Helen Kotsonis And Bryan Atkinson: Islands At SXSW

DGC Ontario Production Islands will have its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin this week. With this film, Director/Writer Martin Edralin tells a Filipino-Canadian family’s story of love and loss.

We caught up with Production Designer Helen Kotsonis and Picture Editor Bryan Atkinson to talk about the film’s premiere, Helen’s design inspiration and Bryan’s long-time working relationship with Martin.

Production Designer Helen Kotsonis

How does it feel to have Islands premiere at SXSW?

It feels great! I always knew this film would be a success; Martin is incredibly talented and has a unique vision. It was such a personal film to design, and we all put a lot of ourselves into it. I’m so happy that this story is getting acknowledged like this and will reach international audiences.

How did you get involved with Islands?

I met Martin through the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) many years ago, and he kindly asked me to design his first film HOLE. It was an incredibly special project, and I’ve worked on all of Martin’s films since. 

Can you tell us more about the design of the film?

The film’s main set was the family home, which our protagonist has been living in with his parents since they first moved to Canada decades ago. A phrase that I kept going back to was “trapped in amber” I wanted to create a world for them that was warm and valuable but ultimately never changing. I chose a soft colour pallet and decorated it with second-hand furniture from the ’80s to create a comfortable and nostalgic feeling. Everything is clean and cared for, so you know it’s a safe space, but the ’80s decor makes it feel stuck in time and out-of-touch. The idea was to show the internal conflict that can exist when you live in a uniquely beautiful and familiar world while also needing change and connection to feel complete.

What do you love about working in Toronto/GTA? 

I love the people that I get to work with every day. There is a wonderful community of filmmakers here, and I am especially grateful to all the people who have worked on my team over the years. They have really put so much of themselves into these passion projects to bring my designs to life, whenever I think about it I feel incredibly lucky.

A before shot of the decrepit set location followed by an after shot of the same location converted into a comfortable living room with an old man sitting in a chair.

What did you use as inspiration for designing Islands?

The main design inspiration came from Martin’s childhood photographs and research on Filipino-Canadian culture. I put a call out on Facebook asking if there were any Filipino-Canadians who would let me interview them about their homes and/or share photographs of their kitchens, food and religious altars with me. The response was incredible, and so many people took the time to introduce me to their culture to make the sets feel authentic and tangible. The biggest compliment I received was when one of the actors came into the house for the first time and said it felt like her grandmother’s home! That’s when I knew we had succeeded.  

Picture Editor Bryan Atkinson:

How does it feel to have Islands premiere at SXSW?

I was so happy to hear about the SXSW premiere. It’s always a great feeling when the work is recognized, but seeing as this is a debut feature and a rare glimpse at Filipino-Canadian life, it means a lot that this film will get exposure. 

How did you get involved with Islands?

I have a great collaboration with Martin Edralin. We met back in 2011 at a LIFT workshop and bonded over our love of international cinema. I’ve been fortunate to edit all of his films since then. Martin puts a lot of trust in me, and it’s a joy to work together.

Can you tell us more about your experience editing the film? 

This was a unique experience for me. The dialogue is largely in Tagalog (Filipino language that I don’t speak) which required addtitional attention. It took me a few passes at the material to understand the finer parts of the performances. The film was also a refreshing change of pace. Martin’s films are much slower than a lot of contemporary work, and it’s a pleasure to deliberately slow down the rhythm of edits and live in the scenes.

What do you love about working in Toronto/GTA? 

I really appreciate the film scene in Toronto; it’s a city for cinema lovers. As recently as 2019, there were 130 active film festivals in this city. That’s an incredible amount of inspiration available to budding talent and cinephiles. I feel lucky to live where I can see so many kinds of films in a cinema. 

Where do you turn for inspiration when you need to get the creative juices flowing?

This changes depending on what I’m working on. For this film, I looked to specific references that Martin and I had discussed, such as the films of Tsai Ming-liang. I’m also a fan of Joanna Hogg, her films were a big inspiration.

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