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Anatomy of a 20-Year-Old Thing


Pardon my Complete Self-Indulgence…

Sometimes I write these things to get big ideas out of my head, and to me, this is a big idea even if it’s nestled in something really small, something you’ve probably never seen, but something which was a huge obsession of mine for a few years.

Disposable Work

Here's a thing my mother painted  and my sister had turned into a t-shirt.

Here’s a thing my mother painted
and my sister had turned into a t-shirt.

I grew up in a household that loved art and artistic pursuits. My father has been involved in music and broadcasting his entire life. My mother Vici Rock, who passed away in 1995, was a painter, a weaver, and occasionally liked to draw or sculpt. Would she have self-identified as an artist? It’s hard to say, but it’s something she spent a great deal of time doing. She had aptitudes, interests, motifs, and obsessions like any artist, she had specific media she preferred to work with. And wherever we lived when I was a kid, there was always her “studio” space, an art/slop room where she could make her stuff.

But there was something I never understood about her – she was entirely unsentimental about her own work. When my father (from whom she’d divorced in 1987) had his house foreclosed upon in the early 1990’s with a bunch of her original art still in it, she didn’t bother to save her own work from the dumpster. I went and grabbed a bunch of it, and when I told her she was both touched and confused. Why did I care to save some of her work if she didn’t even want it anymore?

And from my side, I couldn’t understand why anyone would work so hard on something only to not care if it still existed. Maybe that’s one for my therapist.

Digital Hoarding

Although it can be debated whether filmmaking is actually an art per se, it’s my creative pursuit. I’ve been making films since I was a teenager, and unlike my mother I have, perhaps unhealthily so, a need to keep all the work I’ve ever done. Seriously, I had a crisis a few months ago about deleting the raw footage I’d shot for a delivered work-for-hire (I deleted it). And since making films requires a lot more energy, cooperation, and frankly money than drawing or painting, I suspect it would be impossible for me to amass a studio-full of dumpster-ready films. Besides, the final product of making a film is a movie itself – whether it’s on celluloid, tape, or digital in it’s creation and exhibition, the thing the film is on (the tape, film, or hard drive) is hardly the art itself. It’s just an artifact if not a work of art.

16mm_film_reel_(6498607729)

Photo by DRs Kulturarvsprojekt

When I started making films – which doesn’t seem like that long ago – in order to have the video or digital version, you’d have to shoot on film, then take the product to a transfer house and spend a lot of money to transfer the film to some crappy standard-def tape (like U-Matic 3/4″ or Beta SP), then go to a very very expensive post house to edit it. They’d use another expensive thing called a “video capture card” to bring your footage into the Nonlinear Editing system (NLE), and then you’d pay by the hour, day, or week to edit until you were done and output to another tape that you had no way of watching at home without taking it to a duplication house and striking horrible VHS copies at $3 – $5 apiece. Did this process cost a lot of money? Yes. Was it clunky by today’s standards? You bet. But for me it beat the alternative – cutting on actual film, finishing that way as well, getting a negative cut and then striking a low-contrast print so that could be transferred expensively to video and still look like a transferred print.

If I lost you in all that tech, suffice it to say that the things anyone can do today with almost any camera that shoots video, almost any computer, and a basic YouTube or Vimeo account involved multiple, expensive, compromised steps to accomplish just ten to twenty years ago. It required money, patience, persistence, technical knowhow, more money, a good sense of humor, and some more money.

Today, with relatively little gear, millions have shot and distributed their own short films, video essays, and (on Vimeo, anyway) a few too many beautiful timelapse videos to count. It’s axiomatic: When there’s a barrier to entry, most people don’t even try.

21st Century Digital Boy

TZMag

For me, in film school I saw that the video path, although clunky, was the way I wanted to go, so all of my work at least has alway existed in some tape-based medium, but remember what I said about a tape that I couldn’t play at home? Well, that tape format was Beta SP, and that’s how I’d finished my senior thesis film in college, “Meeting Mr. Subian.” The 27-minute-long short film (yes, I know that’s pretty fucking long for a short) began life as a short story published in Twilight Zone Magazine, a great source in the mid to late 1980’s for genre fiction and creepy topics in general.

And in 1988, I found that short story to be something I wanted to see made into a film. Sometime in 1992 I dug the magazine up, called Information in New York City, got the numbers for a handful of people named Roger Parson, and the Twilight Zone writer was the second one I whom I called. Despite it being late in NYC at the time, we opened a dialogue and Parson himself adapted his short story to screenplay format. I pitched it to my alma mater, the VCC film program (an Associate of Science degree program, where students learned how to be crew on film shoots rather than directors, writers, producers, or DP’s), and when the head of that program Ralph Clemente approved I was off to the races.

Here is the film (special thanks to Brian Wallis for transferring this for me!):

We shot in late March and early April of 1994. I remember Kurt Cobain killing himself in the middle of our shoot. I won’t bore you with production details as I don’t know if I have any behind-the-scenes shots to show anyway. All I will say is that it cost about $7,000 to get it in the can (all shooting expenses, film stock, processing, video transfer, etc.). We shot the whole thing in Orlando, Florida and several scenes – all of which seem painfully obvious to me now – at the Universal Studios “backlot,” several professional-looking sets which the studio was always nice enough to let film students shoot on so visitors to the park could  go back to Albuquerque and tell everyone they saw a real movie getting made.

I can’t stress this enough: The people at Universal Studios Florida were unbelievably cool to us.

Remember what I said about more money? Finishing the film for a 16mm print (required at the time by most festivals) was expensive as well, about another $4,000 to match the negative back to the video edit, to print all the credits on photopositives and shoot them on an animation stand, to transfer the amazing stereo mix that sound designer Jeremy Gilleece had done to a tinny mono optical track, lots of gnashing of teeth, dreaming of a time that all of this would be accomplishable without these stupid fucking steps, and frame rate conversions.

We were done some time in 1996. And probably the last time I might have watched the film in its entirety would have been 1997 or 1998 – before I came out to LA, before I ever got paid to shoot a frame of film or video or digital-file-based-whatever as we do today.

Creative Autopsy

Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to put pretty much every film I’ve ever made online. There are lots of reasons to do something like this, but a big one is that The Cloud will be with us for the forseeable future, but BetaSP decks won’t. Years ago I’d transferred almost everything I’d ever made to a format suitable for cutting into a reel or sharing online, but had never done the same with “Meeting Mr. Subian.” Why? It was long, and the idea of streaming a 27-minute short was anathema to the conventional wisdom of what people would tolerate online. Also, Subian had been a massive learning process for me but obviously I would do almost everything differently today if I were to undertake the same project, and it’s always scary to open one’s self up to the possibility that someone would see this kind of work and assume that’s what I still do. I wasn’t embarrassed by it, but the process of making this film had moved me past where I was when I began the process, and watching it reminded me of what it was like to not know the stuff I’d come to know.

Beta_tape_sizes_2

The Plastic Cage – Work trapped on obsolete tapes.

But while thinking about putting this stuff up (and in part, goaded into it by Joe Lynch and Adam Green on their podcast The Movie Crypt), it made me think of my mother, that room full of her art, her just letting it disappear. Watching this film today I feel like a completely different filmmaker and human being than I was twenty years ago, and yet it’s fun to see the film that as far as I was concerned in 1994 would be my greatest creative achievement (and by the time it was finished, I hoped that wouldn’t be the case). What it lacks in the kind of story and directing craft I hope I have developed somewhat since then (and still have a long way to go), it makes up in intense ambition. In film school, many of us thought that if we just made a great short at the end of our education that we might get it into the right festival, seen by the right executive or agent, and that our career might be made or broken by our choices at the student-film level.

Watching the film today, I can remember how I wanted to pour every idea I ever had about cinema into a single film. I thought intensely about composition and camera placement, camera movement, pacing, etc. I really didn’t know much about working with actors at the time and making this film made me realize that pretty much nothing is as important on-set than knowing how to talk to actors and that that’s a craft nobody ever perfects.

I don’t know if you, who are reading this, have the same endurance to sit through a 20-year-old artifact such as this, but I’m glad that we have places to preserve them, even just for posterity, today.

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2 comments on “Anatomy of a 20-Year-Old Thing

  1. I’ve always struggled with the same thing with my music and sound design: cassettes, DAT, ADAT, DA-88, all sitting in a box on a shelf. Great post, and thanks for sharing.

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