FESTIVALS: Linklater, Kevin Smith, and ILM? Film Neophytes Get Sneak Peak into Industry
by Mark Holcomb
(indieWIRE/9.19.00) –When a program billed as “The Next Generation of Film” features appearances by established directors like Kevin Smith and demonstrations by venerable effects giants like ILM, the title is clearly meant to be taken loosely.
But if the participants of this three-day series of panel discussions, interviews, and screenings weren’t exactly of the next generation of film, they did offer sound advice to beginners on how to break into the film business, along with presentations of dazzling technological innovations and some choice dick-and-fart jokes courtesy of master of the form Smith (if you had to ask).
Aimed at high school and college students, “The Next Generation of Film” was hosted by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and The New York Times, and ran from Friday, September 8th through Sunday the 10th at the FSLC’s Walter Reade Theater.
The program got off to an auspicious start Friday evening with “Richard Linklater: Home-Grown Auteur,” a discussion with the Austin, Texas, cinema iconoclast. Linklater (whose “Dazed and Confused” was screened after the interview) and his current filmmaking partners Bob Sabiston and Tommy Pallotta talked with Times film critic A.O. Scott about their upcoming animated project, “Waking Life.”
The film uses new digital rotoscoping software developed by Sabiston, in which artists “trace” over frames of live-action scenes on a computer to create animated footage. Sabiston demonstrated the process using a short video clip he shot that afternoon. This clip and Sabiston’s earlier MTV spots (also screened) were impressive, but they hardly hinted at the depth and fluidity of the excerpts from “Waking Life.” The film’s animation — which involves 30 artists working up to 250 hours for each minute of finished work — is a mind-bending blend of computer precision and artistic abandon. Linklater accurately described it as like “a moving painting. Every gesture is so human.”
Don’t expect to see “Waking Life” anytime soon, though. “It’s about 85% finished,” the director said. “It’ll be released early next year, hopefully.” (More bad news for animators: Sabiston has no immediate plans for a commercial release of his software.)
The affable, boyish Linklater closed the evening by reflecting on his career as Austin’s most influential film geek. “Most of the movies I’ve done [were shot] in Austin because it’s convenient. You kind of have to be sneaky and a liar to make a movie at a studio.” As for his status among adoring young filmmakers, Linklater said, “It’s always flattering to me when someone says, ‘I saw ‘Slacker’ and picked up a camera.'”
Which is precisely how Kevin Smith got started. At Saturday afternoon’s “Kevin Smith: Is Nothing Sacred?” the “Clerks” director said, “I saw ‘Slacker’ at the Angelika and thought, ‘This counts as a movie? I can do that.'” In a long and frequently hilarious interview conducted by Times film critic Stephen Holden — who often seemed lost amid Smith’s rapid-fire banter — the irreverent director talked about his early career and the controversy surrounding last year’s “Dogma.”
“I wasn’t really one of those cats who wanted to be a filmmaker his whole life,” the self-deprecating Smith said. “I assumed that one day I’d own a deli if I was lucky.” The flap over “Dogma,” which he describes as his most personal and autobiographical film, took Smith by surprise. “My faith wasn’t shaken by the controversy,” he said. “I was a little shocked by the vehemence [of the protest]. Is there a movie you could take less seriously? There’s a fucking rubber poop monster in it!” Ever the provocateur, Smith conceded that “I still love God, and I don’t have anything against Christianity except fucking Christians.”
Smith revealed that his next film would mark — cue audience gasp — the last appearance of the beloved Jay and Silent Bob. The director is also set to write and direct an adaptation of one of Gregory McDonald‘s popular “Fletch” novels, a series he credits as a writing influence.
If Linklater and Smith provided shining examples of D.I.Y. pluck, the panelists at Saturday night’s “Breaking In: How to Find a Job in the Movie Business” represented other, more traditional avenues for would-be filmmakers. Moderated by Richard Peña, the panel included producer and Web activist Warrington Hudlin (“House Party“); documentary filmmaker Nicole Betancourt (“Before You Go“), also a Web activist; film and video editor Jennifer Wollan; screenwriter and Columbia film department chair Dan Kleinman; DGA Assistant Director Training Program coordinator Sandi Forman; and the Times’s Holden.
Hudlin opened by reminding beginners, “You’re getting into the business of ‘no.’ Build a psychological make-up of ‘nine times down, one time up.'” Betancourt — who, like Linklater and Smith, has no formal background in film — emphasized the importance of “using what you already know,” while Wollan stressed flexibility. “You may think you know what you want to do,” she said, “but being open to other possibilities may lead you to something else.” (Having started out as an accountant, she knows whereof she speaks.) All the panelists emphasized the importance of sustaining relationships. “It’s a business that runs on recommendations,” said Kleinman.
After the formal discussion, fully half the audience swarmed the stage to take Betancourt and Forman up on their offers of internship applications, prompting one FSLC wag to ask, “What is this — Live Aid?”
The final event of the program, Sunday night’s “ILM: The State of the Art,” provided a neat antithesis to Linklater’s opening presentation. With multi-million dollar budgets and hundreds of employees at their disposal, ILM’s Jim Morris and Skywalker Sound‘s Glenn Kiser are more like the next generation of film’s rich uncles. Still, these studio bigwigs were clearly proud of their work on films like “Saving Private Ryan” (which screened afterward) and the “Star Wars” series.
The duo, with moderator and Times Sunday Arts and Leisure editor John Rockwell, showed various film clips illustrating how their teams go about “creating something out of nothing.” Kiser’s demonstration of the sound layering process in “Ryan’s” opening sequence was particularly impressive, though he cautioned, “very few filmmakers know how to use sound effectively, especially with the advent of faster and faster editing.” He also presented a funny excerpt from the original “Star Wars” stripped of its sound effects and looped dialogue, proving once and for all that Darth Vader is an English guy who sounds like he’s talking from the bottom of a garbage can.
With concepts like “haze geometry” and “particle systems,” Morris’s presentation was more technically complex and jargon-y. His demonstration of how computer-generated characters are created was a highlight, and he previewed a “secret” new animation process that makes these “synthespians” even more lifelike. Both men, however, seemed most proud of what Morris calls “invisible effects” used in movies like “Ryan.” They also revealed the potential for these effects to be abused: several leading men, it seems, regularly demand digital enhancement of their receding hairlines and nasally voices. Come to think of it, wasn’t Ted Danson in “Saving Private Ryan”?
Happily, the participants and sponsors of “The Next Generation of Film” — who were all eager to chat with attendees before and after the shows — refuted this reliance on technological glitz with old-fashioned, human accessibility.
[Mark Holcomb is a freelance writer who has written about movies for The Village Voice and Shout magazine. ]