Saturday, November 19, 2011

Chasing your dreams over the edge...

Don't chase your dreams over a cliff.  Liam's Haiku, dream sequence - Spirit Lake © 2011

Autumn is a good time of the year to collect your thoughts, and rethink your existence. In November of 2009, I had a major episode coming to terms with spending 20K and a year of my life shooting a feature film, and having no plan on how I was going to turn the 50+ hours of footage into a finished edit.  The day after my last shoot (December 10th, 2009), I packed up the Duplimax mobile and headed to California.

Spirit Lake © 2011

In October of last year, I had another profound moment after completing a finished edit of Spirit Lake and realizing I had an even bigger mountain to cross finishing the 6 dream sequences that were essential to the plot, and turning this gorgeous disaster of independent filmmaking into an presentable movie.  I was scraping by in San Diego at the time and figured the one place I was going to make it happen was in Los Angeles.  In November 2010, I landed a gig at an amazing studio in Culver City called Paranoid.

"Ascending Hooks" dream sequence - Spirit Lake © 2011

In March, after grinding away at Paranoid for months, I earned my spot on the roster and had gotten permission to use the awesome resources of the studio to work on Spirit Lake.  I also was able to move off of the air mattress on the floor of Nate Polzin's living room and into my own pad.  I had finally found a way to finish the film... but not without selling the rest of my soul.

"Lake of Fire" dream sequence - Spirit Lake © 2011

When my filmmaking obsession began in the spring of 2008, I had a life built up around me from 30 years of living in the midwest.  I had a loving wife, beautiful home & nice shit, supportive family, lifelong friends, a social life.  I taught my craft at a university, and had a steady stream of freelance design work based on a hard-earned reputation.  I started a film & animation studio in Milwaukee (Bib Simmons, 2008-2010 r.i.p.) and recruited a group of bright young talented artists.  Spending a year on my previous solo project (Escape from Gizemboob, animation - April 2008) and being rejected from all but one film festival (thanks Ross), I knew I was going to need help.  When our first studio project (Backwoods, film -june 2008) was an success in almost every way, I had the feeling we could do anything together. After a couple more worthy efforts over the following months (Dr. Zolo P.S.A., animation - August 2008 & Magic Pen, film & animation - November 2008), I had the confidence to take it to the next level and the studio had began production on the feature length film Spirit Lake in December of 2008.

Nearly three years later I sit here in my chilly Los Angeles bachelor pad... listening to Beethoven radio (not usually my style), sipping red wine, and trying to articulate in this blog post coming to terms with the fact that there is nothing left of my life except finishing this movie. I'm pretty sure that even my dog hates me right now.

"Liam's Haiku" dream sequence - Spirit Lake © 2011

Dream Sequences; why animation turns my face white...

If the edit of Spirit Lake would have been shit, I would of fudged these dream sequence animations and pushed the movie out over a year ago. But last October as Nate and I watched the edit, we realized we had something special. This wasn't another deranged flop like my animation work. Spirit Lake was special and I had my opportunity to make a serious statement as an animator and filmmaker.   I also understood the most challenging work lay ahead.

I burned a lot of bridges to get this movie finished... I eventually learned to turn my back on people in order to get things done. I'm not apologizing for any of it, except in March of this year, as I began to work on these dream sequences I burned somebody I respected too much, who didn't deserve it, and for all the same reasons. Angry and delusional about what I had done, I gave up on a personal life in Los Angeles, developed a bitter, entrenched, isolationist attitude, and completely enveloped myself in this animation work. There was no other way I would ever get it done.

"Snagged" dream sequence - Spirit Lake © 2011

Since, I have completed the six dream sequences, around 45 seconds a piece.  Each from start to finish took about 3 weeks.  Most of the work took place between April and September at Paranoid. As I finished a draft of each dream sequence, I was able to apply what I had learned to the next.  After cycling through all six a few times, they started to congeal and reach the same level of finish.

"Sabina's Tub" dream sequence - Spirit Lake © 2011

All of the elements in the dream sequences are real.  I would describe my technique as video animation.   I don't generate any source, nothing is artificial.  The smoke, fire, water, ice, etc... are real elements I mash together using special effects magic, much like your brain mashes together your memories into dreams. The beginning of last month, as I previewed all six drafts, I got an inclination that the end was near.

"Ned's Demise" dream sequence - Spirit Lake © 2011

Visual Effects and Video Matte Paintings, make it stop!

Below is a series of what I call Video Matte Paintings, which I created from the mountains of extra footage I had from Spirit Lake, combing up to 8 different layers of footage. As I reached this stage I realized that I have become a vfx master over the year and I was able to change pretty much any element of the movie I didn't like, and tweak things on a whim.

"Wolski's Tavern" video matte painting - Spirit Lake © 2011
"Date Night" video matte painting - Spirit Lake © 2011

I completed drafts of all 6 dream sequences in September.  Next remained the much less intimidating challenge of conforming 90 minutes of live action and 6 minutes of animation, plus a series of visual effects shots and cleanup work, which included stabilization, de-graining, and color grading.

Original crappy footage
Awesome composite - Spirit Lake © 2011

Are we there yet?

Spirit Lake is now in post audio production.  The super talented Alex Ma is cleaning the dialog and adding sound design.  There are plenty of finishing touches still being made as all of the elements of the film are now complete. As we arrive at a final version around the end of year (yes, 2011... for real), the musical score, already written, will be integrated into the film. My last item of business will be the title and ending credit sequence, which I am still holding on on help for...

"Liam's Haiku" dream sequence transition - Spirit Lake © 2011

Big aspirations don't come without an equal amount of sacrifice... I don't usually talk about personal or emotional side of my life, outside of my work.  Normally that's all there is, and I've learned that suppressing emotions and giving up on friendship was the only way I would get this done.  Over the past 3 years, I've destroyed too many relationships. My only friend here in LA? Nate Polzin, lead actor, Spirit Lake...

Nate's listed on my phone as "Wayne Speedstock", his character name. Obsessed? - Spirit Lake © 2011

This fall, as I stomped out the last few embers of compassion left in my soul, I came to the realization I was going to finish this film. Making Spirit Lake had exceeded my expectations in almost every way. My life isn't a joke... I felt validation. But as the 3 years of life consuming work and determination comes to an end, I find there isn't much left in it's place.

So, now I have to start a new life, in Los Angeles, with a budding career, and a feature film...  I hope I can get over it.  It's just you and me Spirit Lake (and Nate), here we go!

"Whoa there Bronco Bill" - Spirit Lake © 2011


  1. Joe, thank you for not settling for anything less than your full vision of what Spirit Lake could be. Your perseverance will pay off. There are many of us back in the Midwest who look forward to seeing the final result of your efforts. Thanks to Nate for standing by you when the road was rough. And please know that you have a friend here in Chicago.

  2. I really appreciate it Walt... Your support has been so awesome. Can't wait to cast you in my next project!

    For the record, I never gave up on anyone who didn't give up on me first, all part of the process. The next one will be different.

  3. Great insight into your work. It's a rough road, but you've traveled it well. You're a truly talented man. I am not only looking forward to seeing the completed version of Spirit Lake, but looking forward to seeing what comes next.