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My thoughts on Fan Films

July 22, 2008

So I’ve had some people actually asking me where I’ve been, why I haven’t been updating my blog as much. Which is a little silly, seeing as how I frequently check in and explain, and the story never changes. However, while I’m sure it sounds like I’ve got a lot on my plate — and I do — one project in particular is the focal point of my time, around which the rest of the work I’m doing currently orbits. That project is the fan film, Sandrima Rising.

I know that I’ve been vague and avoided mentioning it too much until now, to the extent that it’s more than likely sounded like a project happening somewhere in the background. The main reason being that I’ve seen too many fan films get destroyed by long-term hype, so I advised the producers that it would be good to wait until we’re fairly far along into post before we start talking about it. But we’re getting pretty deep into the final stages of post, and I’ve been given the go-ahead to talk a little about the project.

So I’m going to do so — in my next post. Before that, though, I’d like to talk a little about fan films in general.

As I write this, I am counting down the days until Comic Con, and the Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge, formerly the Star Wars Fan Film Awards. I don’t know why they changed the name, but they revamp the contest just about every time. As part of the contest, George Lucas himself views all the finalists and selects his favorite for a special award. RvD2 is entered in the competition as a finalist, and so whatever happens, we know for certain that by 8:30 PM on July 24, 2008, George Lucas has seen RvD2 at least once.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m not going to get into the broad history of fan films, because I don’t know it. If you’re interested in up-to-date as well as retrospective fan film news and postings, check out Clive Young’s site Fan Cinema Today, as well as his upcoming book, Homemade Hollywood.

What I plan to talk about, instead, is how I wound up getting into fan films, and why I think they’re important.

To some extent I’ve always been interested in filmmaking, although prior to the digital revolution it seemed totally inaccessible to the average person, and so the idea of becoming a filmmaker myself never actively entered my mind. Even when the modern breed of fan films first came along, with Troops, I didn’t really think “Hey, I could do that.” It wasn’t until I saw my first fan-made lightsaber fight that I sat up and took notice.

As I mentioned back when I wrote my love letter to Ghostbusters, my first feature-length script was a fan script for Ghostbusters 3. After watching The Phantom Menace, I began to write another fan script, this one in the Star Wars milieu.1

Like Ghostbusters 3, it was only intended to be a script. Some stories want to be told as short stories, some as novels, and some want to be screenplays. This one wanted to be a screenplay. Regardless, it never really occurred to me to make the film myself.

Until, that is, I saw “The New World,” a lightsaber fight by the original saber master, Clay Kronke. To be more precise, what I saw was the effects test that preceded “The New World”, which for some reason was called the “Matrix Test”. I say for some reason because it bore no resemblance to The Matrix, other than I guess it was two guys sparring. The choreography was ripped directly off of Phantom Menace, the music was “Duel of the Fates”, and it was sped up in post.

But the lightsabers looked awesome.

And it was at that moment that I realized: this script didn’t have to stay a script. I could make this movie.

I won’t bore you with the gory details of my ill-fated feature-length fan film — another blog another day, perhaps — but suffice it to say that by the time production folded indefinitely, I had spent money intended to buy a car on a camera2, and racked up another $10,000 or so in debt besides, which I only recently paid off with the help of the next project I have said I will be discussing in my next post. I spent half of my high school and all of my college experience frequently sitting in front of a computer, more often than not rotoscoping lightsabers. There were points where I wouldn’t — months at a time — but eventually I would get back to it. Not just the abandoned feature, but numerous other fan film projects with which I was involved.

And all in all, I think it was worth it.

The obvious reason for that would be RvD and RvD2, but this goes back beyond those films. What working on fan films did for me was to awaken in me the desire to make films — and the understanding that I could make films. I didn’t need anyone’s permission. I didn’t need anyone’s money. Both things help, of course, but as long as I have a camera and a computer, I have a movie.

The fact of working within Star Wars specifically instilled me with (probably altogether too much) confidence. Here you have a world that hundreds of people spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars to create — and I’m doing it from home. The scope is more limited, perhaps, and the effects not quite as polished, but the movie’s getting made. The story is getting told.

RvD and RvD2 have gotten attention, and that attention has gotten both myself and Ryan careers doing what we want to do (mine admittedly a slower burn than his — he was nominated for another Emmy this last week!), but I really count the less concrete impact of the confidence I mentioned earlier as the most important thing I have gained from working in fan films.

Now, as to why I believe that fan films are important just in general.

For one thing, they act as cinematic training wheels. The blank page can be daunting when attempting to write a script (or anything else –a blog post for instance). To have to create a world with its own internal rules, characters with history, situations, alliances and enmities…it all stacks up until one would rather just give up and go play Rock Band. But when the rules and designs and locations and broad-stroke characters are already defined for you, well then you’re ahead of the curve. You can mold the clay without having to have dug it up yourself.

You still have to create new material — conflict, new characters — but you can do so in familiar territory. One doesn’t want to spend an entire career doing this kind of thing, but as a start? A golden opportunity to start experimenting creatively. You’ve got boundaries that prevent you from screwing up too much, and you start to understand, if you decide you must break an established rule, why that rule is there and what purpose breaking it serves.

I’ve heard it said that if you want to learn to write well, sit down and copy a book you like. I did that when I was learning to write short stories (a few times unethically, as I believe my grade-school teachers suspected but could never confirm) and, ethical quandaries aside, I do believe it helped me out when I finally came to flying off on my own with my own writing. You learn by doing. Even without consciously thinking about it you get a sense of why things work when they are structured a certain way, why they ring hollow when structured another. It, to sound like a hippie for a moment, expands your mind.3

And that’s what I believe fan films can accomplish for a filmmaker. Play with what already exists, get an understanding of why things are done the way they are. Make mistakes in a creatively “safe” environment. And learn, and grow.

We talk about fan films like they’re some new, crazy, Web 2.0, Age of You Tube thing, but it seems to me like this has already always been the case. How many filmmakers talk about how they saw [movie that influenced them] and ran home and picked up the Super-8 camera and shot themselves and their little brother as Batman/Sam Spade/James Bond/Blob Victim #3/whatever? Sure, those projects were never widely shared in the pre-internet age, and probably long since have disappeared from the face of the Earth. But the fact is that it starts with imitation. Then it moves to innovation.

On top of that, fan films, quite frankly, make good business sense. You’ve got people who are so damned enthralled — obsessed, even — with something you’ve made that they have thrown their passion into creating an homage, into extending and engaging with your creation. That’s publicity if it’s nothing else. That’s people being reminded of your product.

Some businesses don’t get this. They send Cease and Desist orders to stop Little Jimmy from playing at Spider-Man (on camera) in his backyard.

But George Lucas, whatever else he may be, is a shrewd businessman. He knows fan films are out there, and he knows that they help him, not hurt him. He was the first to “officially” recognize them, initially only the safe-under-fair-use parodies, but recently even then infringement-grey-area “serious fan fiction” films. He could C&D — even sue — any one of them if he really wanted to. But you catch more flies with honey…

In fact, Lucasfilm even made an unprecedented move earlier this year in SUPPORTING, essentially, infringement of their copyright. Lucasfilm discovered that material from Hyperspace — the official site’s “Exclusive Content” subscription service — had been posted to YouTube. They asked YouTube to remove said content, and YouTube, in a fit of pique brought on by way too many other active or threatened lawsuits circling at the time, proceeded to remove all content that had anything at all to do with Star Wars. The outcry from fans was massive — and Lucasfilm actually stepped up and said “No no, only the Hyperspace stuff. The rest is okay. Put it back.”

Say what you will about Lucas the filmmaker (as I have been known to do), but he “gets it” when it comes to fan films. Although I do think there is still a line.

Which will bring us, tomorrow, to Sandrima Rising.

  1. As one of the regulars over at recently posted: “I was just asked an interesting question – “What film changed your life?”. The answer horrifies me – the film that has quite literally changed my life is The Phantom Menace.” I, too, am horrified that any interview for the rest of my career that asks me that question, that’s how I’ll have to answer, and then spend five minutes making it clear that I do not in any way consider it a good movie, nor one that actively influences my filmmaking.
  2. I got in an accident and the car was written off as totalled. I got $7000 from the insurance company. $5500 went to a PAL-standard Canon XL-1, in order to get close to a 24p image (this was about a year before the DVX100 hit the market), $1500 went to a death-trap of a car that nonetheless lasted me about 5 years before eventually the engine fell out on the freeway.
  3. Even still, I find that if I am stuck for writing, I will pick up a book whose prose I admire and just copy the text from page to processor. I will of course immediately erase it all, but it gets the juices flowing without expending creative energy ramming up against a wall.

  1. King Kool permalink

    My thoughts exactly. I spend a year and a half making an hour-long farcial Matrix prequel. It’s extremely strange, and even two years after I finished it, I can barely watch it without wincing (mainly because I had to play the main character). But I made a lot of friends doing it, and I learned a great deal.

    I make more straightforward parodies now, rather than “fan fiction” style shorts, but the prequel still stands as the most impressive achievement in my life, something I did before I knew it was impossible.

    Oddly enough, I think that fan-fiction projects might have a greater rate of success than the people who want to make something that can be taken more seriously. I see a few friends wanting to make something big as their first project and I warn them, “Don’t start by making a feature; start with a short.” One friend didn’t listen and the project never got off the ground. It was too much. Everyone wants what they do to be something different and groundbreaking, and that’s a tall order even for someone with experience.

    With a fanfiction project, you kinda admit that you want your project to be like something pre-existing. My goal with my Matrix prequel is to make something that was at least similar to the Matrix. It’s like copying drawings out of a comic book or imitating cartoon voices or something or telling jokes from a joke book. You learn how to do it the way someone else does it, and then you can do it the way you want to do it once you know the basics.

  2. Daniel Broadway permalink

    Yeah, fanfilms are cool. May they live on forever.

  3. Brett permalink

    Thank you for several hours worth of fascinated clicking, reading and watching (from the links in your post).

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