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Teetering on The Edge of Oblivion

December 4, 2013

Oblivion being, in this case, a good thing. Welcome back to a fresh blog post of filmmaking and stuff! Things are happening, as they always are, and I’m excited about those things and so I will write about them because this is what this particular corner of the web is for! So I’ll talk about the important stuff first. Disclaimer: the first section below is very long and introspective and maybe a bit incomprehensible, so read at your own risk.

Staring Into The Expanse of Space

Alright, enough with the cheesy melodramatic titles. Admittedly, I don’t know of a better way to summarize where I’m at right now. But before I can explain where I’m at right now, I must explain where I was at a few weeks/months ago.

Since February at the beginning of this year, I wanted to make a big film. Something I can call “my latest and greatest,” one project that could define where I was in terms of how competently I think I could use the tools of filmmaking. There were many attempts at starting some grand project; anything that I could say met my new standards of filmmaking. And of course, I bought all the shiny toys – new camera, new equipment, new tools, in the hopes of assuring a great product. I wanted to create something that would define me. A pinnacle of what I’ve learned so far. Despite such lofty goals, all of those attempts failed in one way or another, except one particular project: Spaceship Over McAllen (let’s just call it Spaceship for short). It’s very important to note that Spaceship was in no way a part of those attempts at a grand, defining project.

It just kind of happened.

What’s interesting is that the reason why Spaceship ended up getting made and released, as opposed to my several other contrived attempts at creating a movie during the same time period. I found out that the reason was just that: the other attempts were contrived. The notion that I had to create some huge project ended up being a baseless one; and there are at least 3 projects that fell apart because it’s simply not enough to want to want to make an awesome movie; Sierra Leone was one of them. Sierra Leone was a product of the singular desire to make a damned movie, not of any deeper passion or inspiration, and so it failed. Spaceship didn’t start with me sitting down and saying, “Okay JP, it’s time to make a movie! What should it be about?” like Sierra Leone was.

Making Spaceship wasn’t a conscious decision, some attempt at grandeur, no, it was just my intrinsic desire to explore a concept I thought was worth exploring. Spaceship started off as a series of special effects tests – there was no story, no direction, no script, no casting, no planning. You can even see it in a blog post I wrote about it when it was just a faint idea (Hey! That’s why this thing is useful!). You get the vibe from that blog post that Spaceship was clearly some sort of “in-between” project to kill time; an afterthought. But those special effects tests tapped into some deep desire to make a fully realized sci-fi short. Doing those tests was like realizing that, shit, it was possible to sell a CGI shot of a ship. It looked convincing! And so there was potential there. I realized that potential, and shortly after it triggered a flame of motivation that turned what was  just a couple of shots of some visual effects into a fully-realized concept short featuring city-wide evacuations, major news coverage, global announcements being made, military reactions, and the destruction of a tower. That’s stuff I didn’t think I could do. But it took months and hundreds of hours of painstaking work to see that vision come to life.

I consider Spaceship to be my best work to date. Definitely a far cry from perfect, yes, and most certainly not the best work I will ever do, but Spaceship is, so far, the most coherent and moving thing I’ve created. And I think the success of Spaceship is not attributed to knowledge, or technical competency (although those things did play a role), I think it’s attributed largely to motivation. Because, in order for Spaceship to have been made, being the large undertaking that it was, there had to be lots and lots motivation. Enough to keep me working for three months on this thing. And there definitely was, because the video exists, it’s there on YouTube. So I’ve been trying to study my motivation and how I got suddenly swept by it in April during Spaceship’s production, because I’ve been lacking motivation to do anything film-related for the last three months. And I’ve been frustrated as hell because, since I moved to Austin, there’s been no spark, no drive.

Motivation is kind of like a drug. During a motivation-high, everything makes sense. There’s a goal, and you’re working towards it. It’s that you can have a shit day, but at the end of the day, you know that there is a great project sitting on your desk that you can’t wait to work on when you get home. That there’s potential, that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that slaving hours away in front of the computer will be worth it. It’s hope, and it’s addictive and it’s responsible for awesome things; in my case, a cool video. Once the video was released to the masses, there’s an even more exciting ‘high’ of praise and opportunities and all sorts of great things that comes from the aftermath of a successful release (I’m still getting job offers because of Spaceship to this day). But after the motivation high and the release high settle down, there’s some sort of creative withdrawal.

After a three month burst of energy and purpose for Spaceship, things hit a standstill post-release. I had a few ideas, but nothing ever came out them. Seeing a film idea through until the end is expensive, demanding quite a bit of time and personnel, so my little side projects did not seem like they were worth those precious resources. It became a cycle of self loathing: frustration at myself because I couldn’t come up with anything, and my efforts to come up with something were hampered by frustration. After coming off of the wonderful buzz of motivation, the months after that feel like withdrawal, like something is missing from life, and it was miserable. So I needed motivation, desperately. I needed that high. But how? How did I suddenly get that with Spaceship? Does one generate motivation within? Does it depend on certain circumstances? Does one just start working and hope that somewhere down the line they’ll get hit with the spark of motivation? That approach certainly didn’t work with Sierra Leone. So what is it then?

These were the sorts of questions I’ve been asking myself for a while, and just when I thought this creative slump was going to be permanent, something wonderful happened around two weeks ago. It was sudden, random, unexpected, but it happened. I got hit with motivation, the kind I’ve been longing for since Spaceship. And in many ways, this wave of motivation is much more than that.

So I’m really stoked. There are questions like the ones above, however, that three-weeks-ago-me would have loved to have known the answers to. So is motivation, at least for me, self-generated or does it arise out of certain circumstances? The answer is, well, both; leaning more towards circumstances and what I would call a ‘trigger’, or that ‘Aha!’ moment. I think there must be some underlying desire to explore certain elements in film. These can be vague. In the case of Spaceship, I had always wanted to make something dealing with humanity’s reaction to a historical event as it unfolds. I had always wanted to explore sci-fi from a very grounded, realistic documentary approach. I always wanted a shot where something crazy happens, like a building collapsing, and the shot holds through until the very end. So those were some of my vague, detached desires. Then there was the trigger, the visual effects tests. It was at that moment where everything clicked. The fact that, hey, those really vague concepts can be explored through a very possible and tangible way! So that surge of motivation came from those two things: (1) my long held desires for exploring certain things or elements in a film and (2) the realization that these certain elements can indeed be connected and can be achieved with the resources I have. So with this latest idea, I had number one in place: certain elements I want to see come to life. And I just had my sort of “trigger” moment two weeks ago.

So there. I’ve seemed to answer how motivation happens for me in a nutshell, which I consider a huge advancement in understanding myself, which is awesome. If you, the reader, somehow made it this far – goddammit I’ll buy you a cup of coffee one day. Because you are a champion and you deserve it. We must continue though, about how I came across this idea. The reason I’m writing all of this down is because when this thing inevitably gets made, future-me will have very much appreciated that I set the time out to talk about this sort of stuff I won’t remember vividly down the line. Okay, onward.

I’ll explain how this sudden surge of creative energy happened as best I can, but these things are inherently fuzzy. I’ll give it a shot. Three weeks ago I saw an image online, just some promotional image that someone made for their own film coming out later this year or something. It was a simple image, just the title of the film in stylized neon text with an image of a girl suspended in mid-air next to it. But something about the image deeply resonated with me, because the image fell perfectly in line with the very broad qualities I knew I wanted to explore in some film I might make in the future; qualities like the colorful neon scheme of the image, the clean-yet-grungy futuristic look of it, the captivating image of a girl suspended in what seems like zero-g (and much, much more). All of those elements, some visual, some auditory, some conceptual, constituted (1) as I listed above, are the vague elements I’ve always wanted to see come to life. The image released all these cool ideas hidden in the recesses of my mind, and I was so overwhelmed by this sudden flurry of things, that it consumed my thoughts for the next three days. All I could think about were shots, locations, colors, visual style, music, atmosphere, mood, subject matter. I knew that there was a complete product just waiting to come out of these ideas.

Within the week, I had the beginnings of what I guess I’d call an “idea space” for this film. No script, no story, but that didn’t matter, that will come later in the development period. This “idea space” is like a swirl of elements and qualities I’d like to explore , nothing much more specific than that aside from maybe shots and situations, all unified by one thing (what that thing is, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the film and that’s what I’m trying to figure out). It’s all very vague and malleable. The same swirl of thoughts I came up with about this movie resembles what my thoughts were like before Spaceship. Except on a much larger scale. And that’s what’s got me so excited. There’s a metric ton of work to do, just on the pre-production. I’m thinking months of pre-production. I want to be careful and methodical in making sure these ideas translate as smoothly and as sensibly as possible on to the page, and later, the (digital) film. I’m going to do a few months of research and development before I even think about scripting. Another exciting thing about this development is that I think I’m trotting in, to the best of my knowledge, new territory. I’ll make sure to reveal more details later down the road when things settle down a bit. I haven’t even started my research. I’ve never even done research for a film, but I’m definitely doing it for this one.

So that about puts me where I’m at right now. No satisfying conclusion, not yet at least. That will be something that will become known as time progresses. Once finals comes to a close this week, I will begin living and breathing this film. And details and other cool stuff will begin to emerge. If you’re still reading, I’ll go ahead and upgrade that coffee to a beer, because you probably need one. Also, relevant video below:

Slow Motion & Stuff

In other news, I went to Mexico for Thanksgiving break! And it was fun and cool. Upon discovery that my iPhone 5S had that slowmo feature everyone forgot about, I wondered if I could put it to good use. So I shot some beach related stuff and was actually pretty damned impressed with the footage a phone gave me. It looked pretty damn good. So with all this slowmo footage, I decided to edit it all together into a cliche montage driven my an M83 song. And man does it fit. Here it is!

It’s cool what simple framing and shot composition can do to turn an iPhone shot into a cinematic one. I’ve been learning more and more in the last few months that camera choice is rarely a factor in what makes a shot look good. A well-lit, well-composed, thought-out shot will look great on an iPhone or a RED alike. The cinematography work Jason Johnston did for the 36 hour film race put anything I’ve done to shame. And he was working with the camera I own, a Blackmagic Cinema Camera!

Me doing FX and the editor, well, editing on the right.

Me doing FX and the editor, well, editing on the right.

Speaking of that 36-hour race, we didn’t end up getting first place. But we did end up making a pretty damn great film of a caliber I haven’t seen before in the Rio Grande Valley, and we won a few awards to justify it. We got the Best Script, Best Makeup, Best Actor, Runner-Up, and Audience Choice awards. Maybe we did sweep it! Note: when I say we I speak for the team which was largely Eight-by-Two films, run by Charlie Brenner and Jason Johnston. Blulight Studios did not compete, we solely did VFX work for the team. Which wasn’t all that much largely due to time constraints and the grounded nature of the film, but I’m excited for the day I can post it up for all to see.

Trying to do some 3D rendering on an aging Dell laptop = not fun.

Trying to do some 3D rendering on an aging Dell laptop = not fun. Also it’s probably like 4am in this picture. Coffee mandatory.

Well, that’s about it. With a new project I feel passionately about now on the table, this blog should hopefully be seeing some action in the coming months. Stick around, and I hope you like what you see! As for the beer/coffee promises deep in that really long part of the blog post, I wasn’t kidding. I’ll fulfill those. Right. Later, all.

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