|Like many red-blooded
American boys my age (47 in 2005) I grew up with two major entertainment
influences on my life; cultural icons that spoke to the depths of my soul
and profoundly influenced the entirety of my spiritual and creative growth.
I am speaking, of course, of Godzilla and
Sure, I was aware that the main characters were either marionettes or a man
in a large rubber suit, but who cares about plot and character development
when you are twelve years old? The point was: they blew stuff up.
Miniatures, sure, but there is a certain visceral satisfaction in watching
elaborately sculpted model cities being stomped into oblivion by huge latex
feet, especially when accompanied by blasts of real flame and showers of
actual sparks. And the Thunderbirds, with their real rockets streaming fire
and smoke and oil refineries erupting into infernos of dramatic display -
all Lucas' modern technical brilliance and CG excellence still never evokes
the same gut-deep satisfaction of watching something real get blown to
So when my boys and
I were old enough to begin messing with a video camera (my sons were old
enough for years but my wife had some doubts about my own maturity) the first
thing we did was get a bunch of illegal fireworks and a robotic dinosaur
and some army men and proceed to spend the next two days injuring ourselves,
terrifying the dogs, and alarming the neighbors making our own 3-minute
Godzilla homage. The result, entitled Monster Attack!
was admittedly crude in the extreme, but remains a hoot to watch.
We destroyed most of the contents of my son's toy chest in the process, and
without a single regret.
In fact, crude though the result was, we were impressed by two things. One
was the amazing amount of detail that modern toys contained these days and
how well it showed up on video. The other was how incredibly lousy real fireworks
worked for special effects. It had already been decided that we would make
another, more elaborate film, one with real people in it - but it was obvious
that commercial fireworks were out. Thus it fell to me as the only available
adult (at least in the legal sense) to learn what I could about pyrotechnics.
Thank goodness for the Internet. Even as we began
scripting, storyboarding, and preparing props for the project we had entitled
Agent 12 (a James Bond-like character in a world apparently
populated entirely by 12-year-old boys) I was teaching myself as much as
I could about miniature and stage pyrotechnics. Magicians especially had
long since worked out flashy but reasonably safe pyrotechnic effects, and
these had the benefit of being nearly silent and designed for indoor use.
Sound effects could always be added in post. Additionally, my twelve-year-old
was a brown belt in karate at the time, so we simply recruited the other
cast members from the dojo. At the time, this was done simply in order to
increase the opportunities for fight scenes, but I soon learned that I had
been wiser than I knew.
Let me tell you, if you have to work with kids - work with kids trained in
Face it, with kids, you're not likely to win any acting awards anyway. And
kids are kids - they are going to mess around between takes. But kids that
have spent a couple of years having a sensei snap them to attention on command
and who have already practiced doing dives, rolls, and elaborate staged fight
sequences for karate tournaments have no trouble doing the same on the set.
They take direction beautifully and never complain. The only problems I ever
had were with a couple of real child "actors" who were no better at performing
than my karate kids and who tended to miss shoots because they were at auditions.
After the second missed shoot I recast both their roles with additional dojo
recruits and never looked back.
We built sets out of Styrofoam insulation and lit them with shop lights from
Home Depot. Bags of salt for the water softener served as sandbags which
could be dumped into the softener after use. And a large green sheet and
a green plywood slab on sawhorses served as our "war table." Elaborate battles
between radio-controlled tanks, planes on strings, and the largest, coolest
toy robot we could find were all staged there.
In the process, new talents were discovered. A couple of the kids turned
out to be surprisingly good actors. One revealed a knack for building miniatures
and models. Two turned out to be talented editors, and one of them was a
terrific second camera as well.
It took almost a year of
working evenings and weekends, but we got it done. Agent 12 was
completed, all 15 minutes of it, and is available for download at
More importantly, we all learned an incredible amount about filmmaking in
the process and we never stopped having fun. By the time we were done a sequel
was already in the works, and since we had acquired a reputation for actually
finishing a project we had no shortage of volunteers. We're now in the process
of wrapping up The Return of Agent 12 and it is also available
for download. But in the meantime, nearly all my young assistants have enrolled
in filmmaking classes. They've gotten a taste of what passed for Hollywood
in my garage, and they liked it. Look for their names in the credits, and
if you are in the industry, remember them.
Because chances are, you could be working for one of them soon!
This article first appeared in AMPS Movie Makers volume 15, no. 4
It is reproduced by kind permission of the author and editor.