Chapel Hill filmmakers Joey Shanks and Kendall Music got a lot out of their five-day trip to Park City, Utah, last week: A world premiere screening of their eye-popping short film, "Sci-Fly"; face time with fellow artists, in screening rooms and at the parties that buzzed nightly; and a cemented partnership (more on that later).
They were there for Slamdance, the Park City film festival that's been piggybacking on the more famous festival for 18 years. Take away most of Sundance's hype, industry presence and square footage—Slamdance screening rooms are smaller than Sundance standby tents—and you're left with a concentrated cinephilic experience, as much convention as festival. The love of fellow filmmakers, who make up much of the audience, flows like a Chinook wind.
Slamdance was a touchstone in the careers of local filmmakers Brett Ingram and Jim Haverkamp, whose documentary Monster Road played in 2004, and Todd Tinkham, who brought his short "Alexa" in 2009. The 30-year-old Shanks has been making films for 10 years, collaborating with Music, his girlfriend, for the last four. He's finished around 70 films, many of which have played at festivals nationwide. But Slamdance was "by far the highest profile," Shanks said, and the first time they've premiered a film away from home.
The screening room in the Treasure Mountain Resort, which looks out over a Main Street swollen with festivalgoers, was packed on a chilly Sunday evening. "Sci-Fly" screened in the Anarchy Shorts program, a slate of visually sophisticated works mostly involving extensive CGI and post-production effects. In contrast, Shanks' film was created entirely with old-school physical special effects. It was initially envisioned as some sort of spaceflight narrative, but in the course of shooting, Shanks and Music became intoxicated by the raw beauty of the images they were capturing. Storyline fell by the wayside, and it became "more an experience in tone and sound," said Shanks.
The end result is a shoestring spectacle of flashing colors, otherworldly atmospheres and glittering starscapes, set to a delightfully spacey score by Jeff Shields of Hillsborough (recording under the name Kleptonaut). Shanks and Music crammed the six-minute short with a remarkable diversity of visual effects, mostly shot in their home and back yard. Steel wool, dry ice, a fish tank, Alka-Seltzer, lasers and LEDs were all repurposed for kinetic close-ups and smeared exposures.
The filmmakers demonstrate many of their techniques in a series of videos they posted to their YouTube channel, JoeyShanksFX. They were produced in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios, which had gotten wind of the project after it was featured on Kickstarter's "Projects We Love" blog. The videos also got the attention of sites such as Gizmodo, PetaPixel, NoFilmSchool and The Awesomer, and soon they were getting hits in the tens of thousands.
They include the boilerplate warning, "Please do not attempt to recreate or re-enact any of the activities performed in this video." But the films are clearly recipes for fellow filmmakers, generously spreading their DIY methods. Much unlike the secretive Douglas Trumbull, one of Shanks' idols, whose pre-CGI effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey remain unparalleled, and whose cosmic sequences in Tree of Life were Shanks' main inspiration for "Sci-Fly."
"I think a big difference between Joe and a lot of other filmmakers is Joe actually explains how he does it, and isn't afraid to get it out there and teach other people how we're doing things," said Music.
The videos are also a reflection of Shanks and Music's admirable work ethic. "We're missing shooting days!" while in Park City, Music said.
"We film every day," said Shanks. "No one has more experience, pound for pound, with trying to shoot stuff. I think we've failed so many times we eventually learned how to get it right."
The film was received with hearty applause on the night of their premiere, but Shanks really got it right during the Q-and-A following their second screening, on Tuesday afternoon. After he and Music answered a few questions, he said he wanted to add "one last thing."
He thanked Music for "putting up with all my crap," among other praise. He dropped to one knee and produced a ring from his pocket. The audience gasped, then cheered.
She said yes.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Shot in the dark."