Indie Intros

Indie Intros: Tim Miller’s ‘Rockfish’

Before the recent success of Fox’s Deadpool, Tim Miller had only directed two animated short films. His debut ‘Aunt Luisa’ won him and co director Paul Taylor a Jury Award at the Ojai Film Festival. His second film, ‘Rockfish,’ won an honorable mention also at the Ojai Film Festival for Best Animation and came in second for Best Animation at the Palm Springs International Shortfest.

Since then, Miller worked his way into Hollywood, namely for visual effects, as an Assistant Director for Thor: The Dark World’s opening sequence and as a Creative Supervisor for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Miller’s career proves that just because you specialize in other areas of entertainment, such as animation, doesn’t mean you can’t transition those skills into live action film as well.

In ‘Rockfish,’ we follow what appears to a miner and the first incarnation of Puppy Monkey Baby from this year’s incredibly disturbing Super Bowl commercials. All of this takes place on Tatooine or maybe whatever world the video game Borderlands is set on.

Miner and Monkey-Alien are blue collar guys doing their blue collar thing, digging a large hole and running a long metal wire down it as space miners do. Everything seems to be going according to plan until the wire hits a snag and the entire crane contraption attached to it goes for an incredibly destructive ride.

‘Rockfish’ attracts audiences with this vagueness; luring audiences by their curiosity and slowly answering their questions through visuals rather than exposition. As we hope for our heroes to survive this dangerous predicament, we are also hoping the outcome will reveal a little more about their characters. In this case, we find that the miners aren’t actually miners at all, but hunters of a different sort. I won’t give away the ending, but all is made clear in the end.

Although the animation probably looks dated by today’s standards, the low-res shouldn’t undermine the way the story is revealed. For any of you that have seen Deadpool, this might have actually worked out in his favor, as the kind of bare bones animation used to make Colossus kind of works to reinforce the tongue in cheek feel the movie manages to create so well.

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Indie Intros: Tim Burton’s ‘Doctor of Doom’

Tim Burton is one of those directors whose talents were immediately recognized, yet difficultly placed. After studying at the California Institute of Arts, he was immediately given fellowship by Disney where he worked for a short time. This led to the short “Frankenweenie,” which was never released by Disney, but was nonetheless still seen by Paul Reubens who wanted him to direct the cult hit Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. From there Burton’s story is fairly well-known, going on to direct Beetlejuice and becoming one of the most unique and in demand directors of the 90’s.

“Doctor of Doom” is one of Burton’s early shorts which he directed along with partner Jerry Rees. Burton also stars in the film as Don Carlo along with a variable who’s who from the Disney roster. Brad Bird, who won two Oscars for Disney/Pixar first for The Incredibles and another for Ratatouille, provides the voice of Don Carlo. Another Disney Oscar winner, Chris Buck, is most recently famous for directing the animated hit Frozen and plays the character of Pepe in “DoD.”

If you’re expecting some cross between the Burton style of filmmaking and Disney’s signature style like A Nightmare Before Christmas, you’ll be disappointed. “DoD” is more like something Burton’s hero Ed Wood would have devised. “DoD” is an homage to old B movies, possibly influenced by the 1963 Mexican horror film of the same name.

In it, a mad doctor is invited to dinner by a group of people who have clearly never eaten tacos before. He is shunned and decides to get his revenge by creating a creature that is a cross between an elephant and Greedo from Star Wars. The group manages to stop the creature, mainly because it’s worthless at terrorizing and because they’ve studying the fighting art of the WWE.

At first viewing the short appears to be plagued with problems. The dialogue, recorded separately, is almost incoherent. Everything is spoken as if a chipmunk on speed was called in to do ADR. There is even a moment when the cameraman attempts to shoot through a mirror, but is clearly visible for a good two-seconds. But now knowing Burton’s influences, it’s clear that many of these “mistakes” most likely done on purpose.

“DoD” does give us a sense of the filmmaker that Burton would become. The title font alone screams Burton, with that “it’s always Halloween” feel to his films. The film also combines horror elements presented as comedy which has become Burton’s signature.

Indie Intros: Ron Howard’s ‘Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death…’

Some people are just born to be filmmakers, I guess.

It’s common for a child to want to pick up a camera. I remember my father filming every Christmas at the house. He would simply set our VHS camcorder onto a tripod and let the thing roll, totally static, no need to get tricky. I always wanted to get my hands on that camera, but my father wouldn’t let me even touch the remote to our TV let alone a camcorder. Still I often wonder if I had the foresight to do anything worthwhile with it. I mean, I was only a kid. Still, had I been able to get my hands on that camera, the world might have had a video record of The Great War of 1986: Greyskull vs. Cobra.

One thing I can guarantee is my film probably wouldn’t have been as good as “Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death…” by a young Ron Howard.

By the time Howard had begun shooting this film he was already well established as child TV star. Shot in 1969, The Andy Griffith Show had already wrapped and he was taking roles on Gunsmoke.

I’m not going to pretend like “Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death…” is some sort of amateur masterpiece by a fifteen-year-old phenom. It looks pretty much like what I kid that age would shoot if you gave him an 8mm camera. Still, it’s clear that he possesses some early film skills that aren’t common at that age that I would like to acknowledge.

The film centers around three kids dressed in western attire reenacting the famous saloon poker game. In one particularly high stakes hand, one kid lays down his cards and attempts to celebrate an early victory before another player stops him and lays down a stronger hand. Being ever suspicious (or just a sore loser), the first player calls the other a cheat and shoots him in the chest. The third player, played by a young Clint Howard who looks pretty much the same as he does now, decides he having none of it and proceeds to shoot the first player. It all seems like Clint has come out the victor till a kid in a black hat shoots him from behind because he hates gambling or is just an asshole. What we’re left with is a gory scene of bodies and blood-soaked poker chips.

Some of the interesting things to not e about this film is how Howard uses some fundamental film techniques to tell his story. The opening shot is your standard establishing shot, a close up of the poker chips as we tilt up to a shot of the first player. It’s elementary, but advanced for a fifteen year old and a better opening than some indie films I’ve seen from much older. The rest of the shot is done in one take as it pans to the second player, then back down to the chips, then to a bottle that we see the third player take a drink from and finally back to first player who shoves some chips into the stack. What results is a kind of tracking shot that introduces the characters by their interactions with the props.

The first cut we see is the smiling face of the first player as he is certain he has the best hand.

The special effects are clearly lo fi, but effective. To be honest, when the players are shot, I still can’t tell if the actors are in control of the blood or someone is shooting them with a water gun filled with red liquid from off-screen. I want to say the latter, since Clint Howard is shot in the back and doesn’t seem to be at an angle to spray himself.

The film ends with a shot of a lone poker chip lying in a pool of blood, which, even in its simplicity, is pretty cool final shot that symbolizes what the whole film is about.

I got to give it up to Ron Howard for releasing this film. It was apparently a bonus feature on the special edition DVD release of The Missing. It’s rare to see a filmmaker of Howard’s status to release their very early work, which is a shame because I believe aspiring filmmakers can learn a lot from them, even if they’re horrible.

Indie Intros: Robert Zemeckis’ ‘The Lift’

Last week Robert Rodriguez had on filmmaker Robert Zemeckis on his excellent show The Director’s Chair. Seriously, if you love hearing filmmakers talking about their craft, this is one of the best programs (imagine Inside the Actor’s Studio for filmmakers).

Piggybacking off of that show, we’re going to take a look at Zemeckis’ first student film, “The Lift,” a film shot in black and white, much like last week’s Christopher Nolan flick “Doodlebug.

The film is about a man going through his normal day-to-day routine until he meets his arch nemesis in the form of his apartment’s elevator. The elevator is either broken, possessed by The Devil, or maybe just hates him like your cat hates you. I don’t care if he’s cuddled up next to you right now purring his little heart out, that cat hates you and plots your demise daily.

The elevator seems to have a life of its own as it escapes him, shuts on him and sometimes traps him as he desperately tries to get to work. No matter how unpredictable the lift becomes, the man seems dead set on using it despite the hassle it causes him. Perhaps he’s trying to break it the way a trainer breaks a horse, or perhaps he’s just an idiot.

The black and white stock provides a strong level of contrast, as the film is not always lit properly. I wondered if he was using the same Kodak black and white reversal stock we used in my film school days that always managed to be overexposed or underexposed, sometimes even in the same frame. Still, Zemeckis manages to do some interesting stuff with the lighting, especially later in the film. Some of his usage of shadow seems to come right out of a film noir, with hard shadows being casted on the ground by light passing through the elevator’s grates. It kind of gives the elevator an ominous feel, further giving it a kind of sentience.

Other shots are precursors to some of Zemeckis’ later work. The opening shot of “The Lift” is a series of pans and close-ups, often focusing on appliances and clocks that furnish the main character’s apartment. Any fan of Back to the Future will recognize the similarities between its opening scene and the one seen here in “The Lift.” Either that, or Zemeckis took the DeLorean, travelled back to his film student self and told him to add the shot, forever changing the course of his life to make him the powerhouse director we know today.

Indie Intros: Christopher Nolan’s Doodlebug

I guess I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for black and white film. It was what we used when I went to film school and it always brings back a little nostalgia when I see it used. Watching a monochrome film, for me, is like opening an old book or touching an oil painted canvas.

Christopher Nolan’s “Doodlebug” foreshadows common themes he would later use in his most popular films. Insanity and the workings of the mind are on full display here. One watch will give you hints of Inception, Insomnia, Memento and other Nolan films with one-word titles.

The film follows a man who is dead set on crushing some sort of vermin that has entered his house. As the film progresses, we see his mind begin to waver and struggles to focus on the scuttling of the creature which has infested his home and the sounds of his appliances. Things descend into total bedlam when we realize the invader our protagonist is desperate to smash into oblivion, is not all that it seems.

The special effects aren’t exactly The Dark Knight, but they do the job well enough. Camera angles and close-ups dominate the screen and tell the story for us. They reflect the paranoia our main character seems to be suffering from, as well and give the film a manic pacing. It isn’t towards the end that we get a true special effect, a simple trick that has been used in films predating this one, but used in a unique way to reveal the twist at the end.

Nolan seems to have been limited to the same criteria that I was for my final student film. No dialogue, black and white film only. But he stretches the most out of those limitations, creating a visual tale for the audience. Honestly, if Nolan had the same type of restrictions we did for his final student film as we did, most of the student body would have been floored. I don’t remember anyone, especially myself, that was able to get this creative with so little.

Indie Intros: Spike Jonze’s How They Get There

Ever see a single shoe on the side of road and wonder, “Who leaves a shoe? I mean, just one shoe? If you’re going to go gutter-stomping shoeless, why not just commit and rock both those knee-highs for everyone to see?” Well, Spike Jonze attempts to answer this in his short film “How They Get There.”

While not exactly his intro into filmmaking (Jonze was a well established music video director whose contributions include such classics as “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys), it was with this film that he began to flirt with cinematic storytelling devices that would eventually lead to his first feature Being John Malkovich.

The film stars Mark Gonzales, a legendary skateboarder, who was the first to Ollie off the Wallenberg Set, a nineteen foot long, four-foot tall series of steps. For those of you not familiar with skateboarding (like myself), it means he jumped his skateboard really far and landed at a much lower place than where he lifted off without killing himself.

It also stars Lauren Curry, who I’m convinced is one of the many Zooey Deschanel clones that have been running around Hollywood lately.

Model Number 13

Model Number 13

The film is simple enough. Two strangers spot each other from across the street and begin to flirt by imitating one another. This comes to an abrupt end when Mr. Mimic is hit by, what might be, the drunkest driver ever and absolute chaos is unleashed. The girl seems horrified at the disaster she’s caused, and yet it begs the question, how many other people have lost their lives entranced by these Deschanel Doppelgangers? What is their true motive? I’m sure a quick analysis of the amount of innocents killed while listening to “Teenage Dream” will produce some startling findings.

What “How They Get There” shows is that you don’t need to get overly complicated to make a good short. In the two minutes of this film we are given enough of what we need to know, character-wise, to understand the type of guy the main character is. Little things, like a trip off the curb, show us that he’s kind of a klutz. The haphazard way he disposes of his milk tells us that his focus is easily drawn, causing him to shirk common sense habits such as using a damn trashcan or looking both ways before crossing the street.

With what could also be considered a Micro-short film, the two-minute runtime is refreshing. It shows that length doesn’t always equal content.

Indie Intros: Jay Duplass’s This is John

I’m back after a bit of time away from the keyboard. I apologize for my lack of posts over the last few weeks. I had to take a bit of time to devote to some other projects of mine that should be just over the horizon. This includes a new short film from yours truly as well as a foray into some audio entertainment.

With that, back to some discussion on short film.

I’ve been recently addicted to HBO’s Togetherness which just finished its first season and was created by filmmaking siblings Jay and Mark Duplass. If you haven’t seen this series, I would highly recommend it, especially if you’re in a relationship or marriage and want to simultaneously laugh and cry at the idea of long-term monogamy.

Jay and Mark have both directed such indie fare as Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Mark you may have seen from such film and TV as The One I Love, The Mindy Project, The League and this year’s The Lazarus Effect. Many of their films deal in similar territory as Togetherness, focusing on the hazards and roadblocks found within relationships and the neurosis that stems from them.

“This is John” really caught my eye for the clear lack of production value. It really looks like this film could have been shot on a Sony Handicam using only its in-cam mic and ambient lighting. Still, a simple plot combined with good acting manages to make this a smart comedy despite its low budget. In fact, Mark Duplass said some great things at SXSW about getting out there and shooting your ideas, budget be damned.

“This is John” starts off simple enough. A guy gets home and decides to record a greeting on his answering machine. He goes on erasing and re-recording, seemingly never pleased with the message, a still a relatable thing to everyone who has had to set up a greeting on a new cell phone. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that this message isn’t as simple of a task as one would think, as it becomes clear that John has some very deep-rooted issues that are now deciding to surface.

This film is a really good example of the type of films that I like to cover in the Indie Intros section; one that shows that you don’t need money, fancy equipment or know some VIP to start a successful film career. Despite all the canards claiming it’s who you know and not what you know that garners success in film, it’s good to see that hard work and establishing a clear voice can open up just as many opportunities.

Indie Intros Oscar Edition: Ava DuVernay’s The Door

With the Oscars happening this Sunday, we’re rounding out our Indie Intros: Oscar edition with a film from Ava DuVernay, director of the MLK biopic, Selma. Selma is nominated not only for Best Motion Picture, but also Best Original Song for “Glory” performed by Common and John Legend.

DuVernay is no stranger to Hollywood. As a publicist for over ten years, she helped promote such films as I’Robot, Man on Fire, Spider-man 2, and Spy Kids. She also has the honor of being the first African-American female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe as well as win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival.

“The Door” is a short film that tells the story of a woman who is struggling with a failed marriage or a marriage that never was or a jilting at the altar or one of a hundred other scenarios that have been covered in countless romantic comedies. The reason is never given and honestly, who cares. Truth be told, it really doesn’t matter. “The Door” is a film that focuses on how friends and family can come together to help a loved one cope with the pain, rather than spend time to tell a back story that really isn’t that uncommon. Each of her friends and family has different methods of bringing her out of her funk, my favorite being her second friend who suggests the tried and true method of going out and dancing your ass off. Each method essentially heals a different part of her, picking up the pieces of who she once was.

“The Door” doesn’t rely of dialogue to tell the story, but rather uses visuals and music to reveal the plot. Much of the film seems to borrow a lot of its look and feel from music videos, so much so that I was fully expecting Mary J. Blige to come into frame and drop the hottest single of 2002. Instead what we get are visuals that tell us just what we need to know to construct a story blended with carefully selected music that helps the audience connect with the mood of the character. One scene in particular shows us exactly how important music is to the main character and her healing process, when a friend takes her to a concert.

What “The Door” ultimately accomplishes is telling a story much like the old silent films of the 20’s, but modernizing it to great effectiveness. One look at the film will tell you that production value wasn’t a problem. DuVernay clearly makes a conscious choice to tell this story via other means than words, proving something I’ve always believed, that dialogue in film is not nearly as important as many give it credit for.

Indie Intros Oscar Edition: Joris Oprins’ Mute

When we think of the Academy Awards, it’s often the nominations for Best Film, Actor/Actress, Director, etc. that occupies most of the media surrounding the event. It’s important to remember sometimes that among the big names like Clint Eastwood and Wes Anderson, there are other directors of foreign and short film categories that worked just as hard to produce an Oscar nominated film. Since I primarily cover short films, I’ve decided to add at least one director who has been nominated for Best Short Film.

This is Joris Oprins’ first Oscar nomination, but not his first film. He and his two partners, Job Roggeveen and Markieke Blaauw, have been making animated short films since 2003 with their debut film “Wad“.

I have to admit, I’ve always found it strange that the Academy has separate categories for best Feature, Foreign and Animated Films, but when it comes to shorts, live action and animated are lumped together regardless of the country of origin. I suppose it’s because the Academy gives shorts the same kind of attention the rest of the public does.

“Mute” is Oprins’ second short film and his first foray into using CG. The story takes place in a world without mouths. This doesn’t stop people from attempting many of the activities that we orally-blessed take for granted. This all changes when a happy accident with a knife allows the populace to speak for the first time. What results is one of the most adorably gory films you’re likely to see.

Artistically, “Mute” feels like a combination of Despicable Me and Wallace and Gromit. The male character models are reminiscent of Grimace from McDonalds, while the female characters have the addition of breast mechanics straight out of Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. Furthermore, I could swear they lifted Maggie’s pacifier sound from The Simpsons.

It’s impressive to see a film be able to find humor in a concept so gory. I would be hard-pressed to call this short a dark comedy simply because, absent of the blood, the humor is rather uplifting and cheeky. This is a good example of the type of storytelling power animated films are capable of that live action can’t possibly produce. Unless you have a way to make slicing yourself a new mouth produce the same audience reaction often reserved for kitten videos.

Indie Intros Oscar Edition: Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket

Continuing our look at the short works of this year’s Oscar Nominees, we turn our attention to Wes Anderson. Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel has garnered nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Here we take a look at his first film offering, “Bottle Rocket”.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the feature-length version of Bottle Rocket that this short helped launch (forgive me, I couldn’t help myself). As such, many of you already know the basic plot of the film. Two brothers infatuated with criminality attempt to start their careers by putting together a crew to pull off a robbery. The brothers, who seem naturally inept at everything, discover crime isn’t exactly easy and hilarity ensues.

This short is naturally just a parsed down version, with much of the same plot point that would later make it into the feature. Much of the dialogue remains intact, along with many of the jokes. Also, that typical quirky wit that Anderson is known for is shown in full force. Most importantly though, the short has the cool, soothing voices of not one, but two Wilson brothers, effectively making it not only a cinematic experience, but a Zen-like one as well.

Those of you only familiar with Anderson’s later works like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, will note the “Bottle Rocket” differs in style. Much of the cinematography in Anderson’s work borrows heavily from the style of different eras, yet strangely, no specific time all at once. The feel of “Bottle Rocket” is pure 90’s. “Bottle Rocket” appears to be shot on 16mm black and white film stock that made a reemergence in the 90’s. Also the clothing seems, at times, inspired by the Los Angeles Neo-swing revival popular during the time. What results is a film that feels a little like a cross between Clerks and Swingers. Really the only thing that harkens back to eras past is the soundtrack, which features popular Jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington and Sonny Rollins.

With respect to Anderson’s film career, “Bottle Rocket” serves as an interesting watch. When viewed in conjunction with the rest of Anderson’s filmography, it tells the tale of a highly stylistic director, as he looks to find his voice. For those filmmakers struggling to find their own, it can be comforting to see that not all directors have it fully established on their first attempt.