With the 25th Anniversary of the Dusty Film & Animation Festival just around the corner (May 10-13 at the SVA Theatre), SVA Close Up is checking in with some of the College’s many successful alumni making names for themselves in the world of film, video and animation. For the fifth installment of the series, the spotlight is on Olivier Bernier (BFA 2006 Film and Video), who is no stranger to the Dustys—he won for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Short Form Screenplay in 2006. Since then, Bernier has racked up an impressive list of professional credits, including work on Project Nim, Rabbit Hole starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart and Sandra Oh, and The Sunset Sky, which is scheduled for distribution later this summer.
Bernier is also the founder of the New York–based production company Rota6, which has created the award nominee intro videos for the Dustys since 2011. He and Rota6 have also directed videos for major brands such as Pepsi, Google and Sony, and a recent commercial he directed for I Am An Investor was featured in The New York Times. Bernier recently took some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions via e-mail.
When did you realize that filmmaking was what you wanted to do with your life?
Photography and skate videos are to blame. Ever since I could remember, my father had an old Nikormatte with a single 50mm lens (I think the others had been stolen). Playing with that is most likely what got me hooked on cameras. When I was a little older he gave it to me and I didn’t put it down for years.
Then my friends and I began to film ourselves skating and I would edit them from VHS deck to VHS deck. Oddly, many filmmakers from my generation seem to have a similar story. Around the same time, I took a TV production course in high school and my future as a filmmaker became cemented. There really was no looking back. I loved it all—writing, shooting, directing and, of course, the editing.
I always liked creating but I am terrible at drawing and an even worse at painting. Music is also a definite no but something about filmmaking always clicked. I truly believe it is the most complete form of storytelling. Even to this day, seeing how two images collide with one another is truly magical.
What makes a great film?
A film can be great for many reasons, such as its context in history, its legacy, the backstory, aesthetics, etc. But for me what makes a film great is one where the actors, director, lights and camera all disappear and the only thing that I remember is the experience of the story.
If you could have dinner with three filmmakers, dead or alive, who would they be and why?
Elia Kazan and Werner Herzog: I’d love to pick their brains a bit to get inspired.
The Lumier brothers: I would mainly want to see if film today is what fits with what they imagined when they invented the motion picture.
If you find yourself stuck in a creative rut, what gets you out of it?
I think every filmmaker suffers through creative ruts (although some may not admit it), especially during the development phase. They come out of nowhere and at times create a debilitating downward trend that often feels irreversible. Perhaps when I was younger my methods for overcoming this were a little unsavory. Now I can simply go on a run or take a break and reset.
For me, the bottom line is confidence. If I am comfortable and feeling good about my way of thinking, I will generally feel much better about what I am creating and more open and perceptive to the ideas that are floating around in my periphery. Saying, “That idea is stupid!” before I’ve even taken it for a walk is the worst thing I can do to myself. I need to at least kick the tires and take it for a test spin first. Sometimes the difference between a bad idea and a really good one is very little and being able to recognize that is crucial. If you have the confidence to explore what may seem like a bad idea and develop it, that makes all the difference.
Lastly, film is extremely collaborative by nature so if you get in a rut as a director, hopefully you’ve surrounded yourself with a great team that you can lean on in those moments.
How did your time at SVA prepare you for what you’re doing today?
The most important type of art I learned while at SVA was the art of collaboration. There is no science to it and no one way do to it, but being good at sparking collaboration is simply the most important tool a filmmaker can have. Generally, it all starts with knowing good people and understanding what they bring to the table. And keep in mind that a lot of the people you meet and collaborate with while at SVA will follow you through your career.
From my first feature to commercials that I direct, I almost always find myself collaborating with at least one talented person I met while at SVA.
What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers?
First, take advantage of your time at SVA and realize this is your moment to try anything. Experiment and don’t be afraid of making something that fails—only the people in your class will judge you. When you start working professionally it becomes a little harder to do this because there is much more at stake and more pressure to produce something good with consistency, so as artists we tend to become risk adverse later on.
My second bit of advice would be to do everything and learn from everyone. The more you know how everything works, the better you will become at managing your crew.
Lastly, the best practical advice I ever got from one of my professors was to learn a trade or craft related to film. When you get out of school, no one will be calling you immediately to direct their next movie. So in the meantime, work within the industry as an AC, a grip or whatever interests you and make connections that you can call on later. Then in your free time pursue your passion and never give up.