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09.19.07

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Phaedra

Photograph by Jessamyn Harris
Midnight Shift: From left, _Martin Roeben, Daedalus Howell, Josh Staples, Ben Kramer and Jessamyn Harris costar in the swift indie 'Replica.'

Speed of Film

From idea to audience acclaim in 48 hours or less. Filmmaking returns to art

By David Templeton


Everything moves so fast these days. An hour ago I was waiting in line for a martini at the opening-night reception of the Sonoma Valley Film Festival. Everyone was engaged in cinematic chit-chat of the highest order: Who's making what with whom? Is the future of movie-theater cinema really doomed or does it just look that way? F-stop this, Film Comment that. Blah, blah, blah. That's when I bumped into Daedalus Howell, producer-writer-director with the newly launched film-production company FilmArt3.

One thing, as they say, led to another, and now, faster than the Millennium Falcon coming out of hyperspace, I find myself wearing a white paper jumpsuit and a hard-hat draped in glowing plastic tubing, hunched in a corner of Howell's downtown Sonoma office, as a quintet of film-crew people hover above me with cameras and lights and crouch on the floor below me with patient faces and slinky recording devices.

The office has been transformed into a futuristic, vaguely Orwellian tech-support cubicle, everything wrapped in that glowing plastic tubing, courtesy of visiting filmmaker Raymond Daigle (his short film Replica will go on to win the Audience Award for Best Lounge Short at the festival), who works for the Oakland-based portable-light-tube company Cool Neon. As I deliver my lines, Daigle hunkers on the floor at my feet, aiming a microphone at my face, which is bathed in the eerie light of a futuristic phone created by taping an upside-down computer mouse to a standard telephone mouthpiece.

Howell says, "OK. . . action," and 15 minutes, five takes and several insightful directorial suggestions later ("Now do it in a high-pitched, kind of creepy-sounding axe-murderer voice"), Howell pronounces the film a wrap.

If the speed at which this little scene was set up and shot seems fast, consider how fast the entire project was started up and completed. The film, to be titled Farewell, My Android--about a laconic futuristic geek squad handling an escaped android emergency--was dreamed up yesterday morning by Howell, who wrote the script last night, assembled his crew this morning and had filmed the bulk of the film by mid-afternoon.

Now that the last scene has been shot, Howell says he'll edit the final piece later this evening and expects to have the entire three-and-a-half minute short--soundtrack, special effects, end credits and everything--ready to upload to the Internet by breakfast tomorrow morning. From start to finish, that's about 48 hours.

Short & Fast

As the time it takes to make a film accelerates, more and more filmmakers are making names for themselves and finding steady work outside the Hollywood system. Howell is just one small player in a massive global filmmaking movement, made possible by the availability of relatively affordable new digital cameras, editing software, effects packages and other computer-based filmmaking gear, with which almost anyone can make a film today.

With the emergence of video-sharing technologies like YouTube, video postings on individual websites, mail-order DVDs sold from filmmakers' websites and instant online uploading of submissions to major cable stations like the Independent Film Channel, filmmakers can make a movie and get it in front of millions of people literally overnight. That much of this online movie-watching involves short films rather than features is likely about to change, but at the moment, all of this YouTube activity has spawned a renaissance.

"I love the short films, and as an actor, I have nothing against being approached to be in one if it's a well-written script and the filmmaker is trying to do something interesting," says actor Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters, Desperate Housewives). "The new technologies that have speeded up _the art of filmmaking haven't really affected Hollywood, though, where making a movie is still like taking a dinosaur for a walk," he chuckles. "For me, I love to make small, fast independent films, because if it's interesting and challenging, I can probably squeeze it in around the Hollywood stuff. And some of [it] is really good. Just because a Hollywood movie is made slowly doesn't keep it from turning out bad, and in the same way, just because these small films are being made quickly doesn't mean they're not going to be good. The speed doesn't necessarily have anything to do with it."

In this new frontier, in fact, it's often crucial to be fast. If a neophyte filmmaker intends to do this as a commercial proposition, he or she is competing, at any given point, with 100,000 to a million different filmmakers. Instead of creating colossal chunks of content that the filmmaker hopes will dazzle the world, it's now a better strategy to create a pack of smaller pieces and use them to grow an audience by constantly engaging that audience with new and better content, honing his or her chops in the meantime. The greatest thing about being able to make films so fast is that you can make a film in a day, and by the next day find out if anyone cares that you did it.

"No one who's logged on to YouTube can deny that we are in the midst of a massive short-film revolution," says Raymond Daigle, whose Replica has been teased on YouTube with a short excerpt that drives viewers to his own website, where they can buy the full DVD. A comedy about graveyard-shift workers at a Kinko's-type copy shop, the film is being marketed to the millions of folks who labor in the copy industry, and has been doing remarkably well.

Not surprisingly, the audience for most of this content tends to be young. "For filmmakers in their thirties," Daigle says, "this current appetite for short films represents the second wave of technology-driven, short-film popularity in their lifetime. Back in 1999 and 2000, due to all the new people coming to the Internet, short films were suddenly the rage, mainly because they were small enough to fit through the bandwidth that existed at the time."

At that point, the model for filmmakers was the same as they might have found in film school, where a director would make a short film to use as a calling card, hopefully to attract the attention of a studio and move up through the ranks before becoming the next Steven Spielberg.

"These days, however," Daigle says, "making short films is not the means to an end goal—it is the end goal." Short films, in this current epoch, are more often than not created as films for their own sake, and as such are purer examples of the cinematic art. Adds Daigle, "We are seeing a proliferation of this, of course, because now the technology is available to everyone. The only thing that sets one filmmaker apart from another is the degree of raw talent they demonstrate. One major advantage to short films is that, if they happen to be bad—and, let's face it, most of them are—at least they are over in a matter of minutes."

Quick Study

From the mass of filmed material now flooding the web, there have been a fair number of success stories. Many major studios and talent agencies have finally begun trawling the Internet in search of the next great young filmmaker. Agencies like United Talent Agency and studios such as 20th Century Fox's boutique Fox 21, are going online in a major way, setting up divisions of agents and talent scouts to scour YouTube and similar websites for potential new clients.

These efforts are resulting in young filmmakers picking up development deals and potentially lucrative assignments: Brookers Brodack, whose comical video spoofs and trippy on-camera confessionals were discovered by Carson Daly on YouTube; writer-directors Joe Bereta and Luke Barats, signed last year to a two-year deal by NBC, leaped to the studio's attention when their smart-alecky, knock-knock short Completely Uncalled For was seen by over a million people within five days of its posting on YouTube; Sonoma County's Mitch Altieri and Phil Flores, working under the name the Butcher Brothers, snapped up a deal with Lionsgate after their low-budget horror flick The Hamiltons began gaining buzz through its kicky online "trailers," and they've built up their creep cred with the popular online gore-shorts featuring the homicidal Slaughter Sisters; Kentucky's William Sledd, whose popular YouTube series Ask a Gay Man has generated fans, copycats and heated debates about the negative potential of gay stereotyping, just last month picked up a deal with NBC to star in his own Queer Eye–style TV show.

As these stories illustrate, a fun, cleverly made short film, put together cheaply and quickly, can be all filmmakers need to prove they have what it takes to make a go of it on more ambitious projects. The cheapness of video, as opposed to film, has made it much easier to experiment, and some studios and cable stations are now far more willing to give a shot to young video artists than ever before.

"It's pretty evident when somebody's trying to communicate something in coherent film language, and whether or not they are doing that effectively," says Santa Rosa's John Harden, a filmmaker whose award-winning short La Vie d'un Chien—about a French scientist turning people into dogs in Paris—is still earning him sought-after slots in film festivals around the world over two years after it premiered. An early short-film, Crutemobile, or, Jesus Crushed My Car, has earned close to a thousand hits on YouTube, but he has decided not to post all of La Vie d'un Chien—just a 35-second excerpt, like Daigle's Replica—to retain the film's viability as a film-festival candidate and to drive sales of the DVD, which he also sells through his own website.

While agreeing that most of what you find posted on YouTube is "artless crap," Harden feels that is the norm for any art form. "Most of what you see on television is crap, most of what you see at the movies is crap, most of the books published are crap," he says. "But the good stuff has a way of rising to the top. People have a way of discovering what is well-done and artfully made, though some great stuff falls through the cracks, and those artists who are discovered will, hopefully, be able to take every bit of success and popularity and use it to keep making films."

According to Harden, it won't be long before the audience that has cultivated a taste for these handmade short films begins to demand more substantial product, which will also be available on sites like You Tube, along with pay-per-view sites that are surely on their way to make feature length non-Hollywood films available to a hungry audience. Former Santa Rosa resident Arin Crumley has paved the way with his full-length film Four Eyed Monsters, YouTube's first ever full-length film. With its attached request for a one-dollar donation to pleased viewers, the filmmakers have made over $35,000 so far.

This kind of marketing approach is the wave of the future, says director Sol Papadopoulos, whose low-budget movie Under the Mud, about an eccentric Liverpudlian family, was made with an amateur cast for almost no money, and has since become a darling of film festivals, where the filmmakers raise money selling T-shirts, stickers and DVDs.

"The sky's the limit now," Papadopoulos says. "The future of filmmaking is now in the hands of the filmmakers. With the kinds of technologies that now exist, we can make films cheaper and faster—and better. We can do films that matter, films that are immediate, and not have to wait for permission from some big studio. To make a film today, all a filmmaker has to do is think it up and do it. And there is an audience waiting to see it."

It is, he says, the beginning of true artistic revolution, one in which the rules have changed and the power has shifted. "Filmmaking began as an art," says Papadopoulos, "and the studios made it into a business. Now, with the pace of making a film having picked up so much, film is about to be seen as an art form again."


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