Pink Five Returnson August 29, 2012 at 10:04 am
(There is a lot of text to read below, but the important thing is this: The Star Wars webseries Pink Five is in its last week for a Kickstarter to fund post-production on the final chapter, and I want everyone to donate! If you’re curious as to why, then please keep reading! -Chris)
Yes, that’s me in the Vader suit (sans helmet). There’s a lot going on in this photo that I’d like to share with you today. Much of what is going on there, and the reason I’m writing about it, is in some way my fault.
Before The Daily Blink, and my day job as a designer, I lived the life of a starving artist in Hollywood, making my trade as a filmmaker and effects artist. The most notable project that I worked on was the Pink Five series – a Star Wars parody that can be summed up as a cross between the Original Trilogy, Legally Blonde, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. (No, seriously, look it up, it’s a damn good play.) The series followed the journeys of Stacey, a valley-girl type whose naive charm and oblivious existence led her to forever stand in the peripheral vision of the Star Wars universe. The first chapter won the grand prize in the Official Star Wars Fanfilm awards (handpicked by Lucas himself), and I came aboard as a visual effects artist and crew member for the sequel, Pink Five Strikes Back. We won the Audience Choice Award in the same contest the following year, and it was an obvious and unspoken assumption that the third and final film would be around the corner soon.
During this time, the director, Trey Stokes, grew past being the filmmaker that got me occasional work, and had become my full-fledged mentor. I hadn’t been in Los Angeles that long when I started working on Trey’s projects, and he trusted me with more responsibilities and creative input than any other project I found myself on. While working as a barista during the day, I was learning my trade at night- rotoscoping sabers, working as an extra set of hands on a film shoot, holding a smoke machine just out of shot, or simply imitating a sponge and soaking in whatever information I could. When it came time for Trey to write Return of Pink Five, I somehow ended up graduating in a big way – I was going to wear the hat of Visual Effects Supervisor for the project, and Trey was inviting me to co-write the script with him. I still have no memory of how that conversation went or how clueless I was as to what I’d signed up for, and it’s one of the bigger regrets I still carry to this day.
We wrote non-stop for three or four days – taking turns behind the keyboard while the other talked, a copy of Return of the Jedi constantly being stopped and restarted in the background as reference. The writing process felt like solving a puzzle, attempting to simultaneously A) insert a major character (Stacey) into the Star Wars universe, B) have Stacey provide a major influence on the outcome of the story, and all while C) doing nothing that would change Return of the Jedi in any way. Oh, and it has to make sense, and it has to be funny, and it can’t be too expensive to film, but still has to look like an incredibly big budget sci-fi film that EVERYONE knows exactly how it should look. Aaaaaand GO. I laughed more than any other time in memory, and when the first draft was done, it was a momentous occasion – I even printed out the script and made Trey sign it to commemorate it.
Elation turned to dread after our producer was handed the script, though not because he didn’t like it. Trey and I had put everything in, confident that anything we weren’t capable of due to budget or complexity would be spotted during this crucial period of iteration and review. The producer’s reaction? “Well, we have to do all of this.”
At that moment, I instantly shed the hat of co-writer and donned the hat of Visual Effects Supervisor, and gulped at what I’d just signed myself up for. I knew how to do what was required – in theory, at best. When we’d brainstorm a shot and discuss how the effects would work, I could give a straighforward answer, but it was often something I’d never done myself. All of this was terrifying. In Hollywood, the mantra is ‘Fake it ’til you Make it’. I had just made it, but that meant delivering.
The stress was crushing. I put on a brave face, studied like crazy, kept my ears open, and tried to avoid holding up a huge sign over my head saying “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING”. I’d have as much of a game plan as I could before going on set. I did constant reference measurements, answered every question asked of me, and made sure that what we were filming wouldn’t be a waste. But after awhile, I started to feel out of my depth. While setting up a more complex sequence, I cracked under my breath to a crew member, “This is ridiculous. We’re hacking this shot together and I have no idea if it’s going to work.” Instead of immediately crapping his pants, he replied, “Congratulations, this is exactly how all of Hollywood works. Nobody knows anything, you just go with it and do your best.” A comforting thought, though not one that helped me do my job.
Before long, my confidence was cracked. I hadn’t always recorded the reference I needed, some shots were proving more difficult than I expected, and I was behind on sequences I needed to deliver while simultaneously needing to be on set. We were bringing in another VFX supervisor, Mark Kochinski, for a sequence where I had to be inside the Vader Suit for saber stunts (another long dormant skillset of mine), and he was incredibly experienced and adept at his job. It didn’t matter that I liked and respected him, or that he was in no way trying to show me up- He was going to stride onto set and everyone would realize just how much better he was at my job.
The night before, during our final fight rehearsal, I was a total wreck. In between exercises, I would be slashing my saber prop like crazy at nothing in particular, in some desperate bid to relieve the stress. While nobody would ever bring it up to me, I would find out later that there were some quiet worries, and justifiably so, that my head was clearly somewhere else and that I wasn’t ready for the shoot. Going to bed that night, and failing to fall asleep, I thought about how much time, money, and manpower had gone into this project so far, and that I was on the verge of damaging all of it. While failing is never a fun experience, it’s much worse when you’re the first one to see the failure coming. The fear of humiliation was secondary to the fear of disappointing Trey, and making him look foolish for trusting me with the job. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep.
The day of the shoot was turned on its head when Mark arrived on the set. To this day, I have no idea what Trey told him, how aware he was of my mental state, or what his goals were when he arrived, but Mark gave me the golden opportunity to watch and learn as he worked, and made sure to answer my questions and give advice while not standing in front of the entire crew. Trey brought me in for conversations that he had with Mark, made sure I stayed in the loop. Mark even brought new tracking markers that put the red pieces of tape I’d been using to shame, and they stayed for the remainder of the entire production. Instead of feeling ashamed of my lack of experience, I went back right into sponge mode, like I should have from the onset.
The good spirits I’d found that morning only got better when I put on the Vader suit. If you are a Star Wars fan, there is literally no better feeling than getting to be in a movie-accurate costume like that. Between Mark’s advice and getting into character, whatever was gnawing at my self-confidence was wiped away. I was able even to exhale and relax a bit, and enjoy the shoot. I did my job, did it well, and resolved to take that attitude until the film was done.
Throughout all of filming and post-production, Trey was supportive, patient, and understanding. He had a movie to make, and didn’t tolerate incompetence or failing to deliver what was promised, but I could always go to him if I was struggling with something. The most amusing thing about our working relationship is when he would correct my answers to the questions he had just asked. Example:
“So, we need to be able to move this camera and have the digital elements track throughout the entire shot. Is that doable?”
“Yeah, Trey, I think that should be pretty simple.”
“No, your answer to that and every VFX inquiry I make should be, ‘That is the craziest thing you’ve ever asked me and I’ll have to get back to you on just how difficult it is to do.’” Trey’s point was that nothing is ever simple or easy, because it’s the one little thing you weren’t prepared for that screws everything up. From then on, I rarely promised anything without a long discussion or making sure that he knew exactly what I needed from him to keep the shot manageable.
When it comes to my career and my craft, I owe Trey just as much, if not more, than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. When I needed to put more time into the project, Trey gave me a place to stay rent-free so I could focus on Pink Five full time. And when a group of seasoned filmmakers stand in a group trying to solve a difficult problem, there is no opiate more euphoric than having the smartest of the bunch turn directly to you and say “What do you think?” and then watching everyone jump into action after your idea has been given his approval. A good leader relies and trusts his followers, and because of that, they’ll continue to follow him just about anywhere.
To this day, Pink Five has yet to be finished. Scrapped together with rough effects, incomplete sequences, and entire scenes missing and in need of filming, a rough demo of the final episode STILL earned a great reaction at Celebration IV. After that, real life reared its head and many of us went our separate ways. Years later, Trey’s announcement of a Kickstarter to fund the final push towards completion brings back an avalanche of memories and emotions from the multiple years I spent working as a soldier in that army.
My request to you: If you’re a fan of this comic, or of any of my work, consider throwing in a few bucks towards this Kickstarter. Pink Five was my baby for a long time, and it would be an incredibly satisfying feeling to see the series given the conclusion it, like, totally deserves.