I picked up my first super-8 camera in seventh grade in the George Romeroesque backwoods of my Pittsburgh suburb of Wexford -- the same woods Christina Aguilera emerged from to stardom. I grabbed a keyboard and began coding. Who would’ve thought that sprocketed and electronic media of the day would merge into something marvelous as we move into the third decade of the 21st century? Since I was thirteen, I’ve imagined a world of entertainment that breaks all boundaries in Hollywood. The lack of available technology and lack of available training has always meant that I had to learn from trial and error on both fronts: computers and filmmaking. These are the roots of my media-story.
Hard Knocks lead to early inspiration
Towards the end of the 1970’s, I was not the most confident person socially. I had already written a novel and two plays, but did not care about football, cars, or rock music. For two hours each day on the way to and from junior high school, it was open season on me. You see, a clumsy boy with a lisp moved to our neighborhood and saw me as competition. Unlike me, who was thin and scrawny, he and the other boys that picked on me must have been eating steroid-filled beef because they were all over six feet tall by seventh grade, and I was their target the entire bus ride. The bullying was so merciless that today those boys would have been arrested and expelled, but nobody did anything as they smoked cigarettes on the bus and tortured me. It taught me lessons of injustice that would impact my entire life.
I didn’t need friends except my fellow band members. Steve Frick accepted me as a friend and he was first saxophone and I was second. Funny thing is, Steve became a celebrated Space Shuttle Astronaut.
But I didn’t have any social outlets to take up my time, and instead made the huge basement in our Wexford home my lab and playground. After self-experimenting with electronic kits, building haunted houses out of sheets and strobe lights, and creating musical slideshows from our family vacations, I built a darkroom and a home-made photo enlarger with cardboard and the lens from a broken projector, using a household bulb mounted inside. I was immediately making black and white prints and learned dodging, burning and everything you now do on photoshop with bits of cardboard, developer, stop bath and fixer. I paid for it all with money from mowing lawns.
My mother was a special ed teacher on track to become a Ph.D. and she taught in my junior high school. Seeing my delight at creating but my lack of a social life she asked her friend the Spanish teacher Ms. Latari to lend some me her film equipment for a week, and gave me one roll of black and white silent film a bit over 3-minutes in length. Armed with a basic book on filmmaking, I carefully planned how I was going to invest every frame on that first cartridge.
Star Wars inspired
I hoped I could create spaceship effects like John Dykstra on Star Wars so I poked holes in black cardboard and backlit it for a star field, and built ships from parts scavenged from plastic models just like my heroes at ILM. I did what I could with what I had, so I suspended my custom spaceships on fishing line and filmed them in front of the starlit backdrop. My “explosions” were simply animated using the head of pin on the celluloid. “Laser beams” were hand-scratched on the tiny film, and they looked real because the edges came out blue with the center clear when I used color stock.
Those humble beginnings started a life-long journey of film for me. I started filmmaking by DOING, not by watching. (It wasn't until film school at University of Bridgeport and then USC CInema that I learned what a "close-up" was!)
On subsequent rolls of color super-8 film, I realized that a single pass didn’t allow double or triple exposures, so I bought a Craven Backwinder with my lawn mowing money. A backwinder is a thick metal box you slide your super-8 cartridge into and after applying scotch tape on the spindle, there was enough slack to shoot a few seconds, remove the cartridge and rewind to shoot another pass. Now I had a rudimentary optical printer! As I said, NOTHING stops me from creating to this day as it obviously didn’t back in the 1970’s.
From age 13-16, with no film class, no training, and no instructors I created mattes just like Hollywood. I filmed explosions from firecracker powder and superimposed these on spaceships by backwinding the film. I taught myself how to sync a cassette deck to the film so I added near-sync sound effects and music which I created with a DJ mixing board. Clay animation was next. Admittedly bloody and barbaric, my animated clay dinosaur movies were epic scenes of T-Rex’s eating brontosauruses while plastic army men shot them. Clay volcanoes erupted lava filmed frame-by-frame on the spare kitchen table in the basement.
Coding on 8-bit computers
Meanwhile, my brother Rob (who would become senior VP of DirecTV and invented the technology with over 60 patents) started using a TRS-80 Level I personal computer at school. I was instantly drawn to computers and I began writing BASIC programs on paper to type in at school. While the neighborhood boys were playing football, fixing cars and listening to Van Halen, I was playing with machine language computer code and filming dummies being thrown out of windows while listening to Mozart. I was different to say the least!
The high school had TRS-80 Level II computer, which was way more powerful than a Level I. It had a blazing 4 MHz Z80A processor (Z was for Zylog), and I think 16K or 32K of RAM. Kilobytes, not megabytes, gigabytes or terrabytes. Kilobytes.
I coded A.I.-like programs that responded like a real person by analyzing the words you used in the spirit of the famous program “Eliza”, which emulated a psychiatrist. By using multidimensional string arrays, I soon branched out to creating a handful of complex “choose your own adventure” programs similar to “Adventure”. This coding knowledge would become essential when I later began developing immersive media.
In 1980, I got my own Atari 800 computer. It was the most powerful intellectual sandbox I could imagine. Now I could write my own BASIC and machine-language software and invent interactive storytelling but had to overcome the 16K memory limitations -- yes sixteen kilobytes. With my Denny’s income I spent $800 to upgrade to 32K so I could craft really amazing interactive adventures. In my program “House,” audiences moved through a virtual world, gathering clues and inventory to avoid the climatic explosion. Although text-based, my games were every bit as intriguing as “Grand Theft Auto” from a storytelling perspective.
Animation, claymation and pixilation
After I became adept at claymation, in 1979 I read about a technique called Pixelation. It was my first excuse to film with real actors. Set to Antonio Vivaldi, my short film had a plot, characters, and a climactic ending. I was ready to gather more actors and start shooting sound films by the time I was a junior in high school.
Once a lonely victim of bullying, filmmaking brought fifty friends and we started the Richland High Film Club (today the Pine-Richland film club). None of us had training, just humor and creative energy, but we had a very patient and forward thinking GATE teacher who allowed our imaginations to run wild while we wrote scripts, did pre-production, and played Dungeons and Dragons on the side.
Live-action films and friends
The film club created three live action sound films which we shot outside of school from 1980-1982. Dragon Quest was a 22-minute comedy rip off of “Holy Grail”, The Maltese Hamster was a 30-minute spy spoof, and at the end of senior year we created King’s Bane, a 1-hour medieval “epic” with a cast and crew of fifty students and music composed by a fellow band member who conducted a student string orchestra.
Using authentic locations like the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, the students in the film club rented authentic props and costumes from Pittsburgh theater companies. We forged and cut our own metal swords and shields. A member had horses so we draped the steeds in custom sewn animal wardrobe.
Our three films were funded from my Denny’s busboy income and door to door donut sales by the film club. A local baker sold us a dozen donuts for $1 and we sold them for $3. King’s Bane was twice written up in The Pittsburgh Press and premiered to a packed house in the high school auditorium with custom-printed tickets.
I was accepted in the the University of Bridgeport's film program where on day one I was immersed in 16mm filmmaking and film history courses. I learned to use an optical printer for special effects and made my own short 16mm film that was mixed and finished in Pittsburgh -- complete with A/B roll negative conforming and printed on 16mm.
In my Sophomore year, I transferred to USC and was accepted into the cinema/television program. My emphasis was directing and editing. My senior film was a rock musical called SPATS, which was ambitiously shot on 16mm film and featured professional musicians and stage actors.
I started as a video technician on classics like Tape Heads, The Wonder Years (pilot) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before my professional directing and editing career began.
My mentors included the late great Irvin Kershner (director of The Empire Strike Back), Lee Straughn owner of Dale Carnege for the Southwest US, and many more.
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HOW I STARTED