Ingrid Pfau is from Birmingham, Alabama. She has an identical twin, as well as two other sisters. Ingrid went to the Alabama School of Fine Arts for high school and majored in Math and Science. She then attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and designed her own individualized major entitled “Environmental Science Filmmaking,” that combined Biology and Film classes. After graduating from UAB in 2011, Ingrid received the Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Scholarship to study Science and Natural History Filmmaking at Montana State University. Since finishing her thesis and earning her MFA in May 2014, Ingrid has moved back to Birmingham, Alabama and now works as an independent filmmaker. After spending the last two years focusing on films about herself and epilepsy, Ingrid is happy to be in Birmingham where she has access to world-class neurologists who can help her figure out how to better control her seizures.
TERRA: What inspired you to make "Seizing the Unrecorded?"
IP: I felt like I had some unsolved questions in the back of my head that needed to be answered. For over a year I began to question whether or not filmmaking was related to my seizures since they coincided with my first filmmaking class. Of course I was scared of answering that particular question and originally set out to make a more global film about epilepsy entitled 1 in 26. When the Kickstarter for the more 1 in 26 failed I decided to make a more personal film. I realized that I did not know anybody else on a personal level that had epilepsy. I wanted to make sure I met and talked to people with epilepsy so I did not “feel alone” in the “world of people with epilepsy.” Throughout the film I realized the power of how a personal film could be more relatable with a bigger audience since we all have personal questions that we want to answer. I began the film with a statement that we all face at one point in out lives: “How can something I love doing be bad for me?” If you replace the “I” with yourself then you can ask yourself the same question.
TERRA: What was the most interesting thing you learned while making the film?
IP: I always liked interviewing people since I started making films 7.5 years ago, but I did not realize the full power that an interview can have in connecting with strangers. When one turns on the camera, the person being interviewed has the potential to drop all the “walls” that they put in front of them in everyday conversations that they have with strangers and they start talking to you as though they have known you for many years. There is an art to asking the right types of questions, staying silent, and listening during an interview. LISTENING may be the most important part of conducting an interview because you have to have the patience to let them answer the question completely before interrupting and asking the next question. I also never use a list of questions during the interview and try to always maintain eye contact and keep the interview style more conversational rather than constructed.
TERRA: How did you find the people in your film? And have you kept in contact with any of them?
IP: I found all the people in the film via social media. I sent out emails and posts on various epilespy organizations online. People wrote back, and I figured out who would be the best people to interview to have a variation in stories. I knew I wanted one person with completely cured epilepsy and I was lucky to be paired up with a composer named Chase Hanebrink my first year at MSU that had cured epilepsy. I knew nothing about his story so I decided I would like to have him in the film. I wanted a variety of ages and actually interviewed a 12-year-old girl with epilepsy but it turned out her epilepsy was very severe and she could not talk for her self. Her story simply did not fit with the rest of the film. I also wanted there to be one “expert” in the film and searched online for a neurologist that had a similar view about epilepsy as I did. Dr. Steven Schachter seemed like the perfect fit because he is well known for collecting art from people with epilepsy and using their art in order explain how people feel about having epilepsy. It was just lucky that I found out he had epilepsy when he was younger. Therefore everyone in the film had, or still has epilepsy.
I have maintained contact with everyone in the film. Although the contact is infrequent I feel as though I can email any of the people in the film comfortably if I have any questions or if I want to catch up, I can simply call them on there cell phones.
TERRA: Did you have any particularly scary or rewarding moments while making the film?
IP: The film had some scary moments. I was excited, but also scared to enter the UAB epilepsy clinic to finally find out where my seizures were coming from. It was a surprise to find out that I have seizures in my sleep and that my seizures are more frequent then I had realized before the test. It was hard to edit the film at some points because some days I has having over 12 seizures during the day time and after every seizure my body had a strong urge to simply “sleep walk” and fall asleep. On a positive side, having that many seizures made me more unsocial, and made me want to finish the film as soon as possible. The fact that I had learned that seizures were related to what I looked at made me want to edit very quickly. (I should note that my seizures are much more infrequent now since I have started taking a new medication. I hope it stays that way).
There were also rewarding hugely moments. Hugs from the people I interviewed were really nice. I was a little scared about showing my film during the Thesis defense because of the fact that it is extremely personal. Part of me did not want everyone to know that my seizures are related to computer screens, and that my seizures were that frequent because it made me scared that no one would want to let me help out with future films. In fact I had a seizure that lasted at least 10 min. before the Thesis Defense probably because of stress levels and I sat next to a friend near the pond and calmed my self down. Each time the film has shown at film festivals I have become more comfortable with it, and have realized the power of making such a truthful film that does not hide behind the polite ways of stating facts.
TERRA: What have you been up to since finishing "Seizing the Unrecorded" and getting your degree?
The two or three months after I received the degree I simply rested and did not work on any film related projects. I helped my family out with Gymnastics Camps and starting up a new Gym. In August 2014 I started independent work with the VA hospital that utilizes video research. I have worked as an independent filmmaker with the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham and with the UAB Stroke Center. Currently I work part time with the Lakeshore Foundations on videos related to people with disabilities. I was also an official TA for UAB’s Ethnographic Filmmaking class the Spring Semester. It was fun to help out with that particular class because the ethnographic filmmaking class is the first filmmaking class I ever took. It made feel like I had made it full circle and that I have the ability to help students with making their own films. I am still trying to find a balance between constructed filmmaking for work and filmmaking for my own self. It is a gradual learning process, and I have been surprised about how well Seizing the Unrecorded has been received at a variety of film festivals. I do not think I will submit it to any more festivals and I will simply start to make it more accessible on websites that focus on Epilepsy. I was happy to recently hear that it is being used by some Neurologists at UAB as a film that they share with some of their patients with epilepsy. When other people with epilepsy see the film they suddenly feel that they ARE NOT ALONE. That response is the best I could ask for!!
(Photo: Ingrid won the 2014 Jackson Hole Science Media Symposium's Emerging Filmmaker Award for "Seizing the Unrecorded.")
TERRA: You've made two films about epilepsy that are featured on TERRA. What's the difference between them?
“Seizing the Unrecorded" was my thesis film, and goes into the science and stories of three different people who have epilepsy. Whereas “ePILLepsy” is a shorter film that concentrates mainly on my personal opinions about medicine and seizures in general. Throughout the filmmaking process I was very aware that I had made "ePILLepsy" a year and a half earlier and strove to have no overlap between the films.
TERRA: Tell us a little about “ePILLepsy” and what inspired you to make it.
IP: I never contemplated making a film about epilepsy until I heard about the Neuro Film Festival in January of 2012. It inspired me so much that I spent that spring working with J.D. Moore, my classmate and friend, to film myself acting out having a seizure and smashing pills. Even though I ran out of time to submit the film to the Neuro festival that year, I kept working on it. I ended up making three different versions of “ePILLepsy.” A two-minute poetic film about my opinion on pills and epilepsy that can be found on my vimeo page, a five-minute film that I entered in the 2013 Neuro Film Festival and won the runner-up prize, and a seven-minute personal essay film I made for an experimental film class. The seven-minute version is the one featured here as an episode for TERRA.
TERRA: What was it like to make such personal films?
IP: What makes a film personal? Is it the amount of vulnerability that a person is willing to share with the public? I was scared of making such a personal film at first. Over half of the narration that I used for “ePILLepsy” was written by me the spring of my last year as an undergraduate, while I was waiting to see my neurologist for over two hours. It is something I wrote to myself about my contemplations of having epilepsy. I read it to my neurologist during that particular appointment and I had to speak over my own tears in order to finish reading it. It begins, “Seize every moment as though it is your most precious one, because it might be your last.” It took me over a year before I could read it without bringing myself to tears. I never thought I would make a film out of what was essentially a diary entry. But, that also meant that I had two years of contemplating the words’ meanings before starting to think about them visually for a film.
TERRA: Give us a behind-the-scenes snapshot of what it was like on the "ePILLepsy" set.
IP: The film set was very simple. The majority of it was filmed at J.D. Moore’s house. I trusted him with filming me on this particular subject because he is a retired ER Surgeon and a good friend. I went over to his house during Thanksgiving break and instructed him on how to film me using his Sony FS700 camera. We spent a whole day filming at his house and spent an hour at the MontanaPBS studio filming me in front of a larger green screen. The film itself was made in a month’s time. I used three distinct classes to help make the completed film: the main body of the film was made for Cindy Stillwell’s Alternative Non-Fiction class, the animations were made for Theo Lipfert’s Post Production Meets Information Design class, and slow motion shots were a part of Kathy Kasic’s Advanced Cinematography class. I was lucky to have access to a Phantom camera that was able to shoot over 1000 fps for one evening. I actually shot the pills falling and being crushed only a week before the final film was due. This was the first time I was able to combine multiple assignments into a final film. I was scared when I showed the film to my class because it was so personal, but everyone gave me good feedback.
TERRA: Did you have any especially memorable moments while making "ePILLepsy?"
IP: Being able to crush my own pills in front of such an extremely powerful camera was very rewarding. I had been envisioning the image of crushing pills and falling pills for over a year and was really excited to actually capture the shot. The ability to make what I had visualized in my head into a reality made me very happy.
I knew what shots I wanted in the film, and I knew that I wanted my “diary entry” from the neurologist’s waiting room to be in the film, however I did not know the exact order of how everything would fit together. However, it was the easiest film for me to edit together because everything seemed to fit together how I wanted it to during the first cut. I tweaked it a little bit after the first cut and am still happy with over 90% of the film when I watch it now, 2 years later.
TERRA: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
IP: I first played with filmmaking using an iMac in 2007 because I wanted to document my family in a fun way. I had no official training at that point and simply liked playing around with iMovie.
I became hooked on filmmaking after my first filmmaking class at UAB. I was immediately intrigued by the openness that one can achieve during an interview. I am always amazed at how open people are with me during an interview compared to everyday conversations. It doesn’t matter if they are complete strangers, people tend to share their stories with you as long as you are truthful with them about why you are filming them.
On a more personal note, I like filmmaking because it is another form of memory for me. I love that film can document a moment that I cannot mentally remember. For example, there are minutes in my life that are not “recorded” simply because I have a seizure, and the camera can in a sense record those moments for me.
TERRA: What types of equipment did you use? Do you have a favorite piece?
IP: For "ePILLepsy" I used a Sony FS700 camera, a foldable green screen, MontanaPBS’s green screen studio at MSU, and a Phantom camera. I used Final Cut Pro 7 and Adobe After Effect’s to edit the film.
As far as equipment is concerned, I have no favorites, but I did enjoy being able to use the Phantom camera that could capture at such a high frame rate. I enjoy any camera that can capture decent audio and video. I actually like using film, 16mm as well, because it forces me to be more decisive with the shots that I make. Overall I like to be able to shoot on the run. When traveling I prefer having a camera that has good audio XLR inputs as well as a decent zoom lens. I like being able to use fancier, interchangeable lenses and specialized audio equipment, but when I am shooting in another country or by myself, I find that a simple all-in-one camera setup is easier to use and less intimidating to people during interviews.
TERRA: What would be your dream project?
IP: I have a lot of ideas of film projects. I want to do a more in depth film project that is an installation about being a twin. I want people to try to pick and chose between real sets of twins and twins made by modified images. I am drawn to this idea in particular because I am an identical twin myself, and because the project would be very interactive.
There is also one more movie I want to make about epilepsy, simply because I feel like it needs to be made. One in 26 people globally have some form of epilepsy. I want to make, or help make, a feature length movie about epilepsy around the world. The international story about so many people not being treated for it and still being discriminated against because of their seizures has a lot of cultural and medical potential that could make for a powerful film.
TERRA: What’s your favorite aspect of filmmaking?
IP: I like the ability to create an image that has multiple meanings to different people. When an image tells a story without words I feel like it can impact more people. For example, in “ePILLepsy,” I chose to show an image of me looking at a wine glass next to an image of me drinking from a pill bottle. I do not have to tell the viewer what I mean by the image, it is already implied that I think medicine can parallel alcohol and addiction.
The other part of filmmaking that I like is the interview process itself because it allows me to meet many interesting people from very distinct backgrounds.
TERRA: Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on and why?
IP: I’ve liked every project for different reasons, but the one I’ve had the most fun with has been about toilet paper. I was able to combine my interest in painting and installation with filmmaking. I made three films, one using video, one using a 16 mm camera, and one that combined found footage and commercials. I like having the ability to completely immerse people in a space.
I feel most accomplished from my thesis film “Seizing the Unrecorded” because it was the hardest film for me to make so far in my life. At 29 min. it is the longest film I’ve made as a solo director, and it is the most personal, even more personal than “ePILLepsy” because I show myself having a seizure. It is the one movie that I’ve made so far that made me really question why I like filmmaking, and whether or not it is worth it even if it may be contributing to me having more seizures. In the end I’ve decided it is worth it, because I am most happy when I am creating something, and my favorite medium to create with is film.
TERRA: If you could be any animal which would you be?
IP: If I could be any animal I would either be a cat or a bird. A bird because I like to be able to see things from up high, but also have the ability to make my own home wherever I land. Or a cat because they are so good at observing things.
TERRA: Anything else you’d like to add?
IP: I am happy to be done with my MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking and am happy to have had a supportive cohort these past three years. Some of my favorite projects were definitely a collaboration with my friends in Montana, and I could not have done the projects without their help. One must never forget the power of teamwork on a film project.