Star Wars, Middle Earth, Star Trek, Batman: Fan Films come of age

Twenty-five years ago, when I was in high school, there was no desktop publishing. Before the age of laser printers, the best home printers were dot matrix, and the best home computers running the best word-processing software could only barely handle “What You See Is What You Get.” If you wanted something printed professionally, you took it to a typesetter working with equipment large enough to fill a small room. Fast forward a mere five years, and laser printers combined with better software produced the desktop publishing revolution, which meant that any mom’n’pop store owner could create professional signage in minutes, and even the “Lost Cat” sign on a nearby lamppost uses professionally-kerned fonts surrounding a high-resolution image of the wayward kitty.

Over the last few years, something similar happened to film-making. Digital imaging, lower prices for HD cameras, and readily-available high-quality editing software means that dedicated fans can produce a product that passes for much more than a home movie, rivaling productions that cost professionals a million dollars or more to produce.

The secondary market then also expands, and you get things like Indy Mogul, a video blog dedicated to uncovering the secrets of independent film-making (with a particular emphasis on practical effects).

Film-making of any ambition is never simple. Locations, sets and set decoration, props, script, music, sound effects, actors — and acting!, costumes, make-up, hair, special effects, practical effects, and editing are required — and that’s a lot to coordinate, plus a lot to pay for. (Online productions also have to contend with file formats, web hosting, a web site, and even piracy.) But what was previously only available to a Hollywood studio is much more attainable for ordinary people — in particular, fans. Time and enthusiasm must substitute for big budgets.

Fans will make films about things that interest them, and for a lot of us who work with computers, we’re interested in Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman, and Middle Earth.

Placing a fan film in a known universe is a double-edged sword. On the positive, it means there’s a ready-made audience, and you don’t have to spend as much time in your film on back-story or setting the scene. On the negative, the chance of making any money on these productions is extremely limited, since the intellectual property is not owned by the fan film-makers. And some productions risk possible cease and desist orders while invoking the wrath of the original writers and directors and actors and producers — the very people the film-makers probably admire and want to impress.

Here, then, are four ambitious productions that I hope will exceed your expectations if you’re not already familiar with what’s possible from fan film-making.

Star Wars: Ryan vs. Dorkman

[image of light saber on ground from Ryan vs. Dorkman 2]It was 1997 when Troops first appeared, a short film that mashed up A New Hope‘s desert planet of Tatooine with the TV show “Cops.” The success of Troops ultimately ended up in Lucasfilm themselves partnering with Atom films to create an annual award for the best Star Wars fan films. Into that environment, Ryan Wieber and Michael “Dorkman” Scott created two Ryan vs. Dorkman films focusing on light saber battles.

Skimping on plot (or any kind of backstory which might explain why a Jedi or Sith would go by the name “Dorkman”) to focus instead on the battle choreography, the ten-minute RvD2 from 2007 is an amazing product.

The music alone sets apart this film from cheap home movies. Adding in the creative fighting and the sterling special effects, it’s easy to see why this film has garnered nearly five million views on YouTube.

Batman: Ashes to Ashes

[Ashes to Ashes banner]Ashes to Ashes is an 18-minute French film (with English subtitles) made from 2006 to 2008 and released this year. Crossing the look, grit, violence and sexuality of Frank Miller’s Sin City with the staple characters from DC’s Batman, the film takes a bold approach by changing the viewpoint perspective away from what the viewer of a Batman movie might expect.

The filmmakers manage to mix in Batman, The Penguin, Harley Quinn and The Joker despite the short running time. The overall trick of recreating the look of Sin City succeeds amazingly well.

One warning: Several of the scenes are disturbing.

Star Trek: Starship Farragut

[Starship Farragut banner]Starship Farragut is clearly a labor of love, with superb production values for props, music, and special effects. Two episodes, each split into an introduction and five acts, and each totaling about 40 minutes, were produced in 2007, earning the crew several awards for best fan film. The attention to detail in recreating the look and feel of the original series of Star Trek is evident in every scene.

As a culture, we’re extremely critical of acting, and the actors in the Farragut episodes are clearly not professionals. Some of the delivery underscores the barriers that amateurs have to face when competing against professional productions. (Interestingly, the RvD films avoid this problem simply by giving the actors no lines whatsoever, while Ashes to Ashes makes an end-run around the issue by keeping each scene brief and the lines short and loud.) The stars of Farragut are clearly earnest and engaged, however. Bolstered by the costumes and sets, they carry themselves well to make an overall presentation that’s enormously fun. The space battle scenes in particular rival what was done by the Paramount productions.

(One slight barrier is that it’s not as simple to watch the episodes as it could be, because you have to navigate from the main site to the download section to a mirror site to a download page on the mirror, and then choose each act one at a time. That’s likely because as a free download they have to gather what they can for hosting arrangements.)

Middle Earth: The Hunt for Gollum

[The Hunt for Gollum banner]

The Hunt for Gollum is a 34-minute production (40 minutes with credits), released in May of this year, set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth — a prequel meant to bridge the gap between what happens in the forthcoming The Hobbit movie and the first of the Lord of the Rings films.

The Tolkien estate is notoriously protective, so there have not been nearly as many Middle Earth fan films as you’d see for Star Wars or Star Trek. (EDIT 6/5: Here’s a list of six other Lord of the Rings fan films, from Clive Young, per his comment.)

The FAQ from The Hunt for Gollum claims, “We have reached an understanding with Tolkein [sic] Enterprises to allow the film to be released non-commercially online, but the project is completely unofficial and unaffiliated.”

NPR’s All Things Considered ran a story on this production back on April 30, focusing on the legal issues. But that story misses what sets this film apart: Its surpassing quality. The acting here, especially Adrian Webster as Aragorn, is top-notch. Even better are the costumes, effects, fightcraft, music, and atmosphere.

I’m surprised there hasn’t been more coverage about this film (especially on social media). If you enjoyed the Peter Jackson films at all, I’d say you’re absolutely guaranteed to enjoy this production as well. You’ll immediately recognize what they’re doing, and stills from the real thing fit comfortably side by side with the stills from The Hunt for Gollum.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that the whole affair is perhaps too slavish an imitation of Peter Jackson’s vision. That, and some brief outtakes in the final credits seem a bit jarring when presented with the gravity and beauty of the end credits score. But these are tiny quibbles. I cannot recommend this film more highly.

Fan films have made tremendous strides in just the last few years. Imagine, then, what a few more years of advances in computers and effects will bring.

9 Responses to “Star Wars, Middle Earth, Star Trek, Batman: Fan Films come of age”

  1. Mark Hildebrand Says:

    Stephen,

    Thanks for the positive comments on Starship Farragut! One correction, though. The episodes we released in 2007 run 48 minutes and 83 minutes long. We also released a Crew Log (17 minutes) in 2008 called “A Rock and a Hard Place.” It recently won Best Fan Film 2009 at the Wrath of Con Film Festival.

    We will release two Animated episodes this year.

    Sorry about the downloads! The best way to watch is to download the ISO file and burn your own DVD. You need a really fast connection, however. We also give away DVDs at conventions and other events. Check the NEWS section of our web site to see where we will be throughout the year.

    Best Regards,

    Mark Hildebrand
    Producer, Starship Farragut

  2. John Broughton Says:

    Stephen –

    Thanks for mentioning us and the high marks! Ditto what Mark H. said…
    Keep following! THANKS.

    John Broughton
    Executive Producer, Starship Farragut

  3. Stephen Says:

    There’s that attention to detail that I mentioned! Mark and John, thanks for weighing in — glad to see Commander Kruge and Captain Carter stopping by. I did see the trailer for the upcoming animated episodes, and they look terrific — looking forward to seeing those.

    Do you also have a timeline for additional live action episodes? I saw from the FAQ that you don’t need additional scripts due to having an extensive arc mapped out already.

    Can you comment also about whether or not you had to work with Paramount to reach an agreement for your productions?

    Thanks,
    Stephen

  4. Clive Says:

    While computers and technology have lowered the barrier of entry for aspiring amateur filmmakers, fan films have been with us for far longer than 1997’s Troops. Instead, they go all the way back to the 1920s when con men made fake Little Rascals movies. Over the years, everyone from Andy Warhol to a teenaged Hugh Hefner to Punk Rock’s Tommy Ramone has made a fan flick, so there’s a lot more to this culture than merely recent efforts (which are admittedly pretty cool).
    If you want to find out more about the world of fan films, you might want to check out my daily fan film blog, fancinematoday.com. Also, for what it’s worth, I wrote the first book about the history and future of fan films, Homemade Hollywood, which just came out in bookstores.

  5. Stephen Says:

    Thanks, Clive! I saw a lot of interesting things on your blog to check out. As you can tell, I’m only a casual observer of the whole fan film scene but it’s a world that’s quite fascinating.

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Troops” was the first fan film, but in my opinion it went viral to much more of an extent than any other previous Star Wars fan films, and seemed like a huge inspiration to other Star Wars fan film-makers who have come along since.

  6. My Favorite Movie (Star Trek vs. Star Wars) « Online Videos Says:

    […] Zeigen » Blog Archive » Star Wars, Middle Earth, Star Trek, Batman … […]

  7. Michael Says:

    My good friend Gordy wrote the music for the Ryan vs Dorkman series… he’s working as a film composer in LA… check out some of his best work in “Behind the Mask” The Rise of Leslie Vernon

  8. See Says:

    everything i’ve written so far has been deleted than that isn’t entirely the problem

  9. Stephen Says:

    See, most of your comments were automatically marked as spam by the blog software based on the content, and more than half had expletives, so they were all deleted, sorry. I had looked at a couple but I couldn’t understand what you were saying.

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