Playful, yet revealing and never overly reverent, Bas Berkhout’s short profile documentaries delve into the individual worlds of successful artists without pursuing expected lines of fawning fandom or overly technical deconstructions of their methods. Instead, by identifying reflections of his own life experiences within his subjects, Bas is able to draw out a depth of unguarded honesty in a scant few minutes, something which much longer pieces often fail to achieve. DN took the recent release of his delightful look into playful artist Jon Burgerman as an excuse to quiz Bas about the origins, processes and intentions of his ongoing excavation of the inner lives of popular creatives.
How did Jon Burgerman and his playful personality end up being the focus of your latest short?
I didn’t really have a defined plan for this film. Jon and I were working on his new book It’s Great to Create – he asked me to work on the majority of the photography for it. While we were shooting over many days together we talked about our upbringing. We’re both from Europe, we both have two siblings, we grew up in the 80s and we both moved to NYC a few years back. There were some similarities. We also talked about our relationships with our parents and grandparents. That’s when he mentioned his grandfather and his history. I was amazed. Much later I thought: what if we use the photos that didn’t make it to the final print of the book and make a film with them? I was also interested to learn more about his grandfather’s story and how that related to Jon and his upbringing.
How does this film differ from some of your earlier portrait pieces?
In this film I focussed less on ‘the artist’s creative process’. Although that can be interesting, it’s often a similar story and one which I have explored enough in previous films I’ve made. This film is a very personal journey and it seems to go a lot deeper. I really felt I was able to learn a lot about who Jon is. During the interview, which I approached more as a conversation, I tried to find out what connects and relates to me. Once in that space I was able to see how we humans are all so similar, how we’re all facing the the same emotions and challenges. Making films like this just grows my empathy and hopefully the viewer’s also.
What was the production process behind this?
I used a Canon Mark IV for the photos and I shot the film with a Sony FS7 and Sigma Cine Zoom lenses. The whole process took about 3 months. I think all the photos were made in a 4-6 week period and editing overall took about the same. I made this film solo so I directed, shot and edit the piece. Sound effects were brought to the next level by my Sound Designer Peter Stoel. I usually just create a rough track with effects and sounds and he designs and mixes the final track.
How difficult was it for you to find an appropriate rhythm and balance for Jon’s story, especially as you touch on some tragically dark topics in his family history?
I think that’s the hardest part in the process. It’s finding a balance between several things. The first is the viewer’s time on the internet – I try to figure out how I can make them invest in this story and sit through it. I think it’s the editing style and the setting where the story takes place which works in that favor. The second is the arc, when do you tell what. I could have started the film with the tragedy but decided to start with weirdness and humor first and make the turn to a darker topic later. Jon’s film was also extra hard because ‘humor’ isn’t really my genre. It requires perfect timing for a joke to work, one frame off and the joke doesn’t work any more, so this was a bit of a challenge for sure.
Was Jon involved in shaping the final film?
I sent him the final piece and he had a few things to say but he knew this piece was my ‘art’ and you can’t really comment on someone’s ‘art’, it’s what it is. That’s different with a commercial project obviously. I was super lucky that Jon trusted me with his story. I think that’s really, really brave.
You’ve carved a real niche for yourself in the area of artist profile shorts. What first attracted you to this style of documentation and is there a common goal you pursue with these films?
4 years ago I was stuck work-wise. I ran a small video production company in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, which focussed on delivering internal video for large corporate brands only. The money was good, but my heart was somewhere else. I started to feel burnt out and needed to do something on the side which focussed on documentary and storytelling. That’s when I co-founded an artist profile series called Like Knows Like. We wanted to fight the internet shallowness by sharing personal stories of popular creatives and artists. We made 25 films in 2 years without any funding. We were just personally interested in meeting these interesting people and making passion-work. The series went viral and inspired so many young and starting artists, which was never the goal, but obviously amazing to read in the emails we got.
We wanted to fight the internet shallowness by sharing personal stories of popular creatives and artists.
The style of the original LKL series is very different from my films about Mac Premo, Beth Cavener or Jon Burgerman, it’s slower, a bit more traditional. When my LKL co-founder and I split up, I wanted to make something entirely different. Mac’s film was the first in this style and got a massive response. Over the course of a few months I basically gathered all kinds of different footage with him – audio conversations, macro lens video shots and stills. I had different things in mind for his story at first, I was thinking about some interactive website and then didn’t really know. After months I dumped everything I had on a timeline and put this piece together in a day and half or so.
I wanted to make something ‘explosive’ after all that slow paced work. It was also around the time I had just moved to NYC, so I guess that energy bounced off too 🙂 It wasn’t really a conscious process. The style resonated with a lot of viewers so I thought I should explore this style in my next films too. It’s very intuitive, it’s fun to play with and at the time it didn’t feel like it had been done before.
How do you tend to find your subjects and what is it about their stories that attracts you?
Finding subjects is a natural process. I stumble upon someone’s feed or meet someone in person and then immediately feel a click. It’s always that question that raises in my head; Who are you and why do you make this brilliant work? I don’t need a pre-interview to find out if it’s going to be interesting, I just know and want to dive in by just looking at their work. I guess it’s all based on what resonates with me personally.
Every film I’ve made about someone in the past few years highlights something I was dealing with myself.
Then I try to make their stories universal and relatable to anyone who’s watching. I’m not really interested in the artist ‘creative process’, what’s interesting to me is their psychological journey though life. I think that’s more relatable to a broader audience and that’s how I learn about life myself. Every film I’ve made about someone in the past few years highlights something I was dealing with myself, like loosing a parent, moving to another county or becoming a parent.
How do you put people at ease to enable such honest reflection about their experiences?
During the interviews I share my own ‘shit’ between the questions so it becomes more of a conversation. Maybe I’m naively insensitive to others’ sensitivities. I’m not really aware of any cultural or formal rules so often I just ask away. Maybe I’m just very ‘Dutch’ and assume I can just ask anything, haha.
What new projects do you have in the works?
My next independent project is about Oliver Jeffers. I’m in post right now. Release is mid-November.