We are back with quite possibly our best Spidcast episode to date this month (listen in below and subscribe on iTunes) with a focus on the early days of web series and traditional filmmaking too. October’s Spidcast features the incredible co-creator of Lonelygirl15, Mesh Flinders, and James Chressanthis has had 2 Emmy nominations for his cinematography, among many other elite accolades. They are our amazing guests for Spidcast 12, October 2011 which you can listen to below.
Mesh Flinders is a filmmaker, copywriter, and the award winning co-creator, writer, and director of the ground breaking web series Lonelygirl15.
His latest short film, Further Lane, has played numerous national and international film festivals including Palm Springs International Shorts Fest, the Hamptons International Film Festival and Indie Shorts London, where it was nominated for the Grand Prix.
Mesh also gives talks on the intersection of film and social media at film schools, festivals, and media panels.
James Chressanthis, ASC is a filmmaker who has earned a diverse range of nearly forty credits since the early 1990s, including studio motion pictures, independent features, television movies episodic drama series and documentaries. His cinematography has been nominated for an Emmy® twice: Four Minutes Roger Bannister’s quest to break the four minute mile barrier and the acclaimed mini-series Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. He also shot critical additional 1st Unit photography on the Oscar® – winning Chicago. Other notable credits include Urban Legend, the controversial mini-series The Reagans, “3” (The Dale Earnhardt Story), The Music Man, Eloise at the Plaza and Eloise at Christmastime (both with Julie Andrews), Judas Kiss and Brian’s Song.
Chressanthis began his film career shooting break-through and first music videos for such artists as NWA, Dr. Dre, John Wesley Harding, Hammer, and Bobby McFerrin as well as James Brown and a Grammy® nominated clip Smells Like Nirvana for “Weird Al” Yankovic. More recently Chressanthis has been a director and cinematographer of the popular CBS dramatic series Ghost Whisperer completing five seasons and over 100 one-hour episodes. His feature film directing debut No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos about the legendary Hungarian cinematographers and the American New Wave, premiered as an official selection of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and has been seen in more than twenty-five film festivals worldwide culminating with a national broadcast on PBS and his third Emmy® Nomination: Outstanding Arts & Culture Programming.
James Chressanthis trained as a sculptor and today exhibits large mixed media digital prints and paintings when he is not shooting films.
If you’re interested in sponsoring next month’s Spidcast show with a product or service you sell that’s filmmaking related, then please get in touch. If you have something to say with regards to what Mesh and James talked about, then please post a comment below to continue the conversation. Thanks for listening, and be sure to share this show with anyone in your network who can get value from its content!
Full show transcript below
Michael: Hi. I’m Michael London and welcome to Spidcast, the future of collaborative video production brought to you by Spidvid.com. On this episode, we’re visiting with James Chressanthis, cinematographer and director, and also indie filmmaker, Mesh Flinders. Twice nominated for Emmy awards for cinematography using James’ work on the miniseries “The Reagans,” the film “Chicago” and breakthrough videos for “NWA”, “Dr. Dre”, and also Weird Al’s “Smells Like Nirvana.”
Mesh Flinders credits include being the co-creator of the massively successful web series “Lonelygirl15” which got him widespread media coverage from “Time” and “Newsweek” magazines to the “Times of London” and the “New York Times”, to the “NBC Nightly News”, ABC’s “Nightline”, the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and the “Daily Show”. A wonderful Spidcast on tapped today, settle in. Here we go.
First up is James Chressanthis, ACS. James, welcome to Spidcast.
James: Hey. Hi, Michael
Michael: So tell us a bit about yourself so people can get to know you about how you came to be an award nominated cinematographer.
James: Well, I grew up in kind of modest circumstances in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The L Train was my earliest memory. Not a place close to Hollywood but I was always interested in photography and my father and mother encouraged me in that and so I’ve been taking photographs since the age of 10 and then I started making films in college but very slowly moved toward movies. I studied Fine Arts, black and white photography and sculpture and drawing and so I had a very, very strong Fine Arts education.
And then at that point, I started making little films and one thing led to another but it took me like a 10-year odyssey to finally go to Hollywood.
Michael: Wow. Well, take us, Reader’s Digest style now through those 10 years.
James: I did sculpture and drawing very strong Fine Arts. I actually did bronze casting, did a lot of life drawing. I started doing multimedia installations and I started with shooting film and video with those and doing projection pieces, stuffs of dance and performance. I was sort of on the periphery of movies but then I started making, I made a couple of student films in 16mm and they started to get noticed.
But even then to make a living, to work in Hollywood didn’t seem like possible to me so I made this documentary about a Greek mountain village, a life of a Greek mountain village from the end of winter to the summer wheat harvest and that film got on PBS and it was in a festival in Houston, I think, and the director Bill Richert who did “Winter Kills” was there and he said, “So, kid, you directed the film. You shot the film. You edited the film. You mixed the sound. You cut the negative yourself. You promoted it and got it on PBS and you’re teaching college in Michigan? So, kid, they pay you to do that work out in Hollywood.” So, at age 30, I packed up and went to the American Film Institute and chucked my job and starved for a bit and then started shooting out here in Los Angeles.
Michael: And what was that film? Can we see that somewhere?
James: The film? Gee, it’s on YouTube. I put it on YouTube. That film was “Remembrance of a Journey to the Village,” 1980.
Michael: Now, as I understand that it was your time at AFI when you really blossomed?
James: What happened at the American Film Institute, that was the first time I really started collaborating and working with crews and not working in a solitary fashion and I had the good fortune to be the intern to Vilmos Zsigmond on “The Witches of Eastwick.” And at the end of the show after working on it for 100 days, Vilmos had me shoot some pickup shots and some inserts and some special effects inserts for the movie. So, I went from intern to kind of second unit (DP), in one fell swoop and then I started doing music videos and I shot the music videos of Bobby McFerrin, Hammer, NWA, Dr. Dre. I did about 80 music videos in that period and had a Grammy nomination with “Weird Al” Yankovic in “Smells Like Nirvana.
So, that was a great training ground doing the music videos but especially doing the west coast rap and hip hop artists being right at the beginning of that was very, very nice and then I moved into narrative features and movies and television from there.
Michael: And these music videos must have been really great training for you?
James: Yes, Rupert Wainwright, the director and I, we had a great collaboration and we always tried to do narrative. We always tried narrative music videos, not just performance related videos. I think the business changed a bit and the record companies who were very powerful at that time, they didn’t really want narrative videos. They just wanted simple performance-related showpieces for their music artists but we were always trying to do a narrative and we did an amazing Hammer video called “Turn This Mutha Out” which was terrific and also the video “Straight Outta Compton” which Rupert and I co-directed which was about the gangbangers and the kids in South Central LA being profiled and being arrested for no reason though wouldn’t premiere on the MTV. It premiered on Nightline because it was so controversial.
And then a few months after that, we had the “LA Riots” and “Rodney King” and so forth. So, it was actually a very timely piece and I enjoyed working with NWA. They were great.
Michael: Now, you bring up an interesting term and I want the young filmmakers to really understand this. You said you wanted to make the music videos with a narrative. I’m guessing that came from your documentary background.
James: My documentary background shooting real people, real things, not the phony reality TV we have today which is actually scripted, most people should realize. Most reality television is scripted and manipulated. It’s not real at all, far from it. So, my documentary background shooting real people observing reality, real observing from his life and then trying to visually portray it, it was really useful. When I did, “Straight Outta Compton” we were trying to show what happened on the streets of LA in (East) Compton if you’re a black teenager.
So, that was, I think bringing that sense of reality from my documentary background was very useful in narrative cinema and again, a great narrative film makes you think it completely suspends your disbelief, makes you think it’s real, completely real. It’s happening in front of you and you’re completely subjective in with the characters and a great documentary also has terrific narrative thread, narrative structure strength so you are really invested in the characters that you’re seeing but in this case, it’s their lives.
Michael: So, advice to those just getting into this business in regards to telling the story is what?
James: Any filmmaker, you should really learn the basics of narrative storytelling. This is what you do in documentary is we’re doing dramatic work. Know your Billy Shakespeare, right? I remember when I was in school, Sam Shepherd, the actor and playwright and a great writer came to our school and the kids were all asking him, “Sam, what writers have influenced you?” And of course, they were all expecting 20th century writers to be listed and he looked at us on and he said Sophocles.
So, knowing about drama and dramatic structure is probably one of the most important things a filmmaker can know and also just having a great liberal arts education and knowing about the world. I mean, I really don’t—everything you can learn technically about filmmaking, you can learn in two or three years but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is do you have a story to tell and do you know how tell that story?
Some students asked me, “How do you decide how you shoot something?” And I said it’s very simple. The camera is pointing device. The camera is a pointing device. You point it at what’s important and a lot of young filmmakers don’t do that. They point the camera every which way. You got to know what the story is about whether it’s a music video, a documentary or a narrative piece.
And in terms of technology, I mean, I’m doing, as I said before we got on the interview, I’m going off to Russia and Mongolia here in my living room is some DSLR’s and a sound package and a backpack. So, I’m going to do a whole documentary narrative feature out of that backpack with my laptop and hard drives and so forth. I just recently shot something on the iPhone and I’ll use the iPhone as a backup camera.
So, the technology is tangible. It keeps moving and changing. Probably what doesn’t change is your sense, again, that’s why I talked about narrative and storytelling a structure and the other thing that really is fundamental is do you know aesthetics and composition? Have you developed your aesthetic sense? That’s very, very important. A cinematographer should know or a director should know the history of art of all people of all times. Now, that’s sort of an impossible task but you should be familiar and conversant in art from all through the ages, not just films and photography of this past century but from all time and all culture. If you have that kind of knowledge, you’re going to enrich the kind of movies you make.
Michael: James, you touched a moment ago on emerging technologies and such. Give us your thoughts on collaborative venues like Spidvid.
James: Oh, I don’t know. I think, it’s sorts of anything you need to know is out there and I think it’s what’s valuable is if, unless someone is listening now, they want to see MC Hammer’s “Turn This Mutha Out” they can go on YouTube and see four or five versions of it, various levels of quality. I mean, I think the social media and just the internet in general is useful as an educational tool and as a way of opening our eyes and seeing how other cultures work.
And the project I’m doing in Asia involves film students in Russia and Mongolia and they’re making a little two-minute films and I’m asking them to limit their films to very, very short lengths and we’re constructing a mosaic of images of the work they create and I’m in turn of doing training my cameras on them and doing the documentary about the making of these films and their view of the world because the world is in a tough place right now. So, that’s what my film is about. So, the social media, I think is very, very important. I think all of this is still influx and still there’s a lot of newness to it and it’s basically interesting to see how it all settles out.
Michael: And if you would please tell us about your latest finished film?
James: Well, you need to see, “No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos” a featured documentary that I did. It was kind of a 20-year dream come true. I made it about Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs, the great Hungarian cinematographers who as film students filmed the Hungarian revolution and the subsequent crushing of their revolt by the Russians and with overwhelming force and their tanks and then they decided to smuggle that film out of Hungary to the west. No YouTube in those days so they had to physically take the film out.
And they were nearly killed and they left all their friends and country behind and they had to decide what they were going to do and they said, “Well, we’re without country, we’re broke, what should we do? We’re cinematographers. We should go to Hollywood.” And that’s what they did and they (tourist)-changed world cinema with films like “Easy Rider,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Paper Moon,” “Deliverance.” They shot 140 American movies and really changed the landscape in the forefront of the American new wave.
So, but what was also interesting was they had an amazing loyalty and friendship then they helped each other through their immigrant experience and helped each other climb out of the underbelly of Hollywood where they were working. Since the film has premiered at Cannes and it went on to about 35 film festivals worldwide and still showing today, and it won an Emmy Nomination for its run on PBS in the television version and Vilmos Zsigmond and I, together, and sometimes I by myself have given master cinematography classes all over the world; Argentina, Chicago, Greece, Poland, Romania, Moscow, Russian, Ulam Bator, Mongolia and the list goes on.
Michael: And where can see that film now?
James: Laszloandvilmos.com. You can Google “No Subtitles Necessary” and it will come up first, the film website and it’s also on Facebook at No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlou and Vilmos.
Michael: Fantastic and I know that people listening will want to learn more about James Chressanthis. Where do we do that?
James: Chressanthis.com is my website and you can link to all these other things.
Michael: Thank you so much, James. Safe travels.
Next up is independent filmmaker Mesh Flinders. Mesh, welcome to Spidcast.
Mesh: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Michael: So, let’s start out with a quick overview of Mesh Flinders.
Mesh: I was raised in a small community in Northern California and I was isolated from media almost entirely, didn’t have television. Obviously, we didn’t have the internet in those days and it made me very curious about the world outside of the community where I grew up. First films and television shows that I saw sort of seemed like messages from another planet because I didn’t know about high school or elementary or anything. I was pretty isolated and that’s how I became fascinated with films.
The first films that I saw that made a big impression on me were “Goodfellas,” well, “(Strada)” the “Indiana Jones” films, so kind of a wide variety of stuffs when I was like 13, 14. At first, I really wanted to be in them, I wanted to be an actor and actually started writing screenplays as a way of creating roles for myself in high school, roles that I wanted to play.
When I was 20, I moved to Los Angeles. I went to Occidental College and I quickly lost interest in acting and started writing screenplays and directing short films. After college, I worked as an assistant to several filmmakers. My first sort of break came when I was 25 and I was hired to write a horror script for a company called Blue Omega. I was 25 and all of the sudden, I was a professional screenwriter and I thought this is not hard. What’s everyone complaining about? But then, of course, reality set in and the movie didn’t get made and pretty quickly, I was not getting writing work. It was early 2006 and I was sort of struggling, didn’t really know what I was going to do next and that’s when I met Miles Beckett who have this idea of creating a fictional blogger on YouTube and sort of having in despair. I also met Greg Goodfried and his wife, Amanda Goodfried around this time and together we created “Lonelygirl15.”
I actually didn’t know very much about YouTube at that time. Miles was very passionate on online video and had been experimenting with web video. Before then, Greg was also very passionate about the space. What really excited me about the project was the chance to create this character that had to be totally real, that had to be completely believable. I thought that was a really interesting challenge and to try to kind of create a voice that was authentic enough that people would really think this is a real person.
Michael: Excellent. Now, take us back in time a bit and tell us about that very first thing you wrote that did go into production.
Mesh: The first thing that I was able to produce was until college and it was called, “In the Time of my Undoing” and I think you can actually find it online, if not I’ll put it up on my blog so people listening can just look at it. It was a film made of Occidental College and it was extremely ambitious. It was around that time that “American Beauty” came out and I was really inspired by that and so you’ll see a lot of similarities to “American Beauty”. I was a big fan of that and it was just a short film with actors that I cast from, I think it was a freshman and I cast actors in my class and just went and shot it and I was pretty pleased with it. It was on video. It was pretty early days of videos and not even like high-def, I don’t think, but it was a fun project and that was the first film I ever made.
Michael: Now, if you would, Mesh, take us back to that time of you being the co-creator of the smash web series “Lonelygirl15.”
Mesh: Well, at the beginning, it was like being on a roller coaster. I was surprised by how quickly the show garnered an audience and a really passionate following among its fans. After meeting Miles and Greg and writing, I think, just a few episodes, we very quickly set out to cast it and found Jessica and Yousef and shot these episodes and put them up, it was like June 16th 2006, I think, was the first episode.
What was the most fun for me in those early days was being part of this really tight-knit creative family. I mean, we did everything together. We were all working so hard on the shows. There was so much to do. We basically were working around the clock from dawn until late into the night everyday and I think every young filmmakers should have that experience at least one in their life of going all in on something and then seeing it worked seeing it really catch on.
After about three months of the show growing popularity, fans writing back and forth to “Lonelygirl” everyday, us posting videos probably three or four days a week there in the early stages so really a very fast-paced production schedule. After about three months, we’ve had a very difficult choice to make. So there was a lot of buzz in the press in those first three months of the show and we were faced with a very difficult decision to make which was we could have staged sort of behind the curtain but the pressure was mounting to come out and say that we were doing this and that it was not a real teenage girl and that was a surreal experience.
I thought everyone would hate us and some people did but for the most part, after we came out which was almost exactly three months after the show had premiered, it was September 14, 2006, I believe, for the most part, people were just excited that we pulled it off and wanted to know what the experience was like.
Michael: So, all that buzz and frenzy, what effect did it have on your career going forward?
Mesh: In terms of my career, to date, the “Lonelygirl” is by far the project that I’ve the most success with and so it was very difficult to leave. We work together on the show while I was there for almost two years and in that time, we produced, I believed something like 250 episodes together and so it was like a family and it was just a ton of work really satisfying work. I think the most satisfying thing for my career was that it was instant response to your work. You’re writing something, you’re directing something, you’re editing it all within about a week and then it goes up and the next thing you know people are responding to it. They’re talking about it and its part of this longer sort of bigger narrative and that was incredibly satisfying.
So, and then also just having all that press, I mean, I was able to leave and go do what I initially really wanted to do which was to make films and by the end of 2007, beginning of 2008, I was ready to do that. I was really burned out and I wanted to try a different medium. So, I left and I took a long break from web video and I threw myself into film.
I made a short film and I traveled the world with it to many film festivals and I tried for two and a half years to put together my first feature but it was right up to the economic collapse and in hindsight, I was probably asking for too large of a budget and about a year ago, I finally let go of that project. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but it needed to be done and it really let to where I’m at today.
Michael: Well, and then that, of course, begs the question, where are you today? What is going on?
Mesh: Well, I forced myself to take a really long, hard look, when I put this film down and decided I wasn’t going to try to make it. I’ve been on it for almost two and a half years at that point. I took a really long, hard look at where film is today and why it’s so difficult to get specific kinds of work produced. Projects that don’t rely on already existing fan bases like sequels or adaptations, these are the kinds of films that I love and it’s very hard for these films to get made. It’s hard for them to find audiences and I sort of came to this conclusion that in the 20th century film was arguably the most powerful medium in the world and it just isn’t anymore and that’s very hard for filmmakers to accept.
In the ‘90s, a lot of us came of age; a lot of my generation came of age almost what he talked about. It was the de facto water cooler conversation. Did you see this over the weekend? Did you see that? What did you think of it? And that (isn’t) the case anymore and film is having a hard time adjusting from it.
So, the more that I talked with my colleagues and friends, the more I realized that I really needed to throw myself back again to social media and the more that I talked with my friends, I realized that this was where I needed to be, that the web video world was where the innovation was taking place, that it was where new models were being experimented with. I think that social media gives you the power to find people with similar passions, interests and speak directly to them.
You don’t have to have these big marketing dollars. Going back to “Lonelygirl”, we never had a billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard but we managed to get our work out to millions of people. So, about a year ago, I started consulting on web series. At first, it was honestly, I was more of a student than a teacher because I was so behind. I had so much to learn. I’ve been focusing exclusively on film for almost two years. I owe a lot of friends like Kathleen Grace and Wilson Cleveland who were colleagues and real influencers in the space and it really helped me to see what’s possible and helped me find my passion for that space again, the web video space.
And so in the last year, I’ve worked on a variety of web video projects for clients everywhere from American Express and (AMC) to About.com. I’ve worked for agencies like DigiTalks and like (artists) and I’m directing my first feature next year but the thing that’s really exciting about my feature that it’s actually grown out of social media not the other way around. I think that the mistake I made with the feature that I was trying to put together about a year and a half ago was that I created my dream project and then looked around and said, okay, how is this on social?”
In this I’m taking the opposite approach. I’m starting with social media and sort of filmed it up from that. In addition to that, I recently started a blog that covers filmmakers. We’re using social media in like really interesting ways. This is called social-film.com and there’s like an interview every week with a new filmmaker and new content everyday.
Michael: Now, Mesh, a moment ago you mentioned that you never had a billboard on Sunset Boulevard. How does someone producing content for the web get noticed?
Mesh: First and foremost, content creators have to be aware that as more and more content moves online, they’re competing for eyeballs with professionally produced show and so you have less money. You have less resources but audiences are not going to be distinguishing between your work and “30 Rock” because they’re going to be watching them on the same box.
What we do have, what levels of playing field is our social networks and I think that content creators like Felicia Day, Freddie Wong, iJustine, I think they’ve done a brilliant job of this on YouTube, of creating a large, engaged social following and then of course, on the independent film side, you got people like Kevin Smith, Joe Lamberg, independent names that certainly aren’t as well known as Felicia and Freddie but they have a dedicated social following, a large social network and they leveraged that to give themselves freedom to produce what they want because they know that they don’t need to go through Universal or Paramount to find their audience, that their audience is right there online literally at their fingertips.
And I think that this is potentially incredibly liberating for filmmakers. It’s not—there isn’t one model, there isn’t a one-side fits all model there right now and fill this highly experimental space and of all six of those people that I just mentioned, they’re all actually doing very different things with it but I think what they’ve done has been very effective so I think they’re good examples. There’s a lot of experimenting going on and new models sort of being rolled out everyday.
Michael: Wonderful advice. Young and new filmmakers have a lot so they can learn from you. Where do we find out more about Mesh Flinders?
Mesh: You can go to my website, social-film.com.
Michael: That’s it for this show. Thanks for listening to Spidcast. We appreciate your time and attention. You can now join the conversation at spidvid.com or on our Spidvid blog and you can join our collaborative filmmaking community at spidvid.com. Tune in next month for another entertaining and informative episode of Spidcast.