Reel Loud’s Triple Sweep: “Worm” leaves its mark


Jasmine Liang

Arts & Entertainment

On May 23, UC Santa Barbara’s Reel Loud hosted its 33rd annual silent film festival with the theme Fables, Folk Stories, and Fairy Tales. It featured 11 student-made films with live music, performances from the local bands The Afterparty and ivnaturejams, and a Bollywood fusion dance performance from UCSB Taara.

The 11 films shown are as follows: 

  • “At the Edge of Eternity” directed by Cameron Douglas and produced by Jacqueline Allen
  • “Urine Love” directed by Wells Hodder and produced by Leah Hetteberg
  • “I Need Coffee” directed by Shane Rockenstein Carlson and produced by Houston Sasselli
  • “My Dog Fell Down the Rabbit Hole” directed by Sophia Pfitzmann and produced by Indira Diamond
  • “Between Here and Home” directed by Leah Hetteberg and produced by Nicole Skaggs
  • “Where the Sand Meets the Sea” directed by Christy Knudson and produced by James Dudley
  • “Last Supper” directed by Cat Hernández and produced by Louise Bill
  • “Anglerfish” directed by Anissa Estrada and Moth Strelow, produced by Indira Diamond
  • “Worm” directed and produced by Akaysha Brunker
  • “Take the Water Prisoner” directed by Louise Bill and produced by Alena Mauhs
  • “Hollow” directed by Leah Grossmann and produced by Aria Mahmoud

Reel Loud presents awards for: Audience Choice, Best Editing, Best Filmmaker, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Writing, Best Production Design, Best Music, and Scott Wells Golden Reel — a special award in honor of the late Scott Wells, which commemorates his love of film by awarding the film with the best use of silent film and live music. 

A panel of four judges deliberates on each award besides Audience Choice, which is voted for after the showings. The panel this year included UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) Film and Media studies alumni Trae Briers and Joseph Palladino; director, producer, and writer Leah Bleich; and UCSB Film and Media studies professor Anna Brusutti. 

“Worm” won Audience Choice, Best Editing, and tied for Best Writing with “At the Edge of Eternity.” Leah Grossmann won Best Filmmaker for “Hollow,” and “Hollow” took home Best Cinematography. Thomas Asturias won Best Actor for “Where the Sand Meets the Sea,” and Liv Blair won Best Actress for “Between Here and Home.” “My Dog Fell Down the Rabbit Hole” won Best Production. “Where the Sand Meets the Sea” won Best Music.

The Bottom Line (TBL) interviewed Akaysha Brunker, three-time award winner for her short film “Worm,” which told the story of a worm finding their place while battling a fearsome bird.

TBL: What inspired the visuals and story of “Worm”? 

A: Growing up, I was immersed in manga and cartoons, which continue to influence my visual style. I’ve often experimented with mimicking the dynamic panels from manga in my work. Media like “Adventure Time,” “Monty Python,” and “The Dark Crystal” have left a significant mark on me; “Adventure Time,” in particular. I strive to capture some of the unique, whimsical elements that the show is known for in my own creations, be it writing, directing, jokes, or really anything I stick my hands into.

TBL: Your film “Worm” used a lot of mixed media. What inspired you to take a non-traditional approach for Reel Loud?

A: I might risk sounding a tad mundane and not like a super cool tortured artist, but I truly just have a soft spot for puppets and was eager to create something with them. Yet, knowing the constraints that come with puppetry, I didn’t want to be boxed in. So, inspired by “South Park” and “Smiling Friends,” I decided to mix paper and claymation plus a little live-action into little Worm’s world. Marlena Goodman, the claymation artist, has crafted some trippy visuals in the past and seemed perfect for bringing a splash of her dark, enchanting style to the mix.

TBL: Your film was the only one to have live voice acting. Why did you choose to include this alongside the live music? 

A: I envisioned “Worm” to be a dynamic experience that moves past the typical silent format. I was intrigued by the concept of blending live voice acting with music, inspired by the ambiance of something akin to Shakespeare in the Park. Each character’s dialogue adheres to different poetic structures, with Snail trying his best to express himself in a sonnet form — an octave rhyming ABBAABBA, and Beetle communicating through haikus. This poetic dialogue brings a unique rhythm and depth to the film, and I felt it was crucial that these elements be spoken rather than simply read, as to me, that’s how poetry should typically be consumed. The voice actors, James Dudley for Snail and Gabriella Giro for Beetle, brought an incredible level of authenticity to their performances, capturing the silliness and intensity of the characters and enhancing the poetic dialogue beautifully. 

TBL: “Worm” won three awards: Audience Choice, Best Editing, and Best Writing. What do you think made “Worm” stand out for these categories?

A: For the Audience Choice Award, I believe the film’s energy and the audience’s engagement played a significant role. The character of Worm is such a little guy, it’s hard not to love it. I would even start treating Worm like a true, living entity — someone you instinctively root for. I believe it may have been those moments when the audience gasped and exclaimed, “oh no!” that truly solidified their affection for Worm and secured audience choice. Additionally, for myself working on it and possibly others watching it, the film was a breath of fresh air, as we don’t often see many non-live-action films at UCSB.

A: For Best Writing: “Worm” is fundamentally a hero’s journey. My co-writer Sophie often describes it as an Odyssey, which I find very cute — I like to imagine Worm in a little Greek tunic on a boat. I think the story’s simple plot, mixed with a unique approach to dialogue, and silly little moments to silly looking things really added impact.

When asked for a comment, Sawyer Nicoll, the editor of “Worm,” said: “I think Worm was really refreshing and universally enjoyed since it didn’t take itself too seriously yet was full of tons of hard work and creativity. It packed so many different forms of animation into five minutes, and personally, I just tried to make the “tripping” sequence as dynamic and over-the-top as possible.” 

A: I’d also like to add that Sawyer understands my humor and writing fairly well and sniffed out what I would and wouldn’t like quickly.

TBL: What are you most proud of with “Worm”? 

A: I’m really proud of how “Worm” wriggled its way to life. It’s wonderful that people enjoyed the film and perhaps found a moment of joy in it. I’m especially pleased that a project I decided not to stress over and just went with the flow of turned into something I truly loved.

TBL: You also worked on several of the other films’ crews. How do you leave your mark on the films you’re not directing? 

A: It’s a bit hard to pin down, but I’d say it’s more about the energy and attitude I bring rather than just the visuals. Working primarily in Grip & Electric, my goal is to streamline operations on set, helping the director and DP [Director of Photography] stay focused and less stressed. This allows them to immerse themselves in their creative vision without getting bogged down by technical details. Someone once told me that the best grips operate so efficiently and discreetly that their work goes unnoticed — unless there’s a hiccup — by the DP and director, who can then concentrate fully on the artistic aspects of the film. I strive to work in this manner.

A: As a gaffer, especially being relatively new to the role, I put a lot of effort into understanding the specific vibe the team is aiming for before we even start shooting. I do research to ensure I can contribute effectively. I don’t leave anything distinctly “Akaysha,” as I simply want to create what works best for each individual project. 

TBL: Are there any other comments you want to make about “Worm”?

A: I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to my incredible crew for all your hard work and dedication. Additionally, Worm was such an easy actor to work with and took notes like a champ. Also, a special thanks to my boyfriend, Nick Washington, for your enthusiastic support and for patiently listening to all my rants and raves about a little felt worm. Your encouragement means the world to me.

TBL also interviewed Akaysha’s co-writer Sophie Najm about “Worm.” 

TBL: What inspired the poetic structure of the dialogue? Was it difficult to implement?

S: Akaysha wanted the characters to speak in poetry, but I personally don’t have a lot of poetry experience. However, we decided to stick to familiar structures like haikus and sonnets. As I was writing it, I was mostly worried about the audience’s ability to read it smoothly and how long it would stay on screen, as sonnets are long for this type of medium. We both agreed, however, that the bird should be as feather-brained as possible. In the original script, it only talked one-word lines that expressed how it was feeling in that moment. Overall, I think the poetry turned out the right level of understandable and thematic, but it was really sold by the voice actors who made it spoken word.

TBL: “Worm” won Best Writing. Why do you think the writing stood out to the judges?

S: When I describe the story to people, in simplest terms I say it’s a “worm odyssey,” or in other words a returning home type of tale. The story is really simple in its barest elements, but I think that’s what gives it a lot of charm. I think it’s also the premise that made it really appealing, as it truly felt like one of the most unique of the films premiering. Akaysha’s comedy was a stand-out especially, with moments such as the worm crying a single tear, or the flashing of a “human worm” played by Brandon Yi. 

TBL: How do you write for Reel Loud’s unique format of silent films with live music?

S: I’ve been frequently told that the strongest aspect of my writing is my dialogue, so it was a challenging switch to focus on the silent format. Luckily the premise was already really visual, so working with those elements came easily. Akaysha and I made sure that any logical progression in the story would make sense through visual cues alone. 

TBL: “Worm” by far had the most captioned dialogue compared to other films. Why did you and Akaysha choose to include heavier dialogue even in the silent film format? How did the captions add to the experience?

S: Akaysha wanted “Worm” to be flexible as both a silent film and potentially a film with sound. It’s because of that flexibility that we didn’t shy from having heavier dialogue, especially with the poetry needing to be longer for some formats. The editor, Sawyer Nicoll, made the text work on screen really well with how he formatted it and how long each line was on screen. The varying sizes and placement added even more character to the already lively story. 

TBL: What was the writing process like co-writing with Akaysha?

S: The process started when Akaysha and I were driving to a film set for the short film “Obscura.” She basically asked, “How would you feel about writing a silent short film about a worm using puppets?” Akaysha and I met in the summer TV writing course “Storytelling for the Screen,” so we were familiar with each other’s writing. She wanted me on as a writer to have more of a thematic approach to the story, with her adding a comedy punch-up. I was just starting to work on my own short film at that point, so I agreed as long as I could step away from production. I’m the type of writer who thinks about a story for two weeks and then writes it in an hour, so it was a pretty quick process once I had the idea. We got on a call and I walked her through my idea which is near identical to the end product. I wanted the film to have a strong environmental message, as worms act as key nutrient recyclers. After that call, I wrote the six-page script within an hour and sent it over. We went through a few drafts after that, with Akaysha polishing its comedy and making practical changes for the sake of the puppeteers. 

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