WorkPrint — February 2022


IN THIS ISSUE

Feature: A Conversation with Koumbie
by Evan Bower

Tech Corner: James West & the Electret Condenser
with Abner Collette

Screen Memories
with Tara Thorne

The Shot List
Calls, Grants, Opportunities

FEATURE

A CONVERSATION WITH KOUMBIE

by EVAN BOWER

(PHOTO: A still from I HATE YOU, a short film by Koumbie & Taylor Olson)

If you’ve seen something filmed in Nova Scotia in the past five years, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Koumbie. The Halifax actor and director has been a regular presence in TV shows like Mr. D and Diggstown, and appeared in local features from Black Cop to Bone Cage to Tin Can. But for the moment, Koumbie’s focus is squarely behind the camera—she’s just weeks away from shooting her debut feature, Bystanders.

This week, Koumbie spoke with WorkPrint about navigating the path from shorts to features, bringing her acting experience to directing, and making the most of COVID delays.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WorkPrint: I know I’m catching you at a busy time. So how are things going with your feature? Where are you in production right now?

Koumbie: [laughs] That’s a great question, where are we? We received funding in 2020, and so we were hoping to go to camera either that winter or in early 2021, but we had a loss in the family, and it just wasn’t going to be the right time, so it got pushed. And it’s a winter film, so then it was pushed to early January 2022, and then the Omicron wave, of course, hit us. We just seem to have had really unfortunate luck, but I think that means the worst is behind us. Now we hope to be filming the last week of March, first two weeks of April. So, with the extra time, we’ve actually gone back to the script. We’re doing a bit of a rewrite, trying to find a silver lining with getting pushed back later.

WP: What can you tell us about the film?

Koumbie: Well it has gone through so many script changes, but the thing that hasn’t changed is essentially it’s a group of friends who have known each other their entire lives, all in their twenties, and they have this annual winter weekend away that they’ve always gone on. It used to be with their parents, then it was just them. However this time it’s revealed that, while away at school, Justin, one of the friends, has been accused of a sexual assault. So it’s surrounding the questions of culpability, responsibility, what happens when it’s not a monster on TV or a celebrity, it’s actually your best friend, your ex-boyfriend, your roommate, your brother. What happens when you can’t just shun them and walk away.

WP: Do you remember when this idea first came to you?

Koumbie: I think I’m often drawn to complicated group dynamics. There was a film that I actually did for my birthday, it was just a short film called King’s Cup, which was about a group of friends, and that was just a one-night party, but things got wild and then a bunch of secrets and dramas and tensions were revealed. [Partner and co-writer] Taylor [Olson] and I barely knew each other at that point, but he was in it, and it never saw the light of day because I was a baby filmmaker, and still am of course, but we filmed on a cliff… And we did so much improvising that then when we went into AFCOOP for the ADR session, we realized that I had no idea what anyone was saying. So ADR was not going to save us [laughs]… And this was actually before the Weinstein scandal broke, it was before the Me Too movement really took hold of everyone, but we had some folks in our community who were being called out for things and being held accountable, so it was very much on our minds. And that’s kind of where Bystanders first started.

WP: I feel like that’s something that comes up a lot in speaking with filmmakers, the process of making the jump from shorts to features, and maybe not knowing whether an idea is right to make that jump. Is that something you struggled with at all? How did you know this idea was ready to grow into a feature?

Koumbie: The first few drafts of this we were really bumping up against that, because it was from the seed of an idea from a short film, and we felt that there was so much to talk about and so much to tackle and all of these different characters and dynamics and backstories, we felt like there was a lot, but in reality, in terms of the plot, we did keep coming up against that. Probably about midway through the process we did a really big deconstruction of the story, we really went back to the basics and added a number of elements. There was a long time where the Justin character actually wasn’t really a participant in the story, because it was important to me that it wasn’t a survivor story and it wasn’t about the perpetrator, it was about the community and it was about the friends specifically. But we decided we needed Justin’s presence be much more evident. And so while it’s still not in any way a redemption story for Justin, the focus is still very much on the friends, [his presence] sort of added to the story, and that’s when we were like, OK now this is a feature.

WP: Your experience in acting is interesting, because I think for a lot of filmmakers the idea of being in front of the camera is a terrifying proposition. And because there’s that divide for them, they can’t really know what it feels like to be directed by someone. Do you feel like your experience as an actor has shaped the way you direct?

Koumbie: I think it’s the very foundation of it. I can’t really imagine any other way of directing, because my way into story is through a character’s experiences, because I’m seeing it through the lens of performances. So it’s actually now, as I’m trying to develop as a director and get better as a director, I’m now trying to go OK, what if I don’t only focus on the actors, and what can I bring to the table on the technical side, because at the moment that is definitely where I find my way into the stories.

WP: And as far as the way you work with actors, is there anything from your time acting that kind of affects how you approach them?

Koumbie: I’ve taught the Directing Actors workshop for [AFCOOP’s] FILM 5 [program] for the last few years, and I always tell this story at the beginning where, when I was working on Studio Black!, it was kind of my first real acting job in terms of lots of days and an actual character arc. It was a really big deal to me. And the first week I was more in like an ensemble-type role, and I wasn’t really getting any direction. It was just doing the thing and moving on, and other people were getting direction, and I went home and was like, well, that’s it, I’m a terrible actor because I’m not getting any direction, they’ve given up on me. I’m clearly a lost cause. Then the next week, it was a different episode, and my character had a lot more going on, and I was getting a lot of direction, like a lot, and I went home and was like, well, I’m a terrible actor, I need so much direction. I’m a lost cause. I always tell that story to be like, actors are people and communication is key. You need to communicate and the director needs to communicate, and that’s the foundation. There’s not the perfect way, but for me, the relationship between me and my actors and building a trust and openness to communicate that goes both ways is my top priority.

I HATE YOU, a short film by Koumbie and Taylor Olson, is screening online at the Halifax Black Film Festival from February 24–27.

JAMES WEST & THE ELECTRET CONDENSER

Around 90% of microphones on the market today are based on the principles of a technology developed back in 1962. With all of the sweeping changes we’ve witnessed in the audiovisual technology field over the past century, it is pretty remarkable that something invented 60 years ago is still dominating the market.

The technology in question is called an electret-condenser microphone, often referred to as an ‘ECM’ by manufacturers. For filmmakers, electret-condensers are most often found in lavalier or shotgun microphones, and in video cameras as well. But this technology is also used in cell phones, telephones, laptops, hearing aids, baby monitors, measuring devices, and other electronics.

An electret is a solid material like paper, ceramic, glass, mica, and wax (among others) that has been electrically charged, and which maintains that charge for some time afterward. Modern microphones have electrets that will hold their charge continuously for hundreds of years. But it wasn’t always so.

Electret-condensers were invented by an acoustician named James West and his associate Gerhard Sessler, who worked at Bell Laboratories together in the early 1960s. James happens to be the son of Matilda West, one of the ‘computers’ who worked for NASA and put Neil Armstrong on the moon, as depicted in the feature film Hidden Figures (2016).

While earning a degree in physics, James landed an internship at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. He was assisting a group of scientists who were using condenser microphones in a headset to perform hearing tests. They were trying to figure out how close together two identical ‘pulses’ could be before it sounded like one single pulse to human ears.

The problem was that the pulse was so low no one could hear it, so James sought to solve the problem for them. Upon finding a headset design in a textbook that would have a high enough voltage to make the pulse louder, James headed to the machine shop and built the headset as described in the text—and it worked.

The scientists were initially delighted, but after a few months the microphones began losing sensitivity. After further research, James discovered this was a known, but unexplained, phenomenon. A suggested solution was to reverse the direction of the current. However, this solution would not work for their experiments, as it would send the pulse travelling in the wrong direction.

One day after disconnecting the battery from his headset, James noticed it continued to make a noise without the battery attached. He knew that wasn’t supposed to happen, and it got him thinking. He decided to intentionally short-circuit the headset, and he tried it again without a battery—the same frequency sound came back again. What James had stumbled onto was the world of electrets.

By this time in the early 1960s, inventors, scientists and companies had already been trying to make an electret-condenser microphone that worked for 40 years. No one could make the electret hold a charge for longer than 6 months and so scientists believed electrets to be impractical and of little value. They were mainly utilized as a kind of party trick to teach students about the principles of electrostatics.

James brought a fresh excitement to the subject and approached his friend and colleague Gerhard Sessler about collaborating. For the next two years they worked together to find a way to make electrets keep their charge. With the help of chemists, they tested many different materials until they finally found the perfect one: teflon. They discovered how to trap charged electrons inside teflon so that they could never escape, rendering the teflon permanently charged or polarized much like a magnet.

With this development they were able to create the first ever long-lasting electret-condenser microphone that would not lose its charge over time, or at least not for a very long time compared to its predecessors. The advancement relied heavily on their invention, the electret transducer. Because of its effective design, it quickly became a popular choice for manufacturers who could now easily produce inexpensive condenser microphones with good sensitivity. By the late ’60s, the electret microphone was in mass production.

Nowadays, some consider electret-condenser microphones to be inferior to some high-end or ‘true’ condenser microphones that run on external power only. There is a bit of a purist movement that has emerged in that regard, but at the same time electret-condensers like Sanken Cos-11 lavalier mics are a beloved industry standard.

One thing is for sure, after 60 years electret-condensers are still huge. As mentioned previously, 90% of the 2 billion microphones made each year use this technology. The inexpensive design has improved the affordability (and thus accessibility) of good quality sound-capturing devices for people from all walks of life.

James West retired from Bell Laboratories in 2001. At 90 years old he is still an active inventor and enjoys seeing that his invention has lasted the test of time.

Happy shooting, everyone!

 

 

 

Do you have a tech question that needs answering? Ask Abner! 

Send your questions to: abner@afcoop.ca

SCREEN MEMORIES

with TARA THORNE

Every month, we ask AFCOOP members and staff to share a few memorable discoveries that have come across their screens.

Thelma & Louise (USA, 1991, dir. Ridley Scott)
This is the one, right here. My mother loves movies and it was the heyday of the “7 movies for 7 days for $7” type deals at the local convenience store (I did not grow up with a movie theatre), so there were VHS tapes kicking around my house constantly. The problem was that she loved terrible, violent action movies: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, et al. So when I saw Thelma & Louise in my friend’s living room—one year after it had caused all manners of tizzy, months after Callie Khouri had won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay—and I learned that THE HEROES DIED, it sent all my notions about movies careening off a cliff. A pair of working-class BFFs sets off for a weekend getaway, but they never get there thanks to an attempted rape and then a murder. And now it’s a road movie. It’s the layered, nuanced performances of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon paired with Khouri’s smart, fierce, feminist script that make Thelma & Louise one for the ages, even if you think the ending is a copout (Promising Young Woman’s similarly dismal tragic conclusion resurrected this argument, and I’ll have it any time). Thelma & Louise is the first brick in my feminist foundation, to the point where 30 years later I’ve slipped two tiny tributes to it into my own film, Compulsus.

Lovely & Amazing (USA, 2001, dir. Nicole Holofcener)
I didn’t see a Holofcener in a movie theatre until 2006’s Friends with Money, which is less about me and more about how rarely she directs, every five years or so. So Lovely & Amazing would have come from the same place her 1996 debut Walking and Talking did—the video store. It’s about three sisters: Her regular muse Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer, and Raven Goodwin, who’s a young Black girl their mother (Brenda Blethyn) has suddenly adopted. All four women are in a state of arrested development, working through emotional and/or body issues, and bumbling through life with no clear plan. Holofcener is the master of the lightly plotted character piece, so much so that you can’t give her loglines much juice to encourage someone who has no clue about her, but OH the rewards that await you when you dig in. She writes a certain kind of woman, to be sure—straight, white, well-off—but imbues them with deep empathy, realistic flaws, and urbane humour.

Me and You and Everyone We Know (USA, 2005, dir. Miranda July)
For four years in the mid-’00s I attended the Sundance Film Festival as a journalist, and at my third one in 2005, I was in the first audience to ever see Miranda July’s wily and wonderful debut. I was seeking out any feature directed by a woman, which that year was two (2), and the festival synopsis for this had a bunch of words I did not care for: Multimedia, quirky, art school. Nevertheless I persisted, and I got to hear Roger Ebert laugh uproariously from a few rows behind me in our makeshift screening room inside a hotel ballroom in Park City. July stars as a woman whose job is to drive senior citizens around, and she meets a shoe salesman (John Hawkes), a sad dad named Richard who’s in the wake of a separation. There’s a whole plotline built around children and teens, and it’s from there that the film’s most notable line—”Back and forth forever”—comes: It’s from an online chat between a child talking about poop and a grown woman who thinks it’s a kink, which is really representative of July’s whole deal, wide-eyed about the world while knowing exactly how dirty it can get. From the pepto pink of her apartment walls to Richard setting his hand on fire under the title card, it’s sweet and shocking and unlike anything else. Because I’d seen the film (twice) at Sundance, later in the year I was granted an interview with July when the film was on its theatrical run (the caller ID came up from Los Angeles as M JULY), and my newspaper, The Coast, decided to make it the cover of our Fall Arts Guide, which did not match up with the distributor’s plan, so they added it as a special screening to the Atlantic Film Festival. It’s the most powerful I’ve ever felt.

Tara Thorne is a recovering journalist whose debut feature as a writer-director, Compulsus, was a 2020 Telefilm Talent to Watch project that will begin its festival journey this spring. Her debut essay collection, Low Road Forever, drops in the fall. She is the festival coordinator for HIFF and AFCOOP’s resident cat lady.

Want to contribute? Send your SCREEN MEMORIES to evan@afcoop.ca