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Tropfest Shooting for Success: Part 2 – Dave Smith

Cappucino Tango_Still 1This is the second of a three-part series of articles Wave provided for VIEWFINDER online and print magazine on the Tropfest NZ Short Film Festival 2013 winners. This article looks at overall winner Dave Smith and his short ‘Cappuccino Tango’.

Filmmaker Dave Smith had made a number of shorts and had originally considered entering Tropfest in Australia. When Tropfest came to New Zealand, and even better to his home town of New Plymouth, he decided it was time to go for it.
Dave charmed the judges and many in the audience at the 2013 Tropfest NZ Short to Film Festival with his winning mini-operatic entry ‘Cappuccino Tango’. The amusing and entertaining premise for this short sees cafe patrons operatically extolling their favourite ‘real’ coffees and reacting in shock horror when new arrivals order something different. Amidst the coffee snobbery, two decaf soy latte Cheap lovers discover each other and tango to their own tune.
‘Cappuccino Tango’ won Dave an all-expenses paid trip to LA to spend 4 days in an immersion workshop learning about how the Hollywood industry works from insiders, including a day at the American Film Market (AFM). Here is how Dave got there.

The Team
Dave is a musician and his wife Nicci is an amateur dramatics enthusiast. After arriving in New Plymouth from Scotland in 2002 with their three children, Dave and Nicci embedded themselves in the local music and theatre scenes. That is where they discovered their film collaborators. They have a close team of six that they had made seven other shorts with prior to ‘Cappuccino Tango’. Each has a key role, but they share the workload for the whole production. To keep costs down they seek to make what they can’t borrow, including their own camera rigs.

The Script
There are only four lines of dialogue in ‘Cappuccino Tango’, so script wasn’t the main driver. In the middle of 2012, musician Andy Bassett brought Dave a demo track of a song he had been working on and mooted the idea of filming a mini-opera. Dave could visualize the short, so he quickly storyboarded the whole film—Dave has never been schooled in filmmaking, and believes its his ability to see things in pictures that has helped his directing. Over the next four months Dave focused primarily on casting while Andy continued to work on the music.

The Talent
Dave felt that the characters in the film needed to be quirky. He broke down the roles into male and female parts, and then sat down with partner Nicci who is a theatre director to draw up a list of all the actors they knew. They then began matching actors to roles, with Nicci’s theatre colleague and co-producer of the film Joe Fuller also contributing his thoughts. In the four months leading up to the shoot day, they filled the thirty roles from their original list apart from two. Dave arranged for each of the cast to get a copy of the song so that they could practise their part, as there wouldn’t be rehearsals.
While Dave concentrated on finalising the actors, Andy was casting singers to sing the roles. He pre-recorded them and did a complete mix of the song. This delivered the track for the actors to lip-synch to on the shoot day.

The Shoot
Getting the 30 cast members together on one day was the biggest logistical problem Dave and his team faced. With two experienced tango dancers required, Dave looked to local ballroom dancer Davina Moffat. Unfortunately, Davina’s dancing partner Jeff Richards was from Auckland, so the shoot was scheduled around his ability to make the five-hour trip south in mid-November.
Dave had briefed each of the actors on their roles, giving them his thoughts on wardrobe. He pretty much went with what they turned up with on the day.
Once again the producers’ theatre connections paid off in securing a hair and makeup artist for the production.
It was a fairly relaxed shoot, starting at 10AM and finishing at 4PM. Cameraman Roger Richardson went with the natural light available at the cafe location, shooting on a Canon 5D Mk II. With no lighting required and sound recording limited to ambient audio of a busy cafe and a few lines of dialogue, sound and lighting team member Alex Fuller had an easy day. The homebuilt crane and dolly made by team member Laurie Neville, who also camera assisted, worked a treat. Roger’s partner Anna had the role of continuity, allowing Dave to concentrate on directing the actors. There were no hiccups across the shoot. Dave attributes the success to the enthusiasm of a group of friends getting together to do something they all love doing.
There was no budget to speak of for ‘Cappuccino Tango’. Everything was borrowed or made, and cast and crew gave their time for free. The cafe they were shooting in sponsored the coffee, but everyone had to take care of their own lunch.

The Post
Dave did a first edit on his Final Cut Pro X system, starting the night of the shoot. It took him five nights, beginning each session after getting home from work. He put the first cut out to his team members for feedback and then did another pass, taking into account their notes. Andy supplied him with a final mix of the song. Dave then added sound effects and background audio and did a final audio mix in his own studio using Logic Pro, before laying it back to the locked off picture. ‘Cappuccino Tango’ was delivered a week prior to the delivery deadline.

The Afterlife
‘Cappuccino Tango’ deservedly has the highest number of views at 20,080 on Tropfest NZ’s YouTube channel at the time of writing. Dave has not actively pursued a festival strategy for the film so far. He has left it to Tropfest International to find distribution, which they have secured in Australia and Japan. In 2014, Dave plans to be more proactive in getting his film into other festivals worldwide.

The Career
Dave works as a project manager in the Oil & Gas industry and sees himself as a weekend filmmaker. His prizewinning trip to L.A. however has opened his and wife Nicci’s eyes to the professional world of filmmaking as Hollywood does it.
Dave—and Nicci who paid to be there—spent four days in workshops at the Latin American Training Centre, courtesy of the Motion Picture Association and NZ Screen Association, who sponsored the first prize. There were 30 other filmmakers participating from 10 different countries. Sessions ranged from entertainment law and how to pitch in Hollywood to meeting with 60 members of the Writers Guild of America and a representative from Creative Artists Agency, a top talent agency in Hollywood. One of the highlights for Dave was listening to a presentation by US film and TV producer Dan Jinks describing the rejections and struggles he encountered in getting his academy award winning film American Beauty made. Another was hearing Alan Poul speak, whose executive producing credits include two of Dave’s favourite shows, Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom’, and ‘Six Feet Under’ indian viagra.
Part of the immersion programme took Dave to AFM, the film industry’s largest US event. There he saw the business of filmmaking in action as filmmakers pitched their ideas and films in the hope of securing finance and distribution.
While not determinedly bent on a career as a filmmaker, Dave is still following his passion. He is already in post production for a short for Tropfest 2014. And he does have feature film ideas that he would like to realize. The biggest consideration for him as a filmmaker right now is how he and his team move from where they are to the next level and hopefully beyond, possibly to the world of Hollywood he now knows a lot more about.

Thoughts to Share
As an experienced short filmmaker, Dave has picked up a number of lessons that he applied in the making of his Tropfest winner. Of the three ideas that were floating around as they considered what to do for Tropfest, ‘Cappuccino Tango’ stood out. For Dave, finding a good story is key. As is working with good people–In Dave’s case, a team that has made films together many times before. Enthusiasm, learning from mistakes and that all important item—great coffee—were some of the other ingredients that Dave felt made this particular cappuccino tango.
For Dave, the prize winning trip to L.A. revealed some significant insights into the business of film and the people who make the industry there tick. At AFM, he experienced firsthand that a filmmaker without a feature script or finished film to pitch is merely an observer. More crucially, though, AFM rammed home the difficulty for filmmakers of securing distribution so that your film can get in front of audiences—it’s one thing to make a film, it’s something else completely to get it seen.
The willingness of the industry people he met to share knowledge, contacts, ideas and experiences came as a surprise to Dave, who was expecting them to be much more pour guarded. But there was one thing above all that stood out in his encounters with every industry person he met: they are in it because they all love film. Just like him.

You can view ‘Cappuccino Tango’ here.

Part 3 of the Tropfest Shoot for Success series here.