Scene from a Mall (1993)

In 1993, I took a film class and was grouped with an amicable ragtag crew. We filmed little shorts with the Panasonic PV-535, the only consumer VHS camera that had chroma key and that was compulsively used at just about every opportunity. The camera had a little mini-camera that you would mount on the top. You couldn’t directly feed in a video signal into the camera, but those who used the camera certainly improvised around the limitations. I would make long-distance telephone calls to video engineers and technicians around the nation, wondering if a converter existed to transfer the signal. I even attempted to persuade Panasonic to send me the blueprint, but they weren’t exactly flexible to some 19-year-old kid trying to hack their proprietary system. The camera had been given to me and I certainly wasn’t in the position to purchase another one to reverse engineer it. But it did serve me and several other folks quite well during the early 1990s.

As the guy with the equipment, I somehow ended up being the one who organized the shoots. I certainly never intended to seize control. I was just the guy who ended up with logistical ideas. I rotated crew duties, shifting directorial, editing, and photographic duties after I asked our crew members specifically what they were interested in doing. In Sacramento, we had a small ensemble of actors that included several friends, my sister, and all of the crew members. I solicited ideas from the group, often stepping in to help others flesh out their stories into a screenplay. I had spent much of high school studying screenplays (I once had my Terminator 2 screenplay book confiscated by my English teacher after my friend Tom and I were geeking out as the teacher delivered a lecture), writing scripts, and even attempted to make a feature film (called Three Kinds of Respect). Armed with this experience, I’d often sit next to a writer at a computer, asking the writer questions about the characters and the situations. We’d then bang out an intricate shooting script.

The above film, “Scene from a Mall,” was one of many films made during this period. It was built around an improvisational situation in which I played a disturbed man and Misa Whiteford played a woman waiting for her boyfriend. We shot this at the Country Club Mall in Sacramento, California, about ten years before the renovation. I suppose we approached this mall because, like Sunrise Mall, the 1960s aesthetic appealed to everybody. (It certainly reminded me of the original version of Dawn of the Dead.)

I’ve revised the film slightly, taking out about 40 seconds from the original version. At the time, I was editing these little films using two four-head VCRs. So you’d be able to cut two shots and get it roughly within a half second of where you wanted. This was trickier than it sounds. Because you had to anticipate that the output VCR would begin recording at precisely one third of a second after you pressed the RECORD button. And it therefore took multiple attempts for each cut. When I later learned how to cut and splice Super 8, and when I worked on flatbeds, it was a luxury to be able to cut on the exact frame. The present generation is spoiled with their NLEs.

Of course, now that I’m working with NLEs, I thought I would exonerate my 19-year-old self and offer the cuts that I had intended all along just before getting this film up on YouTube. What once took patient hours now takes about one twentieth of the time.

The editing limitations never stopped me from being ambitious. I would eventually make another short film that would contain more than 100 shots and would be filmed in San Francisco, Folsom Lake, and various points around Sacramento. (I even managed to shoot some video with an ancient black-and-white video camera, but the camera was on its last legs and it actually shocked the cameraman and never worked again. My mother yelled at me for this technical deficiency, as if I had deliberately killed the camera. But that’s another story.)

I’m going to slowly get some of these old films up onto YouTube — in large part because the videotape sources are starting to deteriorate. And if I don’t digitize some of this footage now, it may be gone forever. (These films are from fifteen to seventeen years ago. Given that videotape is known to deteriorate within twenty years, it appears that I’ve got my hands full.)

I don’t know if I still have the original sources for this film, but I wince at all the mall chatter contained within the audio. I may revisit this film again and do my best to filter out the background noise and boost the dialogue. But however I mess with these films, I promise that Han Solo will not shoot first.