Expand and Adapt: A Profile of François Balcaen

FTM’s 20th Anniversary: 20 For the 20th – Reel Careers Profile Series

“Talk to FTM, take as many workshops as you can and join the local unions as soon as possible.” –  François Balcaen

During François Balcaen’s twenty-eight year career in the media production industry, he has developed an in-depth knowledge of storytelling as a visual art.  As both a Filmmaker and professional Crewmember his attention to detail and strong cinematic style evoke his fundamental principle that above all, the emotions that lie within the narrative must rule.

His directing resume includes the documentary film “Marguerite:  Hier et Aujourd’hui”, an immensely moving account of the Grey Nuns 275 year history in Canada.  His follow up, “La Liberté” relives the often-turbulent 100-year history of Manitoba’s only French language newspaper.  “Un Musée Pour L’Humanité”, finds a group of high school students discovering the world of human rights and by extension the founding of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

2017 witnessed the release of the adventure documentary mini-series “La Grande Traversée”. Highly anticipated and critically acclaimed, it chronicles the historic north Atlantic crossing by sail of 10 ordinary Canadians.  Bravely retracing their ancestor’s footsteps, their personal journeys unfold as they face high seas and low morale and attempt to travel from La Rochelle, France to reach the “New World”…

As a “raconteur”, François has the ability to draw both the audience and cast and crew alike into his world.   He inspires them all to follow him, as he interprets thru his lens, the misconceptions and preconceptions of our collective lives.  François calls Winnipeg, Canada home.

When and how did you start in the media production industry?
In 1989, I was lucky enough to participate in a video workshop that was touring French language high schools in rural Manitoba, I was 15 years old.  Over the course of a week we were chaperoned by a local DP who guided us through the typical steps of writing, shooting and editing a short video.  It was all shot on VHS and edited on a very basic linear tape-to-tape style of editing machine.  Once I witnessed the power that was evoked out of an image played over a music track I got chills…  Needless to say I was hooked, I will never forget that moment!  Shortly after this, I got my first job and took out a loan for $1500 from the bank (co-signed by my parents who thought I was crazy) to produce my first short film.

What area of the film industry do you work in now and why?
I have been Directing now for the last eleven years.  After high school I kept chasing my dream of working on the same type of movies I kept seeing on “Movie Television”, which was a weekly show produced by City TV in Toronto about the film industry.  I remember seeing the size of the 35mm film in the cameras and I desperately wanted to work on productions of that caliber.  I was a camera assistant for a while, an editor for CBC news, then I fell into Grip and Lighting, which gave me the global view of the filmmaking machine, that I was searching for.

In 1994 I moved to Toronto and in 1995 I worked my first independent feature as a Key Grip.  By the time 2008 rolled around I had been a department head on over fifty movies and various TV series so I felt my creative heartstrings tugging me back to my roots, so I transitioned into directing and telling my own stories.

What has been a substantial change in the industry since you started?
Probably the most dramatic change came once video cameras started shooting in 23.98.  All of a sudden you could achieve a similar look to film with digital technology.  In 1999, I was in Toronto working on Gene Roddenberry’s: Earth Final Conflict and we were fortunate to be the first network TV series to use those first 23.98 cameras.  I can tell you that there were some learning curves to the process; the industry has come a long way since then.

The other significant change is the unfortunate use of smartphones on set.  I see people with their noses in their phones all day long.  I feel that as a member of a film crew you have the privilege to learn so much from so many people, sometimes major award-winning talents, why would you waste that opportunity?

If you could give advice to your younger self in the past, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to burn down your personal “Status quo”.  Once you’ve arrived at your destination and you destroy the ship that brought you where you are, you have no choice but to find other ways to survive and that force you expand and adapt.  I try not to repeat the creative choices I have made.

What is advice you would give to someone starting off in the media production industry?
Talk to FTM, take as many workshops as you can and join the local unions as soon as possible.  The best people and the best projects are unionized.  Feature Films are like the NHL, you can play rec hockey and bounce around in the minor leagues for a while but if you want access to a high paced environment that can be incredibly fulfilling, feature films and large-scale TV series are the big-time.  Nothing beats the real-life experience of filmmaking at that level.   If I can continue my analogy, when you play at that level you see the game from high above the ice surface and it informs every part of your game, especially if you are a writer, producer or director.

What are some of the films, TV series or even books that have inspired you? How about anything new you’ve been into?
Well like many people my age, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Raiders of the Lost Ark were released at a key time in my formative years so when I experienced those on a big screen for the first time I was hooked.

I truly I love all genres and all directors; I can’t say that I have a favorite…  I believe anyone with a story to tell has potential! I do however have tremendous respect for filmmakers that are well prepared and relentlessly meticulous.  The ones that keep watching and listening to their performances until they find that truthful moment that can only be cultivated within an open mind and soul.

Lately, I was an early subscriber to the Criterion Channel and I find myself going there before most other streaming channels for inspiration.

Is there something about you or an interesting past experience that you’d like to share with your colleagues?
My experience of filming Capote was both the best and worst of my career.  Reading that script and witnessing the performances first hand was incredible, but it proved incredibly challenging as a department head, I learned a lot.

Where do you see yourself in ten years from now?
Still in the business and still challenging myself.  The only true mark of success in this industry is longevity and your reputation, if your attitude and your work ethic are strong and positive people will want to work with you, and if they keep coming back to you, you are probably doing something right.