Monday, September 20, 2010

Tucson Music Vids & My Path to Chris Wagganer

"I struck a deal with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top to shoot video of Rainer"
(Editor’s note: Chris was involved with the production of the Tucson music documentary, “High and Dry”, as well as well as "Avatar" and "Alien: Resurrection"...among 33 others!)

In 1975, my fifth-grade class at Erickson Elementary went on a field trip to the original KGUN-9 studios.  We were given a tour of the newsroom and the offices but the thing that really got my attention was the production floor where they did the news.  That day they happened to be shooting a commercial for some gardening product where there was a man standing in front of a blue backdrop, but on the TV monitor he magically appeared to be standing in a garden!  They explained the process by which this happened and I thought it was the coolest thing ever.  Plus all of the cables and unusual looking gizmos along with the racks of technical equipment full of knobs, buttons and blinky lights was a dream environment to me.  It was at this time I decided I wanted to do media production when I grew up.  My elementary school got a black-and-white Sony “Portapak” camera and recorder and I fiddled with that every chance I got.  Later, in my “Modern Media” class at Santa Rita High School, I dabbled in Super 8 film making.  The teacher divided us up into groups and I convinced my group to make a music video for the song “Beautiful World” by Devo.  The film contained various images of de-evolution along with stop motion animation of a Rubik’s cube self de-constructing and a razor blade cutting it’s way through an apple which bled.  Heavy stuff, man!

Being a fairly unmotivated (i.e. lazy) student, I had poor grades and no ambitions for college.  It was around my sophomore year in high school that my friend Heath Heemsbergen (who later formed the outstanding Tucson band The Fells) discovered the local music scene through people like Lee Joseph, who ran a tiny but cool record store near the U of A called Roads To Moscow, and Paul Young (RIP) who worked at Zips Records in Park Mall.  Newsreal Magazine and Jonathan L’s Virgin Vinyl show on 96 Rock were also great ways to keep tabs on new local and national punk rock and new wave music (the awful “alternative” label had yet to be invented). 

After high school I moved out of my parents and into a house near downtown.  I slogged along in various food-service jobs.  I met a guy named Dave Roy (RIP) who introduced me to Tony Dow and Don Dalen of The Freds.  I ended up joining The Freds for a New Years Eve gig with them at Splinter Brother’s warehouse.  The Freds broke up a short time later when Richard Badenious (SP?) left the group to tour with Naked Prey.  Subsequently Tony, Don, Bruce Halper and myself formed a band called Road Furniture.  Don had become a member of the Tucson Community Cable Corporation (TCCC, now known as Access Tucson) the public access center and took their production classes.  We made a video for our eponymous song, which featured dancing cactus and a cartoon desert backdrop (all stuff we made ourselves).  I too joined TCCC and began making videos, producing a semi-weekly music video show called Electric Window and hosting a live, call-in talk show called The Kitchen Sync Show.  I filled Electric Window with videos I made of local performers and bands including Rainer,  Jim Parks, Yard Trauma, River Roses, Naked Prey, The Sidewinders, Blood Spasm, Doo Rag and many others.  I basically had no money, so my videos were pretty simplistic with few edits and not a lot of camera movement.  When I was 21 I got a job at TCCC in the cablecasting department, and although my job wasn’t production-related I was finally making a living working in television!  I worked at TCCC for about a year and a half, and about a week after leaving that job I met Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top at Hotel Congress.  Billy had come to see our mutual friend Rainer Ptacek playing in the club.  I told Billy I had done some videos of Rainer.  Billy went to the trunk of his rented convertible and pulled out an old Bell and Howell camera and ten rolls of 16mm Tri-X film.  He gave me the camera and film and we later struck a deal that I would shoot footage of Rainer for a reasonable fee.  And so started my “professional” freelance career.  I went on to shoot many more videos for local bands, including one for the Sidewinders which included footage I shot of them playing live and recording their album Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall.  I went on to shoot another video for the Sidewinders, who, after a protracted legal battle had changed their name to Sand Rubies.  The video had a relatively large budget.  I rented out the old TCC Exhibition Hall and dumped three tons of sand on the floor to keep down reflections (and for a neat visual).  The production went well enough, but I think I overstepped my abilities and went too far beyond what I was capable of pulling off effectively. I did hire my friend and colleague Keith Collea to manage the video assist.  Video assist involves a small video camera, which is attached to the viewfinder of the film camera, that allows the director to see what the camera operator is shooting.  This was the first time I used video assist, and it was Keith’s introduction to it as well. 

I labored away in Tucson for a few more years, doing various freelance production jobs, including set dressing, production coordination, grip and electric work and location management.  Buy the time I got to my late 20’s I looked around at what I had and saw that I basically had:  a beat up station wagon.  That’s it.  I had no savings, no health insurance, no wealthy client base—nothing.  So, I decided that 1996 would be the year I leave Tucson.  Would it be New York or Los Angeles?  I knew more people in Los Angeles, and getting back to Tucson for holidays, etc. would be easier, so I chose L.A.  I pretty much Tucsonned 1996 away and never made it out of town.  I hunkered down and finally made it to Los Angeles in early 1997.  I found a couple who needed a roommate in the hip Silver Lake area and had an instant circle new friends.  So that was good.  What was not so good was I couldn’t get a meeting with anyone to discuss the possibility of hiring me for any directing / camera work.  One day, I was desperately looking for work, so I was calling everyone I knew from in Los Angeles.  At the top of the list was Keith Collea, who had moved to LA a couple years prior to me.  I called him and told him I was looking for work and if he knew anyone who…  Before I could finish he said “come on down, I could use some help!”  He was working on the model and miniature unit of “Alien: Resurrection” doing video assist!  He had gotten some work in Tucson doing video and got into the union and moved to Los Angeles.  He did the movies “Clueless” and “Independence Day” among other films and got hooked up in the film industry.  Anyway, he showed me the ropes and got me into the union and introduced me to several key people who supplied me with enough work to keep me busy and make a decent amount of money. 

So now, I primarily work in the motion picture industry doing video assist work.   In a way, the music video stuff in Tucson helped pave the way for a career that I had never really considered.  But while doing this work, I’m on movie sets and get to watch some great actors and directors at work, most recently with the Coen brothers and Jeff Bridges on the production of their retelling of “True Grit” (due out around Christmas 2010). 

I still manage to make a short film or music video  (check out “watercolors by …music video?” on YouTube) every now and then, and it’s a great creative outlet, which I still enjoy.

copyright 2010 by Chris Wagganer

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