Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Dream of a New Film Community

Part of my original marketing approach, besides the usual press release channels and local ad placement, was the idea that 32TEN Studios would serve as a Marin Film Center: a focal point of young independent film makers, technologists, and educators.

Catherine Craig, a veteran camera operator and fixture in the Bay Area film community since the early eighties at Colossal Films, told me of Francis Coppola's early work in building this community around his own filmmaking at Zoetrope Studios, and later, his virtual community at which continues to sponsor writing and producing talent through workshop and festival.  Coppola, along with his friend George Lucas, revitalized Bay Area filmmaking in the late seventies when they each established companies in and around San Francisco.  Catherine's inclusion on our adjunct faculty board and our support of her film development was the first step in creating a new, living community around a facility in Marin.

Where better to locate our community than in the facility that Lucas built in 1981?   Lucas brought together his editing and sound groups and created a home for them in the form of Sprocket Systems, occupying 3210 Kerner Blvd. shortly after construction was completed in late 1981.  The original building rose two stories and surrounded a modern mix theater (C Theater) and sound stage.  Designed to be the largest sound stage in San Francisco, it was 31 feet to the grid, capable of 2000+ amps of power distribution designed around dimmer switches for precise lighting control.  The coved blue screen (cyclorama) was 30x60x24 and went through several iteration during its lifetime.  At one point, C Stage boasted the largest self-illuminating blue screen in the world, host to dozens of seminal effects film sequences.  Having been in D building for near two years prior to the stage build, Lucas had already created a working model shop, machine shop and had developed series of optical camera rigs designed to provide the compositing for his second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back.

32TEN Studios was the logical place to start a new effort.  We just needed to get the word out.

After our opening party in March, co-sponsored by the Reel Directory, I gathered a collection of cards and began cold calling potential film community tenants.

I really wanted to find a small film school that would move into the first floor of D Building.  I found that in order to support special effects and visual effects production in education, the design plan had to include filmmaking at the core.  Without the intellectual property side of the equation, you ended up with the typical exercise patchwork quilt of software application.  Intellectual property development builds an ecology of collaborative exchange:  story drives concept design, concept design drives creature and effects design, which in turn, demands location and asset development, bid proposal, and the true value in collaborative creative decision-making:  the essential compromises and chalk-board planning that comes with the demands of limited time and budget.

Without core intellectual property creation, any effects training opportunities would be re-treads of what is currently offered in the mass trades and camp-on university programs.  Talking heads teaching software, no true creative collaboration across the trades, and not compelling enough to attempt in a market already saturated with this sort of specialized post-production mediocrity.

This was the true genius of Lucasfilm in the 80s and 90s:  the collaboration between the stage, the model shop, the machine shop, the art department and the production accountants (producers).  Talk with anyone that worked on shows during that time, Marty Rosenberg VFX DP, Greg Maloney Optical, Lorne Peterson Model Shop, Greg Beaumonte Camera Engineering, or Udo Pampel Machine Shop, and all speak to the off-the-cuff design of effects that had to be completed, that had never been attempted, but were, in a way, guaranteed completion in one way or another.   There was a sort of structural confidence that grew out of past production successes.

So where would I find a partner?  Before I could correctly market an education program that was truly unique in that it mimicked the current market process, I needed this intellectual property generator.

I called several digital film schools in the Bay Area, and all were married to their current locations.  These programs were not in the business of special effects or visual effects image making, and for good reason.  They all lacked the facilities to support it.

One program, the Berkeley Digital Film Institute seemed a good candidate.  I had met BDFI's founder, Patrick Kriwanek after leaving the Academy.  Coincidently, Patrick had been involved with AAC as the first Director of its Film Program in the early 90s.   Like me, he was unhappy with the administration of the Academy and started his own company in the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley.   We talked for several months about relocation to our spacious facilities in Marin, and the added benefits of a large sound stage, sound mix and screening rooms.   Ultimately,  Patrick felt that Marin was too remote for his small, fluid group of film students, choosing to stay nearer the student population centers swirling around UC Berkeley.

You may recall that my efforts to reach the major trade schools in the Bay Area via SF/SIGGRAPH was well on its way to its ultimate demise, but for several weeks there, things looked promising as I cold-called schools, went on tours, and attempted to fashion relationships that would provide project work as a design base for miniature training, environment work, green screen and simulation.

I was in for a big surprise.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Small Studio Education

It's not like it hadn't been tried before:  create an educational program around a working studio, providing real-world production training alongside professional contracting.  I created a similar model at the Academy of Art, but without the studio space.  The strength of this training concept lies in tying creative delivery to deadlines, a better equivalent of the current marketplace.  At 32TEN, we'd set personal portfolio goals for each attendee, and then go about solving for them around our studio production calendar.  The best of both worlds.

Funds tied to studio overhead on the for-profit side would be invested in developing additional stage assets, like high-resolution cameras and DIT stations, lenses, and additional lighting packages which could then be used on the educational side.  I figured that this would be the best way to jump-start a training program without acquired start-up funding.

So that was the plan.


Educational programs are measured by several metrics: access to professional facilities and equipment, program design strength, and faculty.  In order to retain access to industry professionals without providing retainer, I conceived of the Artist in Residence Program at 32TEN Studios.  I would offer office space for contracting in return for faculty performance.  I immediately identified several artists that would benefit from the arrangment:  Catherine Craig, a long-time industry veteran who was in the final stages of writing her independent film, Michael Malione, a mathematician and coder who helped develop Renderman for Pixar and was involved with ILM Training for some years, Sean Mitchell, a professional DP and film director who was in the final edit and post on his mini-independent film, and Jennine Lanouette, a screen-writer and educator in Story Development.   Part of this team would include an affiliation with Michael Buffington, a professional concept and storyboard artist who I had a close relationship with via the Illustration Department at the Academy.

My evil genius plan was coming together, all within the first month of company launch.  I had the facility, the faculty base, a larger network of independent contractors in my phone book, a solid design plan, and access to a rather well-developed educational region in the Greater Bay Area.

All that I required now was a marketing strategy.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The First Year

A flurry of activity on the main stage.

32TEN Studios' debut in January of 2012 was significant in that it will serve to map the future of employee-owned boutique studios looking for significant roles in the 21st century entertainment marketplace.  From the very beginning of the process, our colleagues wished us well, our family and friends supported us, and our partners shouldered an enormous task to get us where we are today.  In the face of what Scott Ross termed "the race to the bottom" in competitive bidding and wholesale tax break offshoring, we soldiered on, crafting a network of regional creative community and finding new avenues of collaboration.  We were challenged with revising the 90s post-production formula to find a hybridized approach that would appeal to production budgets while retaining one-take perfection in client deliverables.

We added facilities management in theater and stage rental,  intellectual property development on the story side, full-featured art department solutions, educational outreach and strategic technology and transmedia partnerships in the hopes that 32TEN would serve as a new community of hand-crafted creatives in the Bay Area, historic home to west coast film making.   Our location, the dog-eared and gently-used home of Sprocket Systems, center of the post-production special effects world for thirty years, filled us with a sense of artistic responsibility to the continuation of a craft that has been slowly moving toward the Digital Apocalypse.

We've had so much help on this road, from the VES and President David Tanaka and the Board, Ami Zinns, former Oakland Film Commissioner, Scott Smith of CAM/D, Tim Morgan and Tommy Cloutier of IATSE Local 16, Tereza Flaxman of SF/Siggraph our beloved Office Manager, Stephanie Taubert to the countless student volunteers and interns that got us into December, 2012, the end of our first year, facing the most challenging of experiments in modern production start-ups.

Geoff Heron's team prepares a pyro set for the current project.

This blog has been dark for almost a year.  I'm writing again at the insistence of my former student and biggest fan, Kristy Barkan, an east coastie who dreamed big and wanted a larger role in the digital entertainment world, and due to her stage background, consistently entertained us with her VFX project deliveries.

Kristy thought that I should start writing again, and I agreed, as I feel that there has been a significant change in the craft to warrant finer analysis from the trenches, those trenches soon to be the location of many of you who are about to graduate or have graduated and are still seeking your first break.

There are some great blogs out there still, many of the original voices have not gone dark, finding ways somehow to juggle the responsibilities of independent contractor loads, family schedules and industry perspective.  There's really only so much time in the day before you flatten.

 Thanks Kristy, I hope this lasts.

Focus and Lack Thereof

I wanted to share my early visions of the educational programs within the wider 32TEN Studios business plan.  These are significant for those of you who are just realizing that the bonanza years of post-production are over, and the new market is a global one, and not only relegated to film and television project work.  Still the Grail of practical and digital creatives, film and television will be supplanted by trans-media and portable distribution systems, in both technology and intellectual property.  Through some analysis of my process over the past twelve months, you'll be better equipped to side-step some of the hurdles that I faced and hopefully see new solutions to some of the issue that still plague me today.

I had established some important goals in order to jump start a professional development training program at 32TEN:

1. Reach out to local art schools to establish our community presence.

It was my hope to forge a bond between the students attending the various two and four-year accredited trade school in the region, stepping outside the narrow confines of curriculum and short-time adjunct faculty vision, and craft a truly unique regional artistic collaboration between school, with 32TEN serving as the philosophical hub.

My first (and only) attempt to create this structure failed.  I carefully organized a SIGGRAPH/SF grand invitation for the major content school in San Francisco:  SFSUAAUCCAECD, and AI/SF, notably missing SFAI, as I didn't realize they had a film program.)  We were to get together as a new collaborative student and faculty force, sans silly trade school administrators with their pervasive flyers and promotional bullshit, just artists and teachers hoping to discover other artists and teachers to create a community that would thrive here in the most creative melting pot in the world.

Just a handful of students and faculty showed up from CCA and AAU in C Theater that day.  I talked about my dream, and we all smiled, agreeing that such a collaborative world would be rosy indeed.

Without subscription from a larger community of artists, the plan failed, the logistics of which had something to do with it, as our location in Marin is remote enough to accommodate only those students with time and resources to make the hefty round-trip, typically in traffic or on a ferry and bus combination.  

I'd have to go back to the drawing board on that one, instead, re-craft those associations within an online community, using technology like Adobe Connect, Skype and others in lieu of physical proximity, at least in the planning stages.  I had to table it.  There were other pressing issues.

2. Build an educational infrastructure around the core studio

I was challenged with the immediate need for equipment and technology to support the most demanding of all the creative trades.  The investment for even a small stage footprint is incredible, what with the emergence of high speed photography, stereo taking, motion control, motion capture, and simulation.

I needed five million dollars.  I had five dollars.

(to be continued)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

32Ten Studios Splash!

After four intense months of planning, a core group of investors and artists have launched a new production facility under the auspices of 32Ten Studios. The task was as exhilarating as it was monumental, in both the scope of the various challenges involved with an entertainment startup and degree of complexity involved therein.

What's not stated in the article is our vision for post-production and academic training support, one of the many overlays that we plan to implement at 32Ten.

My personal dream has been to create a magnet for intellectual property, both in the creative and technical sense, artistic application of design principles as dictated by a commercial market, and a hub for community in which all of the aforementioned may hope to grow and thrive. I tried to create this space in academia. I accomplished some positive outcomes using this philosophy, but because I could not ultimately control the context of collaboration in a for-profit program, my efforts fell short of my intended mark.

I had looked at other academic or short-form immersion programs in the greater bay area, including AI, Expressions, SFSU and Berkeley. SFSU and Berkeley were rooted in tenured programming that didn't see the value in application or layered collaboration. They are still teaching the methodologies of the 60s. The other for-profits were wed to their menu curriculums, fixed in place by their vanilla approach to portfolio development and inability to see larger pictures.

I pitched the idea of immersive, connective production training to Tim, Greg and Anthony Shafer, who were looking at their options after the closing of Kerner Optical and StereoBox. They saw value in creating a specialize training facility for artists that were marginalized by big box academic programs. Not only could we reach out to BA and MA grads for portfolio re-tuning, but we could help guide those junior college, community college and state college transferees before they took the more expensive trade school plunge. In addition to seat training, we wanted to go beyond exercise or tool work, and provide a cultural and business indoctrination for those artists who felt courageous enough to start up their own boutiques.

Not closing any doors to opportunity, we agreed that educators could benefit from immersion (like Sony's IPAX program of the early 2000's), as well as off-shore subcontractors who wanted a piece of the ever growing image-making pie. In a few short years, I truly believe that the film markets in India and China will be looking for domestic talent to contribute to their pipelines, not the other way around. Preparing for the new global animation and visual effects production paradigm is paramount in our mission.

Securing the old ILM C Building, 3210 Kerner Blvd., was essential to the fundamental establishment of this creative space. In no other place in the world can you find such a concentration of extreme passion and ultimately, raw technical delivery of creative vision. I knew that this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity: to establish a community of artists with a shared understanding of the industry, both past and present, with the connective force of history underlying the mission statement of the company.

Anyhow, I wanted you to know. I wanted those of you who have been with me since the beginning, since I was building the small VFX program over at the AAU back in 2005. Those years have certainly prepared me well for this next step in my academic and creative career. I hope you will stay with me.