Monday, September 9, 2013

An Artist in the Producer's Chair ....Wha?

Shannon Shea has made his career of the past thirty years doing make-up effects on films such as Predator, Terminator 2 , Jurassic Park,  Drag Me to Hell, and Men in Black 3.  He has had plenty of experience in dealing with producers, and now he steps into their shoes with the film Scream at the Devil.  He talked to FLIP about his experience in the producer's chair. 

FLIP: What made you want to take the leap into producing?

Shannon: Actually, it was kind of a mistake.  In an effort to save my dwindling health care through Screen Actor's Guild,  I decided I would start auditioning for acting roles (my primary performance through SAG was puppeteering).  So, I received a notice for a film that was shooting in Los Angeles, I met with the director and, as most people do in tinsel town these days, he "IMDB'ed" me.  When he saw my credits he asked if I would come on board as a VFX supervisor rather than an actor (promising me more money than if I acted for a day or two).  I liked him and agreed under one condition: I would be a VFX PRODUCER, not supervisor.

Early concept art by Shannon Shea
Anyone who has grown in this industry can tell you that the moniker "producer" is the only one where established rules do not apply.  There is no limit to how much money you can make, or restrictions on your input on a project.

So I became the VFX producer first, but in a short time it was clear that my 30 years of working on movie sets had given me insights beyond those of less experienced filmmakers and the director and co-producers suggested I just step in as a full-producer.

FLIP: What are you producing, and what exactly is it that you do?

Shannon: Two SAG ULB (Ultra Low Budget) films so far.  The first is a supernatural thriller called Scream at the Devil, the second is an action/adventure based on The Most Dangerous Game entitled Dangerous Games.  I'm looking at three new projects and developing a forth right now.  And actually, the best way to describe what I do is to examine the development process.  I read a script and instantly start looking for "problems" (you can call them "challenges" but who are we kidding).  These problems can be locations, actors, action-pieces, etc. and what I do is start putting together lists of possible answers to those questions whether is is who we are going to hire for a specific task or rather a plan that will take us from point a to point b while managing to stay within our budget restrictions.

The great thing about producing is that it is a job for "jacks of all trades, masters of none" which suits me to a "T".  I have influence over script, auditions, the look of the film, the camera we're going to use, the crew, etc.  I see myself as a "creative" producer rather than a "financial" one.  I've been lucky to have been associated with two projects that came with financial producers, thankfully, because frankly, I hate that job.

Actors Tony Todd (left) and Kiko Elsworth (Right) on the camera monitor for SCREAM AT THE DEVIL
FLIP: How has the experience been?  Would you do it again?  
Shannon: The first experience was excellent; the second was fraught with problems.  I love when everything "clicks" and you can feel the creative energy flowing on set.  You stand behind the monitor and watch a performance or see a shot that really demonstrates that all of the elements came together EXACTLY how you hoped it would and in that moment it is difficult not to feel profoundly proud of the crew, the cast, and yourself.  It's a great feeling.  

The negative side comes with series of compromises that drive the project into a direction that nobody is excited about. Then, it becomes damage control.  You have to prioritize what is A.) most important to serve the story, B.) a shot or a sequence that the film can survive without, C.) going to do the least amount of demoralization to the cast and crew.  You become the bad guy and it kind of sucks.  But having spent so long as a practical effects artist, I get the frustration, but now that I'm producing I understand that it is all about the big picture.  While the sound guy is pissed that a plane is flying over-head and he might not get the chance to do another take because of schedule, I'm worrying about whether catering will be ready when we call lunch, one of my actors is ad-libbing all over the place and will it cut, if we have the permits for tomorrow's location, how are we going to get there, etc.  Departments worry about their jobs....I worry about all of them.

But I believe that it has been my experience as an effects person, a performer, a production artist, and an independent short-film maker that has groomed me for this position.  In my advanced years, I find that instead of attempting to be the guy to fire the proton torpedoes into the Death Star exhaust port, I can be that little voice of encouragement and trust. I look forward to being that voice for other filmmakers.

FLIP: In hindsight,  are there things you would do differently?  Were there surprises, good or bad?
Shannon: There are ALWAYS things you would do differently.  I think that the main thing I would do is be a bit more insistent on having production listen to my suggestions based on my experience.  More times than not it is easier to work in a studio situation rather than a location.  I should have put my foot down and insisted on shooting in a studio whenever possible.  And I'd make sure that studio space had plenty of parking!  

I can look back on both shooting experiences and compare them, good and bad.  This is going to sound lame but it is very simple: you try to continue working with people who are talented and have a great attitude and work ethic while you try to avoid working with individuals who are more interested in the ancillary aspects of motion picture production (fame, money, deal-making, etc.).  I'm not casting a bad light on those ancillary things, rather there is little room for them on an effective, productive movie set.  I need everyone there focused on the project, working in concert to a common end.  If you want to be at a party, become a DJ or a caterer.

Let me put it this way:  I have a happy home life.  I love to draw/paint/sculpt/write/make short films.  If I'm going to sacrifice my time/energy for a project, I want everyone else to do so as well.  I'm there to WORK!  It may sound like a drag but I LOVE MY WORK!  If you don't love what you something else.  Otherwise, follow me and get back to work!

FLIP: Is the film done?  What's next?

Shannon: Scream at the Devil is picture-locked.  We get the color-corrected footage back this week and the VFX work begins in earnest.  Right now, I think we've counted 26+ shots that need to be done before the picture is finished. Dangerous Games is being assembly edited at this writing.  I'm going to see a very rough cut in the middle of September and, based on what I see, what remains to be done will be mapped out financially and creatively.  We hope to be done by the end of the year.  In the meantime, I'm looking at one horror film (I should say creature film), one comic-book comedy, a period-piece drama (VERY good script) and developing a project that is very close to my heart and my childhood inspirations.  I can't tell you the titles or budgets of any of these right now, but when they happen, you'll be the first to know!  

These are just a couple of VFX proof of concept clips.  They are by no means the final look or in some cases the final elements that will be used for the shots:

WALL MIRAGE TEST - For a scene where the female lead "thinks" she sees a nightmarish image appear OVER her fireplace, this is a sketch done to try to figure out what that might look like:

LEAF MAN SKETCH - This is a test using a still photo taken with an i-phone and emailed to me of a fireplace "leaf man" that will appear to come to life in SCREAM AT THE DEVIL:

The actual VFX production starts later this week.

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