Folk artist Vollis Simpson’s kinetic sculptures called “whirligigs” in Wilson, North Carolina, are the subject of William “Bill” Howard’s documentary short “Whirligigs at Night.” Part of Cucalorus’s virtual Tarheel Shorties Film Festival this week, August 25-27, “Whirligigs at Night” will screen in Wednesday’s Playing with Portraits block starting at 8 p.m.
According to the filmmaker, Wilson Whirligigs are now calling cards of sorts for the area. “They are unique and it is something that can define Wilson,” he says. “I wanted to convey what the Whirligigs were on video, but it is too easy to miss the trees for the forest, so to speak.”
In the quiet, colorful nighttime, Howard captures their calming flow and beautiful movements and details, which are accentuated by his music choice. A photographer by trade, this was Howard’s first film and one in which he avoided dialogue on purpose because he also is partially deaf. “I needed a song in which I could see the beat of the music clearly on the audio track for the cuts,” Howard explains. “I have since learned a lot more about audio and what to look for on the tracks even for dialogue.”
How he shot the film, too, is indicative of Howard’s photography; most especially in sports photography, he notes.
“I often will try to break the image down as far as I can until I get the composition I want while focusing on the detail of the image,” Howard details. “That is what I practiced with the short film. Instead of just a broad expanse of the [Whirligigs] park, I broke down the details of the movements of the Whirligigs. Slowing things down a bit I felt added to the intricacy.”
encore caught with Howard to learn more about this and projects to come.
encore (e): Tell our readers more about yourself and journey as a filmmaker.
Bill Howard (BH): I am primarily a photographer. I shoot full-time. Each year I try to pick something to work on improving, think of it as a New Year’s Resolution for my career. 2019 I wanted to work on videography, and specifically filmmaking. “Whirligigs at Night” was my first short film.
e: Was shooting smooth sailing or did it take some time to piece together? Any filming anecdote you care to share?
BH: I shot the majority in one night. The wind wasn’t too strong but it was steady. I had a shot list in my mind of how I wanted the shoot to go and wanted to capture some of each of the Whirligigs. I went home and immediately started the edit to the music I picked out. During the editing, I found there were a couple of clips I needed to reshoot including the focus change at the beginning from the Whirligig to the water tower. That was probably my toughest scene as the camera kept trying to stabilize on the movement. I went out a second night to capture the reshoots which took about an hour. The first night was about three hours total shooting.
e: Have people had unexpected reactions to the film and story?
BH: I knew that I had done something right with it when my wife and her coworker commented they teared up watching it. The music and the flow of the Whirligigs made a personal emotional connection to the short with them. I think it is kind of like listening to someone sing live in that you feel more attached. . . . The music and the movement along with the cuts with the beats grabs people, or so I am told.
e: Any other projects in the works you’d like to tell our readers about?
BH: Although “Whirligigs at Night” was my first short, it isn’t my last. I have since shot a scripted short, titled “Fireflies” about the fireflies of Congaree National Park. Currently, I am working with two others on a six-part documentary in which I am producing and directing episodes 3 and 4. It is titled “Believe: The Anthony Atkinson Story” and is about Ant Atkinson who grew up here in Wilson, won a national championship with Barton College in arguably the greatest comeback in NCAA basketball history and later became a Harlem Globetrotter.
I also am currently writing a script for another short film regarding COVID-19 and should begin filming for it very soon.
Another writer and myself are also working on a script for a feature film that is full of twists and turns and is very appropriate for today’s political and social climate.
Lastly, I just received verbal approval for a documentary that will begin production in 2021 about Cold War survivors. These are people who worked with the plutonium and uranium enrichment programs and disposals as well as worked with the testing of the weapons who contracted cancers from their work. I recently filmed some short interviews with several that were part of these programs and the stories are absolutely fascinating.
Read about more featured filmmakers at Tarheel Shorties Film Festival at encorepub.com.