowboy” were selected for the Sicily Web Fest in Ustica, Italy. It took me a day and a half to fly there from Tokyo and take a boat to reach there, but as I was getting on the boat in Palermo harbor for the island of Ustica, I met the Paris-based Chinese actress Xin Wang, who starred in the first French-Chinese series “Ex-Model” (co-produced with Youku and 63 million viewers), which was also selected for Sicily Web Fest. Xin and I became friends at the festival and met a few times in Paris subsequently, when I was transferring planes to attend various other European festivals. I was impressed with Xin’s films and acting skills, and also felt a kinship with her “cross-cultural” experience of coming from China/Asia and now living in Paris/West, and intrigued to see how that was reflecting her series. In interacting with her in person, I felt our energy could bounce off each other easily and in a comical way. For example, when we were waiting at the award ceremony at the festival in Sicily, I complained about not being informed about the food arrival. Instead of arguing with me, Xin simply stuck her piece of bread into my mouth, not only so she could immediately share it with me, but also so that I’d shut up right away, which was quite surprising and comical as well.
In January 2016, I began to develop an outline for a 10 minute x 10 episode series MONA LISA COWBOY, with my producer Sian Evans. I wanted to make a prequel to our sketch comedy series YUKATA COWBOY, which was awarded BEST SKETCH COMEDY at DUB WEB FEST in 2015. I wanted to tell the personal journey of my quixotic culturally hybrid drifter character YUKATA COWBOY in the form of a dramatic comedy with a narrative structure, which stretched beyond the sketch comedy format.
I pitched MONA LISA COWBOY to Xin in Shanghai in June 2016. She was interested, but because of her pregnancy, we lacked time to prepare and raise funding to realize the series in the scale we initially conceived. Instead, we decided to scale down the project, so that we could film quickly within the available time and budget.
As it was starting to be summer holidays in France, and our budget was tight, Xin and Emmanuel Sapolsky (Director of “Ex-Model”) began to scout locations in Paris themselves, instead of working with a location manager. Xin found an amazing traditional French toy shop in the center of Paris, while Emmanuel also secured a vacant hospital building.
I flew to Paris, visited locations with Xin and Emmanuel, including parks and city monuments. We met up with their crew (many from “Ex-Model”), and auditioned actors for the role of Louis, the toy store foreman. We had preproduction meetings with the production designer, costume, hair/make-up and line-producer. Due to budget limitations, Emmanuel kindly offered to let us use his camera & light equipment and help us as the cinematographer himself. He suggested that we film in 4K, and showed me how easily it can be edited, even on a laptop, and gave technical advice.
Our shooting schedule was quite tight as we only had one day at the hospital and one day at the toy shop and 2 days for the exteriors, including the park. The day we were filming in the toy shop was Bastille Day in France, when there was the terrorist attack in Nice, but I didn’t even know about it until the next morning. In the end, we managed to film everything we needed to within the available time and budget. We filmed the last shot at sunset. YUKATA COWBOY walking off into the distance sunset, like in many Western films. Emmanuel found an app that told us exactly when and where the sun would be setting. Dressed as the wandering Japanese Cowboy, I strode into the sunset 8 times in more than 30 degree weather to get the desired shot. My heart was pounding and I was sweating, but it was an exhilarating experience! Not only our cast, but our crew was very international, which, by chance, further reflected the cross-cultural theme of this project.
Upon returning to Japan, due to lack of funds, but also due to difficulty of finding an English-speaking editor skilled with comedy, I began to edit the 4K footage material myself, consulting with Sian. In the meantime, I presented MONA LISA COWBOY at the Bilbao Web Fest market in Spain and pitched it at Dub Web Fest, in the hope of finding a distribution platform and/or funding for completion.
At Dub Web Fest, I pitched MONA LISA COWBOY to the jury and a group of audience. Later in the day, I had a chance to speak privately with Jack Jewers, who was on the jury, discuss our project in more detail and show him some of the footage we had already filmed in Paris. It was then that Jack kindly offered to come on board and support our project. In addition to offering funding, Jack gave extensive and constructive notes on our edits at that time. He even re-edited a version of our first episode to show us how it can be improved. Based on his notes, I also came up with an inexpensive way to improve the structure for all the episodes.
In March/April, I had a chance to re-film additional material in Tokyo to improve the structure and then, proceeded to work on the sound and music. In the end, I worked with a color-grader and sound designer/mixer in Japan and my animator in the States, along with our producer Sian, to complete the series. It became a 7 part dramatic comedy. We just heard yesterday, that it will have its world premiere in Berlin at Webfest Berlin.
DWF: Do you have any advice on pitching projects?
Jack: Don’t put everything in the pitch! Leave them wanting more. Hold something back for when they ask questions. And make sure you are really prepared to answer the question “so what’s your project about?” in no more than a sentence or two. It’s harder than you might think.
Atsushi: One thing is to prepare and organize your presentation as much as possible ahead of time. Show visual samples if you can. Videos if you can. Also, check to see if you’ve actually said everything important that you planned to say – prepare and carry a very short bullet point list of things you must say, not in sentences but in 3-4 word items. Memorize them so that you don’t need to look at the list.
When I pitched, I forgot to say the number of episodes and approximate number of minutes, and a friend in the audience kindly reminded me. If possible, from time to time, check if the jury/audience are following you. Maybe you can ask if they have any questions. Last year, I only found out too late that one juror didn’t quite ‘get’ the project I was pitching partly because, unlike the others, he didn’t know my background or my previous works at all, and also partly because I only showed still images and verbally explained the project, instead of showing video footage that was already filmed.
As in the case of public speaking in general, cast your gaze periodically from side to side if the group is large, or from person to person if the group is small – including everyone to whom you are presenting. Focusing on one sole person alone, or on one particular location such as a pillar is off-putting. Just speak to the audience as if you’re speaking to each of them one after another. The constant shifting of focus from one person’s eyes to the next will also allow you to see if they are, in fact, understanding what you’re saying and feeling. Also, these shifts will help you mentally to check that you’re working through each of your planned bullet points. If you sense that people are having difficulties following you, pause, take a breath and start again. We all do this unconsciously in our daily lives and conversations, but when it comes to an official presentation, we can tense up and forget to take such moment to re-adjust.
DWF: Finally, can you both tell us a bit about your experiences with Dublin Web Fest?
Atsushi: Excellent! The first year was very exciting: I participated in a comedy panel with Irish comedians such as Tony Kelly and Donal Vaughan. The festival social media coordinator Karen Forde filmed and tweeted concise on-the-mark video segments from our discussions and interviews. It was incredible. Then the festival cameraman Rafael Noto, during his break, also kindly filmed me, dressed as Yukata Cowboy swinging my lasso through the various streets of Temple Bar. We had such good footage, that I used them for Yukata Cowboy ancillary clips and even as stock footage within our new Mona Lisa Cowboy! To top it all, we won Best Comedy Sketch at the award ceremony and to my surprise, I discovered that I had sat in on workshops given by all the jury members throughout that day?! The second year, I was also surprised and honored that jury member and poet Clara Rose Thornton chose to talk about Yukata Cowboy in her lecture titled “Pop Art to Web Series”, and I even ended up in front of the class talking about our series as an example of web series?! Clara Rose even wrote and gave me a personal poem! Then, Erol and Mikael kindly invited me to participate in the pitch session. As a result, I had the pleasure of receiving support from Jack Jewers, which subsequently enabled the successful completion of Mona Lisa Cowboy!
Jack: Dublin isn’t the biggest web fest on the circuit – but I can honestly say it is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding festivals I’ve been to. There’s a fantastic atmosphere of collaboration and mutual support. People coming from all over the world just to see new work and meet fellow creatives. Everyone you speak to seems to be doing such innovative things; real cutting edge stuff. And most of it completely independent and low budget! I really believe that the web series world is incubating some of the great filmmaking talents of the next generation. If you’ve been to the Dublin Web Festival, maybe you’ve already met some of them!