Saturday, December 19, 2009

Film Doesn't Lie. It Tells Stories.

Since we just got hit with a snowstorm, I thought it was high time that I posted my first indie film, "Snow Business." The production spanned the years' 1996-1998. I began the film while working at Michael Sporn's studio and I think the resulting film bear's that influence. And, since my co-designer on the film was long-term Sporn employee Jason McDonald, that was probably inevitable.

I graduated from SVA in 1995 and started working for Michael Sporn the day after graduation. I learned so much in the first two weeks there that I was immediately inspired to start channeling it into a first post-school film. While still in high school, I made about five 1 minute animated films which I shot on my dad's old super 8 MM camera. I shot the first film with only one 60 watt bulb illuminating the artwork. When I got the film back from the lab, the image was so dark that I had to shoot the whole thing again. I remember telling my lighting troubles to my high school art teacher who responded, "Film doesn't lie. It tells stories." I suppose my film told the story of bad lighting.

A year into working for Michael Sporn, I finally had an idea for a film I would be excited to make. I based the film on a key image: a snowman traveling down a hill on its own momentum and how that event would turn the characters lives upside down. But, as I described in a past post, it was only years later that I realized the film was deeper than that. A part of the film was autobiographical. Hint: I'm the boy in the film.

Although I started the film while working for Michael Sporn, I finished it as a staffer on Nick Jr.'s Blue's Clues. Making a film around the schedule of a full-time job is always a sacrifice, but I couldn't imagine not finishing it. "Snow Business" was animated on paper, colored with markers, and rubber cemented to cels, with the excess paper trimmed away with an X-acto blade. It was the technique I had learned at Sporn's and I had fun doing my own guerilla version of it within my Astoria apartment. I had two cats living with me so I had to kick them out of the room whenever I was preparing and handling the animation cels so not to get cat hair all over them.

One cold January morning I was walking two heavy box loads of animation cels to my cameraman, when I happened to notice Harrison Ford standing only 10 feet away about to cross the street in front of me. I winked at Mr. Ford. He winked back. True story. I remember thinking that this was some sort of good luck moment. Making an indie film, especially in the days of film, was a pretty brutal and thankless process. It involved a lot of expense (supplies, animation cells, film stock, camera fees, lab costs, color correction, transfers, dubs) not to mention the time of actually making the film. But, had I not gone through the effort I would have never had my moment with Harrison Ford. My only regret? Not warning him to stay away from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Making indie films tends to open up numerous commercial opportunities for their creators. In the last two years, my films helped me land 14 original animated spots for The Electric Company and Sesame Workshop. To be considered for this type of work one needs to have samples of their own animation. This is because only your original work will show a director's point of view or a filmmaker's execution. When The Electric Company relaunched in 2008, their producers wanted to work with a wider range of animators but were wary to engage animators whose reels contained only clips of animation from the same five series.

When you make films, you don't know exactly how and when it might impact your career. My only guide was a keen awareness that my heroes (Plympton, Griffin, Sporn, Dilworth, Beckerman, Schnall, Willems, etc.) made indie animated films. "Snow Business" is not a perfect (or even a great) film by any means, but it was my first step to achieving any type of permanence in this difficult industry. Despite the wintery subject matter, I'll always have a warm spot for this film.


Mike Rauch said...

Cool Dave. These are the kinds of memories and experiences I think nobody forgets, and they shape you for years to come.

It's easy to get sidetracked, lose hope, etc. in the middle of the marathon journey that is an independent project. But the personal and professional rewards of committing and completing independent work are manifold and often (pleasantly) unpredictable.

David B. Levy said...

Good thoughts, Mike.
I'm very impressed with you and Tim's commitment to make your own work. It is going to take you to great places in your careers.

Tim Rauch said...

Thanks for sharing your film, Dave, been wanting to see it! The first film is always the toughest to make, toughest to forget... at least it felt that way to me. Difficult but very much worthwhile.

David B. Levy said...

True, Tim. I think a first film is like a blank page. You have to conquer it to get to the next step. It's amazing how, years later, you see all kinds of things you'd do different. But, that only happens if you make more films and continue to improve. It's all very exciting to me.

Elliot Cowan said...

First films (or at least student films) share so much in common.
It's vaguely comforting to look back at these things and know that one made all the same mistakes that everyone else does.
Of course there are that 1 or 2 people in every year that are brilliant and seem to inherently know how to make something great.