Mason and Filmmaking
Outdoorsman Bill Mason
Bill Mason is a consummate filmmaker. Not only is he a respected craftsman in every facet of filmmaking, with a sure feeling for audience reaction, but he is true to himself in his selection and treatment of topics.
He approaches filmmaking as a painter does his canvas alone, and with conviction and vigor. He deals only with topics which he has either experienced or has thought through completely, and to which he is firmly committed.
In a craft where group activity is the norm, he works mostly alone. In all of his films, he has done the directing, editing, filming (except the scenes which he appears in), scripting and research. For his last five films he also wrote and read the commentary.
Nevertheless, he always makes a point of recognizing the contributions, to his career and his films, of people like his lifelong friend and fellow filmmaker, Blake James, composer Larry Crosley, and cameraman Ken Buck, among others. Mason insists that the success of his first three films is due in large part to James who appeared in them as the principal or sole actor. He also acknowledges the support from his family, especially the role of his wife who is his business manager, keeping the day-to-day affairs away from his filmmaking. Also he admits, "she is my toughest and most constructive critic:' At first the family's involvement was a passive acceptance of his extended filming expeditions. But in the last few years it has included everything from nursemaiding a pack of wolves to appearing in his films, adding a warm human element to them.
Mason's long experience as a cartoonist, layout artist and maker of commercials shows in his live-action filmmaking. Before shooting a single foot of film, he writes a very tight script and then draws an extremely detailed storyboard. In it he depicts exactly how he intends to film every scene or action sequence.
Once satisfied with his plans, he heads off in his battered car to film in a no-frills style of working alone, or with a crew of one. To further stretch his production budget and to be there to capture a sudden change in lighting or mood, he stays in the wilderness during the shooting, sleeping in a tent or under his canoe. To many people, living alone
in the wilderness for long periods of time would be a hardship, but Mason loves it.
Once there, he is a perfectionist who tirelessly searches out the ideal location, sets up and then waits for exactly the right lighting or action. When that moment arrives, Mason springs into a frenzy of activity — "a human dynamo" is how colleague Blake James terms it. It is so intense that the filmmaker sometimes doesn't hear when someone speaks to him. Often he keeps up that pace for 18 hours a day, days on end.
Almost nothing deters Mason from getting the footage he wants. He scales glaciers for a single shot, swims rapids with a camera on his head, creates ingenious filming aids by employing the materials at hand, or hunts down NFB specialists like Bill Breitenbach to custom build devices to make certain shots possible.
Whenever an animated segment is needed for one of his films, Mason loves to do it himself as he enjoys the challenges and creative possibilities that animation offers.
Once he is satisfied that he has the shots he needs, the self confessed "work addict" pores over the footage in a tiny studio near his home, editing and re-editing. He then screens the rough-cut film with his family and friends, closely watching their reactions and listening to all comments before committing himself to the final version of the film.
Although not musically inclined him-self (though he will try to convince you of his prowess on the harmonica), Mason is keenly aware of the role music plays in his films. With his composer Larry Crosley, he usually begins working out what type of musical effect he wants early in production. The types of music he has employed range from simple folk ballads sung by a person accompanying himself on the guitar, through to complex musical scores involving several groups of musicians.
The most minute detail of the post-production of each film is scrutinized, nothing is left to chance. It can't be, for Mason sees filmmaking not as a job, but as an extension of his way of life.