"Alcatraz" production journal

Pitching Alcatraz

Alcatraz prison's eerie presence in the San Francisco Bay is a constant reminder that it once housed some of our nation's worst criminals. A few years ago I toured the prison and brought my camera along to shoot some video and photos.

If you've ever taken the Alcatraz tour you know how crowded it gets- and it's like that every day. The one chance I had to visit, it was sold-out up until the last ferry over to the island. Although there wasn't much time to finish the audio-guided tour, I was one of the last to leave which allowed me to get some nice empty wide-shots. Most of the time I was framing-out crowds of people because I wanted to capture the prison's desolate condition to give the viewer a sense of what it felt like inside those walls.

At the time I had just read Jim Quillen's memoir, "Alcatraz From Inside," and was so fascinated with his accounts as an inmate that I wanted to create my own video-adaptation to his book. Nothing had been produced to tell Quillen's life-story, so I edited together some of the footage I shot with sound-bites featured from the audio-tour.

I've always thought Quillen's book- along with Whitey Thompson's "Last Train To Alcatraz" and Jim Albright's "Last Guard Out" would make interesting dramas, perhaps even an entertaining miniseries altogether. Much like HBO's Band of Brothers and The Pacific were based on historical and personal accounts of those fighting within Easy Company during World War II, this series would focus on Alcatraz's history as a prison told through the perspectives of the inmates (Quillen, Thompson) and guards (Albright).

Even the way a series like Tremé captures the people and culture of New Orleans through certain characters, Alcatraz could tell the story of the the prison through the lives of those who inhabited the island- whether they were prisoners or family of the guards working there.

Throughout these accounts, the series would feature other major characters- some of the more infamous prisoners like Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Robert "Birdman" Stroud, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis; place them within the backdrop of one of the toughest prisons of all-time, which was eventually shut down because of exceeding costs and amidst rumors of inhumane prisoner treatment (ironically, an issue that still exists in some prisons today).

Even more fascinating are the detailed accounts of Alcatraz's most notorious prison breaks.

The bloody Battle for Alcatraz which ended in military intervention after three inmates took over the prison; and the suspenseful escape where another three inmates left paper maché dummies in their beds to distract the guards while they climbed out from holes dug through their cell-walls and into the air-duct system, eventually out onto the roof.

The history-nerd side of me finds these memoirs and stories interesting, but the film-geek part of me also sees the entertainment value within them. None of this is to imply that past shows or movies based on the prison haven't been entertaining, but I just think Alcatraz could use an updated fresh-take, based more on the history and lives of those who inhabited the island.

Of course, a project like this would help to be produced by likes of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, or David Simon and Eric Overmyer, and released as a miniseries on HBO...but for now let's start with this video and get a feeling for how I think it could look.

"Bonfire" production journal

From Sunrises to Sunsets

For as long as I've been taking pictures of the sunrise, I've always wanted to shoot time-lapses.

A good friend approached me about doing a music video for he and his brother's new band, ScreamCreature. The band- comprised of my bud Rob, his brother Chris Culos (O.A.R.) and Danny Chaimson (Gold Coast All-Stars), was set to release their first single, "Bonfire," and wanted a video to go along with it on their website and social media accounts.

I was game, but there was the important fact that Rob was in San Francisco, Chris was on tour, Danny was in Chicago, and I was here in NC.

No problem- music videos don't always have to feature the band. Rob and I emailed back and forth on some ideas on how to make this work from across the country. At the heart of "Bonfire" was a love-song, but he wanted to make the video about something other than the typical guy and a girl love-story. 

Since we were limited with money, equipment and short on time, I had to figure-out something that I could shoot and edit together on my own. When thinking outside the love-story theme, Rob suggested the idea of using nature/beauty shots or ephemeral imagery. This was perfect.

For a while I wanted to create time-lapses from the sunrises I see every morning, capturing the beauty about them.* Each day is different from the next- the way the clouds move with the rising sun, changing colors across the sky, and how fast it all occurs are all what makes it worth setting an early alarm for, and finding the ideal evening sunset location.

Shot over the course of a week, I biked around to some of my favorite spots on Wrightsville Beach, set-up my camera and enjoyed the scenery. I was lucky to work with a variety of partly-cloudy days and plenty of sunlight. When I wasn't outside chasing the sun and shooting time-lapses, I was home off-loading cards and exporting files. By the end of the week I had taken over 13,000 pictures from twenty different locations around the island.

After a few rough-cuts of the video, the band agreed that it looked good but still needed more of an identity- something that made it feel like a ScreamCreature video. The early edits helped to establish a visual-tone that went well with the music, but what we realized it lacked was a human element after-all. 

The visuals were strong enough to carry the ephemeral theme we established early on, but I still wanted to avoid the love-story idea. Rather than introduce a couple in love, I wanted to use a lone-female character and keep the idea of her presence ambiguous so that it raised more questions than it answered.

I enlisted the help of my girlfriend and filmed her early one morning in the beach access as the sun was rising. Keeping with the theme of her character being ambiguous, I had a solid direction in mind. I filmed Sarah walking through the Access, never focussing on her facial features but instead kept her silhouetted as the sun rose above the dunes. Throughout the video, her character drifts further away from the camera alluding to the fact she was growing distant from us.

Rather than explicitly show scenes of a guy and girl falling in/out of love, I wanted these new shots combined with the time-lapse footage to create a sense of love lost, keeping with the lyrical theme of "Bonfire."

Not only did this project give me the chance to film and edit time-lapses and mess around with different frame-rates and speeds, but it also challenged me visually as a filmmaker. The final video had a lot of stylized edits that helped bring something more to my work that wasn't there before, and it was through working back-forth with Rob and the band's notes that we found the love-story and it finally became a ScreamCreature music video.

* click here to view more photos of my daily sunrises

UPDATE: Bonfire was selected to play the 20th Annual Cucalorus Film Festival, click here for more!

"Teaming" production journal

Animated High-Fives and Teamwork

High-fives and fist-bumps have always been a great celebratory expression of teamwork within sports, so why not also in the healthcare setting?

The objective of my latest animation was to highlight the importance of teamwork within the aging and disabled healthcare community. Partnered with the Long-Term Care Educational Foundation, my idea was to feature a short series of high-fives and fist-bumps (aka "daps") being exchanged among members of a medical and social service team, all celebrating a successful doctors appointment with their patient- Gramma Lois. 

Gramma's Care Team (left-right) - nurse, physicians assistant, doctor, physical therapist, social worker 

When looking for high-five and fist-bump inspiration, I used the "This is Sports Centercommercial where Robinson Cano walks around the ESPN office, high-fiving staff members the same way he does his Yankee teammates.

What I enjoyed about this were the intricacies of the high-fives and how well they were executed. Each exchange, different than the other, was done with such confidence they gave the impression of a well-run team working together. The familiarity between Cano and his co-workers was what I wanted to convey among the medical team and Lois in my animation.

While animating and illustrating, another commercial that caught my attention was the WatchESPN "Clutch" campaign from 72andSunny. The idea was two guys high-fiving and celebrating how "clutch" it was to be able to watch college hoops anytime via their WatchESPN app. As simple as it is, it's one of my favorite commercials outside ESPN's "This Is Sportscenter" campaign.

The style in which the commercial's high-fives and fist-bumps were animated resembled what I had in mind for the Teaming animation- short, simple movements with the detail being in the routine. Pictured below are members of the medical and social service team exchanging a fist-bump in the hallway, and Gramma Lois checking-out with the receptionist.

Nurse and Doctor exchanging daps

Gramma Lois and the Receptionist celebrating a good doctors appointment

Physical Therapist and Doctor locking-it-up

It was important that the routines be detailed enough where there was some variety in the hand-shakes and daps. With eight characters there was a lot to cover, but that made room for more to choose from. Below are some early sketches/storyboards where you can see some of the early ideas coming together- leg daps did not make the cut, unfortunately. 

Storyboard sketch - detail on the action

Storyboard sketch- character blocking

Storyboard sketch - detail page-turn motion

Layered wireframe image of Reception desk

Whether it's sports, health care or any other industry, high-fives and fist-bumps will always been viewed as a celebratory gesture. It is in the details of the exchange where you notice the essence of teamwork. With each unique routine comes a pride in something practiced and perfected over time.

The next time you watch a baseball or basketball game, keep an eye-out for the high-fives and fist-bumps exchanged among teammates and coaches. You may notice more teamwork going-on behind the action than you think.