August 31, 2004
Batman's been murdered. Chief O'Hara's in a bad way. Robin has long since hung up his superhero tights, but he's the only one who can avenge Batman's death. Superman and Wonder Woman are sidelining as enforcers for a corrupt Commissioner Gordon. The Joker's back, flanked by two karate-kicking, hipster Jokerettes. And is that the Penguin beckoning from the shadows?
What's going on here?
Director John Fiorella and cinematographer Gabriel Sabloff took on all this and more in the 18 months worth of nights and weekends they devoted to producing the extended trailer "Grayson." Without studio support of any kind, they created a dramatic and visually stunning preview of a movie that may never exist. There's no "Grayson" screenplay, no big studio backing, not even a gentleman's agreement to produce a feature-length film; just a love for the D.C. comics superheroes and an itch for filmmaking.
"The ultimate goal was to make a film that I was proud of and wanted to share with other people. As a filmmaker that's what I do. Of course, it stands as a great demo piece to showcase my passion for filmmaking. I realize the odds are a billion-to-one of the actual film getting made, but I'm not afraid of those odds."
Fiorella and Sabloff turned an $18,000 budget into a five-and-a-half minute trailer complete with convincing motorcycle chases, underwater escapes, pyrotechnics and impossible feats of strength. Most of the production budget went to film stock, production equipment, processing and transfers, leaving little left over for anything else. Since the budget wouldn't allow for daily or weekly film transfers, they only saw their developed footage in large batches every three months. According to Fiorella, despite these limitations, the pair got most things right the first time around.
"There was only one re-shoot, and that was the Robin costume that was on display in the bat cave. After the first batch, I attributed it to luck, but after the second and third batch came back, and everything was in focus and exposed correctly, that's just a tribute to how talented Gabe Sabloff is."
Sabloff shot all of the footage on a standard 16mm Bolex camera fitted with an anamorphic lens to achieve a wide-screen-like aspect ratio. Although digital video would have been more cost-effective, Fiorella preferred the look and functionality of the Bolex:
"I'm a big fan of slow motion photography and I know it can be done with digital format, but unless you're George Lucas and you're working with those cameras that were designed to shoot 'Episode I' or 'II' -- I haven't seen anyone on a low budget level achieve the slow motion that I was looking for. What I love about the Bolex is that there's no battery so you can just wind it up and you can shoot all day, if you can afford the film."
The two employed guerilla filmmaking tactics and innumerable special effects tricks along the way. They shot the trailer exclusively on weekends and used whatever locations they could find, often without official clearance. For the scenes showing Batman's funeral, they shot at a public golf course, but were soon chased off the green and had to find a similar location. By the end of shooting for that sequence, they had been kicked out of several golf courses. They found a local Los Angeles library to be more accommodating. By sheer coincidence, on their shooting day, a feature film rented the space for use later in the day. Apparently, the librarian assumed they were part of the feature film shoot. Fiorella and Sabloff capitalized on the librarian's confusion and shot their scenes in the library without interruption.
Another scene called for a tracking shot of Robin running down a busy street at top speed, in his full superhero costume. To avoid the expense and complexity of blocking off a city street and hiring extras, the filmmaking pair sought out a crowded street in downtown Los Angeles one weekend. Sabloff positioned himself in a car and cued Fiorella (playing the role of Robin) to run down the sidewalk as if pursuing an evildoer. Other locations included a public beach, an alley, the 405 freeway, the interior of the filmmaker's apartment and an apartment complex pool.
Almost all of the special effects wizardry was carried off in the analog realm. According to Fiorella, only 4 digital effects were used in the entire trailer. To depict Robin blocking a hail of machine-gun bullets with a metal door, they strapped fireworks to the outside of the door and lit them in sequence. When the plot called for Superman lifting a heavily armored tank, they used the technique of forced perspective and positioned a tiny toy tank in the extreme foreground and Superman in the background.
Shooting Under Water
For a sequence where Robin appears to be chained to a wooden chair and thrown into a pool, the filmmakers created a submersible casing so they could shoot the scene underwater. In what may be described as a moment of great courage or great insanity, they bolted two huge garbage cans together, added Plexiglas windows and included 350 pounds of ballast to keep the submersible on the pool's floor.
Fiorella recalls the ordeal with a laugh:
"The first design I came up with couldn't handle the water pressure. I had no idea that three and a half feet below the water, the pressure was so insane. We just kind of winged it with the garbage cans. And that turned out pretty good. Gabe was in that thing, which was really scary because the water pressure was trying to crush the barrels. It was so strong. And we had sprung a couple of leaks. And not only was Gabe in there, and the thing was pinching down on Gabe, but the camera's in there -- everything's in the can. So it was a pretty hair-raising experience. And I enjoyed it because it was a lot of fun jumping in with the chains."
The filmmakers also produced a 30-minute featurette, describing many of their production techniques in great detail. Fiorella firmly believes in the educational value of studying other filmmaker's techniques. He hopes to produce a DVD one day presenting a complete feature film alongside a version of the same film made up of the raw footage without the special effects.
Fiorella and Sabloff would love to see their "Grayson" concept become a feature some day, but they recognize the inherent difficulties in selling the project. For one thing, the epic plot involves an unwieldy number of individually licensed characters, each of which constitutes its own corporate entity. Even if the filmmakers did get all of those properties together for the same picture, the "Grayson" trailer probably contains not one, but several movies' worth of plots. It's also particularly difficult to influence the pre-existing Warner Brothers schedule of superhero movie releases as an outsider.
In just a few months' time the trailer has already produced some positive outcomes. Fiorella now has an agent who is actively shopping both the "Grayson" trailer and a graphic novel adaptation. He continues to receive hundreds of e-mail messages each day from Grayson fans, and superhero and movie Internet message boards everywhere are abuzz with discussion of the project.
For more information, check out the links on the next page.