Fan films and the future of fantasy
Small productions are becoming better—and more professional—than ever. But the falling price of good equipment is only part of the magic.
With the Oscars come and gone, many budding and lapsed filmmakers might feel inspired to try their hand at producing their own movie. So why not do it? Well, maybe you don’t live in Hollywood. Or perhaps what’s holding you back is the notion you need megabucks in funding before you can shout “Action!”
Director Peter Jackson has proved that a DIY spirit gets movies made. He’s practically the poster boy for the homegrown filmmaking movement. Think what you want of his latest outing (The Hobbit trilogy), but after the success of The Lord of the Rings, Jackson demonstrated that with few bottles of spirit gum, some truckloads of hand-crafted hobbit feet, and throngs of naive and gung-ho Kiwis, anyone can make their own swords-and-sorcery epic. The widespread popularity of Game of Thrones has only fueled the fires of filmmakers wanting to be crowned the next fantasy master.
OK, so maybe his Hobbit and Rings sextet also required millions of studio dollars. But Jackson “proved that there is a huge market for fantasy films,” says Ron Newcomb, director of the forthcoming The Rangers: A Shadow Rising. “He was also very inspiring. A small country takes on an epic film. Very Hobbit-like of him.”
The Rangers is a pilot for an hour long episodic fantasy series, about “an elite unit of Rangers” who “uncover a long-forgotten peril of ancient evil reawakening.” Initially funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, the pilot is now in the final stages of post-production. He hopes for a completion date of late spring or early summer. The plan, or “dream,” is to eventually shoot 10 episodes — and for the show to pilot itself into Internet or indie stardom.
Other indie-made fantasy movies have blazed the trail before him. Take Born of Hope, a Tolkien-inspired (but not officially sanctioned) indie film, with some 31 million views on YouTube. The Hunt For Gollum, another fan-made film, has racked up another 1.6 million views.
But Newcomb insists his The Rangers is no obvious Tolkienesque knock-off. The story is based in a unique world, called Adrasil, not in Middle-earth. “Though it’s hard not to see where we drew from,” he says. Indeed, the trailer is full elves, rangers, orcs, hand-drawn maps, swordplay, symphonic music, rumors that “Something has awoken in the darkness” — all the stuff of high fantasy. “The epic struggle of good and evil, the shadows and the light, heroes and monsters are embedded in our psyche. That’s why Tolkien used them in his stories. What makes his stories and ours intriguing is the human condition.”
But tell any fantasy story, and people will compare it with King Arthur, Robin Hood, “Beowulf,” The Lord of The Rings, A Song of Fire and Ice, because they all share the same tropes. “Let’s face it, everything has already been done,” Newcomb says. “In The Rangers, we wanted some things to seem familiar for fantasy fans, but we also strived to create our own mythos, lexicon of heroes, and races that make our world unique and interesting for the viewers.”
A child of the 1980s, Newcomb was also inspired by such movies as Conan the Barbarian, Krull, and Willow. “All these great epic stories began to pull, awakening this warrior sprit” in him, Newcomb says in his Kickstarter video pitch.
Newcomb’s first film, Rise of the Fellowship, a sweet and somewhat goofy paean to Tolkien and Lord of the Rings fandom, centered around the fellowship of four geeky gamers whose epic journey to a game convention took them out of their element and forced them to overcome impossible odds. Not unlike the exploits of a certain quartet of hobbits. That film, which won best feature film at Gen Con, was “an homage” to all things Rings. Hence, the many inside jokes and wink-winks, nudge-nudges to Tolkien and Jackson fans. The “love of those stories and the vast spectrum of the fantasy genre” inspired Newcomb to create a “world of our own to tell stories in.”
Now, with the proliferation of film making technology, would-be directors don’t need to be centered in traditional production hubs like Hollywood and New York City. Based in the D.C. area, Newcomb and his crew filmed The Rangers in “a whirlwind shoot,” during late August of 2104, shooting over 50 pages of script in nine days through the heat and humidity of a southern Virginia summer. The locations ranged from Rappahannock County to Henricus Historical Park, in Chester, VA, a re-creation of a 17th century English settlement in the New World. He even found “an awesome ring of standing stones,” Newcomb says. “It rained I think five or six of the days too, which added to the production value for a gritty medieval fantasy, but played havoc on the cast, crew, props, and equipment.”
The crew maxed out at 35 members on set on the busiest shooting days, and Newcomb typically ran two simultaneous production teams with three to five cameras rolling at a time. The core filmmaking team includes Newcomb (director, writer, actor, and producer), Jerry Mosemak (artist, writer, actor, and producer) and Skip Lipman (writer, actor, costume designer, and producer best known for his critically acclaimed documentary Darkon). The team expanded on Newcomb’s original IP that was developed more than three years ago.
The international cast comes from as far overseas as Ghana, Canada, and Norway. The actors include: Chris Attoh (from MTV’s Shuga), who plays Garren, the leader of the Ranger unit known as The Birds of Prey; Josh Murray (Killing Lincoln), who plays one of the lead elves, Tailis Eramos; and Norwegian Sól Geirsdóttir (of the band Vǫluspá) as a Wood Elf warrior.
All this for a budget of around $38,000 budget, Newcomb says. “But that’s not the whole story,” because the production benefitted from partnerships with companies like Medieval Collectibles, which provided some of the weapons, costuming, and props, and local restaurants which helped out with the food for craft services, and other gifts in kind. “It wasn’t a no budget project, but it was a small budget project.”
Right now, the production has “picture lock” and filmmakers are currently working on over 245 CGI elements in the film, as well as sound, score, and colorization. Once it’s complete, the hope is for The Rangers to be "picked up" in the traditional way, perhaps by a streaming platform like Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, or a self-release “where we monetize it directly.”
For Rise of the Fellowship, Newcomb found a domestic distributor, EntertainmentOne, which got the film onto Walmart shelves; it’s available on Netflix, and 30,000 DVDs of the film have been sold. Not too shabby for a geeky indie movie. For a “DIY method” of distribution, he says, “digital is really the way to go.”
Another way to insure sales is to engage your audience from the get-go. Like with Jackson’s Middle-earth movies, fans can also watch Rangers making-of videos that provide peeks behind-the-scenes of the production. Fan engagement “Brings the fans into the creative process,” Newcomb says, “creating that dialogue that big media really misses, because we’re fans too and want to geek out on cool stuff. No one did this better than Peter Jackson. His ‘behind the scenes’ made you feel like you were truly invested in the films.”
Jackson’s can-do spirit was also channeled when it came to creating props, weapons and sets. Contacts in the local LARP and film community provided some items, but so did good-old-fashioned sweat equity. The producers got artists to hand paint shields; Mosemak and Lipman helped create the Ranger’s camp and a “Tavern in The Woods”; they also mastered the craft of how to hide modern plumbing and electric lights. The gear also needed to be “distressed” to make it look used. “You can’t have your adventurers running around in brand new looking gear,” Newcomb says.
This and other myriad details the crew were sure to focus on so their “movie feels real,” Newcomb says. “We all have to wear many different hats in indie filmmaking to get the job done.”
It’s really a brave new world out there for filmmakers, Newcomb says, in more ways than one. “With Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, he tackled some of the most epic of fantasy themes and the technology and artistry he utilized to do it he really opened up the fantasy genre.” That said, this shift “also opens the door for a lot of terrible fantasy films to be made by people that are just trying to capitalize on that fan base, disheartening fans, making it more difficult for them to find the really good fantasy they are looking for, and turning off casual viewers.”
If you are a fan of Tolkien, if you’ve ever played D&D or enjoyed one of the thousands of fantasy novels out there, Newcomb promises, “this series is for you.”
And if you’ve ever driven the back roads of Virginia, you’ll appreciate how hard it is to make the real world fall away, and for a fantasy one to rise in its place.
To be sure, part of that fantasy always seems loosely based on Tolkien, and England, or some version of it. We like our fantasy films to have British accents, too. Why? Perhaps it’s because we want to both witness another culture, different and foreign from our own, but also want that culture to be close-by, related, and relatable. But if you’ve ever tried to pull off a lordly English intonation, you know it’s no easy task. In The Lord of the Rings, American actors Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood only did so with varying degrees of success.
Going British was the call Newcomb made for The Rangers. “Not everyone was able to reach gold” of a perfect British accent, Newcomb says of his cast, though it was fun trying. That said, his world, Adrasil, is not England, nor is it Middle-earth. “What is an Olarian accent? Well, whatever we made it.”
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