[THE MAKING OF] Sight & Sound Film and “Nightmare Mosaic”

That’s either me or Steven Seagal.  Possibly Sting.  I’ll let the reader figure it out.

Ah, film school.  I imagine it’s a lot different today than when I went through it.  For one – we shot and edited with actual film. Not quite chiseling on stone tablets, thankfully, but an entirely different experience than capturing on digital files and cutting (non-linear no less) on a computer.

At NYU at the time, the first major production class was called “Sight & Sound Film” during sophomore year.

For most of us, this was the first time we got to advance beyond consumer level Super 8 and onto “professional” 16mm equipment.

It was go time.

My professor for that class was Christine Choy, who was not only an educator, but also a successful filmmaker.  As if to punctuate that distinction, we arrived at class one morning to learn that her documentary, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” had just been nominated for an Academy Award.  If she didn’t have our full attention before, that pretty much sealed it.

Before you could make a 4K feature with your cellphone, there was this beautiful baby.

Over the course of the semester, each student in the class conceived, directed, and edited four or five short films, usually based on an assigned concept.

The stock we were supplied with was black and white and there was no sync sound…  But we were still the auteurs of our own little masterpieces.

And for college credit to boot.

There was a definite lean toward being “artsy” at NYU.  A lot of very serious kids wandered around the building at 721 Broadway sporting jet black hair and matching Doc Martins.  Black and white film can lead you in that direction pretty quick, I guess.

As my partner Rhonda (who shared a pretty similar film school experience at Concordia in Montreal) points out, if there was anything you could rely on in a student film class, it would be a lot of movies featuring people walking through graveyards and looking at themselves in the mirror.  I suspect my fellow students at Tisch felt it was of paramount importance to create the opposite of what they imagined was being generated on the sunny – and shallow – campuses of USC and UCLA.

On second thought, maybe you should pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

Serious and artsy were never my thing, however.  My vision has always been of the more popcorn variety.  And the same went for my student films.  I did a gunfight parody centered around a game of Quarters, a Psycho spoof, and a mock (and mocking) movie trailer for an imaginary Steven Seagal action movie.

By the time our last assignment rolled around, I had seen a lot of serious, heavy, arty madness in class, and they felt ripe for the picking.  On.

Not that everyone was pretentious.  There were a lot of students in that class that shared at least some of my sensibilities and who I’m still friends with to this day, including prolific A.D. Maura McKeown Redmond, screenwriter and blog mentor Austin Hodgens, and filmmaker/documentarian Mark Smith.

Nevertheless, I decided that my final film would be a parody of all the movies I had seen by my fellow students (obviously, I didn’t give a lot of thought as to how that might affect my favorability ratings going forward).

Of course my ideas and my execution didn’t always merge as handily as I’d like.  Even though I was at college to study something I was excited about, my high school tendencies toward doing things at the last second of the last minute had not quite been overcome yet.

A list of things to parody and a storyboard full of ways to do it.  A dream dashed.

I think you can pick up on the foreshadowing.

Anyway, despite cutting it close, I still showed up at the school’s basement equipment room to pick up some helpful gear (like a camera and light meter), a whole ten minutes before closing time.

But it was already too late.  The filmmaking gods had chosen to flip me the bird and close the check-out early for the weekend. Curse you, Fridays!

Now I was screwed.  This film was supposed to be the culmination of everything I had learned in class, including incorporating audio.  But I wasn’t even going to be able to make one at all.  I’d simply run out of time.

I don’t remember what the hell went on between not being able to get the equipment and the class where we were supposed to screen the results, but the night before, I finally got to work.

Desperate times…

On the floor of my dorm room, I set up a rudimentary edit system, consisting of a glass mini fridge shelf set on top of a milk crate, with a desk lamp shining up and through it.  Then I taped a small piece of film on the glass as a guide, and used a razor blade to make cuts by hand.

But if I didn’t get an opportunity to shoot anything, what the hell was I cutting?

All the outtakes to my previous films for class, of course.  My magnum opus would ironically consist solely of footage I’d determined wasn’t good enough for anything I’d done up to that point.  I knew it wasn’t likely to win an Academy Award (probably not even a Razzie), but it felt like it was better than showing up empty-handed.

Man, what I would’ve given for this piece of cutting-edge technology.

The most substantial piece in that grab bag of discards was one long take of a P.O.V. walking up my dorm’s stairs and through the hall.  Soft focus (also known as blurry) and shaky, its duration alone nevertheless made it a no-brainer to use as the spine of the piece.

Into that, I cut assorted outtakes and trimmed clips from my other films, culminating in a shot of a screaming face.

It was not great.  Hell, it wan’t even good.  But it was something.  I called it “Nightmare Mosaic” in the hopes of making it sound more creative, and perhaps even intentional.

When the lights came up after screening it in class, reactions from teacher and students alike were less than enthusiastic.  Likely more puzzled than anything.  This was not going to reflect well in my final grade.  Nevertheless, my time was mercifully over, and we were moving on to the next student’s film.

At least until the aforementioned Mark Smith (who was also one of my roommates) laughingly blurted out that I had cut my film together in our dorm room the night before.

I was pissed.  And busted.  I couldn’t believe he’d rat me out like that for a laugh, seemingly undermining any chance I’d have to “get away with it.”

“Nightmare Mosaic”  This blurry still frame pretty much says it all.

Only it turned out to miraculously be my saving grace.

Suddenly Professor Choy wanted to know more.  We weren’t going to move on, we were going to dig in. How the hell did I cut a film in my dorm room?

I detailed the milk crate faux Steenbeck, combing through outtakes for an idea, even the attempt to quicken the pace as the film reached its climax by literally editing film by length, a la Eisenstein for “Battleship Potemkin” (finally, something I learned in film theory class I could actually apply).

And just like that, my Frankensteined celluloid monument to great ideas dashed by procrastination transformed into an impressive primer on guerrilla filmmaking, improvisation, and self determination.

Not quite enough for an “A,” of course.  Professor Choy wasn’t crazy.  But it was enough to prevent torpedoing my GPA.

My accompanying paperwork.  Clearly a tacit admission of guilt.

What’s the lesson here?

Not sure, really.  Don’t put yourself in terrible situations?  Probably. But more importantly – to me anyway – is never give up.

We all find ourselves in crappy circumstances, sometimes by our own doing, and sometimes through fate.  It’s normal to feel defeated and lament all the things that went wrong.

But only for a little while.  Then it’s time to get back up and make some lemonade.

Metaphorically delicious.

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6 Responses to [THE MAKING OF] Sight & Sound Film and “Nightmare Mosaic”

  1. Maura says:

    Thanks for the shout out. Had no idea I would ever make it into a blog post. I totally remember Professor Choy being nominated for an Oscar. She was talking so fast and was a bit incoherent about it all it took a while to figure out what she was saying. I always made holes in my jeans from rubbing the gunk off the razor blades while I was editing. Thanks for taking me back.

    • textsmith says:

      Sorry if the paparazzi show up at your kids’ school now.

      Yeah, I’ve got a lot of good memories from Tisch and NYU (mixed with a little bad). Thankfully, your jeans are safe with Avid and Final Cut, so you might want to venture back into that pool. You can even get a digital Arri!

  2. Mark Brian Smith says:

    Jimbo, did I really do that? Seriously? Funny how that’s completely blocked from my memory bank. Nice piece of writing, brother. I’ve always enjoyed your dry wit and I remember that film well. I also remember Professor Choy being my first real inspiration in documentary filmmaking & that day she was nominated. I even worked on her next film at the time! But yes, how times have changed… and not all for the better. You were a genius in attempting the unexpected and impossible!!!

    • textsmith says:

      That’s how I remember it, anyway. I shudder to think of all the offhanded wisecracks I’ve made throughout my life that might have had a negative effect on someone. In this instance, yours was briefly horrifying, but entirely beneficial.

      It’s awesome that you worked on Professor Choy’s next project. I don’t think I had any idea. You’ve obviously had quite a successful documentarian career, so she was an excellent inspiration indeed.

      Thanks for your kind words. We’re all attempting the impossible these days! Let’s make it happen.

  3. The lesson here is perseverance and ownership. You were hacking before hacking was cool

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