And the Oscar goes to...
Palo Alto native wins Student Academy Award for cyborg tale
LEGO characters were the stars when Brendan Bellomo made his first films as a kid growing up in Palo Alto.
By the time he was casting for his movie "Bohemibot" a few years ago, he wanted actors with a bit more range. The science-fiction film is part live action, part computer animation, but Bellomo never wanted the special effects to overpower the storytelling.
"It would never be technique first — always emotion and story first," he said.
It looks like he succeeded. Next week Bellomo, 24, will receive a Student Academy Award for "Bohemibot." The film is being honored in the Narrative category.
The win is a thrill for Bellomo, who always hoped to make a career out of writing and directing films. He started shooting his first movies when he was a kid, aided by a creative atmosphere: His father, Victor, had an animation studio in the basement and there was always a video camera to borrow.
"I started doing claymation and stop motion. I would always write little stories for myself," said Bellomo, who now lives in New York. "My dad would teach me how to edit and animate."
Father and son have worked together on many film projects since then. They've both garnered separate honors as well. In 2003, while Brendan was a Palo Alto High School senior, his short film "got nice?" was nominated for a Golden Gate Award for best youth work at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Victor Bellomo's animated short "The Spirit of Gravity" was also nominated for a Golden Gate Award that year.
More recently, Victor Bellomo was an executive producer and composed harp music for "Bohemibot."
The 25-minute drama centers on a cyborg harpist, Bohemibot (Davis Hall), who lives in a bleak, "Metropolis"-like city in a world at war. He has lost his family and suffered a debilitating injury, but he still dreams in vivid color. His life changes dramatically after he meets a young enemy orphan (Wesley O'Mary).
Casting the lead was crucial for the success of the film, Bellomo said. He was impressed by Hall, a veteran of theater, television and movies.
"On one level, Davis is so artistic and expressive and joyous and loving and could be the father that Bohemibot is, but ... the actor also needs to be in touch with the darkness in his psyche. It's a huge character arc to sell in 25 minutes."
Another challenge for the actors was the script: It's in an "alien" language, Zednok. There are no subtitles, but there also aren't a lot of words; the story is meant to be understood visually and in other non-verbal ways, Bellomo said.
Bellomo created Zednok with production designer Edward Goin, who speaks Italian. They translated the English script into Italian, then flipped every word backward. Bellomo gave the actors training CDs to practice speaking Zednok.
"It sounds slightly Slavic," Bellomo said with a laugh. "Maybe it's the reversal of all those vowels."
While Bellomo has now graduated from college, he made "Bohemibot" while he was a film student at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He wrote and directed the film under the supervision of two of his professors: John Canemaker, director of the school's animation department; and Ezra Sacks, executive director of writing studies.
All told, about 200 people volunteered on the film, working in "art direction, cinematography, costumes, makeup, stunts, sound design, music and visual effects." That number included about 90 students from NYU and other institutions, who now have a Student Academy Award-winning project on their resumes.
"Bohemibot" was filmed in 2007 in high-def video using a Panavision CineAlta camera, thanks to a grant from Panavision's New Filmmaker Program, said Bellomo (who happily noted that the camera was the same one George Lucas used to shoot "Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones").
After two weeks' filming, the movie was in post-production for 18 months, working to combine live action and animation. For example, the crew might shoot a scene with only actors and a few props or set pieces against a green screen. Then, animation would be used to extend the set into the blackness of outer space or the lyrical world of Bohemibot's pre-war memories.
The total budget was $55,000, which went mostly to gas, food and location rentals, Bellomo said. The Panavision grant helped keep costs down, as did the Southern California-based Renegade Effects Group, which provided costume armor and weapons, charging the "Bohemibot" team only for the materials and shipping cost.
Some donations came from unexpected places. Just after Bellomo graduated from NYU, he was having a celebratory dinner at an Italian restaurant. A woman congratulated him, and he ended up telling her all about "Bohemibot," which was about to start filming.
"She gets out her checkbook and writes me a check for $500," Bellomo recalled. "She says, 'I don't expect anything in return.' She just liked the story, and my pitch. And the check didn't bounce!"
The budget may have been small, but the film is certainly making the rounds. On June 13, Bellomo will be at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills to receive his Student Academy Award. "Bohemibot" and two other films are already winners in the Narrative category; at the ceremony, Bellomo will find out if he's won a gold, silver or bronze medal.
"Bohemibot" has also been shown and honored at several film festivals, including the Beverly Hills Shorts Festival (awards for best sci-fi, visual effects and sound design), the First Run Film Festival at NYU (best art direction, cinematography, producing and score), and the Southeast New England Film, Music and Arts Festival (founders' award).
At the da Vinci Film Festival in Oregon, where "Bohemibot" won the Spirit Award, the festival's John Ginn wrote: "The film looks spectacular. ... (It) looks like it could have cost a couple of million dollars."
There are more festivals to come, and Bellomo is attending as many as he can. Meanwhile, he's also got a day job as a visual-effects supervisor on a feature film called "End of the Line."
Bellomo is also writing a feature screenplay and says he's had some interest from agents and producers. The topic, he says affably, is still "kind of top secret."
But he's happy to talk about his dream actors he'd cast in future projects if he could; he's got a whole list of people, including Willem Dafoe, Liam Neeson and Claire Danes. "Casting can make or break a film," he said.
Info: "Bohemibot" is still making the festival circuit and won't be available for viewing online for several months. In the meantime, more information and stills are at www.bohemibot.com.