By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Once upon a time, Zeek Earl was a fresh-faced McNary High School student who passed the time he wasn’t in school or playing sports heading out with his friends and video camera to make movies.
When a classmate ended up battling cancer, Earl offered to screen one of his early efforts to raise money and help cover the costs of treatment. A standing-room-only crowd packed the Ken Collins Theater to support their friend and Earl’s effort.
“Growing up in Keizer, I always felt there was a creative space available. Part of it was growing up on a two-acre farm, another part was dad being a shop teacher. Jason Heimerdinger gave me my only formal film school training, but it was great because he took it seriously and he was determined to teach us that. His support and program was part of that whole creative space,” Earl said.
These days, Earl is a veritable case study in how to do a lot with a little and he’s hoping Keizer will help him raise the money to take the baby steps necessary to fund his first full feature.
Since leaving McNary, Earl went on to study English at Seattle Pacific University after deciding film school wasn’t a sure-fire path to making movies.
“I looked into a lot of them, but it seemed like most of the people who graduated had jobs serving coffee on a set somewhere,” Earl said.
He graduated with his degree in 2008 just as the recession hit and job opportunities weren’t beating down his door.
With extra time and some barebones equipment, he started entering online video contests offered by corporations looking for cheap content for an ever-growing number of websites.
“They’d put up a couple of thousand dollars in prize money and get 50 or 60 entries. I started doing those and I started winning, then I started making a living off of doing those contests,” Earl said.
He made enough to set up his own production company, SHEP Films, and produce promotional videos for a living. That was in January 2011 and the success of the company gave Earl and his writing partner Chris Caldwell the seed money for their first narrative short film, In the Pines.
“I was reading about alien abduction and there’s a sociology professor who was studying it as a phenomena and what stood out to me was that there were cases when it wasn’t a negative experience and people were trying to figure out how to reconnect with their abductors,” Earl said.
The film tells the story of a young woman seeking to reconnect with the alien lifeforms that abducted her and her hike to the place where she tries to make contact. Earl along with a crew of two and the actress spent four days in the woods filming.
They submitted the film to several festivals including SXSW (South by Southwest), a major festival that takes place every spring in Austin, Texas. Earl got a call a few weeks later.
“For the first five minutes, I thought I was talking with Southwest Airlines. I had just gotten a new credit card from them a few weeks before. It was vague and awkward then, “Oh, omigosh, AAAA,” Earl said.
At SXSW, Earl got to rub elbows with other newbie and veteran filmmakers and discovered just how much they’d accomplished with In the Pines.
“It was like we were from different worlds, the next cheapest film was made for like $15,000 and we’d made ours for $3,000. They didn’t understand how we got away with that, but we were able to use the cameras and equipment we’d bought for the business,” he said.
In the Pines went on to win the award for Best Sci-Fi Short at the Eugene International Film Festival last month.
The experience with In the Pines at SXSW left Earl and Caldwell hungry for the next big project, another short film titled Prospect that will act as their calling card for securing funding for a full-length feature.
“It’s the story of a father and his daughter prospecting resin created by insects in the ground on a toxic alien planet,” Earl said.
Through a website called Kickstarter (see sidebar), SHEP films is seeking pledges that will add up to $18,000, enough to see the new short film through to completion. They’ve already raised more than $5,600.
Earl plans to make use of macrophotography to make Washington’s Hoh Rainforest, near Mt. Olympia, seem like alien terrain.
“I love how when you look at something closer than the human eye can see it, it adds a very alien feel to it. It takes you out of your everyday experience with what you’re seeing and makes it even more alien,” Earl said.
Earl is raising some of the film’s stars, milkweed bugs, in his garage.
Since he already owns the equipment necessary to make the movie, the pledges will go directly to the cost of making props, paying crew and actors, and fees for filming in the rainforest.
Pledging on the Kickstarter site ends Dec. 8. Video and stills from the early production can be viewed there.
He’s hoping that the people of Keizer can help him realize the next chapter in his evolution as a filmmaker. After all, this is where it started.
“I took an unusual route to get to this point, but making narrative films has always been my dream. It’s weird to reflect on it and realize where it all started, but I’m thankful for all of it,” Earl said.
What is kickstarter?
Supporters of any given project can securely pledge any dollar amount to help get it off the ground.
The project planners set a certain amount they are hoping to raise and, if the project reaches that goal, The project’s backer’s are charged via credit card. If the fundraising goal isn’t met the cards aren’t charged. In return for pledges, the creators typically offer some sort of reward for different donation levels.
Zeek Earl is seeking to raise $18,000 to fund his company’s new movie, Prospect, and he’s raised more than $5,600 to date.
To pledge support for Prospect, click here or search www.kickstarter.com using the term: prospect.