Portfolio: A View from a Cliffe
Illustrator, animator, and filmmaker Jim Cliffe is a local artist whose creative inspiration has not only allowed him to earn a living, but also to be the driving force behind more ambitious pursuits. By day, Jim draws the fun comic book-style illustrations for Bridges Transitions, viewed by thousands of students across North America. By night, Jim's passion lies in film, where he aspires towards a career as a director. To Jim, his two talents as an illustrator and filmmaker are closely interrelated.
"The cinema has always been the basis of my artistic inspiration," Jim shares. "When I was a little kid, I tried to re-create movie scenes that swept me away. Memorizing the shots I saw on the big screen, I would sometimes attempt to adapt the entire movie into a comic format. I'd probably get a few pages deep in my notebook before I'd finally call it quits."
Years later, the cinematic eye can still be seen in Jim's illustrations. "The cartoons I draw for Bridges are usually limited to a very tight space of one-and-a-half by three inches. When you have such a small canvas to work with, you need to be creative in how to get your point across without words." Jim's illustrations for Bridges most often depict various careers and post-secondary programs. "You can only draw a person holding a diploma so many times. I try to make the drawings interesting by using different angles, lighting styles, and adding a bit of humour. It's also no surprise that quite a few of my drawings incorporate some sort of subtle movie theme."
However, Jim's professional resume as an artist took root long before he started working for Bridges. His first gig began at the tender age of 11, drawing a newspaper comic strip for the Shuswap Sun. "I drew the pictures and my brother Jason came up with most of the humour. Our comic strip was called Toby, which was very much in the same vein as Dennis the Menace. Not very original, but a pretty cool experience at that age."
Toby was not Jim's last newspaper job. "I studied fine arts and acting in college, and found work as a newspaper layout artist. Eventually the position evolved into photographer and political cartoonist."
In 1995, when the opportunity arose for Jim to register for the new animation program at OUC, he jumped at the chance. "I've always been a fan of animation. As a kid I had made quite a few flip-it books, which would often consist of a couple hundred drawings to make a short animated scene. It took forever, but I always looked forward to the end result."
While Jim's talents for animation attracted attention from Disney Studios, he decided to follow his own entrepreneurial path instead. Jim and two of his professional colleagues, Raymond Bailey (Razor Art Productions) and Neil Hooson (Point Blank Studios Inc.) would later go on to win a national broadcasting award for CHBC with one of their animated commercials. At around the same time, Jim was invited to animate the special effects on a locally produced pilot.
"Because I was also drawing the storyboards for the effect sequences, my ability to visually depict what would be shown in each shot allowed me the opportunity to direct a few of those scenes. Even though the pilot never got picked up, the experience of being on a professional film set with expensive equipment, like cranes and a helicopter, really inspired me to pursue filmmaking. It suddenly felt like a tangible goal."
Looking to enhance his skills, Jim returned to OUC and enrolled in the film studies program. "I've always been a huge film geek, so I was fascinated to learn more about the history of cinema." When the course ended, Jim's education in film was only beginning. He went to film festivals, participated in workshops, attended panels, established relationships with other BC filmmakers, and volunteered on numerous productions to further his experience and grow his network of connections.
"Once I felt that I had a good enough grasp of the filmmaking process, I finally began writing and illustrating the storyboards for Tomorrow's Memoir." Although Tomorrow's Memoir was Jim's first professional short, it was certainly not his first attempt. In his teens, as soon as Jim was able to get his hands on a video camera, he began making amateur shorts. "Even though it was mostly spur of the moment fun for our own entertainment, I still liked to play with the shots, trying to re-create action sequences from big-budget films. We didn't have means to edit, so it was just set up, shoot, set up, shoot. They're pretty cheesy to watch now, but the experience was my original film school."
While Jim's backyard shorts required no budget or crew, Tomorrow's Memoir was a different story. "The budget was slim, just two thousand dollars, some of which was generously donated by my folks and good friends. I worked closely with my friend and producer Kulchera Matson (Ill Fated). Together we managed to pull together a cast and crew of over eighty volunteers, including Shakespeare Kelowna's talented Stephen Jefferys as the lead. It really created a great sense of community."
After two months of shooting and several months of post-production, Tomorrow's Memoir came to life. Unfortunately, at 27 minutes in length, it was a challenge to gain acceptance by festivals. "Most festivals receive a few hundred submissions and can only screen a dozen or so. Typically, they prefer shorts that are under 10 minutes in length. Getting used to rejection was a lesson that I had to learn pretty fast." After an unsuccessful year of trying to break into the festival circuit, Jim decided to call it quits and instead tried his luck with a different venue the Internet.
"I knew there had to be an audience for our little film. I just needed a way to get it out there, so I decided to upload it to IFILM." Within a week of its release, Tomorrow's Memoir quickly rose within the top 10 most popular films. It wasn't long until the e-mails started pouring in, along with editorials, forum chats, interviews, and requests for festival screenings. "I really didn't expect it to receive such an overwhelming response."
A late bloomer, Tomorrow's Memoir had finally found its audience. "After so many rejection letters, it felt very rewarding to actually have representatives from festivals approach us, encouraging us to enter."
Tomorrow's Memoir began its festival run at the hugely popular Comic Con in San Diego. The world's biggest comic book and pop-culture convention, the Comic Con draws in an estimated crowd of 100,000 attendees, as well as a wide range of celebrities and producers. Tomorrow's Memoir took home the prize for Best Comics-Oriented Film. It then went on to be screened at the MegaCon in Orlando, the UCLA Film Institute in Los Angeles, and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City, among other venues.
As the audience for Tomorrow's Memoir grew, so did the number of glowing reviews. Tomorrow's Memoir has since been featured by a number of well-respected sources, including Film Threat, Moviehole, and DC Comics.
Hoping to use the success of his short film as a professional calling card, Jim began working on a new screenplay this time a full-length production. "I had been developing an idea for a couple of years that I was quite excited about. But after about four drafts, I discovered a film that had similar plot points." Wanting to avoid comparison, Jim made the decision to start over, this time inviting his girlfriend, Melodie Krieger, to be his writing partner. "Mel is an aspiring writer who works as a marketing copywriter for Bridges, and she has also won a couple of awards for her poetry. Bringing her on board just seemed like an obvious decision."
Based on the underlying theme of Jim's initial concept, the two worked together for the next year fleshing out a new story from scratch Donovan's Echo. "It's been a lot of work, but fortunately we were both equally committed to the script, sacrificing most evenings and weekends just to get it done. We've really made a great team."
Although both Jim and Melodie feel that more polishing can be done, they have tried their luck in a couple of contests. The two were recently thrilled to discover that they have made it into the semi-finals for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards one of Hollywood's most highly acclaimed screenwriting contests.
"We had submitted an older version of our script back in May while still tweaking, so we really didn't have any expectations. The fact that we have made it this far definitely gives us hope that our latest draft will have an even better shot at eventually gaining interest."
The film industry is hard to break into, and Jim believes that placing in contests is one way to get a script into the hands of always-busy Hollywood producers, agents and managers. "A lot of these contests have Hollywood professionals as judges, so any kind of acknowledgment is a great foot in the door."
"In recent years, with advances in technology, it's become much easier to film, edit and promote a movie independently than it was 10 to 20 years ago." Even so, Jim acknowledges that they still have a tremendous hill to climb. "When thousands of unknowns are looking to break in, and only a handful of movies get made at a time, development can take years even when there's genuine interest. So I'm definitely keeping myself grounded."
As Jim and Melodie continue to put the final touches on
Donovan's Echo, they have already begun brainstorming for the
next script they want to write together. "The creative process is fun.
It's a long road, but I'm loving every step of the journey."