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Voice Of The Crew - Since 2002

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American Film Market

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By Cristiane Roget
This year’s American Film Market, held in February in Santa Monica, confirmed once again the vitality of independent films. Attendance topped out at 6,827, slightly ahead of the 2002 event, despite war fears and perennial complaints about the dearth of financing and meager licensing fees.
The market also showed that independent films can emerge from the below-the-line community. Indeed, about 30 of this year’s films in new release listed a former crewmember with credits as director and/or producer.
Much is contributing to this trend. Studios are increasingly reaching out to independent filmmakers for their new acquisitions. These filmmakers have easier access to affordable high-tech camera and sound gear. And crewmembers have the key advantage of direct access to the set, where they have time to persuade top talent to work with them, sometimes even at scale. Fellow crewmembers often come on board motivated in part by the possibility that the favor may be returned. All these factors help cut costs and move projects quickly.
Here are three projects from this year’s AFM where crew took a chance and succeeded.
Nick Aqulino produced Nutcracker: An American Nightmare, a feature that was picked up for distribution by First American Media. Earlier he was a producer’s assistant on a feature with Tom Selleck as the lead, then spent time learning post. “Being a hands-on editor was the most valuable part of my background,” he says. “Since I knew how to edit a feature I was able to save a great deal by making the trailer, editing some additional scenes, etc.
“On Nutcracker, we didn’t have a production manager or a production coordinator, so I was both of these as well as location scout, manager, and more,” he recalls. The script was the idea of Glen Grefe and his wife Kim. “Glen convinced me to produce and David Hess, the lead actor of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, returned from semi-retirement to appear as one of the leads.”
As for financing, “I sent it to production companies, with no response. So we went ahead and used our own money and in the end, ran up our credit card bills.” Aquilino adds that a completed film “of merit” can almost always find a distributor. ”There are dozens of them at AFM and most are willing to accept a completed feature and will attempt to sell it. Whether they will buy it is another story.”
Chuck Cirino composed musical scores for over 45 features prior to directing Baberella. Roger Cowman, Jim Wynorski and Fred Olen Ray were his main clients. In 1999 Wynorski, contacted Cirino to work as director of photography on his parody of The Blair Witch Project, called The Bare Wench Project. That led to work as a DP on several other digital feature projects.
“I always had the goal of directing my own movies.” Says Cirino. “In high school I produced and directed my own 8mm extravaganzas.  Once I got into the entertainment industry I was sidetracked for many years on TV projects. Once I had the experience of working as a DP, I got the confidence to do my own project. I had mastered 3D animation and wanted a showcase project.”
On Baberella Cirino was director, executive producer, story editor, visual effects supervisor and did post, sound and music.  “Every frame of the postproduction was done by me, even the authoring of the DVD.  My wife, Alexia, was the producer.”
The script concept was also his and he hired writers to compose sections of it. Most of the movie was improvised so there were only 25 pages. “I had all the story elements written into a ‘beat sheet,’ which led us through the labyrinth of production. Due to brutal time constraints much of the story was created in post. Many of the holes were sealed with visual effects, virtual sets and graphics. This was the ultimate ‘fix-it-in-post’ movie.”
Some costs were defrayed via bartering. “I traded some old MIDI equipment from my composing days for the use of a standing starship set. Also, I was able to post the movie in my own studio and do the visual effects there. The $100,000+ it would have cost me to do that elsewhere was eliminated completely.”
Geoffrey Schaat was an Emmy-winning DP before directing Shelter Island starring Patsy Kensit, Ally Sheedy and Stephen Baldwin. Most of his work had been documentary and magazine-style television. His episodic credits include SeaQuest DSV, Jack and Jill, Charmed, and Burning Zone. TV movies include The China Lake Murders and Fatal Exposure.
Schaat owned an offline editing system. “I felt strongly that to develop as a director, I had to have a hand in editing.” He got involved with the development of Shelter Island at the beginning, and as the project evolved, “I emerged as the best person to direct it. I jumped at the opportunity.
“During the actual shooting, I acted as camera operator—for several reasons. I felt that, given the limited time available—19 days—it would ensure that I got exactly the visual style I was looking for, quickly, and with a minimum of missteps. I also prize the intimacy the camera operator has with the actors. The operator is often the closest person to the performance, and sees and hears things with a clarity that no other viewing position offers. It is sometimes difficult to focus on both operating and directing, and when the demands became too great, I turned it over to my DP, Steven Treadway.”
Schaat storyboarded the entire movie. “I developed a personal system for doing the drawings, annotating scenes, using site plans, and incorporating all this into the script and revisions. This turned out to be an invaluable organizational tool. Using my own crude stick figure style, I storyboarded every shot and scene before we started shooting, and then reviewed and modified scenes the night before and the morning of each shooting day. It’s the only way I know to assure that you really understand what you’re doing.”

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