Tuesday, September 23, 2003

The Making New World, Reflections One Year Later

Submitted by Peter John Ross

Where did I leave off? Oh yeah, one more scene to go. February 2002, for me it was infamous, Scene 41, which had more FX shots than the rest of the movie combined. It was grueling. Working freelance, and working on FX all the time, wore me down and fried my brain.

I would work out each FX shot in Adobe After Effects, then set all the shots I worked on to render, or compile all the FX together in a compatible video clip, and not find out for another nine to twelve hours if it worked. Some FX shots took as much as twenty-three hours to render for four seconds of footage.

Upon completion of the scene, I looked it over and put together my final rough cut with what I thought was all of my FX. The movie was bad. Real bad. It was nothing but a collection of sometimes good and sometimes awful scenes, and there was no flow, or any really good transitions. I came up with the idea of releasing it in five or six minute online “webisodes.” I felt this was my only salvation. I didn’t think I could make it work otherwise.

I started releasing the “chapters” online. There are pockets of people out there who love low budget, B-movie science-fiction, and it’s even better online. Within a couple weeks I got e-mails of praise and scorn, but mostly scorn. After some fairly scathing reviews, I decided the best two chapters that are short and to the point were chapters six and seven. So I focused on getting these out there more.

I did receive an e-mail invitation to submit to a science-fiction convention in Little Rock, Arkansas called “Roc*Kon.” I sent a tape of the best two chapters. Within a week I got a phone call from the lady that had invited me to submit New World, where she promptly ripped me a new orifice. She wanted it all, not a part, not a piece, but all of New World. She also said I should re-edit it and make it one long movie, the very thing I dreaded since I tried and it didn’t work. But her passion for the project invigorated my efforts, and terrified me as well.

I tried again, but there were definitely some moments where I needed something more. The 3D animator, Don Drennan, a local animation genius, agreed to contribute five shots. He did several matte paintings of a CGI “hive,” like a 30 story high alien beehive. It looked amazing. He went way over the top and delivered some top-notch FX work, and made me want to cry whenever I saw my own FX shots.

I now had a forty-nine minute version of New World.

In May 2002, we decided to screen it publicly for the first time in our hometown. I rented a theater with three other independent filmmakers. The intent was to screen our movies to the public and for the casts and crews. We didn’t sell out, but we had very good turn outs for two showings at a local multiplex, even though we digitally projected. Running mono and stereo independent movies through THX created audio problems, so for the second show, I volunteered to ride it out in the projection booth raising and lowering the volume manually.

Understand my pain. My sole reason for making movies is to eventually sit in a dark room with a bunch of strangers and experience the story. Well here I am, at one of the precious few times my movie plays in a dark room complete with strangers, and I’m in the projection booth. Immediately after the second screening, I am approached by Matthias Saunders, who caused so much disarray during the shoot, and his only words to me are “You made some editing choices I didn’t agree with.” Since he has never directed or really edited anything, I didn’t take too much offense.

Michael Evanichko, one of the other filmmakers with a movie playing, had the brilliant idea of handing out comment cards. We did and most people did take the time to fill them out. I learned a lot about my own movie from that. People can tell you what they really think unadulterated. Especially if they weren’t part of your cast and crew, they’ve got no reason to lie or hold back. And they didn’t. The results were still about seventy percent pro-New World, but even the positive cards had criticisms, and they were primarily valid.

I then made a decision. Based on the first screening, and sitting in the theater with an audience, the first twenty minutes of New World seemed to drag and drag on. I wanted to cut it out completely, but how do you cut it out completely and still have a coherent story? My girlfriend and I were driving along Interstate 270 one day discussing this, and she suggested a “previously on Buffy The Vampire Slayer” introduction with just clips. At first I told her that she was nuts because Buffy the Vampire Slayer footage wouldn’t work in our futuristic science-fiction movie. I then got slapped in the face, and then heard her say, “No idiot, make your own previously on New World.” Then the genius of her suggestion kicked in.

I edited together the footage of highlights from the first twenty minutes and cut it down to two minutes, added a professional voice-over saying “previously on New World,” and then I had a much tighter, much more fluid New World, that now runs at a scant twenty-eight minutes. I am now much more content about the status of New World.

I sent a VHS tape off to the lady in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then the idea of screening New World at science-fiction conventions as opposed to film festivals occurred to me. Film festivals with their black beret wearing latte sippers would never like New World anyway. It’s B-movie science-fiction, and not that good either. But I figured that if people still like the original Star Trek series, then I have a chance. I started submitting New World to science-fiction conventions around the country and it got around.

We screened the movie at several conventions here in Columbus, Ohio, as well as Cleveland, and as far as Fort Worth, and Baltimore. The new twenty-eight minute version plays much, much better now with audiences. I breathe easier, but I still notate every flaw and try to imagine what re-doing it will be.

Then I bagged the elephant, San Diego Comic-Con, the largest comic book and science-fiction convention in the world. This happened to be the first year of the Comic-Con Independent Film Festival and New World got accepted. We screened it for a decent sized audience there, and I got to do a Q & A afterwards. I even got to meet and have a conversation with Joss Whedon, my hero and creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the green room.

What did I learn? A whole bunch, mostly what not to do. I learned to not bite off something this big and expect it to come off great. At least not until I’ve learned more about the basics of the craft. Moviemaking is a collaborative art, and planning is the key.

Be realistic.

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