Eva Otsing (photo by Alan Weedon)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 13 Dec 2022

Episode 13: Making art documentaries with Eva Otsing – Inside ACMI X

ACMI X Art Factual media Industry Inside ACMI X podcast Interview
Amber Gibson

ACMI X Community Coordinator

Explore how music can inspire the filmmaking process.


Amber Gibson: Welcome to Inside ACMI X: a series where we discuss TV, film, videogames, creative technology, and art with practitioners in Melbourne. Each episode, we interview a resident that works at ACMI X: ACMI's screen-focus coworking space. I'm Amber Gibson, the Community Coordinator.

Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, on whose land we record this podcast here in Melbourne, and I extend that respect to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Peoples listening in.

Today we're going to talk to visual artist and filmmaker Eva Otsing about documenting art and her work. Welcome, Eva.

Eva Otsing: Thank you so much for having me, Amber. I'll take any opportunity to nerd out on my profession.

AG: Can you talk us through the work that you do?

EO: Yeah, sure. I mostly work with artists and arts organisations and I document their work. It's kind of like specialised documentation which ends up sometimes being used to promote the work, but sometimes it's just for documentation purposes. I also create my own art. I do photography but that tends to be for other artists as well or in collaboration with other artists. But I create video pieces and I do a lot of screenwriting as well.

AG: Awesome. So, which came first? Visual art or filmmaking?

EO: I think the filmmaking because I went to film school (in) London when I was younger. I had this incredible privilege of growing up in an artistic family so there was never a question if that's an okay path to take in life. So as soon as - I think I was maybe 17 - and I found this course where I grew up in Estonia at the Baltic Film and Media School; it was like a short filmmaking course, and then I ended up taking it from there. I just kind of knew.

AG: I was always jealous of people who grew up in an artistic family.

EO: (Laughs). Yeah, I don't know if I could have actually chosen any other profession. My mum was a singer in the Estonia Phil(harmonic) Chamber Choir and my dad had been a filmmaker or like a director of a filmmaking company. There was just this air of like, you don't have to be like normal, you can just do whatever you want really. And I had that freedom and I'm extremely grateful for it.

AG: Wow, that's lovely. So what inspires you to document art? Instead of creating narrative film, for example.

EO: It was definitely a dream of mine to create fiction films, you know, to direct or to write. But then once I started working on some shorter productions and some productions in London, I actually didn't like what I experienced at all. Like, I didn't like the industry. I didn't feel included. I looked at it and I thought; "that's not for me." And then I just kept doing kind of my own thing, just shooting by myself, editing things. I kept working with musicians and artists. And then when I moved to Melbourne almost a decade ago, I ended up working for the National Gallery of Victoria and got this incredible job as the moving image designer. I don't know, it just kind of happened. So, because I worked for National Gallery and then Sydney Opera House and Dark Mofo and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Chunky Move, Melbourne Theatre Company... (laughs) I kind of just ended up doing everything including sound design, editing, filming, interviewing. I mean, I loved interviewing. So it's really funny being on this side (laughs).

AG: Yeah. It's such a pleasure, isn't it? To chat to people and they tell you their stories. I'm sitting here and just able to absorb all that knowledge as well. You can learn so much.

EO: Yeah. That's what I've been loving about my job, like working with all of these artists is every time I do a project; whether it's filming Frida Kahlo's self-portrait as part of MoMA or if it's a firework display of someone's loved one's ashes being blown up, every time you learn so much. And you don't learn it as a general public, because you are there filming it, recording it, viewing it later, and then presenting it in another form for other people to view. You really have to get into it. And all of this experience from working with dancers and theatre people, musicians and artists; I feel like I'm just hoarding it or something.

AG: Yeah, you're definitely getting to know them on a deeper level because you're shooting that film and then you're editing as well, so you're seeing it over and over. So, of all of these projects, what has been one of your favourite projects that you've worked on?

EO: It's so hard to choose a favourite. I created this documentary with my friend Charlotte, Charlotte Watson. She's an artist as well. And we were just in between those terrible lockdowns and we kind of got together and created this documentary and it ended up showing at one of the most amazing nature film festivals in Estonia. It felt like a real full circle for me to have this documentary play in my home country. And also the fact that I got to collaborate with lots of other people on it as well, (such as) a really talented composer and sound designer, and Charlotte of course.

AG: Yeah, it was really cool. Was that Confluence?

EO: Confluence, yeah.

AG: And it was shot around the Merri Creek, was it?

EO: Yeah, it was shot in a studio in Brunswick and then the Merri Creek.

AG: Yeah, I really liked where you went with that because I did a lot of walks around the Merri Creek in the evenings during lockdown. So that was a very like, location-central film.

EO: Yeah, so the documentary was actually about the migration of pets. So how every night they travel at the same time across Melbourne and how that migration kind of gave a sense of time during those really difficult times that we went through here.

Audio excerpt from Confluence: I saw them referred to as like; part-bird, part-mouse or part-bird, part-dog. They sit on like this precipice between two creatures that because it's neither one or the other makes it uncanny. And so we sort of have a funny relationship to it. And just the time of night in which you see them is a transient, mythic time. That's where it sits between things, we can't see very well at that time of night. And I like that duality of them. I like that they sit in that, in that space in between what we know and what we don't know. And, and, um, yeah, I'm sort of increasingly attracted to what we don't know.

EO: So every day, she said this in the film as well, when she saw the bat she knew that, you know, another day I had passed and everything's alright.

AG: Yeah, because you did need those markers of time. And you have another project that you're working on with your friend, Marni Green. Can you tell us about that project?

EO: Sure. So this project; it just happened because somehow me and Marni kept working together on projects with Chunky Move, this amazing contemporary dance company. We happened to work together on free projects and then I was like; "Marni, we need to do something together." And she was in Berlin and she sent me this track by this great electronic musician. I listened to it and I was like; "yes." And they were like; "let's do this." So, we are working on this project that looks at humans as this like organic form existing in a city space that has been filled with concrete and technology. So we're seeing how those things talk to each other.

(Audio excerpt from project)

Marni is doing a choreography that she created and we're shooting it in these super stylised spaces, like normally concrete or with lots of screens to give that contrast. So Marni's movement is very organic and primal and then you have these screens and concrete that are very different.

AG: And you are going to be shooting that in Melbourne?

EO: Yes, yes, in Melbourne.

AG: So when you are directing a project, what is your creative process to work out your vision?

EO: When I'm directing a project, I tend to start with a feeling that I want to evoke, like a spark that I have. It might happen at 3:00 AM. You know, you wake up and you have to write something down. Or someone approaches me and they're like; "I really wanna work with you." Which I really appreciate. From there I usually collaborate, try and just see like; "why is this idea interesting? Why does it need to be out there? What's special about it?" And then find other practitioners who can help.

AG: Are you very visual? Are you seeing the shots in your head before they're made?

EO: Yeah, definitely I'm seeing the shots. You have those images that you really want to get and they form the spine of the project, and you work around them. But then also if you are working with a cinematographer, you want them to bring something to the table and trust the process. So I think that (the concept of a) one-person director with a vision, it's maybe outdated.

AG: Yeah. How do you work best when you are shooting?

EO: It depends on the situation. Like, if I'm put in a situation where I can't control anything, you know, I'm documenting something, I'm at a festival or I'm filming an orchestra playing; I just let my instincts guide me. But when it's something that I've set up, then I do plan and I think; "this will be a great shot." I wanna get that shot (laughs). I really love shooting films that I can't control and then working with that footage later and moulding that into something.

AG: Yeah, so that's when you're editing skills come in?

EO: Yeah, so that's like the clay and then you make something from it.

AG: And how do you approach the edit?

EO: Editing is something that I can talk (about) with you for hours (both laugh). Say I have like two hours of footage: I go through it and there's always something that sticks out. You're like; "this shot is like the soul of this video or film," and then everything else kind of falls into place from there.

AG: And for everyone listening in, Eva recently recommended a book for me to read, and it's called In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing by Walter Murch, which some people might have read. But Ava, there's a section in the book where Murch talks about this term, 'seeing around the frame', and this term suggests that directors and editors have a different relationship with footage. Because editors, if they haven't shot the scene, then they only see what's on the screen. But because the directors have, you know they've worked so hard to get the shot, they've developed an emotional relationship with the footage and it's harder for them to step back and maybe they wouldn't cut certain footage that needs to be cut. What do you think about that term: 'seeing around the edge of the frame'?

EO: That term, I actually don't remember but I'm so glad that you brought it up because one of the most important things I think with editing is that you have the distance from how the thing was shot. No one is ever objective. I guess as an editor you still put your preferences into a film. But when you're an editor, you have that distance from the footage because you don't know what happened on set, you know? You don't know how long it took to get that shot or how hard everyone worked to get that shot. Because when you're a director or any other crew member on set, you work so hard for it and you want that shot to be included. And then, when you're an editor you take this footage and you're like; "well, but it's actually not that good," so you're not gonna include it. It's the same with editing a book or any editing. And sometimes there are little moments that the director doesn't see or when you're there at the moment you just can't see, but they actually work within the bigger picture. So with editing, it's so great that it's never like ABC, you know, you don't have three shots in a row. It can be like two shots create a third completely new thing. So it's... I'm getting really nerdy (laughs).

AG: So how do you create that distance if you are ever directing and then editing work?

EO: Yeah, so what I often do with art documentation or... I just usually leave the project for a few weeks. If I see the footage straight after and have to edit it straight after, it sometimes doesn't end up being as good as it could be.

AG: So you really have to get your mind off it?

EO: Yeah.

AG: And do you seek advice from other editors? Do you work with other editors?

EO: Not really, no. But (for example), I recently worked with Reko Rennie on his piece, What Do We Want?, for ACMI Commission and I was doing the additional editing for it. So I got the project and everything was there for me to start editing from. And then Reko was in the room and I would create something, I would create a cut, and I'd be like; "what do you think?" and he'd be like; "love it." And I was like; "great!" (Laughs).

AG: Okay. So you had that nice trust and back and forth.

EO: Yeah. It's really great to have the artist in the room and just go back and forth. And I can instantly tell. Like, I would create an edit and show it, (if) the feeling isn't there. You can tell that it's not quite there. And then you just create another edit until it's there. And it's the same. I was recently editing a show for Reuben Kaye and he was in the room as well, and we spent... he's hilarious.

AG: He's hilarious.

EO: Yeah. Editing that show with him in the room was exactly as you'd expect. It was so fun.

AG: So what is your style of editing?

EO: My style of editing is definitely following my intuition. It's emotion-driven. It's musical. I have a musical background so often I use the rhythm and just this feeling that I get when I'm editing.

AG: So you have a musical background?

EO: Yeah. So when I was younger, I played the violin and then I sang in a girls' choir.

AG: Awesome.

EO: Yeah. And then I was always encouraged to make music and, yeah, it's incredible. So that really helps when you're an editor.

AG: So how do you balance the relationship between creating art as an artist, but then working with clients and doing it for the purpose of a commercial outcome?

EO: It's a really interesting question because I definitely struggle with it. After a few years of working with institutions and such, I started to realise; "oh, like I'm actually using this creative energy for these projects and they worked out really well." But then I was kind of left with not much for my own art. So for me, the key is to kind of balance it out; to have a space where I only work on my own things and then follow, usually a brief, that whether it's working with an organisation or a musician or another artist, that I bring my skills to it, but not always that creative part. But yeah, the distinctions between art and content are really blurry. Especially when you're starting out, you don't quite know what you have yet. You're just so eager to work with these amazing artists and organisations and you just wanna give it your all. But yeah, it's just a balancing act.

AG: How do you obtain those clients?

EO: Usually, people kind of find me. It's word-of-mouth which I really appreciate. And there's something about people who have similar values to you and aesthetic values as well. They just seem to find you. And sometimes the wrong people find you and you're just like; I don't think it's my kind of project." And that ability to say no, like; "no, I don't wanna work on this project," is such a massive learning thing for me. Because if you say no, you're worried, "will there be another project?" Like; "can I say no?" And then now, for a few years, I'm like; "yeah, I can say no." (laughs). Like, there's gonna be... someone else is gonna offer something that's more aligned with what you wanna do.

AG: Yeah. So you built up that confidence over time.

EO: Yeah. Yeah.

AG: Have specific filmmakers or editors inspired your work?

EO: Yeah, definitely. Recently, Céline Sciamma, (a) French director. Her way of looking at narrative has been really mind-blowing. Also Kahlil Joseph; American visual artist and filmmaker. I remember like 10 years ago watching this video he made for Flying Lotus and thinking; "if I could ever get that feeling across that I got from watching that video in any of my videos, I can retire." Or Jill Bilcock, the Australian editor. She's definitely one of my heroes. And also the director Luca Guadagnino; I really love his work as well. I think his work is so intricate and just beautiful. He's really good at creating this nostalgia moment for things.

AG: Well, thank you so much for joining us.

EO: Thank you so much for having me. I love talking to you.

AG: Thanks for joining us on Inside ACMI X. If you would like to find out about ACMI X and keep up-to-date with the next episode, follow us on Twitter at @acmiXstudio.

More episodes