Can three film school grads from San Francisco break out without the help of Hollywood or New York connections?
Filmmaking is a high-stakes art form: It’s a labor of communicating with strangers in order to convey a story to other, further estranged strangers. The ultimate product, the audio-visual story, must captivate an audience with varied expectations for either 60 seconds in the midst of a hurried Internet-addled workday or for 90 minutes in a dark theater for a hefty admission fee. Filmmaking costs more money and takes more time than people have to give. Filmmakers must collaborate–they must find a tribe of talented, hardworking individuals with perspectives different enough from their own in order to make a well balanced film.
For most, the pursuit of great filmmaking begins with film school. As the story goes, the kids with blockbuster dreams go west to Hollywood and those with gritty, indie visions head east to New York City. Knowing people in the business, even the ones with a single, forgettable IMDB credit who can hustle you a measly production assistant gig, is an irrefutable advantage.
So who comes to San Francisco to study film, and what do they do after film school, without the Hollywood studios and New York film scenes beckoning them? Heather MacLean, Staci DeGagne and Alexander Fletcher are three. With no industry connections to speak of, the trio graduated from the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking determined to make a living by making films in the Bay Area, taking up residence in a box factory in Oakland, creating promos and music videos as the production company Clean White Lines.
Their first video was for a tiny folk-brother-duo band from Nevada City named The Moore Brothers. Sean Hayes, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter at the time, saw the video, and contacted the group to help him make one of his own. They put their newly learned skills to work, crafting two gorgeous music videos for Hayes’ tracks “Garden” and “When We Fall In.” Little more than a year after producing these videos, Subaru picked up Hayes as the voice of their Forester car campaign.
So it has been for Clean White Lines–the team seems to have a knack for landing gigs with performers just before their big breaks: The group has filmed promotional videos for Bay Area comedians Alex Koll and Chris Garcia; Koll has been featured on Comedy Central and Garcia recently opened for Aziz Ansari. They filmed a music video for The Stone Foxes; the band who recently recorded the backing track for the Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey ad campaign.
A mere five years ago, while studying film, the trio enjoyed access to expensive cameras and their peers’ unfettered 90-minute attention spans. Now, like so many others, they operate in the new media landscape–a world of 30-second attention spans, increased access to cheaper, higher quality DSLR cameras and free film distribution (YouTube) and fundraising models (Kickstarter). “It’s liberating, but also a big burden.” Luckily, the tech-savvy group has managed to stay ahead of the curve, using the popular “tilt-shift” lens on a Canon 5D when it first came out and applying old-school 3–D effects to music videos.
As right-brained as the trio may seem, one part forward-thinking producer, one part detail-obsessed video editor, and one part cinematography virtuoso, the three collectively replicate a formula many successful Silicon Valley start-ups credit with their ultimate success, making them a very bay-area phenomenon. Like a start-up, they balance the hustle of finding gigs with the dedication to acclimating themselves with the latest technologies. That balance combined with their insistence on steering clear of the Hollywood and New York rat races may very well be their lifelong niche.
"In Los Angeles and New York, you ask someone what they do and they say ‘I'm an actor, I'm a tailor, I'm a [insert noun].'” MacLean says, “You ask someone in the Bay area, and you get what people call ‘The Laundry List.’ Everyone has at least five hats they identify themselves with. So we look to these five-hat-wearers and we want to learn what they do. We get inspired by that. It’s almost like we decided to shy away from making a name for ourselves amongst industry people and focused on artists liking our work. Because the Bay area is so interconnected and insular in a way, we have expanded our network exponentially with every project.” DeGagne adds, “People want to see good things come out of Oakland and the Bay Area.”
Their latest project is a documentary about Muffler Men, the 20-foot tall highway-shoulder-hopping fiberglass statues. Crafted in the 1960s as roadside advertisements for gas station chains, these collosi now attract all varieties of enthusiasts, from grizzled bikers to Diane von Furstenberg. MacLean summarizes the project: “Muffler Men of America beckon us off the road to whatever amenity, service or attraction our asphalt-wearied hearts desire. They take us back to an era of American advertising that relied on the ‘seen,’ being there, going to the place wanting your business, an era almost forgotten to us now with Google's targeted marketing, banner ads, junk mail, sponsored links. Now slightly out of place on the roadside, these epic humanoids encourage us to hit the open road, and get out there to share the American experience.” Starting in April 2012, CWL will hit the open road, interviewing collectors, creators and enthusiasts in the Bay Area, West Virginia and Texas. The team is raising funds now on its website.
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