FAN FILM FRIDAY: Interview with Jake Churosh of "270 Days in the Bunker"

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Just before I took over the Fan Film beat here, R3 posted an invitation for readers: Tell Us About Your Failures. It's an interesting subject, since so many projects fail for a variety of reasons.

In the comments, our own Jake Was Here posted a link to his student film 270 Days in the Bunker. However, I'd rate it a success. Take a look, and then join me after the jump for an interview with Jake.

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Church H. Tucker: So, 270 Days was filmed while you were at Scottsdale Community College. What lead up to that? Were you one of those kids who got a Super 8 camera early on?

Jake Churosh: Depends what you mean by "leading up to it". I suppose I have my dad and my aunt to thank for that. My aunt bought our family's first camcorder back in the early Eighties--it was an unwieldy thing that used full-size VHS cassettes, and obviously I wasn't allowed to mess around too much with it. But as I got bigger and camera technology got smaller, I was eventually given more and more control over the camera at family events--usually taping games for the YMCA Little League basketball team that my dad coached, although I stretched out into making my own music videos. The camera I started doing that with had a "sound dub" effect where you could record over sound without recording the video, so what I would do is work out timings for the song I wanted to use, shoot the video, then set the camera in front of my boombox and dub over the sound. The results were primitive to say the least--any edits that actually matched the beat of the song were more serendipitous than anything else--but it was enough to convince my family that I knew what I was doing.

I went for some years to Arizona State University, studying film criticism, but then dropped out because I decided I didn't want my parents blowing money on an overhyped school when I could learn the ropes in community college. I switched over to SCC and brought my credits with me so I wouldn't have to take all the foundation courses again (particularly college algebra, which I despised having to get through--I remember when I used to be good at math). Scottsdale Community College has an excellent program in film and television production, and that's what originally attracted me there... I suppose your next question is where my story continues.

CHT: What got you into making, rather than critiquing, film?

JC: I suppose it's just the urge to create, more than anything else. I've been writing, drawing, painting, and fiddling around with cameras since I was a child... I'm still not sure how much actual talent I have in those areas; what I do have is twenty-five years of nonstop practice. I've had a long and abiding interest in music as well; the music for 270 Days was put together by me in Apple GarageBand, although like almost every other piece of music I "wrote" in those days, I assembled all of it from prepackaged samples.

I prefer making films, or at least talking about them, to writing about them; I don't have the stamina for long and involved critiques, especially when so much of film criticism and analysis seems to consist of spouting the received wisdom.

CHT: So, how did 270 Days come about? Was it a class project, or just something you came up with?

JC: Yes, it was a class project. What SCC does with the first-year film students is that they split each class into groups of five; each person in the group has to come up with an idea for a short film, no longer than five minutes, and then they trade off positions as they work on each other's films. So I wrote and directed one film, was lighting technician on somebody else's, then was DP on yet another shoot. The school gave us the cameras to work with--Sixties-vintage 16mm pieces, very tough devices. They had no functionality to shoot sync sound, however, so everybody shot their films silent and dubbed a soundtrack on later. We all bought our own film stock as well, and sent it off on our own dime for processing; we had the choice of shooting color or black-and-white, but a lot of us went monochrome because we'd been warned that it was easier and cheaper to develop.

270 DAYS came to mind because I was reasonably sure of getting access to my grandparents' basement den, and I had the slightest germ of an idea for something set underground. I knew, of course, that they had trap windows down there to let in daylight, so I had to come up with some gimmick to let the audience know the windows weren't real--hence the ARTIFICIAL ENVIRONMENT tag I stuck on the light switches at the beginning. I had one of my classmates, our key grip, go out back of the house to the window and cover it with one of the big posterboards we used for diffusing light; when we cued him via walkie-talkie, he gradually pulled the cover up and away. It did a remarkable job, I thought, of making natural light look fake and unconvincing, which is pretty much what I was aiming for.

But back to where the story idea came from: I'd actually shot something similar with my home camcorder several years earlier. The idea of being the last survivor of some dreadful apocalypse resonated with me, but as I was retooling the idea for film class an additional twist came to mind--the relief of knowing that, whatever hellish fate has befallen you, you are not alone. The idea just evolved from there, and I decided not to use myself in the lead, as I'd done out of necessity in the old days (I remember that we were discouraged from acting in our own films--I suppose they wanted to keep us from having too much on our plates). The role instead went to my girlfriend.

CHT: How difficult was it to compose and sync the music to the film? Your score is obviously keyed in (pardon the pun) to certain sequences.

JC: Composing was easy with Apple GarageBand; it would have been next to impossible without it. I can write music, but I can't actually play any musical instruments--unless you count drums. GarageBand (and the gargantuan assortment of free samples it came with) allowed me to put together a score that suited the film without having to fall back on the film school's library of stock music. As for timing the musical transitions, it was mainly a matter of checking the timing in the film itself (the visual elements were edited together before I even began working on the music) and making sure they matched up.

CHT: How did you marry the soundtrack to the film? Was the film digitized?

JC: When we sent our films off for processing, we asked for copies of the footage on mini-VHS. The film school's supply unit loaned us camcorders which could be hooked up to computers via FireWire cable, and we digitized the footage that way. The school had (still has, I think) a computer lab full of Apples, so on any given day the odds of walking in there and finding someone from the film unit working on their project in iMovie (as I did) were fairly good. The more advanced classes--people working on their second-year projects--had a dedicated classroom full of computers running Avid editing software, and I got to fiddle around with it some more there when I was learning how to use Avid... nothing solid came of that, though; the project was fairly complete in the iMovie version, and that's the one you see now.

The sound was all-digital; as I said, all our films were shot without sync sound. The way it wound up, most of us in the class recorded very few of their own sound effects, when they used them at all; all of my own effects--the sirens, the clock ticking--were stock.

CHT: I imagine the film to mini-VHS to digital conversion changed the look of the film considerably. Did you find that frustrating?

JC: Not really. Perhaps this doesn't show up well on Youtube, but the quality of the image didn't actually degrade much at all during the transfer. About the only thing I'm not happy about was that I was pressed for time and had to do one shot--the external antenna--on video.

CHT: Is there any particular significance to the number 219, which shows up a couple times?

The significance of 219 is that it's the protagonist's location--a military bunker called Outpost 219. Hence the numbers on the shirt, the antenna's call sign, et cetera. I didn't have any spare money to blow on getting a shirt screenprinted, so I had to take one of my old undershirts and scribble the numbers on it in Sharpie. If I'd had any spare money, the entire film would have looked considerably different.

CHT: Ah. I was wondering if the number was an inside joke, like a dorm number or something. So, how did you end up doing on that assignment?

JC: Got an A, I think. Don't know if it deserved one, in retrospect, but I was happy.

CHT: I'd say you earned it. What have you been doing since then? I took a look at your YouTube channel and it's pretty eclectic.

JC: Well, let's see. I eventually switched my major to Graphic Design because I realized that in order to look for markets where my filmmaking skills would earn me steady work, I most probably would have to leave Arizona--and I would rather die than leave. This is the only place in the world that feels like home to me. So I switched majors to another area where I knew I was at least competent, but eventually--when money got tight and I needed to find a full-time job--I dropped out of school altogether. I'd like to finish my major someday, but it's occurred to me that it's not necessary to have a degree to be able to make a living.

As far what I've been doing, artistically speaking: I had a brief music-and-comedy project with a close friend of mine, but that pretty much died when he and his family left to live in Germany for a few years. I've also been working for several years on writing and illustrating a novel; the work has slowed to a crawl, but I think I'll be able to finish it, if not publish it, some time before the world comes to an end. And there's one other thing I've done that's of prime importance--in 2008, five years after we shot my film, I finally married my lead actress; Lindsey and I are still very happy together.

CHT: Do you have any advice to someone contemplating doing their own film?

JC: The only thing I can recommend is that you have the determination to tell your own story--to convince yourself that the story deserves telling. That, plus a little luck, will see you through the effort of scraping together the money and equipment and people to actually put the thing together. Without it, you won't succeed.

Remember, too, that film started out as a visual medium long before sound got involved. Go back and study your favorite movies. Watch what they do with the camera, with the actors, with the sets, and learn from that. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a movie is twenty-four thousand words a second.

CHT: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

JC: You're very welcome.

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You can keep up with Jake on his YouTube channel.

Have a fan film or web series you'd like to see featured? Hit up Church at church@republibot.com

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