Brett Ingram, a documentary filmmaker, is happy to hear that he has won an Indies Arts Award. But he's not exactly bouncing off the walls with excitement.
"I probably shouldn't say this, but I don't put a whole lot of stock in awards," the soft-spoken Ingram says in an interview at his Durham home, sitting next to a table full of video editing gear where he spends most of his waking hours. "I guess it's a good thing," he allows: After all, awards bring attention that can lead to the financial backing that filmmakers crave.
Ingram should know. His work has won 18 awards on the independent film festival circuit, and in 1995, the North Carolina Arts Council granted him a lucrative Visual Artist Fellowship. But for an artist like Ingram, the recognition's not the thing. It's the storytelling that interests him, the chance to document a person's plight and share it with the rest of the world.
"Brett has a knack for finding people that other people don't even notice, but that he identifies with and finds something unique about," says Neal Hutcheson, a Durham-based producer and collaborator on several of Ingram's artistic and commercial projects. Obsessiveness is Ingram's trademark. After Ingram finds unique personalities, he dissects them, spending enormous amounts of time getting to know his subject. "Brett will work on a project for years to do it the way he thinks it should be done," Hutcheson says. "From the outside, it almost looks insane, but what he winds up with is always amazing."
In the deadline-driven world of contemporary filmmaking, Ingram's style may seem outmoded and too painstaking for its own good. But he seems more than content with the long, slow and not necessarily profitable approach to making films. Even if he had a big budget, Ingram claims he'd do it the same way. "I'd actually be able to stay in a hotel, and eat, and have a crew," he says. But in the end, "I'd still be making the same documentaries."
Ingram, 35, was raised in Kernersville and earned an engineering degree at N.C. State University. He then spent a year tinkering with rocket engines in Florida, but hated it, and soon quit. He bounced around for a few years, and then, on a lark--and without any journalism training--he took a job as a news and features writer for the Kernersville News. "That was the genesis of how I fell into documentary work," Ingram says. "I really got into interviewing people and telling their stories through photographs and writing. For a while, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to go into film or be a writer, but I gravitated toward film."
Ingram had finally found his calling, and dove into it at UNC-Greensboro, earning a master's degree in film and video production in 1993. While in school, he produced his first documentary, which profiled his grandmother and her sister, and he dabbled in stop-motion animation and video installations.
Ingram's master's thesis put him on the course he is still following today. He was interested in animation, but really wanted to make documentaries. His thesis film, The Clay Spirit, blended the two genres by profiling three pioneering clay animators: Joan Gratz, David Daniels and Bruce Bickford.
After graduation, Ingram moved back to the Triangle, but took on a part-time teaching job at UNC-Greensboro for two years. Meanwhile, he carved out a career as a freelance video producer and sound assistant. He helps run Bright Eye Pictures, which has worked for an impressive alphabet soup of clients, including ABC, BET, CBS, CNN, MTV and NBC.
The commercial contracts pay the bills, but Ingram's heart is in his documentaries. According to Ingram, there's a common but multi-fibered thread running though his disparate film projects. "They all deal with psychological, emotional or spiritual issues, those all being sort of tied together," he says. His recent film, Panic Attack, was featured at the latest DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, which is run by the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham. Panic Attack stresses psychological issues in a graphic, chilling, and ultimately redeeming way. The 12-minute short is a glimpse into the tortured mind of a film school classmate of Ingram's who grappled with fits of fear for most of his life.
Of all the potential topics for a documentary, why did Ingram choose panic attacks? "I wanted to raise awareness of a certain type of mental illness," he says. "As best I could, I wanted to get people to empathize with people who have panic attacks, to thrust them into it and show them what it feels like."
The opening scene accomplishes that. Ingram's classmate narrates: "I want you to imagine being on top of the Empire State building, and there's a guy, he weighs about 300 pounds of solid muscle, and he's trying to push you off the top of the building. How would you feel in that situation? A panic attack is just as real, and just as frightening." As he speaks, the film cuts to footage from the observer deck high on the Empire State building. In the footage, the camera takes the subjective viewpoint of someone peering over the edge of the building. For any viewer capable of empathy, the sequence conveys more terror than a coven of Blair Witches.
It took three years of on-again, off-again editing for Ingram to get Panic Attack just right. And that's the way it's going with his next documentary. The filmmaker's latest obsession is Bruce Bickford, claymation's great lost luminary, whose last brush with fame came during a seven-year stint as Frank Zappa's personal, appropriately twisted animator.
Among hard-core animation buffs, Bickford is a legend, albeit a distant and mercurial one. While Bickford remains a prodigious artist, he doesn't leave his Seattle house very often.
"He's reclusive and he makes his animation totally in a vacuum," Ingram explains. "That's what he does from the time he wakes up in the morning until he goes to sleep. He's totally obsessed. But he's completely incapable of working as a commercial animator. He has this distinct way of doing things that is not commercially viable."
Ingram can certainly sympathize. He's shot 90 hours of footage about Bickford, but as Ingram sees it, that's just scratching the surface. He's plodded away on this film for a year-and-a-half, and the public won't get to see it for at least as long, he predicts. "I had to figure out what is going through this guy's head," he explains. "Animators are traditionally nutty people. You have to be a bit of a control freak, and you have to be pretty obsessed with doing intricate, tedious things for a long period of time."
An obsessive artist immersed in the tedium of his work? Why does that sound familiar?