from the Curator's Office:
Trek: New Voyages is just one example of amateur movie
makers creating professional style productions.
(5/07) There was a time when home movies meant an
eight millimeter black and white film of your kids playing in
the sand down by the beach. These were the dark ages of amateur
filmmaking. Grainy, jumpy, moving pictures as far from a real
cinematic experience as the Wright Brothers first glider was from
the space shuttle.
In the last few decades, technology has been steadily
closing the gap, however. The type of equipment that big studios
could only have dreamed about thirty years ago is now available
to any teenager with a PC on his desk. As a result, films made
by small groups of amateurs, or even individuals, are starting
to look more and more like Hollywood productions. Science fiction
fans have embraced this technology more than any other group I
can think of and have produced an endless variety of shorts, parodies
and trailers on their favorite subjects. Why science fiction fans
are so keen on this is not quite clear (Gilligan's Island
fans aren't up on this kind of thing?), but clearly they have
created some of the most interesting work out there.
Probably the first major fan film that I can think
of that looked more like a professional production than a home
movie was Troops. This was created by Kevin Rubio in 1997
as a parody of the reality TV show COPS set in the Star Wars universe.
Storm troopers are interviewed as they go about their jobs terrorizing
the residents of Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine. It
is a humorous story that fits neatly into cracks in A New Hope
(the fourth Star Wars film). The production, though short at ten
minutes, demonstrated what a small group of dedicated fans could
do with a little money and a lot of technology. It was a turning
point and inspired a lot of other people to get involved in making
their own home movie productions. To take a look at it, check
What followed after Troops was a torrent
of fan films with Star Wars themes. Some are good, some not-so-good,
some terrible. I won't go into a long list of the best or worse,
but simply point you to a good place to catch up on all these:
a fan site called The Force.Net (http://www.theforce.net/fanfilms/).
Not all worthy home movies from that era turned
out to be Star Wars fan films, however. Some were original efforts.
Take 405, a three-minute film by Bruce Branit and Jeremy
Hunt done in 2000. This short-action/comedy takes a look at what
happens when a DC-9 is forced to land on a Los Angeles freeway.
What is so amazing about the film is that even though the airliner
is featured prominently in the movie, it really doesn't exist.
It is totally a CG (Computer Graphics) effect created on a desk
top computer. I won't spoil the story further for you, but just
tell you to take a look at the film at http://www.405themovie.com.
the story of an airliner that is forced to land on a Los
Of course, if Star Wars fans are hardcore, Star
Trek fans are rabid. As a Treker myself, I'm proud to say that
we have not been left out of the home movie movement. There are
numerous examples, but the one that caught my eye was Star
Trek: New Voyages. James Cawley, a long time Treker, got together
with Jack Marshall and in 2003 created this completely fan staffed
series. Their goal was to fix a hole left in the time-space continuum
caused by NBC when they cancelled the original series (abbreviated
as TOS - The Original Series - to those in the know) in 1969.
To that end they are now working on producing the "fourth season"
as if it had never been cancelled (the shows even start with the
60's NBC peacock logo). They have two episodes and a pilot produced
with another coming out this month, the next one filming this
June and another in preproduction.
New Voyages is clearly one of the most ambitious
fan film efforts ever mounted. While many of the Star Wars parodies
make use of parks and futuristic office campuses to stand in for
the locations in the Star Wars universe, New Voyages, with
interior shots of the Enterprise a necessity, has had more
of a more difficult challenge. At a former car dealership in Port
Henry, New York, Cawley has lovingly reconstructed much of the
Enterprise sets - including the entire bridge - as they
were seen in the original series.
While early episodes do not come up to a professional
standard, it is clear that Cawley (who plays the new Captain Kirk)
and his crew are getting better with each effort. The operation
is of such high quality that it has attacted a number of professionals
who were somehow connected with the original series. These iinclude
William Windom (who guest starred as Commodore Decker in one TOS
episode), Walter Koenig (who played Chekov in TOS), George Takei
(Sulu in TOS) and a host of other actors. D.C. Fontana, a writer
with the original show has penned one episode and has agreed to
do another. All are working for free.
One area where New Voyages particularly shines
is the special effects. A determined amateur today can use his
home computer to generate better footage of the Enterprise in
flight than a whole studio worth of professionals could in 1969.
Though the use of the effects for New Voyages first epsiode,
In Harms Way, were critized by some viewers (computer effects
contributer Max Rem had a tendency to spin the Enterprise through
unrealistic barrel rolls like it was an X-wing fighter) there
was no doubt about the quality of the images he produced. A new
special effects team - with a vision truer to the original series
- has replaced Rem and there are no more barrel rolls in New
Voyages second episode To Serve All My Days,. just
stunning shots of a chase through an asteriod field that TOS's
special effects director, Jim Rugg, would have died for.
Exeter is another Star Trek fan series produced in
Cawely's New Voyages isn't the only Star
Trek fan group producing episodes, either. Starship Exeter
is another series supposedly taking place at the same time as
TOS on a different starship. So far the Exeter group, based out
of Texas, has produced one and two thirds episodes. As with New
Voyages, the quality of the second episode (so far) exceeds
that of the first by a wide margin. They are also getting better.
While Exeter has chosen only to distribute
their work as relatively low quality quick-time movies, New
Voyages can be downloaded as windows media files at higher
than DVD quality. Some episodes are available in formats that
can even be burned directly to a DVD and the New Voyages website
features "official" DVD dissc and box labels for a viewer to print
out and use with his newly-burned disc to make his collection
How do the owners of these intellecual properties
feel about fan films? Most fan films have, of course, been parodies.
This has given them some legal standing and protection. The Bill
of Right's free speech provisions protect parody since it can
be a way of criticizing the original work. New Voyages,
Starship Exeter and other non-parody dramatic efforts involving
copywrited material, however, are on more shaky ground. Studios
have, so far, been lenient with fan-created material both because
they don't want to offend their fans and second, because such
material may fuel overall fan interest in the property. In general
they overlook these productions if no profit is being made on
them. In Star Trek's case having fan activity may be especially
important as now, for the first time in many years, there is no
current Trek series on the air.
Of course, if the material is original, like 405,
or based on public domain property, there is no reason that the
producers couldn't charge for access to it, if they wish.
So where is all this leading? Now apparently a handful
of people can create "TV" shows approaching the quality of a Hollywood
production. In the future could things go even further? Could
a single person produce a quality film by himself? This might
seem unreasonable for a live action production, but how about
Computer animation has been popular on the big screen,
so what have the people making home movies produced? Take a look
at Killer Bean 2. (http://www.jefflew.com/news.html)
This short animation features a coffee bean that thinks he is
Dirty Harry. Released in 2000, animator Jeff Lew's parody of the
action films won several major awards including Best Online
Animation of the Year. Killer Bean is only a little more than
seven minutes long, however, and required Lew to invest three
years of part-time work. At this rate, a full-feature length film
might be a lifetime effort. It is something Lew would like to
pursue, however. As he says on his website, "My ultimate goal
is my motto, 'One man, one computer, one movie.' And with technology
advancing so fast these days, it's almost there..."
One approach to this is to let the computer do all
the work for you. It occurred to someone that 3D computer shoot-up
games like Halo and Unreal Tournament might be used
to make cheap animation. All the hard work - positioning the virtual
camera, making the characters walk, etc. - could all be done automatically
by computer, greatly speeding up production. This type of animation
is called Machinima. Now the result of such a operation
is not exactly the kind of slick production you see in Killer
Bean. It has its followers, however, and even a website where
budding directors can share their work: http://www.machinima.com/.
The movies produced by this method, however, tend to be limited
by the type of game involved. New software, using the same approach
pioneered in video games but designed for storytelling, has recently
appeared. IClone from a company called Reallusion (http://www.reallusion.com/iclone/)
is one example. To see what can be done with this tool, check
out the short Reich and Roll (above right).
What is the bottom line here? Is Hollywood in trouble?
Could regular people replace Hollywood professionals making entertainment
in the coming decades?
My prediction is no, at least not completely. First,
although many of the people involved in these productions are
amateurs in the sense that they are not paid, many do work as
professionals in film or TV for other productions. Max Rem, who
did the CG for the first episode of New Voyages, also worked
professionally on the Trek series Enterprise. Others, if
not professionals currently, are trying to break into the business
and an amateur project like this serves as a "demo" reel to show
off their talent. You still need quite a bit of expertise to really
make a quality product like New Voyages. That expertise
might be hard to come by unless you have somebody involved in
your production who can work at a professional level.
Secondly, we can look at other developments over
the past decade to get a clue about how high-tech and the internet
will affect entertainment. Twenty years ago, the only places to
get the news were newspapers, radio, or network television. The
web changed all that. News is available from many organizations
and even individuals. Blogs are everywhere. As a result, big news
organizations have changed but they have not disappeared. That
will probably be the case with entertainment. We can expect to
see a flood of high quality (and some not-so-high quality) amateur
and independent productions available competing with the big studios,
but they will not replace Hollywood.
But they may certainly give it a run for its money.
Copyright Lee Krystek
2007. All Rights Reserved.