|J. Robinson Wheeler's Film/Video|
Film and me
What I remember is that it started with The Six Million Dollar Man. The ABC series starring Lee Majors ran from 1974 to 1978, and it featured a number of simple cinematic tricks to create the illusion of superhuman powers: slow motion, reverse motion, fast motion, and sound effects. My father was on hand to explain how the camera effects were done. I became an earnest seeker ever after of behind-the-scenes documentaries, especially ones about visual effects. Movie magic. My interest in movies only accelerated and broadened with the rise of Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas.
Every Halloween during the same period, we'd make little super-8 movies while wearing superhero costumes. These movies became more elaborate as time went on. In 1983, I got a new super-8 camera of my own, one that was capable of taking one frame at a time, enabling me to experiment with stop-motion animation. That same year, my best friend, Billy Brown, got access to a VHS camera setup. It was an unwieldy thing, a large camera and a separate recording deck. They hadn't invented camcorders yet. We made a number of silly parody and sketch comedy videos, and these too got more elaborate as time went on.
In 1988, I found myself at Stanford University, wondering what to do with myself. There was no film major per se. There was a Communication degree track, which was a combination of journalism, radio-television-film, and communication theory. There was only one actual film production class that you could take senior year. The class right before mine was the last one to get to make a 16mm film in this class, which switched entirely to video for budget reasons after that. Partway through my freshman year, I hooked up with a guy who was making a four episode science fiction comedy series. I auditioned as an actor, landed a lead (dual) role, and then ended up contributing to the special effects work and the editing, basically becoming a junior creative parter on the whole deal, which took two and a half years to complete. At the same time, I started working at the campus cable station, being a video jockey, managing the library, serving as liaison with the Palo Alto access cable station, and doing camera work for live shoots.
The Communication major offered only one film/video production class, and only seniors were allowed to take it. Somehow, I talked my way into the class during my junior year. I was the only one in the class who wasn't a senior, but I ended up being one of the stars of the class, displaying ingenuity and originality in the three short movies I made. Dr. Henry Breitrose, the wonderful professor who ended up being my advisor in the Communication department mentioned the Stanford Theater in downtown Palo Alto as a good place to go see classic Hollywood movies -- in a restored picture palace. He was right; it was, and I spent quite a lot of time there.
In the summer between my junior and senior years, I enrolled in a special summer film workshop that the Communication department sponsored. I took a screenwriting class. I impressed everyone by finishing a solid first draft in a heroically short amount of time. Then I flaked out and didn't do any rewriting or polishing for the rest of the session. With my screenwriting teacher's backing, my advisor put me in touch with a former student of his, now working at one of the top Hollywood agencies. My script was read by an agent at CAA, praised, but ultimately rejected.
I applied to three graduate programs in film production, and was accepted by only one, on probation -- which meant that it was tentative whether I would really be allowed to start in the fall of 1992 or not. I now believe that my advisor pulled strings just to get me that far in the door. I made several super-8 movies that were regarded as bizarre, one that was loved by my silent films teacher and ignored by everyone else, and one that was a resounding smash hit with my teachers and my peers. The next semester, I made two 16mm films, the one I wanted to make and another one made up of the footage that didn't make it into the real one. I turned in the latter, and it was a resounding smash hit. I submitted it to the Student Academy Awards, and it was rejected.
I returned the next fall and took a semster off. I shot some more super-8 movies just on my own time. The next spring, I took film editing, visual expression, and sound editing. My teachers generally recognized that I had talent, but that I was distracted by emotional problems. I quit the program. I returned home and started working as a sound guy on small, low-budget movies. Eventually, I quit doing it because it was just making me frustrated. Finally, I made my own movie on digital video, The Krone Experiment, based on my father's science fiction novel. It took three years, but I've produced and directed a feature-length movie. I'm still waiting for this to turn into a career, though.---jrw 09-18-03