Sunday, September 1, 2013

Bill Mumy, Jeff Etter, and Thrill-O-Rama

After years of working in animation, Kevin Davis opted to go to film school at UCLA.   He tells FLIP about how he came to create videos with the unlikely pairing of Bill Mumy - yes THAT Bill Mumy - and one of the most outrageously funny animators you will meet, Jeff Etter.  

by Kevin Davis
Thrill-o-rama Films all started when I was attempting to complete my UCLA thesis film, Of Robots and Rednecks.  I was inspired by Professor Bill Barminski's After Effects class.  He had just completed a set of very creative music videos for Death Cab for Cutie, and I was impressed with what you could devise and complete with a very small production crew and an even smaller budget.  In After Effects you could pull off an infinite variety of funky camera moves and effects that, back in the MTV heyday of 80's music videos, would have been next to impossible to pull off.

At about the same time, Actor / Musician Bill Mumy had seen an Of Robot and Rednecks preview on YouTube, and liked it.  He later told me to that it was, "Twilight Zoney", which made my day.  He then asked me if I would like to do a music video for his upcoming CD, Until the Big Bang Whimpers. His timing couldn't be more horrible, due to my deadline for my thesis film, but I couldn't turn down a chance to work with one of my childhood heros.

I had seen Mr. Mumy's band The Jenerators perform in the LA area back in the 90s, and knew he was a really talented musician and had been playing guitar since his Lost in Space days. My worst fear was: what if Bill Mumy turned out to be a real A-hole or a prima donna?  Or, what if he was more like Anthony Freemont,  the kid that would wish you into the cornfield, than Will Robinson of Lost in Space?   I'd had been let down by some of my heros in the past.  Fortunately that wasn't the case.

It turned out he's a very down to earth guy, with a good sense of humor, who doesn't take himself too seriously.  He was full of stories of what it's like to work with people from Steve McQueen to Ron Howard, and what it was like to hang out with some of his own childhood heroes, like Superman George Reeves, and Batman's Adam West and Burt Ward. He also does some pretty good impersonations that could put some of Saturday Night Live cast members to shame.  It also turned out he's a bigger comic book geek than I am, but I get the feeling he's leaning more towards team DC than Marvel but he does have Stan Lee on his speed dial.  He's been a comic book writer for years, and currently has a graphic novel out called Curse of the Mumy.

The song that Bill had selected was a blues number called, I Owe a Little Money. Having experienced the blues myself, as an out of work animation artist, I had the idea of doing a story that at least animators could relate to.  The story would take place in the 1950s but instead of an animator I thought it would play better as a 1950s Jack Kirby comic book artist type. He was pretty excited about the plot. Bill had done some work with The Hero Initiative, an organization which helps out classic comic book artists that have fallen into health problems/hard times. We thought this would be a good opportunity to draw some attention to their organization. 

I thought, who better to play this character than animator / actor Jeff Etter, the voice of Don Bluth's Space Ace. Jeff had just recently played a similar character called Agent Frank Skuddler for my thesis film.  I still had the Frank Skuddler suit, so if Jeff took the part   This was going to save production tens of dollars.  

Anybody that's worked with Jeff knows he can act goofy, but this was more of a dramatic role.  In the end, Jeff pulled off a really great performance and with the help of fellow UCLA film students-turned actors Jenn Gittings and Vivian Lee, and child actors the Bodden boys / Natalia Lopez, the story really came to life. In the last minute I recruited talented cinematographer Leorane Rodrigues de Carvalho to shoot some key scenes of Bill Mumy's concert performance, which turned out to be great.  

That was last year.

This year, we just wrapped up another music video for Bill Mumy's new CD Illuminations.  This time, we're trying to draw attention to the Friends of the Serengeti and Serengeti Watch organizations. These organizations are fighting global corporations to preserve the Serengeti for future generations. Using these themes, I tried to come up with a storyline that would incorporate African wildlife. After recently seeing, The African Queen for about the 50th time, I got an idea to try and retell the epic tale with kind of a twist, where Bill Mumy would take the Katharine Hepburn role and my actress friend, Jessica Fuentes, would be playing the Humphrey Bogart role. The song, "What I Got", was more of a fun love story. The goal with this one was to keep it light hearted and fun.

I recently had the Frank Skuddler suit dusted off and cleaned and pressed because I'm working with Jeff Etter once again.  This new project is a spin-off from Of Robots and Rednecks, called, Agent Frank Skuddler of Project Blue Book.  Jeff is continuing the role of Frank Skudder, a 1950s rogue FBI agent assigned to the U.S. Government's Project Blue Book, a group of Agents who investigate "Close Encounters of the Unexplainable Type".   The current idea is to produce it in ten 15 minutes segments, kind of like the old Universal serials of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, we'll hopefully end each segment  leaving the viewer wanting more.   I'm still grappling whether to have it in black-and-white or color.  I enjoy working in a Film Noir style, but The Skuddler suit does look pretty spiffy in color, so it's a tough call.  The really cool thing about doing most of the production on a Green Screen is, just like Indiana Jones and James Bond, we can bring Frank to exotic locations like Moscow or even Mars without having to leave Greg Checkets' Sherman Oaks apartment.  We are thinking about filming on location in Tijuana Mexico for the Chupacabra episode.

We're hoping the Frank Skuddler project turns out to be more than just an X-files parody.  It's more about quirky characters and the time period than about aliens. We're trying to take the Forrest Gump approach where Frank Skuddler will have brushes with real life '50's characters like Marilyn Monroe, President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon.  We don't have much of a budget, so we're going to have to be very creative to pull off something worth watching. What we lack in big budget effects we'll more than make up for in free nachos at the Thrill-o-rama wrap party.

Recently Thrill-o-rama films also finished another music video for musician Stan Ridgway for his song called, RoadBlock. Stan Ridgway's lyrics make for great stories ideas, so I basically followed his script on this one.  If you're in the LA area you ought to check out one of his live shows, it's a lot like this music video, only better.

If all goes according to plan by 2015 every kid in America will join Agent Frank Skuddler's Secret Society of Skuddler Scouts, or will at least be wearing a Frank Skuddler T-shirt.  Jeff Etter is currently working with Simpsons artist Greg Chettects on trying to bring sexy back to 2d animation with a series called, DogHousecalls.  Choose an emoticon.


  1. Wow, sexy back to 2d animation...I like it!
    Great piece Kevin, you sound like you are on a creative roll! Good luck with your next project, I'm seeing a real Davis style growing here.

    1. Yes,it's been 'Geekafied' for too many years lately,lol!

  2. Kevin Davis your films are magic, eclectic, electric, hectic, nostalgic, cinematographic, keep the camera rolling