Wednesday, July 23, 2008

So what's this Sandrima Rising thing?

Over the years since RvD, and especially following RvD2, Ryan and I have gotten numerous proposals to be involved with other peoples' fan films. Generally speaking, we've said no. Fan films take a lot of time, even if it's "just a saber fight," and if we're going to spend that kind of time on a project it'll be our own.

Then I got an e-mail about Sandrima Rising. As I mentioned before, the actual complete title of the project is The Renaissance Chronicles: Sandrima Rising. The idea was that they were going to pitch it, to George Lucas, as an ongoing Star Wars series about the adventures of this freighter, the Renaissance, and her crew. I'm already on record on several occasions saying that I don't think that'll happen, and I don't, but as I said yesterday, that doesn't mean I think the project is without value.

One thing that intrigued me about the project is that it followed the Han Solo characters. In point of fact, it's basically Firefly with lightsabers and wookiees -- which is fine by me. I loved Firefly, I love lightsabers, and I can live with wookiees (though dealing with the costume is a nightmare), so it seemed like something that would be a lot of fun.

It was (and is) also an extremely ambitious project. I think everyone who gets into the fan film world -- myself included -- gets it into their head to do a feature-length fan film, but only a few have been able to see it through. Sandrima Rising is shortly going to join their ranks.

I'm going to skip over the story of the film's production, because I've only recently stopped having nightmares about it; I will probably talk about it someday, but I need a little bit more hindsight on it all before I can really say anything. I will say that some good came of it for me, even from the bad. I learned a lot about what can go wrong on a feature film project, and I learned that I can take it and still want to make movies at the end of the day. I met one of my best friends on the set, and walked away with many other good friends.

The original plan was for me and Ryan to choreograph the fight scenes, train the actors, and shoot the fight scenes as "action directors". Ryan wound up being unable to get away from work to come out to the shoot, but we did still choreograph the fight scenes and I showed them to the actors. As I mentioned in a previous post, I wound up doing far more than just choreographing and shooting the fight scenes. And I'm not the only one -- almost everyone on set was taking on multiple roles to make this happen. Jeremy, who played Jacen the captain of the Renaissance, became our AD about halfway through. Andrew, one of the Renaissance crew, built the sets alongside Ed, who played Kyp, a rival captain. Our producer filled a role as a Sabacc player, and even I wound up in front of camera as an ill-fated archaeologist.

But I digress. I'm not here to talk about the production, I'm here to talk about the product. The film was shot last summer, edited in the fall, and since the New Year has been in post-production.

By way of introduction to the project, there are a couple of videos available on YouTube. The first is a "placeholder trailer" for the film. The scheduling for the project was a bit ambitious and they had said that they would have a trailer available as of December last year. None of the effects were completed at that time, but they made good on their promise and put together a trailer from the raw footage (greenscreen galore), and lifted the CG shots from Serenity.

Dwight, the director of the project, spends a little while introducing the project in this video. If you want to go straight to the trailer itself, let it load to skip forward; the trailer starts exactly two minutes in.

Additionally, you can see a work-in-progress version of one of the lightsaber fights Ryan and I created for the film. I say work-in-progress because the sounds and music are temporary, and were put together for a screening at a recent convention.

As I mentioned yesterday, I haven't talked much about this project before. A large portion of that is the fact that I didn't want to overhype it, but there's also the fact that I didn't know exactly how it was going to turn out. I didn't want to stick my neck out for something that could have turned out to be an incoherent pile. The shoot was so messy that I didn't know if the movie would come together at all. But against all odds, it did, and I think it's going to really be something special.

The trailer includes shots from Serenity, but the finished film will have completely original visuals created for the film by Dastoli Digital. They happened to release their film "Omega 35" just as we were wrapping up Sandrima and looking toward post-production. The CG work in their film was great and the producer Moe called them up to get them on board, and they've been doing a bang-up job, delivering professional visuals for the film.

The film is feature-length, but it's cut together in such a way that it can be released in 10-minute chunks. While a feature would be difficult to sit down and watch in a go on the web, I think the staggered release is a great idea. The characters are interesting, the visuals are coming together powerfully, and I think each chapter is going to leave the audience wanting more, and the chapter after is going to give it to them.

As I've said before, I think Sandrima Rising will be the last fan film project I do, aside from RvD3, and I think it is fitting to go out with a bang. If the success of the recent Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is any indication, I think audiences will really flock to Sandrima Rising. It's got some great performances, some great visuals, some great saber action, and I think the story -- especially in serialized chunks -- will really interest and entertain people. My experience in production aside, I think that the finished project is going to be one of the most popular fan films ever released. I really think this is the culmination of this generation of fan films -- everything so many other projects have wanted to be but couldn't quite cut it.

Is it perfect? Certainly not. There are things we could have done differently, equipment we could have used to enhance it (I wish we'd had the RED back then). But as a low-budget production, I think it'll blow people away.

Fingers crossed we can finish it soon, and find out if I'm right about that. I'll keep everyone posted as we get nearer to release.

Check in this weekend for the continuation of what has randomly become Fan Film Week here on my blog, and find out how RvD2 fared in the Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

My thoughts on Fan Films

So I've had some people actually asking me where I've been, why I haven't been updating my blog as much. Which is a little silly, seeing as how I frequently check in and explain, and the story never changes. However, while I'm sure it sounds like I've got a lot on my plate -- and I do -- one project in particular is the focal point of my time, around which the rest of the work I'm doing currently orbits. That project is the fan film, Sandrima Rising.

I know that I've been vague and avoided mentioning it too much until now, to the extent that it's more than likely sounded like a project happening somewhere in the background. The main reason being that I've seen too many fan films get destroyed by long-term hype, so I advised the producers that it would be good to wait until we're fairly far along into post before we start talking about it. But we're getting pretty deep into the final stages of post, and I've been given the go-ahead to talk a little about the project.

So I'm going to do so -- in my next post. Before that, though, I'd like to talk a little about fan films in general.

As I write this, I am counting down the days until Comic Con, and the Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge, formerly the Star Wars Fan Film Awards. I don't know why they changed the name, but they revamp the contest just about every time. As part of the contest, George Lucas himself views all the finalists and selects his favorite for a special award. RvD2 is entered in the competition as a finalist, and so whatever happens, we know for certain that by 8:30 PM on July 24, 2008, George Lucas has seen RvD2 at least once.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'm not going to get into the broad history of fan films, because I don't know it. If you're interested in up-to-date as well as retrospective fan film news and postings, check out Clive Young's site Fan Cinema Today, as well as his upcoming book, Homemade Hollywood.

What I plan to talk about, instead, is how I wound up getting into fan films, and why I think they're important.

To some extent I've always been interested in filmmaking, although prior to the digital revolution it seemed totally inaccessible to the average person, and so the idea of becoming a filmmaker myself never actively entered my mind. Even when the modern breed of fan films first came along, with Troops, I didn't really think "Hey, I could do that." It wasn't until I saw my first fan-made lightsaber fight that I sat up and took notice.

As I mentioned back when I wrote my love letter to Ghostbusters, my first feature-length script was a fan script for Ghostbusters 3. After watching The Phantom Menace, I began to write another fan script, this one in the Star Wars milieu.1

Like Ghostbusters 3, it was only intended to be a script. Some stories want to be told as short stories, some as novels, and some want to be screenplays. This one wanted to be a screenplay. Regardless, it never really occurred to me to make the film myself.

Until, that is, I saw "The New World," a lightsaber fight by the original saber master, Clay Kronke. To be more precise, what I saw was the effects test that preceded "The New World", which for some reason was called the "Matrix Test". I say for some reason because it bore no resemblance to The Matrix, other than I guess it was two guys sparring. The choreography was ripped directly off of Phantom Menace, the music was "Duel of the Fates", and it was sped up in post.

But the lightsabers looked awesome.

And it was at that moment that I realized: this script didn't have to stay a script. I could make this movie.

I won't bore you with the gory details of my ill-fated feature-length fan film -- another blog another day, perhaps -- but suffice it to say that by the time production folded indefinitely, I had spent money intended to buy a car on a camera2, and racked up another $10,000 or so in debt besides, which I only recently paid off with the help of the next project I have said I will be discussing in my next post. I spent half of my high school and all of my college experience frequently sitting in front of a computer, more often than not rotoscoping lightsabers. There were points where I wouldn't -- months at a time -- but eventually I would get back to it. Not just the abandoned feature, but numerous other fan film projects with which I was involved.

And all in all, I think it was worth it.

The obvious reason for that would be RvD and RvD2, but this goes back beyond those films. What working on fan films did for me was to awaken in me the desire to make films -- and the understanding that I could make films. I didn't need anyone's permission. I didn't need anyone's money. Both things help, of course, but as long as I have a camera and a computer, I have a movie.

The fact of working within Star Wars specifically instilled me with (probably altogether too much) confidence. Here you have a world that hundreds of people spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars to create -- and I'm doing it from home. The scope is more limited, perhaps, and the effects not quite as polished, but the movie's getting made. The story is getting told.

RvD and RvD2 have gotten attention, and that attention has gotten both myself and Ryan careers doing what we want to do (mine admittedly a slower burn than his -- he was nominated for another Emmy this last week!), but I really count the less concrete impact of the confidence I mentioned earlier as the most important thing I have gained from working in fan films.

Now, as to why I believe that fan films are important just in general.

For one thing, they act as cinematic training wheels. The blank page can be daunting when attempting to write a script (or anything else --a blog post for instance). To have to create a world with its own internal rules, characters with history, situations, alliances and all stacks up until one would rather just give up and go play Rock Band. But when the rules and designs and locations and broad-stroke characters are already defined for you, well then you're ahead of the curve. You can mold the clay without having to have dug it up yourself.

You still have to create new material -- conflict, new characters -- but you can do so in familiar territory. One doesn't want to spend an entire career doing this kind of thing, but as a start? A golden opportunity to start experimenting creatively. You've got boundaries that prevent you from screwing up too much, and you start to understand, if you decide you must break an established rule, why that rule is there and what purpose breaking it serves.

I've heard it said that if you want to learn to write well, sit down and copy a book you like. I did that when I was learning to write short stories (a few times unethically, as I believe my grade-school teachers suspected but could never confirm) and, ethical quandaries aside, I do believe it helped me out when I finally came to flying off on my own with my own writing. You learn by doing. Even without consciously thinking about it you get a sense of why things work when they are structured a certain way, why they ring hollow when structured another. It, to sound like a hippie for a moment, expands your mind.3

And that's what I believe fan films can accomplish for a filmmaker. Play with what already exists, get an understanding of why things are done the way they are. Make mistakes in a creatively "safe" environment. And learn, and grow.

We talk about fan films like they're some new, crazy, Web 2.0, Age of You Tube thing, but it seems to me like this has already always been the case. How many filmmakers talk about how they saw [movie that influenced them] and ran home and picked up the Super-8 camera and shot themselves and their little brother as Batman/Sam Spade/James Bond/Blob Victim #3/whatever? Sure, those projects were never widely shared in the pre-internet age, and probably long since have disappeared from the face of the Earth. But the fact is that it starts with imitation. Then it moves to innovation.

On top of that, fan films, quite frankly, make good business sense. You've got people who are so damned enthralled -- obsessed, even -- with something you've made that they have thrown their passion into creating an homage, into extending and engaging with your creation. That's publicity if it's nothing else. That's people being reminded of your product.

Some businesses don't get this. They send Cease and Desist orders to stop Little Jimmy from playing at Spider-Man (on camera) in his backyard.

But George Lucas, whatever else he may be, is a shrewd businessman. He knows fan films are out there, and he knows that they help him, not hurt him. He was the first to "officially" recognize them, initially only the safe-under-fair-use parodies, but recently even then infringement-grey-area "serious fan fiction" films. He could C&D -- even sue -- any one of them if he really wanted to. But you catch more flies with honey...

In fact, Lucasfilm even made an unprecedented move earlier this year in SUPPORTING, essentially, infringement of their copyright. Lucasfilm discovered that material from Hyperspace -- the official site's "Exclusive Content" subscription service -- had been posted to YouTube. They asked YouTube to remove said content, and YouTube, in a fit of pique brought on by way too many other active or threatened lawsuits circling at the time, proceeded to remove all content that had anything at all to do with Star Wars. The outcry from fans was massive -- and Lucasfilm actually stepped up and said "No no, only the Hyperspace stuff. The rest is okay. Put it back."

Say what you will about Lucas the filmmaker (as I have been known to do), but he "gets it" when it comes to fan films. Although I do think there is still a line.

Which will bring us, tomorrow, to Sandrima Rising.

  1. As one of the regulars over at recently posted: "I was just asked an interesting question - "What film changed your life?". The answer horrifies me - the film that has quite literally changed my life is The Phantom Menace." I, too, am horrified that any interview for the rest of my career that asks me that question, that's how I'll have to answer, and then spend five minutes making it clear that I do not in any way consider it a good movie, nor one that actively influences my filmmaking.
  2. I got in an accident and the car was written off as totalled. I got $7000 from the insurance company. $5500 went to a PAL-standard Canon XL-1, in order to get close to a 24p image (this was about a year before the DVX100 hit the market), $1500 went to a death-trap of a car that nonetheless lasted me about 5 years before eventually the engine fell out on the freeway.
  3. Even still, I find that if I am stuck for writing, I will pick up a book whose prose I admire and just copy the text from page to processor. I will of course immediately erase it all, but it gets the juices flowing without expending creative energy ramming up against a wall.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Lots to mention...

Been hard at work on everything in the world these last few weeks, seems like. Some of the highlights:

Kung Fu Red: The first of many collaborations to come between myself and Anthony, we shot this the very first weekend we got our brand-spankin-new RED camera. I wanted to shoot a fight scene and he obliged. It was originally just supposed to be a camera test but we wound up liking the edit so much that we finished it out with sound, music, and color grading.

I've embedded the YouTube for your convenience and viewing pleasure. If you want to see it in higher quality, check it out on Vimeo.

The Descendants: Turned in the latest, and IMO greatest, draft. I'm super happy with it, I'm waiting on Dark Horse to see what they have to say.

Sandrima Rising: Working with the Dastolis and churning out finals. Some of the CG work in this is really top-notch. There's a "city chase" sequence in the middle that I think will knock people's socks off. My hat's off to those guys.

fxphd: I've mentioned fxphd in the past, but this time around it's even more special: Ryan and I are teaching a course this term! So if you can afford it (and for the level of training phd offers, aside from us, it's an amazing deal), come sign up and we'll drop some knowledge on you.

48 Hour Film Project: Already kind of addressed this. We really wound up liking the film we made, with the exception of the opening scene. We re-shot the scene and will be posting the revised version on YouTube probably in a couple weeks (I have too much going on to finish it right now). We will also probably post the 48 Hour version after that, just for comparison.

Troika: This is a project that Anthony wrote and directed a selection of scenes from in order to pitch it to financiers. As a writer I'm super-critical of my own work, and that of others, and there's not a lot of scripts that really entertain or interest me. I like reading good scripts, but a lot of scripts just don't cut it.

I have to say, Troika is a great script.

Among the scenes shot are a fight scene, a dialogue scene, and a car chase. The car chase was shot on greenscreen, and there are plusses and minuses to that. On the plus side, the fact that they were shooting green is the reason Anthony called me to be on-set, and that led me to being on-set for all of the subsequent shoots, and ultimately concluding that not only did I want to make movies with those guys, I didn't want to make movies without them.

On the minus side, it was my first day on-set and I wasn't totally committed to the project, or to them, at that point, so I came on board as a consultant for the first half of the day and then buggered out. I did have something else to do, but I can't remember what it was and it doesn't matter; I should have stayed there all day. So while I consulted and gave them advice, once I was gone they were on their own in a foreign land, and mistakes were made. Now, in between Sandrima renders, I'm working on the car chase stuff, and its difficulty is my punishment for leaving that day. Karma!

Still, it's nice to have something that isn't lightsabers to put on my reel.

He's also written another script that he's working on developing and may shoot in the next few months, and which I also think is great.

So that's where I've been the last few weeks and why my posts have been scarce, and will probably continue to be scarce through July. I am still active on Twitter, and will be getting more active back here once all of these projects -- which have bottlenecked into July -- are completed.

Oh, also, Ryan and I will be at Comic Con this year, as is swiftly becoming traditional. If you see us, do say hi.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

RvD2 in the Atomfilms Contest

For those not familiar, Lucasfilm got wise to the fan film phenomenon about five years ago and started an official contest for the best in fan films. At the time it was something of a joke, since they only allowed parody fan films and not serious, and many of the fan films submitted were created for the contest and in no way representative of actual fan filmmaking.

The rules (and rewards) have gone through several permutations, including changing from their insistence that content be exclusive to allowing non-exclusive content, as well as allowing, for the first time last year, "serious" fan fiction films to be submitted. So this year we decided to enter the contest.

So if you have a few minutes, pop over to the official Atomfilms site (now simply Atom.com1), register if you haven't already, and give us a vote or two if you liked our stuff. You have to be registered and signed in to vote.

NOTE: If you have a pop-up blocker, you have to disable it in order to get the voting option. Also, the site seems to not play nice with Safari, but Firefox is fine.

  1. I apologize in advance for subjecting you to the profoundly shitty experience that is the new Atom. Apparently they've been turned into an offshoot of Comedy Central, so everything on there has to be "funny". Which, like most "comedy" sites, only means that it's tedious.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


So this is the 48 Hour Film that won Audience Choice in our group, wrenching the validation I so crave from my small, girlish hands.


Seriously though, you can see why it won -- and again, why I voted for it. The Steadicam shot is extremely well-executed, smooth all the way through with no bumps; throughout the film the camera and blocking are creating new frames that are all very nice.

Also worth noting, I never saw a camera shadow. And the actors did a really good job of not shadowing each other. For a shoot at a time with such long shadows (I'm guessing it was around 4PM), that's pretty impressive.

There are no "clunkers" in the dialogue, at least nothing that can't be excused for the short writing window, and the performances are all really strong. You'd expect a line or two to be below par but it got into the film because the rest of the take was good; but here, all the performances are solid.

The music toes the line between "catchy" and "repetitive", but I think it stays on the right side of "catchy", and gives a good pace to the film. It's also a very active film, without any real dead time. Which is pretty impressive since it covers a lot of ground and it's mostly just following a guy walking.

It gets a little cute at the end, but it's forgivable. All in all, you can tell the director knows what he's doing. It's worth studying -- and for a 48 Hour Film, that's damn impressive.

I liked it when it screened, I'm glad it won Audience Choice, and I'm glad it's up on YouTube so I can share it with you guys. Enjoy.