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Film Festival volunteers keep reels spinning

April 7, 2010 By Kiera Wiatrak

[logo] Wisconsin Film Festival


A few years ago, UW–Madison grants and contracts specialist Aaron Crandall was sitting in the lobby of the Orpheum Theatre during a screening at the Wisconsin Film Festival when he and the other volunteers realized it’d been awhile since they’d heard from the projectionist.

Crandall climbed the stairs to the booth to find a panicked projectionist hunched over the reel, gripping a tiny pin in the projector.

“If he let go, the film would stop and probably burn up, and it would ruin this film for all these people,” Crandall says. “He was just hunkered down in there and holding the film in place.”

Crandall assumed the role of dutiful sidekick; bringing the paralyzed projectionist water and helping him drink for the duration of the film.

It’s this unconditional dedication that makes the Wisconsin Film Festival work. Year after year, volunteers give their time to tear tickets, run the projectors, organize the programming and give creative input.

This year’s festival runs from Wednesday, April 14 through Sunday, April 18.

“The festival is a community event, where we all pitch in and make it happen,” says Meg Hamel, Wisconsin Film Festival director. “Everyone has their own way of contributing. Some volunteer, and others bring a pack of friends along to watch movies. This isn’t an arts event where there’s a difference between the stage and the seats; it’s the collaboration between so many people that makes it sublime.”

Crandall has been volunteering at the Wisconsin Film Festival since 2004. He does everything from welcoming people at the door to running film reels up and down the stairs to troubleshooting technical issues when they come up.

“Even the hectic nature of it is kind of fun to participate in,” he says. “Because the volunteers have to do so much, we almost sort of take ownership of it to a degree.”

Crandall fondly remembers sold-out shows, carrying heavy reels and, of course, helping a stressed projectionist save the show.

But his favorite part of the festival is the people, both his fellow volunteers and the crowds.

While Crandall enjoys the core group of volunteers who come back year after year, he also enjoys meeting new people at each festival.

“There’s a nice blend of students and also community members and university staff and just people from all places,” he says. “They all have a really unique story to share, and we usually have a great time talking.”

But the audience that shows up for each screening is what really pulls it all together.

“One of the things I like most about the festival is the crowd that comes,” says Cinematheque programmer and film studies dissertator Heather Heckman. “The festival really brings in a lot of people from all around Madison and even outside.”

Last year, Heckman put together two programs for the festival using collections from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. She curated “Tractors! International Harvester Sponsored Films from the Wisconsin Historical Society,” a short-film industrial film program.

“That actually drew a huge crowd because there is a really big community of International Harvester enthusiasts in Wisconsin,” Heckman says. “They all showed up with International Harvester buttons that flashed. It was the first time I’ve been to a movie where we had to ask people to turn off their buttons.”

This year, Heckman took the initiative to bring a B-movie filmmaker, and proud UW–Madison alumnus, to the festival for a special screening.

While researching for her dissertation, Heckman came across an article featuring Bert I. Gordon, a filmmaker most prominent in the 1960s, who’s best known for special effects that grow and shrink people and animals.

The article mentioned that Gordon is a UW–Madison alumnus, so Heckman tracked him down and asked if he’d be interested in coming to the festival.

“When I asked him he was very flattered and interested in coming and excited about it,” she says.

Gordon’s fans affectionately refer to him as Mr. B.I.G., both for his initials and giant people and monsters. Several of his films are featured in “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

“He’s sort of a legend in low budget exploitation film making, and he’s especially famous for doing his own special effects,” Heckman says.

On Sunday, April 18, Gordon will host a Q&A after the screening of his 1962 film, “The Magic Sword,” a unique take on the medieval damsel in distress story, featuring a dragon, an evil sorcerer, a beautiful princess, the man who loves her and of course, a magic sword. The movie will start at 11 a.m. at UW Cinematheque.

“I hope that my being a guest at the Wisconsin Film Festival will perhaps inspire some of the students that have a seemingly impossible dream for their future to go after it with a vengeance, no matter what the odds,” Gordon says.

Heckman says the most difficult part of putting the program together was finding a print of the film. She ended up asking Gordon himself, who offered to lend his personal copy of “The Magic Sword” for the screening.

Like Gordon did decades ago, many filmmakers will launch their careers on the UW–Madison campus this spring. UW–Madison junior Brittany Radocha is among the talented few whose work will be featured at the festival, but she will tell her story in a very different way than the others.

Last semester, Radocha enrolled in a 2-D animation course. Hamel and her husband, Communication Arts faculty associate Erik Gunneson, saw her final project and e-mailed her over winter break, asking her to make both the TV spot and trailer thanking the sponsors for the festival.

“The Wisconsin Film Festival is such a prominent organization, and they thought my work was worth showing,” Radocha says. “I was really excited.”

The TV spot, an upbeat animation of the moth and light bulb designed by Swink, Inc. and featured on the festival’s promotional materials, appears on a number of channels on Madison’s local cable network.

The trailer will be featured before every screening. Radocha says it looks like an extended version of the TV spot.

After all of her hard work, she’s enjoying a spectacular final product, and is looking forward to going to the festival and watching her trailer with the rest of the crowd.

Though Crandall didn’t help Radocha produce a TV spot, Radocha didn’t help Heckman bring a filmmaker to campus and Heckman doesn’t help Crandall tear tickets, they recognize the festival wouldn’t be the same without the hard work of their counterparts.

“I think the camaraderie of the festival is just really strong,” Radocha says. “I don’t know if people really appreciate that when they just go and sit down and see a film, but I hope they do.”

Tags: events, film