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“A mighty flame followeth a tiny spark.” – Dante Alighieri
The idea for Vegucated was born in the theater, watching Super Size Me in the summer of 2004. For the prior year and a half I had been organizing screenings of food-related animal and environmental protection documentaries all around North America as outreach director of Kind Green Planet. Watching Super Size Me, I wondered, “what would it be like to see this process in reverse?” In other words, what would it be like to see someone happily scarfing down bacon cheeseburgers one week and eating vegan food, questioning everything the next?
I approached Kind Green Planet’s executive director Mary Max with the idea, and she immediately gave the project her blessing and came on as executive director. With neither of us having any experience in film, we naively thought it would take a year–possibly two–to complete the project. Little did we know, the average documentary takes roughly seven years from inception to completion and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. As I write this exactly seven years later, I can’t help but wonder, if we had known then how much time, money, blood, sweat and tears, would we have started down this road? Probably not. Thankfully, we didn’t, and thus a film was born.
“… the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” – Goethe
In the fall of 2004 I received a “success grant” from the brilliant career and life coach Janice Hoffman, who helped get the ball rolling on our project. But it wasn’t until I brought overachieving NYU honors student/film major Frank Mataska on board as an intern in spring of 2005 that I had the confidence to start pre-production. He had the summer of 2005 free, and we knew it was now or never. We had to shoot that summer or wait until he graduated. We went for it.
Frank quickly proved that he was no intern; he was a full-fledged producer, throwing himself 150% into every task, including casting the project. We had set out to choose one person to go vegan for one month, interviewed 25 people we found through Craigslist and surprised ourselves by choosing three people instead of one. We figured, why give people the chance to write off our film subject, saying “that doesn’t represent my experience; I can’t identify with her/him”? So we chose three people from three different demographics, each with their own challenges in going vegan. We struck gold with Ellen, Brian, and Tesla, who are hilarious, candid, and so easy to relate to. We got an extra bonus in Ellen’s cute and thoughtful kids, Debbie and Mark.
We started shooting and realized that with our limited budget and small crew, we couldn’t capture some of the juicier, more private moments, so we gave the subjects camcorders to record more private, spontaneous experiences. We were grateful for this later when the subjects took their cameras with them on their vacations to New Hampshire, Honduras, and on a cruise to England. These vacations were also the reason why the vegan experiment went for six weeks instead of four. Some of the best footage was from their little camcorders, which captured both the real struggles and the unexpected victories along the way.
At that time, consumer camcorders and most professional cameras were all standard definition, and HD cameras were still quite new and expensive. With our shoestring budget, we leaned on a volunteer crew and rental equipment from DCTV to fill in the gaps when director of photography John Pierce and his team couldn’t make it to a shoot with his Canon XL2 and Sony Z1U.
“It takes a village to raise a child.” – African proverb
Intern Yitzhak "helping" with the edit.
It Takes a Village
It takes a village to raise a film, too. We were absolutely blown away by how many people came out of the woodwork to help us, offering free or discounted services because they supported the project and/or cared about the subject matter.
These included several shooters and boom operators in NYC, our entire Pittsburgh crew, sound guy Eric Milano (Born Into Brothels, etc.), Emmy Award-winning sound editor Joel Raabe, indie music database owner Malcolm Frances, composer Dave Fischoff, musicians Moby, Joy Askew, and Art Halperin, our animation team from Asterisk Animation, whose productions have won Emmys, Clios and BDAs, editor Sara Leavitt, associate editor Irina Abraham, editing consultant Ellen Goldwasser, creative consultant Jasmin Singer, and many, many more.
Emmy Award-winning sound editor Joel Raabe.
If people didn’t contribute time and skills, they contributed cash. In addition to financial support from Mary and Peter Max and Kind Green Planet, we raised thousands from private individuals and received grants from In Defense of Animals, The Animal Welfare Trust, Culture and Animals Foundation, and VegFund.
Truly, if it hadn’t been for the generosity of individuals and organizations, there would be no film.
“The real editing begins when you start to screen it.” – Howard Lyman
FilmShop filmmaker collective members weighing in. Photo by Lauren Kritzer
Cutting and Re-cutting
By 2008, we had a rough cut and what we thought was a pretty darn good movie. Film subject and fellow activist-turned-filmmaker Howard Lyman had warned me that the real work begins when you start to screen it. But it wasn’t until I joined The FilmShop (known then as “BFC Beta”), a collective of professional filmmakers that met weekly in Brooklyn, that I actually understood what he meant. They ripped it to shreds. And thank God they did. They convinced me to bring fresh eyes to the project, a true storyteller who could help revamp the beginning and shape the narrative. I brought on delightful, capable editing consultant Ellen Goldwasser, who had edited documentaries that had been nominated for Oscars and broadcast on PBS, Sundance Channel, and many other channels. We rewrote, reshot, and recut. It was much better.
Over the next two years, I worked with FilmShop and, for a brief stint, the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, a sister collective whose members’ documentaries have been shown on PBS, HBO and been nominated for an Oscar. These collectives were pivotal when we were fine-tuning the fine cut and integrating final music, animation, and text design.
“When you’re passionate about something, you want it to be all it can be. But in the endgame of life, I fundamentally believe the key to happiness is letting go of that idea of perfection.” -Debra Messing
Letting It Go
After years of pre-screening and workshopping the film, we came to a realization that we could go on adding, changing, and tweaking it forever. It was time to let it be what it would be and get it out into the world.
In Fall of 2010, I brought NYC Vegan EatUP (part of meetup.com) organizer Demetrius Bagley on board to co-produce the marketing and release of the film. As leader of the 1400-member strong NYC Vegan EatUP, I knew he’d understand the needs of veg newbies and veg-curious folks. Plus, with a background in project management, event production, and marketing, he’d be a huge asset to the team.
Within a couple of months, FilmBuff, a curated digital entertainment service offered by Cinetic Rights Management, had heard about the film, seen the trailer, and approached us about working with them to help get the film find its digital audience. We signed with them in spring of 2011.
“To infinity and beyond!” – Buzz Lightyear
Getting It Out There
Digital distribution is an important part of our larger release plan to bring the film to people all around the world. We are forging partnerships with local non-profit organizations in key cities in North America and Europe for a DIY theatrical tour in Fall of 2011, leading up to our digital and DVD release in time for the holidays. Spring 2012 will bring opportunities for people to hold community screenings at their schools, churches, yoga studios, and even their living rooms in the form of screening party potlucks. We want to provide ways for people to come together in a safe space, learn and talk about the issues, and grow the veg-conscious community. We don’t want to just create greater understanding around the reasons for going veg but also the challenges around it so that we can problem-solve in a way that helps ease people through these challenges.
If the production of the film is any indication of its effectiveness as a change-making tool, we’re hopeful about its wider release. So far, numerous people have been inspired at some point during production or post-production process to go vegetarian or vegan, including our director of photography, a camera operator, an animator, our consulting editor, our trailer editor and trailer producer. And just about everyone else has said they were inspired to eat differently, even if they aren’t 100% vegetarian or vegan.
We’re excited for our first public sneak peek screening this July at Vegetarian Summerfest, where we shot life-changing scenes with our film subjects. Seven years, many edits, and a whole village later, we will be coming full circle and beginning a new chapter in this journey. Boy, what a ride…