Alcatraz prison’s eerie presence in the San Francisco Bay is a constant reminder that it once housed some of our nation’s worst criminals. A few years ago I toured the prison and brought my camera along to shoot some video and photos.
If you’ve ever taken the Alcatraz tour you know how crowded it gets- and it’s like that every day. The one chance I had to visit, it was sold-out up until the last ferry over to the island. Although there wasn’t much time to finish the audio-guided tour, I was one of the last to leave which allowed me to get some nice empty wide-shots. Most of the time I was framing-out crowds of people because I wanted to capture the prison’s desolate condition to give the viewer a sense of what it felt like inside those walls.
At the time I had just read Jim Quillen’s memoir, “Alcatraz From Inside,” and was so fascinated with his accounts as an inmate that I wanted to create my own video-adaptation to his book. Nothing had been produced to tell Quillen’s life-story, so I edited together some of the footage I shot with sound-bites featured from the audio-tour.
I’ve always thought Quillen’s book- along with Whitey Thompson’s “Last Train To Alcatraz” and Jim Albright’s “Last Guard Out” would make interesting dramas, perhaps even an entertaining miniseries altogether. Much like HBO’s Band of Brothers and The Pacific were based on historical and personal accounts of those fighting within Easy Company during World War II, this series would focus on Alcatraz’s history as a prison told through the perspectives of the inmates (Quillen, Thompson) and guards (Albright).
Even the way a series like Tremé captures the people and culture of New Orleans through certain characters, Alcatraz could tell the story of the the prison through the lives of those who inhabited the island- whether they were prisoners or family of the guards working there.
Throughout these accounts, the series would feature other major characters- some of the more infamous prisoners like Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert “Birdman” Stroud, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis; place them within the backdrop of one of the toughest prisons of all-time, which was eventually shut down because of exceeding costs and amidst rumors of inhumane prisoner treatment (ironically, an issue that still exists in some prisons today).
Even more fascinating are the detailed accounts of Alcatraz’s most notorious prison breaks.
The bloody Battle for Alcatraz which ended in military intervention after three inmates took over the prison; and the suspenseful escape where another three inmates left paper maché dummies in their beds to distract the guards while they climbed out from holes dug through their cell-walls and into the air-duct system, eventually out onto the roof.
The history-nerd side of me finds these memoirs and stories interesting, but the film-geek part of me also sees the entertainment value within them. None of this is to imply that past shows or movies based on the prison haven’t been entertaining, but I just think Alcatraz could use an updated fresh-take, based more on the history and lives of those who inhabited the island.
Of course, a project like this would help to be produced by likes of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, or David Simon and Eric Overmyer, and released as a miniseries on HBO…but for now let’s start with this video and get a feeling for how I think it could look.
From Sunrises to Sunsets
For as long as I’ve been taking pictures of the sunrise, I’ve always wanted to shoot time-lapses.
A good friend approached me about doing a music video for he and his brother’s new band, ScreamCreature. The band- comprised of my bud Rob, his brother Chris Culos (O.A.R.) and Danny Chaimson (Gold Coast All-Stars), was set to release their first single, “Bonfire,” and wanted a video to go along with it on their website and social media accounts.
I was game, but there was the important fact that Rob was in San Francisco, Chris was on tour, Danny was in Chicago, and I was here in NC.
No problem- music videos don’t always have to feature the band. Rob and I emailed back and forth on some ideas on how to make this work from across the country. At the heart of "Bonfire" was a love-song, but he wanted to make the video about something other than the typical guy and a girl love-story.
Since we were limited with money, equipment and short on time, I had to figure-out something that I could shoot and edit together on my own. When thinking outside the love-story theme, Rob suggested the idea of using nature/beauty shots or ephemeral imagery. This was perfect.
For a while I wanted to create time-lapses from the sunrises I see every morning, capturing the beauty about them.* Each day is different from the next- the way the clouds move with the rising sun, changing colors across the sky, and how fast it all occurs are all what makes it worth setting an early alarm for, and finding the ideal evening sunset location.
Shot over the course of a week, I biked around to some of my favorite spots on Wrightsville Beach, set-up my camera and enjoyed the scenery. I was lucky to work with a variety of partly-cloudy days and plenty of sunlight. When I wasn’t outside chasing the sun and shooting time-lapses, I was home off-loading cards and exporting files. By the end of the week I had taken over 13,000 pictures from twenty different locations around the island.
After a few rough-cuts of the video, the band agreed that it looked good but still needed more of an identity- something that made it feel like a ScreamCreature video. The early edits helped to establish a visual-tone that went well with the music, but what we realized it lacked was a human element after-all.
The visuals were strong enough to carry the ephemeral theme we established early on, but I still wanted to avoid the love-story idea. Rather than introduce a couple in love, I wanted to use a lone-female character and keep the idea of her presence ambiguous so that it raised more questions than it answered.
I enlisted the help of my girlfriend and filmed her early one morning in the beach access as the sun was rising. Keeping with the theme of her character being ambiguous, I had a solid direction in mind. I filmed Sarah walking through the Access, never focussing on her facial features but instead kept her silhouetted as the sun rose above the dunes. Throughout the video, her character drifts further away from the camera alluding to the fact she was growing distant from us.
Rather than explicitly show scenes of a guy and girl falling in/out of love, I wanted these new shots combined with the time-lapse footage to create a sense of love lost, keeping with the lyrical theme of "Bonfire."
Not only did this project give me the chance to film and edit time-lapses and mess around with different frame-rates and speeds, but it also challenged me visually as a filmmaker. The final video had a lot of stylized edits that helped bring something more to my work that wasn’t there before, and it was through working back-forth with Rob and the band’s notes that we found the love-story and it finally became a ScreamCreature music video.
* click here to view more photos of my daily sunrises
A couple goals that I have for this year are to write more, and shoot more often with my Canon camera when taking photos.
Although these goals are more of an ongoing effort rather than something achieved, they help me to become a better filmmaker in the process. The past year I have worked to rebrand my work, and redesign my website with the intention of keeping it updated more frequently with blog entries, and projects that I’m working on and am involved with.
Lately, most of the blog entries have been sunrise photos- which is part of another on-going project, but the blog will also feature production journals with behind-the-scenes, and making-of featurettes from new projects that give a better view into the creative process.
My hope is it makes the work more interesting, and becomes a platform to grow and improve upon. With that said, here is a look at some of my projects from the past year that I will recap in upcoming entries on the blog.
Teaming - animation
Animation supporting the idea of teaming within the health care community.
Client: Long Term Health Care Education Foundation
Bonfire - music video
Music video for ScreamCreature’s first-released single, “Bonfire.”
Cat Show - short film
Short film following show-cats and their owners at an actual cat show event. Premiered at the 19th Annual Cucalorus Film Festival.
Cold and calm sunrise at 7:23 am
Wrightsville Beach, NC
Busy Sunday morning filled with good surf, a Bernese Mountain Dog and a Dunecat.
Wrightsville Beach, NC at 7:23 am
This morning’s sunrise was accompanied by a Dunecat and some beautiful clouds.
Wrightsville Beach, NC at 7:20 am
First Sunrise of 2014. Happy New Year!
Wrightsville Beach, NC at 7:16 am
Cold Dawn at 7:18 am
Wrightsville Beach, NC
This morning was too good to share only one.
Wrightsville Beach, NC at 7:13 am