Submitted by Peter John Ross
In 1999, I was working as a broker for a major bank in Columbus, Ohio. I had been writing screenplays and even had a few optioned, but nothing ever came of those leads. I wanted to make movies, not just write them or be a slave to corporate America.
I was jogging in a ravine between two neighborhoods in the middle of the city. There was a bridge across the street from the house I live in (not my parent's house). This bridge had the most amazing set of stairs made of large bricks much like a castle, and there was graffiti all over it, since it was in the center of the city. I loved the aesthetic of a castle looking staircase and bridge covered in urban graffiti. I envisioned a sword fight in my head, but how do I work in a sword fight into a modern story?
Along with that seed of an idea, I had been developing a story in my head for a television series which was my own kind of "science-fiction version of Red Dawn." I had been tinkering with this based on an entry in my dream journal from when I was thirteen years-old. It was a futuristic story that begins like ninety-nine percent of the trailers you see, "In a world where..."
But the world for this story was like Independence Day if humanity had lost the battle and the survivors were stuck picking up the pieces. Somehow I found a way to merge the ideas or sword fighting and laser battles between young upstarts and aliens - the kids come from a town where technology is forbidden. Hence the swordplay, if you can't be a cop with a gun, then you can be a cop with a sword. It's not Shakespeare, but at least it's better than Jar Jar Binks for a plot device.
Armed with an idea, and no clues as to how to make a movie I decided to try my hand at making short films first in order to learn the craft. It seemed a little ambitious to try a science-fiction, effects laden piece right out of the gate, so I went with some simple comedies, drama, and action. In January 2000, I created the Back Office series, available for free at http://www.undergroundfilm.com and www.pepper-view.com. I did six shorts, each with a radically different style of writing, directing, and editing so I could hone my skills. Some are good, some are bad, but I learned a lot making them.
Next up was writing the script for this insane science-fiction action piece. I wrote a draft and started to work on my plot. I asked an actor from the Back Office series, Milan A. Cargould (also known as Mac) to do a polish on the script because some of his screenplays were damn good. He had a knack for dialogue. He did a draft, then we did two drafts together. I focused on the big picture and the action scenes (already picturing them in my head) and Mac focused on dialog, but we both helped each other. Kevin Carr and Glen Littlejohn also provided some notes on the script and helped plug holes.
Then we prepped all summer to do a shoot in the fall. I really wanted the look of the leaves changing colors because the trees and the leaves are so picturesque in Ohio in the fall. It also plays into the caustic storyline to have the leaves all dead and fallen at the end of the story.
Mac made guns from PVC pipe and had toy guns modified for us. I did research on Adobe After Effects and I bought a Canon GL1 specifically for the shoot. We had the same Director of Photography from Back Office to help, a guy named Matthias Saunders from New York University that had relocated to Columbus. He was also set to produce it, but called off to go to the Olympics in Sydney instead. So there I was with no experience trying to put together a science-fiction action piece that would run approximately forty-five minutes with heavy special effects and no clue what I'm doing.
I met a girl on another shoot in Indiana that claimed to have skills as an artist and she volunteered to help with storyboards. She came to Columbus every weekend for two months and ate a lot of my food and did a few drawings. It wound up being a lot like dating, meaning I paid for everything, but I never got the benefits of having a girlfriend. She did some decent drawings, but her version of the aliens were more like cute stuffed animal aliens and not the threatening insects I was looking for. Another girl from Ohio State University answered a flyer I posted in the art department and she delivered incredible renditions based of my verbal descriptions inside of a week. I also paid her fifty dollars. Lesson learned - pay money and you get good results. Make a mental note.
Then came the auditions. We used my house since there were two empty bedrooms and my roommate hibernates eleven months of the year. I taped the auditions while Mac read against the actors. We selected some good sides that called for calm and dramatic scenes. We had some good auditions as well as some bad ones. One of the good ones was Dovie Pettitt, reading for the lead female role. Insisting that I give her a chance, the original storyboard girl read for the lone female role and did okay, but was nothing compared to a trained actress like Dovie. Needless to say, once I told her she didn't get the part the storyboards started coming in form of stick figures. It's obvious because in one panel the storyboard looks good, while the rest are stick figures.
As for the two lead male roles, we had written and intended for Mac to play the pilot. It was a forgone conclusion as far as I was concerned. Then came Jon Osbeck. He came in to read for the leader of the youthful upstarts fighting the aliens and it was one of those moments where you sense something, but don't know what it is. The energy crackled in the room as Mac read with him. I asked them to reverse parts and have Mac be the upstart while Jon Osbeck read the pilot. Then the energy went through the roof. I felt like I had to stop a fight because they both got so into it. We didn't even bother reading anyone else for the role of the leader or the pilot. That was a done deal. Mac, who co-wrote a part for himself, decided there was no question that they should switch.
We had one major casting stumble. We needed an older gentleman to play the part of the constable. We wanted kind of a warped Captain Picard, an older guy to deliver exposition about quasi-religious beliefs and aliens. It would either be campy or serious, and I wanted the serious.
A friend of mine from Back Office, George Caleodis, came in to read for another part. On a whim, I asked him to read for the constable. He did, and because of his stand-up background, he was able to whip up a unique voice and accent for the part and nailed it. I was concerned because he was the same age as me. Kevin Carr had a brilliant suggestion - shave his head. I was going for something like Kurtz from Apocalypse Now and it was inspired. George, only getting deferred payment agreed to shave his head for the part. Now that is an actor.
Soon thereafter I started making a shooting schedule and the call sheets. I assembled a crew based on the same crew from a feature I worked on called Going Corporate, directed by my friend and now cast in the part of Timmy, Kevin Carr. His sister Kelly was the script supervisor on Going Corporate and did an amazing job. She performed those duties on New World as well. Chris Alexis and Derek Rimelspach from Ohio State stepped into production assistant and boom operator roles. Matthias Saunders re-appeared after his trip to Australia and became the cameraman. Since everyone else beside Kevin Carr and I had day jobs we were set to shoot on weekends only.
Shooting commenced at Mac's cabin near the Ohio river deep in the heart of nowhere in southeast Ohio. Past Ohio University in the mecca known only as Shade, Ohio is a two-hundred acre patch of trees and hills owned by Mac's father. We picked this location because of the cabin and perfect landscape for the many battle scenes. In addition, there would be no one to bother us. On October 7th, 2000 the first scene wrapped at 3PM. We had the two smokers and the one fat guy running at full-speed as our first shot.
The next day we were ahead of schedule and shot another action scene from much earlier in the script. Then came the marathon exposition dialog takes. Everyone gave a 110% and we finished ahead of schedule.
After that part of the shoot we moved to the small parks in and around inner-city Columbus. There was enough foliage to fool anyone into thinking it was the same environment. Also, the bridge across the street from my house was still perfectly covered in graffiti and ready to be filmed. For the abandoned town, we found a former shopping center that was out of business.
We had bought some inexpensive swords from the local martial arts store. The Ninjitsu swords were only fifty-nine dollars each and I was pleased. I bought two of them, one for each character that would wield them. On the first day of the first sword fight, during rehearsals of the choreography, Mac's wrist was cut nearly to the bone. He was bleeding all over the sidewalk. I offered to take him to a hospital and he refused to go. He wrapped up his arm with some gauze and went back to rehearse. During the first actual take with camera rolling, Matthias got in the way and caused the two actors to go right through a window.
Needless to say we were concerned about what to do since the location agreement clearly stated "to leave the location in the exact same condition it was found in." We called the locals and let them know. They said the building was set to be demolished anyway and not to worry about it. On the second take with camera rolling, after two thrust and parries, one of our swords broke in half, sending the sharp half flying towards the other actors. This sent us on an early lunch break while we waited for the army surplus store to open so we could buy more swords. Lesson learned? Buy better swords that cost more.
The rest of the shoot was similar to this in nature. Getting into the petty squabbles with the director of photography over who gets to frame the shots and trying to get everyone to see a picture in my head of what the giant insect-like aliens are going to look like are all a part of making a movie. We ended the shoot one day ahead of schedule. I took a few days off before beginning the marathon editing session to put together a rough cut.
Hot tips for great looking digital video - filters. Matthias used a variety of 58mm lens filters on the GL1 to achieve certain looks. The main one he used to bring out the colors of the fall in Ohio was an enhancing filter from Tiffen. For other shots, neutral density filters softened the video quite a bit. For a more cinematic approach, we chose to go with the 16x9 (widescreen) look.
In December 2000, I began the editing on my home computer. I used the DV Raptor card from Canopus along with Adobe Premiere 5.1c. The Raptor card is still one of the best fire-wire DV capturing setups in the industry. I have used it for commercial work for two years. Adobe Premiere stands up as a solid editing package, and with the new version (6.01), Adobe has even streamlined their package into a powerhouse utility. My computer was an Pentium III 600 MHz with a 20 GIG and a 60 GIG hard drive. Unfortunately, I still had no aliens.
Initially, I did some tests with a 3D program called True Space 4.3 from Caligari. My old roommate, Dual Patrick Davidson, created some 3D wire-frame models and gave them to me on a CD-R. I did some animations and experimented with matting them into the live action photography. I edited together a trailer with the temporary effects footage. I was pleased but knew it didn't meet my standards.
I continued to edit down the scenes and put the whole piece together. There were some rough spots, and some regrets, but there was also some good rhythm in the action scenes. When I would edit, I would cut it as I pictured it in my head, then I would drop in some temporary music, usually something from the James Horner soundtracks. There were times where it was spooky how closely the accents would match, and I wouldn't even move the music around much, it just happened to fit as it was.
Then catastrophe hit. I got a job as an editor for a local production company, Tavares Teleproductions, and I built them an editing machine. We purchased the equipment from a mail order company and the machine kept blowing CPU fans or melting motherboards. We took my New World machine and plugged in the Tavares hard drives, and there my movie sat on an unplugged hard drive for four months while we tried to get a working machine to replace the mail order fiasco, which to this day has never been truly resolved.
Eventually, Tavares Teleproductions upgraded to a nice dual processor machine that I pieced together for them, and I took home my computer. I got it home, and I was very excited because I finally wrapped up my freelance projects and had at least a few weeks to dedicate full time to New World. I plugged in the power supply on the back of the computer only to see a flurry of sparks and a puff of smoke. No more computer. There was so much static build up from Tavares Teleproductions that it was a bomb waiting to go off. Now I had to wait at least three weeks for business insurance to pay for a new motherboard and CPU.
Finally I got the machine back together and working. I was very excited, but all my free time was used up and I'm stuck doing freelance television commercials and industrials. I somehow manage to find some time to spend on New World. I start to re-edit a scene and everything appears fine. Then I reboot the computer and a polite little window appears on monitor pertaining to the 60 GIG hard drive, the one with all the footage. The message says "This drive is not formatted, would you like to format it now?"
Panic. Stress. It all hit me at once. Deeply concerned that all my work is gone. It's not truly lost since I have the batch capture lists, but it's still a lot of work. I find out the 60 GIG hard drive is dying out. It does not spin consistently and eventually I'll lose all or my data. I borrow a 40 GIG hard drive from a friend and go into MS-DOS mode and copy everything I can. I lose about 9 GIG worth of data in order to make all I can fit onto the 40 GIG hard drive. I salvage what I can.
After this ordeal, I got locked in several more productions. I help out on the lighting with one project, while writing and directing something else for a non-profit group, the Columbus Filmmakers Consortium. It isn't until September 2001 that I actually got to work on special effects for New World, one year after starting principal photography.
Since September, most of the effects work had been completed, and new found support from the Columbus Filmmakers Consortium has resulted in a lot of help with the special effects and even with audio clean-up. The score is currently being written to replace the temp score and Ain't It Cool News ran a story on the "work in progress." You can find out more on the film's official website at www.sonnyboo.com.
There is still one major effects sequence being worked on, the audio is still in bad shape due to poor audio recording and a bad boom mic, and some digital matte paintings are being created by a local 3D artist. It's not done yet, but soon, very soon. No more delays.
My advice to anyone is not to make a spoof of Star Wars, but to write something of their own. Don't think that because you don't have a big budget that you can't tell a story with special effects. Patience and time will make it happen.