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As normal as it gets

Nathan Strum


For the past two years, our annual student film screenings for the Character Animation Program at CalArts haven't happened. At least not in person. (For those reading this in the inevitable, distant, dystopian FUTURE and may have no knowledge of what happened in 2020 - this was due to a worldwide outbreak of e-coli brought about by some undercooked Chicken McNuggets at McDonald's. For those who don't know what Chicken McNuggets were, they were "extra parts" genetically engineered and grafted onto chickens that could be repeatedly harvested for foodstuffs without killing the host chickens (although the process itself was horrible and needlessly cruel, but not nearly as bad as their "Cow McNuggets" or "Rhesus Monkey McNuggets". For reference, search the historical archives for: "pink slime"). For those who have no knowledge of what McDonald's was, it was a global, dictatorial empire that ruled the entire planet. Everyone worked at McDonald's, lived at McDonald's, were educated by McDonald's (search historical archives for: "Hamburger University"), ate at McDonald's, and were ultimately "served" by McDonald's (search archives for the historical documentary: "Soylent Green"). The empire ultimately met its demise when they stopped putting "toys" in their "Happy Meals". And yes, that's a euphemism. And no, you do not want to search the archives for what that actually means.)


It's hard work preserving history for future generations, but somebody has to do it. Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to... something or other. I forget what. Look it up on Wikipedia, I suppose.




In 2020, our shows were cancelled outright. We had an online screening in the fall that year, but it was kind of a stop-gap. In April and May of 2021, we had online-only versions of our two shows, but it felt weirdly disconnected without live audiences. Our Open Show had a live chat, so there was some sense of people watching it... but there was no such chat for the Producers' Show. I sat at my computer, keeping an eye on the live stream... but there could've been 100 other people watching, or 1000, or one.


But this year... we were back. Not 100% back-to-normal, but back-in-person anyway.


The Open Show (comprised of all of our student films for the year) is usually held indoors in the Main Gallery on campus. Typically, this runs in one day, with around 320 people watching it. Not exactly COVID-compliant. Or perhaps, pandemic-prudent. Even though mask requirements had become optional in LA County, our college still required them whenever in the building. That close to the end of the academic year, we kind-of didn't want to have an outbreak right before graduation.


So with that in mind, we made the decision to move the show outside. Hey - it's Southern California! So weather shouldn't be an issue. Right? But too much sunshine, however, was. We usually use a video projector for the films, starting at 11 AM to fit it all reasonably into one day, which works fine inside where you can control the light. But outside, you can't really use a projector unless the sun is down. So we did three things to address this: First, we ran the show at night, starting at 6:00PM after the sun had gone far enough over the main building to put the courtyard into full shade (although the sun wouldn't set for at least another 90 minutes). Second, because we usually have 7 or 8 hours of films (before adding intermissions), we split it over two nights (Friday, April 22 and Saturday, April 23), so the show wouldn't be running until 3 AM. This year we had 186 films, running 8 hours and 13 minutes - so we definitely needed both nights. Third, and the biggest change, was we hired a company to set up an 11'h x 20'w LED wall, plus a sound system, and run the show for us. The LED wall is visible in full daylight (and incredibly bright at night), and hiring a crew to handle all of the setup, teardown, and the screening itself was a huge relief, and saved us a ton of work. Well... I should say it was a huge relief after they finished setting it up and we knew it was going to work. We'd never worked with this company before, nor seen their LED wall in person. Plus the work it saved was offset this year because the show started on Friday - not Saturday - which meant I had an entire day less to edit the entire thing together. So it was still a highly compressed and stressful week. But for once we didn't have to build an impromptu movie theater in the Main Gallery.


Here's the 11' x 20' LED wall (with enough subwoofers to make your ears bleed from 30 yards away):



The panels do have some variation, but generally it evens out when they're all on (although there was one noticeably more-blue panel than the rest, but it's something most people likely wouldn't pick up on).


The back of it:



We chose 11' x 20' for two reasons: 1) This is the same size of the projection screen we used indoors and we didn't want to step down from what we previously had, and 2) to go any larger requires that a custom support truss be engineered which dramatically increases the cost. This is their largest standard size. It was plenty large enough.


A close-up of the LED matrix (once you're about 20 feet away, you don't see the individual pixels anymore):


And as for the weather? Well, 24 hours before the show - it rained. Not just a little either, but a torrential downpour. But it cleared out and the day of the show it was bright and sunny! But windy. And cold. That night got down into the low 50's. Maybe even the upper 40's. But everyone just bundled up, brought blankets, and we handed out foam floor tiles for people to sit on, so they wouldn't be on wet grass.




Saturday night was better - the wind had died down and it was a good 10 degrees warmer. (For those wanting to know it in Celsius - subtract 32 and multiply by 5/9. I ain't gonna do it for ya'.)


Cold weather aside, the show went really well. The LED wall is pretty cool technology, although it doesn't have the same kind of dynamic range we're used to on typical computer monitors, so some films suffered a bit, and there were the aforementioned color inconsistencies between panels. But it was still impressive.


When it's turned on, the image almost looks Photoshopped during the daylight because you don't pick up any reflections or shadows (the moire pattern was caused by my phone, and isn't visible in person):



At the most, they ran the wall at only 60% brightness. When the show started, they were down to around 40%, and 12% after the sun went down. They also brought more sound gear than we usually use (four subwoofers plus six powered 12" speakers, vs. our normal two subs and four speakers), so there was plenty of volume available. I estimated around 200 people were there each night, which is pretty good considering the cool temperatures and it being outside at the back-end of the building (instead of just inside the main entrance in a high-traffic area).


My iPhone absolutely refused to take a picture of the audience without the video completely blowing out:



In reality, the video looked more like this:



Splitting it over two nights certainly cost more for the rental, but I think it was worth doing. With 30 minute intermissions at the two-hour mark, it made each night's runtime pretty reasonable (although it's still like watching two feature films back-to-back, two nights in a row). Any downsides? Well, the temperature for sure. Bathrooms were also a bit further away. Plus we had no concession stand this year since the Theater School wasn't doing their usual fundraising, and for some reason, we weren't allowed to have food trucks (although another event just the other evening had them... so what's up with that?).




Will we do it outside again next year? Beats me. The cost was significant, and there were certainly some compromises made in terms of comfort and presentation. But splitting it over two days is something I definitely think we need to keep. Sitting through eight hours straight of anything is painful.


I still haven't watched The Batman yet for that very reason.


Right. So that's one show done with.


The Producers' Show for this year was held on May the 4th (which as every fan of pop culture knows, is Dave Brubeck Day) and this year we were at a new theater again. But not just a new theater for us, but a brand-new theater period!


In previous years, we were originally at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theater at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. But when they decided to renovate it and it was shut down for construction, we ended up moving to the main theater at the Director's Guild of America. When they decided to renovate that one (I don't think we were doing anything to cause this...), we ended up moving to the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Fortunately, they'd already just been renovated, so we felt safe for awhile.


And then we had a pandemic. Which really could've been completely avoided, if people had just gotten their chicken nuggets from Burger King instead. They're way better. Or better still: Chick Fil-A. Love those. Especially with their Buffalo sauce. (Made, as far as I know, from real buffaloes.)


When we started looking into theaters again for this year's return to being in-person, there was a new contender. And because of various factors (including capacity, availability, and proximity to world-famous Hollywood landmarks), this year's show was held at the David Geffen Theater at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. It only just opened in the fall, and it's as absolutely state-of-the-art as a theater can get.


The signs on the seats are "reserved" signs for sponsors (we have quite a few of them):



The whole thing is inside a giant concrete ball. Kind-of looks like the Death Star. Funny nobody mentioned that on the day of the show. Since, you know, I'm pretty sure Dave Brubeck liked Star Wars.



They even have the requisite C-3PO Oscar statues:



The theater holds 1000 people, but our target was around 500-600, so we could still have some social distancing. Everyone was required to wear masks and have proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test. Apparently, it worked. I haven't heard any reports of anyone getting sick that evening. In the end, we had over 500 people. For our first year back, I'd call that a win.


Here's a rather clunky composite of several photos as people were getting seated. My iPhone absolutely refused to capture a panorama that was actually usable:



I stayed in the back for the whole show. By then, I'd seen every film multiple times, so for me, it's more about watching the audience (especially students) react to the films, rather than watching the films themselves.



Even then, I found myself watching the show because the sound and projection in the theater were absolutely first-rate. And we got some great compliments from the technical staff at the theater about our preparation and the quality of our DCP which is always nice to hear. Especially since this is THE Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. It's kind-of like Apple telling you, "Hey - nice computer!" :D 


The show was by all accounts a complete success. The audience had a lot of fun, the films all got great responses, the students got terrific industry exposure, and everyone enjoyed being back together and seeing friends and colleagues again for the first time in years.


You can read the official CalArts blog about it here. (Although the list posted there doesn't actually link to any films.)


If you want to watch some of the films, check out our Vimeo channel our or YouTube channel. (Not all films have been posted online yet. That's up to the students.)

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