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Meet the Finalist: Mahesh Madhav, "How to Bend Concrete"

Tell us about yourself, and about How to Bend Concrete.

I’m an independent filmmaker and producer in Portland, OR. I was introduced to video production in 2012 by an inmate at the Oregon State Penitentiary who was serving a life sentence. My volunteer work at the prison system dovetailed with a non-profit to create spiritual and cultural programs in the South Asian diaspora – this allowed the inmates to watch uplifting programs and better themselves by experiencing and living dharmically through our examples.

I was drawn to the award-nominated project through a strong camaraderie felt with the artist, Neal Aronowitz. As he began his journey to build his first console table out of concrete canvas, I started my own journey to produce my first documentary. This resulted in a story crafted for artists in all domains. Because underneath documenting a physical process of sculptural manifestation, we have documented the ethos and mental process of ideation, discovery, and presentation -- capturing what all content creators struggle with in their work. The story in our video is as much my story as it is Neal’s.

It is natural then, that Neal and I have similar philosophies in our creative flow. During filming, many of the pithy sayings that came out of his mouth were fully in line with my own thoughts. This included his stance on breaking through impostor syndrome, on letting go of your creation since it was never yours in the first place, and on always being the best version of yourself. We hope that through sharing our own stories, we will encourage and uplift others who are on their own paths, internal or external.

Share a memorable moment you experienced working on this project.

There is a dramatic scene near the end when Neal flips the table over to make it stand right-side-up. When I shot this, I was too close to the action and couldn’t frame it effectively with the lens I had. I was also overly ambitious with my handheld abilities, and attempted to truck around the subject in a semi-circle as the table was overturned. The shot was a failure, and even though Neal was excited, I was dejected at missing the shot for this important piece of the story. So, I asked him if we could have a do-over. That was of the question due to the fragility of the sculpture! However, he did have another console table he was working on in parallel which might be ready to turn over. As Neal thought about the logistics and prepped the second table for flipping, I took the learnings from my mistake and set up the camera on a tripod. We were able to turn the second table and capture the moment effectively. In the film, my editing makes it appear that we have a two camera setup, but in this case it was just two takes with two different tables. We got lucky that day and retained the artists’ excitement from multiple angles. You never know what will happen in documentary filmmaking, but sometimes you get lucky and can recreate a scene!

Name 3 collaborators that you'd take with you to any other project.

I have many tremendous mentors who I learn from! I’ve listed three here that I would love to collaborate with again.

Sean Conley is a cinematographer in Portland. He has an aesthetic for shooting beautiful scenes and understands his craft to the uttermost depths of knowledge. Additionally, Sean is an exceptional teacher, and in fact this project was started in an advanced class he organized on the art of documentary filmmaking. He fosters a growth mindset and imparts that upon his students as well. From his knowledge of high-end cameras and esoteric lenses, to his eye for catching the proper light on his subject, and his incredibly patient demeanor, Sean embodies everything one would want in a Director of Photography.

Ross Thomas is a director and producer living in San Francisco, working for the Authors Projects. I had the privilege of being the “talent” on a corporate storytelling piece he directed. That project was my first exposure to professional video production, and Ross set the bar quite high indeed. I observed Ross organize and put together treatment in prep, and block out all the shots for the story. I experienced his directorial ability first-hand when he put me at ease and interacted with me as a friend would while having coffee. I didn’t even realize I was being directed, and Ross’ DP was able to capture the perfect sequence! After I got fooled once, I began to watch him closely to learn as much about directing as I could, right there on-set with the other on-camera talent. Ross’ involvement didn’t end with production; he was quite influential in post-production and I experienced how a director sees a project through to completion and delivery, ensuring their vision is manifested fully in the final product. In my few forays into the director’s chair, I try to embody what I learned through observing Ross, and attempt to exude his friendly demeanor to the people I direct to achieve authentic and natural performances.

Ruchika Agrawal is a multi-dimensional storyteller in Portland, OR. Her experience in many occupational realms allows her to employ various narrative techniques with aplomb. I appreciate her ability to whittle a story down to the precious bits required to stay on track structurally, while retaining enough échauffement to connect with her audience empathetically. I watched Ruchika craft a narrative from the myriad clips I pieced together for this documentary. She does this through her unwavering stability: balancing enthusiasm for the hero’s journey with detachment from the final destination. Ruchika recognizes the audience’s perspective and orients her narratives to fulfill their thirst.

3 tips you’d like to share with aspiring artists in your field:

First, surround yourself with people who are great at what they do, and watch them. They may not be formal mentors, but you will learn tremendously by observing their behavior and orienting yourself to their flow. Act how they act. Most real world knowledge and behavior is not taught in school, but learned in real situations. Production is just problem-solving and you get better as you gain more experience.

Second, get yourself out there and try your own hand at production and editing and directing. The cameras on our smartphones are very capable now, and it is easy to attach a small boom mic for better sound. Use your friends as guinea pigs for directing short clips, and then teach yourself how to edit the footage. DaVinci Resolve is a great standalone software package for editing and color grading, and it is free for smaller video resolutions. Try, fail, learn, then try again.

Third, be the best version of yourself when you find yourself on a real set. Everyone is watching your ability to perform, plus your behavior towards the rest of the crew. This is an industry built upon strong networks. Productions days are very long, and people want to spend that time with genuine folks that uplift others and treat everyone well. You will soon realize the people you want to continue working with, and the ones you don’t. For the ones you want to work with, tell them how much you appreciate them! This goes in both directions, up and down the food chain.

What do you hope to achieve in your career in the next 5 years?

I wish to continue learning as much as I can about the process of production, post-production, distribution, and monetization. The business is so vast, there is a large green field of learning opportunity every direction I face.

I want to team up with local talent to produce a short narrative piece. I have produced music videos and documentaries, so my next challenge is to story-board out a fictional piece and bring all the right people together to help bring it to life.

I started an audio podcast series at my day job, which allows me to continue building by skills as a producer while still contributing to the long-term success of our start-up company, Ampere Computing. I have directed and produced a recruiting video for Ampere as well, and I hope to create another one in 2020. My hope is to build a small creative team inside the company that can produce content to uplift our stories internally and externally.

The journey continues!

How to Bend Concrete is nominated for Best Documentary Short of the Year at the New York Film Awards.


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