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Documenting ARA: Filmmakers capture our energy and intensity in new documentary

When Emily Pasternak was asked to document a space as an assignment for the Ryerson Image Arts Film program, the Academy of Realist Art immediately came to mind. Having studied with us the previous summer, Pasternak was inspired by memories of the unique focus and intensity of our students.


“Many art schools, Image Arts included, are defined by the look of their architecture. ARA is defined by the intensity of its students,” says Pasternak. “The focus and attention to detail maintained by both the students and instructors brought this unmatchable energy to the space. I wanted to capture that on camera.”

Pasternak partnered with fellow student Devin Jones, and over a span of a few days, they masterfully captured the soul of our atelier on film, all while being silent observers of our daily activities. Barred from using traditional interviews as a descriptive voiceover, they had to rely on our uninterrupted everyday moments to tell a story.

“Devin and I were aware that, since many of the artistic practices used at ARA are not common knowledge, we would simultaneously need to educate the audience,” adds Pasternak. “We decided to structure the piece by following the students’ processes. While the art itself is stunning, we wanted the intensity and drive behind their work to be the focus. That’s why we only see the first paint brush touch a canvas at approximately the halfway mark. The first half of the documentary is about ‘seeing’ – the studying, the focus, the hesitation. The second half is about students applying that precision.”

Aside from the rich sounds of pencils and brushes, and an occasional voice addressing a class, classical music that had been playing during filming became the soundtrack of the film.

“Devin and I first noticed the soundtrack while we were going through our footage,” explains Pasternak. “The classical piece had been playing in the background of one of the shots. It was perfect. But there was one problem: we were only finding it now, in post production. We hadn’t asked the name of the song at the time, because he hadn’t noticed it. So we were sitting there with this single snippet of the perfect soundtrack – and we didn’t know the name of the song.”

After hours of searching online for a name, they were able to find it – and luckily it was produced long enough ago that it no longer falls under copyright. Pasternak and Jones edited the track to match the action in the final film.

Asked whether the experience of returning to ARA to film the documentary gave Pasternak a new perspective, she noted that her partner helped her see the atelier through a different lens.

“While I already had a sense of the space going in, having studied there, my partner Devin knew nothing about classical art. By telling him about the artistic processes and techniques the students were using, I was able to see the school through new eyes,” says Pasternak.

“He brought this sense of wonder into the process, picking up on the little details that I’d accepted as the norm. For example, the way that students cared for their brushes, or the way they so carefully sharpened their pencils with blades. It was new to him – and that made those details important. It was great working with someone with an outside perspective, especially since most of our audience members would have the same limited experience with academic art.”

Pasternak and Jones are now in the third year of their four-year program, and they are continuing to direct documentaries. If you liked the film they made for us, we encourage you to check out more of their work on Instagram: