Fandemic film “359”was MUCH more challenging to make than you might think! (feature, part 1)

What I like to call “fandemic” films—fan films where characters are speaking to each other via subspace communications, alternating with one person on the screen at a time—actually predate the global COVID lockdown of 2020. Years earlier, VANCE MAJOR would feature these interstellar “Zoom calls” in his MINARD and CONSTAR saga fan films. In Vance’s case, this was an easy way to have friends and fellow fans (including me!) be able to record segments in our homes and still appear in one of his fan films. It was a lot of fun and relatively easy to do.

But one newbie fan filmmaker, DAVE ELLIS, has taken the fandemic film to a whole other level with “359,” the story of four survivors of the Borg attack from TNG‘s “The Best of Both Worlds,” trapped in escape pods, trying to find other survivors and also just trying to stay alive. Two years in the making, this fan film is very impressive, surprisingly engaging for a story limited simply to “talking heads,” and includes a full website with behind-the-scenes background info, blog entries, and even outtakes and and bonus features. Indeed, most of the information in this blog feature is sourced from the blogs and photos on Dave’s website, which I strongly recommend that you check out for a much fuller story.

But before I go into the background of “359,” take a few minutes to give it a viewing. You’ll be glad you did…

Writer/director Dave Ellis spent over 20 years as a video game writer and director. And indeed, his first assignment was as a lead writer, co-writing the story and writing the script for the 1998 CD-ROM game Star Trek: The Next Generation Klingon Honor Guard from MicroProse. (An an amusing coincidence, my brother’s and my Internet marketing company at the time, 2-Lane Media, had MicroProse as a client and created the marketing website for Klingon Honor Guard—although I’ve never met Dave.

A page from the website that my company built to market Klingon Honor Guard back in 1998

Along with fellow designer ADAM COGAN, Dave actually won the very first Writer’s Guild of America award for video game writing in 2008 for their work on Dead Head Fred. Dave continued working in the video game industry until 2015, writing scripts and directing voice-over sessions. Nowadays, Dave works as a marketing writer, but he also remains a huge Star Trek fan, and therein begins the origin tale of 359

Dave Ellis

Among the voice-over actors that Dave directed during his video game career was VIC MIGNOGNA, the showrunner and star of STAR TREK CONTINUES. The two became friendly, and Vic invited Dave down the TOS sets in Kingsland, GA to watch them shoot a couple of episodes. Dave, who had been a film and television major in college back in the 1980s, used to shoot films on Super 8 and/or video, editing the “old-fashioned” way by literally cutting (slicing) film strips and/or using large VHS or Beta decks. Thirty years later, though, it was a completely different story, and Dave fell in love with the concept of making fan films.

“Needless to say, I was blown away,” says Dave on his website. “I was experiencing two of my passions—Star Trek and filmmaking—at once. I started deep-diving into fan film culture after that and just couldn’t get enough. And, after Star Trek Continues wrapped and the studio (now known as Neutral Zone Studios) opened their doors to allow fans to shoot their own projects on Paramount-perfect sets, I knew I had to dust off my filmmaking skills and dive back in.”

Dave wrote a TOS-era script titled MOONLIGHT SERENADE and was getting ready to reserve studio time, book hotel rooms, etc. when COVID hit. It was March 2020, and the world suddenly froze into a global lockdown. Shooting a group of actors on any set would be impossible for at least a few weeks. But as weeks turned into months and no end appeared in sight, Dave began to rethink his fan film plans. He needed to find a way to shoot one actor at a time, each in isolation.

With the world turning to Zoom calls for business, education, and even socializing, Dave quickly realized (like many other fan filmmakers) that “Star Trek on Zoom” was the answer. And so he came up with a concept of having survivors of the Borg attack on Wolf 359 floating in separate escape pods trying to work together in a perilous situation. The script was completed in just a few days, but then Dave tweaked it for a number of months thereafter. Ironically, when the script was finally ready for shooting, the quarantine was finally starting to lift.

Initially, Dave figured he could send each of his actors a green screen to set up in their home, record their lines on their cell phones, and then cut everything together himself afterwards. But as the lockdown ended in 2021, Dave decided instead to bring his actors to Dave’s own green screen “studio” (actually, his garage) to record their scenes as a group, allowing the actors to play off of each other even if they were only on screen one at a time. Tweaks were made to the script right up until filming began with two of the actors in mid-September of 2021.

Speaking of actors, when it came time to cast “359,” Dave knew exactly what he wanted, and it wasn’t just casual friends coming over to make a Star Trek fan film. “Creating a believable character,” explains Dave on his website, “takes a combination of talents—the ability to memorize dialog, deliver it in a convincing manner (rather than sounding like they’re just parroting what’s written on the page), and take direction that shapes scenes and the characters they’re embodying without taking it personally. In other words, it takes actors—or, at least, people with some innate ability to act. And I’m willing to wager that’s not a group of folks that most amateur filmmakers with zero-budget have on speed dial.”

Sarah Johnson as Ensign Gina Boyd

As it turned out, though, Dave did…and he quickly cast his first actress, SARAH JOHNSON as Ensign Gina Boyd. “I worked with Sarah for years,” says Dave, “and she’s one of the most naturally upbeat, happy people I have ever known. When she’s super-energized about something, she can literally get breathless with excitement telling you about it—hence the reason I thought of her when I wrote the riddle scene. She thought it was funny: ‘So…you cast me because I babble?’ But what it really is, is that you can’t not get caught up in Sarah’s vibe. You meet her, and you just instantly like her. And I really wanted people to feel that way about Ensign Boyd.” Sarah, who has an acting background and is also an accomplished sci-fi/anime fan and cosplayer, immediately agreed to play the role.

With one role cast, Dave posted to his many Facebook friends to see if any actors had interest in the project. Several responded and were e-mailed scripts, but in the end, only one person sent in an audition recording, DOUG BALDWIN. With two male roles still to fill, the choice was between Doug playing Lt. Commander Tyson Zahn or the older, more curmudgeonly Chief Jack Frazier. Initially, Doug was slated to play Zahn and even read for the role.

Doug Baldwin as Chief Jack Frazier

But because most of Dave’s Facebook friends from the industries he’d worked in—video games and advertising/marketing—skewed younger, Dave wasn’t certain if he’d be able to find anyone in the older age range for the role of Chief Frazier. Indeed, Doug was one of Dave’s oldest friends, and so he decided to give Doug the role of Chief Frazier instead. With two parts cast, Dave shot their footage first while still searching for actors to play the three remaining roles.

Adam Zammiello as Lt. Cmdr. Tyson Zahn

Dave explains how he found the next two cast members: “ADAM ZAMMIELLO (another former co-worker of mine and of Sarah Johnson’s) eventually agreed to play the part of Zahn. He was younger than I had pictured Zahn but had the bearing to pull it off. I asked him if he knew of anyone who would want to play Webber—at that point, it was clear that nobody was volunteering. He talked to his wife, Sarah (another Sarah) who had some acting background. She agreed to come aboard.” Adam and Sarah shot their green screen scenes on May 21, 2022, eight months after Doug and the other Sarah had shot theirs.

Sarah Zammiello as Lt. Laura Webber

The final role to cast was the voice of Margaret Bergan, the mother of a Starfleet officer who is killed at Wolf 359. Star Trek: Voyager fans might remember Ms. Bergen from the fifth season episode “Infinite Regress” as one of the assimilated personalities that emerged in Seven-of-Nine as they approached the Borg Cube debris with the vinculum transmitter. In the episode Ms. Bergan (no first name given) was traveling on a transport to visit with her son Gregory on board the U.S.S. Melbourne at Wolf 359 when the Borg attacked. Because Margaret is not actually seen in this fan film, a younger actress could be cast, and Dave’s friend KIRA WAYMAN, yet another fellow sci-fi/fantasy fan, jumped at the chance when he offered her the role. She recorded her lines in her home on May 8, 2022, with Dave directing her via Zoom.

But casting wasn’t over just yet. Dave needed a good, ol’ fashioned “Resistance is futile!” for the end of his fan film and was going to sample it from the opening scene of Star Trek: First Contact. (Yeah, that’s kind of a guidelines “no-no,” but it would hardly be noticeable, and Paramount likely wouldn’t care.) However, as Dave watched the entire opening sequence as Picard and the bridge crew listen to the distressed transmissions from the battle with the Borg Cube in Earth orbit, Dave realized that this needed to be his opening, as well. Well, not EXACTLY this opening, as these voice-overs weren’t from Wolf 359 but from a later battle (and Trekkies would notice…they always do!). Also, that was a little too much to “source” from the original.

So instead, Dave decided to bring in multiple other voice actors to each record a line for a montage of transmissions from the battle (of Wolf 359). Eight additional people joined the cast, including former co-workers, a friend Dave had known since 8th grade, another long-time friend, a couple whom he’d met at Neutral Zone Studios, two podcasters, their social media guru, and their producer. Each actor also recorded, “We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is Futile.” Dave then mixed the voices together to create his own Borg voice-over and didn’t have to lift anything from First Contact.

The shoots themselves were more challenging than you might suspect. Although Dave had some filmmaking experience, it was decades out of date and hadn’t included any green screen compositing. So he ordered a basic green screen kit from Amazon. However, after doing some tests at home, Dave discovered that the 8.5′ green cloth material was too narrow and wrinkled too easily to provide an evenly-lit background. So he invested a little extra into a larger 10′ green screen that was a better, less-wrinkly fabric. “Definitely worth the extra investment,” said Dave.

For all of you looking to set up your own green screen shoots, Dave also purchased the following (again, sourced from Dave’s website):

  • A lighting kit – I chose one with LED panel lights that allow the filmmaker to control both the brightness and color temperature.
  • Wireless microphone – plus a mount so I could put it on a tripod.
  • A phone frame/mount – for my iPhone 11 so it could be easily mounted on a tripod.
  • Perfect Green Screen – if you’re shooting a green screen film, this app is about the best $5 you’ll ever spend. Even lighting on the green screen makes your life SO much easier when you’re editing, and this app ensures that the light is even. Just frame up the green screen on the phone, and the app shows you where all the hot and dim spots are. Just adjust the lighting until everything’s smooth, and you’re good to go.
  • Filmic Pro – Although you can shoot on a smartphone using the native camera functionality, there are a lot of features and adjustments available on pro cameras that are not available on a phone. Filmic pro turns your smartphone into a reasonable facsimile of a professional video camera. I purchased it for around $30…but, unfortunately, they’ve gone to a subscription model since then. Still…it’s worth looking into.

The two shoots themselves went very smoothly, each requiring only one day of filming for both actors involved. The physical set-up was simple and straightforward: the actor sat on a bar stool with a small table in front of them (both off-camera). The table allowed them to interact with a flat surface that would ultimately appear to be the control console of their escape pod. On the table were a copy of the script and a clapboard. Why do they need a clapboard if it’s just a bunch of green screen shots? “This isn’t just to be all fancy and professional,” explains Dave. “I ended up with hundreds of takes across the four actors, and having a visual cue at the start of each take with the scene and take number is vital to being able to organize shots for editing.”

And speaking of takes, another key role during shooting was the task of script supervisor, which was handled by the actor who was not on screen. That actor had a TON of jobs to do! First, they read the lines that the on-camera actor was playing off of and reacting to. Remember that, unlike the typical “Zoom call” fandemic films, which cut from one speaker to the other and back again, this script called for up to four faces on the same screen simultaneously. So not only did an actor have to know their lines, they also had to stare at the camera, look interested, and react to what the others were saying as they said their lines. So it was important that the off-camera actor read the other lines at a normal pace because timing was critical!

But as I said, the off-camera actor was also acting as script supervisor. “A good script supervisor is CRUCIAL,” Dave continues. “They’re the ones who keep track of the takes (taking notes to indicate which were good, which were changed, etc.), make sure the lines are being delivered correctly, and that the director is getting all of the scene coverage they need. Doug and Sarah were both excellent script supervisors. Doug saved my bacon by pointing out that we had missed a section of reactions for Sarah—thanks to his observational skills, I avoided pick-up shots. He was so good that I brought him back on the second shoot day.”

As for directing, Dave used a very light-touch. “I had a pretty simple approach: just be yourself and pretend you’re in your character’s situation. This is your character’s history. You’re trapped in an escape pod, and this is what is happening to you. React as if it’s YOU that all of this is happening to. Respond as if the other characters are talking to YOU. I think it worked out well…in no small part because the folks I was lucky enough to have in my cast were actually pretty good actors.” Dave was also fine with changing lines on the fly if a particular sentence or set of words was hard to say properly. He wasn’t at all nit-picky. And in the end, they got a huge amount of footage shot with time to spare on both shooting days.

Next time in the conclusion, we look at the various challenges of post-production. Trust me, this was MUCH harder to finish than you might think!

One thought on “Fandemic film “359”was MUCH more challenging to make than you might think! (feature, part 1)”

  1. WOW, what a very talented creator. This fan film was well executed on all levels. I loved the story. So as not to give any spoilers I will simply say omg, what an ending.

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