Reportage, Photography, Video

Canadian writer, director Michael Stasko’s latest film set to feature world of ornithology

In Uncategorized on September 30, 2014 at 4:19 pm

The natural environment has been a prominent theme in Canadian born writer and director Michael Stasko’s films. His previous movie, Iodine, chronicled the mental decline of a man searching for his lost father in the northern Canadian wilderness.

His latest movie, the revenge comedy The Birder, is no exception. The film follows middle-aged school teacher Ron Spencer (played by Tim Cavanagh) as he competes for the head of ornithology position at Point Pelee National Park. His rival is the younger, cooler Floyd Hawkins whose popularity and knowledge of modern cultural trends leads to him getting the promotion. Angry that a less experienced birder has leaped ahead of him, Spencer decides to takes matters into his own hands and win back the position he believes is rightfully his.

I sat down with Mike to discuss his latest film, his love for nature and the influence it has had on his film making.

Dylan: Hi Mike, thanks for agreeing to the interview.

Mike: No problem. I’m glad to be here!

Co-writer Michael Stasko on the set of The Birder

Tell me a bit about yourself. What’s your life like now?

Well, I teach film and communications studies at the University of Ottawa and Ryerson University, but I also write and direct films. I do government and industrial contracts for training videos as well. My goal is to be a full time teacher and also make a movie every few years. I want to teach a really good film program to students and get them inspired to go out and make Canadian films.

What originally got you into film making?

In high school, I was pushed into the sciences. I did a test in the 80s that told me I should be something like a dermatologist or an air traffic controller so I took it like: “Oh, a computer printout told me to be a dermatologist so I must do that!” Eventually, I ended up going into biochemistry, but early in University I became enamored with the TV show Twin Peaks which got me interested in film more. Eventually, it came down to one of those life decisions: Do I become a doctor or do I do the thing I really want to do which is film making? It was definitely a hard decision to tell my parents and make that move into film, but once I did I was happy.

The root of film making I’m attracted to is the art of storytelling. It’s about finding a narrative and finding an arch and doing things in a unique and different way. Storytelling is something that isn’t going to go away. It’s a rock; it’s been around since cave men and the invention of fire. Now we’re seeing it transition into new media like video games, but it’s essentially the same thing in regards to characters and plot.

What made you decide to focus on the world of ornithology for your latest film?

The very first kernel of a concept was having a teacher live in a school for a summer. But as we started to develop the character Ron Spencer more, a lot of his qualities and quirks reminded me of the world of birdwatching and birdwatchers.

Also, I grew up in the Windsor-Essex region and the Pelee area is a major birding hotspot so it kind of made sense to go with what you know and write about it. It was pretty early on that we decided to make the main character an ornithologist and show that world. It works well because it’s a scene, in film making at least, that hasn’t been tapped too much yet.

Are you a birder yourself?

In University, I did a lot of birding, One of the things that I really liked, and kind of attracted to me to hang out with the other birders, was the idea of just quickly jumping in a car and traveling east on the 401, heading out of Windsor and off to a small hamlet in the middle of Essex County to see a bird. A place so close to my home, yet I would have never visited otherwise. It gave me an excuse to
explore my own backyard. As I got into it more I realized I was a big time novice. I would call myself a birder and would go out maybe twice a month which is not even close to what a hardcore birder does. Some go out every day and they’ll drive thousands of miles to try and find a specific bird that has been spotted in a certain location.

What was your most memorable birding experience?

I saw a beautiful blue heron once. It was a notable sight because if you see them, they’re usually out on the water, but this one was up in a tree actually making its nest. I pointed it out and a bunch of people gathered around to come look. That was exciting!

How much research on ornithology went into making the film?

Ted (co-writer Theodore Bezaire) and I did a lot of research. We learned stuff like how to identify certain bird calls and even how to properly hold your binoculars. There’s probably some hard core birders who will watch our film and find some mistakes in it and that’s fine, it’s not meant to be a bird watching documentary, but rather a family revenge comedy set against characters from that universe. However, we had a couple ornithologists on set, to make sure things were going right. Sarah Rupert was the head ornithologist there. She does a lot of birding down in the Windsor region.

Your previous film Iodine and now The Birder, both feature the natural environment prominently in the script. Is the Canadian environment a big influence on your film making career?

Yeah, for sure. I was lucky enough to spend 13 summers of my youth, starting around age seven, as a sailing instructor or camp councilor. For four months of the year I was living in nature either in a cabin or by a lake. And I still go camping – real camping. Not the kind where you bring beer and stay with friends who are right next to you, but like, I’ll go to Algonquin park with a bit of food and a canoe and that’s it. So yes, I’ve always been very attracted to nature and that element.

I find that in film making, nature becomes this crucible in which you can explore so many things. For example, if you walk into a forest in 2014, it will look pretty much the same as it did 200 years ago, but our cities now are so different from the environment humans have usually lived in. There’s something interesting about taking a character, putting them in the forest and being able to relate to it in a primal brain sort of way. That’s something generations of humans can relate to. On the other hand, these past couple generations are the only ones that know the feeling of putting their hand out of a car window and feeling the wind pass by; it’s a completely new sensation. Today, we’re addicted to Iphones and blackberries which seems normal to us, but for the last 5000 years, we’ve all been living much closer to nature. That kind of more natural storytelling has been going on for a long time and is something I like to explore.

As a teacher, do you find it hard to inspire students to become film makers in Canada’s film industry?

It’s very difficult. Canada doesn’t really have – I think we have a lot of talent – but the resources haven’t been pooled together yet properly. Telefilm Canada is trying to produce films good enough to compete with the American market, but we still only have about 1.5 % of total Canadian box office revenues coming from Canadian films.

What’s happened up to this point – and I get in trouble for saying this – is that they’ve been trying to make Canadian films about playing hockey or how funny beavers are and presenting that as Canadian content when, in reality, Canadian content should really look a lot like American content. I don’t think we should be ashamed of displaying stuff that’s modern to show off Canadian society. Let’s tell stories about 2014 and our melting pot society. To try and make a culture about Tim Horton’s and maple syrup is weak material. What about a story about a teenager who is unsure about what to do in his life, and it happens to take place in Toronto or Montreal? That’s Canadian! He doesn’t have to also be trying out for a hockey team.

Now that your work on The Birder is coming to a close, what’s your next project?

I’m working on a comedy called Boys Versus Girls. It’s about a camp in the late 80s early 90s where, for economic reasons, it turns co-ed for the first time. It’s kind of based on a true story because in that time period camps were closing left and right and in order to make them viable, some decided to integrate male and female campers. The first few summers when they were trying this out were actually very hostile where boys and girls sort of hated each other because they thought they were trying to take over each other’s territory. So I’m on my third draft of that right now. I’m also doing some sci-fi stuff that I can’t talk about. I’d rather just let it happen!

The Birder has already had theatrical showings across Ontario, but you can catch it when it opens in Orillia, Ontario July 25 at Galaxy Cinemas Orillia or in Ottawa July 31 at The Mayfair Theatre. The film is also set to be released for wide distribution in late August. For more information please visit:


Remote Monitoring of Biosignals: Bettering the Lives of the Ill

In Uncategorized on March 29, 2013 at 10:18 pm

I recently had an interview with Aswin Aristama, a photonics graduate from Algonquin College, about his work on a project known as ROMOBS (Remote objective monitoring of bio-signals). The project’s goal is to create a device that monitors a patient’s vital signs — like heartrate, blood pressure, etc. — even when the patient isn’t necessarily in a hospital. In other words they want to create a mobile monitoring device that uses wireless technology to transmit a patient’s readings to a remote location where a supervising physician can review the information and then advise the patient if any of the readings are not as they should be.

The project offers exciting possibilities for critically ill patients who would otherwise be confined to a hospital bed. With this kind of technology the patient can go about living a close to normal life, so long as they carry around the tentatively — and even Aristama was quick to admit — uncreatively named “ROMOBS device”.

The device works by communicating a patient’s vital signs via Blue Tooth technology to a cell phone which it has been linked with. With programming done by Aristama, the cell phone then sends the signal through its company’s existing wireless communications network to an assigned doctor monitoring the patient.

The project is a collaboration between the University of Ottawa, Algonquin College and a manufacturing company charged with creating the hardware. Currently, ROMOBS is nearing the end of its first year of work, and is scheduled to take three years to complete.

Aristama’s job in this was to program the ROMOBS device and design an application for cell phones that allows patients to both see their bio-signals and to send them off to their doctor.

Aristama and the team’s work has payed off so far, having won awards from the IEEE of eastern and central Ontario.

Algonquin’s support lab of the future

In Features, Technology on March 4, 2011 at 7:30 am

“Some of you have been around long enough to remember 1996, the famous 1996,” Algonquin College President Robert Gillett recollected at the annual President’s Breakfast at the start of the year. “Where we made a decision at a time when two levels of government made major cut-backs, we had a $20 million deficit… and we decided to invest heavily in information technology…. Today we enter phase two of that plan.”

Director of the Learning Resource Centre Tammy Thorton

The College is transitioning towards a fresher, more technologically savvy school and from the student support lab under renovations in room C102, which opened January 6, the College is banking heavily on students bringing their own technology, such as cell-phones and laptops to use as learning tools.

The first of its kind in Ontario, the fresh and excitingly new $500,000 study area’s successes and failures will largely determine how the college shapes its spending and innovation strategy moving forward.

The lab is expected to accommodate 80 to 90 students and will feature “four distinct learning spaces”. These include an informal couch seating area, a more formal area for group and private study, five group collaboration stations, which are small, semi-private rooms with long tables and computer chair seating that include a big screen television students can hook their computers up to for presentations and “dirt walls”; semi-translucent blockades that can be written on and finally, the more public group work stations.

The centre is also employing library technicians to help students navigate Algonquin’s e-library, which features books, journals databases and a collection of other resources students can use for reference.

“The lab does not have fixed computers,” Director of Learning and Teaching Services Glenn Macdougall said. “Rather, each desk will have wireless and wired connectivity [to the internet].”

This all leads to the big picture: the school’s plan to go fully mobile by 2013. According to officials, this means that all students will need some sort of mobile device that can connect to the internet by that year.

Even though a good per cent of students already have smart phones or other internet capable devices, what if not all students can afford such technology? The plan could alienate potential students and brings questions of academic fairness into play.

“All mobile, I think that’s a bad idea because what if the network goes down?” Small and Medium Enterprise Management student Ibrahim Elmi, 26, said. “There should always be a pen and paper alternative because we’re paying tuition.”

However, manager of the centre, Tammy Thornton is touting the redesign a success and early results appear to be good. Since its opening, the lab is seeing around 1000 students enter each day between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. when users are counted.

The College is also encouraging students to take a survey on their website to provide feedback on the new area.

Passing by the lab, it always appears to be full of people, but then again, so was the old lab, when it only had hardwired PCs with print capabilities. Because of this, it’s hard to say the lab is having an immediately recognizable benefit right now. The new place certainly looks nice: it’s all fresh, green-paint and curvy couches, and it is certainly very cool that you can write on walls and host group presentations on big screen TVs. But in a school where most programs are hands-on, technology and trade oriented, how much benefit can a wireless lab have for the average Algonquin student’s education?

At the very least, it seems to be giving students an outlet. Rules are more relaxed in the newly designed lab; students can bring laptops and chat as well as work together. The e-library acts as a great reference area for those looking to brush up on their learning.

Perhaps the best way to view the new lab is as a marker to a fundamental change of thought when it comes to administering post-secondary education. The learning environment seems to be moving away from the formal teacher-gives-assignments-students-do-assignments ethos and towards individual, self-directed learning. We’re seeing the institutionalisation of the user-directed learning brought to us by the internet.

We’ll have to see how the College’s enrolment and dropout rates change in the future to know for sure how effective in improving education the new lab is.


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