This is the transcript for the podcast episode An Indie Sci-Fi Short Film With A Big-Budget Look: The Making Of ‘Project Arbiter’ :: ArtCast #78 To listen to the podcast click here.
Chris: This is Chris Oatley’s artcast, episode 78 – The Making of Project Arbiter, an independent sci-fi short film with a big budget look, an interview with director Michael Chance and composer Ryan Leach.
Hello my friends, and welcome to another episode of Chris Oatley’s artcast, the show that goes inside the hearts and minds of successful professional artists. I’m Chris Oatley, I was a visual development artist at Disney before I quit to start my own online art school – the Oatley Academy of Concept Art & Illustration. Find more art instruction and career advice from some of the most inspiring voices in animation, games, comics, and new media at ChrisOatley.com. That’s ChrisOatley.com.
For many visual storytellers, technology means equality. Equal tools, equal teams, equal attention, a creative netocracy where the internet decides to reward only the best and most beloved work. Of course the mythical future I’m describing isn’t significantly different from our present reality. Ideas like web comics, podcasts, Patrion and Spotify have been erected from the rubble of the traditional publishing and music industries. Mobile and Indie games gave erupted into the mainstream claiming a huge share of the existing market and expanding it even further. Movies are different, not safe, but different. Independent film and mainstream movies have co-existed since the early 20th century. Mainstream movies have thrived because the indies never really got in their way. Most independent film makers embrace limitations and leave the spectacle to the studios. Today, mainstream movies survive on spectacle almost exclusively. They are being destabilized by global competition for attention, not be independent film specifically. Not yet, anyway. In this interview, director Michael Chance and composer Ryan Leach take us behind the scenes of Project Arbiter, an indie sci-fi short film with a big budget look and sound. What will happen when technology offers Hollywood spectacle to aspiring independent film makers everywhere? Project Arbiter is proof that we’ll all find out very, very soon. Before you listen to this interview with Mike and Ryan, I recommend going to ChrisOatley.com/Project-Arbiter. Again, ChrisOatley.com/Project-Arbiter. There you can watch the 22-minute short film and see what these guys have achieved on basically no budget. It’s visually stunning, it sounds amazing and most important of all, it will inspire you with possibilities you may never have imagined.
Mike, you directed your first feature film at age nineteen, that’s insanity.
Chris: Could you tell us about this?
Mike: Yeah Chris, it was basically just as a quick little background on me leading up to that film. I come from a long line of artists, my Dad would do oil painting and my brother would also draw and do graphic designs. My Grandpa would do these amazing sketches and I would draw as well and then getting into high school, my freshman year my Mom asked me, “Hey, do you want to try this multimedia career pathway?” I was like all right, I’ll give this a try. So we started doing some interactive stuff like web design and I loved working on the computer using my Dad’s account of like Corel Draw, figuring that out on my own before the days of YouTube. So I basically would just get in there for hours and click around and make things. My Dad would say it looks awesome, but I knew it was bad. My freshman year of high school, I took this career pathway and that same year, I was doing PE wrestling and this guy fell on me while we were wrestling and because apparently you’re supposed to wear proper shoes but it’s public school, so they don’t have the proper shoes for PE. So this guy falls on me and he easily is thirty of forty pounds heavier and like I’m not trained so I put my arm down on the mat and it pops the other way and fractures my elbow and dislocates it and so…short story about a month later with two pins and sixteen stitches, I emerge someone who can’t play sports anymore in high school. It was kind of a blessing in disguise because instead of playing on the football team anymore in high school, I actually started filming the games. I got so good at it, I made a whole documentary about the team my senior year. And they only won two games, but I made them look like champions. All throughout high school I would take one, even two classes with my elective and into my senior year even two classes as a teacher’s aid just editing. And back then we didn’t even have edit systems, it was just this little black box called Screen Play. And you’d throw your clips together, it’s non-linear editing system and that’s where I was kind of a self-taught editor for four years. And growing up, I used Legos and I would make my own contraptions and all those little blocks kind of putting them together, it helped me a lot with structure. I think that’s where a lot of my spontaneity comes from and story telling where I can kind of pick out ideas and put them together on a modest budget.
So The Narrow Road stemmed out of the desire out of high school going into a junior college De Anza which is in Cupertino, CA. And it’s an amazing JC for film, it’s probably one of the best in the state and I learned so much from the Dean there Zach Elisha, (inaudible) Irwin, Susan Tabornetti and just studying film. And I really got a leg up there and I had this choice, do I go on and basically go to a four year or do I do my own things? And that kind of led to Arbiter but for the most part for The Narrow Road, that was just a film that I was working at a post house called Shepherd Video Productions in Los Gatos, CA and a wonderful man Mark Shepherd come took me under his wing and I was an editor there for four years and then moved into agency life at Design Reactor. Bascially there over the course of about three years, I made this film The Narrow Road which is about a 50-minute family drama about this guy who gets into a car accident and then you see everything that leads up to it and his decisions. And he gets to watch it almost kind of like It’s a Wonderful Life kind of way. So that one growing up, it played a little more on the melodrama side, and I definitely learned a lot. It was something that humbled me because creating something like that, I didn’t necessarily get a lot of like schooling in scripts and I would say for anybody out there who is an independent film maker and wants to get better at film making, anybody can learn the applications. I mean anybody growing up and has an iPhone, it’s second nature now. So learning After Effects, it’s a week of your time. But script writing and finding your inner voice and what you want to say and what you connect with and being honest with yourself and then putting it out there in front of an audience, you’ve got to test that and it’s kind of the biggest thing. So with The Narrow Road, I got people who loved it and hated it, it was my first kind of foray into public opinion about what I created. And it was 50 minutes and it was three years of my life so you know, I remember one moment when I showed the assembly cut of it to about a group of about fifteen people in Mark Shepherd’s office. I had to step out because I had this anxiety attack because I started watching and I was like this I don’t know, this is not working for me. But then going through the process of refining the edit, receiving feedback from trusted people I was able to basically cut it down a bit from about an hour and about fifteen minutes to a really nice fifty minute piece. So it plays as a long short to me, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a feature. We got that distributed on Netflix. Yeah I started when I was 19 and I finished when I was about 22. You learn from everything you make and you know, as an artist Chris, I mean I would imagine your first picture…actually your first picture is probably a Picasso, right?
Chris: Ha ha ha, it was…well yeah, I think there was some of that but I got very representational very quickly. My earliest memories of drawing are this very formulaic, I couldn’t even reproduce it, right now I remember it so well. It was a very formulaic reproduction of a likeness of Kermit the Frog involving a very simple series of triangles. And I drew it the same way over and over and over again.
Mike: So you had a very specific aesthetic even as a child then.
Mike: I just turned 30 this past May, just now I’m kind of creating what I consider more of my professional work. Everything up to this point I kind of consider as basically like finding my voice, finding what really interests me and really taking more time to actually like be still and actually think all right, what really moves me when I’m watching a film. And what questions do I want audiences to ask? And those more meaningful questions I think are things that come from experience, so when you start off and you’re a kid, all you can do it emulate from my opinion. And you emulate all the greast that you watch, and for me growing up, the first film that really touched me inside was ET. I always remember like that point in the river and he’s just dying and it gets me. I’m like why, and then bringing it back and he’s alive again with Elliott at the end and it’s just a perfect little journey. And then I realized learning more about the filmmaker behind it, I forgot his name. What is his name? Well you can look it up, maybe IMDB, they probably have it there. But I grew up a lot on war films, just from all the stories my grandpa and my dad would tell me about his father. And a lot of what I consider grade A “B” movies, like John Carpenter stuff is like the pinnacle of just on the cusp on an A film, but it’s still B. And I would say most people would consider those cult classics, I call them AB’s. So basically, They Live, Big Trouble, Little China, Tremors, and just those querky, more on the science fiction supernatural bend is where I kind of land.
So I never let that stuff go, and I actually made a conscious decision growing up that I didn’t want to lose that kind of childhood aspect of me where I stopped reaching back to the things I like and I just keep trying to look to the future of this is more mature and gritty and stuff.
Chris: I was thinking about that this week actually in the wake of the Breaking Bad finale but I was thinking about how that show is so…it’s so entertaining and yet it’s about everything. It’s about all the important stuff, it conjures up this metaphysical question.
Mike: I think you’re hitting on there which is a very powerful tool and a lot of contemporary films actually skip over it and to me it’s the power of choice. And in Breaking Bad you have those moments where since it’s a slow burn, you’ve got this suspense that keeps building and then you actually get to see it resonate on that actor’s face and then you see what direction they choose. And for good or bad, you actually get to see that conscious decision on their face and actually them going through that process of making that decision. A lot of films, especially in early 2000 it’s like they adopted this quicker style of editing and you lost that tempo. You lost that no country for old men type of a setting, you get to actually just live in an actual frame and hear the sounds and be with the character while he decides.
Chris: Breaking Bad…it’s never…there’s guilty pleasures all throughout the entire series you know, and yet it’s talking about really important stuff. It’s just a great blend.
Mike: Yeah, and I mean he’s kind of a master especially in this television medium. Plenty of information out there now about how he didn’t know what he was going to do after episode two, but what’s just interesting to understand is how he built that art. It’s one of those things where it’s like you can watch it by yourself or with friends and no matter what, you’re still going to come out having this amazing profound experience.
Chris: I agree.
Mike: So it’s transcended a lot of stuff there.
Chris: Yeah, it’s very, very worth your time listeners if you haven’t watched it. Well, so talk to us a little bit about how Project Arbiter emerged.
Mike: Well for the most part in my early twenties, to me in my mind, I actually think about certain things and I think about my process and my aesthetic a lot, what things I really want to convey in a film and how also it actually feels and it looks, and all those things come in together to create one kind of essence. And in my early twenties, like with Narrow Road, a cop drama that I did that was black and white, 16mm called The Reason and some other shorts I’ve been getting into producing with friends, I just realized that I was making films that I thought other people wanted to see. And I think you know again, like emulating and having a tendency to created something and like oh, this is a powerful story and I know I’m going to attract an audience with this…to me those are somewhat selfish desires to actually climb the ladder like you’re saying. And there’s moments in my life where…and this might sound a little weird but, there’s moments in my life where I’ll go into the bathroom or in my room and I’ll just have a gut check and I’ll stare in the mirror, and I’ll say, “Okay Mike, where are you actually at year 25 in your life?” And it’s sometimes a scary freaking thing but at the same time I feel like it humbles me to understand like stop for a moment, don’t go through the daily rituals, and think about what inspires you and what you want to say with your short amount of time on earth. And don’t be a sheep, actually be a shepherd in a way.
Chris: I’ve been doing that a lot lately, and part of it has been basically going into business, but for myself because now I have so much control or at least the illusion of control over my own life and even down to just like we were talking about before the show, where we live and very few people are making any decisions for me. And it’s not like just going to a job where at the studio at Disney or wherever, where the whole thing is a machine and it’s running on its own and I just show up and do my part and go home.
Mike: But there’s kind of like a thrill to it and also an anxiety that you have to overcome which is alright, here’s all these options out here on the horizon, which one am I going to walk towards. It’s going to take a lot of time and if I try to course correct, it’s going to take much longer but you’ve got to just find what looks beautiful out there to you and just go after it.
Chris: And stick with it, and someone told me today, I wrote a friend of mine for some advice and actually I’ll bring up the email here real quick and I’ll just read to you what he said. It’s just so…it’s right on point with what you’re saying. Oh I was talking to him about how I want my Academy to remain small and personal and this intimate experience and he said, “The beauty of choosing to be weird is that it’s your choice to make. Sure the weird thing to do would be to choose to stay small, to choose personal interactions, actual relationships and your own lifestyle over ‘success,’ the way that everyone else seems to see it. But you get to be weird if you want to. The ironic piece is that by making that choice, you’ll actually become even more attractive in the marketplace, making sticking with what you believe is right, even harder to do. That’s why it’s important to make these decisions now while you still can.
Mike: Yeah, and I think it’s important to identify that because you actually have a conscious choice of…to me it always comes down to, is the idea…does it fall into quantity over quality? And there’s a lot of filler stuff out there, and film making…because I come also from a digital design background basically producing commercials, and websites and things like that up in the Bay area before I moved down here to L.A. and Studio City. There’s basically a kind of push to market and sell a product and that’s fine. We live in an age of you know, basically commerce where a lot of jobs rely on people selling goods. And to me, the business side of it is not a problem, it’s not a problem if you have a ten pole movie, people enjoy it and it’s something that actually has some substance. Even like Breaking Bad, it’s something that has tangible substance and it asks tough questions, but it still doesn’t treat the audience as children. Now when you have other types of films that cop out and they try to portray that they’re this deep mental thing and it’s like no, you’re just…again you’re like Skittles, you taste good but you’re just so bad for me. Like, I’m not kidding anymore, I shouldn’t eat that stuff, it’s going to rot my teeth. And it does the same thing with your heart and your mind if you keep going towards that.
So, to me when I started thinking what’s my next project, I looked back to the Narrow Road and even the reason and I realized the thing I really liked on these projects is, I never released them until they were done in my hands. Basically, I took it as far as I could so it was the highest quality I could. So with Project Arbiter, I kind of set out and I started dating this beautiful girl named Tracy Hayes and she’s been my girlfriend of six years and I think a lot of my inspiration comes from her and my family to just pick more of the honest things. So I started asking myself alright, I’ve got to reach within and find my next story. And we were antique shopping down in San Carlos Boulevard in San Jose and basically I like looking at old things. To me, I’m much more of a kind of retro guy and any kind of futuristic stuff, I always look to the past and even sci-fi geeky stuff that’s kind of cutting edge. But I still always look towards what’s kind of fun and nostalgic for me. So I found this old gas mask that was from these coal miners from like the 1930’s and it really struck me, like someone going into this dark place and having to wear a contraption to stay alive to do their occupation. I’m like, there’s a story here but it’s not what’s at the surface. So then I consciously asked myself a couple nights later just listening to some music, you know, that coupled with what would make something interesting – that kind of represents me – and I started thinking about…I’ve never seen a soldier in the past kind of wear a suit like that. And so, I started thinking about it and I thought about all the war stories my dad would tell me about his father, Walter Chance, he was a B24 bomber pilot. And he flew basically fifty missions in WWII and you only have to fly twenty-four to do your service in your tour. And he did fifty, and then he was shot down and he was in a POW camp and then he got rescued by Patton, but…