The Children of Space

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I had the opportunity to teach a film acting class for an after-school drama group this winter, and the result is this film. I’ve always wanted to make an old-school science fiction film with miniature model work in it, so that’s the script I wrote for my class, with the cheesy title The Children of Space. Because I’ve never shot an effects film before, I intentionally went with a 1960’s low budget B-movie aesthetic. That way, even if the effects were sub-par–which they definitely were–they would still work visually. Everything was shot in a small church classroom with a green screen and four LED light panels over the course of six weeks, and the visual effects are a mixture of lo-fi CG models, actual hand-made models and basic compositing in Adobe Premiere. I shot the film with my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and a couple of C-mount prime lenses as well as some Panasonic and Olympus MFT glass. I graded it with Osiris Film LUTs and added a grain filter to get the video closer to a 1960’s film look.

The Children of Space is a far from perfect film, and I consider it a practice project more than anything else. That being said, it was a joy to work with these students, and we all pretty much had a blast. Enjoy!

 

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Walking South Carolina Roads

Kingdom of Kudzu

I went to school in Greenville, South Carolina, and one of my favorite pastimes was to wander the back roads of that town. Unlike the north, roads in the south meander wherever they will, backtracking and crisscrossing, delving down into ravines and climbing up sudden hills. A single turn off a main road would find me plunging into a vine-choked valley, creeping past a sun-baked cemetery, or wandering behind the walk-out basements of old YMCA gyms and tree-bound churches. Green streams trickled from old pipes through narrow crevices, Confederate soldier statues stared from half-forgotten monuments, and red-brick ruins loomed from the thick brush.

Gothic Auto

My love for photography blossomed in that town. Every time I took a walk I brought a camera, and I was rarely disappointed. I captured strange window displays in empty strip malls, outlandish advertisements for tiny restaurants and car repair shops, masses of Kudzu swallowing entire hillsides, statues with cryptic expressions, the beauty, ugliness, and oddness of downtown. I shot with film and lo-fi digital cameras, in black and white and color, but the results were often the same–beauty in disrepair, the haunted nature of a violently green and heat-smothered landscape. Here are a couple of my favorite images from that place and time.

Accident

Ape Wash

Flare

Two Ladies

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Mini Reviews: Netflixing

Here are some mini reviews based on films I’ve watched on Netflix over the past year.

Her Master’s Voice
2012. Directed by Nina Conti

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This is one of the most impressive documentaries I’ve seen, and one I’ve wanted to go back to again and again. Nina Conti is a skilled British ventriloquist who works wonders with a simple monkey puppet. She’s beautiful and sharply funny, and much of her humor is based on self-mockery, picking apart the absurdity of her art form. The man who trained her passed away shortly before this film was made, inspiring her to travel to a conference in America dedicated to ventriloquism that he always wanted her to go to, as well as a home for ventriloquist puppets whose owners have died–a strangely haunting place. She brings her monkey along for the ride, as well as a plethora of her master’s old puppets, all of whom she gives a voice to during her travels. The film is very intimate, composed mostly of shots Nina must have filmed herself, as she deals with her complex feelings for her old master by talking to his old puppets. We also get to see the convention and a couple of great interviews with Mrs. Conti’s fellow ventriloquists. Her Master’s Voice is both a deeply personal film and an informative glimpse at the odd world of ventriloquism. It’s slightly sad, very funny, and a joy to watch.

Beyond The Black Rainbow
2010. Directed by Panos Cosmatos

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This film is a bizarre blend of the coldness of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the weirdness of a 70’s acid trip and the titillating grunge of an 80’s slasher film. It doesn’t make much sense, but it sure gets under your skin. The music is top notch electronica and the visuals are as gorgeous as they are confusing. The director said he wanted to create a fever dream version of his childhood, based on what his young self  imagined horror films were like, and that this project was also part of a healing process for him, dealing with the loss of his mother. It’s shot on 35mm and has plenty of grain for lo-fi film lovers. It’s more art installation than narrative, but it sure is interesting to look at.

The American Scream
2012. Directed by Michael Stephenson

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Ever drive by one of those houses festooned with gravestones and corpses in late October and wonder why someone would want their front yard to look like that? This documentary does it’s best to answer that question, and it’s both funny and a little sad. We meet three families that have all been bitten by the Halloween house bug, and follow them from late summer to October 31st as they spend every spare moment and dollar decking their houses out for the holiday. These people are extremely driven, and their passion sometimes borders on the manic, but it’s fun to see their creativity at work and the way they grow closer doing what they love. The father-son duo steal the show as two slightly bumbling yard decorators who make up for their low budget and bad production values with a lot of heart. This film is definitely worth a watch, especially around Halloween.

Wrong
2012. Directed by Quentin Dupieux

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There isn’t much absurdist humor in cinema these days, and that’s one of the reasons Wrong feels like such a breath of fresh air. It is, quite simply, a hilariously absurd film. From the first shot you know you’re in for something different: firemen stand around doing nothing as a van burns on the side of the road. One of them even reads the paper. The title appears: “Wrong” and we get the first off-kilter joke of many. By film’s end we’ll be treated to a benevolent mystical dognapper, a man who paints random cars in parking lots, a gardener who keeps losing trees, and one of the most terrifyingly crazy girlfriends of all time. Stilted dialog and terrible accents abound, characters have insane emotional shifts and take strange journeys through time and space, and in one indoor location it’s always raining. Wrong may not have anything to tell us, aside from, perhaps, a general warning about the dangers of crazy girlfriends, but it sure is absurdly entertaining.

Lost in La Mancha
2002. Directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe

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The only thing more spectacular than watching a Terry Gilliam film is watching a Terry Gilliam film fall apart. After dreaming for years of making an adaptation of the classic Don Quixote, Gilliam finally got the chance, and Lost in La Mancha documents this film’s pre production and early shooting periods. We get to see the intricacies of the way Gilliam writes a script, designs sets and costumes, finds locations, and casts. From frame one there are warning signs: actors are late to arrive or get hurt, set and costume designers go way over budget, and locations are ruined by unnatural weather conditions. No film has been made without a couple of these problems, but the combined sum proves to be too much for Gilliam and his crew. What I respect most about the people involved with this project is how professional they were to the bitter end. Even in the most heated moments, no one treats anyone else unfairly. Watching someone’s passion project fall apart around them is not a pretty sight, but it sure is fascinating.

Mirror Mirror
2012. Directed by Tarsem Singh

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I’m not sure why this film was panned as bad as it was. Sure, the dialog is breezy and disposable and the dramatic stakes couldn’t be lower, but it has the family friendly charm and innocence of a classic studio film, something sorely missed in today’s motion picture climate. A goofy re-telling of the Snow White fairy tale, Mirror Mirror doesn’t take itself very seriously, which is a relief. Visionary filmmaker Tarsem directs, and his art design is bizarre and exquisite. Seriously, Tarsem and his team should do the art direction for everything. The only issues I had with this film was a slight disconnect between Tarsem’s dark if beautiful art design and the frothy script. All in all though this film is an enjoyable family-friendly romp. I recommend it.

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Thrifty Lenses

One of my biggest hobbies is collecting and shooting with vintage cameras. Antique and camera shops are a fine place to start when I’m looking to add to my collection, but my favorite haunts are rummage sales and thrift stores where I never know what gems I’m going to find, or how ridiculously under-priced those gems might be.

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A while back I hit a mother lode: a beat up leather camera bag on the bottom shelf of a Goodwill stuffed with vintage cameras, lenses, expired film and various accessories. I bought it in a heartbeat. One of the cameras inside was a Sears KS Super II. It was dented and broken and I wasn’t much impressed, but it came with three lenses. A quick Google search revealed that these were re-purposed Pentax lenses with K-mounts. Armed with that knowledge and my Canon Rebel T2i, I borrowed a Pentax K-mount to Canon adapter from the office and started shooting.

Trees in the Garden

The great thing about lens adapters is that they allow you to build a large and versatile lens collection for very little money. The three Sears Pentax lenses I found at the Goodwill only cost me about $15 total, whereas their modern equivalent would have run a couple hundred each. There are some limitations:  vintage lenses have no electronics, so when you’re shooting with them mounted on your digital camera you have to set it to full manual. This can be a good thing though. By shooting in full manual mode, I was forced to think through each photo I took: the ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop, and how they would affect the end result. When I didn’t rely solely or even partly on my camera’s built in meters, the end result tended to be better, and I still had my preview screen to check each shot for sharpness and exposure. Through trial and error I started to learn how my vintage lenses worked, and I began to see each shot before I took it.

Shooting with vintage lenses on a modern digital camera is a great way to learn the craft of photography, or improve the craft you already have. It slows you down and makes you think through each shot, but isn’t as expensive or time consuming as film photography is. Also, there are some crazy lenses out there just waiting to be experimented with, and I haven’t even mentioned the results you can get shooting video through some of these vintage beauties. Check out this footage I captured with them.

At the end of the day, if you’re a photographer or filmmaker, you owe it to yourself to get out to some antique shops and thrift stores or get online and pick up a few vintage lenses and some lens adapters. You’ll be glad you did.

 

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Mini Reviews: Some Recent Films I’ve Seen

I haven’t done one of these in a while. I still owe you a Summer 2014 Films Part 2 review, but my computer recently crashed and I lost the file. Maybe I’ll post a re-write eventually. In the mean time…

Birdman
2014. Directed By Alejandro González Iñárritu

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At its core, Birdman is an observation of man and his sense of worth. It repeatedly asks the question “Is it important to be important?” That question is dodged more than it’s answered, and the story often seems to be more interested in observing the intricacies of stage acting and actors, or mocking popular cinema, or naively criticizing critics. When it does get focused, it’s a fairly intense, emotional observation, with a camera that gets right up into actors faces as they wax eloquent or scream angrily. It offers few answers but raises a lot of engaging questions. The actors are all great. There’s a drum soundtrack that’s killer. It’s definitely worth a watch.

Nightcrawler
2014. Directed by Dan Gilroy

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Nightcrawler delivers a cinematic double punch–it’s got both a unique world and an intense character to explore. The world of nightcrawlers–people who chase the police at night to get footage of accidents and crime scenes for news stations–is as dark as it is interesting; it’s a world you’ve never seen, and it’s hard to take your eyes off of it. Enter a relentless go-getter sociopath played brilliantly by Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s never held a camera before but he’s willing to do whatever it takes to be the best nightcrawler ever. You follow him on his nocturnal adventures, thrilled by his ingenuity while cringing at his carelessness for human life–how far will this guy go to get his footage? You’re constantly tempted to root for him, but slowly beginning to realize just how selfish and evil he truly is. Nightcrawler is a sharp observation of human character and interaction as well as a nail-biting suspense film. You may never encounter a more interesting world or character in a movie.

Into The Woods
2014. Directed by Rob Marshall

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Disregarding a certain post modern apathy, Into The Woods is a grand observation of fairy tales, both of their basic structure and what they imply about the human condition. I was thoroughly entertained and challenged by this strangely un-Disney-like Disney film as it wound its way through a tangle of conflicted fairy tale characters, all in pursuit of something just out of their reach–the baker and his wife want a child, Jack wants his cow, Rapunzel wants her prince, the witch just wants to be young again. These characters’ desires are all cleverly entwined and the resulting chaos is both hilarious and tragic. The film’s narrative seems to meander, but proves to be tightly structured, tying up every loose end in a glorious if dark climax. I’m fully aware that certain adult elements were neutered from the original Broadway Musical script to cater to a larger audience, but it seems to retain much of its original bite regardless. Into the Woods is not your average feel-good fairy tale film, and it may not even have a hero to cheer for, but it has a lot of truth to share, if mixed with a bit of falsehood. The music and lyrics are also exceptionally good. You may just get a couple of these songs stuck in your head for a long, long time.

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