Chris: Oh my!
Mike: I know, there’s a whole story there I want to do, but I thought I can’t do…I don’t want to do that just yet. I know my expertise is not there just yet, my voice isn’t there yet, so I want to do something that’s a little bit more fun, more of like an Indiana Jones throwback but still a bit darker because I’ve always kind of gravitated towards things that are a bit more on the (inaudible) dark side. So I basically thought, it just hit me one day out of the blue, I was like alright, a guy in WWII and he has a suit that basically embodies like a grim reaper. He’s basically this assassin with this skull face, and there’s practical reasons why it looks that way but of course it’s a selfish desire to make him look awesome.
Chris: Oh it does look awesome, it looks so awesome!
Mike: And that’s the Robert Simons who you’ll hear from in a bit, but he’s an amazing artist. But basically, the Arbiter came about with me just saying alright, this coal miner’s mask fused with this kind of conspiracy theory from my grandparent’s stories and this desire to make a kind of sprawling epic in the vein of the Rocketeer but still have that feel and camaraderie and ask the tougher questions of Band of Brothers. So to me, that’s like Rocketeer/Band of Brothers, put those two together…
Chris: It’s sold!
Mike: It’s a movie I want to watch.
Chris: I’m there!
Mike: And to me, a lot of the films that I think going back to that one by that famous guy who made E.T. but basically those types of films and even Close Encounters which is one of my favorites which doesn’t even really have an antagonist in a way.
Chris: Oh, I’m a huge, huge fan of that movie. I can talk about that for hours.
Mike: It puts a stake in the ground and it says this is not just a film, this is also my film and it embodies everything I love about film making, stories, everything. And that’s what really excites me, is when you figure out your aesthetic which I feel like I’m getting there in Arbiter. I don’t think I’ll ever be finished, there’s always…you’re always learning new skills, new techniques, there’s always new technology like these crazy spider helicopter cams that you can put cameras on, and your imagination can run wild. So I think that’s why I always look to my childhood to say, what really affected me growing up and I just take that and fuse it with kind of my more adult nature of alright, what really affects my emotions? And that’s kind of where I got Arbiter, so yeah, it was kind a few things coming together finally.
Chris: So Mike, this is very inspiring but how does it…how do you get to the point where you are hiring people to make it? Do you know what I mean? How did that turn into..no, no really we’re going to make it! You know what I mean?
Mike: I feel with any project if you’re doing it right, you’re always kind of picking something that is a little bit further than what you’ve done on the last one. And there’s always something out there that’s still to be obtained. To me there’s so many things on this just looking back on it. I mean the level of visual effects that Jesse Boots and our team had to do, we’ll get to that but that was basically what took us the largest amount of time to post from prosthetics to actual pyrotechnics, different effects actually in the scene, different light…crazy light gags and things. And also, doing a good majority of the film actually in German too in another language and not doing that before, there’s just things I’ve always wanted to do and kind of putting them all together, you just have to say alright, this is what we’re after. And the main thing is, it’s a quality experience and it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the budget, it doesn’t matter that we don’t have the facilities or the things to do that, it will all come together, and that’s always my approaches. Which I should also say, it’s not by luck, it’s also by design. Again, like I said before, growing up with like Legos and even non-linear editing, I’m always kind of like the next block, and so in order to build that pyramid you have to have a really solid foundation. And so to me, seeing and improving this thing out became first with talking to a good friend of mine who also worked at Design Reactor, Jason Beckwith, who’s my cinematographer on it. And working with him and my girlfriend Tracy Hayes who’s a production designer, the three of us initially just said alright, can we even do this? And then I brought Robert Simons on, craziest story ever…I basically went onto Deviant Art one night, again just kind of praying and saying alright, I need to find an amazing artist to design the suit. And so I went on there and looked up ‘suit of armor’ and found his stuff, contacted him and it’s basically the only time I’ve used an online dating service to find someone. And so to me, there’s all these little moments where things just kind of came together and it was always I think by design because we made sure we built it up from the ground up. So long story short, got Robert on board, he designed the suit. I gave him a very quick brief, gave him some more contextual things like a Harley Davidson V Twin motor for like the backpack and some things like that and used those as design references and then he basically created the entire look and feel of the suit. And from there, we contacted Blue Realm Studios, after a lengthy trial to try and get a suit and build on top of it, I was actually on a Hollywood auction online and I almost won the wing commander suit. I was going to buy it for something like $1500 or something and then we were going to augment it and we had already designs overlaid on top of it and I was trying to buy it. And in the last five minutes I lost my internet connection at work. While I was supposed to be working, I was bidding and I lost it and it was for good reason because Robert’s design was so cool, the wing commander suit wouldn’t have done it justice for us to just build on top of it. So we found these guys and we just looked at different suit fabricators and Blue Realm, they just came off and designed some really ambitious Halo suits, like master chief for the Halo video game, and called them up and Devin White and Adam Grumbo are now really good friends of mine, they’re amazing artists. And their stuff just keeps getting better and better as well, so they designed and actually fabricated out the suit. And from there we did a couple tests and the next step was basically alright, where do we actually shoot this? And what is the actual story of the Arbiter? So we had the suit fabricated and built before I actually laid the groundwork for what the final story would be because I wanted to know how good it was because if the suit was lacking in any way, then I would have to make a much shorter contained story so maybe I couldn’t focus and really scrutinize and show that suit as much. We just built this thing and from that point I basically asked my dean over at De Anza College if he knew of any good producers that could connect with me. Because up to that point, I was basically producing, writing, directing, and editing all of my stuff, so I knew for this I could not do this all on my own. So he connected me with Vicky de May who is now an amazing friend, we’ve worked on pretty much all my projects include her. And she’s basically my secret weapon and the key to I would say a lot of the success for a lot of the projects I’ve worked on. Because I’ll come up with the crazy ideas, but for the first time ever in my career of doing this where I was able to actually just focus on the creative. And that’s why with all the crazy stuff and you’ll see in some of the behind the scenes clips that we released later that it was the first time ever that I was able to step back from actually doing managerial stuff and any of the worries and problems of massive production and just focus on is this right with the actors, is the story working here, and just focus on the creative. So that’s…I think a lot of it was just freeing up from kind of the more logistical stuff.
Chris: That’s actually one of the best things about working in a studio, in an animation studio, is that you don’t have to worry about anything except painting or drawing depending on your role. It’s amazing how it frees you up to just, like you say, just focus on the story.
Mike: Yeah, and I think also it’s I had to trust in a lot of other people. I really learned from the agency life was that I had to basically determine who my department leads were. And so this isn’t just a bunch of people coming together to make a movie, I very deliberately structured it as like an org chart, almost like an agency in a way because that’s all I knew at the time. So when you have a crazy client project come in and you have to get it done in a week, there’s departments that need to work together and there’s a channel of communication that works. So I would use things like Basecamp software online which is $25 account every month and I would use that to basically corral all of my department leads and from there I would trust them and instill in them, “Look guys, you’re responsible for this, and the only way that this is going to be amazing and be a success is if you step up to the plate and say I’m going to own this. And also, you have the ability to own it and do what you want with that department.” So I gave them a lot of leeway and I wouldn’t micromanage, they would probably say I would but I trust in a lot of those folks and they did amazing things and I think that’s what you see on screen is a testament to I’m just pushing them in a certain direction but they’re taking it and they’re really owning it.
Chris: Man, that’s awesome. There’s a word that was popular in the 80’s in Kentucky when and where I grew up, and that word is hustle. Now, I think most people when they hear this word they think, con artists or something. But in the 80’s in the south, it was more like “Hustle! Hustle! Hustle!” like an athletic thing, like get out there on the field and push yourself beyond your mental limitations. And you just cannot pull off a film like Project Arbiter, something this audacious, this vast in scope, this beautiful without a tremendous amount of hustle.
Mike: Hustle was actually a lot of things working together. My version is hustle is direct honesty. And I guess it’s something that’s really helped me through the years because there’s a lot of really talented people out there and a lot of talented filmmakers in the Bay area and especially in Los Angeles. And to really just connect with the right people, because that’s the main thing is, you can get a lot of bodies working on your project but they might not necessarily be the right people for it. Thank God Ryan was the right composer. And we’ll talk about that in a sec, but basically it just comes down to I think finding the right people and once you do that, then you don’t have to hustle as much. As long as your department leads and the people who are working for them believe the vision that you have is something that’s not contrived, it’s something that comes from your heart and yes it is something that could be commercially successful but at the end of the day, it’s something that you live and you breathe and you love. And that’s why you come to work and that’s why you’re an artist and you create those things. You want to create something that is going to last longer than the time it took to make it.
I think something that Mike has that maybe relates to hustle is extreme optimism and I think that was really the driving force in what made this happen, even when you’re asking like how do you even get this off the ground, it’s just this feeling like well, we’ll do it. I mean we ran into all sorts of unforeseen things with mixes were taking longer than we thought and it was never oh no, what are we going to do? It was just like okay, well, this is it so how are we going to do this, we’re still going to get it done.
Chris: Right, how are we going to do it? Don’t deactivate.
Chris: You have to stay activated. That’s great.
Mike: That’s why I kind of found a kindred spirit in Ryan and through Vicki who was my producer, she worked on a feature film with Ryan called The Dead Sleep which also got distribution (clap, clap, clap). What’s interesting working with Ryan is, he also went through the meat grinder. Like I went through the agency meat grinder years and years of associate producing and producing projects where you were just, you kind of get a little numb to the fears and the clients yelling at you and you just take a step back and you don’t hear the noise and the volume anymore, you just hear what is the actual concern. And that’s the same on set, and with Ryan, he came from a pretty successful music post house as well, and just like our artist Robert Simons who came from Art Center Pasadena, you go through the grinder of learning your aesthetic, working at it and then it’s second nature. And then the next thing is basically, communicating how you get to that next step.
Chris: Yeah, that’s awesome. If I may share briefly, the radical personal coincidence that is the project called Project Arbiter, I have been friends with Tim Coyne for years. We met through the LA Podcasters’ Meetups, gosh back in 2007 I think. And I love his podcasts, I’ve been a fan for a long time. I learned about it in meeting Tim and I was just like man, what a dude! I love that dude! And we became very fast friends and he is kind of the big bad in Project Arbiter.
Mike: Yeah, he’s a bit of a neutral gray too because what threw me is you see the general in there, Heinrich who’s kind of overseeing everything at that compound, but then you have this other guy who’s a little bit more mysterious and you get a glimpse of him at the beginning and you don’t really know what he’s up to until the end. And that’s Tim Coyne, he plays Ernst von Reiner who is basically this scientist who created the original Arbiter suit. And so the one that our character is wearing in the film which we’re hopefully going to get into a few years from now in the future film is basically, he’s the guy that created it in the United States actually stole one of the suits. And so, that’s why when we actually get to the short film, it’s not necessarily the actual feature film version, it’s actually a couple years after where the origin story of the first feature film would be, which a lot of people don’t know yet because we’re not really talking too much about that yet.
Chris: I won’t tell.
Mike: But what’s interesting…yeah…
Chris: Who else is listening?
Mike: But what’s interesting with Tim is, just a little side note for him, when we first did our casting with our casting director Shari in LA, we had an open casting call and she brought this guy in, Tim Coyne, and he did Reiner, gave him a few points and he did it just this one take, this one line that he had on the character where there’s so much honesty coming out. It was one of those moments where I’ve maybe only seen it like once or twice and I’ve never had that in an audition before where it just came out and connected and hit me so hard. So I got Vicki my producer sitting next to me and I’m just like, “Alright Tim, so when are you free?” And Vicki’s like, “Hey, don’t do that so quick.” Because we still had to find out if he could do the German accent and all that kind of stuff.