Santa Cruz goes digital with the Digital Media Factory. The buzz is good, but what does it mean for local filmmaking?
Quiet on the set. Rob Rex has a movie to direct—Delta-V is underway. His camera operator swings in on a dolly track. The crew is silent. An actor emerges, holding a vibrant, juicy tomato and begins to complain about it. Some verbal sparring goes down between the tomato holder and other thespians in the scene, and … cut. Rex walks around the set with that “I’m the director, I’m thinking” look on his furrowed brow. He offers a few notes, the crew scrambles back into place, and … take two. And then take three and four. It goes on like this for a while, just like in any Hollywood film.
Only this isn’t Hollywood. It’s more like Hollywould. Rex and his cohorts with Moxie Productions are filming Delta-V in the former Wrigley building, a cavernous warehouse on the Westside of Santa Cruz that houses the Digital Media Factory, a company that’s spearheading an up-and-coming industry in our town—digital media.
This is just one cinematic slice of the bigger DMF pie. As a whole, the DMF has its fingers in a horde of projects. Moxie’s movie is part of a typical day-in-the-life at the DMF.
Rex isn’t a Hollywood hot shot. He’s still a 21-year-old junior at UC Santa Cruz and this is a short film production that he and fellow students are fashioning to flex their creative muscles while they study film at the university. The DMF donated the studio space to Rex and Moxie Productions to shoot their sci-fi film. Usually, a project like this would cost about $750 a day to use the DMF’s studio space.
Rex scored the DMF digs when he met another student, Brendon Bell, at a monthly schmoozefest earlier this year, where Santa Cruz filmmakers gather to swap business cards and view each other’s work, among other things. In doing so they’ve created a buzz-worthy film community. The popular Schmoozefests have been taking place for about three years, proving that a film and digital media community has sprouted in the Santa Cruz area, and it’s ripe for growth. And that is precisely one of the reasons that the DMF believes it will succeed.
“[We’ve built] a factory that puts communities to work and pushes products out to the world,” says founder Marty Collins. “It’s a media industry here on the Westside, so we can put people back to work … And [for] the kids who get out of school and have studied digital media, there’s a place for them to stay home and go to work in the industry. It’s like the Hollywood industry where you can walk down the street and hit a couple of studios.”
Only it’s very unlike the Hollywood industry, in that Hollywood won’t be taking over our town, rather our own people will employ the digital media jobs, creating things like TV shows, feature films, documentaries, reality programs, educational videos and such, with goals to get the products onto networks and into movie theaters. If the heat radiating from the DMF maintains, the area could see a bustling new industry develop—in addition to tourism—that will financially support Santa Cruz.
That’s why the DMF sometimes gives students like Rex a helping hand. The industry at large can be a beast to break into and as they say, “it’s all about whom you know.” Rex, in this case, knew Brendon Bell from the monthly Schmoozefest. And Bell was an intern at the DMF. From there, the Delta-V took off.
It’s a Friday afternoon in May and Bell is wide-eyed—he hasn’t slept in 24 hours. He was up all night, tweaking the set for Delta-V and getting the production in order. Today he’s working as the line producer (the guy who keeps everything in order), the construction coordinator/builder and as a gaffer.
The movie is a sci-fi/comedy/drama set in space, in the near future. “Earth has some environmental problems and the government has been pressuring this guy to build a self-sustaining colony that orbits the earth,” says Rex, the director. “They get a crew together of five people who are doing fine for five months and then they’re hit by a satellite and knocked off track. … When they get hit, the characters change and the mood changes and you see people’s characteristics and what happens to them in a time of crisis.”
A “crisis” is the exact opposite of what’s happening over at the DMF. Instead of scrapping for work, the team at DMF has jobs constantly popping up. This is likely because of the word-of-mouth that has spread about the DMF.
At the helm of the DMF is founder, all-around nice guy and pro at the steadicam, Marty Collins. Known for his long-time work with PBS and for an overflowing resume, Collins dreamed up the idea of the Factory in 1994 when he owned his own studio in San Jose. Almost 10 years later, in 2004, he opened up the DMF. “For a while we were on pallets and we were holding focus groups,” he says.
But things quickly moved forward. Collins and his team of stockholders rent the space from George and William Ow who own the building. Collins chose the location, “because they (the city) were threatening to put big box stores over here,” Collins says. “People said you can’t create an industry, but the building was available and the guys started joining.” The “guys” being a team of talented digital media types with their own full resumes.
John Carney—or Mr. Hollywood as Collins and the crew like to jokingly call him—is one of those guys. Carney’s expertise especially falls into the arena of lighting, highlighted by his work on major motion pictures—he was the lighting director on The Perfect Storm and assistant chief lighting technician on American Beauty, as well as numerous other productions. Carney came on board at the DMF at its origin when he needed to cut his own demo reel. Collins taught Carney how to use Final Cut Pro (an editing program). “I’ve been indentured to him,” Carney jokes. “It’s like signing a contract with the devil.”
This camaraderie runs thick among the DMF team. Ever joking, but always serious about work, the team keep the digital media world light-hearted. And they keeps things young and fresh, most notably with their youngest stockholder, Brian Critchlow, a 2004 UCSC grad. “I’m not the kind of person who just wanted to go and do the L.A. thing,” Critchlow says. “But I still wanted to work in the industry and I live in Santa Cruz.” His specialty is in lighting and running the camera.
Between takes on the Delta-V shoot, Critchlow keeps a DMF eye on the project and at one point offers a suggestion to Rex that he add some lighting overhead. Afterall, spaceships would have heavy lighting come in from above, wouldn’t they? The crew takes his advice.
As for the women at the DMF, there’s Collins’ wife, Ginny Michell, an outstanding musician and singer—she’s involved in the management arm of the DMF. Michele Benson, a well-known photographer, works on the production end, often serving as a line producer and as Collins’ assistant on various projects. “It’s a cutting edge situation,” Benson says of the DMF. “There will be lots of jobs out of this venue, so people won’t have to go over the hill … or be in L.A. … We’re sitting on the tip of the iceberg right now.”
So much so that not only are they hoofing it on a number of projects, but the DMF also has recently opened up a nonprofit division for its educational outreach and intern programs, called the Digital Media Educational Foundation. Classes are being offered and the DMF is looking for people to fill its Street Professor Program, where people working in the digital media field will provide myriad services to the interns.
The internship program itself is already thriving. Bell, of Delta-V, in fact, has been interning with the DMF for six months. And he’s only a sophomore at UCSC. Clearly, this is a smart move. The interns at the DMF don’t fetch coffee, they do hands-on work on productions.
According to the DMF’s Web site, “In our first quarter of operation, the intern program took in nine students, seven of whom are receiving scholastic credit through UCSC or Cabrillo College. Of those nine interns, seven have been referred to professional fieldwork, taking a total of 14 jobs. Some of the clients our interns have worked for or are currently working for include the Speed Channel, the Discovery Channel, the WB network, FOX and NBC.”
Not too shabby. And that’s just for starters. Interns have also worked on a number of programs that have come through the DMF, and they’ll likely have a shot at helping out on some upcoming work, like the film, Blur, by Blur Productions in Mountain View.
While negotiations are still being ironed out, Blur will shoot predominantly in the DMF for 24 days in July. “It’s sort of a Memento style thriller,” says John Kim of Blur Productions. “It’s kind of a noir thriller with a technological twist to it. Rear Window meets the Internet. It’s designed to be an art house film with a little bit of a commercial side to it. We’re working on a low, six-figure [budget].
The great thing about the DMF, he adds, “is that they have so many different elements that a film company can use. There’s the ability to build sets there, and Marty is so well connected with all the film people in the area. It’s sort of a one-stop shopping for film or video makers.”
Blur Productions will also be looking to hire local actors and crew for their film.
After Blur wraps, the DMF will most likely open its doors to Hellavator, a $3.2 million horror film. In addition to that, the DMF has a few other feature films currently being written. The DMF has numerous other projects that they’ve completed, including a series of exercise videos with FitFlix, a company that specializes in producing custom fitness videos for at-home exercisers and fitness professionals. For 20 years Bruce and Mindy Mylrea, a Santa Cruz couple, have been doing this work out of Santa Cruz. They recently teamed up with the DMF to partner in some video productions.
There’s also the DMF’s recent collaboration on a children’s show called Nature Rangers, with Chip Street and Sari Mitchell. The project discusses ecology and environmental issues as children venture on scientific field trips and have online pen pals. “The first target is PBS, to try and get it on there,” says Critchlow.
Carney (Mr. Hollywood) has invested a hefty amount of his time into a reality TV series called On the Road with Big John. His cinematic baby follows “Big John,” a local mechanic and fabricator, and Big John’s crew, as they head out on the road and help people restore old cars. “It gets the gas flowing through people’s veins again, into the passion of automobiles,” Critchlow says of the Big John project, and he estimates that they will probably pitch the show to networks like the Discovery Channel or TLC.
The DMF has also set up a co-producer agreement with filmmaker Jeff Warrick for his feature length documentary, Programming the Nation, which is about subliminal advertising in the media, music and movies. It includes interviews with filmmakers Hilton A. Green (Home Alone 3) and Christopher Coppola (Nicolas Cage’s brother).
And in mid-June the DMF will host the Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) program from UCSC. DANM’s first graduating class will hold an exhibition of the master’s degree candidates’ final work during a reception at 7 p.m. Friday, June 16. The DMF will also display the exhibited work through that weekend.
Student Jessica Damsen is one of the graduates. She’ll use part of the enormous warehouse to project her 20-feet by 30-feet video, part of her “Media Mural Project,” on a wall. “I think the whole landscape of media is changing really quickly, worldwide. … The Digital Media Factory has great plans to help educate the population and provide opportunities, and they’re hooked into some very professional and high-end art and music related programming. … The DMF is on the leading edge of how people are going to be creating media and distributing media in the future. You don’t have to go to New York or L.A. anymore.” n
For all of us Luddites out there, the word “digital” in Digital Media Factory is mind-boggling. What does it mean? “It is anything that has to do with media: pictures, audio and data,” says DMF founder, Marty Collins. “Anything from education to entertainment that’s delivered in digital—dvd, online, ip, broadcast. It’s an industry technology statement. … Analog is the old world of broadcast.” And digital is the new wave of technology. “It’s what you get over your Internet and phone. Analog couldn’t do that. And, digital allows you to do things faster and cheaper, with smaller files. In digital, everything looks like it’s the original. There’s no degeneration because of the technology.” Then, of course, there’s digital film, which Collins and the crew at the DMF often use to shoot their projects. But has the digital filmmaking choice caught on in places like Hollywood? “It has to go in that direction,” Collins says. “They’ve got no choice. Analog is going away. It’s like when black and white television went away. If you look at the last Star Wars it was all on hd (high definition). … The world is switching from analog to digital.” Christa Martin