The superb directorial debut of Jim Akin, After the Triumph of Your Birth, breaks boundaries as a personal film. It is unmediated storytelling from the heart, brain, and hands of a director using digital tools as instruments to communicate in words, visuals and music. Carefully crafted, it expands form and content in truthful and intimate ways. It is a touchstone of modern digital movie and music culture, the singular achievement of a lone filmmaker testing himself against the limits of new digital technology.
After the Triumph of Your Birth explores the interstices of life. It probes the personal corners of time in the lives of its characters, visiting the internal spaces that have long been missing from American film. A diverse cast conveys human life and love in the heart of a modern megalopolis. Most notably, legendary soul singer Maria McKee makes her feature film debut and gives a rare on camera live performance in the film. It is an L.A. road movie on foot. The city has never been more lovingly shot nor seemed as hidden onscreen. It opens a world of secret inner desires and fears amid the beauty of hidden paths, side streets, rusty rail yards and panoramic vistas, as it makes its trek from the desert to the ocean.
The visual language of After the Triumph of Your Birth flows like California Plein-Air Painting in motion. It is set to rich harmonies and musical counterpoints. The approach to filmmaking is direct, made possible by the recent shift in technology, which allows infinitely programmable digital tools to respond and operate like finely tuned instruments. New creative doors have opened, as they did in the 1950s and 60s, when the availability of compact lightweight 16mm cameras, smaller lighting units, portable sound recording and high speed film led to filmmakers breaking new ground in Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité. At that time the Arriflex camera became a standard with filmmakers, and new subject matter emerged from people as diverse in background and discipline as artist Andy Warhol and psychologist Albert Maysles.
Writer/director Jim Akin’s path to feature filmmaking did not follow the usual steps of a longtime Los Angeles resident. The avenues of film school to television to feature length project were replaced by a period of intensive self schooling while maintaining a successful professional career in music and still photography. Beginning with cameras and music at an early age, he initially found work as an in demand multi-instrumentalist for studio sessions and live tours.
As the music business converted to digital sound recording, mixing and mastering, he trained himself on the new format workstations. This led to producing and engineering several music albums while still maintaining his profile as a musician and singer. Finding that it had become possible to retain complete creative control and ownership of music projects led to running a self-owned record company. As the combination of digital cameras and production tools combined with post production solutions like Final Cut Pro and After Effects, it was clear that professional quality equipment was readily available for all phases of any film and sound project.
Conception and Pre-Production
In its earliest stages, After the Triumph of Your Birth began as a series of camera tests and experiments. Filming commenced with no shooting schedule, budget, or deadline. Establishing a lead actor, Tom Dunne, and initial locations in the desert, a series of tests of light and image were begun with the Canon 5D Camera. Eventually production would be augmented with two additional Canon 7D cameras. Equipment trials tested light and image for highlights, detail, warm dimensionality and depth of image before arriving at acceptable production presets for each of the three cameras. The cameras were finely tuned to his personal feel with the same precision given a rare guitar or concert piano. Having developed a look for the picture, Akin began to develop the flow of story content.
As the story outline and characters began to take shape, the fluidity of the production tools was matched on the writing side by expanding the script to take advantage of the varied strengths of each actor in the cast. Male lead, Tom Dunne had developed intuitive creative shorthand with the director after playing together in bands for several years. Versatile vocalist, songwriter and live performance star Maria McKee has recorded and toured together with Jim Akin, and they’ve released several acclaimed albums. Multitalented Tessa Ferrer can trace the roots of her powerful singing and acting style back to her grandparents who were the beloved Rosemary Clooney and Jose Ferrer.
With this combination of talents, Jim Akin began production of songs for the movie. The score was developed during the shoot, as music was tested against footage from After the Triumph of Your Birth shortly after each scene was shot. Recorded as part of the ongoing work flow, the soundtrack became a production project on its own terms. As more cast was added, more dimensions were brought to the project with the rock and roll/vaudeville style of Rob Zabrecky. Finally, the young but compelling voice of nine year old Dean Ogle added a unique strength to the cast.
When singer Maria McKee joined the production as an actress and creative producer, she began developing her character with Jim Akin as an acting challenge apart from anything she had previously attempted in film or music. Early in her career, she was signed to a major music label, and had made several videos to promote her albums. Maria has appeared in videos directed by Martin Scorsese, Mary Lambert and Julien Temple. Surrounded by show business from birth, she was raised in a family with roots that go back to the Vaudeville era. Singing and acting came to her naturally as a child prodigy. Her songwriting is known for its strong point of view, realistic emotions and characters.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Maria McKee’s affinity for Southern California goes back many generations in her family. They were original homesteaders, and she was christened in Plaza Church (a location in the movie) at the site of the first Pueblo de Los Angeles. In her debut performance, Maria enacts the search for human contact, emotion and community in a highly disconnected modern Los Angeles. She holds the screen beautifully in dramatic dialogue sequences, sings and plays keyboards on the film score, and sings directly on camera. Her interpretation of the soul classic “Save Me” is the centerpiece of the film. It was performed and recorded live, direct on camera, in a bravura performance of immediacy and spontaneity.
Jim Akin shot After the Triumph of Your Birth single handedly with no crew. On location, he was the director, cinematographer, sound recordist and production department. He started and stopped three cameras and aimed the microphone for sound while making each shot. In post, he served as both editor and his own digital filing assistant. He mixed and mastered final digital sound and picture. The immediate responsiveness of the actors and equipment allowed the production to change direction on the set, evolving creatively as the film was shot.
The natural process of the production moved it completely away from the mechanistic, industrialized approach to filmmaking which has dominated the creation of feature films since the early twentieth century. In the hands of the studios film language became a mannerist form, vernacular shorthand, solving questions of expedience in shooting coverage and achieving communication with the widest possible audience. The same breakdown of shots that had become commonplace in feature films, also translated handily to television production. Even in academic training, the standard approach of commercial filmmaking also began to corrupt the teaching of the art of film.
For Akin, pushing the limits of the tools also meant pushing the form and language of film, and the boundaries of self. The language of film has expanded in the digital era. Filmmakers have turned genre inside out, as well as looked back at expressive silent movie techniques, and even widened the relationship between music and dialogue through the style of the early ‘transition to sound’ era.
After the Triumph of Your Birth is filled with abundant language onscreen, in dialogue and voice over narration, sometimes sung, in superimposed titles, and in words on found locations. Its visual compositions are complex and rich in vivid color. The camera carefully studies nature, while the characters express themselves directly in heartfelt terms, with a stream of passionate ideas. Each character finds their place in the film through a non dogmatic series of dialogues. Their thoughts in voice over, and in music, often challenge their actions, with songs and music score providing ever deeper levels of meaning.
Giving as much significance to the soundtrack as he did to creating imagery, writing the script and capturing the performances of the actors, Jim Akin produced a score that stands on its own as a musical narrative. There are quiet instrumentals and extended passages of inspired vocalization. The original songs composed for the project are sung by the characters for emotional development and as harmonic exposition, flowing in onscreen solos and duets. Throughout, the cast gives inspired acting performances and moments of musical brilliance.
The film is at all times aware of nature, even when the characters fall out of synch with their surroundings. The relationship between harmony and counterpoint is a central source of tension between characters and against the framework of the movie, as the story constantly moves forward. In a brilliantly depicted Los Angeles, action, language and music cry out between people within the film as they express thought and emotion directly to the audience.
JOY OF CREATION
Jim Akin’s stated goal at the start of the project was to fully explore the joy of creation in a new format and medium, while achieving maximum use and mastery of digital tools. He undertook the full exploration of obsession while questioning everything during production from every point of view. The final film was spun through a process of technical, spiritual, intellectual, and mechanical assessment.
The creative process can be healing if the artist allows for pleasure in the experience of creation. With humility, the spirit and experience of the artist can enrich life. The grace of putting something back into the world at the end of a long search of dreaming, suffering, and keeping the aim high while accepting both gains and losses, is to portray the spark of life.
After the Triumph of Your Birth is a compressed allegory. It captures the absurdity of the way life unfolds, allows elements of chaos and random experience to direct the plotting of character movement and the shape of the production. It grants access to the deep focus, shared experience, feelings and thoughts of writer/director Jim Akin as he stretches form and style to open something new and different in his portrayal of people.
It is a movie of quiet ambition, one that questions itself as it plays. The beauty and inspiration of the imagery come from the real locations and people of Los Angeles. Through the sensitive handling of the characters, the meaning of a scene can be allowed to emerge in a brief moment like the delicate glow of a slowly breaking smile.
The driving and joyous search of the director results in a movie of found places and people living together in simultaneous disjunction and harmony.
It is a movie filled with the generosity of acceptance.
A movie that says: Time is. We are. I am.
Bio:Writer/Filmmaker Kent Adamson has contributed to over one hundred feature films, and countless hours of broadcast programming. He has worked with major studios and small independent productions. His happiest times on any set were making his own Super-8 movies and working with Oliver Reed and Charles B. Griffith.