I’m standing on the platform of the airship, docked in sultry Houston, Texas. I take off my hat and fan my face with it as I offer my other hand to Judith B. Shields, the founder of First Step Cinmeatics and the writer and producer of Frankenstein’s Monster. “Welcome to airship Steamed.”
After we shake hands, I warn her, “Watch your step.” We both leap over the gap between the dock and the airship. I lead her into the parlor and gesture towards the crimson settee, which features curvy legs and claw feet. Judith sinks into the cushioned seat.
I slide down into the matching arm chair by the tea table and flash a bright smile. “I’m so excited about your film, a steampunk adaptation of Frankenstein. And you shot it in the Houston-Galveston area.” As I pour a cup of tea, tendrils of steam rise from it. “Like most people I love the book Frankenstein. What was it about the story that inspired you to create the film?”
Judith takes the cup of Earl Grey as I hand it to her. “The humanity behind it. It is such a complex book. I appreciate its respect for life. Mary Shelley draws the reader into the idea that even though we may live in a modern world of science, we must not forget to respect and value each other. “ Judith lifts her cup and takes a dainty sip of tea. “This theme is repeated over and over. Also, Mary Shelley warns us against pushing too far away from this basic truth.”
The engine purrs and the china teacups on the tea table rattle as the airship begins lift off. “That’s so true, it’s such a wonderful message. And speaking of inspiration, what inspired you to take Frankenstein in a steampunk direction, bringing the monster to life by steam?”
Judith grabs the settee with one hand, her teacup in the other, as the airship gains altitude. “It’s a perfect combination. Mary Shelley states that Victor Frankenstein studied many types of science. Why couldn’t he be adventurous and reanimate the Monster with Steam? In our film we approximated the time to be around 1890. During that time period, steam served as a common power for transportation: locomotives, steamboats. This is the difference with our story and Shelley’s. Besides—Prometheus’ Flame is mentioned. Yes, perfect for Steampunk.”
“I love the premise and who doesn’t love Prometheus and his gift of fire. We couldn’t have tea without fire.” Now that the teacups have ceased rattling, I lean toward the table and pour myself a cup of Earl Grey. “Speaking of Steampunk, how did you become interested in it?”
“I appreciate the artistic side and creative side of Steampunk. People will have an idea and build their dreams. It’s wonderful that many of the Steampunk community honor inventors and ingenuity. Yes, Steampunk is mostly known for its fashion, but because of its openness and not conformity, individuals are able to freely express themselves.” Judith reaches for the sugar bowl, picks up a white cube and plunks it into her tea. “I am always amazed at the problem-solving I see when folks create. An example I’ll throw out there is Preacher’s Powderwork’s and Projectiles—who created the wooden goggles featured in Frankenstein’s Monster. They are very different—and yet it is still Steampunk.”
“Wooden goggles—I love that.” I bring my teacup to my lips as the steam from the cup blows warm on my face. “You refer to the film as Steampunk light, can you explain the meaning of that term a little bit more?”
“I call the film Steampunk-light because it isn’t the heavy technology steampunk many are used to in the genre. Although I will admit, we have an amazing lab built by our technical director, Chris Lowe.” Judith takes a silver spoon from the table and dipping it into her teacup, she politely swishes it side to side. “Our Steampunk is expressed through the art—for starters we used a lot of STEAM! The monster is Steam-powered. He smokes! It is simple. Steampunk is expressed in the camera angle choices. The finished look of the film has a darkened edge and is slightly desaturated—to remind the audience of an old photograph. Word choices in the script, Edwardian costumes, unique props built by those in our Texas Steampunk community. This is our Steampunk.”
Reaching for the dish on the table, I pinch a slice of lemon and inhale the invigorating citrus fragrance as I squeeze a few drops into my teacup. “Speaking of expressing Steampunk through art, your dual role on the film is impressive. You not only wrote the screenplay but you are the producer as well. Who are your major influences regarding film production?”
Judith lifts her chin and flashes a bright smile. “Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott.”
“What about the actual work of filming, what type of cameras were used in shooting Frankenstein’s Monster?” Why did you make those choices?” With a slow sip, I breathe in the aromatic scent of my tea.
“We used Canon DSLR cameras for Frankenstein’s monster. Our film has a 16×9 aspect ratio and was shot in high definition 1080p quality. We chose DSLRs for many reasons. As the producer, I appreciated the affordability. An SD card, which is the size of a quarter, can capture a whole day’s worth of filming. Also, there’s no film processing or worrying about the film accidentally being exposed.” Judith takes a sip of tea. “What was also great about the DSLR cameras, is that unlike camcorder type equipment, you have to treat the DSLR as you would a camera—set up aperture, ISO, etc. to make sure you have the right look. It’s the art of moving photography. You treat what you would like filmed as you would a photograph. Slava Vlad, our Cinematographer and lead Editor has a strong background in photography and he brought out the best with that equipment.” Judith lowers her tea cup, resting her arm on her lap. “There are downsides with the DSLRs. While the filming quality is comparable to many other high end film equipment, they are not RED cameras. Capturing the best blacks (although that can be fixed in post) and challenges with overheating can be a problem. That is why I’m thankful we shot in the winter. Forty minutes of Texas heat and DSLRs will give up.”
“You don’t have to tell me about the Texas heat.” I recall having to fan myself with my hat just moments ago. “But even with all the challenges, film making sounds so interesting. I think everyone would like to be on a set at least once. Can you describe a typical day on the set of Frankenstein’s Monster?” With a soft clink, I sit my cup on its china saucer on the tea table.
“First off, the day never starts on the set. It can take months of planning: scouting then securing a location, making sure actors, tech equipment and costumes will be available for that date. That the location has both power and bathrooms there. And heaven forbid it rains!” Judith flashes a wry grin. “My day started early. First thing in the morning I had to pick up dry ice so we could have a smoking monster on set. Meanwhile, others would grab coffee and about 40 minutes before actors arrived on set, the crew would start preparing.” Judith leans forward. “We had a very fast shoot. Normally a film that’s 110 minutes would take about 30 days production. We shot it in 14—and that includes days where actors were sick and days we were rained out. We were able to do this because: the professionalism and positivity of both the cast and crew, time management and splitting the responsibilities of cast/crew. Also as the scriptwriter, it helped that I was available if anyone had any questions. I found the cast amazing. They memorized everything. So I have to give a huge thank you to our co-stars Dustin Sturgill (Victor Frankenstein) and Matt Risoldi (Monster). Frankenstein’s Monster’s lines are not easy. This is why I recruited so many thespians who were used to historical plays or Shakespeare. Every line flowed so naturally from them. I am extremely proud of their hard work. Considering many were also working other jobs, and how little time we had to practice, they did an outstanding performance. Syd Lance, our director, blocked the cast for many of the scenes directly on the shoot. Many of our locations were not open to us until the day of the shoot so the cast couldn’t see them before that.” Judith cocked her head. “On crew side it was very collaborative. That actually became our strength. Because we talked out all the tech needs in advance and planned what we could, we were better prepared. Also, we communicated as we filmed. Team work.” Judith raised her teacup to her lips and took a long sip. “For lunch? If I wasn’t bringing sandwiches, my folks were bringing a hot meal. Either soup or pasta. And delicious homemade brownies. That’s what we do in First Step Cinematics, we may be microbudget, but we make sure everyone’s fed. There was a lot of happiness and laughter on the set.”
“It sounds like Texas hospitality to me.” I smile and lean back in the soft armchair. “What obstacles does an indie micro-budget film such as Frankenstein’s Monster have to overcome in order to be seen by the public?”
“Getting the word out and getting out there. Our first challenge is the independent film circuit. We’re not released yet. If anyone wants to see the film, we will keep updates on our facebook page. Also here we have our schedule update: http://steampunkfrankenstein.com/film-showings-schedule/ Finally, we have an extremly important fundraiser that will end this week! We have covered costs for our Autumn film competitions, but we will need help for Spring. http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/steampunk-frankenstein-film
It’s a David and Goliath kind of battle. Even among small films, their budget can be $100,000 or even a million. We had a budget the cost of a motorcycle. I am thankful to God and to everyone who has given us their support. I have to also give a big thank you to Ryan Cockerham who created the original score.” Judith drank the last of her tea and set the cup on it’s china saucer on the tea table. “Because we are so different—because we are presenting a familiar story as a drama but doing it in a way that is artistic, yet close to Mary Shelley—that is what makes us stand out. Hopefully our audience will think so too. So far we have had positive feedback, I’m hoping it’ll continue to be so. I’m grateful to everyone who has been involved—those who have helped everyday to those who could only help a little. It has been an amazing experience. Our next step is to take it to the world!”
I lace my fingers together and lay them in my lap. “Also, what advice would you give to others who have a dream of film making but also have a micro-budget for it?”
“Do it. But first, plan ahead. Plan well. Be sure you have enough funds not only to make the film, but prepare for extra days of shooting, expenses that pop up and of course you have to have a post-production and marketing budget. Save money where you can. You can rent equipment. That is an option. Borrow items from friends. We used many DIY projects instead of buying equipment: things such as boom poles and camera stands. And shop around. When I wasn’t bidding, I was buying equipment if it was on sale. When you’re on a budget, practical solutions can work best. Being frugal when necessary means you’ll have funds for the items that have to be of high quality like makeup base, descent video tripods (you can’t go cheap with those), SD cards, microphones and any other purchases where quality matters the most.” Judith pauses to draw in a breath. “To prepare to make an indie film, I recommend reading. Many great non-fiction books are available on how to be an effective producer or screenwriter. I will add this, though, making a film is like having a full time job. I’m not saying this to scare away anyone from their dream, I am saying it so you can be prepared and plan your time wisely. And don’t forget to have fun with it.”
Hearing rattling and clinking, I glance at the tea table, the cups and saucers are shaking. I know what that means, the airship is landing. I have time for one final question. “In addition to screen plays you write children and young adult books. What are some of the similarities and differences you find between writing screen plays and writing children’s fiction?”
Judith grasps hold of the arm of the settee, bracing for the landing.“Yes! Writing screenplays compared to prose is a very different experience They both have their advantages. In Young Adult fiction I can create a world and the reader gets to imagine it. At the moment they read, the world comes alive, you can learn a character’s thoughts and reasons for his actions, details are rich. With screenplays, unless you give it to someone, chances are your art will never be read or even known. The exception to that is if it is adopted by a film company and eventually made into a film once they have the market to do so. I avoided that outcome by being “self-published” and making my own film. There are so many good screenplays that never get realized. Another challenge with screenplays is it’s no longer your vision, but the vision of many: the producer, the director, the set designer, the costumer, the makeup artist, the cinematographer… you have to be flexible, knowing any creativity involved in crossing over your word to film means you will lose a lot of creative control. However—there is hope for those who write screenplays. A good screenplay is simple. Simple descriptions for locations, few locations, very little action description, camera direction when necessary. The strength of a screenplay is the dialogue. You are setting the film’s pace. It’s up to the director and the editor to keep that pace. If your strength is dialogue, pacing and plot—screenplays are great! The thing they’re meant to be lacking in is description.”
Airship Steamed has landed back in Houston so I must say farewell to Judith B. Shields, but you are welcome to stay and watch the trailer for this amazing film, Frankenstein’s Monster.
Also if you’re going to WorldCon in San Antonio this year, and who isn’t, you can catch the showing of Frankenstein’s Monster at 8pm, Friday August 30th. It looks like a great film.
Maeve Alpin, who also writes as Cornelia Amiri, is the author of 18 published books, including four Steampunk Romances. She lives in Houston Texas with her son, granddaughter, and her cat, Severus.