Curiouser is a quirky short film about a girl who discovers a dreamlike world inside a chest of drawers. Created by Melbourne Girls College student Mary McGillivray, the film was one of the works selected for Top Screen 2014.

When she was developing the idea for her film, Mary was inspired by children’s stories including The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Alice in Wonderland. “From quite early on I knew I wanted to make a film about nostalgia, so I explored this theme focusing specifically on my own childhood memories,” she said. “I wanted to reference the genre of children’s fantasy by having my protagonist go on an adventure through a fantasy world after an unfortunate encounter with a magical piece of furniture, but with a teenage protagonist who represents a version of myself. This way I could explore the theme of childhood and nostalgia with a particular emphasis on leaving childhood and the feelings associated with growing up and becoming an adult.”

During the development of her film, she resolved to make it visually appealing, drawing further inspiration from Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001) and Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009). Once she’d written a treatment for her film, Mary started collecting images and symbols that she associated with her childhood. She also found drawings from kindergarten and primary school, using many of these in her final film.

Curiouser is a visually stunning and beautifully composed film. Much of its charm can be traced back to the meticulous storyboards that Mary completed during pre-production. “This was by far the most important stage of pre-production for me,” she said. “Storyboarding helped me visualise exactly what was going to be in which shot and how the film would look overall. I storyboarded the entire film and included sound, both music and foley, as well as detailed description of any camera movement, focus pulls or editing effects. The storyboard proved vital when I was shooting, not only to have as a visual reference, but I was able to double check that I had taken every shot that I needed. I can’t understate how important it is to storyboard!”

Curiouser Storyboards
Storyboards for the opening shots of Curiouser © Mary McGillivray.

When it came to shooting her film, Mary was thankful for the immense amount of planning and pre-production that she had completed. “Know your film back-to-front before you’ve even started shooting and know exactly what you want the final product to look like,” she said. “It’s not fun to turn up on the day of shooting and not know what to do!” Although careful planning means a production will run smoothly, problems are almost inevitable. Mary suggests dealing with all problems – whether it’s a problem with equipment or props – calmly and rationally. She also encourages other filmmakers to double check that their equipment is in working order. “Charge your camera battery,” she said. “In fact, check all your equipment the night before – is it charged and functional? Is there enough space on your memory card? Do you have your memory card? It may sound silly, but there is nothing worse than forgetting a memory card or having a flat battery on the day of shooting.”

Acting in her own film was one of the biggest challenges that Mary faced during principal photography. “I was the only actor in my film and therefore the only person on set most of the time so I had be creative in finding ways to set up the shots,” she said. “I often stood a broom where I was going to stand and focused the camera on that, or set up a timer to take a photograph of me in the shot so that I could review it from the view finder afterwards. For the more complex shots that involved focus pulls or camera movement while I was in shot, I was lucky to have my dad help out by operating the camera for me. I was also able to connect my camera up to my laptop where I could control it remotely.”

During the pre-production of her film, Mary also put considerable thought into her choice of music. Fortunately, the song that she wanted to use, Gnossienne No.1, was in the public domain. She encourages all filmmakers to explore creative commons and public domain music. “My advice to VCE students would be to steer clear of music for which you need to gain special permission to use,” she said. “There is so much amazing music online and you won’t have to take a gamble on copyright infringement or waste time getting in contact with record companies.”

During the post-production of her film, Mary also spent a considerable amount of time honing the soundtrack for her film. Although there were few foley sounds in her production, she worked hard to mix these sound effects seamlessly with the music in her film.

Mary enjoyed editing her film. She spent countless hours in the editing software, agonising over the placement of edits, tweaking the timing and sound until she was happy with it. One of the most difficult stages of post-production involved learning how to use keying filters for the green screen shots in her film.

Mary implores other young filmmakers to find an idea that they are passionate about. “Plan it thoroughly and know what you want the end product to look like, but be flexible and ready to adapt your ideas if something doesn’t go to plan,” she said. “Watch films and TV shows you love and study them. Sit with your finger on the pause and rewind buttons and observe closely the editing, camera and sound techniques that your favourite directors use.”

Although the process of writing, directing and editing your own film can be daunting, she encourages other young filmmakers not to stress out. “It’s important to look after yourself and not worry too much,” she said. “By the end of it, you won’t believe how much you’ve achieved, and you will hopefully be proud of your creation.”