July 17, 2015

SCA Family Stories: Michael Starr

Trojan Recipient of Silver Telly Award Chats about his Process

Increasingly, the moving image is being used to forward missions beyond entertainment at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. From the Media Institute for Social Change, the new Minor in Social Change, and the new Major in Games for Health from the Interactive Media & Games Division, the School’s scope is expanding.

As evidence, Film & Television graduate Michael Starr (‘14) made his splash into the industry via an unconventional route; the Public Service Announcement. Starr recently sat down with SCA Family stories to discuss his Silver Telly-winning PSA, how simplicity is the key to getting the shot that you want, and how students who had a life before SCA shouldn’t be afraid to take the plunge.

For more information on Starr’s company, please visit: GnarlyTreeProductions.com

Michael Starr '14

Let's start with your name and graduation year. Michael Starr. I graduated in 2014.

We should start with explaining what the Tellys are. The Telly Awards was founded in 1979 and is the premier award honoring outstanding local, regional, and cable TV commercials and programs; the finest video and film productions; and online commercials, video and films.  Winners represent the best work of the most respected advertising agencies, production companies, television stations, cable operators, and corporate video departments in the world. 

And you won for a Public Service Announcement? There are four categories: Commercial, Film/Video, Online Video, and People’s Telly. We won top honors in the Online Video category. With nearly twelve thousand entries from all fifty states and numerous countries, this is truly an honor.

What was the PSA? The online video that we won for was called Domestic Violence PSA. Simple title, I know, but what more do you need? The title says it all. It is a simple story about a girl in a bathroom who is looking into the camera as if looking into a mirror and her boyfriend is behind a closed door trying to explain to her that he'll “never do it again.” Everytime he says something, a bruise, in different stages of healing, appears on her face.

That’s not a common route out of School to go into PSAs. How did that decision come about? This was personal. I grew up with domestic violence. It tends to be something I focus on as a writer/director. It's part of who I am. I really feel that it's an important subject and it's something that people really need to know about.

People in those situations need to get out.  So we approached a government helpline. They agreed to put their information on our PSA. TheHotline.org.  They connect you with people that can help.

Walk me through the production. In pre-production, we (my business partner, Jessica E. Reynolds, and I) figured we would do something small. Something simple, but powerful. We had a previous PSA with a little girl; her mother verbally abusing her. We wanted to do a series of them but we didn't really know which way was the best approach.

I thought, "What if we do the same thing with a grown up?" We'll have her staring at the camera but instead of someone verbally abusing her, we have someone in a more apologetic state, after the fact. Every time that person says something, we see how this person has been hurt. Every single time.

We then took it to a friend's house and shot it in his beautiful master bathroom. I wanted it to be well lit and colorful to juxtapose the ugliness of violence.  We did a couple of angles, the more powerful of the two was Maureen (the actress) staring into the camera. It took about a half day (six hours) to shoot. We shot a "clean" version without makeup and then we set up marks for Maureen to go back and stand in. Maureen went downstairs and got into full makeup. Every bruise that is on Maureen’s face at the end of the sequence is what her face looked like at the beginning, every bruise masterfully placed there by our makeup artist Elise Reneau.

After we shot it, we gave it to Gregory Jones, also a recent USC graduate and a fantastic animator, who composited each bruise separately, timing out each bruise to the male voice over. Then we had Alex Williamson (an independent composer) compose a simple piano track. We thought, this is getting bigger and bigger, isn't it? [LAUGHTER] Some color correction and sound design, then we released it.  Total process took about 3 days.

Where can people find out more about your company? GnarlyTreeProductions.com

What was your reaction to winning the Silver Telly? Shock and awe. [laughter] When we won the Silver Telly we really felt vindicated. We knew we were doing something important and we were just happy that it was recognized. We felt that the piece everyone helped create was strong enough to submit to something as prestigious as the Telly Awards. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nike... all major corporations submit. It's kind of the Oscars for commercials. We knew we were going up against massive budgets but I’ve always felt if you can do something with a small budget and still convey the story in a powerful, professional way, you can be successful no matter what the length of the piece is, 90 minutes or 36 seconds.

What advice do you have for incoming students? It's OK to fail. I don't mean fail in the "failure" sense. Learn your mistakes in school so you don't make the same mistakes in the professional world.  Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something.  That’s why you’re here.  Aside from the amazing Directing classes, don’t be afraid to take advantage of the advanced writing and editing courses. They will help you become a better storyteller.  Learn to collaborate. And make lots of content!

Starr Directing

You weren't a guy that came straight from undergrad, right? You had another life before this. I was a registered nurse for thirteen years in the ICU. Writing and directing is what I’ve always wanted to do, so I took a chance, applied to USC… and got in!  Any writing instructor will tell you that every character has a want and a need. I wanted and I needed to do this. I appreciate everything that nursing gave to me and I miss the people I used to work with, but this is something that was eating away at my insides and needed to get out.

What would you say to anyone considering coming to SCA after a long career somewhere else? Kudos to you for taking that fear of the unknown and embracing it. A successful career is a successful career. Normal people don't walk away from that. That's only something that an extraordinary, fearless person does. I mean, why walk away from a job that pays 100k for a job that has the potential to pay nothing (or millions)? It's the strength of your passion and belief in yourself that will help you to persevere. You will make friends and mentors that will guide you, in and out of School, take advantage of that gift.  As long as you are sure about what you're doing, you cannot lose.