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Programmer Profile: Karilynn Thompson

Programmer Profiles is a blog series that brings you into the life of our esteemed programmers. Through this series you will gain insight into the lives of the hardworking people who spend their days hunting the latest and greatest film releases. They are our tastemakers and curatorial geniuses, and they all have a story to tell. 

Shorts Programmer, Karilynn Thompson has no shortage of festival experience. She revels in the efficacy of the film festival to bring together communities both in front of the screen and during the (sometimes unusual) after-parties.  

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Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a born and raised Calgarian – and I also credit the amazing opportunities I’ve had to being in a small and friendly arts community with great mentors. I’ve been programming for about eight years now, including five festivals as a Short Film Programmer with Calgary International Film Festival.

I came to programming through being a creator myself, and I have a Bachelor of Fine Art from the Alberta College of Art and Design in Drawing. The start of my interest in filmmaking happened when I figured out that I could make my drawings move, with the help of Quickdraw Animation Society. Years later, when I landed a job at Quickdraw, including running an animation festival (GIRAF, or the Giant Incandescent Resonating Animation Festival) it was a game changer for my struggling just-out-of-artschool career. As festival director there, I got to do some crazy things – like putting giant animations on downtown buildings, and bringing animators like Bruce Bickford (who collaborated with Frank Zappa in the '70s) and David O’Reilly (known for powerhouse short films THE EXTERNAL WORLD and PLEASE SAY SOMETHING) to Calgary. To this day, animation is always my favorite thing watch and to program at the festival.

Name a film that changed your life and why it’s important to you.

Being a short film programmer, I feel like this question is so hard to answer. I’m not a classic film buff, nor do I have a standard film school education. Many of the films that have inspired me along the way are especially as an animator myself are, in fact, short films – strange and disparate picks like Amy Lockhart’s WALK FOR A WALK. 

If I had to choose a moment, and a film that someone out there might recognize – I’d say that seeing PRINCESS MONONKE, by Miyazaki, in Japan (when I was 16 years old as an exchange student) had to be a formative experience. This was prior to art school, and even my first job in a movie theatre, and the film was not yet released in Canada. I distinctly remember that there were Japanese subtitles (not English), as the spoken language in the film was almost a medieval form of Japanese difficult for even native speakers to understand. Regardless of the language barrier, the strong visuals of this film communicated the story so aptly, and in retrospect, moments like this probably laid the ground for my later passion for creating and programming animation.

Working in the arts is a labour of love. What makes it all worth it?

This all boils down to community for me – showcasing great short films, to appreciative audiences, and connecting film makers to film lovers. A festival is like a yearly homecoming, and you get to reconnect with people you don’t always see outside of that time, over the thing that brings you together, great films.

What do you do when you’re not watching movies?

My day job is at cSPACE King Edward – Calgary’s newest art’s incubator – so I get to spend my days around a cool heritage building with 30 artists and arts/culture organizations as our tenants. I’ve also volunteered/worked for the Calgary Underground Film Festival for almost all of its years in existence (celebrating the 15th festival this year!), which keeps me busy as a Box Office and Volunteer Coordinator.

When I’m not sitting in a dark room in front of a screen watching thousands of short films (…when is that though exactly?), you’ll find me doing the exact opposite: backcountry hiking, canoeing, or getting covered in clay while wheel throwing ceramics – very deliberately away from computer screens.

What’s the strangest/most interesting/funny/moving thing that’s ever happened to you on the job? 

The moment right now that stands out to me was during the 2016 festival, following the Best of Shorts screening. One of our amazing sponsors (Igor Tesker) throws an off-the-hook private party each year for the event (sometimes there are drag queens with red carpet dresses, other times full 1920s costumes), and last year it was a party in a beautiful house in Mount Royal. Beyond the incredible venue, what stood out to me about this moment was the number of filmmakers that were joining us on the evening, and that it felt like we were in a place that somehow wasn’t the Calgary I’d known. It felt like a bigger festival, like we could have been at a party in Park City or some other locale, and I felt so honored to spend the night with an incredible group of short filmmakers and a house full of people that had as much of a passion for short films as I do.

What’s your number one piece of advice for filmmakers trying to get into the festival? What makes a film stand out?

I’ll echo some of the other programmers here – in that if your film is not accepted – keep trying. We received 2,000 short films this year, and were only able to program 70 - The odds are staggering, and festivals like TIFF, Sundance etc, are only bigger. Keep trying until you find your audience!

Beyond this, when I program a film, I’m always looking for something that makes me feel something. That something can be good, or really bad but I’m looking for something unforgettable, and a strong story is key to a solid film. For me, having watched thousands of short films, this is the single most important component – if you don’t have the story down, no amount of technical competency, or special effects will save your film. Make it unique, and particularly for the short format, keep it short! 

How many films do you watch each year (or per day) to select your lineup?

I try my best to watch 60+ shorts in a week, most of which are between 10-30 min.

What’s your film-watching routine?

With 2,000 short submissions, there are so many films to watch that you just need to get things done at the same time (like eating dinner, breakfast, and lunch). Any free second in the day is game – I sneak things in on my lunch break, and always watch pretty much from the time I get home from my other job to bedtime. To this end, I’m almost always on my laptop – even when I'm getting some sun in the yard with my cat.

What’s your advice for aspiring programmers?

I really got my start in programming through volunteering. I volunteered as a previewer for CUFF, GIRAF, and Calgary Film for many years before I programmed a festival. The connections you make, and the experience you gain doing this can give you the insight, and the in’s to make it into a position. And lastly, attend festivals and seek out film experiences – it’s the only way to grow your palate and knowledge about what makes a truly great film!

With 68 shorts in the 2017 lineup, there's a lot to see! Are there any particular shorts you love that that our audience shouldn't miss?

SKIN FOR SKIN (playing in the Frame by Frame shorts package) – This masterfull Calgary-made NFB animation was 5+ years in the works, and should not be missed by animation lovers.

BONBONÉ (playing in the Family First shorts package) - This Lebanese short (premiering at TIFF), is one of my favorites of the festival, with the perfect amount of intrigue, steamyness, and tense moments that kept me on edge throughout.

ANIMAL/HEYVAN (playing in the Interspecies and Intergalactic shorts package) - When I saw this Iranian student film, my first thought was “this is my type of weird.” Beautifully shot, with unforgettable visuals and a story concept that is completely original.

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See Karilynn's selections of short films playing at the 2017 Calgary International Film Festival and pick up your early bird festival pack or pass. Tickets to all shorts packages will go on sale Wednesday, August 30.