Last weekend I hooked up an old Western Digital external hard drive I found under my bedroom TV stand. On the ancient drive I came across a copy of my beginning filmmaking project from college. It’s a short film titled I Love You Grandpa. The project was shot on 16mm film negative. It made me remember how awesome it was to shoot on film. Holding a new can of 16mm Kodak Vision negative was like brick of gold was resting in your palms. The excitement you felt when finally seeing a copy of it and how all of your shots turned out, was like opening presents on your birthday. As a broke college student, there was no such thing as dailies or rushes. You didn’t get to see what you filmed until after you were done shooting the entire project and took it to the lab to get developed. Even then it wasn’t until you scratched up enough cash to schedule a TeleCine appointment to transfer you film print to DV tape so you could view and edit it.
In case you’re not sure what TeleCine is, it’s the process where you sit in a room with a Color Technician and he plays your film back and tweaks the colors of the film to your liking. The room is dark, has a large monitor and a control board where the tech sits. You sit back and watch the footage with giving the tech instructions to modify the look of the footage to your liking. This is commonly done with the Director and the Director of Photography together. Now, this TeleCine process can be very expensive. You book the room per hour and back in the day it was hundreds of dollars per. So, being broke and all, we would get the one-pass special at Magic Film. This gave you one shot to correct the colors on the fly. It was intense and exciting.
Not to get too dense with film school rants but just to clarify. Film has a certain amount of color space. Just like shooting pictures in high resolution on your DSLR cameras. When you insert pictures or film into color correction programs you are given the ability to modify colors, contrast, shadows, etc. This gives the photographer or filmmaker the allowance to create mood in the final product. Color correction has come so far in the last 10 years that it’s simply amazing what you can do with a camera and some time.
This is a great example of Keanu Reeves in the Matrix. This is what the film negative captured at the bottom verse the final product after color correction (top).
Let’s get back to the topic of this post and start from the beginning. I went to film school at Cal State Long Beach. In our beginning filmmaking class those who wanted to direct a film had to write a script and submit it to the teacher. She would then select the films that were to be made and assign us a crew. My script was selected to film, as were most of my classmates as long as it wasn’t completely absurd. Our guidelines were this: We had to shoot on 16mm film-non sync. This means we couldn’t record sound on set. We also had to digitize the final print so we could edit using Final Cut Pro or Avid. The days of editing a physical piece of film were gone.
I came up with my story idea while high on Vicodin. I had wisdom teeth removed during this time and had a bottle filled with those little magical marshmallows. Our teacher emphasized that she wanted to see a film with a protagonist that either encounters a conflict or is conflicted with something and seeks a resolution. Seems pretty basic but this was beginning filmmaking so it was all new. I euphorically came up with a story about a naive kid named Jimmy who loved his Grandpa more than anything. When he found out his Grandpa was dying Jimmy desperately needed to find a way to save his grandpa. I Love You Grandpa was born.
Here’s a little fun fact about this film. Our department was notified that Steven Spielberg was secretly enrolled in film classes for the past year or so and was going to be graduating and attending the ceremony. What? This stems from a story long ago when Spielberg went to CSULB and an English professor told him he would never make it in the film business. Spielberg quit CSULB and went on the becoming who he is today. He resented that teacher so much. When the English professor retired Spielberg secretly enrolled in courses (not ever attending any of them) to get his degree. Spielberg’s graduation was the semester after I made I Love You Grandpa. I went to the graduation and saw him accepting his diploma. He had a large number of cops and security guards around him so he didn’t get bum rushed. I flanked the back of the graduation stage thinking that after he gets his diploma he’s heading home and not going back to his seat. Well, that turned out to be the case and there he was. The master of cinema standing 50 feet from me without any security team. I B-lined right to him as his plain-clothed escorts approached and pulled a copy of I Love You Grandpa from my backpack and said, “Mr. Spielberg, congrats, this is a copy of my student film.” He shook my hand and accepted the copy. I was stunned and couldn’t believe what just happened. That was it, I was in! I had my telephone number all over the tape because I had planned to do this for the past week.
Sure enough, he never called. My friends wanted to find the route his car left because they were sure my video was still on the side of the road where he tossed it out the window. This film is not Spielberg Approved.