Interview: Martin Bonnici

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The obsession was unveiled back in July 18 but Martin Bonnici has been dealing with his 3d movie making syndrome for quite a number of years now.

was born and bred inside Martin’s creative brain. Featuring under the brand name Shadeena (sounding like ‘xadina’ which is Maltese for ‘monkey’), Martin gave life to his creative trigger through some serious effort and an innovative approach to production. redwhite felt like putting a light on this interesting reality and asked Martin a few questions about himself, Tele-Monkey and the general local movie-making industry.

What made you seek a career in movie making?

I was lucky enough to be brought up by parents who always encouraged my siblings and I to look beyond academic studies and engage in something creative. For them, creativity was not just about painting or playing music but also extended to programming and coming up with my little projects involving the construction of toys and the organising of events. I had been hooked on movies (thanks to my father, my uncle and my older brother who were all film buffs) from an early age and the older I got, the more I became interested in this language.

Graphics and simple animation packages were my playing field since I was around eleven, and by the time I was at sixth form I was able to tackle a number of basic duties for the school’s video crew. My first taste of a big project was in fact the Sixth Form Battle of the Bands and then later on, the Soiree. From that point on, I knew that there was nothing else in life that I wanted to do.

Tele-Monkey represents the local obsession to teleshopping. What inspired the script and how did you go about compressing the thought into a short?

Well it was not really inspired by an audience’s obsession with TV shopping but rather by the stations’ over-reliance on TV shopping. When I started developing the project I was involved in TV productions. This made me suspect that too much time and space was being dedicated to cheap advertising, starting from TV and going all the way to print and street advertising.

I tried to keep two things in mind; keeping the short as simple as possible and sticking to a concise script as the budget was quite restrictive. I knew we would be pushing local animation skill and talent to a limit and hopefully beyond it.

I’m not much of a writer and back then (about 3 or 4 years ago) I cut the story to pretty much an under developed platform for the idea itself. Hopefully my projects-to-come will be proof for my learning curve during this first attempt.

Tell us something about Shadeena. Who is involved in it and what are your ambitions to it?

Shadeena is so far just me, working alone from a little room at home. The idea was to establish a legal entity which represents my efforts as a producer, allows me to tap into funding opportunities and gives me the opportunity to organise my work a bit more. The first project was Tele-Monkey, and Shadeena existed for 2 years, solely to produce that project.

However, seeing the exposure the project got, I decided to push Shadeena further, and in the past 2 years it was rewarded with an Invex Grant. It has also been involved in two Kreattiv-funded projects, one of which has been completed and received very positive feedback and also won the Malta Innovation Award in the Creative Category for Tele-Monkey. The plan is to transform Shadeena in a distinct production company with two distinct divisions each having dedicated goals and operational structure.

The first division aimed at producing and co-producing movies, starting with shorts and slowly, hopefully growing into feature films or TV projects. The second division is dedicated to media and the development of commercials, corporate material and one off event videos/projections. Shadeena is also aiming at a flexible approach by collaborating with freelancers, according to a project’s technical and stylistic requirements.

What is involved in designing 3D character and the main scenes?

A custom style for every project, has to be explored and developed; the styling of picture, the style resources, the concept. Next are the character and the scenery design which follow similar approaches.

At this stage, various people are involved apart from myself as director or producer. Illustrators, graphic designers and artists from different backgrounds are teamed up to translate the ideas into a world. In the case of ‘Tele-Monkey’ the character was modelled on the design of the monkey that features in Spooky Monkey’s logo. It was then developed further, then, modeled and textured by Ivan Saliba.

The scenery was designed by our production designer Matthew Grima Connell. He got himself triggered by a number of thoughts and inspirational quotes which i had jotted in a document while imagining the settings. Following further discussion and refining, Ivan Saliba took time to render them too.

How difficult is it to sync the visuals to the audio or vice versa?

Everything you hear during the short, was recreated by our sound designer. We spent an evening recording; from brushes to yawns, actors walking and skipping, humming, even choking.

I wouldn’t say that syncing was the hardest part, at least not with regards to timing. The hardest part was finding the right sounds, putting together the right combination of elements to give an audible texture to this world we created. This was not only so for the sound effects but also the music. Each track was created with the scene in mind in order to enhance the emotive power of it.

The Valletta 2018 introductory movie was entrusted to Shadeena. How difficult was it to get the job and what do you think persuaded the organisors to pick your proposal?

I was approached by the Valletta 2018 Foundation to submit proposals for the video clip in early 2012. They needed a video that showed the aspirations of the project and also the need for people to get involved. I called in Rebecca Cremona, with whom I had collaborated on previous projects, and decided that due to it’s scope it would be best to co-direct and co-produce the project.

We presented a number of ideas to the foundation and the one chosen was the one deemed to be the most fitting for this stage and the budget available. I think our proposal was picked because our work so far has shown a commitment to quality. Throughout our productions, we strive at getting the message across and support it with the best technical standards that budgets allow.

How do you invest in improving your thematic knowledge and technical facilities?

Actually, at Shadeena, the policy is “do not invest in technical facilities”. My day to day workstation serves all my needs, ranging from writing proposals to animating and colour-grading. A second station is specifically allocated for rendering. And that will be all, for the time being.

My idea is this. There is a lot of equipment and technical setup on the island as many companies keep investing but they don’t share the facilities. We collaborate with the people who already invested in technical facilities. They get a better return on investment and are able to invest even more whilst i keep costs focused in talent investment.

Picking the ideal freelancers for each project and trying to push for a fair wage is key. When possible i also offer small training positions or pay for short courses to such talents.

Each of our projects is treated as a challenge. At Shadeena we try exploring a familiar theme from a new angle or otherwise invest in experimentation of style and/or technique. It’s well worth the risk especially since the benefit of reaching a pre-set target is so accomplishing.

Is Malta going the right direction in the film-making education and production? What about it?

I think the question is, “In which direction is film-making education and production heading?”. So far it’s very hard to see one direction as there seem to be four distinct ‘projects’. MCAST, the University of Malta, the short courses organised by the Malta Film Commission and the Malta Film Fund are excellent initiatives which, unfortunately do not aim to one target through one common strategy.

Products by MCAST students give me the impression that the courses do not go into meticulous detail as it would be expected by the industry. Results achieved by similar trade schools abroad expose a huge gap in quality. This is mainly the result of a strategy which empowers students to indulge into one trade. Illustration, Media, Animation and Film, for example, are rarely combined in serious foreign institutions. The same problem appears at the University of Malta. Lack of specialisation possibilities, over emphasis on theory and lack of teaching of the actual crafts of Film and/or Media are huge setbacks.

The Malta Film Commission has so far organised a few weekend and day seminars – so it would be too early, and probably too hard to tell what outcome, such initiatives are having. In 2011 a very good workshop was organised. It lasted throughout summer and gave attendees a sound introduction to story telling, production and the development process. Hopefully more will be set up in the near future to provide more opportunities for up and coming film makers.

The Malta Film Fund was a great help in producing Tele-Monkey. Without it the project would have probably been halted at development stages since other funding was scarce. One setback to the MFF is its administrative inconsistency, which happened due to frequent reshuffles in the administration team. This has happened since the fund’s inception causing shifting of deadlines and a shifting outlook on the “film fund’ philosophy.

Having to deal with different evaluators and their distinct measuring sticks, makes it very hard to define what is the one common level of judgement of the structure and what is expected of you as a producer or director.

Currently there are options but none of them seem to support real growth of an indigenous film industry due to what seems like a lack of foresight and vision. Hopefully things will change and improve in the coming years. Just like the Cultural Strategy is intended to unite what has otherwise been separate offices and visions, within the cultural sphere, the same revolution needs to take place in the film industry. This can be achieved in the form of a comprehensive film policy that will lead future educational and funding opportunities.

Watch Tele-Monkey at 00:37mins

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