Most filmmakers have a predictable list of people to thank when their work arrives on the big screen. Their actors, the producer, the screenwriter, perhaps even an agent will all get special praise. When Jaxzen Sandell's first film premieres at TIFF Kids this month, he'll likely give a shout-out to his homeroom teacher, Ms. Partridge.
It was Ms. Partridge, after all, who late last year, before her retirement, suggested that Sandell and his Grade 7 classmates at Bowmore Public School, in Toronto, each make a movie and submit them to the TIFF Kids International Film Festival Jump Cuts program. Sandell was eager to pick up a camera and start shooting.
"Our teacher expected us to make storyboards and everything. I started making storyboards and then I got bored so I started filming," says the 12-year-old.
Sandell's movie, Flat, is one of just 14 films in the Grade 7 and 8 category selected out of nearly 100 submissions from across Ontario that will be screened at this year's TIFF Kids festival. The film, with a running time of five minutes and 45 seconds (all entries had to be under eight minutes), uses stop-motion animation to tell the story about two drawings in love who are separated by an evil tablet that makes one of them into 3-D Plasticine while the other is trapped on paper. A representative for the festival said the movie was chosen as a finalist because of it's "very impressive" blend of various types of animation.
"I was kind of fond of the whole Romeo and Juliet idea," Sandell says.
Like most storied films, Flat ran into its share of production troubles.
Sandell took so many photographs for the stop-motion animation – just more than 2,000 – that they crashed the family computer.
Then, he had to learn to use iMovie."We had a big problem with editing. It took two days to figure out how to use iMovie. My mom helped me figure it out and I did the editing myself," Sandell says.
But the largely improvised, do-it-on-the-fly aspect of making the movie suited the director just fine. "Sometimes you just have to go with what feels right at the moment," he says.
Besides, it's not as if he wasn't prepared. Sandell has wanted to be a filmmaker since he saw Enchanted, a Disney movie starring Amy Adams that puts a different spin on princess stories, in 2009.
"Before then, I only liked watching cartoon movies because I was younger," Sandell says. But Enchanted, which his older sister had shown him, led him to decide to become a filmmaker. "It had a different formula from normal Disney movies."
Since then, he has gobbled up DVD commentaries to learn everything he can about making movies. His favourite directors include Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton and Hayao Miyazaki, the director of Spirited Away. And, Sandell adds: "I like the work of Brad Bird."
He's already thinking big: Sandell's dream project is a series of three or four animated musicals.
"I would want to get a big cast," he says. "I like Jim Carrey. I like Will Ferrell. I like Kristen Wiig. I like Jonah Hill. He plays a good side character. I feel like Leonardo DiCaprio is a bit too serious for what I want to do for certain movies. But I wouldn't mind working with him. And mind you, all of these actors will be pretty old by the time I become a really good director."
He does want to make live-action movies, but he always knew that Flat would be animated.
"I wouldn't say there are more limitations to being live action because you can certainly do more. You could jump around. It wouldn't be so hard to actually make. I just felt like there's more craftsmanship and more personal kind of influence that went into an animated movie because it has your own artistic style. It's like looking at a painting that came to life," Sandell says.
He's already planning his second film, a claymation short about the Mexican Day of the Dead, which he expects to shoot this summer. It's the next step toward one day launching his own moviemaking company.
"I plan on starting from scratch," Sandell says. "Blue Sky Studios, that's what they did. They just made a short and then went off and made Robots."
He wants to go to film school, but his education has already begun. He's currently learning Final Cut, a video-editing software, and Toon Boom, the animation software. And he hopes to get RenderMan, the visual-effects industry's gold-standard software developed by Pixar. At the moment, though, he's looking forward to the premiere of Flat at the festival.
"It will be very, very exciting. I'll probably be sweating a lot," Sandell says.
Now that he's got his first movie under his belt, he is absorbing the lessons of sitting in the director's chair.
"What I liked about it was just the idea that I'm able to bring the story to life. It's like a buzz kind of feeling when you're doing it. It's not that sort of excitement when you say, 'Oh, I can't wait to be done.' It's more of a feeling like, 'I can't wait to accomplish this.' I guess it's just different words, but it makes a difference," he says.
And then there's maybe the most important lesson of all that Sandell says he's learned from the process.
"I know this is going to sound kind of cheesy, but follow your instincts, and go where your heart takes you."
TIFF Kids highlights
Directed by Alastair Fothergill, who's been called the "Spielberg of nature films," the new True Life Adventures film from Disneynature, about a year in the life of a family of brown bears in the Alaskan wilderness, makes its Canadian premiere on April 11.
The House of Magic
The festival's closing-night film, on April 19, is also a Canadian premiere. The House of Magic is an animated movie about a cat who lives in the house of a retired magician. Director Ben Stassen will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A, and a "special guest" magician will also be on hand to teach kids tricks.
Big Bird in the House
The yellow Sesame Street superstar will give a special introduction to Elmo the Musical on April 13. Kids in attendance can get their photos taken with Abby Cadabby, Elmo and Cookie Monster before or after the screening.
Described as "where great kids' books meet flash mobs," StoryMobs will be part of a special event where kids and adults will bring to life the book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, on April 19. There will be a screening of the movie afterward at this free event.
With the festival falling on Easter Monday this year, it is extending programing on April 21. There will be screenings of the award-winning films as voted by festival audiences and TIFF Kids juries, meaning there'll be one more chance to check them out. DigiPlaySpace, the interactive space inside TIFF Bell Lightbox, will also be open. Dave McGinn
Jaxzen Sandell's film, Flat, screens as part of the Jump Cuts Young Filmmakers Showcase on April 17 and 19.
The TIFF Kids International Film Festival runs April 8 to 21. Visit tiff.net/kids for more details.