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Making Monster Magic

G506_35_020_Xavier MorphProgression

Many of Grimm’s creatures roar to life thanks to the visual effects work of Portland’s HIVE-FX. Here, creative lead Guy Cappiccie and CG supervisor Karim Moussa take us through the VFX process of an episode.

By Katie Sauro Editor
Photos courtesy of HIVE-FX

Now in the midst of its fifth season on NBC, Portland-shot series Grimm continues to surprise and delight fans with plot twists (Juliette’s dead! Who’s Eve?) and horrifying new creatures, called “Wesen” in Grimm-speak.

Working behind the scenes to bring these creatures to life is the team of visual effects artists at HIVE-FX. The Portland company, led by executive producer Gretchen Miller and creative director Clark James, is one of the preferred VFX vendors for Grimm, specializing in doing shots that involve human/creature morphing and furry CG animals.

HIVE-FX has been with the series since episode one, proving their mettle in competition with several Los Angeles companies to earn a spot on the show. According to Miller, each bidding company was asked to do a test on a Hexenbiest, a witch-like Wesen that resembles a zombie. It was a “blind” test, so the show’s VFX supervisor and producers didn’t know which company created which creature. HIVE-FX won the bid.GrimmArticle

Five seasons later, the studio is continually implementing new techniques and technology into their workflow in order to enhance the fairytale world of Grimm and the creatures who inhabit it.

In a recent episode, “Wesen Nacht,” HIVE-FX introduced viewers to a hideous, slimy, blobfish-like creature called Hasenfussige Schnecke. Not only was this a new Wesen in the Grimm world, but it also presented a new set of challenges for the HIVE-FX team, which creative lead Guy Cappiccie and CG supervisor Karim Moussa relished in.

Each project begins the same way: The show’s producers have an idea of what they want the creature to look like, a sketch artist comes up with a stylized, hyper-real concept image, and that image is sent over to Cappiccie and Moussa to bring to life. Cappiccie works with the producers on their initial ideas and then funnels those ideas through the pipeline, while Moussa facilitates the actual production of the creatures, working with the modelers and animators to achieve the end-product. It’s a back-and-forth process that typically goes quickly and smoothly, and this was indeed the case with the blobfish.grimm blob

“Every time we get a creature, we think of it as a new challenge,” says Moussa. “How are we going to make this creature morph? How are we going to make it look way different? This one is blobby; it doesn’t have definition. How can we make it look scary or cool? So we sit down and make a plan. There are a lot of steps, production-wise and concept-wise, so we plan everything beforehand. Then we hit the ‘go’ button and everyone gets to work.”

After receiving the initial concept image and discussing a gameplan, HIVE-FX will get photo references of the actor’s face from all angles. “That’s our starting point because essentially we need to take that human and turn him into the creature,” explains Cappiccie. From there, a team creates a 3D model of the actor’s head, then sculpts the creature on top of the actor. Then it’s time for some CG magic: a process involving animation, texturing and re-engineering.

Cappiccie notes that for the majority of the Wesen they create, they follow the same “cookie-cutter” guidelines as far as technical and artistic processes, so getting to develop a new character like the blobfish is an exciting challenge.

“This is the fifth season, so when these challenges come up, we know how to tackle them,” he says. “Animals with big horns, big mouths, hairy creatures, slimy creatures—we have a good understanding of how to attack it. For the blobfish, we invent new techniques and learned a lot of new things. This season has gotten more adventurous and we have too.”

Moussa says that a major challenge of the blobfish was figuring out how to make this creature work in CG, since there were multiple stages of looks and the transition had to be seamless.

“One of the biggest challenges of this model was the difference between the size of the creature and human—his head is substantially larger than the actor’s,” explains Moussa. “Morphing the actor into the blobfish was a big challenge. How do we make this look cool, with dimension and bone structure? How many layers of skin are we going to use? In CG, we typically use one layer of mesh, but with this one we used three different meshes.”

Adds Cappiccie, “We took his human skin in CG and essentially melted it off his face, and during that process we blow it up. While it expands, other layers of skin get revealed. Seeing how it plays out, you can see a lot of different things moving underneath. It has deep dimension.”

“When we looked at the concept, we knew this guy was going to be a challenge, both technically and artistically,” says Moussa. “But we go all the way, 100 percent.”

This technical process seems like it would take several weeks or even months to complete, but with HIVE-FX’s talented and experienced team all working simultaneously on modeling, texturing and animation, a creature is finished in just over a week.

“During this whole process we’re having to represent ourselves. It’s kind of a pitch, an open dialogue with the client, and at the end of the period we say, ‘here’s what we’ve got,’” says Cappiccie. “Then we sit on the edge of our seats to see if they approve. Once we get a thumbs up, we start hammering on the production side of things—taking all those assets and attributions and applying them to the shot that’s given to us.”

In recent years, HIVE-FX’s contributions to the show have expanded to include more visual effects, like fiery explosions and shattering glass.

“It’s always really fun when those elements interact with the creatures,” says Cappiccie. “They are complex shots with multiple elements working together. Those are always really fun.”

Over the course of the series, the HIVE-FX team has worked on 90 percent of the episodes, or “over 100 episodes,” says Miller. Not to mention that they are usually working on as many as three episodes at any given time. This has allowed the team to develop a smooth, nearly foolproof process from concept to completion, but that doesn’t stop them from constantly looking for ways to revolutionize the pipeline.

“We often reminisce and it puts a really big smile on our faces because of how many pipeline evolutions we’ve had,” says Cappiccie. “Looking back and knowing what we know now, there’s a very stark difference. All of us had big, wide eyes in the beginning and we kind of act like seasoned veterans now. We reinvented our pipeline.”

Adds Moussa, “Every episode, the challenge is how can we make the pipeline better? There’s a bible for what we do. There’s guidelines. But how can we be creative in a new way while upholding the standards?”

“With new software, new techniques, new plug-ins, and new facets of exploration, we’ll discover something new,” says Cappiccie. “So how do we insert that into the pipeline?”

Fresh talent and creative energy adds to the mix. HIVE-FX still has its core crew that has been there since episode one of the series, but they are constantly bringing in new artists with new ideas, drawing from the thriving animation scene in Portland. Students from nearby schools like the Art Institute of Portland are ecstatic at the prospect of working at the “Grimm studio.”

As Moussa notes, “HIVE-FX is known for Grimm. The word is out and people are talking about it—everyone freaks out about Grimm.”

“It takes over the city,” adds Cappiccie. “They do a good job of highlighting local areas and a lot of people in Portland are big fans. As far as the community is involved, it’s pretty active. They take over parts of town and it’s fun for people to peek in.”

Of course, the fact that Grimm continues to film in Portland each year, utilizing local crew and vendors like HIVE-FX, is due to the state’s tax incentive program. The Oregon Production Investment Fund (OPIF) offers a 20-percent rebate of Oregon-based goods and services and an additional cash payment of up to 16.2 percent of wages paid to production personnel.

“We couldn’t have had the series here without the tax incentive,” says Miller.

Last summer, Governor Kate Brown signed House Bill 2171 into law, which extends the sunset of the OPIF to January 2024. However, a bill to raise OPIF’s cap from $10 million to $20 million was ultimately unsuccessful, meaning the state has had to turn away several interested productions because the cap has already been met.

Miller notes that major productions like HBO’s Lewis And Clark wanted to film in Oregon last year but without the tax incentive available, it just wasn’t feasible. She emphasizes the importance of the incentive program, saying, “It doesn’t just benefit Portland; it benefits the whole state.”

The Oregon production community is committed to increasing the cap in the coming years, and remains hopeful that this is one fairytale that has a happy ending.

Grimm is currently airing new episodes on NBC. Tune in to see what creatures HIVE-FX comes up with next!

Laika’s Latest Gets Release Date

LAIKA Kubo

Photos courtesy of LAIKA/Focus Features

Kubo and the Two Strings, the forthcoming film from Hillsboro, Oregon-based stop-motion animation studio LAIKA, will open in theaters on August 19, 2016.

LAIKA, which just marked its 10th anniversary in December, is hoping that the new film will follow in the footsteps of the studio’s three previous films—Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and The Boxtrolls (2014)—which all garnered Oscar nominations and critical acclaim.

A sweeping, swashbuckling adventure set in a mythical ancient Japan, Kubo and the Two Strings tells the story of scruffy, kindhearted Kubo, who ekes out a humble living while devotedly caring for his mother in their sleepy shore-side village. It is a quiet existence—until a spirit from the past catches up with him to enforce an age-old vendetta. Suddenly on the run from gods and monsters, Kubo’s chance for survival rests on finding the magical suit of armor once worn by his fallen father, the greatest samurai the world has ever known. Summoning courage, Kubo embarks on a thrilling odyssey as he faces his family’s history, navigates the elements and bravely fights for the earth and the stars.LAIKA Kubo 2

The film marks the directorial debut of Travis Knight, LAIKA’s president & CEO, who is also producing the film with Arianne Sutner.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a rare gem,” said Knight in a statement. “It’s a gripping yarn woven from Japanese folktales and mythology, with lost civilizations, mystical origami, noble heroes, star-crossed lovers, and blood-curdling monsters. At once epic and intimate, Kubo is a funny, intense, and ultimately uplifting fairy tale draped in some of the most bizarre and exciting imagery I’ve ever seen. Most importantly, it’s deeply moving. It’s a story that means something, a story that deserves to be told. In short, it’s a LAIKA movie.”

Kubo is being brought to life via LAIKA’s innovative 3D stop-motion and CG hybrid technique, and a voice cast that includes Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes, and Art Parkinson as the title character.

As with the three previous LAIKA movies, Focus Features will release Kubo in the United States and Universal Pictures International will release the movie internationally. It is the first movie in the new three-picture partnership between LAIKA and Focus.

SOFaM Executive Director Gary Kout Steps Down

Ginny Auer and Gary Kout

Ginny Auer and Gary Kout

Story and photos courtesy of SOFaM

Southern Oregon Film and Media’s (SOFaM) executive director, Gary Kout, stepped down in November 2015 after nearly eight years as head of the organization.

Kout formed Southern Oregon Film and Media in 2008 in order to bring all of the region’s resources together and to attract interest from outside producers as well as strengthen the local industry from within. He continues to work in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere while remaining active in independent local productions.

Under his direction, SOFaM has grown from its humble beginnings to a robust organization with a membership of 250 in 2015. “The time has come for me to step down as executive director of SOFaM and pass the reins to new leadership with the skills and experience, passion and ideas to launch SOFaM into its next great phase,” Kout said in a statement to the membership at the organization’s monthly Cameras and Cocktails event.

SOFaM Leadership and Board.

SOFaM Leadership and Board.

“We are grateful for the enormous contribution Gary has made to the film industry in Southern Oregon,” said SOFaM board president Ray Robison. “His devotion to keeping cameras rolling in Southern Oregon has been instrumental in bringing more attention to our region as the place to spend your production dollars when filming.”

“Gary’s leadership with SOFaM has given so much to the film industry in Ashland and Southern Oregon. His positive attitude has been a pleasure to work alongside, not only as a member of the Ashland Chamber and partner to the local business community, but regionally and nationally. His work has created great growth and strength for film and the collaboration that it entails,” commented Katharine Flannigan Cato, director of marketing and sales with Ashland’s Visitor Bureau.

Taking the helm as interim executive director is Ginny Auer, who has been a SOFaM member for nearly three years and a member of the board since the end of 2013. The SOFaM board unanimously selected Auer to fill the position of executive director.

Ginny Auer

Ginny Auer

“I believe Ginny is the right person for the job. She is knowledgeable about our local film industry and her understanding of fundraising and community organizing are in line with the priorities the board of directors have set forth,” said Anne Lundgren, SOFaM board member.

“It is an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to lead SOFaM through this transition,” said Auer. “I have seen the film industry in Southern Oregon grow in the past decade and I believe that it has tremendous potential to grow a great deal more. I think the foundation Gary and the board have provided is strong and the opportunities are plentiful as we move ahead.”

2015: Big Year for the Spokane Film Industry

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By Peyton Scheller Communications Manager, Visit Spokane

It’s hard to believe that we’re already looking at another year, reflecting on 2015. As far as filming goes in Spokane and Eastern Washington, 2015 was big for the film industry. From TV series to local competitions, Spokane continued to prove why it shines as a film destination. Let’s recap:

Spokane International Film Festival
The 17th annual Spokane International Film Festival (SpIFF) took place February 5-14, and featured 27 films from all over the world. The week-long event also included awards, a meet-the-filmmakers event and a closing party. Playing in a variety of theaters throughout downtown Spokane, the festival created opportunities for locals to experience a wide range of films and documentaries, and was presented by local film industry participants and enthusiasts. The 2016 festival ran January 29 – February 6.

Z Nation
The second season of the apocalyptic Syfy series Z Nation was filmed over a majority of the summer in dozens of areas throughout the Spokane region. With a diverse selection of scenery, Spokane is an ideal place to shoot a TV series because the scene options are limitless. Z Nation has been big for film in Spokane, as it brings in dozens of cast and crew members to the Spokane region (great for the local economy) and also utilizes a large number of local talent (great for the local film industry morale and local employment). While season two is still currently in the post-production phase, we are crossing our fingers for a third season in 2016.

50 Hour Slam
Let’s break it down: 37 teams, 300 participants and just 50 hours to complete a three- to six-minute movie is the recipe for the annual film competition, 50 Hour Slam. Since 2015 marked the fifth year of the competition, the organizers wanted to do something a little different. The teams this year were required to include the “Slam Video,” a compilation of clips from previous competition video submissions, on top of fulfilling other pieces of criteria. The competition was capped off with a screening of the submitted films on May 2 at The Bing Crosby Theater.

Macklemore’s “Downtown”
Pacific Northwest native Macklemore filmed his recent music video “Downtown” in many different parts of downtown Spokane, to many locals’ and Washingtonians’ delight. The production for the film was on a pretty aggressive timeline, with only about two and a half weeks’ notice before the shoot, but the city of Spokane pulled together and helped set the stage for the producers to create a truly unique video. Local company North by Northwest helped with the production.

Washington Grown
Washington Grown is a series all about—you guessed it—stuff grown in Washington. Each week’s episode features a specific food item (blueberries, hay, sweet corn, etc.) and takes a deeper look into food and the people in Washington who grow it. Airing on Spokane public television station KSPS and multi-state cable channel Northwest Cable News, Washington Grown is produced by North by Northwest. It’s definitely a Washington program through and through, and we are happy to have local products, farmers and ranchers featured on the show through the end of the year.

Here’s to a great 2015, and an even greater, bigger 2016!

Northwest Films Screen at Sundance

Photos courtesy of Sundance.org

Several films with Northwest ties screened as part of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, which ran January 21-31. Here’s a look at just a few of them:

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Captain Fantastic
Sundance marked the world premiere of Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen as Ben, a father who attempts to reintegrate his family into society after living in isolation in the forests of the Pacific Northwest for a decade.

Shot in the summer and fall of 2014, Captain Fantastic was a recipient of the Washington State production incentive and filmed in over 25 different locations in Snohomish County, King County, and surrounding areas. Captain Fantastic had an estimated 37 days of production in Washington and employed approximately 355 resident cast, crew, and local vendors.

Written and directed by Matt Ross, the Bleecker Street Films release also stars Missi Pyle, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn and Frank Langella.

certain women

Certain Women
Also premiering at Sundance was the latest film from writer/director Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women. Reichardt has shot many of her projects in Oregon (including Night Moves, Meek’s Cutoff, and Wendy and Lucy, among others), and although Certain Women was shot in Livingston, Montana, the film does have ties to the state.
The film was produced by Portland’s Neil Kopp, who also produced several other of Reichardt’s films. Additionally, the film’s post-production work was done in Oregon.

Based on a collection of short stories by Maile Meloy entitled Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, the film tells the story of three women (played by Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams and Laura Dern) whose lives intersect in small-town America.

Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions has secured worldwide rights to Certain Women.

green room

Green Room
Portland-shot feature film Green Room screened as part of Sundance’s Spotlight program. From writer/director Jeremy Saulnier, the horror-thriller stars Patrick Stewart as the owner of a neo-Nazi club who squares off against a young punk band after they witness a murder.

Green Room was shot in late 2014 in and around the Rose City and premiered at Cannes in 2015, followed by a string of other festival dates. Shortly after its North American premiere at Toronto International Film Festival, it was picked up by A24, which will release the film in April of 2016.

In addition to Patrick Stewart, Green Room stars Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and Alia Shawkat.

fundamentals of caring

The Fundamentals of Caring
Another film not technically produced in the Northwest but with local ties is The Fundamentals of Caring, based on the 2012 novel by Bainbridge Island, Washington, author Jonathan Evison.

The film, which shot in Georgia in early 2015, stars Paul Rudd as Ben, a caregiver who embarks on a roadtrip with his client, Trevor, a hilarious 18-year-old with muscular dystrophy. Rob Burnett serves as director and screenwriter for the film, which also stars Craig Roberts and Selena Gomez.

The Fundamentals of Caring not only premiered at Sundance, but it was also the festival’s Closing Night film.

Visit www.sundance.org for more.

Return to Twin Peaks

Twede's Cafe in North Bend, Washington, will reprise its role as the Double R Diner in the revived Twin Peaks series. Photo by Michael Martin

Twede’s Cafe in North Bend, Washington, will reprise its role as the Double R Diner in the new Twin Peaks series. Photo by Michael Martin

North Bend & other Washington towns co-star in the revived series, helmed by David Lynch

By Katie Sauro Editor

When it was first announced back in the fall of 2014 that David Lynch and Mark Frost were reviving Twin Peaks for Showtime, fans of the cult TV series were understandably beside themselves with excitement to see Special Agent Dale Cooper in action once again. After all, it’s been 25 years since that last cup of damn fine coffee and slice of cherry pie at the Double R Diner.

But their bubble was burst in April, when, citing concerns over budget (or lack thereof), Lynch and Frost announced they had reached a stalemate with the network.

David Lynch with North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing.

David Lynch with North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing.

Lynch said, via Twitter, that while Showtime might still be pursuing the series, he would no longer be involved as director. “After 1 year and 4 months of negotiations, I left because not enough money was offered to do the script the way I felt it needed to be done,” he said. “I love the world of Twin Peaks and wish things could have worked out differently.”

Cue the collective angry groan of fans everywhere.

But ever the mystery man, Lynch reneged on his statement just a month later, telling the world, “The rumors are not what they seem… It is happening again!”

Filming in North Bend. Photo by Michael Martin

Filming in North Bend. Photo by Michael Martin

And with that, the series was off and running, with plans to film 18 episodes set in the present day and continuing storylines from the second season. The anticipated release date has reportedly changed from 2016 to 2017, but that’s no matter to the series’ devotees because not only have Lynch and Frost returned to create the fictional town of Twin Peaks, Washington, but so have stars Kyle MacLachlan, Sheryl Lee, Dana Ashbrook and Sherilyn Fenn, among many others. Newbies to the cast include Amanda Seyfried and Balthazar Getty.

Of course, Twin Peaks would not be complete without its iconic exteriors, a great number of which were filmed in the small neighboring towns of North Bend, Snoqualmie and Fall City, just 30 miles east of Seattle. It has been reported that many of these locations will reprise their respective roles in the revamped series, including the famed Double R (aka Twede’s Cafe in the town of North Bend).

Mt. Si sunrise with Twede's in foreground. Photo by Danny Raphael

Mt. Si sunrise with Twede’s in foreground. Photo by Danny Raphael

The original series was released in 1990, and tourists have flocked to the region ever since to see where their favorite characters lived.

“Since the Twin Peaks series was released over 25 years ago, it has had a positive impact on North Bend’s economy by bringing tourists to our region to visit our beautiful town,” said Londi Lindell, City Administrator for the City of North Bend. She added, “We hope that the return of the series will produce a whole new following of Twin Peak fans who will also want to visit North Bend and all the beautiful natural treasures in this special valley.”

Londi Lindell and the North Bend team with David Lynch.

Londi Lindell and the North Bend team with David Lynch.

At press time, the production was in the midst of six weeks of filming in the area and, according to Lindell, it was going “very smoothly.”

“We have worked closely with Showtime and David Lynch in issuing all necessary permits to ensure the least amount of disruption to our citizens as a result of the filming activity,” continued Lindell. “They have been wonderful to work with and incredibly courteous of the local residents. Our citizens have been very understanding of minor disruptions to traffic flow and inconveniences associated with the filming.”

Twin Peaksshot for at least six weeks in North Bend and surrounding areas. Photo by Michael Martin

Twin Peaks films in front of the historic Cook Building in downtown North Bend. Photo by Michael Martin

The Board of Directors at Washington Filmworks approved some funding assistance for the project. While executive director Amy Lillard was unable to comment on the specifics, she was able to say that Washington Filmworks “has enjoyed the experience of working with the production.”

Washington’s film incentive program has a $3.5-million annual cap, which was met earlier this year. Attempts to raise the cap during this year’s legislative session were unsuccessful despite an enormous effort undertaken by the state’s production community.

Photo by Michael Martin

Photo by Michael Martin

Sources told Media Inc. that because the production received limited funding assistance, they brought some of their crew up from Los Angeles. However, as with any production filming in state for an extended period of time, Twin Peaks still equals an economic boost for Washington in terms of hotel night stays, meals in local restaurants, and other influxes of outside dollars.

But perhaps if Lynch and his team had gotten a bigger boost from the state, the series would have brought even more jobs, even more filming days, even more prestige to the Washington production industry in a time when it’s still reeling from a legislative loss and in need of some good news.

 

The Winding Stream Gets Theatrical Release

Portland documentarian Beth Harrington.

Portland documentarian Beth Harrington.

By Mary Erickson Associate Editor
Photos courtesy of Beth Harrington Productions

Beth Harrington’s idea for a music documentary about the legendary Carter-Cash family had been percolating for a while. She wanted to focus on the musical family that heavily influenced—and arguably started—American country music. A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter recorded their first songs in 1927, starting the legacy that included June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, and Rosanne Cash.Winding Stream poster

A linchpin in the film would be the inclusion of Johnny Cash. As it became clear that Cash’s health was rapidly declining, Harrington realized, “If Johnny Cash was going to be in the film, I’d have to get on it.” She started shooting in 2003, and recorded Cash’s last on-camera interview. Thus began the production for The Winding Stream —The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music.

The odyssey that marked the film’s production hinted at the changing conditions of the film industry. The fundraising world for documentaries was shrinking, and it became tougher to find money to finance the film. “I spent a long period in the wilderness as nothing happened financially,” recalled Harrington. It was clear that the film’s music licensing fees would be prohibitive, but Harrington persevered, and the film finally premiered at SXSW in 2014. Since then, the film has played in dozens of festivals around the world, winning multiple awards.

Now, 18 months later, the film is getting its theatrical release. Working with Argo Pictures of New York, Harrington is ready to share the work of promoting an independent film. “I’m loving the fact that someone else is getting the film out there,” she said. The film will open on a market-by-market basis, visiting key cities across the country in event-style screenings. The first stop was Portland, Oregon, on September 17, with additional screenings in Seattle, Tacoma, Ashland, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.

Harrington has ventured into the world of ancillary merchandise to accompany and support the film. The musical legacy of the Carter-Cash family will be available as a soundtrack to be released in October 2015 by Omnivore Recordings. Harrington published an oral history of the Carter-Cash family in book form, also called The Winding Stream.

Harrington will continue to focus on The Winding Stream for the next year, attending as many of the screenings as possible. “This is my job,” she said. “We’ve received such positive responses. The critics love it. Audiences love it. I owe it to the film.”

The Carter family on Border Radio.

The Carter family on Border Radio.

The Winding Stream opened on September 17 at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, followed by screenings in Seattle for the Northwest Film Forum’s Local Sightings Festival on September 28, and at Tacoma’s Grand Cinema on September 29. More information about the film is available at www.thewindingstream.com.

Rob Thielke: Remembering A Seattle Icon

Brett Stevenson (right) with good friend and TV icon Rob Thielke.

Brett Stevenson (right) with good friend and TV icon Rob Thielke.

 

Photos courtesy of Brett Stevenson

On August 16, actor Rob Thielke, best known to Northwest viewers as the eccentric “Vern Fonk” in the Vern Fonk Insurance TV commercials, passed away after a long battle with colon cancer. Here, Brett Stevenson, owner of ad agency Stevenson Advertising, expounds on his friendship with Thielke and the legacy he leaves behind:

My friend, Rob Thielke, spent most of his life with the world thinking his name was Vern Fonk. For 24 years, Rob played the character on TV that everyone knows as Vern. Rob died Sunday, August 16, after a battle with cancer. He was just 50 years old.RobBeachedWhale

When I first met the real Vern Fonk, a larger-than-life insurance agent on Stone Way in the Fremont area, he said he wanted to do TV advertising and sent me to his daughter, Rene. Rene hired my brand new ad agency and we dreamed up commercials for Vern’s insurance agency. One of the first commercials required someone to play the role of Vern Gump, a takeoff on the Forrest Gump movie.

One of Vern’s salesmen, Rob Thielke, volunteered to play Vern Gump. I met Rob and Rene at Green Lake with my cameraman, Trent Woolford. Trent and I were shocked to see that Rob had shaved the sides of his head to look just like Forrest Gump. I remember saying to Trent, “Man, this guy is really committed to this little role!”Rob superheroine

What followed was the first of hundreds of commercials that have shocked, offended or delighted Northwest television viewers for over 20 years. The commercials created a large cult following of Vern Fonk fans. It was impossible to go anywhere with Rob, without people yelling, “Vern!” or stopping him on the street for an autograph or selfie. I could tell that Rob loved the attention but was always amazed that so many people recognized him and loved him.

The other part of the Vern Fonk phenomena was the success of the company due to Rob’s performance in the commercials. When the real Vern Fonk passed away in 2006, the company was one of Washington’s most successful insurance agencies. After Vern’s death, his daughter and son-in-law, Rene and Kevin Mulvaney, ran the company until it was acquired a few years ago by a large international holding company, Confie, for millions of dollars. Rob Thielke was appointed President of Vern Fonk Insurance, by Confie, and continued in that role until his death.RobMouthguard

One of the unique things about Rob Thielke was his fearlessness when it came to playing the Vern Fonk role. If the script called for us to shave the letters V. F. (for Vern Fonk) in Rob’s back hair, he did it. If he had to dress in a loincloth like Tarzan, no problem. Rob even wore a fake chin to be Jesse Ventura, and he dressed up like a strange version of Liberace. He danced on cars, shot zombies, and threw giant fake rocks at a Sasquatch like the Six Million Dollar Man. Rob did ‘70s dating videos, was arrested by fake policemen, and sang rap songs like a Hollywood rap star.RobDance

During all of his adventures, Rob’s actor-brother, Joel Thielke, was always by his side participating in every cornball, quirky skit that we dreamed up. There was something about Rob’s presence on the screen. His unusual look and speech patterns were hypnotic and addicting. He developed raving fans among both young and old, both white collar and blue collar television viewers. His uninhibited movements and stares into the camera left you muttering, “What was that?” when the commercial was over. To this day, people “honk when they drive by Vern Fonk” because of the power of Rob Thielke.RobOrgan

There will not be another, and the loss staggers both my mind and my heart. Rob was both the weirdest guy, and the most kind-hearted guy I knew. Giant hugs to his wife Kathy, their five kids, and his brother Joel. Here at the agency, Tim Grand, Shawn Sergev and I will be reeling from this loss for years to come. How can Seattle be Seattle without Rob as Vern Fonk on TV?

Please visit www.StevensonAdvertising.com/Vern and share your thoughts about Rob Thielke and Vern Fonk. Rest in peace, Rob. We will miss you, my friend.

In Memoriam

Media Inc. readers wrote in with their thoughts and memories of Rob Thielke and what his loss means to the community. Here is just a small selection of those comments.

So very sorry to hear of this wonderful man’s passing. He will be greatly missed. I’ve enjoyed his crazy stupid commercials for years. Even when I was down his commercials could make me laugh. RIP “Vern Fonk”. Honk, honk! – A J

Rob brought joy to sooooooo many people with his whit, crazy facial expressions and wonderful sense of humor. May the FONK be with him!! I will HONK each time I pass his old ofice. – Jeff Ruffner

I love his commercials, seems like a guy you want to have a beer with. this is sad. – David Koppenhofer

Very sad day. Rob was my insurance agent years ago. He always spoke of his family, wife, children and step children, his Brady Bunch. A great guy. I love his commercials, but to just know Rob was an honor. Prayers to his family and friends. Rest in peace Rob. – Bryan Hurley

This is heartbreaking. My sympathies to his family. He always made me laugh. His commercials, his delivery of the message made you remember the product… and HIM! He was very talented and fun. I am so sad for his family and friends. Stupid cancer… Again… a huge loss to everyone. – Trudy D’Armond

Your family is in my thoughts and prayers as you celebrate the life of this very funny and nice man. His commercial always made me chuckle. – Kristine

I am so sorry to hear of his passing. His commercials were so fun, stupid, and hysterical! He will be missed. Good thoughts and prayers to the family. RIP. – Janet

Honk If you miss Vern Fonk – Kristen

Homecoming Finishes Production in Portland

Homecoming stars Lauren Bowles and Victoria Smurfit.

Homecoming stars Lauren Bowles and Victoria Smurfit.

By Mary Erickson Associate Editor   
Photos courtesy of Radar Pictures

After attending a screenwriting workshop at Santa Rosa Community College, Portland-based clinical audiologist Christi Sperry and her sister-in-law Sarah Hehman set out to write a full script. They wanted it to be good, with a compelling story and realistic characters.

“We didn’t expect it to turn into anything,” Sperry comments.

Then, in early 2015, one friend offered to invest in the film production and another friend introduced them to director/producer Paul Kampf. Fast-forward four months, and the film, titled Homecoming, started shooting in Portland.

Homecomingdirector Paul Kampf with DP Rene Jung.

Homecomingdirector Paul Kampf with DP Rene Jung.

A female-driven story, Homecoming follows a 40-something couple who has moved to a new city for the husband’s dream job. The wife, lonely and a little naïve, meets wealthy suburban alpha moms in the community and gets sucked into a life of backstabbing and Botox.

It’s a story that resonates with women, and demonstrates the writers’ commitment to featuring strong female voices. “There’s a need in cinema for more female voices,” says Sperry. One crewmember commented to her during production, “It’s exciting to have so many strong women on set. I don’t often see that.”

Filming in Portland was particularly appealing, given the filmmakers’ connections to the city. Sperry lives there, as does the film’s executive producer. “We were able to use a lot of resources here and call on favors for locations,” says Sperry.Homecoming Lauren Bowles Victoria Smurfit 2

“One of the great things about Portland,” says Hehman, “is the universality of the city. It has so many different neighborhoods that feel like different places. The city of Portland conjures up other places.”

Director Paul Kampf agrees. “One of the reasons why TV productions are rushing up here is that Portland has the diverse look of five cities in one. It’s like a living film set.”

Sperry and Hehman were on set every day during the film’s 21-day shoot, their first introduction to working on a production. “It was very exciting and intense and amplified,” says Sperry.Homecoming director Paul Kampf

They were awed at the level of collaboration that goes into making a film. “When you give your script over,” says Hehmen, “it’s amazing to see how many people’s thoughts contribute to the film. Each person gleaned something from the script to bring it to life.”

Homecoming has entered post-production now, with the festival circuit in mind once the film is completed. In the meantime, Sperry and Hehman have co-written another script and have a treatment for a third. They are each also continuing to pursue their careers, Sperry as a clinical pediatric audiologist and Hehman as co-owner of Favery, an online jewelry and accessories boutique.

Kampf is also working on other projects. His experience in Portland on Homecoming was so positive that he’s hoping to line up two more independent feature projects to film in Oregon.

“You can’t quantify the people up there,” he says. “They’re so great to work with.”

Lundgrens Release Black Road

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Duo’s Third Movie Filmed in Southern Oregon

Utilizing a vast array of locations, including beaches, mountains, rivers, lakes, restaurants, retirement communities, universities, a minor league ballpark, city streets, campgrounds, redwoods, winding roads, and the Great Cats World Park, Gary and Anne Lundgren have leveraged the beautiful landscape and ease of shooting in Southern Oregon on three feature films.

Gary and Anne Lundgren.

Gary and Anne Lundgren.

Their third feature, the sci-fi thriller Black Road, starring Sam Daly, will be in theaters in October 2015. In addition to great locations, the film benefited from partnerships with members of the Southern Oregon community, including Brammo Electric Motorcycles, the Neuman Hotel Group and multiple local restaurants and equipment houses.

The Lundgrens have always been drawn to the area. In 2007, they traveled from Los Angeles to film their first feature, Calvin Marshall (starring Steve Zahn). This college-aged baseball film was shot at Southern Oregon University and Harry & David’s impressive, professional-sized baseball field.IMG_1739sm

After a great experience with local crews and locations, the Lundgrens moved their production company, Joma Films, to Ashland permanently.

In 2012, they made Redwood Highway, the story of a 75-year-old woman walking alone for 80 miles between Grants Pass and the coast. It was filmed at over 40 locations in 19 days across 200 miles and 4 counties. The ease of navigating Southern Oregon with minimal traffic and supportive communities made the arduous schedule a possibility.

The Lundgrens’ third film, Black Road, is set in the State of Jefferson, the mythical joining of Northern California and Southern Oregon. It was filmed completely in the Rogue Valley and on the beach at Arcadia Vacation Rentals between Brookings and Gold Beach.

In October, the Lundgrens are embarking on a screening tour through Oregon to show Black Road to their fans and to the communities that participated in the filming.IMG_6683

“The community has been incredibly supportive,” says producer Anne Lundgren, who also worked as the Ashland location manager and liaison between the city and the production company for the 2013 production of Wild. “We love living and making movies here. We have a talented crew we’ve worked with for many years. The people are great, the crews are professional, the landscape is beautiful, the light is perfect, and the clouds billow. There are plenty of great local restaurants and hotels to house guests due to the strong tourism industry. The community is supportive, the locations are accessible, varied and numerous. And people are still proud that movies are made in their town. It’s a wonderful place to raise our family, and we plan to make movies here for many years to come.”

Join the Southern Oregon ranks of working filmmakers or come enjoy what the region has to offer for a few months while you shoot your next feature!

For more information about filming in Southern Oregon, please visit Southern Oregon Film & Media (SOFaM) at www.filmsouthernoregon.org.