Ridgewood Watch Company
The Lifeclock One is a fully licensed reboot of Snake Plissken’s watch from Escape From New York but with a twist. It recreates the countdown timer from the film of course, but it also tells the time and date, and when paired with your iOS or Android device, it will push notifications from your favorite apps as well as display incoming call and text message alerts. After over a year and a half in development, the Lifeclock One launched on Kickstarter in November of 2016 with the goal of raising $200K.
One tenet of crowd funding is that in order to have a successful campaign you need a killer pitch video. A great many videos for technology products often feature a hipster straight from Central Casting, hanging out in their brightly lit, tastefully decorated loft apartment/development studio. They sit on some grey sofa with clean lines and wax poetic about all the amazing features their gadget has and how much it’s going to change your life. Somewhere about two minutes in, they go for a jog by the river to show off the fitness tracking or stand at a white board with their design team pouring over prototype sketches and control board schematics. All the while a peppy soundtrack plays in the background that no doubt has somebody whistling or strumming a mandolin.
We could’ve done that. After all this watch has lots of those modern features on the inside…but on the outside it’s something else entirely. So, given that the watch was based on an iconic ’80s action/sci-fi film, it seemed obvious to rely on the rich imagery and world building that John Carpenter (director) and Nick Castle (co-writer) had created. We knew we had to go back to New York.
One big question at the beginning was just how much service do we give to an audience beyond fans of Snake Plissken and the film. So before the script was written or the cast hired, there was a good bit of back and forth on whether the Lifeclock One is a replica prop for the fans or a unique, technology enhanced fashion accessory.
It’s both, right? But you can only do so much before you start to confuse the market and your audience. So after a good deal of research, writing personas and marketing plans, and some good old fashioned soul searching (guessing) it all came down to the simple fact that the client had secured — at great expense — a license from Studiocanal and the group that manages the property, Creative Licensing Corporation, to use certain aspects of the film to produce and promote the Lifeclock One. It became very clear that the first and loudest noise made needed to be directed to the folks that cared deeply about the film, the characters, and the creative people that brought it all to life.
There were several approaches that got kicked around in the early stages of the script writing process. We knew we still needed a person to present the pitch and walk through the functions of the watch on camera. But just having the folks that designed the thing come out and talk through the “how and what” seemed like an awful waste of the Escape From New York brand. The next obvious conclusion you reach is that you’re going to want to have Snake do the pitch. But it soon became clear what things we could and couldn’t do based on the terms of the license.
- You can use the logo for the film.
- You can use the poster from the film.
- You can use still images of Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken.
- You can use still images from the film that do not feature any other actors.
- You can build and market a replica of the countdown watch seen in the film.
- You may not use any footage from the film.
- You may not use any audio dialog from the film.
- You may not use any music from the film.
- You may not impersonate Snake or any other character from the film.
- You may not add to or alter any aspect of the story or plot.
So no Snake Plissken impersonators? Well damn. That killed about half of our script ideas. And without being able to have the line “Call me Snake” as a running gag in the video, our chances of bringing a bit of levity to the piece was also greatly diminished.
All those limitations just made us have to work a bit harder on how to approach it. But the one that hurt most at the time was that last point about messing with the storyline. We had pitched a series of viral videos to run months before the campaign launched that focused on the innovative folks at the defense contractor weapons lab tasked with developing the exploding neck capsules and ultimately the Lifeclock One for the USPF. We envisioned a couple of short vignettes in the style of The Office where the team pitches their ideas for controlling covert operatives by implanting explosives in their heads or infecting them with snazzy new designer viruses like Plutoxin 7. Maybe show a couple of botched experimental test runs on lab animals or criminals. Fun stuff.
Another viral series we pitched was even edgier and dealt with the terrorist group, The National Liberation Front of America, who sets the whole story off by hijacking Air Force One. It’s probably for the best that this idea got scrubbed, since flooding the internet with Anonymous-style, cryptic communiques from some fake terror cell could’ve gone sideways very fast.
Leaving those fantasies behind, we turned our attentions to other absurdly ambitious ideas like reaching out to original cast members to participate on camera. How great would it have been to work with the likes of Frank Doubleday (Romero) or Tom Atkins (Rehme). We also explored the idea of returning to Liberty Island to film but getting permits to shoot at a U.S. National Monument is very tricky. Besides the actual location used in the movie isn’t New York at all but a dam in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
In the end all these ideas were exciting but hardly budget friendly for a Kickstarter pitch video. So, being based in the Hollywood of the South, Atlanta, it seemed best to cast and shoot locally. And in order to recreate the look and feel of the film, we would rely on visual effects to place our actors and sequences into locations and sets from the original film.
We reached out to Brain Beegle and the amazing team at Stillwell Casting to help us hone in on just the right person to be our spokesperson. And in pure “awful client” fashion we told them we weren’t sure what we wanted…but we’ll know it when we see it…so bring us everybody. I know…we suck. But they delivered, and over the course of a full day we saw about thirty great actors who all brought their own unique approach to the mission.
We did a live casting session at Stillwell’s offices and had each actor come in one at a time and read the opening lines from the video. It has a classic “In a world…” movie trailer bend to it so it was immensely interesting to see how each person interpreted the level of serious vs. camp they thought the job required. As is not always the case, just about everybody we saw did a great job and that made choosing one very difficult. But in the end we decided to cast a very engaging actor, Kiley Casciano, to play the role of our USPF police commissioner. We felt she worked perfect as a counter point to Lee Van Cleef’s portrayal of Hauk.
Principal talent : Kiley Casciano
On a side note, the majority, if not all, of the artists we saw that day would definitely be classified as millennials. There’s nothing wrong with that for sure, and we felt that youth and vitality were integral to marketing the Lifeclock One as a crossover, multigenerational product. But their age meant that maybe only two out of the thirty had ever seen Escape From New York and half of them had no idea what it was or what it was about. Not insurmountable, but each time a new actor stepped into the casting room, introduced themselves and we asked them had they seen the movie…well it’s like that time your kid looks up at you and says, “Now…who are the Beatles again?” Ouch.
Pretty much the only real things in our shoot were our actors. So it was important not to half-ass their outfits and gear. But in an effort to keep costs under control, there just wasn’t an opportunity to hire a professional costumer and prop person. It’s in situations like these that being a jack-of-all-trades is invaluable.
The clearest photo we could find online of the USPF background talent from the film’s production.
USPF patches were sourced from dealers on eBay
Once final casting decisions were made, we gathered sizing information from our principals and started gathering source photography that best depicted the late ’70s, early ’80s military clothing and weaponry in the film. What we discovered is that things have changed quite a bit in the thirty years and while most of the items were still available, there were still a couple of pieces that we still have no idea what they are.
Online resources proved too unreliable since the sizing specifications for military style clothes are bit odd — at least to us. And on top of that, most everything that turns up on a Google search are modern versions of the BDU (battle dress uniform) that feature lots of velcro and very different collars. The best option was to visit a military surplus store in person.
We traveled just north of the city to Army Navy Discount Center and were able to get just about everything we needed in one trip. The staff was knowledgeable and helpful and once they figured out we were sourcing costumes, they graciously offered up a production discount…even though it was just for the web and not the next Avengers.
The tactical vest worn by the USPF guards is one of the items that just confused us to no end. It’s soft like the liner to some motorcycle jacket and there’s a zipper down the front with odd silver snaps across each shoulder. It doesn’t appear to offer any protection like a bulky flak jacket might have, and it doesn’t appear to feature much in the way of gear support like modern vests do.
In the end, we purchased a modern tactical vest from the same store, Air Soft Atlanta, the same store that helped us with the firearms used in the video. We removed all of the straps and loops that could be taken off without ruining the structural integrity of the vest. And for the shoulder snaps, we bought a fastener kit from a Michael’s arts and crafts store and added them by hand. They are non-functioning and purely decorative but seem to fit the bill. Not perfect by a long shot, but we hoped the black-on-black nature of the outfit and lighting on the set would help to hide its shortcomings.
The USPF patches were easily sourced on eBay for about $15 from a dealer in Florida. Each order shipped with one of the classic EFNY version patches and one featuring the updated logo for Escape From LA. So just add seamstress to the many duties our director fulfilled on this project.
The helmet was another eBay find from some individual that had purchased a whole batch of them from some police force that probably upgraded to something nicer when they got their Patriot Act funding. Again, sizing was a concern with most research stating that these particular Premier Crown Corp Model C3 Riot Helmets came in a universal size and an XL. The seller wasn’t too sure what he had but for $50 it seemed like a reasonable gamble since the helmets new are five times that cost.
The unique feature of the USPF helmets in EFNY is the odd double face shield. It sort of makes sense in that these riot helmets have mounting points for a wire type cage to fit over the clear visor. We can only assume Carpenter thought the cages looked too Kent State 1970 and not enough Dystopia 1997 and opted for the giant tinted sheet of Lexan to help sell the futuristic vibe.
A trip to a local home improvement store netted some sheets of acrylic and a heat gun but the samples purchased ended up being too thick to bend and mount properly. A quick search on Amazon turned up some 0.02″ and 0.04″ sheets of PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol-Modified). Add in a $10 window tint kit and we were in business. Note the wonky nature of the tinted shield in the picture above — artifacts from the crude heat gun approach to bending the plastic no doubt. But for a minute or so of screen time, you’ll be amazed at how many mistakes like this you are willing to accept.
On a related note, applying window tint is way harder than it sounds. We went through several kits before we had something that wasn’t all bubbles and spots. And even then, by the end of the shoot it was looking a little worse for wear and peeling up at the edges. In hindsight we probably should’ve just stopped by a tint shop and had a professional do it.
Not having any experience with replica or airsoft guns, our reaction when we visited Air Soft Atlanta’s showroom was probably pretty similar to most folks that hold a metal, electrically powered airsoft rifle for the first time: “Holy shite! This thing looks and feels real.” If not for the silly bright orange flash suppressor on each barrel, there is almost no chance the average viewer will be able to tell the difference on screen.
The shockingly accurate KWA KM16BR AEG
To complete the USPF look we ordered a Vietnam era replacement flash suppressor and a short stubby magazine. And just like the real rifle, the plastic pieces that cover the barrel came off quite easily to match the other odd choice the EFNY team made to make an M16 look like a futuristic weapon.
The guards also carried a sidearm. To the best of our knowledge it was some variant of a Colt 1911 semi-automatic .45 caliber pistol. We purchased an airsoft version of that gun as well but stumbled when it came to getting our hands on the specific holster used in the film. Unlike modern units that are optimized for quick access, maximum retention and sit high up on the waist, this unit featured an enormous flap and hung low on the side of the leg. The closest thing we could turn up was a vintage .38 caliber sample on eBay. And even though we ordered it weeks in advance, there was a snafu with the USPS and the package didn’t arrive till a month after the production wrapped.
Our MIA Jay-Pee holster
In a last ditch effort to source a replacement the day before the shoot, we drove around to every gun store in a 50-mile radius hoping to get lucky. In each instance the heavily armed individual behind the counter would give us an odd look and ask why anybody would want such an antiquated piece of gear. Telling them we were making a movie just resulted in more odd looks and one store owner even replied, “Well…you ought to be making a time machine instead.” Thanks for the tip.
A SEA OF GREEN
We had five and a half pages of script, three locations and ten hours to get it all done. Even if we could have found locations that worked and were available, accommodating three crew moves with location fees and permits would have made this the most expensive Kickstarter video ever. Shooting on green screen was the most cost effective option.
So we worked out a deal for a full day on Big Peach Studios’ largest stage, Studio A. It’s 4,500 sq. ft. and a has a 36′ x 36′, 90° cyc wall and, as luck would have it, had been painted green the previous week for another production. That meant the normally white stage was not going to require a painting or cleanup fee — a very generous perk from the folks at Big Peach and much appreciated.
For most of the shoot, the camera sat on a Kessler Crane Shuttle Dolly even though we only attempted two moves in the whole shoot; the first one being the pull back on top of the prison wall in the first part of the video. Initially that shot was going to rise up the side of the wall (like in the film) and reveal our talent standing at the top. We brought a Pocket Jib Pro for the day but when we started blocking out the shot, it became obvious that it would’ve taken too much time to get the move working. On top of that, we would’ve needed to elevate our actor on some kind of platform in order to get the camera below the level of the wall. So after a few minutes of stacking apple boxes way higher than they should ever go, the idea to go with a more conservative dolly back to reveal the skyline behind ended up being the best option.
The crew for the day was kept as small as possible, with Clay Walker serving as director of photography and operating the camera. Adam Klein was listed as an AC but he pretty much hopped from role to role as grip, gaffer, sound tech and generally swell guy. Kevin Taylor was the director/visual effects supervisor, and he put his 19-year-old son, Kane, to work as both a production assistant and the USPF guard seen pushing the client, Jonathan Zufi, around in the last scene.
There was already so much gear to haul and unpack, that we opted to just rent the studio’s Arri kit, stands and flags for the day. The director did bring along two Aputure Light Storm 1s LED panels that came in handy as the overhead lights in the hallway sequence. But most other setups were fairly simple with a single Arrilelite 750+ bounced off a reflector to the front and above our actors.
The police commissioner’s office on Liberty Island
The second camera move planned was for when Kiley is walking down the hallway in the processing center. We rehearsed and shot it a couple of times, but in the end, the shot that made it into the cut was locked off. This probably fits with the feel of the original film better since back then every other shot wasn’t some frenetic Steadicam, gimbal or hovering drone nausea inducing masterpiece. They only moved the camera if it worked to reveal something in the frame or add to the story.
One thing to note about the Shuttle Dolly is that it’s made to work with regular old speed rail in any length, or a kit from Kessler that comes in 3 ft. sections with seamless couplers. We didn’t have any speed rail and the sectional kit was not available at the time…and would also have probably been pretty pricey. But we did notice that in the storage and organization section of any Lowe’s or Home Depot, one can find chromed metal closet rods, 1.3″ in diameter and up to 8′ long. $30 USD for the eight footers and even with the fully kitted out camera on it, there was no flex.
Almost certainly the original film was shot anamorphic (and on film of course), but to rent a kit to get even halfway to that look would have cost several thousand dollars. Since the director owns a Canon Cinema EOS C500 (EF mount) with a couple of Zeiss CP.2 prime lenses, it was clear that was the best way to go. So we opted to shoot 2K 12bit ProRes 4444XQ to a Convergent Design Odyssey 7q and crop to a 2:39 aspect ratio.
Why not RAW or 4K? We are still struggling with whether 2K 12bit was a better choice over 4K 10bit. The thinking at the time was that the extra color information would help with pulling all the keys and color grading. However, the feeling now is that the extra pixels and detail could’ve made the compositing a little less painful. Needless to say a c700 with a CODEX should remove these types of compromises in the future.
© 2016 Ridgewood Watch Co., ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK™ is a trademark of Studiocanal S.A.S. All Rights Reserved. © 2016 Studiocanal S.A.S. ® All Rights Reserved.
Behind the scenes photos by Clay Walker, Shawne Taylor, and Michael Radney.