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
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 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 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 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.