In his short film Bill Blaine – A Walk Around the House documentary filmmaker Jakub Blank captures the unfiltered musings of prolific Artist Bill Blaine. Blank follows Blaine in conversation as he tours his home, wondering room to room and showcasing his art whilst talking about his own artistic process and the nature of art itself and those who choose to spend a life intertwined with it. Blank creates a gentle sensibility for the film through smooth camera movements with Bill’s eye-line focused slightly above the lens, reminding you that this a conversation between two people. It’s a clever and subtle technique but it creates an observational, conversational atmosphere which takes the film to an immersive level. Director Notes caught up with Blank to discuss his personal relationship with Bill and the practicalities of achieving his documentary’s wonderfully calm tone.
Where did the creative impulse to make a film about Bill and his work come from?
A Walk Around the House originated solely from Bill not wanting to paint. Every time I would see him at family gatherings and such, I would ask him, “Are you painting?” or “Have you been painting anything recently?” and most of the time while holding a glass of beer he would hesitate and smirk and tell me he hasn’t been able to gather himself to paint anything. As time went by I started making docs about makers and artists and Bill being a close family friend was an obvious subject as I’ve always enjoyed talking to him about anything art related, and after visiting him at his house and seeing all the art on the walls and the house seeming like a gallery, it made sense to make a film about him.
I wanted the film to feel observational, like a plain conversation with this older wiser artist.
How did it work practically, did you shoot with him over a single day or was the process of production more drawn out?
I was down in central Florida shooting another project and that’s where Bill lives too so I decided to spend a little bit of time with him at his house and film our conversation and his stories. I spent roughly four to five hours with him filming that day. I came in unscripted with a few questions built out in my head but the conversation just started flowing as he started walking me around and talking about different paintings and etchings, all of them seemed to have a backstory.
The camerawork has a real grace to it which adds to that sense of journey around the house, making you feel like a guest Bill is talking to. How did you achieve that?
I came into it knowing it would be a fast paced filming situation so I decided to shoot most of it on a Ronin RS-2 with a BMPCC 4k and a 16-35mm canon L lens, that allowed me to replicate a Steadicam movement without an overbearing setup blocking me from Bill, so the whole thing is just me and Bill like a dance, I’m operating finding the shots and also asking him questions. It was the middle of the summer in Florida so I was drenched, like dripping sweat from my face. We just kinda strolled around the house and it seemed like the camera wasn’t even there in his mind cause he would just answer directly to me slightly above the camera’s perspective.
How did you find conversing with Bill in that way? He’s such a wise character.
Bill was an art professor so he has a lot of insight and knowledge about art and talking comes naturally – so it wasn’t hard pulling interesting stuff out of him. All the talking was done while walking on the gimbal and some extra stuff was shot on the tripod with a cheap vintage 50mm lens, all natural light, just closing blinds and shutting curtains to form the light a bit. It was nice knowing that I could potentially come back to Bill and ask him more questions if I realised I needed it in post, that way I wasn’t too stressed about how little coverage I got with him.
The way you present Bill’s art in the film feels more purposeful than typical documentary cutaways.
In the edit for the first time in my life I felt a lack of footage to cover the whole story but because I knew I wanted to include Bill’s slides of his art in it I structured it almost like a gallery, where the art was a big part of the viewing experience not just B-Roll covering the edit. The intro came really quick, I wanted to show him right away and what he’s saying at the beginning is so emotional to me that I knew I had to start with that. I loved how intense and long the staring shot is, it made me uncomfortable and I felt I was really connecting with Bill in that moment, locking my eyes with his.
I structured it almost like a gallery, where the art was a big part of the viewing experience.
I think that totally sets the tone for the film’s observational nature.
I wanted the film to feel observational, like a plain conversation with this older wiser artist and I think that’s why there are so many rabbit trails that don’t take us anywhere but in a way paint a bigger picture of who Bill is – the search for style and the emotional approach to making art, finding yourself your whole life. The ending was the hardest, I didn’t know how to close the film and I just kinda left it open, not really done, just another thought for the road…
Did you work with anyone else on the film? What involvement did they have?
I had three really gracious friends help with the finishing of the film. Music was composed by Aaron Curiak who is an amazing young artist that sent me a folder of music he just kinda had sitting around. I was able to use whatever I wanted so I had music already made and was able to place it however I decided – it made the piece take on a tone from the beginning and run with it. Jeremiah Clever, a long time friend and collaborator, mixed and sound designed the film making it feel like I had an audio guy on set… I shot the film in the Blackmagic raw codec so I was able to play with color in post and John Carrington, a colorist extraordinaire, offered up his services so very kindly and made the whole thing look very pretty.
What did you learn from working with Bill on this doc that you’ll take into future filmmaking work you’ll make?
There are a few things I learned. Production-wise, I really felt having chemistry and an interesting subject made the process of making an unscripted film easier, it felt like a dance or a jazz jam session which I think helped the film feel vulnerable and intimate. It was also amazing to see the reaction other people had towards the film, people really connecting with Bill. His struggle and his story seemed so transcendent and universal, way more than I anticipated and honestly hoped for. I came into it very selfishly wanting to hear Bill talk about anything and everything and make a piece that his family can cherish once he’s gone and I am glad I did because it proved to me that honest and vulnerable storytelling is more important than any fancy style or visual gimmick.
What do you have on the horizon in regards to filmmaking projects?
I am currently finishing a film about my father and his art journey. Been working on this one since before Bill’s film, it’s the longest film I’ve made so far. I’m also planning a VR exhibition that will accompany it so it’s taking a bit longer than I anticipated.