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Wednesday, 08 December 2010 00:00

Indie Feats During Hard Times

Written by  Sally Kemper
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I1stADJoshSandsGripKyuHanShinBoomOperatorBenOConnorActorTheodoreToureJohnsonJr.ActorSallyKemperProductionCoordinatorMaryJoVarney moved to Hollywood eight years ago to take my moviemaking experience to the next level. Over the years, it seemed there was always some kind of obstacle that stopped me from making my own film, and I often questioned whether it was worth the sacrifices I was making. I’m sure almost everyone reading this story can relate on some level to the difficulties that come with working in the entertainment industry, especially in Los Angeles where there have been so many changes in the last few years.

After I joined P3 Update five years ago, productions began leaving California for attractive tax incentives in places like my home state of Louisiana. And with the simultaneous union strikes that followed, along with film equipment and print magazines being overshadowed by the digital era, things really started to unravel. The icing on the cake was the recession. As unconventional as it seemed, I felt the timing was right to tell my story, which would also help me become a better editor for P3. So I decided to write, direct and produce HARD times in hWOOD, a comedic film about difficult times in Hollywood.

 

 I was inspired to pursue this huge undertaking after being on a smoke-filled indie film set at Westside Stages for a studio tour. But with no budget to speak of, I knew I needed to think outside the box. I first went online to look for ideas on how I could pull this off, and I discovered the Hollywood Film & Acting Academy (HWFAA), a film school that offered an affordable eight-week course in which you could make a movie with their equipment and staff. I immediately signed up.

 

 I bought Celtx screenwriting software that I found it to be very similar to Final Draft except when it came to the price, which was only $20. I wrote draft after draft focusing mostly on the off-the-wall and colorful characters I’ve met and situations I found myself in while living in L.A., and I finally created a script that would convey my message through a humorous narrative. I was now determined and I had come too far for anything to stop me. I was in the zone and everyone around me knew it. After pulling every string with very few hours of sleep, I suddenly found myself in preproduction –– all while juggling multiple issues of P3

As a 10-year member of the Screen Actors Guild, I needed to make this a union project if I was going to cast myself and other experienced SAG actors. I cast those closest to me, including Cody Jones (True Grit, Cowboys & Aliens, Wuss) as the lead, Toure Johnson (Lethal Weapon), Producer/Location Manager Jack English, and Mary Jo Varney and her daughter Christine. I also cast Anthony Adornetto, who’s known as an outrageous comic among our friends. A magna cum laude graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Adornetto trained and performed at the Comedy Store, Second City and Improv Olympic, and has appeared in numerous films and on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.”

 

 The experience I gained from my previous jobs at production companies in Hollywood, where I raised money and worked with contracts under intense pressure, was finally paying off. After filing under a SAG agreement and posting notices on SAGIndie.org and NowCasting.com, I got over 300 submissions from unbelievably talented union and non-union actors. And, to my surprise, almost all of the actors I booked showed up to audition. Callbacks weren’t necessary, as I found a perfect balance of characters. Kye Kinder and Laura Siegel, both very well-trained and impressive actors, were cast based on their chemistry and ability to take direction. And I was so pleased with an improvisation by Jesse Woodrow (“Charmed,” The Hillz, Arrested Development) that I changed one of the characters so I could cast him and use some of his material in the film. My P3 co-workers were excited to be a part of this project so they could support me while also gaining experience. I cast VP of Finance Diane Thompson, Social Media Manager Dylan Powers and Location Manager Ron Carr. And after asking Photo Editor Dyana Carmella about casting her dog Cannoli, she replied, “He would be honored.”

 

 There was still one last missing piece of the casting puzzle. I based the character of Carlos on Actor/Comedian Felipe Esparza, one of the final contenders on the current season of “Last Comic Standing.” I was sure there was no way I could cast him with a microscopic budget, but I had to give it my best shot. With one week left before shooting and the stakes higher than ever (because I refused to cast anyone else), I got in touch with Esparza’s manager and nailed it! Esparza was on board!

 To fill out the crew, Carmella was my production assistant and still photographer; HWFAA Director Josh Sands was my 1st AD while I acted and my DP/camera operator while I directed; Varney was my production coordinator and helped with set decorating and makeup; and HWFAA students volunteered as boom operators, grips, production assistants and extras. P3’s Creative Director Lan Hoang Vu, who also runs VAL Designs, is an avid cartoonist whose

work appears regularly in publications and galleries, so he was the perfect person to create my artwork.

 

           ProductionAssistantDianeLeskoThompsonActorCodyJonesActorAnthonyAdornettoMoving forward, I prepared my shot list, floor plan and call sheets for the two-day shoot, which took place at my apartment, my office at Sunset Gower Studios, a local park and a small parking lot. Despite having great rehearsals and planning everything out in detail to comply with SAG requirements, we were off to a shaky star t. On the first day of the shoot, the crew rolled in late with very little familiarity of the shot list, script or the day’s schedule; actors were forgetting their lines; and I was hearing a little too much directing from everyone. I knew it was time for me to take charge, so I pulled a couple of people aside and asked them to help me by setting a good example. After a few more rehearsals and takes, everyone loosened up and started to bring it. Suddenly, we found ourselves in full production as a professional cast and crew.

 

             The first location was lit with an ARRI 4 light kit that contained 1,000W, 1300W and 2650W lamps, and later it shifted to natural lighting via sunshine through a large glass door. Sound was captured with an Audio-Technica microphone boom for all scenes. And after a satisfying meal provided by Diane Thompson, everybody was really on their game.

 

 The plan to shoot at the mall parking lot during off-hours was changed at the last minute when Esparza got called back to “Last Comic Standing.” The change in schedule created a few problems, such as shooting in high mall traffic. We used natural light, a Manfrotto monopod and the boom, which ultimately gave us away. The mall “special forces” –– consisting of a golf cart, bicycle and a pickup truck with a siren –– closed in on us and gave me a stern warning. It was all worth it because I got some of the best footage –– and Esparza was announced as the winner of “Last Comic Standing” two days later!

 

 The postproduction process really opened my eyes and gave me a whole new appreciation for filmmaking. Josh Sands began cutting scenes in Apple Final Cut Pro, but I needed to go through all of them first to make sure I was telling the story in the right way. After weeks of looking at hours and hours of footage, I finally chose the scenes to put on the timeline. I repeatedly told myself that next time I would be more selective in preproduction when choosing the crew and make sure the equipment is used correctly in production.

 

 As for continuity, the film had many inconsistencies, which is ironic since I’m teased at P3 for my neurotic attention to detail. Only some of the lighting issues were fixed with color correction, and some vital scenes that were shot early in the day didn’t match the best scenes captured later at the same location. One of the problems was that I stopped using a smoke machine on set after it malfunctioned. I thought I captured enough footage without smoke but in post I learned there were additional problems with those scenes. In a panic, I consulted my buddies next door to P3 at Eden FX. Editor/Designer Alex Cherry and Supervising VFX Artist and two time Emmy Award-nominee Stefan Bredereck told me not to worry because, lucky for me, they could add smoke effects to the crucial scenes.

 

  Next, I needed to lay down some sound and music to help tell the story and create the mood. HWFAA Instructor Larry Sands stepped in as my creative director and helped me to choose sounds and jingles in Pro Tools and clean up the rough cut. I also needed original music as well as remakes to avoid royalty charges, so P3’s new Advertising Account Executive Jeff Fioretti offered to be my music producer. He introduced me to Darren Howard, a founding member of Syndicate 17, who sent me original song samples in various versions within minutes after discussing what I was looking for.

 

  GripFranciscusMejiaActorJackEnglishFounded by Howard, Executive Producer Chanel Summers and Chase Culp, Syndicate 17 is a unique music production company that creates fresh, innovative and distinctive music and soundscapes for all forms of media. Howard said that they’re definitely “not your father’s music production house.” The company guarantees excellence in musicianship and production while producing tracks to major label standards. “We know the kind of pressures you face every day to hit the highest quality on a shoestring budget and with an impossible schedule,” said Summers. “We created Syndicate 17 for you: think of us as your new secret weapon!”

 

I needed to find some song remakes late in the game, so my only option was to search music libraries. But all I kept finding was my father’s music. Fortunately, Fioretti hooked me up with Jingle Punks, and out of all the sites I researched, it was the easiest to navigate and had all the songs I was looking for. “We are a unique music licensing company that was named ‘One of America’s Most Promising Startups’ by BusinessWeek in 2009,” says VP of Development and Finance Mike Maloney. “We represent independent artists of all types: composers, bands, beat makers, vocalists and songwriters. Our catalog has grown to over 20,000 unique titles and contains a mix of real indie music and in-house composed tracks available for custom scoring.” Jingle Punks delivers music to clients through an “intuitive search engine” called the Jingle Player, which allows people who have very little familiarity with musical terms to easily find what they’re looking for. Director of Operations Justin Fantasia was very helpful and got my song choices to me quickly. I can see why Jingle Punks was chosen to make trailers for An Invisible Sign (starring Jessica Alba) and Jackass 3D.

 

 With a very rough cut that I was not completely satisfied with, I still felt fortunate to have something to submit to Sundance by the deadline. But the film had a lot of audio issues as there’s only so much you can do in Final Cut Pro. I now needed help on a much higher level. At the recent DV Expo in Pasadena, I told my buddy Doug Leighton at the Panasonic booth about my situation, and, of course, he had the answer! He told me to call his friend at 5 Guys Named Moe, and this friend turned out to be someone I knew. It was Production Specialist Ken Yas, formerly of Grass Valley and Moviola Digital. Yas is a graduate of Boston College and the American Film Institute, and he also worked with Intel Corporation’s Digital Media Division, Fox Family Channel, Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, Paramount Studios, Encore Video and the Post Group, so I really valued his opinion. He said that my film had a lot of potential but needed to be re-cut before he could work on the audio issues.

 

  I was then referred to Barbara Weintraub, a job placement agent for Video Symphony, and she knew the perfect person to help me: Brandon Silverman, a recent Video Symphony graduate, is certified in Final Cut Pro and Avid Media Composer and aspires to be a picture editor for a comedy series. He had just finished editing Beating Bop It (featuring Zac Efron), a project for an up-and-coming comedy troupe called The Wait List, known for the award-winning Butterfly King that showcased at Sundance and Cannes. After hearing Silverman’s recommendations, I knew he and Yas were going to help me take my film to the next level. Yas, Silverman and I reviewed the film frame by frame, and, after Silverman performed his magic, I had the best-cut video that it could possibly be. The final phase was the audio production mix that finally made the film come alive.

 

 The film isn’t perfect, but I’m very proud of what I have. And I wouldn’t change one thing in the production process because I learned an invaluable lesson on what to do and not do on future projects. Filmmaking is an art but if you’re going to make it your business treat it as such. Carefully choose a dedicated and professional team who share the same goals, and encourage them to stick to what they do best.

 

Words cannot describe the fulfillment I got from this entire experience, which essentially represents the last eight years of my life and decisions that finally paid off. I am very fortunate to live in and work at a place that offers so many resources at my fingertips. But what I appreciate most are the passionate people who supported my long-overdue endeavor, which ended up inspiring so many hopefuls to look past life’s obstacles, and just get out there and do it!

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