Piecing Together Fragments of Our Creative Pasts – PART 1
If Malcolm Gladwell was to write a filmmaker-specific edition of his great book Outliers, I am relatively sure my generation of filmmakers would be shown to have gotten the shaft by history. In Outliers, Gladwell posits that when one is born can be a huge determining factor in success. He cites that tech giants like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born in an ideal time for someone to become a tech icon, and even that the month a prospective hockey player is born could have make-or-break consequences on their viability beginning in childhood and extending to their professional lives.
Culture’s big takeaway from Gladwell’s book is his assertion of how long it takes to get good at anything: 10,000 hours.
My cohort of filmmakers (early to mid-1990’s) came of age in a time of great transition, making our 10,000 hours somewhat difficult to attain. The film school brats like Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola had themselves become the system and had upped the game by creating the most imaginative spectacles ever seen in theaters. Film itself was still prohibitively expensive and accessibility was a precious thing. And all of the sexy new tech like a new thing called “nonlinear editing” (today called “editing”) ran on expensive computers we could only dream of one day touching – you know, like a dumber version of the editing software that you have on the computer you’re reading this on right now (even if that’s an iPad), only costing like $500/hour.
I don’t mean to grouse about it. It’s never been easy for anyone, and those of us who really meant it stuck with it despite any kind of discouragement, just as we do today.
I remember my first every intro-to-film class took us on a trip to a company that had the first generation Avid workstation – a giant pain in the ass at the time which foreshadowed the way it’s seamlessly done today. All the new tech came at high pricetags that us film students couldn’t dream of affording at the time. Film was expensive. Editing was expensive. Computers were expensive. Cameras were expensive. Lenses were expensive. And to get one’s work seen after braving all of these costly nightmares was one last costly nightmare – finishing a film on film.
Negatives had to be cut by professionals and turned into something called an “A-B Roll” (I’m sure there’s a sushi restaurant in Burbank that serves something by that name), soundtracks had to be transferred to optical tracks, titles had to be physically shot on an animation stand. And if you went to the time and expense of making a film – short, feature, or documentary – on film, you knew you had to eat all of these expenses if you ever wanted to show your film to anyone because all of the reputable film festivals required a film print.
I mean, you didn’t want to make your film on video did you? That just looked like porn.
Living the Dream
So two years out of film school (1998), with all this in mind, I set out to make a short film. I did it for several reasons:
- I’d just had my first experience directing for an advertising client and it had been painfully unpleasant, bordering on abusive. I realized that I needed to bring a more specific vision to the table in the future, lest I be walked over and treated like a noob for life.
- I’d been working for the Florida Film Festival for a few years, and was really enjoying a lot of the shorts we were seeing. I wanted in that club.
- I was moving to LA at the beginning of 1999, and I wanted to have a new thing to show when I got there.
- On my way out of town, I wanted to cash in the last vestiges of any favors I might be able to scrounge and pack them into one last film project.
My friend Jonathan Mangum had written a very filmic comedy sketch called “The Meeting” a few years earlier, and I’d always thought it would make a great short. We only needed to get EVERYTHING ELSE required to make a short happen – 35mm cameras and lenses and film stock, a great DP, DAT recorder and boom mic, blah blah blah. The rest of the story of the making of the film is the same as the story of making every film ever made before everyone could shoot professional-looking material on a camera an average person could reasonably afford to own. My high school buddy Jay Bogdanowitsch produced it, pulling in his favors as well. Needless to say, it cost WAY too much, played a lot of great film festivals in 35mm, was picked up by Sci Fi Channel (pre “Syfy”) and on an exciting internet startup called atomfilms.com. And they both gave us some money for the privilege, although not enough for us to all recoup our money (as is generally the case on short films).
And since the year 2000 or so it has been little remarked-upon. Like all of our old work, we get to a point where we’re more turned-on by the new and are finished looking at our previous misadventures.
Why I’m bringing it Up Now
Small digression – my mother was an artist. She liked to paint and draw and weave. When I was in college, we lost our house and in it was much of her work. She didn’t seem to care; I think to her the expression of the work was the experience she wanted out of it. Doing the work was the important thing to her and what was left afterward was an artifact of a dead creative inspiration. On the other hand, I struggled to save her work even as we were being kicked out of the house. She was touched by my gesture, but at the same time unmoved to do anything to stand up for her own creative legacy which, unfortunately, would live much longer than she did. I never understood her position and to this day I believe that a creative legacy is one of the best things anyone can have.
So with that in mind… A month ago, my friend and frequent collaborator Keith Hudson – one of the four stars of “The Meeting” (and voted worst headshot on imdb.com) – asked me where it could be seen today online. To my chagrin, atomfilms.com is gone. But I hadn’t much thought about “The Meeting” or watched it in years, so I checked it out. And immediately I realized that, even if I’m only putting it on the web to bury it, it still needed some work.
But What’s the Value of Restoring My Own Work?
The main problem was the transfer. We’d shot the film in Orlando, FL and transferred it at one of two places in Orlando that had the technology to transfer film to video. Because of the scarcity, they were able to demand north of $300/hour for their services, and it could have taken several hours to transfer the whole project. So we pled poverty, and the lab cut us their version of a break – they had someone who was training on the Rank Cintel, we could work with her after-hours for the bargain rate of $250/hour. Everything was mastered to old-timey, standard-def BetaSP tape, which I used to edit the film. And the master tape – which would be dubbed down to VHS for screeners – would be the thing most people saw. So the fact that the in-training telecine operator transferred all of our footage to SD video back in 1998 was actually a pretty good deal, if not completely forward-looking.
But when it premiered at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival (now LAFF) – on the big screen at the DGA no less, we’d spent some money, cut the negative and struck a print. It looked like a real movie.
And as for the edit session itself, that’s long-gone. It was archived on some kind of tape backup for the Media 100 circa 1999. In order to make “The Meeting” worth watching online, I realized I’m going to have to rebuild it. Not go all George Lucas and recut it and change it and add a plucky CGI squirrel, but to just give anyone the sense of what it might have been like to have seen the film on the festival circuit in 1999-2000. Is it worth the trouble – or ANY trouble? It’s the only film I ever directed on 35mm, and it’s a warts-and-all glimpse into how I worked back then. It’s also a great record for the four actors who gave me 2 days of their lives. It’s hard to say but the quest that Jay and I have been on to honor the work on some level has already taught us many lessons and we haven’t spent a dime. Yet.
And finally, if we don’t do this now I have no idea when we will do it. As people stop shooting on film, telecine and film scanning will become a dark art. Finally it will be Orlando all over again, with almost no available vendors and no way to present the film in a better light. Or at all.
For a lot of my earlier work, I don’t much care that it looks inferior by today’s standards. My first film I ever shot on actual film, “Vapor Man” was shot on black and white super-8 film and transferred via a “home brew” transfer system to 3/4″ tape for editing. I think to bump it up to HD would betray its grungy charm. My senior thesis film in college, “Meeting Mr. Subian” is not currently online but I would be fine with a standard-def presentation as it was designed to look good on 16mm projection and videotape. But “The Meeting” was shot in glorious 35mm, framed for the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the print of it looked amazing. And there’s no way to replicate that today without doing something drastic.