Like many senior thesis writers at Harvard, Alexander J. Berman ’10 works at a desk cluttered with the accumulation of months of work. But his thesis, titled “The Anomaly,” isn’t—as the title might suggest—a study into a statistical or sociological incongruence. It’s a short film about, in Berman’s words, “an engineer who blows up stars and falls in love with his robot coworker.”
Berman isn’t just writing his thesis—he’s also storyboarding, directing, and editing it. He attributes his do-it-all mentality to the philosophy of Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) Program: “You have to go out and be involved in every aspect of the filmmaking process,” he says. With a Fulbright Scholarship secured for the filming of a feature-length documentary in Siberia next year, Berman has ensured that he will have the opportunity to bring that hands-on approach to a future project even more ambitious than his science fiction supernova romance.
He plans to base this documentary on a project he completed during his sophomore and junior years. That earlier project, “Songs from the Tundra,” is a musical about reindeer herders. One sequence in the film follows a small child from eating raw mountain goat brains with his father after a hunt to playing Grand Theft Auto III on his computer at home. “The punch line,” Berman says, “is that you shouldn’t take people at face value.”
“Songs from the Tundra” features lush high-definition images of tundra lifestyle overlaid with the folk songs of a 90-year-old blind native. Berman’s carefully crafted documentary won him recognition in the United States and abroad, netting him the Grand Jury Prize at the Provincetown Film Festival and a selection from the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam—the biggest documentary film festival in the world—where he was the youngest of the 15 student filmmakers selected.
Berman says those awards gave him newfound confidence but also made him realize the difference between making a film for himself and making one for hundreds of film festival viewers. “Some people want to talk about theory,” he says, “but working in this medium is about the audience and making them feel something.”
Berman brought this viewer-centric ideal to his thesis film, looking for something that would have immediate impact. “To really connect with people now you have to show them something they’ve never seen before,” he says. He found just that with supernova simulations from the University of Chicago’s center for Advanced Simulation and Computing. Using these simulations and other cutting-edge graphics available in the public domain—3-D models of space stations from NASA, for instance—he and his brother Benjamin S. Berman ’12, an animator and fellow VES concentrator, were able to construct convincing shots of a spaceship hurtling through outer space.
Berman faced the daunting task of making low-budget sci-fi believable by applying his hands-on, practical methodology to his special effects work. His process involved figuring out how to use available technology to achieve his desired, futuristic effects.
Nevertheless, his auteur filmmaking style does not hamper his resourcefulness and improvisation. “Songs from the Tundra” was originally meant to be an environmental film about the clash between Siberia’s near-frontier status and the industrialization its gas deposits are attracting. Finding himself treated as a tourist at every turn, however, Berman was forced to adapt. The result was his reindeer herder musical.
Likewise, Berman threw half of the material he filmed for “The Anomaly” away, added new animation sequences, and wrote a new voiceover in post-production. “As many little pictures that you draw or scripts that you write, you really don’t know what you’re going to have until you finish it,” Berman says. “And that’s what’s so exhilarating about it.”