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Can a decent camera, a laptop and a creative vision really spell success in the movie business? For one Washington, D.C., filmmaker, those elements–plus local talent and $20,000–resulted in “Ultrasonic,” the first award-winning feature film created and produced entirely in the District. Kojo joins the filmmaker to discuss his work and how new technology is democratizing the filmmaking process.
- Rohit Colin Rao Local filmmaker; Writer, director and producer of the film "Ultrasonic"
- Deirdre Evans-Pritchard Executive Director, D.C. Independent Film Festival
Watch the trailer for “Ultrasonic,” the story of a musician with hyper-sensitive hearing.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn 1999, an amateur film about four hikers lost in the Maryland woods swept the Internet, gained big buzz at the Sundance Film Festival and became the phenomenon known as "The Blair Witch Project." It was one of the most successful independent films of all time. It gave hope to filmmakers who dreamed of distributing their projects to a wider audience. Thirteen years and generations later in computing and camera technology, the film industry is experiencing a true democratization of the art.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILocally, we're starting to see the fruits of this movement in films like "Ultrasonic," one of the first feature films shot entirely in Washington, D.C. "Ultrasonic" won top honors at this year's Independent Film Festival, but it's also showing local filmmakers that you don't necessarily need a big budget and expensive equipment to make quality movies in the nation's capital. Joining us in studio is Rohit Colin Rao. He is a local filmmaker, the writer, director and producer of "Ultrasonic." Rohit, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ROHIT COLIN RAOThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Deirdre Evans-Pritchard, executive director of the D.C. Independent Film Festival. Deirdre, thank you for joining us.
MS. DEIRDRE EVANS-PRITCHARDGood morning.
NNAMDIIf you would like to join the conversation, you, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Has cheaper technology, better technology inspired you to make movies of your own? Rohit, we'd like to think that filmmakers are inspired to shoot a movie because they've got a strong compelling story running around in their heads. But the inspiration for your film, "Ultrasonic," was a little different. Can you tell us how it happened?
RAOYeah, basically, I guess, you know, I'd been wanting to make a movie, a feature-length film for a while, about, I guess, 10 or so years, but I was waiting for technology to become cheap enough, basically. And I -- one day I saw this footage online of -- just some footage from the Canon T2i. And I thought, this is it, this is the camera. It was $800. And I went out, and I bought it. And I did some test footage on my own. And I told my wife, I think I want to make a movie with this, so, yeah.
NNAMDISo, in your case, the story is not what inspired the movie. The camera is what inspired the movie.
RAOYeah. That's exactly right.
NNAMDIIt's pretty incredible that you shot a full-length feature film on a digital SLR camera that fits into the palm of your hand. For those camera buffs out there, what were some of the challenges of making a movie on a camera like this?
RAOYou know, so there's definitely some -- I would say there were definitely some challenges, and there were some advantages. The challenges -- the main challenge with shooting on a DSLR is focus. And focus, I think -- the reason is, is the DSLR lenses, they don't have as large a radius to go from one focus point to another. Like the kind of cinema lenses, they're called, like, PL lenses.
RAOYou know, you can go a quarter of the way across on the lens, whereas on the DSLR camera, you have to go, like, you know, a millimeter. So it's really kind of difficult to do that. So what we did is we just kind of tried to use the kind of soft focus as kind of a -- like an actual kind of filmmaking tool in the film. And so we've got some, you know, shots where we specifically have it, you know, out of focus. Yeah, so...
NNAMDIDeirdre, I would imagine that this new technology also makes it easier to tweak or to completely change aspects of a film much more easily, doesn't it?
EVANS-PRITCHARDYou know, we were just having this conversation about whether or not film remains a product in a world in which it can be defined more now by process. If we've all got these cameras and we can all keep making films -- you could make a film tomorrow, Kojo, if you wanted to -- and everybody could start producing these things, then, you know, and you can go and edit it at home, certainly you can make films within films within films all the time.
NNAMDIBut, of course, one of the problems with being an independent filmmaker, regardless of the technology is that you'd have to spend a lot of your own money. And to get these films made, it is my understanding, Rohit, that that had something to do with the ultimate fate of this camera that you used to shoot this movie. What happened to it?
RAOWell, you know, I -- well, we -- I had a certain amount of money set aside for production. And then I kind of didn't have money for post-production. We needed, you know, a few different things. So, essentially, all the equipment that we used on the film, I had to sell, including some of my very precious music equipment that I've had for, you know, years and years.
NNAMDIIt's one of the sacrifices that independent filmmakers who have appeared on this show tell us about from time to time, that that's one of the things you do. In your case, however, your movie is one of the very first feature films shot in D.C. with a D.C.-based cast, a D.C.-based crew. Was it difficult to find the talent, the production expertise you needed in this town?
RAONo, I wouldn't say that at all. I think what's happening here in D.C. is pretty neat when it comes to independent filmmaking, when it comes to the talent and the people that are here that are interested in filmmaking and being on a crew. You know, I put out -- something went out to the American University mailing list for our crew members. And I had a few people from there -- from that, you know, that list.
RAOI did a casting call, and, you know, we had over 110, 120 actors come to audition. I definitely think -- I'm very happy with our talent and our cast that we had. But I just think D.C. is becoming this kind of the seed community for independent filmmaking. And, you know, I'm hoping that "Ultrasonic" can help kind of grow that, you know, or shed light on that.
NNAMDIThere's little doubt in my mind that it will. We're talking with Rohit Colin Rao. He's a filmmaker. He's also writer, director and producer of the film "Ultrasonic." He's based here in Washington. And Deirdre Evans-Pritchard, executive director of the D.C. Independent Film Festival. 800-433-8850. Have you ever tried to make a movie in this area?
NNAMDIWhat was your experience like? Call us at 800-433-8850. Deirdre, with major media houses like PBS, Discovery, National Geographic, all based here in Washington, the documentary scene seems to have been booming here. Do you see similar growth happening in independent feature filmmaking?
EVANS-PRITCHARDWell, we surely hope so. Certainly, in terms of the festival receiving submissions from the metro region, there is a lot of material being developed. I think that we're seeing it mostly in fairly short films. Rohit's film is unique in the sense that most people do not do a full feature film. It is quite a commitment -- time, money, mental energy, everything. So it doesn't happen very often. And that's certainly why, at the festival, we were really excited to see something of such high quality come out.
EVANS-PRITCHARDBut people should not, you know, not try to do that. They should try to do that and, you know, not get too bogged down, I think, in the independent world with issues of some of the quality control that they are endlessly told they have to pay attention to by the professionals and that -- you know, "The Blair Witch Project," being a perfect example of something that overcame these technical issues.
EVANS-PRITCHARDYou know, if there's something -- if it's good enough inside, internally, if the excitement is there, it doesn't matter. People will watch it, and they will be excited by it. And, hey, you can always go make it again when somebody gives you the million dollars afterwards.
NNAMDIHere's James on Capitol Hill. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESJust two points, I guess. One, to sort of underscore what he -- the guest just said about the community. I've run a production company that does video -- more boring stuff like, you know, sit-down interviews and that kind of stuff. But in the course of that, I've come across three, four, five, six guys walking around with essentially that same camera who are, you know, to make money shooting interviews and that kind of stuff.
JAMESBut there's a boatload of creativity in these people with that camera in hand who, I think, are trying -- gunning for the same thing that your guest did in terms of, you know, the more independent creative stuff. And then also, just so the audience has a greater appreciation of what this guy has done, that camera -- you can only shoot about maybe up to 10 minutes at a time before the hard drive has to take a break and you start over again.
JAMESAnd so you shoot in 10-minute increments at best. And the audio on board isn't that great, so you have to record audio on a separate device typically. So what he's done with filming a feature-length film with that equipment, while it's phenomenal in one regard, he overcame some pretty significant challenges.
NNAMDIJames, thank you very much for helping us to clarify that in a way that I certainly couldn't. Rohit...
RAOYes, thank you.
NNAMDIRohit, you did also all the post-production for "Ultrasonic" yourself. In fact, you edited the film on your coffee table with your laptop. As you were in the process of editing, did you have any idea how you would distribute this film?
RAOYou know, I didn't. I had a couple of thoughts. I was hoping to get a distribution deal, you know, in some level of the deal that, you know, we got with Garden Thieves Pictures. But, you know, I thought it was a long shot, so I had a backup plan. And my backup plan was that I'm going to self-distribute it.
RAOI make websites by day, and so I created a website where I could stream this movie online in HD and give it away for, you know, like a cheap rental, like a $3.99 or $4.99, you know, day rental or a 48-hour rental. So I had the prototype built, and I had it working. And then we, you know, we premiered at DCIFF here with Deirdre. And...
NNAMDIAnd that's where Casey Callister, who is a producer…
NNAMDI...with D.C.'s Garden Thieves Entertainment, saw "Ultrasonic" at the D.C. Independent Film Festival. He asked to distribute it way more than you could have even dreamed possible.
RAOYeah, I know. It -- he was able to take this film to a platform that would have taken me, you know, years to do on my own. So, I mean, I really -- I mean, I'm so thankful and so grateful for the opportunity that "Ultrasonic" has had.
NNAMDIWell, Deirdre, Garden Thieves Entertainment helped give "Ultrasonic" a distribution boost. It had its big screen debut last week. It's being screened around the country this month. But how are you seeing other independent filmmakers getting their work out?
EVANS-PRITCHARDWith difficulty, but I have to say the festival is very pleased because our films from this last year have been doing extremely well. This is a good sign and evidence that there is still life in film festivals, which sometimes everybody questions, including myself. But there clearly is life. But the distribution issue is a big issue. Everybody wants to be in on it now. And so Hollywood is now involved in its own distribution.
EVANS-PRITCHARDOther film festivals are involved in the distribution. The issue of control over the material comes up all the time. And what Rohit has done is find a good medium between a distributor that makes money out of it and getting something for himself. But it's the same problem that comes in the music industry as well of maintaining some control and rights over your material. And it's what -- there's catch-22s.
EVANS-PRITCHARDSo if your film does really well and gets picked up, somebody is going to come and interfere in it. But if it doesn't get picked up, you're going to be feeling very sad. So I think we at the festival are trying to grapple with exactly this issue. How do we help? 'Cause the point of a festival is to get to the point of distribution, how do we help not only the films to have visibility, but the distribution deal to be worthwhile?
NNAMDIAnd a lot of moviemakers are trying to find avenues to get their films out. There's a four-day BuddhaFest Film Festival in Arlington this month. It's teamed up with Tricycle, a Buddhist foundation, to distribute short films online. That festival runs June 14 through the 17th in Arlington. You'll find a link to it on our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Rohit and Deirdre about Rohit's film "Ultrasonic" and the significance of that film here in Washington, D.C. If you've called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about local independent filmmaking with Rohit Colin Rao. He is a local filmmaker and writer, director and producer of the film "Ultrasonic." And Deirdre Evans-Pritchard is executive director of the D.C. Independent Film Festival. Rohit, in February, we talked about the challenges on this broadcast of making big Hollywood films in the District. One of the biggest obstacles, of course, is getting permits to shoot in front of our famous monuments. What kinds of hoops did you have to jump through to shoot "Ultrasonic" in our city's neighborhoods?
RAOYou know, I think the-- yeah, you know, there weren't really that many -- or the hurdles weren't that challenging. They were just a little time-consuming. The D.C. Film office was pretty good about communicating with us about the permits. They weren't very expensive. The permits part wasn't really very expensive. I would say, like, the trickiest thing with the permits was with the Metro permits. But even that, you know, we were able to do it and get the shots done.
NNAMDIWhat D.C. neighborhoods do we see in "Ultrasonic?" Because what I tell to my friends and relatives who are from out of town, as I said, the picture you get of Washington is of the Congress and the Supreme Court and the White House. But D.C. is a city of neighborhoods.
NNAMDI...do we get to see in "Ultrasonic?"
RAOWe have a few neighborhoods in Southeast that we filmed at, right outside the -- by the Navy Yard area. We did -- the main park we filmed in was just north of Adams Morgan. We did Georgetown. And one location in particular I have to kind of give props to was right outside D.C. in Takoma Park, at this place called the Olive Lounge. And these guys just really -- and I found this about most...
NNAMDIYou know, people will get confused 'cause there's Takoma Park in D.C…
NNAMDIThere's Takoma in D.C. and Takoma Park right next door in Maryland, and they're adjoining communities, really.
RAOOh, yeah, exactly. Exactly. But these guys really championed the film, and, you know, we shot three scenes there. And they held our cast wrap party there. So, yeah, I mean, we -- also, we filmed for, you know, three weekends in Maryland, in Potomac, in my house, so it was just kind of a scattering all over the city, yeah, whole metro area.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to go to Michael in Washington because he has a question that's been echoed by an email that we have. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHi. I wanted to ask -- first of all, I want to congratulate Rohit on completing a film since -- 'cause they say in the documentary trade, most films are never completed, they're just standing.
MICHAELBut I also wanted to hear a little bit about his post-production experience and what he learned from post-production and how that would change how he shoots his next film, and I'm going to jump off.
NNAMDIThanks. We got an email from Saul, who says, "I want to make a film, but I'm not savvy in editing. What kind of resources are there for editing at reasonable cost?"
RAOSure. Well, what I would say is if you're an indie filmmaker without, you know, too much money, I would say invest in a good MacBook Pro and get Final Cut Pro. I cut it all on Final Cut Pro. I did the special effects in Adobe After Effects. And the hurdles that I kind of found really mainly were the little laptop having the power, just having the memory to churn out these -- 'cause, you know, this is -- it's a lot of data. I bought a 500 -- oh, sorry, I bought a three-terabyte drive, I mean, which is basically 300,000 something gigs. It's a box.
RAOAnd so I housed all the data on there, and it was a really slow connection between an external drive and the MacBook Pro. So it was tedious and time-consuming. And, you know, so -- but it was doable. I mean -- but I did it. I would say, in the future, I would want to have, like, a good powerful desktop machine. But if you're an indie filmmaker, get a MacBook Pro, get yourself a good, solid eSATA drive, and you should be good.
NNAMDIDeirdre, what kind of advice and resources are out there for filmmakers who would like to start a project but don't know the kinds of details they need to think through before they start shooting?
EVANS-PRITCHARDWell, I'm glad to say that D.C. really has quite a lot to offer. There is -- Docs In Progress is an organization run out of Silver Spring. They're very supportive if you've started on your documentary and you want input from other filmmakers. There's Women in Film Video, an honorable organization that's been here for many years. It used to be said that you had to be a member to get a job, but I think maybe it's opened up a little bit since then. So I'd recommend them.
EVANS-PRITCHARDIn Arlington, Arlington Independent Media, they have lots of classes. So there's lots of places you can get support. You can study in any of the universities around here and get some information. But I think this issue of community is really central, which is that, you know, there are people out there making films. This -- the screen, the digital image is the driving force of this generation. It's what it's all about. It's in terms of communication, in terms of art, in terms of entertainment. Stand up in that Starbucks and talk to them.
NNAMDIAnd we'll make sure you can find links to those resources that Deirdre mentioned at our website, kojoshow.org. But for those people who are saying to themselves right now, but what's the film about? "Ultrasonic" follows the story of Simon, a young man who is down on his luck and has a pregnant wife. But at this particularly vulnerable stage in Simon's life, something bizarre starts happening. Can you pick up the story for us?
RAOSure. So Simon begins to hear a sound that no one else can hear. The wife doesn't hear it. You know, friends don't hear it. His wife thinks he is going crazy and -- but his wife's brother, who's a bit of a conspiracy nut, thinks that it's a government-run experiment to control people's minds.
NNAMDIAnd Simon hears this mysterious sound more loudly in poorer D.C. neighborhoods. It diminishes in wealthier ones. Were you trying to make a greater point about the socioeconomic divisions in Washington, Rohit?
RAOWell, no, not in particular. I think what we wanted to do there was to just kind of show -- just kind of provide, you know, a little more proof for the Jonas character to be able to kind of say that this, in fact, you know, was something that was more of an experiment as opposed to him just going crazy.
NNAMDIWell, this film features an edgy electronic tone that changes slightly as the movie becomes more mysterious. Are we supposed to be hearing the same strange noise that Simon hears?
RAOYou know, I can't answer that.
NNAMDIOK. I guess you'll have to see "Ultrasonic" for yourself because we're just about out of time. Rohit Colin Rao is the filmmaker, writer, director and producer of "Ultrasonic." Rohit, thank you very much. Congratulations to you and good luck.
RAOThank you so much. Thank you.
NNAMDIDeirdre Evans-Pritchard is executive director of the D.C. Independent Film Festival. Deirdre, thank you for coming in.
EVANS-PRITCHARDThank you for having us here.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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