12 Questions with Cinematographer and Director, Oliver Milne
—Published on 4th May, 2020.
Our May Twelve Questions features independent filmmaker, director, and cinematographer, Oliver Milne. Milne always had a passion for filmmaking – as a teenager, he gained experience on local productions including commercials and the feature film, ‘The Ghost of Hing King Estate’. Soon, he was at the Vancouver Film School, from which he graduated with honours in 2009.
In the decade since graduating, Milne has been a regular participant at the annual trinidad+tobago film festival and is sought after as both a director of photography and a director, of music videos, commercials and independent films. He has won awards at the ttff and at the Caribbean Addys. His most recent short film (which he wrote and directed), ‘Salty Dog’, was made with a grant from the Dream Big Foundation, and is distributed by FILMCO.
FILMCO: What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how did you get started?
OM: I think that I’ve always been a highly imaginative and visual person. I loved movies as a little kid, and when I reflect on it, I was always trying to make movies in some shape or form. I didn’t have access to a camera growing up, but I remember being very excited when, at a friend’s house one weekend, we decided to make a movie with their parents’ camera. My job was to “act” in it, but I really wanted to be the one creating it. I can remember another time with my cousin: we were building “a set”, using toys as the characters to make a movie. We didn’t even have a camera to shoot it, but we set the scene and came up with a story.
In form one, at Queen’s Royal College, I remember talking to my parents one evening and they were asking what I thought I may want to do as a career. Different things, from geology to architecture, were thrown around, but then one of them said, ‘What about film?’ At that moment I think it clicked for me, and there was nothing else I wanted to do. It was like, ‘Oh wait… this is something I can pursue?’ From then on, all through secondary school, I read and soaked up as much information as much as I could on it. I was fortunate that one of my parents’ closest friends, Ali Smith, was a working director and producer of commercials locally, and I was able to get on set with her as a production assistant. I would, sometimes, even skip school to work on sets handing out water and lugging equipment around for the crews – I may have been 13 or 14 at that time. I remember purchasing my first script online for $50US when I was 15. That’s when I decided that I’d direct my first short. Ali agreed to produce it for me and we shot it in one night with an experienced local crew and actors like Michael Cherrie and Simone Harris. After having it screened at MovieTowne during the first trinidad+tobago film festival back in 2006, I was hooked!
FILMCO: You have had quite a lot of experience as a cinematographer, how does that compare to the work you have done as a director; which do you prefer, and why?
OM: This is a hard question. When I decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker, I probably thought directing and cinematography were more or less the same thing. Years of experience have taught me, though deeply interconnected, they’re different skill sets.
I started out with the intention of being a director, and that’s still my main focus. However, I fell in love with cinematography while in film school; I had an inclination towards it. So when I returned to Trinidad after school, I found myself beginning to work a lot as a cinematographer on music videos, commercials, and short films with friends and fellow filmmakers. So much so that I’d say my focus shifted to that for many years. But I’ve never stopped wanting to direct my own projects. Recently, I’ve made a conscious effort to shift my focus back over to directing and writing. I definitely don’t have a preference. I think cinematography is, overall, less stressful, because you’re not focused on as many different aspects of production. However, I really love all aspects of production, and maybe that’s why directing is something I’m passionate about. I love the collaboration and the fact that it takes so many different skilled artists to make one thing come together, and when it all fits it’s a bit of magic. I hope to continue doing a bit of both depending on what feels right at the time.
FILMCO: Who or what have been some of your biggest influences in film/ television in Trinidad and Tobago, and why?
OM: I’m really grateful for the trinidad +tobago film festival. The industry has grown so much since the inception of the festival 14 years ago. There have been so many opportunities to see great work by fellow regional filmmakers as well as all of our filmmakers here in Trinbago, and it’s really inspiring to see the growth of the industry both in size and quality of the work being done. It’s hard to say if there’s been one influence or the other, but I am really inspired when I see my contemporaries doing their thing.
FILMCO: If you could collaborate with any filmmaker in the Caribbean region, who would it be and why?
OM: I feel that I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with a number of really talented filmmakers both locally and throughout the region, it’s difficult to choose one.
FILMCO: Your ongoing music video work with Kes the Band, most recently with “Savannah Grass” and “Magic” featuring Jimmy October, has gained a lot of traction. Tell us a bit about your experience collaborating with Kes the Band, and directing local music videos in general.
OM: I’ve enjoyed working with Kes the Band very much. They’re probably the band who I’ve collaborated with the most when it comes to music videos. The dynamic has evolved throughout the years, with many other filmmakers being involved. I’ve shot videos for them with other directors and in turn, directed some myself. Particularly, both “Savannah Grass” and “Magic” were productions that occurred in a very organic and somewhat unplanned way. What I’ve come to realise, is that those types of music videos are the ones I enjoy the most, they’re a space to experiment and have fun. They’re more about ‘bottling a feeling’ than telling a linear story or narrative necessarily.
I’ve also collaborated on a few videos for Freetown Collective and shooting for directors such as Nadia Huggins “Space for a Heart” and Maya Cozier “Human Form“. I also directed and shot “Born In Darkness” for Freetown last year; all of these projects had unique challenges to overcome. Freetown has a very strong sense of what they want to say. The message is heard in the music and we usually want to translate it visually, sometimes the stories can become elaborate and it can be challenging, but I’m proud of all of the ones we’ve done together. I’d like to hope they capture the feelings of the songs.
FILMCO: For many filmmakers, when starting a project, certain resources are often difficult to come by. What have been some of the challenges you have faced with taking your films from page to screen, and how have you overcome them?
OM: The challenges are endless. I’ve always said that film is like some sort of alchemy: it takes everything happening all together in the perfect timing to make it happen. I’ve faced tonnes of self-doubt – overthinking which story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. I think the most important thing is perseverance. You have to really want it every day! You have to want to tell stories and keep that fire burning.
FILMCO: Many filmmakers in Trinidad and Tobago have multiple avenues of income and must juggle their responsibilities. What has been your experience balancing your commercial/ music video work with more personal projects?
OM: This is the biggest catch 22 I think we all face as creatives. How do you balance putting food on the table and creating work that is creatively satisfying? It’s very very difficult, especially in a young industry that lacks infrastructure and support. We have much more of a corporate video and commercial industry than a film industry.
We have a lot of people working on films, and we see a few features a year if we’re lucky, but it’s hardly what you can call a sustainable industry. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people on commercials over the years and it has allowed me to live and sustain myself, but it definitely makes it difficult to find time for yourself, to work on projects that you want to do.
If there’s one good thing that has come out of this whole ‘global pause’ due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that we’ve been given an opportunity to stop and reflect. We can reflect on where we are in life, where we want to be, and how we can chart a course forward to make that happen. I’ve personally been taking the time to write a lot more so that I’ll have some projects ready to go when we’re allowed back out in the world again.
FILMCO: What influenced you to pursue analog photography? Have you ever considered analog filmmaking?
OM: I picked up analog photography while in film school in Vancouver. A few of my friends from my class were shooting film, so I went and got an old Pentax SLR from a pawn shop and just started shooting. A few years ago I picked it up again, wanting a hobby that was more instantly gratifying than making films. I created an Instagram page called @analog_ollie which is a home for all my experimentation with analog. I don’t edit any of the pictures – I like the idea of just capturing something and letting whatever the result is be without altering it after the fact.
When it comes to analog filmmaking, this is something I think about all the time. I had the opportunity to do my final film in school on 16mm which was 11 years ago now. Since then I’d always thought of doing another film on film, but it seemed unattainable, expensive and impractical. However, something I’ve been most excited about with my latest short film project “Not Now, Never Now” is just that, we’ve actually managed to shoot the majority of it on 16mm with a few scenes in 8mm and digital formats.
I love the feeling of shooting on film and will always try to find ways to use it where I can. That being said, I believe all the different formats we have available to us now are very exciting – they each feel different. I believe in using them when it feels appropriate to the project.
.FILMCO: Given the knowledge of filmmaking that you now possess, if you could have a conversation with your 16-year-old self about pursuing a career in film/ television, what would your advice be?
OM: I’d tell myself to be less of a perfectionist and just tell whatever story you’re equipped to tell at that moment. I would tell myself to create a lot more. I’m now trying to let go of some of the expectations that I have for my own work and just do what feels right at that given time. So, I would tell him to let go of expectations, don’t judge yourself or your work, and be okay with making mistakes – just learn from them and move on.
FILMCO: What do you think are the three things we need to be able to build a sustainable film and television industry here in Trinidad and Tobago?
- Making it easier to get gear into the country. If they cut taxes on gear, people with the money would be encouraged to maybe set up proper equipment rental houses with gear far superior to what we have now, which would inevitably raise the standard of local productions.
- Encouraging more foreign films to shoot locally. If they got rid of some of the “red tape” around setting up productions locally, there could be a useful benefit of having local crew working with international experienced professionals.
- Really focusing on our TV industry. If a local station or two were to really focus on putting out some interesting narrative content you’d be able to build the overall capacity of the industry while providing jobs. Imagine if a station were to hire a team of writers to develop shows, then hire crews to execute said shows for local, regional and international broadcast, I don’t see why it can’t and isn’t being done already. Who’s to say we can’t get our local content out on international streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. It’s already being done by filmmakers regionally.
At the end of the day, the general public tends to think that local equals subpar or substandard, but there are a plethora of regional and local productions cropping up every year that says otherwise.
FILMCO: Tell us a bit about your current film, ‘Not Now, Never Now’.
OM: “Not Now, Never Now” is a little film where the story just hit me like a wave. Ever since writing it, a sort of snowball effect happened, where I just shared it around with friends and people I trusted, and one thing led to another. Next thing you know I was crowdfunding; to the point where we successfully raised a third of our desired budget.
The whole journey has had such overwhelming support from everyone involved. We’ve had an incredible cast and crew who have just been such a joy to work with. From top to bottom, everyone believes in what the film could be, and that’s the most amazing thing to have happen: when people believe in the story you’re trying to tell.
At the moment we’ve wrapped production after having four separate stints of shooting over the course of last year. Now we’re in post-production dealing with visual effects, sound design, and colour.
I’m hoping to have it done in the next month or two so I can start submitting it to festivals.
FILMCO: What’s next for you/ when will you be tackling your first feature film?
OM: This is the question I’ve been asking myself since I was 12. But, I’m happy to say that I’m currently working on my first feature script. I can’t say much about it now other than I’m really excited about it and can’t wait to get the ball rolling on it!