PIRATE CINEMA

There’s something that’s been missing from the overall thread of this album of films that I haven’t been able to put my finger on until now. I’ve wanted this “after-hours television” feel to the King of Spades but anything that’s been floating to the surface has been schmaltzy and way too overdone.

Until I went down my 90th rabbit hole with this and re-discovered pirate television and pirate radio. Subversive, clandestine infiltration. Hijacking. Stealing. Pirate radio and TV stole airwaves with one purpose: DISRUPT.

The antenna of local TV stations, like the ones below, were prone for intrusion since they would announce what frequencies they operated on at the end of every broadcasting day. Remember broadcast day sign-offs? Man…I’m old.

The intention of the films that make up the King of Spades is to do the same thing. Disrupt to a point that it forces a change of perspective. Or at least a questioning of your own perspective. Even if just for a minute. Big difference between my situation and the pirate signal situation though: I’ve got more time. As much as I want of it. Pirate television interruptions were fleeting. A minute? Maybe less? They’re like streakers at a football game…shocking and disrupting for a quick second then suddenly the moment is gone and we’re swiftly back to reality.

Like…some of you might remember this being on national news in the US…when this guy dressed as Max Headrome and hijacked a Chicago TV station’s airwaves during its regular programming. If you were born after this happened or weren’t aware, know your history.👇 Starts around the 20 sec. mark.

It was an infamous hack. So was this completely separate incident in Syracuse, New York. From the New York Times👇

In trouble when found. They were never found:

“No one knows for sure how many people saw telecasts over the weekend of such fare as “Deep Throat” and “Rocky” on a station calling itself Lucky Seven. What is certain is that the programs came over Channel 7, and there is not supposed to be any Channel 7 in Syracuse.”

Deep Throat and Rocky 😂 These people even made a station identification featuring a pair of dice rolled to seven, backed by female singers.

Well, those days are over. Long enough ago for it to be a faded memory hanging from a shoestring. Below is the website of something called “Pirate Television” out of Seattle but it’s a legal, nationally syndicated program that “challenges the Media Blockade by bringing you alternative information and independent programming that is unavailable on the Corporate Sponsor-Ship.” Cool idea. But not the real McCoy. Also, their archive goes back to 2008 but their website looks like it goes back to 1995. Neon green Times New Roman font on black? Stylish.

Anyway…this sort of underground, off-the-radar hijacking gets me excited. We know there’s pirate radio. And there’s been pirate television. But has there ever been a pirate cinema? Could there even be a true pirate cinema? Hmmm…

MAKING OF: A BUG BALLET

At this point, 13 films have made their way to the list of that will make up the full album. Most of them are still vague ideas but four of them are pretty solid ideas. One of them being this insect ballet.

A while back I did a motion study of a ballerina, which was totally out of my comfort zone. I’m not exactly a ballet type of guy so I have no idea about anything when it comes to ballet dance. I learned a lot during the making of that film, especially that the expression of emotion mainly comes from the arms. The arms are the “eyebrows”. I’m going to be continuing to implement what I learned about the movement of a ballerina and apply it to insects. More appendages equals more emotion, I think.

The appendages I designed for “The Dying Swan” are sort of like those of an insect. Here’s the film for reference:

One thing I had to remember during the pre-production of this insect ballet film was to eliminate things that aren’t necessary to help speed up the process. For example, I sat down to do storyboards and after 15 minutes here’s where they ended up:

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So I’m back to working without storyboards and it feels really good. I’ve planned every shot in this film in my head but I still want to leave room for improvisation and surprises. If I was working with a team, it would probably be necessary to pre-visualize the shot ideas to them. But, I’m not…so…bye bye boards.

All of the films on this album will have a commentary on the mechanisms of power and control. I don’t want to give away what the commentary in this film is, but I will share some references for the insect designs:

And here’s a sneak peek of the style as it stands right now:

A dazed housefly.

Rough design of a fleet of dragonflies.

Lastly, never forget the importance of staying organized:

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Stay tuned for more as this progresses…♠️

MY OWN FRANKENSTEIN

I’ve been juggling three elements the last few weeks as this project comes more and more into focus: the making of a feature film, the making of an album and the cross-reappropriation that is required to strike a balance that feels the best between these two things.

An album of music and a feature length film (as we currently know them) are completely different. Albums can be disjointed and still work. A feature film cannot. Even films like Pulp Fiction, Memento and Citizen Kane have a sequential logic. The two are also consumed in different ways. Feature length films are typically meant to be seen in a theater, where the film is much bigger than you are and it’s unstoppable. Albums are, and have always been, stoppable, rewindable, fast-forwardable, skippable, repeatable and intimate.

Another huge difference: The average album of music is roughly 45 minutes. The average feature film is roughly double that, 90 minutes. We rarely see feature length films that are 45 minutes in length. Which brings up another point about what deems a feature length film. I go by the Academy’s definition:

All eligible motion pictures, unless otherwise noted (see Paragraph 9, below), must be:

  1. feature length (defined as over 40 minutes)

Not everyone defines a feature film as a film over 40 minutes, though. This past year at the Emile Awards (Europe’s Animation Awards), a film called This Magnificent Cake! was nominated (and won) for Best Direction in an Animated Short Film. It’s 43 minutes long and travelled the world at film festival’s competing as a feature film. I can’t find anywhere in Emile’s Eligibility rules a time length that deems it to be considered a short film. Sundance says a feature length film is 50 minutes. SXSW says it’s 40 minutes. Cannes says it’s 60 minutes. As a matter of fact, Cannes doesn’t even accept films between 15 and 60 minutes long. So, as you can see, like most things in the film world, it’s a fuckin’ free-for-all.

Despite these haphazard definitions, I’m sticking with the universally accepted time-length of 45 minutes for an LP album. The Grammy’s defines an album as “no less than (5) five different tracks, and have a total playing time of no less than 15 minutes.” This easily puts me in “album range” and fits under the Academy’s eligibility rules for time length. I personally don’t care about the Oscars (or Sundance, honestly) but at least I have something concrete from an authority that can back up my thinking.

So in making an album of films I have to ask myself, will an audience treat the King of Spades like an album or like a film? Will they consider it to be rewindable like an album? Will they skip certain films to get to the one they like in the sequence? Will they go back and watch one of the short films twice or three times before moving onto the next? Or, will they force themselves through the whole thing searching for a “thread” or a “narrative”. Will they only be interested in one of the “singles” and disregard the rest of the album?

It’s a strange hybrid. It’s like Frankenstein. Or RoboCop. Or Robot Chicken, for that matter. Putting things together that don’t really belong with each other can be part of what makes art interesting. A quote attributed to Heraclitus goes, “A wonderful harmony arises from joining together the seemingly unconnected". I found this quote to be true while working on the Area 52 films. But will it work for this film? Will it work at all?

I suppose this is the nature of experimentation but most experiments fail.

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I’ve been a bit behind with this blog so here are some more album favorites I’ve been listening to the last few weeks. Click on any of the images below to listen to the album on Spotify:

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JUMP STREET

This week, I started this project in earnest. As exciting as it is to jump into this full force, it’s extremely uncomfortable. After a year of not making any films, I’ve gotten very accustomed to the commercial world again. Running a business requires it’s own focus and attention and making money is very good and very important. Without it, I couldn’t even dream of self-funding my work. Or, to quote Muhammed Ali, if I even dreamt about it I better wake up and apologize.

So I’m right back to where I was all those months ago, splitting the work embryo into fraternal twins. Making art and making commercials are definitely at variance but it’s incredibly difficult to just rip yourself out of the mindset required to tackle commissioned work and get into the mindset of making art. It’s truly like oil and water. Everything is different. Lifestyle, mindset, stability, sleep patterns, eating patterns, focus and priorities are all changed when you exit one of these realms and into the other.

After spending a good portion of the week remembering some of my own advice, I tried to apply it the best I can at this difficult starting point. I was reminded of my own personal reasons of why I even make films in the first place. This was key. I remembered to trust myself. I remembered to take risks. I remembered that art is not safe (this was also key). Commercials are safe. Art is not. I’m not fully there yet but I can’t wait to get to a place where I relish improvisation and simply DOING.

Also - and this might be a little corny - but I remembered to have fun. Fun is a key ingredient and is one of the main reasons why I put myself through the torture of making these films. I like to believe that if you aren’t having fun while making art, then you aren’t really making art. Even torture can be fun.

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The first thing I did this week was to aggregate all of my notes from the last few months and create a first rough order of films for the album. These ideas may not be the strongest ones in the end, but they are the most stubborn at the moment. Here’s an initial album order. I’m sure this will change 100 times by the time it’s complete:

The next few weeks will involve a lot more messy vomiting of ideas. Also, there will be a lot more activity on the King of Spades Instagram documenting this mess so feel free to follow along.

I’ve been listening to albums in their entirety while I work and have been sharing my favorites of the week in my IG stories. Any and all album recommendations are welcome so feel free to DM me yours.

Here are this week’s favorites. Click on any of the images below to listen to the album on Spotify:

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ON BEING VAGUE

Lately I've been watching YouTube clips of great artists reflecting on making their great albums.  The two that I've watched multiple times so far is Pink Floyd reflecting on the making of 'Dark Side of the Moon' and The Beatles in the studio making the 'White Album'.  Two classics that sound like they were made by people who were sent from the heavens specifically to make those albums.  Although Pink Floyd had made 7 albums prior to Dark Side of the Moon, they were still an underground band with no hits.  The Beatles, quite the opposite.

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You would imagine that The Beatles would have such an air of confidence in their ability to write and record classic after classic that they wouldn't be afraid when starting something new.  Same for Pink Floyd, who were pioneers of live performance visualizations and had a rabid underground following.

But, the one major take away from listening to the members of both bands talking about initially starting the recordings was that they only really had a vague idea as to what they were doing.

John Lennon talks about being paranoid during recording sessions.  Paul McCartney talks about how certain songs unfolded in a collaborative, open-minded, loose way.  They tried things.  They failed sometimes, made adjustments, jammed, experimented and worked through the songs on the fly to get to the final piece they were happy with.  But the ideas they started with were still very vague.

Roger Waters and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd talk about "On the Run", the second track on Dark Side of the Moon, in a very shoulder-shrugging manner.  They had almost no idea how to use the VSC3 synthesizer they used to create the track.

Waters and Gilmour just, ya know, fucking around.

Waters and Gilmour just, ya know, fucking around.

The footsteps and voices heard on the track are the only external sound effects used.  The plane sounds, explosions and the sonic tapestry of anxiety and hurriedness were all made using a machine they initially had no idea how to use.  They had to bring in someone from the company to give a demonstration on what else it could do.

The lesson here is that the artists who made these albums set out to create something that was only a vague idea when they had started it and they were not confident going in.  I don't know about you, but to hear John Lennon admitting that he was nervous and paranoid about succeeding on what eventually became the White Album is pretty reassuring.

In my own personal experience, being vague and leaving the door open to let other ideas in (or out) is an incredibly freeing way to work.  I think it's the best way.  They don't tell you that in film school.  At SVA, animation was posed as something that is rigidly planned.  Clearly you don't want to do anymore work than you need to do but following the same exact steps every single time and never leaving your lane can be pretty stifling.  Maybe it works for some.  Like, if your goal is make hit TV shows that sell a bunch of merchandise, then the rigid method will probably work for you.  But if you're trying to push your own personal boundaries and create fresh and exciting work, be vague.

VOMITING SUCKS

I've found that one of the best places to start a project is at the end.  I mean, imagining what the finished product is, what it looks like, what it sounds like, how it makes you feel, etc.  I even give these imaginary films titles.  Sometimes I start with titles and go from there.  An intriguing title can open the door to a great idea. But this tactic only gets you so far and you can all too easily fall into a vortex of thought redundancy.  Inevitably, you have to actually DO something.

No matter how many films I've completed, the process of starting a new one is always the same. Every. Single. Time.  Never once have I had a lightning bolt epiphany where I suddenly have all of the ammunition to go ahead and just make something. It requires action and elbow grease. Just make something.  While making things, you find out more.  It's a process of discovery. The more you dig, the more you find, the more you fall in love. That doesn't happen with thinking alone.

But still, even after 52 films, I force myself, for some reason, to feel like I have to start at the beginning.  With blankness.  But experience has taught me that this just doesn't work.  Zero multiplied by any number, no matter how high the value, is still zero.  You can imagine all of the possibilities for a project, sweat structural details, get real nitty-gritty with bits that may have been living in your head, think about actors (I don't but maybe you do), think about music, think about minutia all day long.  But until you manifest those ideas with an initial vomiting, it's not real. You gotta vomit. Vomiting sucks but it's so crucial. There aren't any beings on Earth that enjoy vomiting. Ever hear a cat vomit? Sounds like someone is plunging a toilet full of gelatin. Then the cat's face expands like they're falling from an airplane while being choked. Then, suddenly, it pours out and it's a mess.

Cleaning up that mess is really the "beginning" because, usually, there's a gold nugget in there just waiting to be riffed on.  Sifting through the vomit is a dirty, dirty job that usually happens behind closed doors. The process is really ugly. I hate when movies show an artist's process with beautiful sunlight pouring through the windows and dissolve after dissolve of them just banging it out as if obstacles don't exist.  It's bullshit.

 

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“You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

- Jack London

INSPIRATION?

My initial vomiting are the following images.  I've collected over 100 painfully obvious Google images that are meant to supply some kind of inspiration, even if just to get me in the mood:

Other inspiration comes from reading.  I selected a few books from my shelf that have to do with greed for power, revenge, dystopian control and primal control. As I read, if something strikes me as pertinent to the concept of The King of Spades, I'll write it down. Here's my initial reading list to help stir the pot:

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The real work begins when you've got to start organizing your ideas.  I work in Notes, both on my phone and on my desktop.  I prefer typing ideas so I can easily edit, delete, move, copy and keep them compartmentalized. Writing things down is nice and romantic and all but, for me, much less efficient:

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THE FIRST REAL VOMIT

The moral of this story is that organizing what you've consumed is necessary but it's useless without taking action on the bigger goal.  Right after Labor Day weekend I'll be starting production on the first film.  I have no idea if it will work or if it will end up making it into the album.  But, who fuckin' cares, right?  It's an insect ballet that I've been thinking about for quite a while.  Very anxious to dive in.

I'M MAKING AN "ALBUM"

WTF AM I DOING?

I've decided to start up a new project and, although it's going to be a lot of work, I'm really excited to take it on.

The name of this project is THE KING OF SPADES.  Much like Area 52, THE KING OF SPADES will be another collection of short films.  Also like Area 52, the films will be experimental in nature and I want to explore new and radical directions with a plethora of materials.  Unlike AREA 52, I will definitely not be making 52 films, there are no constraints on time-length or the time I have to produce them, and the films will not be released one by one.

THE CONCEPT

In cartomancy (that's card-reading), the king of spades is the most powerful card in the deck. The themes of the films will deal with things like authority, power, greed, control, patriarchy, slavery mechanisms, and the eternal struggle between the dominators and the dominated; all toxic components of modern life.

With THE KING OF SPADES, I'm setting out to create something more pointed and a more sophisticated than my prior work.  By making a slew of short films and releasing them all at once as a singular collection, it's very similar to the way a band releases an album.  In fact, there are many parallels to the music industry.

The idea is that you can watch the entire collection strung out as a feature-length film, roughly 40-45 minutes.  OR, you can just watch the "singles". The "singles" will live as both self-contained pieces, garnished with titles and credits, and also live as compartments of the feature-length film, sans titles and credits.

POSSIBLE COOL THINGS BEYOND THE FILMS

In my wildest imagination, I'd want to release this project as an actual packaged product, no different than buying an album.  The "liner notes" might be an actual book where you can look at pretty artwork and read about each film in sequential order.  For AREA 52, I wrote a blog each week to correspond to each film where I talked about the motivation for making each one, a short essay on the particular topic and a brief behind-the-scenes explanation.  So, the concept for the THE KING OF SPADES book companion is similar, but prettier.  And possibly more in-depth.

Here are some rough visualizations/inspirations:

 

Once the "album" drops, I might take it on tour like a traveling pop-up gallery/screening experience.

I don't know.  I have no money to make any of this happen and no idea how I'm going to pull it off.  But just announcing this in black and white is a great first step to making it real.


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