Making a Movie - Building a Universe
COW Library : Indie Film & Documentary : Bryan Kinnaird : Making a Movie - Building a Universe
To create an epic science-fiction saga, independent filmmaker Bryan Kinnaird has taken his own epic journey, a journey in which 250 people have added their own steps
My production background is fairly typical: writing for morning radio, making corporate and industrial video. When I returned from serving in the first Gulf War, I got serious about video, and started taking steps to fulfill my dream of moviemaking.
As a life-long fan of sci-fi films and comic books, my first film was a documentary exploring the influence of heavy metal music on the new age of comic books. It didn't land with the impact I had hoped for, but it gave me the drive to create a sci-fi epic of my own.
I started work on a screenplay in 1997: "The Villikon Chronicles." Its gothic eroticism and biblical allegory explored themes of valor, faith, and political and legal intrigue, set on a merciless prison world. I put all of my savings - $14,000 - into the film, but it never made it out of preproduction.
Roy Young is a colorist and designer who worked on such mainstream comic successes as Todd Mc- Farlane's "Spawn" series. He created incredibly complex storyboards for Villikon, which combined handdrawn art with digital photography. Jay Armbrust collaborated with Roy and me on my earlier documentary. For the Villikon storyboards, he added dialogue from my screenplay in comic-style balloons.
In the face of the earlier disaster, our next step was staring up at us: a graphic novel.
A LIFE OF ITS OWN
Incorporating as a business to deal with distributors and printers, we established YK Productions, for Young- Kinnaird.
Fan response to the first graphic novel led us to create a second. I worked without a salary and Roy agreed to defer payment until the series was turned into an eventual film. Even so, the total expenses for the first two volumes were somewhere around $40,000, which I spread across five credit cards.
Their success led to a third volume, now an epic with over 60 characters. One in particular, Mystere, received a ton of fan mail. Thanks to models and actresses, "Mystere" began to make comic convention appearances. Among them, Cara Fawn was an unexpected fan of our heroine, and became very much identified with the character. She served as the basis for a planned fourth volume of The Chronicles, a prequel to the original trilogy.
Below: One of the graphic storyboards from the Villikon Chronicles
In addition to extensive fan support, Diamond Comic Distributors featured issue #3 of the Villikon series in their coveted "Spotlight" in Previews Magazine, the merchandising bible of the comic book industry: "not to be missed," and "an absolute must carry item for retailers to have in stock."
In hindsight, the wrong people were attached to the original film. Its failure made the success of the graphic novels possible.
HOW? BY ASKING
Just as I was embracing the course of events in my life, agents and production companies from Germany, India, the US, and several Asian countries started calling about turning the graphic novels into a movie.
Many of those offers would barely have left me the rights to my own characters. Turning them down has kept me in control. After all, it was my idea. I wanted to see if I could do it.
Before people will give you money, you have to show them what you can do. Recent movies based on graphic novels, like Sin City and 300, began as short films to pitch larger ones. So in December 2004, we started building our own pitch tool: a 30-minute short film based on the Mystere prequel project, "The Villikon Chronicles: Genesis of Evil."
While I was at it, I wanted to work where I lived, in Phoenix, Arizona. I wanted to show the world that a local crew could shoot an epic. There's a lot of untapped talent here, just like everywhere else. You just have to give people something to apply their talents to.
above: Cast and crew at work in the Arizona desert, near Yuma.
You can't make an epic alone. By the time we started shooting, we had 40-50 cast and crew on hand every day. Using largely donated gear, shooting on donated sets, every member of the production agreed to work for deferred compensation. No salaries, only recognition, and the possibility of staying with the project after it was sold.
I got it all by asking.
It turns out that a lot of film and video pros like science fiction. You probably do, too. Also, everybody aspires to something. A lot of times, that's making movies. People like my DP Alex Mitchell, the script supervisors, grips, gaffers, sound mixers and camera operators stay busy every day doing things like commercials, but were ready to make a sci-fi movie.
I found a lot of people like this by asking around. Producer Tonia Madenford, of local production company Screen Addiction, has been with the project since 2004. Her amazing connections let us extend our reach even further: "Hey, I know a sound guy, let me ask around..."
Mark Meyers came to us through this kind of networking. Someone told someone who told someone, and it happened.
Check out his IMDB.com entry to see the kinds of projects he's worked on: Lost, Star Trek: Nemesis, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, and more than two dozen others. He ran Steadicam on his off days from big budget productions with Tony Scott.
Many of the people who worked with us believed in the project from the beginning. Others came along because they were just curious how it would all turn out.
One of our primary locations was the desert outside Yuma, Arizona. We set up base camp ten miles from the location, because very few vehicles could get to the set. Getting portapotties onsite was a nightmare. My truck was completely swallowed by the sand and had to be dug out. On the final day of shooting there, we got hit by a sandstorm that looked like something from Morocco.
The brutal shoot left a sour taste in a lot of people's mouths...until we got back to Show-N-Tell Productions to review the footage. Then people started to get excited again.
Show-N-Tell is owned by Jackie Wargo and her husband, longtime COW member Steve Wargo. They lent their Sony Cinealta F-900 to us, and Steve joined the crew for the shoot in the Grand Canyon Caverns, 210 feet underground.
Unlike the desert, everybody loved that location. Discovered in 1927, we are the only film production to ever have shot there.
SQUARING THINGS UP
Every time we've asked for something, we try to give something back. When studios were donated by the Collins College Media Arts Department, we asked them what they needed, which was to have their greenscreen room repainted. We supplied the paint and did the job. We needed to key the floor, so we purchased chroma key paper. When we left, we repainted and redid the floor so that they'd be able to have the room in the same new condition that we did.
So far, nearly 200 people have become part of the project in one way or another, with VFX, sound post and orchestration still to come.
We got it all by asking.
Below: On the greenscreen set in Collins College Media Arts Department
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
It's not that there was no money for the project. I financed the production essentials with my own money. Other contributions came from coexecutive producers Cara Fawn and Webb Pickersgill of Bassline Digital Productions, who's also editing the film.
So where did we spend it? Video stock, traveling to locations, water, food, hotel rooms, printing costs, software. We also paid for location filming permits, and insurance for the production and everyone who worked on it.
We also didn't cut corners with catering. We had a food budget, but we also took something of a guerilla approach. We asked mom-and-pop shops and even family to prepare food for our movie. They jumped at the chance. They offered discounts before we could even ask. A Costco membership also helps.
It takes more than vision to make a movie. You also need managerial skills. When everyone sees that you're on the ball, it gives them confidence that their work won't be wasted. Being on the ball means taking care of your people. It means showing people they can take you at your word, every step of the way.
EPIC FILMMAKING ON A BUDGET
I did things backwards. Hollywood wants stories that are "based" on something, so if I'd done the graphic novels first, maybe I could have sold the movie the first time. But if I had, I'd have missed the rest of the ride: watching the technology bloom, working as part of an amazing team, and making sure it was my vision that made its way to the screen.
My journey to this point has taken 10 years, the same time span covered in The Villikon Chronicles. I've only been able to tell a little of the story here, but making the film has been every bit as much an epic as the one the film itself tells.
Of course we all hope our efforts will be rewarded with a big payoff. I know it's a gamble whether any of us will get to fill the same roles in a major studio production, but I'm holding out for a deal that will allow our cast and crew to be able to contribute in whatever appropriate way the next producers can find.
As much as we all hope for a big-payoff, nobody did it for the money. The sacrifices that so many people made are a testament to the true spirit of independent filmmaking. The goals we shared included just seeing whether we could actually pull it off. And we have so far, through perseverance, persuasion, and passion.
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