Local focus

Publication Date: Friday Feb 19, 1999

Local focus

This year's Cinequest San Jose Film Festival features works by a number of Peninsula filmmakers

by Susan Tavernetti

February and March traditionally have been the months that film lovers suffer from the cinematic blues. Hollywood unwraps some of its best gifts over the holiday season to qualify for Academy Award consideration and to leave an imprint on the minds of Academy voters with short memories.

Suffer no more. The Cinequest San Jose Film Festival is arriving just in time to lift our spirits, and local filmmakers are well represented in this edition. Beginning Thursday and continuing through March 3, the ninth edition of this terrific South Bay showcase for independent films, filmmakers and technology will be held at the Camera 3 Cinema and the UA Pavilion Theatres in downtown San Jose.

"We've really defined and refined the vision of Cinequest by building on what's always worked: the competition of maverick features, documentaries and shorts; the maverick tributes; and the technology and film section. And we're presenting a 'Mavericks: Bay and Beyond' series on filmmakers who are either living in this community or are rooted here," said Halfdan Hussey, Cinequest executive director.

The Midpeninsula connections can be found throughout the Cinequest schedule. In "The Making of 'Antz'" (Feb. 28 at 12:30 p.m.), directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson give the inside buzz on the animated feature from Palo Alto-based Pacific Data Images.

Lee Lanier's "Millennium Bug" adds a Y2K glitch to the short-film competition as part of the Mindbenders series (Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 28 at 9:15 pm). Robert Miller's "Mail Bonding," Geoff Badger's "Forbidden Fruit" and Brett Schwartz's "Silicon Harvest" are included in the Local Short Film Showcase (Feb. 27 at 9 p.m.). Red Sky Films' "What Little Girls Are Made Of" (Feb. 28, 2:30 p.m.) features young Midpeninsula athletes and members of the 1997-1998 Stanford women's basketball team.

Cinequest judges will include two local filmmakers: Palo Alto resident Zaki Lisha, the coordinator and founder of the De Anza College film/television department, will serve on the Dramatic Feature jury, and Pam Walton, a senior lecturer in Stanford's communication department who is finishing an hour-long documentary on homophobia in the Lutheran church, is part of the Documentary and Short Film jury.

But they're not the only ones who can rub shoulders with the filmmakers and honor films by bestowing awards. So can you. Question-and-answer sessions follow every screening at this interactive and personable festival. You can also fill out ballots to vote for your favorite short film, dramatic feature and documentary feature.

Do you know the way to San Jose? If not, get a map and head south for one of the best film festivals in the country.


"Antz" directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson should be feeling like the kings of the world. Or at least of the anthill. To date, their computer-animated hit, produced at Pacific Data Images on Park Boulevard in Palo Alto, has earned over $170 million worldwide. The box office figures don't reflect that "Antz" has just invaded the video market.

Yet when asked about their presentation on the making of the movie, Johnson joked, "Just to think that anybody would spend 10 bucks to come see us--that's more responsibility than directing the movie, I think. We're going to take the presentation seriously and try to really show people what it was like to be in the midst of the film and share some of that fun."

Considering the self-deprecating humor and enthusiasm of the two animation wizards, Cinequest audience members should be in for a treat. Darnell and Johnson headed up the 2 1/2-year-long project at its earliest stages, preparing story boards for some of the sequences when there was only an outline of a script from screenwriters Todd Alcott and Chris and Paul Weitz.

Darnell says he and Johnson don't have a specific plan for the talk, except to describe how the movie was developed from the original idea to final form, as well as "how flexible things are--how mushy that ground is that you stand on when you're working on a film like this."

"We'll be talking about the process," adds Johnson, "how the film originated and how we made it step by step, including some of the dead-ends."

Besides seeing the movie's barroom and battle scenes evolve through four stages--from board to layout to animation and then to lighting--you can expect to hear about scenes and endings that were scrapped. The directors also intend to project video illustrating the various production stages, 35mm film clips of finished scenes, and footage of celebrity cast members in voice-recording sessions.

"We'd like to surprise people with what it was like to work with some of these actors who'd never dealt with animation before--how open they were to the process and how excited they were to be part of it," said Johnson, recalling his "delightful experience" with Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Jennifer Lopez, Sylvester Stallone, Christopher Walken, Anne Bancroft and Danny Glover.

Both directors promise an afternoon of interesting anecdotes about their collaborative effort, describing themselves as "the funnel for the creative energy" of the 180-person production crew.

To get up to speed for the Q&A following the presentation, check out the PDI Web site (www.pdi.com) and learn about the groundbreaking facial animation, crowd systems and water effects developed for "Antz." The Darnell-Johnson presentation is a Sunday afternoon picnic you won't want to miss, even though the ants got there first.

'Millennium Bug'

Lee Lanier was part of PDI's "Antz" animation team. He toiled in the modeling and lighting departments to help create the shocking battle sequence and colorful wonderland called Insectopia.

"You have a very big project, and you have to follow the vision of the directors, production designers and art directors," explains Lanier. "In addition, you have to ensure that your work is consistent with everyone else's work, because it has to flow together. So you have to sacrifice part of yourself as an artist."

He laughs as he reveals the animators' creed: "You have to work for the good of the colony."

Lanier found artistic release working on his own animated project, "Millennium Bug." Lanier's press packet states that the black-and-white short was produced "on the sly." But he's quick to admit that PDI encourages its employees to create independent endeavors.

Lanier single-handedly brought this Y2K nightmare to life. He's solely responsible for the direction, photography, computer animation, integration, sound recording and scoring--all 1,000 man hours of it.

The result is wonderfully weird. An offbeat and quirky glimpse into the near future, the short film juxtaposes images of industrial landscapes with mock definitions from a 21st century dictionary. Lanier snapped evocative black-and-white photos of the San Francisco waterfront before pixel-twisting them into a surrealist vision that disturbs as much as it delights.

"The film definitely has a sense of humor, but it also has serious undertones. It's a satire on our potential future--if we're not careful," Lanier notes wryly.

"In a way, 'Millennium Bug' is very extreme, so farfetched it doesn't seem likely to happen. But by the same token, it's very close to being a reality in terms of genetic engineering, rampant consumerism and these huge marketing organisms that have sprung out of corporations. It's fantastic, yet there are shades of truth to it," says Lanier.

No humans can be found in Lanier's urban wasteland. Instead, jorks (genetically tailored meat products) crawl across empty fields, while a vaudvert (a singing or dancing billboard) cavorts down the street.

Because Lanier so cleverly combines familiar background images with pseudo-documentary techniques, "Millennium Bug" registers a strong impact even with a running time of less than two minutes.

"In terms of film language, people associate documentary style with truth," explains the Ohio native. "So when a film is presented that way, even though there are all these fantastic events, the air of realism makes it hit home even harder. And the black-and-white adds a heavy-duty atmosphere that you wouldn't get with color. I purposely put in more information than can be humanly digested in a single viewing, so people would get the sense of a very rich environment that might exist."

That said, it's a good thing the Mindbenders series runs twice. "Millennium Bug" has cult movie written all over it. Even a second viewing will leave you with more questions than answers. (The artist provides production information at http://home.att.net/~lanier).

'Mail Bonding'

When Ken Karn talks about the Local Short Film Showcase, he advises, "It's always good to see what things are being done in your own back yard."

This year, IMAGE, the Independent Media Artists Group based in Palo Alto (www.imagesite.org), joins hands with Cinequest to present some of the highlights from IMAGEfest 99, an annual event taking place on March 26-27 at Cubberley Community Center. Karn serves as program coordinator of IMAGEfest 99 and director of the Camera Cinema Club.

"People think of movies as being made in New York and L.A., but I have an innate curiosity for what creative people are doing here in the Bay Area," Karn says.

Consider the different modes of production that distinguish the three Palo Alto-Menlo Park entries in this program.

"Mail Bonding" boasts the distinction of being the first all-digital live-action movie. Shot in 1995 on a Sony digital Betacam camcorder, Robert Miller's 12-minute romantic comedy signals the start of a filmmaking revolution. With a computer science degree and a six-year stint as a multimedia coordinator at Stanford University behind him, Miller wired his production site with an Apple Macintosh network that facilitated preproduction planning and allowed him to use ArchiCAD software to construct a virtual set.

Editing was done on an Avid (computer editing system) during the actual shoot. The extraordinary savings in time and material are well documented in the articles reprinted on his Web page (www.puregrain.com).

Although Miller deserves the "computer wrangler" credit at the end of his film, he's anything but a geek. A natural storyteller who always knew he would be a writer, Miller avoided his calling for as long as he could. His eclectic background took him from New Orleans to the Texas and Oklahoma plains to work in Australia as a photojournalist, before he finally settled in California.

Reading his writing, a young woman made a remark that would change his existence: "You've got the mind of a screenwriter. You should look at that." Like a well-structured script, his life turned on the plot point.

Miller rewrote Alan Jacobs' ("Nina Takes a Lover") screenplay for "Mail Bonding," eliminating all the dialogue in the process and challenging himself to tell the story visually. He revised scenes with newly available digital technology in mind.

"All the effects in 'Mail Bonding' were easily accomplished with no wringing of the hands," Miller said.

Alternately charming and surprising, the special effects further the narrative about an imaginative poet (Craig Anton) who falls in love with his mail carrier (Beth Richmond). Miller's application of color to black-and-white images, which predates "Pleasantville" by years, enhances the film's fable-like quality. As the inventive tale unspools, the lighthearted tone gives way to one of bittersweet longing. Robert Miller has put his stamp all over "Mail Bonding."

'Forbidden Fruit'

Menlo Park resident Geoff Badger relies on the photochemical properties of 16mm film stock to capture his stylish visuals in "Forbidden Fruit" (www.stanford.edu/`jhjkim/forbfruit). But how long can an information technology manager at Hewlett-Packard Co. in Mountain View stay away from cameras that transform images into binary code?

Badger and Karen Gaydon, his co-producer and spouse, relocated to the Bay Area from England in 1989. She's a human resources manager at Hewlett-Packard in Cupertino. Both enrolled in film courses at De Anza College and City College of San Francisco, which eventually led to the production of their dark erotic thriller.

Two years in the making, the 18-minute short relied on the many filmmaking resources available to Bay Area residents. Viewers with a keen eye may recognize some of the locations used in the movie, as a voyeur (George Frangides) stalks an exotic woman (Tomoko Oku) through the moonlit streets of San Francisco. One of the key scenes plays out in the alley behind Walgreen's on University Avenue.

Badger tried on many hats: writer, director, part-time camera operator and editor.

"It was the kind of stuff I like to do--pure cinema consisting of visuals and music and sound but not much dialogue," Badger said.

An assured filmmaker, Badger infused his cautionary tale with mood and atmosphere. The color design of intense reds and blues pushes the surreal edge. It's the perfect look for an ambiguous take on storytelling, watching and being watched, and the tricks played by the human mind.

'Silicon Harvest'

Brett Schwartz's "Silicon Harvest" sets off an alarm about the encroachment of technology and our changing landscape. The sensibility may be the same as that of "Millennium Bug," but all resemblance ends there.

A graduate student in Stanford's communication department, Schwartz has lovingly crafted a documentary on Olson's Cherries, the last surviving orchard operation in Sunnyvale. The ironic title refers to the fertile land once romantically tagged "The Valley of Heart's Delight." Today the soil is covered with concrete. Fruit trees have been uprooted, replaced by corporations picking chips over cherries.

Because the documentary short is so accessible, viewers may mistake it for a simple effort. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Working within very strict limits imposed by his professors, Schwartz rigorously planned his first 16mm graduate project.

"I did a great audio interview with Charlie Olson," Schwartz said. "The filmmaker-subject relationship is a professional one built on trust and respect. It often sits on the fence of friendship, so you have to negotiate all those things simultaneously."

Olson's gravelly voice functions as a character in the film. It's the voice of the rugged individual struggling against the odds to hold onto the American Dream. It's the voice of the realist who admits "we can't go backwards" but is saddened just the same by his vanishing way of life. It's the voice of a poet with close ties to the earth.

When Olson's words wrap around Schwartz's pastoral imagery, the sense of nostalgia is palpable. Although raised in the suburbs of Chicago, the filmmaker understands and captures his subject well. In four minutes, with great economy of expression, Schwartz makes a strong statement and fashions an elegiac mood.

'What Little Girls Are Made Of'

Although "What Little Girls Are Made Of" aired on ESPN and local stations, Cinequest provides a rare opportunity to see the commercial on the big screen. The spot is one of the 1998 Joey Award Winners, created by and named for Joe O'Kane, San Jose's film and video commissioner, to recognize creative achievements in the media.

While a voice-over recites the title's nursery rhyme, shots of little girls from Palo Alto and Menlo Park fill the frame. They dive for balls. They play rough-and-tumble sports. They splash in the mud on the Stanford campus.

A transition occurs: Olympia Scott, Naomi Mulitauaopele, Vanessa Nygaard and Christina Batastini of the 1997-98 Stanford women's basketball team play high-voltage college ball in Maples Pavilion. The exciting action footage was shot specially for the commercial.

"I told Red Sky Films that I wanted to portray our basketball team as athletic role models, strong women. That's what little girls are made of," said Michael Murphy, the former marketing director for the team who is now a sales and marketing consultant at San Francisco's Red Sky Films.

Susan Tavernetti served on Cinequest's documentary and short film jury last year.

What: The Ninth Annual Cinequest San Jose Film Festival.

When: Festival runs from Feb. 25 through March 3.

Where: Screenings are at Camera 3 Cinemas, South Second and San Carlos streets, San Jose, and UA Pavilion Theatres, 201 South Second St., San Jose

Information: Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling (408) 295-FEST or online at www.Cinequest.org. Cinequest IX film guides can be picked up at the following bookstores: Printer's Inc. on California Avenue and Stacey's on University Avenue, both in Palo Alto, and Kepler's on El Camino Real in Menlo Park.

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