In the spring of 2011, I was a sophomore in college who had just finished and released her first documentary film ever, ExamiNation--a 20 minute short about the notorious Korean college entrance exam. At that point, I was proud enough to have even finished it at all, and to have had a solo premiere screening with a pretty big audience. I had not a clue that four years later, it would still be getting such consistent viewership online, and today, I found in the mail my first check ever made from my film royalty. Tiny, but I'm amazed it even made a dollar. The film feels like forever ago, but here I am, still seeing doses of surprising results from this super amateur short film.
Ignorance makes you bold, for sure. I conceived of the project my freshman year, in a very simple desire to try my hands at documentary, since I hadn't attempted this genre yet. It wasn't out of a burning passion to tell a crazy true story, nor was it an assignment or a commission; I just wanted to make a documentary, and thought as a Korean American, I might share a thing about Korea with Americans. I obviously hadn't comprehended just how massive a subject matter I was trying to tackle in a 20min short, to be shot overseas, and let alone with no experience.
I applied for a $3000 summer grant through Northwestern, but didn't get it. Instead, I pitched on a whim and somehow got this $250 grant through my dorm CRC. I got this grant so I had to make what I proposed, but $250 was obviously...not nearly enough to fly out to Korea and get this started. So I picked up someone's advice, and tried this thing called Kickstarter. This was not a thing at that time. Few people knew about it. And somehow I managed to raise $2000, so a grant total of $2,250 - that was the budget. But I had talented and dedicated friends doing this with me. And just blind ignorance that I can do it. That's all we needed, apparently.
Making this short film only got progressively harder. Pre-production was scary because we had the bones and structure, but there was not (of course any script) a clear storyline to follow. That's the nature of topic-driven documentaries, I found out. So I figured once in production, a story will begin to emerge. Not so. Once we began the shoot, there was hustling and running around and sneaking into schools undercover, but no story conveniently presented itself. We were just following a day in the life of this girl. Boring. I returned from summer break as a sophomore and so began the 9 month-long ordeal of editing. And very slowly, one revised cut at a time, a story began to shape up. Like 2/3 way into editing. To this day (even as a professional editor), this documentary was the single hardest thing I've edited. No other edit process has brought me to tears of frustration like this one has. Also, it was possibly the best training I got in storytelling and editing.
Once it was finished, my producer and I arranged an independent premiere on campus, because this project wasn't a part of anything, really. It was a great turnout and I was happy. So I thought ok, post it online and the end, yay! But it kept going... The film festivals, a few awards, and something like a year later, even a call for distribution. It's not as fancy as it sounds. It's a small distribution company that focuses on educational material. I signed the deal and didn't think it would bring any money at all. But first they brought a Silver Telly Award.. then 3 years later, a $55 check! What a lovely deal. --although they insisted on distributing with a new title and new cover art... a whole other ramble I can get into some other day.. Then I had a one time distribution deal with a French company too. And all throughout, I was always getting emails and messages from strangers across the world about their reactions to this short film. And that's probably the best part of the whole ride. The reactions and messages from people.
I hardly go back to watch it, but when I do once in a while, I'm reminded of how hilariously amateur the film is, at least in terms of the craft. But I must have been onto something there, story-wise, because people are still watching it. I wish it was more beautifully shot, more elegantly animated, properly colored and sound designed... but it's fun looking back at it and seeing just how little I knew then and seeing how much I've learned since. And also seeing how that still doesn't change the difficulty of any new project I attempt at.
So all reminiscing aside, getting this check is pretty cool. I can go to the theater 4 times with it.
Here's the film. And here's the trailer: