Nutmeg Gazette: "The Power of the Moving Image (My Story)" - Chris Bryant
It was a relatively chilly Friday evening on June 11th, 1993. My stepfather had brought me to see a new, supposedly ground-breaking movie on opening night. The line to get in stretched outside and around the theater. I had never seen such a commotion about a movie before (which I suppose isn't saying too much since I was only 9). I was a bit apprehensive and scared, after seeing promotional cups of different scenes of the movie on McDonald's cups the day before. Images of some weird looking dinosaurs chasing people in a field, and one of a T-Rex chewing on a car tire of an overturned SUV, with kids inside screaming. WHAT HAD I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO?
We made our way into the theater, the lights went down, and the now-unmistakeable BOOMS of John Williams' score began. By the time the lights came up two hours later, the trajectory of my life had changed, and Jurassic Park would go on to make cinematic history by being the #1 grossing movie of all time up to that point. The story that was told, the images on the screen and the characters I grew to know ingrained in me the power of the moving image. That, and my goal was to someday work on a Steven Speilberg movie. I achieved that sooner than I expected, but we'll get to that.
I learned everything I could about filmmaking, which in the early 90s consisted of visiting my local library, thumbing through the card catelog and exhausting the children's (and eventually adult's) section on the topic.
Fast forward to 2000, and I'm in high school and purchasing my first video camera, a Canon 8mm camcorder, to film everything I could. Since Jackass was popular and I was young and stupid, that camera met it's demise fairly quickly, but I knew I was hooked on crafting stories through the moving image, and I REALLY enjoyed seeing an audience's reaction to what I had created (even if at this point it was just some classmates huddled around a rear projection TV in the school's library I was able to quietly commandeer and hook my camera up to it).
I went on to study film at Western Connecticut State University and got involved in the industry. I quickly learned that even when you're the director, your creative vision is not absolute when you are working with a studio. Since the ultimate goal was to work at that level, I switched gears. Instead of aiming for bigger budget Hollywood dreams, I opened my own video production company.
While admittedly not as glamorous as traditional movie making, it allowed (and still allows) me the complete creative control to tell brands' stories, from script writing and story boarding (when necessary) to filming and post production. Sure, clients have final say on the end product, but I've been fortunate enough to work with brands and companies that allow a massive degree of flexibility in my vision for them. I've been all over the world, filming all kinds of things in all kinds of places: New Orleans, Santa Fe, Orlando, Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and more.
A few years into having my own company, there was a serious movie that was shooting in Connecticut, and they needed a LOT of extras. The at-the-time untitled Indiana Jones 4 movie was coming to New Haven, Essex and a few othe nutmeg state locations, and they were looking for some preppy-looking kids to populate fictional Marshall College (filming at the absolutely stunning Old Campus of Yale University in New Haven). If someone tried to tie me down to prevent me from auditioning, there are no restraints known to man that would have held me. I went to the casting call at the Omni Hotel in downtown New Haven, and the room it was being held in was The Wooster. That was also the name of the street I lived on at the time in Danbury, so I took it as a good sign. I'm not superstitious, but I REALLY wanted to be part of this.
Long story short, I was cast as an extra, which required me to shave my beard and get a preppy 1950s-style haircut. There are few things that would get me to physically transform like that, and a Steven Speilberg movie was one of them. So I looked a bit different for a few weeks. A few days before I was needed for the movie, I took a drive to the set, which was basically the entire Old Campus of Yale, and several surrounding streets. The production crew had literally transformed several blocks into the 1950s. And since it was big-budget Hollywood, they were serious. They removed parking meters, traffic lights, installed fake 1950s-inspired storefronts, and lined the roads with beautiful automobiles from the '50s (they were more commonly referred to as automobiles back then, in case you were wondering why I didn't say "cars" like a normal person). I was admiring a custom matte black Mercades Benz AMG pursuit camera car (complete with a motorized 20' jib mounted to the roof), when I ran into a buddy of mine from college. We had taken a few film classes together at WCSU, and he was working in the Production Office for the New Haven Unit. We got to chatting, and he asked if I wanted a job in the office with him while the production was in town. After I picked my jaw off the floor, I agreed.
I quickly moved up the ranks, so to speak, and in a few days ended up as a Production Assistant on the Second Unit, blocking the large crowds of people from entering the shot while they were going for a take. On the day I was going to be an extra, I was asked to be the eyes on the inside, since we were filming in the quad, and line of sight was limited for all the PAs. I was outfitted with a low profile earpiece, and a mic that went up my sleeve and into my hand. When they were going for a take, I would radio to let the PA team know we were rolling, and to hold the crowds back. When they cut, I'd let them know so traffic could be released.
And while there were some stars on set (Harrison Ford, Shia LaBouf, Jim Broadbent) and I was a bit starstruck, you know there was just one dude I was hoping to spot. I had seen him from a distance in the previous days, but this particular afternoon I literally brushed shoulders with him when I passed him on the quad in between takes. I was cool and didn't faint, and I exercised my will power by not speaking to him (there was an unwritten rule about people so below-the-line talking to such above-the-line people). We met eyes for a second and exchanged a head nod. So my day/month/year/decade had been made. However, others were not so smooth. An extra was standing in the middle of the stone walkway in the quad, and as Speilberg approached, he just stood there like a statue (a statue with bulging eyes and an agape mouth). Speilberg sidestepped past the now made-of-stone extra and continued on his way.
The shoot continued and while I could write a short novel on my short time on set, that's not really the point of this post (article?). While it was a check-an-item-off-the-bucket list kind of experience, it further reiterated to me that Hollywood-level productions weren't for me, personally. I was away from my wife from about 4:30am until around midnight, and when I was home I was obviously completely unconscious.
Of course since I started down the path with my own video production company, YouTube launched, then exploded. It has never been easier to create high quality films and get it seen by an audience of millions with the click of a button. That being the case, I've returned to my original idea of making films, but as passion projects on the side, and have started in the documentary field. My schooling as well as my real-world experience has taught me a tremendous amount about the industry and the craft. Distribution channels like YouTube and Vimeo have made it possible to have your work seen by a massive audience for free. All that, combined with the tremendous people I've met that share my same passions (including the good people that make up The Nut!), it's only become easier for everything. From concept development and every stage of the production process, all the way to having some seasoned eyeballs to review 1st cuts, 2nd cuts, 5th cuts, 12th cuts...
All the above took place within Connecticut, and I'm stoked that the Nutmeg Institute exists to bring awareness, education and connections to this exciting industry. The moving image is one of the most powerful mediums in the history of the world, and the ability to wield it is now (literally) in our hands and widespread distribution is within our power. The Nutmeg State is a great place to be for that.
- Chris Bryant
Chris Bryant is Creative Director at Empire Studios, a digital agency with a focus on video production, and Founder of Studio 12 Academy, an educational resource on all things video. He also directed the documentary Soldiers of Vietnam (you can watch the full documentary here), and is currently in pre-production on his next doc, focused on military families.