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.