Lights, Camera, Animals: Christopher and Leizelle Guinness

Georgia Popplewell talk with Christopher and Leizelle Guinness about their love for animals and the advantages of working on a shoestring budget

Christopher and Leizelle Guinness and two of their canine charges. Photograph courtesy Bepperton Entertainment ProductionsKden Hee-Chung, star of Captain T&T. Photograph courtesy Bepperton Entertainment Productions

When the great American comedian W.C. Fields quipped that one should never work with children or animals, he likely had both his tongue in his cheek and visions of catastrophes, actual and imagined, in his head. But those of us who’ve ignored Fields’s advice and lived to tell know the perils only too well, and so do Trinidadians Christopher and Leizelle Guinness — which hasn’t stopped this filmmaking couple from making a beeline for these two cinematic no-no’s.

The Guinnesses, both thirty-one, have three short films to their credit. For their first, they chose a safe subject: themselves. Married People was made during the year they spent in Canada furthering their studies. Shot in their apartment in Oakville, Ontario, it was one more item on the list of “passion projects” the couple has racked up over the years, alongside their work for various Trinidad and Tobago advertising agencies.

Returning to Trinidad in 2011, the Guinnesses decided to strike out on their own, parlaying their skills in animation (Christopher) and graphic design (Leizelle) and their experience producing television commercials into Bepperton Entertainment Productions (the acronym, BEP, is Trinidadian slang for “sleep,” something Leizelle says she’s quite fond of doing). Forced soon after their return to confront the death of one of their beloved dogs, Christopher was inspired to write the short that put them on the filmmaking map.

Pothound debuted on the video-sharing site Vimeo in November 2011. It became a Vimeo Staff Pick the day it was uploaded, and by January 2012 the film had gone viral, registering 15,342 plays on 5 January alone. It was a finalist at the 2012 Vimeo Awards in the narrative category, and won Gold ADDY awards for cinematography and animation. At the time of writing, Pothound has been viewed 150,000 times.

The story of an adventurous mongrel with an overdeveloped sense of social responsibility, Pothound stood out on account of its unique visual and storytelling style. Absent was the conventional linear narrative common in Caribbean films; also absent was dialogue, as the story is told is told largely from the perspective of Bubbercin, the Guinnesses’ engaging mixed-breed puppy.

Bubbercin, only five months old when filming began, received a crash course in acting at the Google School of the Arts (i.e., dog training information Leizelle downloaded from the Internet) before being put in front of the camera. She proved a moody star at times, so the filmmakers kept things simple and went with the flow. The result, according to Leizelle, was “a lot of happy accidents.”

Pothound takes on issues such as bullying, aging, and ethnic stereotypes, and highlights aspects of rural and small-town island life. One of the most appealing scenes was shot on the beach at Grande Rivière on Trinidad’s north coast during turtle nesting season, with Bubbercin roving the beach among leatherback turtles and vultures. Pothound was made in support of the Trinidad and Tobago Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and to say that Chris and Leizelle are animal lovers is a vast understatement. They currently have nine dogs, and regularly care for and re-home strays. They’ve nursed a pigeon, an owl, and when Bubbercin had her way with an iguana, they took care of it too. “Whatever we find we try to rescue,” says Leizelle. “I think we would both be really good vets if we weren’t filmmakers.”

Releasing Pothound publicly on on Vimeo, followed by heavy promotion on social networks, has exposed the couple’s work to a larger — and more global — audience than if they depended solely on film festivals. One concern the Guinnesses had was whether non-Trinidadians would “get” the story. But the nearly dialogue-free Pothound turned out to have universal appeal, as the 450-plus comments left on its Vimeo page attest. “The first question people ask is usually, ‘How did you get the dog to do that?’” says Leizelle. “I think everybody enjoyed the fact that it was a dog movie.”

The Guinnesses next film project was Captain T&T, released in May 2013, and starring six-year-old Kden Hee-Chung. More ambitious in scope than Pothound, Captain T&T opens with the famous Edmund Burke quote about the triumph of evil — albeit used ironically — and includes some voiceover. The story of a young boy exploring his potential by imagining himself as a superhero, Captain T&T feels somewhat messier and less resolved than Pothound, but there’s a real enchantment to its chaos. The two films are connected by recurring characters, including the elderly woman in the market, played by Christopher’s grandmother.

The Guinnesses received some financial support from the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company’s production assistance and script development programme for Pothound, but they financed Captain T&T out of their own pockets. “They say think outside of the box, but I like to think inside of the box, because you get very creative inside your little box with nothing,” says Leizelle, referring to decisions dictated by their shoestring budget. Things like compensating for the lack of a full-frame camera by using a wide-angle lens. Or the improvised monopod (a 2×4 and some twine) on which they mounted the camera, running with it in order to capture Bubbercin’s travelling shots on the streets of San Fernando. Telling the story from a dog’s-eye view — or, in Captain T&T’s case, a child’s-eye view — justified the audacious angles, the frenetic cutting, and the impressionistic storytelling style. For Captain T&T, where Christopher did a great deal of climbing and swivelling his body for the overhead shots, part of the budget went towards Tiger Balm, to sooth his sore muscles. And they chose locations with lots of existing texture and props. “People see a junkyard,” says Leizelle of one location that features prominently in Captain T&T, “but when Chris and I were scouting for places and came across it, the first thing that came to mind was, ‘wow, what an amazing set.’”

Captain T&T has been screened at the Aruba Film Festival and at an ARC magazine Caribbean Short Film Night in St Vincent. It will appear next at the Caribbean Film Corner in London and the 2013 Icon Festival in Israel. And in September the Guinnesses will begin pre-production on their fourth short, Forever Alone, “a satire on the culture of loneliness.” “It’s a departure,” says Christopher, “from the nostalgic charm of Pothound and Captain T&T, but there will be flashbacks featuring kid actors, and a mischievous dog.”