Focus Forward Filmmaker Challenge—Short Films, Big Ideas with Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern
Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern accept the Editing Award for Joan Rivers--A Piece of Work at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Focus Forward Filmmaker Challenge—Short Films, Big Ideas with Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern
Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern after the premiere of Joan Rivers--A Piece of Work.

Focus Forward Filmmaker Challenge: Short Films, Big Ideas with Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern

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Focus Forward—Short Films, Big Ideas is an unprecedented new series of 30 three-minute stories about innovative people who are reshaping the world through act or invention, directed by the world's most celebrated documentary filmmakers.

As part of the initiative and with support from GE and Cinelan, Focus Forward is holding a Filmmaker Challenge and giving $200,000 USD in cash prizes to the top five entries, which will be announced at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. In addition to the cash prizes, up to 100 finalists will be featured online at www.focusforwardfilms.com in the fall of 2012 alongside work by Steve James, Lucy Walker, Victor Kossakovsky, and others.

Click here for more details and submission requirements. Submissions close on October 7, 2012.

Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg are currently putting the finishing touches on their untitled short film that will premiere later this year as part of the Focus Forward series. The duo form a distinguished directorial team that has brought three documentary features to the Sundance Film Festival  (The Trials of Darryl Hunt, The Devil Came on Horseback, Joan Rivers—A Piece of Work). Below they discuss their relationship with Focus Forward and Cinelan, the singularly inspiring subject of their short, and the surprising liberation found in the constraints of a three-minute film.

How did you become involved with the Focus Forward program and this initiative?

Annie Sundberg: We’ve known Karol Martesko-Fenster (Cinelan, co-founder) for years, and when Karol was getting involved with Morgan Spurlock and CINELAN on these short films, he reached out to us. They were pulling together the 30 filmmakers, and Karol brought it up casually and said, ‘We’d love for you guys to do one. Do you have an idea?’ And for all the filmmakers who were commissioned to do these, everyone sort of came up with a couple ideas and kind of brainstormed. And we were looking at a bunch of different subjects, and then there was a particular individual, Peter Diamandis, who started the X PRIZE Foundation. Ricki and I started looking at him as a possible profile, and Damon Smith (Cinelan, director of content strategy and acquisitions) and Karol said ‘absolutely.’

Beyond the science and innovation themes established by Focus Forward, there is not much information available regarding the subject matter in your film. Can you tell me more about this short and where you are in the production process?

Sundberg: Well, we’ve had our primary shoot. But we haven’t done any of our animation, and we haven’t started editing yet. Ricki and I had been approached by Peter Diamandis and a couple other people in his team about a year and a half ago. He was writing a book at the time called Abundance. Everyone has a very dystopic feeling of what the future is going to be—we’re going to run out of resources, there’s going to be overpopulation, climate change is going to create rising oceans. It’s going to hell in a hand basket. And Peter’s attitude is, ‘No, we just need to think about it differently. We have incredible technologies that are allowing us to do things we’ve never imagined before. People have cell phone services in the middle of deserts in Africa. We can bring health care to places that have never had clean water supply, much less direct doctor treatment.’

He looks at this as an incredible time of potential, and it’s not a time of closing up shop. His book was really inspiring, and the documentary didn’t really move forward, but we stayed in touch. So then we were trying to figure our what is the short film? It’s really about this one man who sees what could be, who really does everyday look at the world with a very unique, optimistic perspective.

Ricki Stern: I think Peter’s story... he is so inspiring. And it’s so welcome. In all these films that seem so disastrous and gloom and doom, to spend some time with Peter just shows the potential. We are in a better place than we were, and that advancement in technology is actually something that we can feel good about. And I think that’s an inspiring thing. What we’re hoping to do with the short film is spark ideas and create an excitement and enthusiasm for Peter’s ideas.

Click here to watch Peter Diamandis speak at TED2012.

You both are seasoned editors, having endured the laborious process of cutting footage for feature-length documentaries. Can you speak to the difference of process and some of the challenges you faced in making such an abbreviated film?

Sundberg: We actually recently did a short film that was at Sundance that was a thank you film from Kenneth Cole and Sundance Institute for the volunteer staff. In terms of dwindling down, you shoot differently. You’re shooting specifically if you’re making a short film, as opposed to shooting verite coverage. And I think it was more so storyboarded in our minds, it’s not on paper, and I think what’s nice is that we’re going to allow imagery to play a larger role in it—it’s going to be more impressionistic. It doesn’t have to be so much of a storytelling piece, but it can really just be about sparking something. Whether it’s Peter’s ideas, or perspectives that we can convey in a short piece. It’s more liberating in some ways.

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