No one can accuse Jeremy Ball of taking the easy or predictable route to a moviemaking career.
While many aspiring filmmakers create small, personal projects before trying their hands at Hollywood, the Victoria native has done it the other way around. He had already worked in Hollywood by going through its back door - China.
"I had the language, which gave me an opportunity to work on Hollywood productions that were happening there," said Ball, who lived in China before making Frost, his short film making its world première Tuesday at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Created through the Cineplex Entertainment Film Program's director's lab at the Canadian Film Centre, Frost also features another Victoria native: University of Victoria theatre grad Emily Piggford plays Naya, a young Arctic hunter who makes a horrifying discovery during a perilous journey beyond the perimeter of her ancestral hunting grounds.
Armed with a bachelor of arts in Pacific and Asian Studies from UVic, Ball, 38, learned Mandarin after travelling around southeast Asia. He settled in China, and in 2004, began pursuing a master of arts degree in film studies from the Beijing Film Academy.
Ball, who wanted an experience that was more hands-on than theoretical, spent half his year in school, the other half on set.
"The first few films I worked on were all filming in China," recalled the illustrator, graphic designer and compositor. His first gig was doing storyboards for visual-effects sequences in The Painted Veil, John Curran's 2006 Chinese-American drama starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, based on W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel.
"I got to know people in China who worked on coproductions. It's a tight community."
He later became a liaison between Chinese production designers and art directors.
"I became the person who'd pick people out of Beijing Film Academy to work on those," said Ball, who has worked in production and visual effects on The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Conan the Barbarian, The Kite Runner and The Flowers of War.
Oddly enough, during Ball's years in China, the only contact he had with Canadian filmmakers was in 2007, when he had a brush with crews shooting Iron Road, director David Wu's 2009 Chinese-Canadian feature and miniseries shot in China's Hengdian Studios. The $10-million romantic-adventure film, co-produced by Raymond Massey, stars Peter O'Toole, Sam Neill and Sun Li.
It inspired him to turn his attention to indigenous Canadian projects.
Steeped "in that great cinematic tradition known as the '80s," Ball's 11-minute short also indulges his passion for sci-fi, building from Naya's journey from her snowy landscape to an eerie encounter with a glowing otherworldly entity.
"My approach to filmmaking is influenced by visual orientation to the extent where I can't separate the writing from visualization," he said. "I get started with a picture in my head. Writing's a way of making that image happen."
Ball composited onethird of the film's 70 shots himself and hired a matte painter to create a giant exterior backdrop augmented by snow blankets to create an authentic Arctic wilderness.
"I've always been drawn to sci-fi and fascinated with the idea of the hunter and the hunted scenario with 'the machine,' " said Ball, whose favourite films include the early works of John Carpenter, James Cameron and Ridley Scott.
"We've seen it before in movies like Terminator, but to set that in the wilderness really appealed to me."
The film, which Ball had developed as an idea for a feature before being accepted into CFC's director's lab, is also intriguing in how it addresses time periods and uses an offbeat location - a convenience store - for a climactic confrontation.
But don't expect product placement: He cleverly concealed the store's products with layers of frost.
Frost was filmed in five days on a studio set built in Toronto, with green screen for its striking snowscapes.
"It was a shock to see how involved the setup became," admits Ball, noting a crew member held "a ball on a stick" as a stand-in for the machine. "I work fast, so not having to change locations lets you spend all your time with the camera rolling."
He used an Arri Alexa, a film-like digital motion picture camera to shoot Frost, the first CFC short filmed in HD.
Casting a fellow UVic graduate was a happy coincidence, said Ball.
"Emily deserves a lot of credit for investing herself in the reality of that world, because there was nothing there."
The Oak Bay High grad credits another former Victorian with inspiring him - Panos Cosmatos, son of the late Hollywood director George P. Cosmatos (Rambo, Tombstone), now a distinctive filmmaker himself with Beyond the Black Rainbow.
"Panos introduced me to some of the more 'out there' movies in high school, like Peter Jackson's first film."
Ball's next move is to meet producers at TIFF, and he's considering whether he wants to do a web series.
"They've become the testing grounds for new directors, but I've yet to see one that's amazing."
He'll also keep doing visual effects while developing a feature.
"I write when I can, but I'm not at the point where people are offering me tons to make their movie."
© Copyright 2013