Robert Machoian Graham, Oscar Ignacio Jimenez and Luis Fernando Puente discuss their collaboration and the lessons they’ve learned
Filmmakers throughout the world dream of being admitted into the Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the United States. Having your work accepted is validating in and of itself, but a “festival run” also gets the film in front of big names in the industry. Another bonus is a movie or short film gets cast in with former Sundance successes like “Get Out,” “Whiplash” and “(500) Days of Summer.”
For these reasons and more, professor Robert Machoian Graham, who teaches in the Department of Design, and TMA students Oscar Ignacio Jimenez and Luis Fernando Puente were happy to hear that their short film “The MINORS” was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival.
“When you’re watching the movies at Sundance you think, ‘One day, I’m going to be here,’” said Oscar Jimenez. “I was expecting that to happen 10 years from now. Not one year later.”
Robert Graham, (who goes by Robert Machoian when filming) has screened films at the Sundance Film Festival before. “The MINORS” is the photography professor’s fourth short film to be accepted by the festival. It is also a deeply personal film, as his own children and father make up the cast.
“Much of my work is about my family or has my family in it,” says Graham on his personal website. “It is what I have access to, but it is also the thing that has brought me the most joy.”
One thing that sets “The MINORS” apart from Graham’s other short films is his collaborators; he worked with two of his students instead of his usual collaborator, Rodrigo Odeja-Beck. “The MINORS” was funded by BYU’s Film and Digital Media Fund, which required Graham to bring students on to work on the project.
Once he knew he’d need to bring on a student to help with the project, Graham talked to Jimenez. The two had known each other for some time, as Jimenez had approached Graham beforehand with questions about filming and improving as a cinematographer.
“As a professor considering taking students on as collaborators, I’m looking for students who are serious,” Graham said. “Oscar wants to be a cinematographer and, talking with him, I know he’s serious.”
“I assumed he just wanted me as a camera assistant,” Jimenez said. “Then Graham asked, ‘Hey, do you want to shoot this for me?’ I’d never shot anything with him before and I felt like he was on this high-caliber level, so it was really intimidating. He said, ‘No no no, I trust you, you know your stuff. We have the same style of films that we like.’”
Once he was brought on to shoot the film, Jimenez reached out to Puente. “Luis was the first person I thought of to help because I knew his style of filmmaking, and the films he loves would mesh well with Professor Graham’s,” he said.
Puente already knew about Graham by this time. “He did a Faith and Works lecture in 2017 where he talked about his upbringing with hardcore punk in the ‘80s. I thought, ‘that’s all me as well,’” Puente said.
Production for “The MINORS” helped Jimenez and Puente see a side of filmmaking that shed new light on potential paths filmmakers can take. For one, the experience taught them that they don’t need to wait for a budget to start filming.
“For me, as a young filmmaker, I have nothing to do, I have nothing to be able to start with,” Puente said. “Well, look at Robert. He also kind of started from nothing. He owns his own equipment and shoots with his kids.”
Jimenez and Puente also had the opportunity to learn about running a small crew and set from Graham, who has a different filming process from a typical BYU capstone project. One of the most obvious differences is the size of the crew. While capstone projects often involve around a dozen students during the film’s production, Jimenez, Puente and Graham were essentially the only three people who worked on the film.
“I prefer smaller crews,” Jimenez said. “It felt more like a family. On big sets, you have your assistant director who’s just wrangling people. Robert has a very relaxed way of running the set. His days aren’t long. If we were to shoot a six-hour day, three hours would be filming and the other three would be adjusting and re-adjusting.”
The students weren’t the only ones who grew as filmmakers during the production process. “Shorts are a great way to learn and grow as an artist,” Graham said. “The MINORS” was no exception.
“Most of my films are these hybrids of narrative and documentary and, this time, I didn’t want to do that,” Graham said. “So, stylistically, a result of working on a documentary is your lighting needs to look natural. For me, I didn’t want that in this film. So, we lit this film in a way that was opposite of that. There’s harsh light sources coming in and strong contrast. From my dialogue with Oscar, he’d never lit something in that way, either. So, together we were exploring a lighting set up that I don’t normally do.”
“The MINORS” is being screened at the Sundance Film Festival, which runs until Feb. 3, and has already won a Special Jury Award. More information can be found on the Sundance website.