Burning BrightWhen noir thriller meets mastery animation

A conversation with minds behind the brilliant short film
on the occasion of Tribeca Film Festival presentation.

Maddalena Iodice Dear Aaron and Lisa, thank you for your participation and taking the time to share more about your experience behind Burning Bright. Love, mystery, revenge… recently presented at Tribeca Film Festival, this 10 minutes short film really encapsulates all the key elements that make spectators attention fully focused on the screen. The duration does not impact narration power at all, instead it emphasizes it.
How this fascinating project came about?

Lisa Benson Aaron and I have been friends for a long time and have wanted to work together on a film project. About four years ago, we were brainstorming ideas over lunch in Gramercy Park. We discussed our mutual love for film noir and came up with the idea of doing a noir thriller featuring IMG talent. I loved it! We began bouncing ideas back and forth and one of our first casting choices was Jessica Stam. Within minutes, Stam rode her bike past us and we knew we were on to something. We felt it was meant to be and decided to start immediately. The project was originally a live action film and we tried hard to make that happen for nearly a year. We had an A-list production team and an incredible location on Walt Disney Studios backlot… it was very exciting. However, we soon realized it was nearly impossible to coordinate the schedules of 5 supermodels for a three day shoot and decided to reevaluate the project.
Aaron pitched the idea of turning it into an animated project and I was willing to give it a try. Once I saw some early concept art, I knew it could work. Aaron would give me updates on his long days and nights creating the animation. I couldn’t believe how the artists transformed photographs into live film characters!

Aaron Bierman Lisa Benson is a longtime friend and we had talked about working together for years. Lisa had always been an innovative and forward-thinking agent – looking for exciting new opportunities for her models. We thought a short film would be a good way to feature some of IMG’s talent who were transitioning into acting.
I worked on Wall Street for 13 years and was in the early stages of my second act as a filmmaker. I saw this short film idea as a great opportunity for all of us – Lisa and I share a love of old Hollywood and film noir is one of my favorite genres. I pitched Lisa the concept of a stylized noir thriller and she loved it. We discussed general casting thoughts and some ideas began to stick. Over the course of the next few weeks, I literally watched 60 of the greatest noir films of all time from an online list created by one of my heroes, Martin Scorcese. I wrote a rough outline for a treatment, created some concept art and the project was underway.

MI Being a stylised animated short film I assume you had to deal with many different aspects before bringing it to life. Was it approached as a traditional filmed movie before being animated? Tell me more about this process.

AB We first set out to make Burning Bright a live action film and worked towards that version for about a year. The hectic work schedules of 5 supermodels made a three-day shoot nearly impossible so we were forced to reassess how to finish the project. I asked Lisa if she was open to the idea of turning this into an animated film. She was understandably a little nervous but curious as she always is! I have a friend that draws for Marvel and DC and we did some concept art with different models and Lisa loved it.
As a kid growing up in New York, I was an artist and gobbled up Marvel Comics like candy. These creative outlets helped me develop a sense of visual grammar which later helped inform my filmmaking. Despite this, as a director with no experience in animation, I knew I had a lot of work to do if I was going to deliver the kind of project we could all be proud of. I read books on animation, watched countless animated classics and even took an animation art class. I began to fall in love with animation as an art form and my passion grew. I started collecting vintage animation art and even bought a rare animation desk used at Walt Disney Studios in the 1950’s. In an animated film, artists act very much like cinematographers. I worked very closely with the artists to achieve my vision for each scene. Elements including color palette, lighting, composition and character design all go into the creation of a frame that later becomes animated to tell the larger story. The first step is a great illustration based on a photograph of the person we are creating a character for and animating. The first draft can be drastically different from our final work and getting the art correct often takes 5 or even 10 passes.

MI How long did it take to finalize it?

LB About 3.5 years, each year got easier! We were so patient because we knew it would eventually come together. It’s all about timing and you can’t rush your first large project, you just have to trust your gut and the journey.

AB Once we committed to the animated version of the project, it took over three years to complete with animation sessions often going until 3 or 4 in the morning!

MI I’d like to know more about characters development. Was casting handled based on existing script roles or was the personality of each model, especially Chanel, forming story figures?

LB The cast changed a few times until we got it right. Chanel’s acting career was taking off and she really wanted to do something different. She loves film noir and I knew she’d be dedicated to the project. We felt the same about Elsa and felt she would be the ultimate femme fatale assassin. Stam walking past us at lunch while we were discussing the project was a sign that she was meant to be in it.

was a new client of mine at the time and I really wanted to have her gain experience outside of modeling. Nolan who completed the cast loved the idea and was eager to jump right in.
We absolutely loved our cast and the ideas they put forward. They were so dedicated and it was beyond emotional and rewarding to see it all come together. I am so humbled to know that talent of this stature trusted us with their name and likeness.

AB I had a sense of who I wanted to cast and Lisa has an uncanny knowledge of her client’s talents. We were extremely collaborative in selecting our final cast. Some decisions were made based on the look we were hoping to achieve (Elsa as the ultimate femme fatale assassin, “Slim”) but a lot of casting came down to who felt right for the role.
Lisa cleverly sat Chanel and I next to each other at a dinner one night in Hollywood. After talking to Chanel for a couple hours, I knew she was the right heroine for the project. I saw Chanel’s dedication to her craft from the onset. She learned how to drive a manual stick shift, took swimming lessons to learn how to hold her breath, hired a firearms instructor to learn how to shoot gun…! Needless to say, I was impressed.
Chanel and I talked about the character, her thoughts and feelings, fears, backstory… everything. Even what was in the mysterious briefcase! Chanel brought some very personal emotions to the role and it shows in her powerful performance.
Nolan Funk also brought a great deal to his role of the two-timing lout, Johnny. As an accomplished actor, he was very comfortable giving valuable input which really helped to elevate the project. In addition, I collaborated with the models on style choices, including wardrobe, hair and makeup. I encouraged the cast to give feedback about the art because I wanted them to feel a sense of ownership over their character and the project. Jessica Stam helped pick out the dress she “wore,” and gave great feedback about the art which really helped to elevate the project.

MI On a deeper level the short film also seems a metaphor inviting us to remember we need none else light to Burn Bright as the light we seek is within and we just need to look inside ourselves to find it… Aside from cult cinematic references such as The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard I would be curious to know if any biographical element influenced the screenwriting or was it (maybe) inspired by a specific anecdote in time.

LB I loved the script and it’s overarching message as soon as Aaron sent it to me. It’s so important to remember that we have all the power and light within ourselves. Like Aaron, I have also surrendered my power to others but have learned through experience to hopefully not repeat the pattern. In this era, I couldn’t think of a better message to communicate to the world through a short film. I hope that it reminded our audience to live their lives to the fullest, and to burn their own light bright! I hope that our viewers walked away with.

AB I first got the idea for Burning Bright when I overheard a friend say, “I just want to find a man who will light my cigarette”. Superficially, it was a relatable and understandable want. However, upon further thought, it struck me how much power we give to other people and things in the search for happiness or fulfillment. We live in a time where people too often surrender their personal power and don’t even know it. We hope a romantic partner can make us whole. A rewarding job will make us happy. A great leader will solve all of our problems… I had a screenwriting instructor at U.C.L.A. who said a story’s theme should be the lesson you wanted to share with the world if it was your last day on Earth. Like everyone, I’ve unknowingly given my power to others and it caused me great pain. I think it’s part of being human — but so is storytelling. One of my favorite things about telling stories is the impact you can have on people. Burning Bright is the story of a young woman who’s given away her power to an unworthy man and must fight to recapture it before she loses her life and possibly her soul. Through the metaphor of the story, I hope to remind people that despite what the world fools you into believing, our true power always lies within.

MI What is next? Are you planning any upcoming related project, if not a longer film version?

LB I learned more than I could have ever imagined from this project. I almost signed up for a film class before we started the project but decided to just dive in and see what happens, and it was so rewarding! Aaron and I are in talks with talent and would love to do a full length version of Burning Bright. We hope that a network will take notice of our film and share our message with an even bigger audience. DREAM BIG!

AB I loved working with Lisa and IMG and we’ve already begun the process of discussing new projects, including the possibility of a feature-length version of Burning Bright. Stay tuned!

Tap Here to discover the trailer





Interview by Maddalena Iodice