Superheroes have a potent hold on the popular imagination. Masked crusaders keeping cities safe at night and sometimes even changing the course of history … superhero narratives are stories of empowerment, the ultimate in wish-fulfillment. When the idea of making a film about healing superheroes was originally broached by a participant on the Two Suitcases film project, the immediate reaction was excitement about the possibilities of putting a new stamp on a genre classic.
For the past three years, Helium Arts has worked with CanTeen Ireland, the national young people’s cancer support group, making short films as part of the Two Suitcases project. The impetus behind the project is to give the young people involved the opportunity to devise, shoot and act in their own films with the support of professional artists. This post goes behind the scenes on the 2016 project, with insights from our young collaborators in CanTeen and the artist mentors.
‘It’s amazing to have a group of people who are so enthusiastic and so engaged … Everyone had a vision in their heads and things took off’ – Louise Manifold, artist mentor
The draw of the superhero
The appeal of dabbling in a story universe in which young people are intimately versed was apparent from the outset. As one 13 year old CanTeen member put it, ‘it was part of my childhood.’ Story and character innovation, costumes, cool sets and producing special effects were all high on the agenda. However, one long-standing participant had a very personal take on why she wanted to make a superhero film and what the project meant to her:
‘It was good because you got to be you, not somebody disguised. When I used to be in [my old school] it was like I had to wear a mask because I didn’t want anybody knowing, oh here comes the girl that had cancer twice. And, you know, if you let that on [that you had cancer], you kind of feel, well I’m not going to get many friends. So, I just automatically put on my own makeshift mask … but this time round [at film camp] when I put the mask on, I felt I like this mask. I didn’t like the mask that I was wearing to secondary school but this mask I liked.’
Story unfolding: The museum of discarded superheroes
‘They’re moving … they definitely moved!’
At our July workshop in Tanagh Outdoor Education Centre, Monaghan, one group devised and filmed a scene based in a natural history museum for superheroes in which the exhibits are seen moving by visitors. Participant Lisa Comer outlines the genesis of the story:
‘In Tanagh we had to create different scenes of superheroes … Once we started giving ideas, it kind of came together as one … [In our group] we were frozen in time because of Ratman and we were trying to think of a way of Ratman trying to freeze us. So we came up with the idea of a superhero museum.’
The superhero museum was the storyline that resonated most with participants and at our film camp in August, it formed the basis of an improvised script, created in collaboration with lead artist Siobhan Clancy and story guru Ben Murnane. The question was: What type of superheroes would populate the museum?
During the workshops and production phase, the original idea of super healing powers evolved as participants developed their own unique take on classic superhero characters and also invented whole new personas.
For example, the character of Cognita was an amalgamation of two superheroes dreamt up at our first workshop in Roscommon in January. As participant Anna Sargent explains: ‘I have a very fast reading power that helps me to read books in under 10 seconds and I also know a lot of unusual facts about random stuff. And my other power is also I can freeze time or rewind time or speed it up. So I can control time and everything about it.’
Lisa Comer had a particular motivation for her depiction of Superwoman: ‘Men in particular say women can’t do this, women can’t do that. I was like, hold on a second, women can do all that combined.’
Green screen: A voyage in wonderful juxtapositions
If narrative experimentation was at the heart of our 2015 project, 2016 was all about technical experimentation; bringing the story to life through simple but effective special effects, camera tricks and animated sequences.
‘This year we had a more “traditional” story-based approach but from the technical point of view it was innovative in that we were looking at filming with a green screen for the first time. The young people seemed to love this; it offered lots of opportunities to experiment with ideas and was just great fun. And it fitted very well with the idea of a superhero story!’ – Ben Murnane, script mentor
Visual artist and experimental filmmaker Louise Manifold led the green screen filmmaking. On the first day of the film camp, she presented a short video with images layered onto backdrops that had previously been filmed during the Monaghan workshop. This gave participants an easier way into the dynamics of green screen as the backdrops they shot took on a new lease of life. They soon became familiar with the green screen set up and contributed individual sequences for each superpower.
In one of the most memorable scenes, with the help of art director Emily Veale, participants created a green screen laboratory, the diabolical cloning apparatus of one Dr. Hawkins.
Final thoughts from participants
‘It’s cool because [the artists] teach you stuff that you might use when you’re older. Say for instance if I was to get a camera like what you have now, I’ll know from [the film project] … how to turn it on, how to take pictures, how to make a movie out of it …’
‘I loved doing the costumes and the green screen was really fascinating, you know learning about how it worked, and the animation … I loved that bit as well.’
‘Acting [was my favourite thing]. I never usually do that so it’s quite fun to go out of my comfort zone.’
‘I was quite nervous but I really enjoyed it because everybody’s really friendly and you feel like you’ve been a part of it for years when you come.’
Coming soon … A superhero spectacular
We are excited to be planning a very special public showcase for the film screening in spring 2017, which will include a live soundscape, companion films and artworks by some of the artist mentors on the project and an installation recreating one of the superhero sets. We’re looking forward to working with CanTeen members on this superhero spectacular. Stay tuned for more details!
The Two Suitcases Project 2016 is principally funded by the Arts Council’s Young Ensembles Scheme with additional funding from the Irish Games Association. We gratefully acknowledge the support of Flying Tiger Copenhagen who sponsored some of the workshop materials.
Thank you to our wonderful artist mentors – Siobhan Clancy, Alan Brennan, Louise Manifold, Ben Murnane, Eoghan McConnell, Emily Veale and David Cunningham – and to all the volunteer leaders at CanTeen who make the project possible. Many thanks to Paul Gallagher who took the fabulous photos.
The superheroes project took place from January to August 2016, in Roscommon, Monaghan and Dublin, bringing together CanTeen members from across Ireland.