Resurrecting Vanessa

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Something I’ve never had to do before is recast a role that’s already been seen by audiences. With short films, or even features, if an actor drops out at the last moment and you’re forced to do emergency recasting, the audience is totally unaware. But with a web series, which is basically like a TV show, people have watched previous episodes with original actor already.

Lauren Henschen, our original Vanessa in the Squishy Studios web series “Normally This Weird”, has had amazing success with her new band Super Stereo. Naturally, we’re all so proud of her right now, but with this success means she’s now fiendishly busy. With Michael Peterson (who plays Simon) leaving for South America to shoot his documentary this summer, we just weren’t able to make the schedule work, and Lauren and I came to the conclusion that the best route was to recast the part.

Now we did have one distinct advantage that the character of Vanessa herself has actually died in the show and was brought back to life by dark magic! ūüôā So, much in the spirit of Doctor Who, Vanessa has been resurrected …

Christina Fruciano Stoffan as the new Vanessa

The talented and funny Christina Fruciano Stoffan got the part as the “new” Vanessa. She was in fact at the right place at the right time, having actually been one of the performers at the NCT benefit show for “Normally This Weird” back in January. The priority wasn’t find another actress that looked like Lauren … I wasn’t trying to fool the audience … Instead, the goal was to cast an actress that had the right comedic skills for the part.

This begged the question … how do we handle the recasting the role in the actual show itself? I didn’t want to go back and reshoot everything Lauren had done with the new actress, essentially erasing her performance on the show … that just seemed wrong to me. Would we actually show the physical transformation from one actress to another (like in “Doctor Who”)? That seemed wrong and just a little too on the nose for me.

But, this is a comedy after all, I couldn’t miss the opportunity of making a few winks at the change as the other character’s perceive Vanessa’s recent change and “differences”, so I added in a few new lines to show to do that.

Another thing I had to realize is that, now that the audience had a new Vanessa, a new actresses, they had to establish a new rapport with her. The “new” Vanessa needed additional face time so that they could get to know her and make a connection. Too often filmmakers don’t consider “face time”, which allows the viewers to get to know a character. So, because of this, I wrote two new scenes to add to the show.

Michael Peterson as Simon (Left), Adam Rini as Swivey (center), and Christina Fruciano Stoffan as Vanessa (Right)

Wow, we’re getting so close to the end! The last shooting days of Season One of “Normally This Weird” is coming up on May 7th and 8th! Woo hoo!

Filmmaking tips for kids

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One hundred and seventy-five kids at Screenwriting Day at the Phoenix Film Festival

Last Thursday I had the honor of sitting on a panel of filmmakers at the IFP/PHX Kids Day at the Phoenix Film Festival that shared their filmmaking advice and experiences with kids Grade 6 through 12.  Since I was making movies at that age, I had a ton of ideas on the subject, not all of which I had time to mention on the day.

* Write a script. ¬†I know, this one sounds obvious but it’s was a distinct stage in our career (probably the tenth grade) when we moved away from “spontaneous filmmaking” (getting together on a Saturday and making something up) and “deliberate filmmaking” of actually planning out a story ahead of time.

* Finish the script before you shoot. I’ve committed this sin on virtually every short film I didn’t finish. ¬†The ideas would keep ballooning until the whole thing was so out of control that it was too much work to complete.

* Keep it short. ¬†Eight or ten minutes is a good rule of thumb. ¬†I can remember distinctly, as my ambition grew, so did the page counts of these stories … ¬†Twenty-five pages, forty-pages, even seventy pages … ¬†And none of these projects were finished.

* Treat the script like it’s a stage of the filmmaking process. Too often we’d finish the first draft of the script and then immediately film it. ¬†Don’t be afraid to show it to people, to get feedback, and then rewrite it. ¬†This is one of those pieces of advice that I didn’t do when I was young. ¬†Instead, I always felt like I had to keep the story a secret so that people would be surprised when the movie came out. ¬†Rewriting is key to improving your script.

Our Tenth Anniversary poster for our Blackwell Moo-Vs (1997)

* Work with actors you don’t know. You’d be surprised how rewarding working with someone your age who’s had theater training will be. ¬†And how much better it’ll make your movie!

* Have a premiere. Even though you can put online right away, it’s still fun to get your friends together at somebody’s house and give the film a proper debut. ¬†Plus, in-person feedback is ALWAYS more important than online comments.

* Put it online.  Use social websites to get your movie out there and to develop your fan base.  Sharing it with classmates and people your age.

* Submit to film festivals.  There are a number of film festivals that have student categories and this is a great way to get your movie out there.

* Experiment with camera techniques. You can create different emotions with the way you use the camera.  Tilts, movement, close-ups, pans, hand-held, P.O.V.s, etc.

* Have good sound. This is a huge hurdle a lot of early filmmakers struggle with.  Really try to get good audio from the actors in the scenes, because nothing is more distracting than bad audio in a movie.

* Make music. Or get someone else to make it. ¬†Using copyrighted music, which will honestly probably sound better than anything else you could come up with, is prohibited by many sites and film festivals. ¬†Plus it’s a vital part of the filmmaking process.

* See movies by other people your age. Either online or at film festivals, this is a great way to inspire new ideas, learn filmmaking techniques, and to get a little healthy competition going in your blood.

* Do timed challenges. Like 48 hour challenges where you have to write, shoot, and edit a movie in just two days.  These can be fun and it forces you to work very quickly.

* Push yourself to grow. If you’ve decided to become a filmmaker, push yourself into new learning experiences. ¬†Get out of your comfort zone. ¬†Direct something you didn’t write, write something for someone else to direct, act in someone else’s movie, try a totally different genre than what you’re used to.

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Lastly, I thought I’d include an abridged filmography of my earlier filmmaking endeavors. ¬†For the full list check out my blog post “Before Squishy Studios.”


Indiana Jones and the Treasure of the Black Sheba (1987; age eleven, Grade  4)

My first real movie.¬† Indiana Jones (played by me) must recover the legendary Black Sheba idol, doing battle with the villians who oppose him.¬† The best parts have to be Gabe as the Bartender, our “parachute” special effects, the gun fight, the walking through the jungle, mom’s hand in one shot, and the whip effect.¬† Not to mention Logan as the ever smiling villain.¬† Shot on Super 8.

Bo’s Bo (1991; age 15, Grade Eight)

The epitome of amateur filmmaking, we had a cool prop and made an entire movie about it.¬† But in our case, our “cool prop” was a large stick (AKA a japanese “bo”).¬† The synopsis is this:¬† Gabe beats people with his bo staff.¬† We made a restaurant/bar out our living room.¬† We had this great worms-eye-view shot of Gabe holding out his bo and we turned on the title effect Gabe’s camera could do (using the same effect we used in “The Little Game” with the monster).

Star Trek: Episode One (1991; age 15, Grade Eight)

Our first shoot that extended beyond a one day attention-span.¬† Craig, Jason and I star as crew members of an underdog cargo freighter, the USS Calgary as we encounter the adventures real Star Trek crews wouldn’t bother scraping off their shoes.

Death:  The Movie (1993; age 17, Grade 10)

In this paean to senseless violence, Gabe O’Bryan plays a karate mentor who is assassinated because of…some reason.¬† With the success of “That Dirty Rat”, prat falls and falling comedy was in, and “Death: The Movie” is smothered in it!¬† The fighting music you hear is from “Street Fighter II”, cranked up on the TV behind us.¬† For Gabe’s legendary head-smashing scene, you can notice beforehand that we had him fill his mouth with a lot of ketchup and tomato juice.

Intruder (1994; age 17, Grade 11)

Made without dialogue as part of an assignment in my video production class, this is the first movie I ever made to show to an audience I didn’t know.¬† I can still remember feeling the charge it gave me.¬† I star as some sort of evil guy who fights the likes of two students, leaving bodies in my path.¬† We zip from location to location across South Mountain High School, to behind the stages of the drama theater hall.

Joe Spade:  Ace Detective (1994; age 18. Grade 11)

Our big scripted epic.¬† A murder has been committed and Joe Spade Ace Detective, has been hired to solve it …¬† unfortunately, however, he’s the most clueless person on the planet.¬† It was the first “mmo-V” to extensively use editing and music, the first to use actors outside our circle of friends, and not only exceeded the typical “one day concept/same day shoot” doctrine, it stretched five to seven days of production (memories a little foggy here) with (gasp) a the first Moo-V to actually have a completed script!¬† In addition to all this, Joe Spade was also the very first Moo-V to be screened by a mass audience who were not directly related to the people involved.

Immortals [unfinished] (1995; age 19, Grade 12)

The most epic and notorious unfinished Moo-V in existence.¬† The race of immortals, a group of being who’ve harnessed special powers that have allowed themselves to transcend human evolution is being threatened as someone is slowly killing them off.¬† “Immortals” is an adventure into pretentious dramatic speeches, a lot of fighting scenes, and gallons of special effects sequences that had no chance of being completed.¬† It was cast completely with actors outside of our “stock troupe”, from the drama department of South Mountain High School.¬† This Moo-V is so pivotal because it bit off not only more than it could chew, it bit ten times off more than it could chew!¬†¬† Directed by Nathan Blackwell and Bracken Batson.