Stephen van Vuuren
When Will It Be Done - Part 6
Updated: Apr 6, 2018
FIRST TO MARKET, FIRST TO FORGOTTEN
Again I wondered if this project was simply not meant to be. By this time, I had been at three GSCA conferences. I had seen completed projects, including a few space-related titles, rushed out to market. That proved to be profound experience. Watching a rushed, modestly-budgeted, average-to-poor giant-screen presentation was difficult. “Rushed” still meant two to four years, and “modestly-budgeted” meant at least a million or two dollars.
Here are the two movies friends, family and colleagues panicked about when they were released that they would “beat” ISR to market and “win”. To my knowledge, neither film played in a single giant screen theater or had any real theatrical release and have vanished with barely a blip.
A few of these films were basically never screened, booked, sold, or released even on DVD. Others played just a handful of places and vanished into thin air. The premiere of a film is singular moment — and once it’s gone it can’t come back. It became very clear that if you are going to devote years of your life and all your resources, why not go all in?
I knew I would rather take eight years to make a good film than four years to make something I did not feel good about showing people. That seemed a far bigger waste of time. But I did want to feel that the effort was worthwhile, and so far I was unsure. My families and friends loved it and said great things. But the real test is people who have no idea (and don’t care) who you are. They were silent.
But a strange thing happened beginning on Saturday, March 4, 2011. My birthday. I was asked, along with the film’s main backer at the time, Mike Malaska, to present at a local astronomy event. That presentation went very well as I showed the Saturn clip to a live audience of a couple of hundred people and was blown away at their response. Sure I was local, but most of these people did not know me and they really knew astronomy.
That night, I got an email that from io9.com, a Web site (like many others) that was using one of my images without accreditation. They were nice about it and said they loved my clip and might mention it on their site. I had no idea who io9.com was at that point.
They “mentioned” it on Monday, March 6, in a very complementary story on their front page. My inbox exploded, hits and plays in the tens of thousands rolled in. Then NASA picked it up the following week as an “Astronomy Picture of the Day.” Media coverage, including television, began building from around the world. It moved to over a 1.5 million plays and over 5 millions hits on the Web site over the next couple of years.
Donations started rolling in and nothing has been the same since. All the work and struggle was suddenly and completely validated. The overwhelmingly positive response (other than the Uranus jokes and CGI doubters), the many messages about how powerfully the clip affected people — some even claiming it had changed their lives (leaving a job, or pursuing a lifelong dream) — turned my dream into a living breathing entity, no longer a solitary journey.
And people wanted to be part of the process — my dream of “a film by the people, for the people.” From a handful of volunteers the film grew today having nearly 100 volunteers doing everything from scientific analysis to image processing to social media outreach.
The viral success of the film’s first footage caught the eyes of distributors inside the giant-screen community as well. It was the first giant-screen footage to do so until Jerusalem’s moving aerials. I was approached by various parties, including some major ones with NDAs (your secrets are still safe).
But the large established distributors were both confused by and wary of a film so far outside the standard conventions for giant-screen films, except for the subject matter. And it was from a unknown, unproven filmmaker.
Like the others, Tina Ratterman, founder of a new independent distribution company, BIG & Digital, did not understand exactly what In Saturn’s Rings was and was wary, but she presciently realized it was project worth learning more about.
At the 2011 fall conference, an extended three-minute version of the 5.6K Saturn flythough was shown on 15/70 film for the first time.
By December 2012, I had signed a distribution agreement with BIG & Digital. But Tina and film buyers very understandably wanted to know one thing. Yes, that one thing.
When will it be done?
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
A rarely asked but potentially revealing question is why I’ve ended up being the sole filmmaker without any partners, large or small. I could say it’s because I’m a demanding auteur with such a singular, uncompromising vision that I’ve driven all potential partners away in my relentless pursuit of perfection. Or maybe it’s just my rank body odor from too many hours slaving in a hot computer-heated basement.
But the truth is far less melodramatic. From the beginning, I’ve looked for partners; e.g., my trip to Vegas. I’ve signed NDAs, had the meetings, and made the presentations of business plans. I’ve had people on board for short periods — interns, two other filmmakers, a household name in media distribution.
But they all leave and it’s always very clear why. The road less traveled, in this case, never traveled, is “tedious.” That’s an exact quote from the four interns that each lasted a day after finding out what the actual work of the film consists of. And not only is the road tedious, it’s long, lonely with dangers unknown. While losing interns was no big loss, as volunteers have done far more than dozens of interns, the filmmaking partners left to pursue another giant-screen films that would take much less time and effort, and probably have a better chance in the market. The household name decided to acquire a finished film from somewhere else rather than wait on an admittedly high-risk, long-to-complete project.
THE QUESTION REDUX
Which brings us back to the Question. Making any film is hard. Even a short film on a short schedule is hard. (I’ve run a team in the “48 Hour Film Project” nine times over the past 16 years), so I’ve delivered a total of 42 minutes of content made in 18 days from conception to theaterical screening, most of it award-winning.
I’ve produced a narrative feature, dozens of other short narrative and commercial projects from the most dry, standard industrial video to experimental non-narrative films.
And they all followed a basic pre-production, production, post-production, distribution model. Except for In Saturn’s Rings. I realize it’s a broken record, but I’ve found myself doing something never before attempted. There were no models, no case studies, no projects to research, no colleagues to consult, no one who had been there before to offer sage advice.
In fact, there were, and are, naysayers galore. Over the years, leading CGI artists have written me, sent examples, some of them spending weeks on them, explaining why it was foolish to use only photos and not CGI. Accomplished musicians wrote to tell me that since “Adagio for Strings” had been used in Platoon or Elephant Man, it was huge mistake for this film. Others were convinced I was lying about using only photographs. Many, many foundations, companies, and individuals passed on the project, either believing it could not be done or would not be interesting, or simply not understanding what I was doing or why the hell it was taking so damn long.
But this story is not about the negatives, it’s about the big picture, the really, really, really big picture.
PART 7 is here!