Pigeonhole Cory McAbee at your own risk. He’s a moviemaker, actor, musician, writer and visual artist whose movies are equally at home in film festivals and art museums. Since his first animated short, 1988’s Billy Nayer, McAbee has experimented with a wide range of techniques and media in his films, including (but not limited to) performance art, hand-sculpted props, papier-mâché makeup and Fisher Price toy cameras.
A string of well-received shorts led McAbee to make the leap to feature length moviemaking in 2001 with his musical sci-fi cowboy film The American Astronaut. Now a cult favorite, Astronaut continues to screen at film festivals around the world.
In 2006, McAbee was commissioned by the Sundance Film Festival’s Global Short Film Project to create one of the world’s first films designed specifically for mobile phones. The result was 2007’s Reno, a five-minute film that combines elements of collage and “security camera” footage for its story of a singing cowboy regaling convenience store patrons with tales of his travels. (An excellent technical breakdown is available here; watch the film at Facebook here.)
McAbee’s latest project is a sequel to Astronaut called Stingray Sam. Like Astronaut, Sam is a black-and-white genre-bender that features songs from McAbee’s band, The Bill Nayer Show. Unlike Astronaut, though, Sam was made with a very specific distribution format in mind: Like Reno, Sam would be intended for viewing on mobile phones.
At 7 p.m. PDT on Tuesday, September 15, Sam will premiere live online at www.stingraysam.com and is already available for purchase in a variety of formats (although contractual issues have prevented it from being available immediately on mobile phones). It could potentially usher in an entire wave of pocket-size movies; Sally Potter’s Rage, which stars Judi Dench, Jude Law, Steve Buscemi, Dianne Wiest and John Leguizamo, will premiere on mobile phones just a few days later on September 22.
With Stingray Sam’s official release date just around the corner, McAbee spoke with MovieMaker about the challenges and possibilities of this new medium.
April Snellings (MM): You’ve said that, with Stingray Sam, you wanted to make a movie that could be enjoyed on screens of any size. What are some of the challenges/unique considerations of making a film that can be viewed both on a 40-foot theater screen and a 2-inch cell phone screen?
Cory McAbee (CM): One of the problems is the constant changes in screen sizes. When I made Reno I was asked to make the film for a 2-inch by 2-inch screen. Those dimensions only worked for the smallest screen being manufactured by one or two phone companies. For Stingray Sam we chose the classic, standard 1.33:1 TV dimensions that were also the standard dimensions for YouTube and iPods. During production, YouTube expanded their screen sizes. iPod and phone screens became larger and wider as well. There are many shapes and sizes now that need to be considered. Our choice for the old-fashioned dimensions fit the style and theme of Stingray Sam. On most screens, pillars will need to be added at the sides. We had pillars added to our 35mm prints to maintain the look. I’m sure our next multi-screen film will be met with different considerations.
MM: To my knowledge, Stingray Sam is the first feature film made for mobile phones. Now that we know it’s a viable way to make/distribute motion pictures, what implications might it have for the future of moviemaking?
CM: On September 15 Stingray Sam will be available for download on small devices such as iPhones, iPods or any other device that can download a film. We’ve yet to finalize distribution through mobile operators for contractual reasons. Mobile content distribution is a new field. The companies that are trying to fill the need for mobile content are not offering any money and will not take on the legal responsibilities that come with film distribution. As a result, the films that are being made exclusively for mobile are films that could not compete anywhere else. Until ground rules are in place it will be a home for pornographers, advertisers and suckers. I’m hoping to help change this.
MM: What’s next for you?
CM: If I can find the money to make another film I will make my werewolf movie [Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest], but at the moment I have my hands full with Stingray Sam. Self-distribution is a creative process, especially today. You have to be inventive. It becomes a big part of your life and it can be a lot of fun.
MM: Given your unique experiences with movies like Reno and Stingray Sam, what words of advice do you have for aspiring, or even established, moviemakers?
CM: Be honest with yourself as to why you want to make films. If you want to be rich and famous, then try that. If you have a story that you want to tell, then try that. But be understanding if the two don’t go together. Having a film that you’ve created, own and personally distribute can give you things that money can’t. I love these two films and I enjoy traveling with them. They’re a part of my life.
For more information, visit www.stingraysam.com. Stingray Sam will debut there on September 15 at 7 p.m. PDT with a live screening of the film and an audience Q&A. You’ll also be able to buy the film exclusively from the Website in iPod-compatible, high-definition and DVD formats.