December 31, 2006

Fanfare for Higher Education

Some scenes from my Junior-year student film at Middlebury College, which also played at film festivals in New York, Boston, and North Carolina in 2002:

Fanfare was meant to refer to the container--the bookends and the constant audience presence--while Higher Education was the film-within-a-film (thus Fanfare for Higher Education).

I shot the 17-minute short during the first half of 2002. Context: a month after I finished the project I became legally able to drink, which is why I haven't made a film since. Just kidding--drinking is why I haven't made a good film since. Just kidding--everyone starts drinking before 21 anyway. Looking back on it, it was a fairly implausible undertaking: I was solely responsible for writing, casting, directing, shooting, editing, compositing, mixing, scoring half of it, and--ah yes--attending the rest of my classes at the same time. As one of my professors asked me after the screening, "was it worth missing all of those classes for?"

Put it this way: the struggle to produce this project was one of the most educational experiences of my life. On the other hand, the professor's class that I skipped several times... well, I can't even remember the title of that course.

One of the particular challenges inherent to Fanfare was the director-by-proxy concept. Since the director of the Higher Education is an actual character in Fanfare, it was necessary to direct the film-within-a-film as he would direct it, rather than the way I would (not to mention the fact that I wouldn't likely write a voiceover-laden film about selling drugs in the first place). Because of this device, I couldn't show off my own writing and directing chops--not a good situation to put yourself in if you're a young student filmmaker trying to... show off your writing and directing chops. It was a challenge: on one hand I wanted to create an entertaining short film for a Middlebury audience made up of my peers, some of whom I wanted to date, while on the other hand I wanted to belittle the kind of drugs-are-cool action flicks that were popular among many of my peers, some of whom I wanted to fight. Viewing the film today, it's fairly evident that I couldn't make up my mind about whether to attack or defend the director character ("Tyler Simon"). By hedging my bets, I may have effectively negated both viewpoints: I didn't sabotage the film-within-a-film as much as I should have, while I also didn't get to show off what I was capable of as a writer/director working with "my own" material.

It may be that the whole director-by-proxy idea stemmed from my own insecurities as a filmmaker--that, or just the general knowledge that I wasn't ready to live up to my own expectations were I to undertake writing something "from the heart," a scary prospect indeed for a jaded college Junior.

If your first reaction to the on-screen audience was, "this looks like Mystery Science Theater 3000," you wouldn't be the first. While I never had cable TV as a kid, I had surely seen episodes of the show; nevertheless, I didn't realize the similarity until after I'd written the script. Once I realized it was going to look a lot like MST3K, I experimented with other methods of having the audience present, but given that I didn't want to cut between the two--I wanted the actual viewer of the film to see Higher Education with the persistent presence of a second audience between them and the film itself--I decided that this was really the most logical way to do it, MST3K be damned.

"Cryptomnesia" is an applicable term coined by Carl Jung, which is defined as our ability to create something we think is original, when we're unconsciously being derivative of another work we'd seen earlier and had just lost immediate recall of. Backing this up is an instance where my freshman roommate Ben Campbell (who did some of the music in this very film) wrote a song (which I produced--our creative crew was, and, as you will see in a couple months, is--very incestuous) that we discovered months later shared an almost identical melody to Bob Marley's "Guava Jelly," which Ben had certainly heard once or twice before but no more than that.

All of that said, if I ripped off the idea of writing the audience into the original work itself, it's more likely that I lifted it from Tom Stoppard's play The Real Inspector Hound. Credit where credit's due.

As written, the ending was supposed to include a second audience, appearing in the same silhouetted manner, looking through the reverse side of the movie screen at the first audience. I simply didn't have the time to shoot it, however, especially in light of the limited resources I had used to shoot the first audience: I mail-ordered a giant roll of green paper, taped it across a chalkboard in a classroom, turned on the overhead fluorescent lights, and filmed the visual component of the audience in one take (I promised the actors they'd be done by 11pm and the DV tape for them to watch wasn't done exporting until 10:45). I shouted out directions as we filmed and then later taped each actor's audio individually in a soundbooth. Here is a picture of this ultra high-budget greenscreen setup (and by "ultra high-budget," I mean, $20):

It took a hell of a lot of tweaking to get a clean pull off that greenscreen--and while there are still a lot of flaws, it's pretty damn good, considering. Which is probably how I'd evaluate the film as a whole, at least technically.

Another example of limited-resource-fulness: we only had one prop gun. So the shot of the two guns in the case together was actually two separate shots merged, and we staged the later scene with Damian Washington's character getting shot in the back such that our sole gun never needed to be in the same shot. Also, due to my PC being below Adobe Premiere's minimum system requirements, I almost didn't make it to my own screening with a tape in hand--only after making last-minute hardware adjustments did I finally get the "Export to Tape" function to work--at 6:55, for a 7 o'clock screening. After shooting and editing the entire project digitally, it was incongruous to have to sit there and wait for the 17-minute film record out to tape in real-time.

Considering the whole thing was shot on my personal camera (which I'd won for an earlier video) with a budget of less than $150 and completed start-to-finish in a matter of months, I was... realistically proud of it. Today, probably none of it is usable on my reel, but the experience of finding out just how well Murphy's Law applies to film production was an invaluable one. Also, I learned another valuable lesson: spend more time writing.

Still, my experience shooting Fanfare was perhaps the final bullet point on my "reasons not to go to film school" list--despite being the only student during my years at Middlebury to have any success getting work into outside festivals, I was given a "B" on the project because I missed some of the rough cut deadlines. A year later, I was told that I was ineligible to do a senior film because of my "disqualifying" grade, and while they later "made an exception" for me, it was a pretty pitiful tangle of red tape to have to wade through. And there I was thinking that it was a teacher's job to encourage creativity.

And thus No Film School. To quote a movie no one will ever show in film school: "If you no help me now...I say, fuck you Jobu. I do it myself."

Your Comment

2 Comments

Good story Ryan.

Funny concept for the film, I was very forgiving about the MST3K element - It didn't seem like a rip off for me. I appreciated it. And nice critical thinking/ writing about your own work. That takes balls.

Great Major League reference.

--
JO

January 31, 2007 at 12:26PM, Edited September 4, 10:14AM

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March 8, 2016 at 4:57AM, Edited March 8, 4:57AM

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