Fan Film, Fan Films

Gray Areas: Lucasfilm Backyard Film Contest

Gray Area BoilerplateWanna start an argument between fan filmmakers? Ask ‘em what constitutes a fan film. And if you want to see that argument escalate into a brawl (and really, who doesn’t?), inquire whether “fan films” made by professionals count–you know, flicks like the upcoming Star Trek: Of Gods And Men, featuring nearly every Trek actor that makes more money from conventions than acting. People get upset about these movies that blur the line between amateur and professional productions, because preserving the “amateur” aspects of fan films isn’t easy…well, actually it is…but sometimes it all just gets rather political–and that’s this week’s Gray Area: If a pro makes a movie, it’s still a pro movie, right? Hmmmmm. Probably…but not if it was in the Lucasfilm Backyard Film Contest, that’s for sure.

Wait, what contest is that? I wasn’t sure either, so I asked a perennial entrant of the competition, Anthony Shafer, a Lead Technical Director at ILM who, depending on the project, also serves as a CG Sequence Supervisor. We’re talking about a guy who, across nine years at ILM, not only worked on all three Star Wars prequels, he also played background characters in each one. And if all that didn’t make him uber-cool enough, he’s also a Fan Cinema Today reader. OK, maybe he’s not that cool after all.

“The Backyard Film Contest, affectionately known as the ‘BFC’ to the insiders, is a yearly contest for Lucasfilm employees to strut their guerilla filmmaking muscles,” said Shafer. “It was created by Tom Martinek and Colin Campbell during the slow summer of 2003, as a way for us highly technical computer animators and anyone in the digital effects facility to get back to their roots and make the kind of films that inspired a generation. We are talking the kind of films that made us want to get in into this business, like Clash of the Titans, Night of the Living Dead, Gumby; basically, anything that was retro, unique and required some trick photography or budgetary storytelling.”

The resulting contest entries are lo-fi, low-tech and occasionally low-brow, but usually a lot of fun. If a proper Lucasfilm movie is a 128-track, glossy, Pro Tools’d-within-an-inch-of-its-life Celine Dion track about everlasting love, a BFC entry is a punk song about ditching school, written by the snot-nosed 12-year-old next door who stole his big brother’s distortion pedal and only knows three chords. It’s that kind of an aesthetic–which is to say, no aesthetic.

The homemade flicks are made each year under strict guidelines:
1) Budget : $50 (first year ’04), $100 (thereafter)
2) Length: No more than 10 minutes.
3) No CG effects, no extractions, no spline based animation, only effects that you could’ve reasonably done with a Super-8 camera, (additive dissolve, color timing, etc). [i.e. They can shoot on video and use computers during editing to simulate whatever effects they could have achieved with Super-8 film.]
4) Films are due by deadline.
5) Have Fun

While it’s called a contest, only the premiere edition had judging and prizes. Shafer explained, “The first year, there was a huge showing. It was a fantastic event with a panel of Judges: Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket), Chris Gore (head of, and Carl Rosenthal (founder of PDI, a Shrek production house). The winners were Architects of Evil by Don Bies, by Kurt Nellis, and I can’t remember the last one, by Grant Imhara (now of Mythbusters fame). Mine–Illegal Aliens Attack!–was a crowd favorite, but suffered from really bad placement, as it was surrounded by some really bad ones, and since it was first, it was sadly forgotten.”

Since it is a private film festival, few of the movies made for it have been seen outside of Lucasfilm, except for Don Beis’ Architects of Evil, but now Shafer has posted his three entries from over the years at his website, Blue Tale Films, and has created a YouTube group, , where you can see six different entries from various folks, including his own three.

Since FCT is a fan film site and all, Shafer spilled the behind-the-scenes beans on the one Star Wars spinoff of his three flicks, Tar Tar Binks: His Last Episode: “It was very well received and although the awards and judging that year were canned, it was by far the winner. It didn’t cost more than $50–mostly for props and gas. Tar Tar was filmed almost entirely in San Francisco, in and around the new Presidio LDAC Campus. The cab scene is down by Ghirardelli Square, and the crab scene is in a real crabby at Fisherman’s Wharf. The Bum was a real transient guy that we paid handsomely to star in our film. He had been traveling around the U.S. and this was his second time to San Francisco.”

He added, “There was actually a scene that we had to cut where Jar Jar was jumped by a flock of geese right after he got kicked out of the Falcon. We were hoping that the setup would show that no one, not even the geese, liked Jar Jar. No matter how much we tried to get the geese to flock around the bread, though, they were terrified of Jar Jar. We easily spent over an hour of tape, burning though hours of our precious shooting schedule on these dud geese. It was a complete disaster.”

Screening the 5-minute flick–which was written by Shafer’s co-conspiritor Jason Long–you’ll find plenty of jokes and scenes that will warm a Jar Jar hater’s heart (let’s just say the Golden Gate Bridge figures prominently), but it all builds to a singular moment that will leave you saying, “I can’t believe they went that far for a punchline.” Long, it turns out, was more than happy to go the distance: “It’s not everyone who enjoys the demise of a character (well, unless it’s Jar Jar, even this many years later!). It is quite a journey to end with a goofy punch line, I’ll agree. If I were to re-do that part now, I’d cut out the word ‘Binks’ in [the punchline], but either way, it’s still just as goofy of an ending–and we stayed committed to it, even as the morning tourist rush began to pick up….

“Anyway, it was an adventure to shoot this,” Long continued. “We got lots of looks carrying around this doll through the city, but there’s no room for embarrassment when you have to ask people to interact with the doll to get your shot. All the actors are real people, doing their real jobs, so it’s a ‘reality movie’ of sorts. Only a cab driver refused to participate; everyone else seemed to enjoy the opportunity to act with an action figure in front of two guys with a handicam!”

Tar Tar Binks: His Final Episode & Blue Tale Films

Architects of Evil

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