A new short film by Shelby Baldock (MFA in Film Production – Directing ’16) is headed to LA Shorts International Film Festival and will later be premiering online on the Atticus Review in October. We had the opportunity to hear from Shelby on his new film and his experience here at Chapman.
What can you tell us about your new short film?
“We Got a Problem with Groundwater” is an animated short based on my friend and author Noah C. Lekas’ gritty poem of the same name. It’s made from illustrations I created over the span of about 7-8 months that were then subsequently animated and brought to life with the help of folks from the LA area and my hometown, Memphis. The story is about the surreal futility of the working class, and a man nearly getting chopped to pieces after getting drunk on the job at a paper mill. It takes that idea a step further with the idea of the groundwater from that very paper mill seeping into everyone’s lives. It’s gritty, wild, and often strangely humorous.
Were there any issues with the pandemic?
Luckily, I completed everything but the final sound mix just a handful of weeks before the stay-at-home orders were put in place. One of the most-important things for me, since I’m self-employed, is making sure I go out into the world and work from coffee shops, parks, etc. to fuel myself, to keep going. Routine is key. Yes, I can and do keep working from home in lockdown, but it’s not the same. Being out among people is essential to my creativity.
How did you come up with the concept for this?
Noah’s book “Saturday Night Sage” released last year. It’s a collection of working class ruminatory poems with a lot of blues influence – we met playing in a blues band down in San Diego for years – and one of the cool things he was doing with the marketing was recruiting artists from across the country to create short videos for selected poems. He asked me to choose one and Groundwater really resonated with me – I keep saying it’s a mix of the doomed and comical. I had this live-action idea that was way too ambitious and I couldn’t put it together, then I got work overseas and was basically saying (in so many words) that I wasn’t going to do it, but thankfully Noah kept encouraging me. At the time, I was in the middle of rediscovering my cartooning/illustrating roots, challenging myself to a year of drawing a cartoon a day and posting them to instagram. Noah thought that was a unique angle and suggested drawing something. “It can be anything you want,” he said. Something clicked and it was just addicting to work on from there, turning into something, I think, pretty special.
Did you work with any alumni to produce this? If so, who?
Not necessarily in the production, but a seriously vital aspect of every project I’ve done since graduation has been a writers/filmmaking group of Chapman friends and alum that meets every week, taking turns to work out projects and give thoughtful critical feedback. It’s a group of some of the most talented folks I know from Chapman. Honestly, they made Groundwater ten times better than I had originally imagined. In one of the early cuts, I had an old painting in place of a character. I thought it worked, but they really wanted to see my take on it. I lamented, “but that’ll take a lot of work.” I distinctly remember my friend Kali saying, “Do it again.” The same went for the ending imagery – it was their idea. By the way, their names are Kali Baker-Johnson, Maggie Kurniawan, Rakan Sindi, and Nancy Thanki (she’s not from Chapman, but she counts!) – seriously, go look them up and support their work. They’re amazing.
What has life been like since graduation?
The immediate life post-graduation from the MFA program was a little harsh. I had become slightly overweight, broke as a joke, and desperately seeking money to pay the rent. I got my ish together and worked all that out, and in due time, the work started building and now I feel pretty great about where things are headed. I’ve been working on scripts with my Sunday group. multiple documentaries with fellow alum Tanner Matthews (we even premiered our film, Bombie, in London together last year) and my editing day-job has taken me around the globe and opened up the incredible wild west of virtual reality.
What is your favorite memory from your time at Chapman and how did that impact you?
Besides working on projects and being among friends in the thick of it together, there’s a moment that jumps out. I took a winter break class with Jeff Stanzler, where we basically workshopped scenes on camera, going through the whole process etc. But, I was having a hard time with a script – it was too self-serious, annoying, not working. I remember his words to me were a real course-corrector, a reminder of why I was doing this in the first place. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of “I’ve seen your other films. You don’t have to try and act like anything else. You know what makes you unique and interesting. That’s the important thing to go after and that’s what I want to see.” I was really convicted and inspired by that.
What classes or programs did you find most useful for your career path?
Definitely the directing classes with John Badham. He was able to clearly present what was helpful when it came to script analysis, directing actors, talking to your collaborators. It was extremely practical – but not in a “this is what the people want” way. It was more like giving us tools to more-eloquently express what we were trying to accomplish as directors. Oh, and of course, any moment where scripts were critiqued. Brutality breeds better writing.
Do you have any advice for students looking to continue making shorts after graduation?
First off, I’m super lucky that I’m good at editing. I’d be broke without it. That is a fact. Learn a skill and be timely with turnarounds. LA isn’t cheap, so find a way to make money, and try to not tie yourself down to a 9-5 for too long, but if you have to, never stop looking for an alternative. The way I worked out of my financial rut was working at a 9-5 in Lake Forest from LA every day. The drive was brutal, and so I’d just go to a coffee shop after work, write or work on anything for two hours, then drive home a little more stress-free. Just over a year later, I was much more stable financially, and had a script.
Any parting words?
It’s taken a long time to get to a point where things are more self-sustaining, but I’m pretty hopeful about where things are going from here. I have some things lined up that I’m proud of, with fingers-crossed for their potential. Things can seem absolutely insane (Covid just adds to the crazy-pile) and oftentimes it seems like moving away from movies is the rational choice to stay afloat, but I don’t know about that logic. Stubbornness is king in my opinion. I’ve heard people fling the words “giving up” around and I just don’t know what that means. You don’t have to grind yourself to dust working, you just have to keep working at all. That’s it. And support your friends and anyone creating things you dig. The currency these days is sharing and exposure more-so than cash. Helping your friends and each other goes a long way.
Check out Shelby’s Film! Screening at LA Shorts on October 8 and will be released online later in October with Atticus Review.
Visit www.shelbybaldock.com for more information.