Filmmaker Focus: Vanessa Renwick

Our aim with "Filmmaker Focus" is to connect audiences with AAFF alumni working on new projects, to reveal some of the process and approach of art-driven filmmaking. Vanessa Renwick's film "Portrait #2: Trojan" played at the 46th AAFF on opening night and is included in the AAFF DVD collection Time Pieces. Here she describes her "Portrait Series."

"Being an undependant filmmaker living on the lowdown with no credit cards, sometimes I find myself in need of a loan to carry onward. Several years ago I had borrowed some money from a friend, and when I went to repay her she said, "Oh, honey, don't worry about that. Maybe next time you are in Vancouver, B.C. you can film a grain elevator I used to hang out at when I was a teenager to have sex and do drugs there."

So I filmed it with my bolex and then hand processed it. It sat around for a year or two until I saw some art by Tara Jane O'Neil in an Anti War art show. I did not know anything about Tara. I tracked her down, she was on tour, and I asked if we could do a trade for the art. When she returned to Portland we met up, I gave her some of my films and she gave me the art, with a c.d. of her music. When I listened to her music I knew it would be good for the grain elevator piece, so I asked her if she was interested in scoring it. She said yes. We made the piece, and I gave it to my friend Dianne, to whom it is dedicated. This was Portrait #1: Cascadia Terminal. I never thought anyone else would find it interesting, but I showed it to a friend or two, and they liked it (which I found rather odd), so I entered it in some festivals. It won an award in a festival, and somewhere along that time, the idea came to do this series...the Portrait Series!

My Portrait Series is part of an ongoing series of filmed places, stories and histories of Cascadia with scores by musicians living in the Pacific Northwest.I have completed 3 of them so far, and have at least 5 more in my head. I could see this series going on for a long time, there are so many great musicians to work with here in the Northwest. Sometimes I know right away who the musician should be for it, even before shooting it, but sometimes it becomes apparent later on, after it is shot. I think I don't know some of the musicians yet, as I don't know some of the future films yet either. They will all be shot on film and finished on video, and eventually I think I will have at least a solid screening out of them strung together. I shot the first one on 16mm, and the next two were shot on 35mm by Eric Edwards, who is a god damn pleasure to work with. And I am thankful to Dianne for introducing me to Eric years ago. I really am most grateful for all of the super talented people who work with me on my films.

I do number the films, as in "Portrait #1: Cascadia Terminal", so they are in a specific order, and I do think about how one will follow the other in the series in the future.That said," Portrait #3: House of Sound" appeared very quickly to me, and jumped in line in front of the idea I thought was to be next. A lot of them are o.k. to be shot with one camera,Portrait #2: Trojan had 2 cameras for the dynamite implosion shot - didn't want to botch that shot! There is one idea involving many horses and riders that will need at least 4 or 5 cameras to capture it, so that one might be in Super 8, unless I win the lottery or Mac Arthur!

Portrait #4, untitled as of yet, will focus on the thousands of migrating Vaux Swifts that descend upon Portland every September for 3-4 weeks. Every night they spend about an hour funneling into a defunct chimney at a grade school. It really is an amazing sight. I have seen it since 1983, and really the only change is the thousands of people who now show up to watch the event. I was going to shoot it last year, but another filmmaker, Dan Viens, was making a documentary about them at that time, and I thought it better to give some space to it. His film concerned the people watching the birds, as well as the birds. Mine will just be about the birds. I took Eric to see the birds last year and was amazed that he had never seen it, as he grew up in Portland.

Portrait #5: also untitled,has been in my head since 1998. It will concern itself with totem poles and telephone poles up on Haida Gwaii and how both these communicating poles, made out of trees, have affected the communities there over the many years. Both Eric and I are very excited to get up there and make this film. I kind of feel like I may never want to leave once I do get there. There are a lot of logistics for the travel and the gear, many miles to travel and some boats involved.

Through making all of these portraits I wish to speak of this place that I now call home, the Pacific Northwest. I am creating a history of sorts, and sometimes capturing things that no longer exist, or that I know will be gone soon. Not on purpose, it seems like the first three all concern themselves with man made structures in the landscape. This was not something I was thinking of, it is just happening that way. For future ideas, there are a lot more non human animals involved in some of the stories, as well as trees, both living and dead. At the very beginning I came up with the rule for this series that there would be no rules. If I think a certain composer should score more than one piece, than so be it. Well, I guess being shot on film is a rule I am sticking with, but besides that, no rules. Just what stories I wish to tell, keep, share of this landscape I live within." - Vanessa Renwick, August 2009

To learn more about Vanessa and her work, visit: The Oregon Department of Kick Ass @

Posted on December 12th, 2008