Lead animators behind Big Hero 6 on making Baymax and careers in animation

November
11
2014

Disney Animation’s Big Hero 6 raked in one of the biggest opening weekend box offices ever for a Disney film, $56.2 million. When audiences screened the blockbuster at Savannah Film Festival several weeks before the official release, they also heard from a couple of the heroes behind the film. Savannah College of Art and Design alumni Zach Parrish (B.F.A., animation, 2007), head of animation at Disney, and animation supervisor Nathan Engelhardt (B.F.A., animation, 2007) let festival-goers in on how they made the magic happen. Afterward they sat down with SCAD founder and president Paula Wallace to discuss their role in the movie and getting their start in the industry. Here’s an excerpt of her conversation with them, followed by a portion of the extended interview.

President Wallace: How did you know that animation would be your career?

Zach Parrish: I went and saw Monsters, Inc. with some friends. I think I was in high school and I realized that I felt something emotional for Mike Wazowski, who’s the little green one-eyed character. When I realized that I had an emotional response to something that I absolutely knew definitively was not real and that someone made me feel that way, that was kind of a magic where I was like, “I want to be the guy who makes that happen.” So that’s when I started looking at schools and eventually chose SCAD.

Nathan Engelhardt: I actually stumbled upon this game called “The Neverhood,” and it was a stop motion animated game. It was like a point and click action adventure and I remember wanting to play the game until I got to the cut scenes. So they would put in little cut scenes, like animated shorts almost, and every time I was like, “Oh yes, here comes the cut scene.” I started realizing that – I like this and maybe I can start making some of my own. I think I fell in love with animation on a very primitive basic level when I saw this character waving back at me. I think I felt the same thing you felt where it’s like I created this thing that’s waving to me and I was just in a trance and I never looked back.

PW: You met when you were here as students at SCAD.  Was there any certain professor or a class that made a particular impact on you?

ZP: We actually helped create a class, an independent studies class, just for Nathan’s project. I saw this poster for people who wanted to help out on a project called Cereal Killers and I was immediately in. I gave Nathan a call. We met up. 

NE: It was an incredible experience because Zach was so enthusiastic. I was just like, “Man, this guy. He knows what he’s doing.” He took some of the characters, very rough early character rigs that we had been building, and he just started creating the first tests. I was like, “Wow, they’re moving. This could actually work.”

We didn’t really know it at the time, but we were really learning how to collaborate as a team. We were kind of experimenting with the pipeline that we would become so familiar with down the road. We did everything from design and writing, pen and paper, all the way to the final renders, even the sounds. I mean we had a full spectrum.

ZP: We had no idea what we were doing when we started.

NE: But it really did help groom us, I feel, in a way to understand the pipeline and collaboration with other artists and being able to give direction and even…

ZP: Receive direction.

NE: And be able to just do that and learn and then regurgitate that later when we became supervisors. You know, that was a really cool experience.

PW: How do you feel that your education at SCAD helped prepare you to work at such an iconic and innovative studio as Disney?

ZP: Oh man. I think what’s amazing about the education at SCAD is the breadth. Just like that class where we got to touch the entire production pipeline and see where we wanted to fit in and to understand how to utilize it, that has been huge for us. I brought Nathan in for Wreck-it Ralph when I was an animation supervisor, and we could just kind of jump in and do a lot of pieces of the pipeline that some people who are trained just in animation can’t do.

Because of the breadth of our education, as far as history, design and the whole spectrum that goes into it, not just animation, I think we’re allowed to be a bigger part of the pipeline that helps the supervisors as well since a lot of our job is working interdepartmentally and giving notes on models and rigs and whatever the case may be. We have enough of the general understanding to be able to participate in that, as well as our specialized focus in animation.

NE: I feel SCAD really creates artists. There are a lot of trade schools out there that will create specialized tasks and abilities, whereas, to Zach’s point, you get this well-rounded artistic education. It all really helped create the kind of artist that we are today and it’s all thanks to that program.

PW: Do you know what makes me so happy is to see you guys supporting each other, all SCAD graduates out there helping each other and giving opportunities to each other and also, as you said, critiquing each other and just making each other better, but being a great support in the whole profession.

ZP: That was also one of the things we talked about when we came and talked to SCAD freshmen. A huge component to becoming a professional artist are those interpersonal skills, because you can be the most talented person in the world, but if you can’t support other people, if you can’t take feedback, if you can’t communicate, no one’s going to work with you, and so that’s definitely something that I’m still learning and that we all go through every day.

PW: That makes me very proud. What’s been the most challenging character or scene that you’ve created so far?

NE: Animating Baymax was quite a challenge, not just to be able to give feedback, but also for the animators because animators are so used – I mean you get some of the top level talent in that studio that’s so used to all the principles of animation and overlap and squash and stretch and then we’re like, “Take it all out.” 

ZP: Yeah, don’t do anything.

NE: Don’t do any of it, you know, and we coined the term “unimating” for Baymax or that’s really just stripping out all the things that animators are used to putting in, and that was really great because that allowed the audience to project their own emotions onto this blank canvas of sorts. We found that even just a little blink and head tilt was ten times cuter than any extraneous body movement, like unnecessary stuff that really just didn’t plus the scene in any way and really was an exercise in restraint the whole time.

ZP: We’re so used to going all out on the animation and to say like, “I haven’t actually moved him yet.”  We’re like, “You did it. You did it. You nailed it.” For me personally, I had a couple of scenes in Tangled that were a super challenge. I mean Glen Keane was on that show. He’s one of my idols in animation, and John Kahrs was my animation supervisor, and those guys are rock stars. So the bar was set so high on that film and I was new to the studio and I was terrified and I was fortunate enough to get a run of shots where Flynn has a frying pan and he’s knocking out the guards and he’s fighting a horse and…

PW: The horse, the horse was great.

ZP: The challenge was I’d never really animated a quadruped. Let alone a quadruped with a sword in his mouth fighting a guy with a frying pan who’s falling down…

PW: What? You haven’t done that?

ZP: Surprisingly enough, that was my first time, and so that was one where I was really scratching my head going, “I don’t know if I can pull this off.” I was so intimidated, but again that support structure. You know, Disney was super-helpful and I think the scenes turned out okay.

PW: So give us an insider’s perspective on working at the legendary Disney Studios.  What’s it like?

ZP: It’s great.

NE: I mean of course, coming up to the gates on your first day and it’s got the Mickey wrought iron gates and you see the big hat and it’s a very emotional kind of experience, but I feel like it didn’t really hit home until I went to Disneyland of all places…

ZP: Yes.

NE: I was walking around and you see these characters and you see that these films lived on much longer past when they initially came out, and you see this like echo of artistry and talent that was done on this film like years back. Here’s the Beast walking around in the park and it’s like, “This is going to be forever.” I mean you have this in the back of your head where it’s just like, “Wow.” What we’re doing at the Walt Disney Animation Studios is very special and I think…

ZP: I had the exact same experience last winter. We didn’t unfortunately get to work on Frozen because we started on Big Hero 6 so early. But the whole animation department…

PW: A lot of SCAD graduates did.

ZP: There were a lot of SCAD graduates on Frozen for sure.

But the whole animation department, we went to Disneyland and there’s a little girl on a guy’s shoulders and when she was watching “Let It Go,” that’s the Elsa song, she was imitating every move that Elsa did, even her little walk and everything. She’s on her dad’s shoulders and it’s crazy because that was like a firsthand experience of what we do. You know, it’s fun for us, but when you start seeing kids have that emotional response, it’s like, “Oh crap, that was me. I did that.” You know, I had that emotional response and now we’re creating that emotional response and so…

NE: Even crazier when it was your shot. 

ZP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

NE: Being the animator she’s imitating, too.

ZP: Yeah, exactly.

NE: It makes me feel like I’m back at that desk experimenting with stop motion animation for the first time. Do you know what I mean? I feel like we are always trying to get back to where it’s that initial excitement for what we do. And I feel like the great thing about Disney is that it’s constantly there and you’re constantly re-feeling that because of how – it’s all the inspirational artwork on the walls, you know, they’re constantly doing things to try to keep the energy, the creative energy high.

ZP: And that’s the other thing about just the actual workplace itself is the collaboration; inspiring one another, people are constantly giving talks on things that they’re just interested in. We do sort of like TED Talks. It could be a photography thing, a sculpture thing, anything that is just inspiring as far as an art form is concerned, and we talk about ourselves. Once a month, the animators get together and we talk about how we came to be at Disney and what inspired us as children. It’s a really fun, super-collaborative environment. So it’s the best I’ve ever had for sure.

PW: Yes, and like SCAD, you’re part of something bigger.

ZP: Exactly.

PW: I visited Hong Kong Disney and I saw all these children, just into characters and imitating…

NE: Yes, it goes around the world.

ZP: It’s just amazing.  It’s amazing. Yes, Big Hero 6 opened in Russia already and…

PW: Wow!

ZP: Yes, and it had one of its biggest weekends ever in Russia because it came out two weeks before it came out in the United States, and so it’s just crazy. I start hearing reviews from people who love it all over the world already. It’s a weird experience because it feels like a small community when we’re working on it. It feels like a small team, and then when the world starts seeing - there’s marketing that’s on buses and stuff, it feels like they took the movie and now it’s just running away, but it’s really cool.

NE: Zach and I, on multiple occasions were like, “Does this feel like when we’re working back on Cereal Killers?” Where it felt like we’re in SCAD and for a long time, we’re actually like really in the same office and, you know, we’re passing flash drives back and forth to each other, making sizzle pieces, you know, the proof of concept kind of stuff, very gorilla style animation, and it’s so many times we could look back fondly on those late nights in Montgomery Hall trying to learn animation.

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Getting down to business at Savannah Film Festival

October
30
2014

Don’t let the 90 screenings at Savannah Film Festival fool you. Savannah College of Art and Design’s week-long celebration of film is about more than art. It’s about the transactions and preparation that make it possible for us to experience the art. It’s about business: the elephant in most festival venues this week. Or if you’re film student Yang Xiao (M.F.A., film and television student), it’s the spaceship.

Yang participated in one of the many intimate meetings between students and industry that transpire during Savannah Film Festival. He shared pictures of the spaceship set he built for his thesis movie, TROY, with the co-founder and director of the SXSW Festival Louis Black and Austin media mogul Robert Walker.

Yang’s bold gesture wasn’t uninvited. It was an opportune illustration of what Robert and Louis, who helped established SXSW as of one of the world’s most successful platforms for music and film, were there to discuss: entrepreneurship. Robert, Louis and other heavyweights in the business came to SCAD to tell these emerging filmmakers not how to get a job, but how to make their own. To them, the spaceship represents the kind of hustle, savvy and radical ambition it takes to make it big in the film business today.

SXSW co-founder Louis Black with SCAD film students Tristan Aronovich and Amanda Maya.

A huddle with a founder of SXSW

The striking thing about what Louis did by turning SXSW - a small music festival started by a few friends - into a multi-media juggernaut generating $300 million in revenue for Austin, Texas, is that there were more barriers to success back when it was getting started. There was no crowdfunding, no Facebook, no smart phones. They solved their problems of having zero money and zero patrons with innovative solutions that are instructive for film students. Even though it’s easier for this generation to make their own empires, and maybe even inevitable given how technology has revolutionized filmmaking, aspiring directors, writers and producers can still learn from the old fashioned practices that turned Austin into the little film empire that could.

Lesson: Ingenuity first, money second
Chief among the lessons from the case study of Austin’s rise in the film industry is that, as Louis and Robert tell it, money makes it easier, but having no money makes you hustle. In their experience, low cash flow ultimately stimulates a more successful outcome because you have to maximize your resources.

When you’re starting out and you don’t have money and you want to make things happen, you learn lessons that stick with you your whole life.
-Louis Black

Robert agreed, “I’m not knocking cash, it’s good. But it’s easy to cover up mistakes or to just be lazy and pay someone to do what you should be doing yourself. It kind of zaps your creative abilities sometimes if you’re not careful,” he said.

Because the pair has had plenty of experience improvising, Robert and Louis still let their ideas, not the financing, direct how they approach a project. For example, when they were in need of a larger workspace recently instead of plunking down a bunch of cash they set their sights on a 50-thousand square foot building that the Texas National Guard was preparing to abandon. By working their relationships, they snagged the gem of the property for a whopping ten dollars in monthly rent.

Louis summed up his stories about building SXSW by telling students, “My one skillset is that I know how to visualize.”

Clearly vision doesn’t obviate the need for money, but as these lessons from Austin demonstrate, money is not to be pursued at the expense of it. 

Vinca and Steven at the panel "How Films Recoup."

Show Me the Money

The title of entertainment lawyer Vinca Jarrett’s book and web series, Show Me the F$#!KING Money, would seem to fly in the face of this lesson of vision before money. But actually, according to Vinca, vision and planning are essential to making the money part possible.

Vinca and her business partner, manager-producer Steven Adams, have made it their mission to teach how movies get financed. They produce the web series because the film business has the highest attrition rate of investors, and their goal is to turn that around by creating Warren Buffetts of the film industry: educated investors who understand where they’re putting their money and how movies get made.

In addition to investors, they target rising filmmakers who are looking to break into the business, like the SCAD students who shot five episodes of their educational series at the university’s studio during Savannah Film Festival.

Vinca and Steven had seen enough of their young clients commit career-ending mistakes while making movies, like bankrupting their parents, which could have been avoided if sound business practices had been in place from the start. Here are two of their best practices.

Lesson: Document your partnership
One of the biggest mistakes when starting out, says Vinca, is to rely solely on spoken agreements. You may share a creative vision with your team, but these individuals are still business partners, and you need to formally define that relationship, roles and responsibilities in writing. An absolutely essential first step is to put a deal memo in place, no matter how simple.

“Go away and write the ten things you want to accomplish with each other,” Vinca instructs, and then write the things you’re each going to do to accomplish those things.” An attorney can put your intentions into a deal memo so the partnership has rules to abide by. Then, of course, you must actually play by these rules.

It may seem obvious, but even before this step, Steven and Vinca are quick to point out that filmmakers – just like any other smart person in business- must know or investigate who they’re entering into a business relationship with. The wrong team member can sour a potential movie deal because of a bad reputation or track record. So do your homework.

Lesson: Know your rights
In addition to formalizing your partnership, Vinca and Steven say it’s absolutely critical for filmmakers to secure the rights to the movie they’re making. A lawyer can help you understand the rights you need to secure. You can navigate some of this process on your own - like obtaining a copyright – and then hire a lawyer to do the rest.

Recently her former intern brought her a TV concept and Vinca gave her this advice: Make sure the rights are in the public domain. If they’re not, do a deal with the executive who’s interested in your concept so they can’t steal the idea. Then document the full extent of your idea so that you can copyright it. Even if you do this part by yourself, it’s wise to know when to bring in an attorney to make sure you have a sound foundation of ownership before moving forward with your project.
From left to right, producers David Paterson, Susan Cartsonis, Jane Goldenring and, far right, Alison Owen.

Producing: Tricks of the Trade

The next lessons come from some of the very people who consult Vinca and Steven’s series: movie producers. 

The festival’s annual coffee talk series kicked off with an installment that answered a very common question: What do producers do? The answer - provided by a panel of award-winning producers of films like What Women Want, Bridge to Terabithea, The Giver and Hocus Pocus – was that producers are really the ultimate entrepreneurs.

From inception to distribution a producer’s single focus is working all the factors behind the screen to get the movie made, which requires a ton of improvisation, ingenuity and grit, as any start-up would.

So what can we learn from them? A couple recurring themes emerged that clearly are factors in their success and trademarks of smart entrepreneurship.

Lesson: Be tough and take authority
The perception that the producer is responsible for everything behind the scenes and the director responsible for everything on the screen is generally accurate, shared The Giver’s executive producer Alison Owen. But on a movie, as in business, things don’t always remain this tidy. The panelists agreed that in the cases where the lines of authority blur, it behooves the producer to be tough and to preserve those boundaries in order to maintain their responsibility to investors and to the overall quality of the film. This principle for success is in the vein of ‘if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’ And it’s certain these producers would say, so too will your film fail if you don’t create the parameters within which the film can be made and stick to them.

It’s good for film students in particular to practice toughness and authority while they’re still in film school, even if the context in which they make their films doesn’t mirror a real world set. Case in point, Headlong Entertainment producer Susan Cartsonis noted that in most film schools the director maintains the purse strings and the producer’s authority is often eclipsed by that power imbalance. So practice sticking to your guns while you're still in film school, especially if you're an aspiring producer.

Lesson: Wear many hats
Precisely because filmmakers must have a keen sense of authority over their project in order to guide its success, it serves them to borrow another tenant that good entrepreneurs and good producers follow, which is to do everything. Or, at the very least, know a little bit about all of the areas you’ll be managing on your project, even the technical ones.

Bridge to Terabithia producer David Paterson uses the example of how he learned to build sets when he was starting out as an actor, which not only gave him invaluable insights for his movies but, in the case of smaller films, he didn’t have to depend on someone else in this area in order to get the film made.

In other words, a lack of knowledge can make or break your project. So don’t allow a lack of interest on your part to isolate you from learning certain technical aspects of filmmaking. Bringing it back to finances, especially when it comes to the money, all the producers agreed that the line producer should not be the only one who knows their way around a budget.

Finally, in addition to knowing how to do multiple things on a set, a page out of a successful producer’s playbook is to have multiple projects going at one time in order to beat the odds against a project getting made.

The democratization of film, whereby first-time filmmakers are able to leverage social networks and advances in technology to fund and shoot films that can rival those by big studios, means that more films will get made. But it also means there will be more competition. Hopefully these lessons from some of the sharpest business minds at Savannah Film Festival will help your project come out on top.

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Savannah Film Festival rewind: honoree portraits of 2013

October
10
2014

In the midst of the count down to Savannah Film Festival 2014 (Oct. 25 - Nov. 1), a batch of Adam Kuehl’s distinctive portraits of Savannah College of Art and Design's honorees went up in Jen Library. From where the portraits hang in Jen’s study rooms, it’s hard to decipher who is ogling whom. Do the students glance up between chapters to study the faces of the film icons whose paths they want to trace? Or do the filmmakers stare at the students with motionless expression, wishing to trade places with the young creatives poised to make their own mark on the world?

Here's Adam's 2013 portraits, emblems of a week’s worth of the best and latest in film. Just like the festival, the portraits keep getting better. Styling by Amy Zurcher.

Portrait of actress Abigail Bresslin by photographer Adam Kuehl.

"Amy had the clever idea to fill the space from floor to ceiling with Domestic Construction rugs. Abigail was a fan."

Portrait of Alec Baldwin by photographer Adam Kuehl.

 "Alec Baldwin has been to the festival several times, so he knew exactly what to do with Christian Dunbar's (M.F.A., furniture design, 2013) lamp."

Portrait of Alexander Payne by photographer Adam Kuehl.

"Alexander Payne, recipient of the Achievement in Cinema Award, in the newly renovated lobby of Trustees Theater."

Portait of Bruce Dern by photographer Adam Kuehl.

Bruce Dern, a 2006 Savannah Film Festival honoree.

Portait of Candice Accola by photographer Adam Kuehl.

"A candid moment of Candice Accola rocking a pair of earrings by Aimee Petkus (B.F.A., jewelry, 2013) and leather top by Brooke Atwood (M.A., fashion, 2010).

Portrait of Jeremy Irons by photographer Adam Kuehl.

Jeremy Irons, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, sits comfortably in front of a painting ("Untitled") by JenMarie Zeleznak (M.F.A., painting, 2011). His intensity matched the scene Amy created perfectly. The wood wall is actually a small stage that we flipped on its side."

Portrait of Julian Sands by photographer Adam Kuehl.

Julian Sands in front of “Star Chamber” by Summer Wheat (M.F.A., painting, 2005).

Portrait of Natalie Dormer by photographer Adam Kuehl.

Natalie Dormer, recipient of the Discovery Award.

Portrait of Norman Reedus by photographer Adam Kuehl.

Norman Reedus in front of wallpaper designed by Joanne Duran (B.F.A., interior design, 1999).

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Updated: Emerging filmmakers 'see' their dreams come true

June
4
2014

Updated June 4: Congratulations to director Olivia Riley Day and her crew from Savannah College of Art and Design for winning the Sprite Films Fan Favorite Award for the short film “See Your Dreams.” America voted on “See Your Dreams” and five other student films that were finalists in the 2014 Sprite Films competition at sprite.com/films this spring. In return for racking up the most votes by the public, Olivia and the film’s co-producer Akmyrat Tuyliyev will receive a trip to the American Film Institute’s (AFI) film festival in November and a $5,000 donation to SCAD’s film department.

Posted on April 3: Breaking into film requires more than talent. It requires access and visibility. Olivia Riley Day (B.F.A., film and television, senior) from Savannah College of Art and Design found a direct line to both. She's one of six finalists participating in the Sprite Films program for student filmmakers and vying for a chance to win a contract to produce a Sprite branded project.

With her short film “See Your Dreams” up for the world to vote on now through May 15 at sprite.com/films, we delved into what makes director Olivia tick. She and Akmyrat Tuyliyev (B.F.A., film and television, senior), one of the film’s producers, just returned from CinemaCon in Las Vegas, Nev., where "See Your Dreams" was screened for industry leaders.

Olivia and Akmyrat, with the 2014 Sprite Films finalists, meet producer-director Ivan Reitman whose film "Draft Day" will be released on April 11. Photo credit: Michael Buckner/Getty Images.

Thread: Name one “pinch me" moment from CinemaCon?

O: The most unforgettable moment of CinemaCon, and probably my life, was at the awards ceremony. The announcer called my name and I stood while big-name stars actually clapped for me. It was kind of insane, and I still can't believe it happened.

T: What inspired the concept for “See Your Dreams”?

O: Everyone in life has had to overcome challenges, and some people face challenges that they believe are too great to overcome. This story is about believing in yourself and always staying true to your dreams, and if you don't give up, your dreams will one day become a reality.


Olivia and Akmyrat at work on the McDonough, Ga. set of "See Your Dreams."

T: How did you develop your passion for film?

O: I always loved the escape that going to the movies gave me, however I did not realize my passion for film until I went to three and a half years of business school and knew that I needed to express my creative side to be happy. I am a natural born leader/director so it was only fitting to control the creative side of the one thing in life that I love more than anything, the movies.

T: What are some trends, techniques or technologies that you’re watching?

O: I don't worry about the latest trends or technology past what is going to get my story across the best. If a new technology comes out that strikes my interest and benefits my story I will utilize it, but as of right now I stick to digital. One day I would love to work with the robots Bot & Dolly, they are a very expensive and unique technology that only extremely successful filmmakers get the opportunity to work with.

T: What’s your advice to aspiring student filmmakers?

O: I recommend looking out for opportunities like Sprite Films. The program has allowed me to compete at a higher level, thus gain recognition at a higher level, and has helped me get one step closer to seeing my dreams become a reality. If you are in film school, I recommend that you attend all the film festivals you can because that’s where you can meet industry professionals and establish connections that could lead to greater opportunities once out of college.

T: How has the Savannah Film Festival molded you as a filmmaker?

O: The Savannah Film Festival has allowed me to establish connections with industry professionals I otherwise would not have been able to meet and given me wonderful insight from famous directors that I will carry with me forever.

T: Anything else that you want Thread to know?

O: Never stop 'seeing your dreams,' and if you don't know what they are, do not stop searching until you find them.

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Under the spell of “Mo Chara”

November
1
2013

You might say that the luck of the Irish is with emerging filmmaker Ciaran McGuigan. “Mo Chara,” the first film that Ciaran directed, was accepted into the Savannah Film Festival and is steadily growing in acclaim. In between stints as a professional soccer player and an assistant soccer coach at Savannah College of Art and Design, Ciaran made this film about school age boys whose friendship overcomes the Catholic-Protestant rivalry in Northern Ireland. I sat down with him this week in Savannah, where he’s visiting from his native Ireland with his mom, Rosie. Rosie and Ciaran’s father came of age in the 1970s as the ‘Irish troubles’ flared, but they taught their children to find common ground with all people, regardless of race or religion. It was this upbringing that inspired Ciaran to make “Mo Chara.”

TM: Thanks for taking a break from the festival to talk with me. So did you always know that you wanted to make films?

CM: When I came to SCAD, I told my dad that I thought I would do interior design or architecture, something that would tie back into the family furniture business. Dad rang me up and he was like, "Try something different so you have a few bows to your arrow." Is that the saying?

TM: Yep.

CM: Dad said, "Why don’t you do film?" I didn’t really want to do film at the start.  He said, "No, do it you’ll enjoy it." I ended up doing it, but I was really intimidated by film at first.

TM: I understand what you mean. This is only my second film festival and I feel like I have to speak a certain language.

CM: Well, I didn’t know anything about the history of film or RED cameras and stuff. It really intimidates you at the start. But Professor Chaney, he just goes, "Forget about the big cameras and forget about 50-man crews, it’s all about the story." That really registered for me.

TM: That’s so true. That’s all I keep hearing this week. Focus on story. So lets go to “Mo Chara.” You’re in the program and…

CM: I thought it would be interesting to teach people in America about kids in Belfast, how they conduct themselves, how they speak, and what their view on life is. Growing up as a kid in Northern Ireland, there are Protestants and there are Catholics, and the two are usually very separate. But in “Mo Chara” these two little boys have common interests. They support the same soccer team, they like soccer, and their religion doesn’t really matter. I wrote the film on the bus to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving.

TM: Almost exactly a year ago. You just wrote it a year ago?

CM: Yes. I had it all written in the notes on my phone. Two boys meet, there’s a conflict, then there’s a resolution at the end. My uncle (director of photography Kieran McGuigan) told me with that everything in life there’s a beginning, middle, and end, and that if you stick to that three-act play then you’ve got the foundations to make a good film. So that always stuck with me.

TM: You had those basic things.

CM: Right. And for me it was like filling in the blanks almost.

TM: This is for your senior thesis film, so I understand.

CM: Yes.

TM: When did you shoot  “Mo Chara”?

CM: We shot “Mo Chara” in March 2013 over spring break. I got a flight home to Ireland. There’s only one other kid from SCAD who came. Sean Robinson, he was fantastic, he was my first assistant director.

TM: So you’re the writer-director of “Mo Chara”?

CM: I’m the writer, director and producer, yeah. We literally, eh, had no money. Our Kickstarter was in shambles.

TM: (laughter) How much did you raise with Kickstarter?

CM: A few hundred dollars. We all stayed in my grandmother’s house. She woke us up every morning with porridge and a full Irish breakfast fry. We stayed in my cousin’s house where my mom grew up. My auntie lives there now and they all gave up their beds for my six crew. We woke up every morning and traveled an hour to Belfast. My cousin Robert drove us and my cousin Laura was there in the camper van making breakfast and tea on set.

TM: That’s great. How did you raise the rest of the cash to fund the production?

CM: Budgeting wise, we shot the whole film for around 2,500 to 3000 pounds. I used some savings from football that I had. My mom and dad were very generous, as well. I took a loan out. Then, after we shot it, the grandfather of one of the boys in the film, Mr. Bryne, I gave him an executive producer credit…

TM: Yeah, I saw that.

CM: He came up to me and gave me a check. He said, “What you have done for these kids to foster cross-border relationships between a Protestant and a Catholic is terrific. Go and do good things with this film. Go and get it into festivals.” I was really emotional because I just couldn’t believe that this guy would give me 2000 pounds.

TM: That’s wonderful. I really liked what you said at the Q-and-A after the screening about the importance of having an international crew. Tell me about that.

CM: The editor is from Spain, the art director is from Colombia, the director of photography is from London, the grip is a French guy. You bring different cultures together and they bring different things to the plate, their experiences and their know-how. You sit down over dinner and a coffee and you’re joking, and then things come into the conversation about what we’re going to do. Everyone had an open ear. There were no egos. I said to them, "This is our film, it’s a collaboration." For me, problem solving and creating with other artists, that’s just epic. It was such a joyful and amazing experience.

TM: W.C. Fields said to never work with animals or children because they’re unpredictable. But you chose to work with children. Where did you discover the talented young actors?

CM: At first, I had this casting call and it just didn’t work. These parents were coming in and teaching their kids what to do. They were posh kids coming in and a trying to act raw and I was like, "No, I want this raw element to it." So I went into the streets with a family friend of mine, and we ended up meeting Nathan Corbett and Ben Labourn. The boys had never acted before in their lives.

TM: I can’t believe you directed untested actors in your first film. That’s crazy.

CM: They’re the best lads you’ll every meet. Impeccable manners. I had one hundred pounds each for them in the budget. I took them to the soccer store to buy them a football jersey and football boots. One them said, "Ciaran, can I get a pack of these football cards, I’ll put my boots back." The cards were like one pound. I was like, "You can have the boots, too." I bought them like 15 packs of cards and they could not believe that.

TM: What does it mean to have your film shown at a festival? What went through your head when you got the call?

CM: To have “Mo Chara” showing at a festival is fantastic, but to have it showing at this festival, in Savannah where I know everybody, I’m so overwhelmed by it. When I got the email telling me that I had been accepted I was so happy because I got to come back and thank everybody for helping to make it happen. Frankly, it was this institution that provided me with the foundation to enter into a career or a medium of art that I didn’t have a clue that I was any good at. You can’t speak highly enough of this college. I am really honored and thankful that I was able to go to school here.

Ciaran is currently finishing his degree online while playing soccer in Ireland. He plans to enter “Mo Chara” into more festivals soon and will graduate from SCAD with a B.F.A in film and television this spring.

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Fête d'Automne
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Festival guest Norman Reedus shoots for 5th season as Daryl Dixon

October
29
2013

Congratulations to Norman Reedus on the renewal of his show “The Walking Dead" for a fifth season on AMC. Earlier this week, after giving a master class to students at the Savannah Film Festival, he sat down for an interview with Savannah College of Art and Design. Here’s Norman on how he stumbled into acting and reading “The Walking Dead” script for the first time.

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Under the spell of “Mo Chara”
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A career in … amusement: It's not just about the rides

My 16th Savannah Film Festival: How sweet it still is

October
28
2013

There’s something about the weather this time of year. When it starts to get a little cooler I get excited about movies. The nip in the air indicates the arrival of the Savannah Film Festival

This is my favorite week of the academic year. Students, faculty, staff, locals, out of town guests, industry professionals, and celebrities all convene to celebrate what we love most about cinema. I’ve been to a lot of festivals, from Sundance, to SXSW, to Cannes, and I’ve never experienced a festival atmosphere quite as special as the one here. We’re all here for the same reason, to celebrate the movies and explore how to make better ones.

Academy-Award winning actor Jeremy Irons, left, with Savannah College of Art and Design professor Michael Chaney during a Q-and-A at the 2013 Savannah Film Festival.

This was evident on Saturday morning when things kicked off with a master class with Alexander Payne. Assuaging concerns about staying on schedule, the Oscar-winning director insisted on taking more questions from students. “This is why I’m here!” he told us. This is why we’re all here. 

This week promises much to be explored. Great films, great discussions, and great workshops and panels. I’ve already identified one of my favorite moments from this year’s festival: seeing Alexander Payne’s Nebraska on opening night. I’ve followed Alexander’s career since his first film, Citizen Ruth, and have reveled in every one of his directorial efforts including Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants

There are a ton of opportunities this week for film lovers. I’m particularly interested in the not-so-documentary documentary Seduced and Abandoned by James Toback and Alec Baldwin, screening tonight at Trustees Theater. Toback and Baldwin were here at the festival a couple of years ago presenting a riff on Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. I’m excited to see how their Vaudeville-esque relationship translates to the screen as they tromp around Cannes trying to talk A-listers into being a part of their political-erotic re-make of Last Tango in Paris (Last Tango in Tikrit?). I’m pretty sure the Q-and-A after the screening will be full of treasures about their experience. There’s so much more to come!

Michael Chaney will host coffee talks with filmmakers and industry professionals in the lobby of the Marshall House at 8:15 a.m. each day this week.

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Savannah Film Festival 2013 takes flight

October
27
2013

The crimson stripe of the red carpet at the perennial block party hosted by Savannah College of Art and Design to kick off the Savannah Film Festival was upstaged last night. During the Broughton Street celebration preceding the first screening of the week, revelers looked up to find a sea of 10,000 multicolored paper airplanes descending from the roof of Jen Library.

The spectacle was a nod to the bursts of color artist Rob Bliss sent hurtling from rooftops in Grand Rapids, Michigan for the 2009 ArtPrize Paper Airplane Event.

A surprise conclusion is the calling card that SCAD leaves an audience at many of its events. A glow in the dark finale, one hundred painted mattresses transformed into furniture, dozens of beach balls bouncing through commencement. These are just a few of the memorable scenes that SCAD has created.

I got wind of the plans for this one, went looking for the brains behind the operation, and found maintenance man Ken Saunders.

Turns out that Ken has rigged some of the university’s most memorable ‘wow’ moments for 13 years now. He may just get a few sentences describing a vision and then he sets about rigging it into existence.

To pull off the cascade of airplanes last night, Ken’s team spent the week unpacking and taping thousands of airplanes that arrived as flat pieces of paper. Then there was the matter of giving them a boost. For that, Ken concocted this blower by cutting a flap in a trashcan and fitting the end of it with a fan.

His team hauled the airplanes and the blowers to Jen in a trailer, hoisting them up the side of the building and onto the library’s roof with a pulley system. They fixed seven of the improvised air cannons on top of Jen and three on top of Trustees Theater.

Ken with his nifty air cannons awaiting the signal to release the paper airplanes.

Upon receiving the signal, to the tune of “Fly Away” by Lenny Kravitz, the crew dumped the bags of planes into the blowers, like elves on Christmas morning delivering wonder and awe.

Next year, or ten years from now, when the planes trigger a memory about Savannah Film Festival 2013, I hope you’ll remember Ken and his team, too.

 

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My 16th Savannah Film Festival: How sweet it still is
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Behind the lens of Savannah Film Festival: portraits for the ages

October
25
2013

My favorite part of any magazine is a few pages in, the story behind the cover photo. I always want to know what the photographer was thinking.

If the Savannah Film Festival had a magazine, its cover would be by Adam Kuehl (B.F.A., Photography), and he was good enough to indulge my curiosities about what’s happening in the portraits he took to commemorate the 15th annual Savannah Film Festival.

Adam has been photographing festival honorees since 2007. While the cinefiles attend screenings and panels, tucked out of the way in an unremarkable room, Adam and his subjects – Hollywood’s most intriguing actors and filmmakers – make some remarkable photographs.

On the eve of Savannah Film Festival 2013, as Adam prepares to create another round one-of-a-kind images, here are his iconic portraits of Savannah College of Art and Design’s honored guests of 2012. Adam’s signature aesthetic is the interaction he inspires between his subjects and artwork by students and alumni in these scenes styled by Amy Zurcher.

Actor James Gandolfini: 

“James had a lot of fun with Marcus Kenney's work. He did one formal photo, then I think the atmosphere of Savannah combined with Halloween gave him the idea to pretend the bull was a mask.”

Actress Diane Lane:

“Diane is a pro who knows her angles very well. We shot this portrait in nine frames.” “Rose Mirror” by Rachel Evans. Necklace by Sam Norgard.

Actor Matt Dillon:

“We've used the same conference room for over two dozen portraits, so new lighting setups have become more and more difficult. Luckily, I found a perforated trashcan cylinder in the green room the day before. We stuck a strobe in the middle of it with gaffers tape to create the honeycomb effect. “Space” by Russ Noto. Busts by Michael Porten. Bench by John McMahon.

Actress Gabourey Sidibe:

“Gaby was really playful with the camera.  She has pure confidence.” Silk scarves by Kate de Para.

Check out more of Adam's portraits here.

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Savannah Film Festival 2013 takes flight
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