I made my first 16mm film, Public Fixture, a poetic journey of everyman, in 1986 as I graduated from The Colorado College. I quickly discovered thinking you are a director, and getting work as a director are too different things! After doing production assistant work in Colorado on commercials and features, I took a PA job working in Hollywood with Roger Corman in 1989. Several jobs later I was working at Paramount Studios for the British director, Bruce Robinson, on Jennifer 8, as a director’s assistant. I was learning the process of filmmaking from the ground up, from working the set to behind the scenes at a major Hollywood studio. I also worked for Metro Light Studios for the Academy Award nominated effect producer, George Merkert, who had pioneered some of the early CGI work on Total Recall. Right after that, I was at Philips Interactive working on some of the first interactive titles being developed for the CD-I player. I later realized that I was becoming a producer so that I could create the opportunities to direct my own work which I did when I got hired by Interplay. I am still making videos, thirty years later, with The Unruly Mystic: Saint Hildegard through my company, Michael Conti Productions.
I had the misfortune of not being in college when film programs became the vogue. I always seemed to have missed the boat by a year or two, and had to basically create my own programs. I started at the University of Colorado, Boulder: a few years after I left two guys from South Park showed up. I declared myself an art history student but really wanted to be a painter. However, after two years the art department started to seem really small, and my interests were becoming “multimedia.” It wasn’t easy to interact with other disciplines like theater or dance, or even get the kind of attention from teachers due to the size of the classes. I decided to transfer to a smaller college that had a great reputation of interdisciplinary collaboration: The Colorado College.
I did a switch to English as my former degree required fluency in a language, and I am a big believer in being abroad in order to speak abroad. Besides, it’s much more fun to order in Greek in a cafe than a classroom.
I got myself immersed into the school’s multiple opportunities, I was co-editor of the Arts section for The Catalyst, spent six weeks doing field archaeology with bare-breasted co-ed’s in Southeastern Colorado, played squash with Air Force cadets, and got deeply into myself.
You don’t go to college to learn just about the past, but if you are smart, you use the time to learn about yourself. I found myself fixated on the mythology of the city, and its immense draw in popular culture. This study eventually became my thesis project as an undergraduate student. I made art, wrote poetry, took photos and made experimental videos on my own city, Denver.
Eventually, I felt compelled to articulate this experience into film, and through the good graces of several people in the production community of Colorado Springs, and a grant from the College, I was able to make my first 16mm film entitled Public Fixture.
The film took several months to shot as I explored my subject in more and more detail. I even enlisted the support of one of Colorado’s notable experimental filmmakers at the time, Stan Brakhage.
Brakhage’s influence wasn’t limited to the experimental, but more to giving me permission as an artist, to tell my own story in my own way.
PUBLIC FIXTURE is best described as an everyman’s poetic journey to the city, and how we each become another public fixture in the artifice of the city.
My “official” career in film in 1986, started when I was fresh out of college, working for “free” on a spot directed by Steve Horn. Little did I know it at the time, but Steve Horn Productions was the most successful commercial production company in the world. Steve had also studied art history at Columbia. It was an inspiring as my own interest in film came from painting, and now to see how an art historian could become a successful director. One conversation that I remember clearly was how he told me that he brought all of the action into and out of frame as if it were a “moving painting.” How I managed all conversations with all the activity going on, and me a lowly production assistant, is beyond me now. For all of my forwardness, I actually got “paid” and was told I would have a job if I came out to NYC!
The fork was clearly in the road now. Should I go to graduate school or take the road of hard-knocks, and real world experience. It is one of those decisions that you sometimes regret with the foresight of a 40 year old, but when you are in your twenties, you are generally sick of school, and want to make your own trail. So that is what I did. I picked up any PA job I could get which wasn’t too hard in those cash-rich days in the late 1980s. I got a lot of practical experience, plus I was making a living! However, I wasn’t being an artist, I just didn’t have time nor could I afford to, I had bills to pay and things to buy.
During this same period, I was also working for the Colorado Film Commission as an assistant to the staff. I became fascinated with all the activity and excitement of seeing productions come into Denver, and helping facilitate their needs. It gave me an insight into my later work as a producer. My introduction to the film business started with the commission, and continues to this day with people that I first met during those days. Unfortunately, the commission (one of the first of its kind in the country) is not longer funded by the State).
While I had played with my father’s first Macintosh computer sometime around 1984. I never saw it more than a glorified typewriter until I started seeing the early computer games. In the summer of 1986, I first studied interactive media at a community college and felt that it had potential to be a lot more entertaining than the early Laserdisc applications of instructional films that I was working on. I would later find myself working at Philips Interactive as a researcher on one of the very first inter-active CD-I’s on the Impressionist Painters which was being produced by Jean-Pierre Isbouts.
In 1987, my wife and I moved to Los Angeles, when I was referred to the Roger Corman Studios by a family friend. That experience was my graduate school of sorts, a filmmaking 101 experience. Poorly paid and long hours all added to the education. I learned about clandestine shoots, maniac directors, taking extra roles to make extra cash. It was everything a Hollywood experience should be. I have subsequently filmed two actors during the Boulder International Film Festival that participated in that same school, Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern.
I worked all the different angles in Hollywood. As an agent’s assistant at Abrams Artists I learned the importance of knowing names and being able to drop them. Working at the studios I learned to politely redirect screaming studio producers like Scott Rudin even when they threaten your working future wehn you don’t give them what they want. I hammered nails, and keyboards, read scripts and made phone calls. But, there was something very specific that I wasn’t doing. I wasn’t making films. As I would later realize, I was creatively constipated.
So, when I was offered a job at Interplay Productions, one of the top interactive games companies, as a producer I leaped at the opportunity. There I was able to do some of the only live action film-making in games at the time. I created the filmed version of Sim City CD-ROM. We worked with the most cutting edge technology to shoot an original game called “Cyberhood,” unfortunately it was too original. I also had the opportunity to shoot the “Waterworld” game footage. The gaming world never really embraced film and computer animation was becoming the rave. At the time, the computer processor speed moved too slowly and the pixel ratio wasn’t up to par, and the quality of the videos were never good enough when playing off a CD-ROM. That wave crashed big time and was taken over by computer animation.
Eventually, I returned to the idea of making films myself in late 1996, when I directed and produced a super-8 film short, called White Night. After several unique multimedia projects came my way, again, I was able to confidently move away from Hollywood to better pursue my unique vision.
In Portland, while working for Intel’s ground-breaking “Smart Toy Lab” or “Intel Play”, I produced the Digital Movie Creator, a digital camera that shoots four minutes of video at a time, and that can be edited with software, and extensive stock footage.
A collaboration of Intel and Mattel, Intel Play created a series of smart toys that combined the respective skills of the two founding companies. Toys included the QX3 Microscope, Digital Movie Creator, Sound Morpher, and Me2Cam. The Intel Play product line was discontinued on March 29, 2002 when it was purchased by Digital Blue.
I also made several other short films during that time, work that I would call poetic cinema.
We returned to Colorado in mid 2002 where I dove back into the film community. Here I created Group 101 Films, a community of directors who are committed to making a short film every month. I also executive produced for nine years a film festival in Boulder, called The Shoot Out 24 Hour Filmmaking Festival Boulder, in which the object is to make a 7 minute film in 24 hours, using only in-camera editing. It’s an exciting time. Technology is finally good enough to be of service to the artist.
To be continued ten years later….