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Having Your Indie Film Screen in IMAX Isn’t as Impossible as You May Think

Having Your Indie Film Screen in IMAX Isn't as Impossible as You May Think

Every filmmaker wants to have their work projected on a large screen in a dark theater, but especially if you deal in the visual effects realm as I do. Movies can be a great source of escape and immersion. However, as the screen gets smaller, the sense of immersion reduces as well.

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With online video streaming so widely and successfully used, I feared my chances of producing a film for the theater was getting smaller every day.

I’ve always made episodes and my independent movies with a large screen in mind. Even though my DIY special effects channel, Shanks FX, is a series designed for the web, I regularly project my episodes on a number of different screen sizes before I upload to YouTube.

The side of my house works nicely for a 25 foot look. If it looks good on a large screen, it will look good on a small screen. I take the same approach with audio. If it sounds okay through lousy speakers, it will sound great with quality speakers. I’ve always been interested in IMAX nature and space films playing at science centers and museums, but I never focused on  the industry behind it.  A colleague’s creation of “In Saturn’s Rings” (SV2 Studios film by Stephen van Vuuren), energized me to the next level.

Stephen is a fellow North Carolinian living close by and I have been picking his brain for years about the industry. For much of that time, I never considered creating for the giant screen.  I was just fascinated that an independent filmmaker was making a film with such a large scope for a screen seven stories high. And doing it all from his basement, and for the most part – solo!
Last year I realized that one of the underlying components of my “in-camera” visual effects was capturing real world physics in action. From magnetic putty to dry ice bubbles, the things I captured on camera were often based on science and physics.

I thought a giant screen film about DIY physics and fluid dynamics would be a fresh contribution consistent with my niche. It would deal with both outer space and nature – a large percentage of the giant screen market.

The film’s name is “Creating The Cosmos” named after the Shanks FX episode & special effect (glass plate Nebulas) I am most proud of. “Creating The Cosmos” will show direct physics links between the every day world close by and the expansive, huge universe.

I’ve captured many core elements of the film in previous Shanks FX episodes; but I needed to re-package it in a concept trailer for a September 2015 presentation. I was telling myself, “this is mid-June; and we have a baby due later that month.” Time was not on my side.

But these are the kind of challenges that get me the most excited and energized. Stephen of SV2 Studios compared the process of making a film to climbing a mountain. Stephen then said, “making a giant screen film is like climbing Mt. Everest.”
Giant screen cinema is a technically demanding form of movie making. I see this as an advantage. It seems to me… in the realm of narrative filmmaking, a most important director skill is the ability to work with actors and get the best performance out of them – not my strongest suit or the one that interests me the most. For the giant screen, the more a director knows from a tech standpoint the better off they will be during the whole course of production because these films are intensely visual and immersive. The ability to create immersion from locations and subject matter is similar to the ability to get the best performance out of your actors.

So over the course of the summer, I re-mastered and re-shot many past Shanks FX sequences in 4K to have the highest resolution for the GSCA conference in San Francisco, where the industry meets to see the newest film concepts and cutting edge cinema technology.

The most attended portion of the conference is the “Films in Production” block, where filmmakers present 2-5 minute segments/trailers of their newest works in progress to this entire community.  And truly, the entire industry is watching.

Now, what is the GSCA (Giant Screen Cinema Association)?

This is the group that brings the world of filmmakers, producers and exhibitors together in this unique realm of giant format movies. Their core purpose is to advance the business of producing and presenting educational giant screen and immersive cinema experiences globally.

Throughout the world, IMAX and dome theaters play these movies in science centers, museums and special theaters. It’s a very tight knit, small community which has its own culture and seems to have an “old school” way of doing business. I find this interesting because the industry is also on the cutting edge of the newest and best ways of capturing and projecting cinema. YouTube and online streaming are irrelevant, everything is judged on 70 foot giant screens. Any flaws from sound, color, focus, composition and story are quickly revealed.

The thought of me presenting something sub-par was a huge fear… not wanting my film to come off as amateur and make a bad first impression. So I had several long conversions with Stephen van Vuuren asking many questions about past conferences and what kind of films did well and why.

I went to the GSCA website, where I listened to audio recordings of past conference technical sessions and got tons of insight about giant screen filmmaking theory. What kind of style and story works on the giant screen and what doesn’t?

One editing trick I learned was to put a small action figure in front of my 28 inch monitor, which would always remind me that this action figure represented the size of the audience in relation to my computer monitor.

Another great resource was the Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh, NC which graciously allowed me on multiple occasions to come in before the theater opened and watch rough drafts on their IMAX screen. The only way to edit something for the giant screen is to see it up on the giant screen. I was able to work on my sound design by observing how the 5.1 sound mix played in such a large venue.

READ MORE: Watch: Create the Cosmos in Glorious 8K in the Comfort of Your Own Home

And the folks at PBS Digital Studios have always been ready and willing to  support my professional development. In spite of a whole lot of sleepless nights with our newborn baby Hannah and the intense workload of capturing uncompressed 4K files, I was able to get our 5 minute “proof of concept” done by the August 15th deadline. I over-nighted to IMAX in Los Angeles a hard-drive that was 550GB in size for a five-minute sequence. Each individual frame was about 50MB in size. It was received on time and everything played smoothly on their end.

IMAX would add their finishing touches so it would be formatted to play with their new laser projection system. The entire industry would be seeing this new laser projection system — many for the first time — in San Francisco. I knew my work was never going to be brighter, clearer and crisper for this upcoming screening in San Francisco. This excitement was balanced with concern that the laser projection would reveal flaws that I just couldn’t see with my 2K editing suite at home.

Fast forward a month; and I’m on a plane to San Francisco ready to present “Creating the Cosmos” on the second largest screen in North America with this new laser projection system. The experts were saying this new system was going to revolutionize the game.

A flight delay made me about two hours late to my scheduled rehearsal. I went straight from the airport to the theater hoping a projectionist was still there to screen my sequence and make sure it looked and sounded good. I walked into the IMAX® Theater; and it was totally dark. I had my stroller bag in hand with no idea if the theater was empty or not.

Then, over a loud speaker I heard, “Okay, that was the sequence from ‘Nautilus’ and is the final clip on this morning’s list. Are there any other clips we need to go back to guys? We are ahead of schedule.” I made my way towards the center of the theater, still not seeing anything in the dark theater. I frantically said: “Can you play ‘Creating the Cosmos’ again?” somehow trying to yell and whisper at the same time. I heard multiple voices in the back. The theater could be packed for all I knew.

“That was supposed to screen 90 minutes ago.” someone replied from the sound board in the back.

“Yeah, my flight was delayed. I came directly from the airport.” As the theater lights fade in, I find myself in the middle of the theater with about 20-25 people spread out. Perhaps IMAX executives enjoying a sneak peak.

Directly in front of me in the third row, there sat David Keighley. In the world of IMAX and giant screen he is the “guru.” The main authority on all things IMAX post- production and has been with IMAX for some 40 years. Every Hollywood movie that gets an IMAX release goes through David Keighley first. He’s seen it all: bad, good and everything in between.

As he looks at me for a moment, I’m hoping he can’t see my knees buckling. Then, Mr. Keighley yells to the back: “Can you guys pull up ‘Creating the Cosmos’ for a final sound check.?’ As I start to thank him, the lights start to dim, so I quickly grab a seat in the row in front of him – as he looks over the rest of his day’s agenda on his clip board.

My attention turned to the 80 foot screen as the PBS Logo fades in; and the Shanks FX logo quickly fades out as a Petri-Dish planet comes into frame. The planet looks crisp, clear, and most importantly real. I hear the low end rumbles of our sound design as the camera slowly pushes in on our Petri-Dish planet. The power and bass captured with my little Zoom recorder seems to rival any summer blockbuster, as it fills the room without being too overbearing. 

Although just the opening moment, all these thoughts went on in my head. I literally jumped out of my seat, and yelled “Oh my God”. OK, I admit it, I may actually have said, “Oh, Fuck Yeah.” I honestly don’t remember. I quickly bottled my enthusiasm as I watched “Creating the Cosmos” with my fingers crossed hoping there wouldn’t be elements that I overlooked — like not feathering a mask eight more pixels to hide a harsh edge on a composite. Every one of my clips was like a minefield of possible flaws that would be exposed if off by just a few pixels — pixels that you wouldn’t even see on my 2K monitor back home.

As I watched my film, I was seeing details I’d never seen before – especially with the “glass plate nebulas” and “star dust particles” composites. My least favorite shot in the whole sequence turned out to be my favorite because of all the hidden detail that was now seen for the first time. There were some minor banding issues with one of my dry ice bubbles and some of the greens had more noise than desired; but I was relieved and excited after the sequence faded to black. And house lights came back up.

The sound was a bit loud; and I asked Mr. Keighley if he thought the audio was clipping, especially on the opening narration of Carl Sagan. ‘We could bring it down a DB if you want. But this theater will be full of people tomorrow, and that will help with the acoustics. The mix sounds fine to me.”

I quickly realized that these kind of films are expected to pack a punch; and I said, “Okay, we will keep audio the same.”

Twenty-four hours later I was back in the very same theater ready to present “Creating the Cosmos” to the entire giant screen film community. There were 14 other films presenting during the ‘Films in Production’ portion of the conference.
I didn’t know the order for presenting, but hoped “Creating the Cosmos” would play before “A Beautiful Planet,” the newest Toni Myers IMAX film. Toni Myers is a household name in the industry and has been involved in the creative process on many of the NASA IMAX films. She directed “Hubble 3D” and “Space Station 3D,” which was inducted into the GSCA hall of fame later that evening. Her newest film, “A Beautiful Planet” is co- produced by Disney and IMAX and made in cooperation with NASA. It includes footage shot by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

It was easy to tell that “A Beautiful Planet'” was going to the most visually striking film out of the 15 being shown at the conference. Even the key card for my hotel room had an image from the film on both sides as a form of advertising. And when it played, it did in fact look amazing, with shots of Earth never seen before from space. It was a perfect example of what the IMAX format was created for.

As “A Beautiful Planet” played on the 80 foot screen, I was both inspired and intimidated by what I was seeing – hoping I wouldn’t follow this film.  The segment was over and the lights came back up. “A Beautiful Planet” received the loudest applause so far.  I saw moderator Patricia Keiglhley walk back to podium.

“Next film is… ‘Creating the Cosmos’.” I’d been nervous the entire summer waiting for this moment, but a sense of calm came over me. I just had to smile at the absurdity of the moment.

I thought to myself… “DIY vs. DISNEY”- why the hell not?

“Is Joey Shanks here?” the moderator asked the audience. Apparently, all the film presenters before me came to the podium from a back door. Maybe if I didn’t miss my scheduled rehearsal due to the plane delay, I would have gotten that memo. I found myself sitting in the dead center of the theater and had to squeeze my way through 20 or so people to approach the podium. It looked like I was just called down as the next contestant on “The Price is Right.”

I eventually made it to the podium, and still couldn’t get over that I had to follow this NASA/IMAX/DISNEY production. I looked out to the packed theater and laughed. “Is this some form of cruel initiation?” I paused as there was silence. “That a first-time presenter has to follow a Toni Myers space film?” It got a big laugh, and I heard Mrs. Myers laugh quite loudly, and realized she was sitting pretty close to the podium with other high-level people from Disney and IMAX.

I looked back up to the packed theater and casually said…”What’s up guys? I’m Joey Shanks. Here’s my idea…” I made my pitch and managed to keep it short and simple. If you went over two minutes, they would just dim the lights and start the film like what they do at the Oscars during the acceptance speeches.

I mentioned that everything they will see was captured in-camera and that anyone can perform these same experiments with items they have in their kitchen. The end goal for this film is to have people coming out of the theater realizing the Cosmos isn’t some far-off place that’s beyond reach. It’s something close and personal; and it’s happening right before our very eyes.
I stepped away from the podium and into darkness as the lights dimmed and our five minute concept film for “Creating the Cosmos” was projected in 4K via IMAX’s newest laser system.  It looked and sounded great – just like it did in rehearsal. And the sound wasn’t too loud. David Keiglhley was right about how a packed theater changes the acoustics for the better.

“Creating the Cosmos” played like a short film, and was different from every other presentation in-terms of content and style. I had two different cuts and decided to use the more experimental version. I was proud that I pulled it off from a technical standpoint, but I was concerned that some in the audience might not “get it.”

I walked back to my seat in the dead center of theater to watch the remaining four films. I was so relieved it was over, just wanting to enjoy seeing more movies on this massive 80 foot screen.

The film after mine was “Carrier,” a film about life aboard an aircraft carrier.  It was a powerful sequence that felt like the opening of “Top Gun” on steroids. Of course, fighter jets were very cool, and I was once again amazed at what I was watching. “Carrier” is directed by Stephen Low, who has directed many giant screen films including “Rocky Mountain Express” which won best GSCA film of 2012.

I was “sandwiched” between two films with budgets in the millions and accomplished directors at the helm. I thought to myself – they must have really liked my film to put me right in the middle; or hated it and wanted to crush my dreams by showing how my DIY approach just won’t cut it on the giant screen.

The rest of conference went well, and I learned many things and met lots of talented people in the industry. I even ran into Toni Myers the next day in line at Starbucks; and she said she had been looking for me. She wanted to connect me with astronaut and scientist who performs the same kinds of experiments I do, but in micro-gravity. A sequence of “Creating the Cosmos” deals with fluid dynamics in micro-gravity and it can’t be done in my studio-shed.

Having a contact like this could be a game changer for the film. I also got to see some 8K footage for dome and planetarium theaters and was blown away by the format and the sense of immersion it gives you. Dome theaters account for 50% of box office revenue for the giant screen market. So some Shanks FX “DIY” episodes on creating content for dome and planetarium theaters may be a winner.
The feedback I got was mostly positive and what people were most impressed with was the idea of showing real world science and inspiring people to experiment when they get home. There were some suggestions too. Several people mentioned they wanted less of me in the film; and that I revealed the “magic trick” too soon.

I fully understand that critique, but at least they said it was “magic.” Was “Creating the Cosmos” picked up by a major studio? No, not yet anyway! 

Many new filmmakers come to these conferences to present their films and never come back. Large format cinema is such an exotic realm of movie-making, that it’s impossible to get a handle on it right away. The only way to become proficient is to get to know the people in the industry and seek out advice and criticism.

I did come away with reassurances that the visual DIY science that Shanks FX brings to the web can work on the giant screen, but it needs to be packaged in a story that will engage people of all ages.

And on the plane ride home, I came up with the concept of the kitchen becoming the setting for the story; and things in the kitchen magically coming to life – similar to my first stop-motion short film “Wiggle Room.” 
In the new “Creating the Cosmos,” the “ingredients” needed for an experiment can become characters. The milk, dry ice, food coloring and hand soap can all come to life as characters. Although I regretted that I didn’t present this narrative arc while at conference, I was excited to bring the story together on the way home.

So now I’m back at my home-base, creating more Shanks FX episodes and trying to fine-tune the story and interactive experience for “Creating the Cosmos.” Regardless of what comes of the film, not many filmmakers can say they got to present their film/concept to a packed theater of industry professionals on the second largest screen in North America.

I compare it to a minor league baseball player being called up to the majors for his first major league game; and I didn’t strike-out at my first time at bat. Will Joey Shanks get called back up to the big leagues? Who knows? But just getting this chance was a thrilling experience; and only fuels the fire for more.

Creator of the Webby Award winning web series Shanks FX (2015 Best How-To / DIY) which shows how simple household physics can create out-of-this world cosmic visuals.  ShanksFX has over 30,000 YouTube subscribers and has been featured by The Hollywood Reporter, USA Today, Colossal, Gizmodo, Geek Magazine and has received two Vimeo Staff picks. Shanks has been teaching summer film camps since 2006 for both documentaries and special effects. His stop-motion film “Wiggle Room” (2012) won multiple film festivals. 

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