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Landon Van Soest Crowdfunding for Artificial Retina Documentary Light Darkness Light

Landon Van Soest, a founder of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, is nearing the end of a Crimso campaign to fund his latest documentary Light Darkness Light, an intimate portrait of a candidate for artificial retina implants. Plotting the move from blindness to sight both narratively and visually, Light Darkness Light promises to be a revelatory examination of science and human nature. Filmmaker spoke with Van Soest about his technical plans, and how this documentary could serve legions of would-be patients in the future. Light Darkness Light‘s campaign ends in two days, on Thanksgiving, so please consider donating sooner rather than later.

Filmmaker: Before we get to the film, I wanted to ask about the campaign platform. Why Crimso and not one of the usual suspects?

Van Soest: I haven’t had a lot of luck with crowdfunding in the past and thought my project could get lost in the ether on a site like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. My film was one of just a few initial projects when Crimso launched so I was able to have a personal connection with the site administrators, and they featured us in a lot of their own outreach and marketing efforts.

Filmmaker: The film will be a portrait of a single patient as they undergo this life-altering retina prosthesis process. Have you been in touch with any candidates yet? What sort of challenges –and benefits– can arise from trying to translate this intimate experience?

Van Soest: I tend to approach documentary projects with a strong narrative outlook, so I lean a lot on having a strong protagonist who can drive the plot. Knowing that the patients are striving to overcome a major obstacle and that there is going to be a specific arc to their transformation, seems to give me clear character, plot and structure, so the story was hard to resist. But of course real people and stories are never as straightforward as fiction, and dealing with unexpected twists is what keeps documentary challenging and exciting.

One of the most surprising realizations so far is that not everyone is jumping at the opportunity to have the implant. One woman who is a strong candidate for an artificial retina seems to have embraced living as a blind adult — she is a successful journalist in Canada, she gets around her hometown independently with a guide dog, and even goes hiking and skiing! — and for her, the process of relearning to see felt daunting, and is something she is not sure she wants to adapt to. So she may end up being one of the first people in line for the implant and decide she doesn’t want it at all! This type of thing is exciting to me though, and adds a layer of complexity that I never would have been able to write.

I also strive to capture very intimate moments with people who might have never thought about being in a film, and I’m hyperaware of how invasive that can be. I try to address this with my subjects by being as transparent as possible about my intentions and highlighting how their story can serve the greater good. In the case of Light Darkness Light, each one of the potential subjects is pioneering a brand new approach to medicine and technology, and will be among the first fifty people in the world to receive this type of artificial retina. Having a document of their experience adapting to life with assisted vision would provide an invaluable guide to everyone who comes after them, and if it is going to be an honest portrayal, it can’t be all good or all bad. We are at the early stages of working with our subjects, but we’ve found an invaluable partner in the Foundation Fighting Blindness in Canada, which has many years of knowledge and experience with our pool of potential candidates and can help guide us through the process.

Filmmaker: You mention you’ll be using pioneering camera techniques to enhance the viewing process, including depth sensor cameras. Anything else? I assume this stuff can’t run cheap, so are you able to build it into the fundraising  budget?

Van Soest: The story is really all about perception and how vision impacts our understanding of the world around us, so the opportunity to experiment visually is pretty vast. I think the approach really clicked for me when I saw some of the initial images captured by pairing XBox Kinect controllers with DSLR cameras. The relatively crude digital renderings from initial tests struck me as a perfect representation of what someone might see with an artificial retina. This opened the door to create an image set to represent the protagonist’s memory of normal vision from their childhood, and creating a visual representation for the process of losing vision. This drew up experiments with 16mm optical printing and a number of analog tape experiments I did in college but haven’t had an opportunity to revisit.  Maybe the most exciting thing about this project for me is to be able to draw from a number of avant-garde and experimental techniques and use them in a direct way to advance a narrative.

I’m lucky to be collaborating again with Paul Trillo, who shares my passion for visual experimentation and innovative camera techniques, and we’ve had some exciting conversations with people like James George, who developed the RGBD toolkit, and created a lot of the striking images that inspired Light Darkness Light, and the DP Joe Picard, whose company pioneered the robotic arms used to shoot Gravity. All of our conversations are about pushing the envelope visually and finding unique ways to cycle through each of the protagonist’s different modes of vision. I hope everyone involved can take chances and push various techniques they’ve developed so the result is something we’ve never seen before.

We obviously won’t have the budget Gravity did, but I have no doubt that we can produce groundbreaking imagery without it. Everyone I’ve mentioned above has created incredible videos with little more than a DSLR and the right software.

Filmmaker: Are you in Toronto now? What are your last minute preparations as the campaign comes to a close?

Van Soest: I think we have a fantastic team in place and are just waiting patiently in New York for final dates from the hospital in Toronto.

Because the story is so closely tied to their surgery dates (which could be scheduled as soon as next month), we just need to raise the money so we’re ready to pick up and go at a moment’s notice!


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