Fan Movie Winner Profile: Star Sports Team | August 3, 2009

Photos/Artwork by Mike LoVerme, Mike Cirelli, and Jeff Capone

As the winner for the Best Parody in the Fan Movie Challenge presented by Lucasfilm and Atom at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con International, Star Sports ponders what would happen if your favorite Star Wars characters fought against each other through dodgeball, baseball, hockey, basketball, football, soccer and other high school sports. chats with New Hampshire-based filmmaker Jeff Capone.

What is your background in film? Did you make films as a youngster/teen?

As a teenager I worked in a video store, and while I was in college I managed a movie theater, so I suppose you could say I was involved with “The Industry” at the distribution level for many years. When I was growing up, digital video technology wasn’t as accessible as it is today so I didn’t get my hands on actual movie making equipment until I attended film school at Emerson College.

Appropriately enough, my first short film was a crudely animated, farcical sequel to Return of the Jedi starring my vintage action figure collection entitled Star Wars: Episode VII: The Rebel Empire. After graduating with a B.S. in Communications, I then went on to earn my master’s degree in Education. Shortly thereafter, I landed my first teaching job in Technology Education and Video Production at Merrimack High School in New Hampshire where I’ve been working since 2003 to build and expand the MHS Videography program.

MHS Videography is the television production program at Merrimack High School in southern New Hampshire. Since 2004 we have been creating everything from feature length movies to promotional videos for the high school as well as for Merrimack TV’s Community and Education Channels. Our continuing goal is to help students develop professional communications skills and gain real-world experience in media production at the high school level.

What prompted you to make a Star Wars fan film? How have George Lucas and his films influenced your work?

George Lucas’ vision demonstrated, for me, the power of imagination above all else. Films like American Graffiti and Star Wars tapped in to what younger generations were really feeling and experiencing, then and now. They captured the wonder and the potential for adventure inherent in every apparently “ordinary” life.

Lucas’ filmmaking process also proved that groundbreaking and lasting movie experiences like these can be created with limited resources. Books and documentaries about the making of Star Wars and his other movies instilled me with a mindset for innovation from the moment first I got my hands on a 16mm Bolex camera, to the present with my supercharged MacBook Pro.

His ongoing commitment to technological innovation at the professional level has resulted in the creation of tools I and my students use to make our movies today. His endorsement of fan films and their creators has paved the way for now-classic projects like Troops, Pink Five, and Ryan Vs. Dorkman. These pioneers of fan filmdom showed that amateur filmmakers could also make effective and entertaining movies with a great idea and a minimal budget.

With Lucas’ support, fan films have emerged to find larger audiences and a renewed sense of value and legitimacy. It’s become a respectable art form that takes creators who are typically found in the “outer rim territories” of the filmmaking world and suddenly thrusts them into the galactic core of the Star Wars magic. All of these factors were monumental in motivating us to develop our own brand of Star Wars fan film.

Where did you get your idea for your film?

The impetus for Star Sports originally began with two of my students, Alex Ouellette and Steve LaBonte, who expressed interest in doing a fan film as an extracurricular project. Once we learned how to make our own realistic lightsaber effects from Ryan Wieber’s website, the path was clear to making our own Star Wars movie. The question was: What could we do that hadn’t been done with Star Wars already, and how could we make it accessible to a high school audience? We needed a galactic conflict for the story, but a non-life-threatening one. We wanted it to be clever, but we were equally intent on incorporating as much slapstick humor as we could manage.

Finally, it had to fit within our budget which was somewhere around $1,000. The answer was high school athletics. We already had access to some equipment and facilities, and our budget would provide for the rest. Somewhere between Star Wars, Spaceballs, and Dodgeball we’d established a parody formula we felt would capture the attention of sci-fi, comedy, and sports audiences alike.

Just as Star Wars had originally turned World War II military surplus items into costumes and props, we decided to primarily use modified sporting goods to create the unique look of our characters. Stormtrooper armor became hockey pads and lacrosse helmets. Blaster rifles were replaced with energy-charged dodgeballs. We’d use everything we could find from paintball masks, to shin guards, to Kung-fu gear, as long as it had a Star Wars look and feel to it.

It also seemed fitting that each character should be identified with their own particular sport. So our Han Solo would be a pitcher, our Chewbacca, a basketball player, and our Leia, a soccer player. Our Luke character was the hopeful young rookie who shows potential in all sports. Our Darth Vader character was the quintessential “bad sport” who revels in doing maximum damage to his opponents, using his Force abilities to cheat and winning at any cost. Rebel soldiers were cannon fodder so naturally they became the dodgeball team. Stormtroopers became multipurpose “Sportstroopers” that served a similar expendable and comical function.

The ultimate goal was to produce a working model for student film production by taking a project from script to screen, to promotion and release. The final product was a 72-minute, special effects loaded, feature length fan movie, complete with theatrical trailer, promotional artwork and behind-the-scenes blooper reels. The cast and production crew consisted of over 50 people, both students and teachers, many of whom performed multiple tasks both on and off screen. The result was a memorable and enduring video project that the Merrimack school district and community continues to share and enjoy. We’ve even recently shared our film with our new friends and colleagues from the Bin Hai Foreign Language School in China. Thanks to the addition of this international exchange program at MHS, I guess you could say we now have overseas distribution for our fan film!

What were some of the challenges and surprises that happened to you as you were writing/directing/filming your movie?

Filming in a high school, even after school, is fraught with unpredictability. Unlike a movie location, there’s no such thing as a “closed set.” You don’t get to send 1,600 people home and shut the entire building down for your artistic vision. This would routinely result in the unsuspecting student or staff member turning the hallway corner to find themselves in the middle of a full blown “blaster-ball” battle or in the presence of an enraged Wookiee slamming Imperial Sportstroopers headfirst into lockers! The downside was that we’d need to shoot another take. The upshot was that it always made for fantastic blooper material.No matter how much you plan for a production, there are always problems you don’t see coming until they hit you square in the face. The challenge was finding those creative solutions amid the chaos (and avoiding the same mistakes next time). Once we shot an entire scene with our Boba Fett character against a green screen only to discover during the editing phase that his green chest-armor plates would disappear along with the chroma key green background! We didn’t have time to re-shoot so we had to create a floating mask over parts of the armor to “un-filter” the filter effects.

My favorite surprises were the ones in which somebody would throw in some improvised gag or gesture in the middle of a take, something we couldn’t have planned for in a million years, that worked so well it makes the final cut. For instance, during the football scene one member of the Rebels’ football team, played by Bryan Dine, pulls a completely childish and desperate move in which he scoops up a handful of snow from the field and attempts to hurl it into the Vader character’s eyes right before the snap. Moments like that come from the sheer comic personality of the actors. Another scene that stands out is where one of the Sportstroopers, played by Ross Martin, visibly sucks in his gut so that he might appear more intimidating in the team’s lineup. You need to write a script that gets you to that point in the story, but sometimes the best ideas just jump out of the frantic creative energy of moment.

What are some of the technical aspects of your film? What did you shoot and edit with?

We shot the entire project using a single VX-2000 Sony Handycam. All video editing and visual effects work was completed using Apple’s iMovie ’06, Final Cut Pro, and Adobe After Effects software on two Mac computer platforms.

Have you made a fan film before, if so how was this experience different?

Our first fan film project was a parody of the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy entitled Matrix High School. The tongue-in-cheek premise of the film was that high school was an elaborate computer simulation designed to keep teenagers under control. We had a lot of fun with that production and learned a great deal about moviemaking in the process. That experience would hugely prepare us for Star Sports a year later. However, we quickly learned that making a Star Wars movie would require a lot more labor intensity, especially in the areas of editing and special effects.

Do you have aspirations to make films as a career? Or is this simply a labor of love?

Both. Being a professional educator is a rewarding career to begin with. Having the opportunity to share your passion for a subject you love with students who are equally interested and invested is even more fulfilling. My job affords me the dual luxury of being able to teach filmmaking while actively participating in the making of movies myself. The Star Sports fan film project was a two-year long labor of love from start to finish and to this day it remains an important chapter of the lives of everyone who participated in its creation.

Who were all the principle people in helping get the film made? Who would you thank if your film won an Academy Award?

I’d begin by thanking the administration of Merrimack High School: Ken Johnson, Rich Zampieri, John House-Myers, and Tom Putney, for granting us the freedom and support that made this project possible. My mentor Tray Sleeper, and colleague Nicholas Lavallee from Merrimack TV for generously lending their time and resources. The dedicated students of MHS: Alex Ouellette and Steve LaBonte for inspiring the project and for helping to see it though to completion. Ryan Banfield and Courtney Reynolds for being the perfect action heroes.

Tyler Edwards for all the water-weight he lost running around in that fur and rubber Wookiee suit. Mike LoVerme for pulling double-duty during droid and Wookiee voiceover work. Geoff Lee, Ross Martin, Mario Palermo, Chris Perez, Shahanna Snyder, Melinda Vieira, and Dave Zaharee for the countless hours they spent masking and key framing lightsabers. Nathan Troyer for managing the rest of the production, and for always remembering where I last put my keys down. And everyone else in the cast who took repeated dodgeball blows to the head for the Star Sports team.

Finally, my wife, Vanessa, for being my most loyal supporter and our biggest fan throughout the project. My dad for taking me to see Star Wars in the theater as many times as he did. My mom and Neil for continuing to store my Star Wars toys in their basement until I can get a place big enough to house all of it myself. And my grandmother who, a long time ago, somehow always knew which figures I did or didn’t already have and took such joy in tracking down the remaining faces of my vintage collection.

Why do you think recognizing fan films is important?

Fan movies allow aspiring filmmakers to enter and explore their favorite worlds, personalize their experiences within them, and share their visions among peers. Celebrating these films acknowledges the work of their creators and engages the next generation of filmmakers to make their mark. It’s also a great way to help get creators acquainted with real-world media exposure, constructive criticism, and competition.

What do you love the most about Star Wars?

Star Wars‘ powerful, inspiring central theme of challenging the unknown and moving towards achieving one’s full potential is what I have always loved the most. Of course, I also love the spaceships, robots, aliens, puppets, shooting, sword fighting, and explosions the most. And as much as I love all of that, none of it would be quite the same without the magnificence of John Williams’ score. So I love that the most too.

If you could meet George Lucas, what would you say?

Thank you for your courage, your creative vision, and your ongoing commitment to imagination, exploration, and education; thank you for inviting the idealistic rebel in all of us to take our first steps into a larger world — and into limitless universe.

Any additional words about your fan filmmaking experience?

It’s been an absolute blast and a huge personal and professional growth experience for all involved! Thanks for watching!

Watch all the fan movie winners here:

Atom: Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge

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