At the height of the Space Race in July 1969, Larry Johnson and his trusty sidekick Spike, endeavor to be the first man (and dog) to set foot (and paw) on the Moon. Aboard a homemade rocket, they blast off from their backyard launching pad and make their way toward Earth’s only satellite. After a few near misses and wrong turns, they finally arrive. Unbeknownst to them however, the Apollo 11 astronauts have gotten there at the same time, as well as an invading Martian fleet all determined to make the claim of being the first to plant their flags on lunar soil.
LA Indies spoke to the award winning animation director, Sammy Verni.
Sammy Verni is a native New Yorker and founder of Upstarts and Rogues Productions, an award winning film company specializing in traditional stop motion animation.
Ever since his parents brought him to see Jaws as a four year old boy (hey, it was the ‘70s), Sammy was hooked and has been in love with all things film and filmmaking. As a child and early teen he went on to make his own epics in the family basement and backyard with an old Super 8mm camera, before moving onto the newly emerging (and heavy) home video camera format.
After graduating with a degree in film production, Sammy spent some time working on set as an intern and then and in the field as a location scout with some of the industry’s leading directors. He then spent nearly twenty years working in the corporate video and advertising industries, shooting, editing and managing assets for some of the world’s largest consumer brands.
In his free time, Sammy can usually be found going to the movies, traveling, watching ‘60s sitcoms and sci fi classics, and chasing after his two daughters to get them to do their homework.
What was the inspiration behind the making of your film?
When I was around ten years old I started drawing a comic strip character that I called Low Down Larry. He was sort of an alter ego and nothing would ever go his way. I made a series out of it and would bring the comic books to school and read them in front of class. I have also always loved stop motion animation. The works of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen and of course Rankin/Bass. A few years ago, I decided I wanted to bring Larry back to life and what better way to tell the story than through stop motion animation?
What were some of the challenges of making the film?
Time. It just took a long time to actually get the show up and running. I had a great team helping me build the puppets and sets, but when it came time to setting up and shooting I was pretty much a one man show. I also was trying to do things with the characters that I thought I had figured out in my mind, but when it came time to shoot I didn’t have a great plan at first how to do it. For example, the design of the space helmets is fantastic, but when it came time to shoot I had a major issue with reflections and losing a lot of the image if I tried to key out the background color through the helmets which were curved, see through glass bubbles. So, after a lot of testing with green screen and rear projection, I decided the best way to preserve the quality of the image was to film the puppets separately against a black backdrop and then rotoscope the characters onto the background. Only problem- I didn’t know how to do that at first, and that process itself is much more time consuming.
When did you realize that you wanted to make films and what was the first film project that you created?
I have always loved being behind a camera. There are pictures of me when I was very young with a camera in my hand and my eye peeking through the viewfinder. I’ve always liked the idea of creating worlds that exist only within the confines of a film frame, and outside of that frame is the real world. The very first film project I created was when I was around thirteen called Adventure Force. We filmed with the silent Super 8 camera that my family had used to record all our family events. A bunch of my friends, my brother and I went out to the driveway behind our house. We were all running around fighting each other, jumping off garage roof tops, and pretending to zap each other with our laser guns. After the film was developed, I even went so far as to use magic marker on the actual film and went frame by frame to create the effect of the laser blasts. It actually came out better than it should have!
Which directors have been influential in your work and why?
Being a child of the ‘70s, I saw all the great blockbuster genre films when they were in theaters originally, and they were usually directed by Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. So, I would have to credit them.
What genre of filmmaking do you like to work on?
Science fiction is my favorite genre, both as a filmgoer and as a filmmaker. The first Larry comic strip that I drew was about him going on a rocket to the moon, and since I am a big fan of ‘50s and ‘60s sci fi, I used that as an inspiration for the style for the film. I think anyone looking close enough can see a little Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century here, or a little Abbott and Costello go to Mars or Destination Moon there.
What is the most challenging aspect of making an independent short film?
The most challenging thing is I think also the most liberating. Funding the film myself gives me complete control over what I am creating, it also makes my bank account a lot smaller! But there is a satisfaction in knowing that whatever is on screen is there because I want it to be there and I have paid for it.
What is your plan for further distribution of your film?
The film has been making the festival circuit for almost a year now. It has won several awards and has been pretty well received. I might continue submitting a little more and am hoping to actually show it in front of a live audience at some point. The idea might be to also develop it into a series and see if any platform will pick it up for a wider viewership.
How can cinema change the world and have an impact on society?
I think the film medium has always been like a mirror being held up to the time and place that is it made, going all the way back to the beginning of the industry. It is like a time capsule. Someone can get a good sense of what was important to a society by the art being produced at any given time in history. But like any other artform you are experiencing, as an audience you get from it what you bring to it.
What is your next film project?
A follow up to Low Down Larry Conquers the Moon Men, this time Larry will be going back in time and meeting some large, prehistoric reptiles. Once again, he has a plan, and once again it will not go his way! Most of my team is back from the last movie and they are outdoing themselves with some of the puppets and set designs. If I’m lucky I might be done with it in a year or so, but it’s still very early in the production phase now.
Why do you make films and what draws you to the language of cinema and directing?
For me, making a film is like being able to reach into my mind and pulling out an abstract idea and making it real for me and others to see. That’s true of all art of course, but I think film is the closest representation of extracting those feelings and images and making them tangible. I have always been the greatest fan of silent film, or at least film that has no dialogue and relies solely on imagery and music and sound effects to convey a story. To me, that is cinema in its purest form and my favorite way to tell a story.