Like the kid in the opening sequence of the 90’s HBO show “Dream On” starring Brian Benben, I spent much of my time as a kid - like many I suppose - in front of the TV. I watched “Who’s the Boss”, “Saved by the Bell”, “Jaws”, “Airport 1975”, etc. I have an exhaustive knowledge of actor names and movies; I used to read Roger Ebert’s movie encyclopedia for fun. My love of movies and TV shows can be attributed almost exclusively to Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and the Zucker brothers. That’s how commercially and low-browedly inclined I am (and apparently how inclined I am to make up adverbs - my mother should have named me Webster). And speaking of words: Notice how I didn’t use the word ‘films.’ No - these were movies I was watching. The things you go to Blockbuster for - except when I was a kid Blockbuster didn’t even exist yet.
There were two things that mattered when I was 12: “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Jaws”. The previous I needn’t go into too much detail about other than to say that somewhere in my parents house there is an unlabeled VHS videotape that shows me shrieking the song “Gethsemane” into a tube of toothpaste - pride has never appeared to be more lacking; the sound resembled something like lemon juice in the knife wound of a baby Lemur. ”Jaws” also inspired some kind of shrieking in me; however, this time I involved my cousins and an inflatable shark. As if “Jaws 2”, “Jaws 3-D”, and “Jaws: The Revenge” didn’t already make you lose faith in humanity (and in Michael Caine), I felt the need to continue the series and the “Michael Brody” lead character a bit longer. I would make three of my own “Jaws” movies with my cousins - the last of which I maintain is quite the coherent portrayal.
For the final action sequence of the last movie, which was entitled “Jaws 7: A New Breed,” by the way, I wanted to add music and make it slow motion. I had NO IDEA how to do this - until one day. Our VCR at home had a remote control with a round dial that could be used to manually scrub forward or backward frame-by-frame on the VHS; If I had a steady enough thumb, I could spin the dial at a fast and smooth enough rate that the video would move forward in slow motion with little jump or tick. Now all I needed was a way to get what was on my TV screen onto a tape. Then it occurred to me I could simply video tape the TV screen as the movie played and when the moment came I could manually scrub the tape with the dial on the remote while simultaneously playing the “Jaws” soundtrack tape on my boombox. I’m pretty sure that the evolution of opposable thumbs was built for this moment.
I have carried this “Janky Craftsman” skill set into my adulthood and applied it to various jobs and projects. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I came back to making videos. I had taken an 8 year hiatus so I could go to school for, try out, and eventually give up on a career as an actor. It’s not that I gave up because I wasn’t any good or I couldn’t get cast; it rather had to do with the fact that I liked having a greater hand at telling a story. Being a character in the story was only one slice of the pie. I wanted to be the baker. This is where video making came in. It, as many things do, began with small pet projects that I did when I wasn’t working at the restaurant (an actor working in a restaurant - what do you call a cliche of a cliche?). I was quite surprised to learn that, and bear in mind that this is 2005, all you needed to make a movie was a Macbook and a $300 camera. Macbooks - as they continue to do today - came with iMovie which is, for those of you who are PC users and/or live on Jupiter, a consumer-friendly video editing program.
My relationship with story telling - in tandem with a theater background and an inherently robust verbosity - went absolute bonkers when I cut my first movie in iMovie. The thrill of making something out of nothing and having the ability to construct a visual timeline of images that would communicate a story that Ithought of was just too thrilling. It was like a drug. I used to tell my co-worker Laura (who is now my wife) how I couldn’t wait to finish work so I could go home and edit. I taught myself pacing, L-cuts, expo, wide/close, dolly moves - all tricks of the trade from scratch. Well, I say “from scratch” - if you can call growing up watching countless hours of moving picture “scratch”. These skills were all impulses that came from my broken in ability to view moving pictures. If you look at raw footage of something you can almost snap at the very moment it feels like you should cut to a new shot. This comes from being accustomed to watching movies with good editors. We have an inherent affinity towards pacing and order of moving images. It’s like subj-verb-noun sentence structure that comes naturally to us with language. Usually if you see a shot of a house you know to expect that the next shot is going to be of an interior location somewhere in that house. Same thing with dialogue; you see someone talking and you can feel the impulse to want to see who is listening. We are all like the short kid trying to find a spot looking at the monkeys at the zoo; we want to see!
This skill of being able to put together a timeline of images in a way that makes sense and is generally positively received by people was a skill I didn’t know I had until I opened iMovie up in 2005. I had no idea that I could do that. Like I said, it was a drug. Some people like sports; I made movies. It wasn’t until late 2008, early 2009 that I began realizing that I could actually do this pretty well and that people would pay me to do this for them - well, the ones without Flips and iMovie anyway. The gigs were very staggered with other work and I was working with very cheap equipment. This was not a terribly marketable setup I had going; however, even so, some people were still happy to pay me to do some work for them. I taught three separate classes in which I made movies with groups of kids for Steppingstone Theater; Alan Berks gave me a press pass for MinnesotaPlaylist.com to shoot and cover the Fringe Festival; and later, he (as acting marketing director or some equivalent position) hired me to shoot and edit a video promo spot for a show at Mixed Blood Theater. This video would garner over 1,400 views on YouTube and would be a part of a marketing campaign that ended up selling out the show so well that they extended the run.
For the work I did for Alan for Playlist he gave me free adspace to promote myself. This adspace exposed me to the community as Ben McGinley - video guy. I thought it was kind of funny because I really didn’t take myself very seriously as a ‘video guy’ and certainly didn’t consider myself “go to” in many ways. Despite this, I actually got a call from Courtney Glenny who was assistant directing a show with Dominique Serrand and Steve Epp. Dominique and Steve were co-artistic directors and founders of Theatre de la Jeune Lune - a Tony-Award winning company that produced work for 30 years in Minneapolis. They were the “go to” company for offbeat, physical and flat out stunning performance work. The company (super sadly) went bankrupt and closed down in 2008. But the founders were still thrashing around and making new work. And they wanted me to work for them.
While my relationship with Dominique and Steve plateaued at that first and only show I did with them I still hold it as one of the most pivotal moments in my career’s infancy. I learned so much so quickly working with them and became a better editor, technician and artist; and additionally, it was the first time that I felt as if I could be “Go To” at something. And I was able to say I worked with Dominique Serrand and Steve Epp; as name-droppy as it was, it did contribute, I think, a little bit to the growing legitimacy of Ben McGinley: video guy. And Alan Berks - and his wife, Leah Cooper, who is the director for the MN Theater Alliance, and co-founder of MinnesotaPlaylist.com - both contributed HUGELY to helping me put my name out there.
Over beers once I asked Alan what it was that made him (and Leah and Matthew Foster) start MinnesotaPlaylist.com. He said that the theater community needs a place that can be a sounding board for them - a place that would allow theater artists to feel validated, that what they did was important and that other people gave a shit. Well, MN Playlist worked; it validated Ben McGinley: video guy. They did so with adspace, sharing their audience with me, talking me up with word of mouth - and by getting beers with me and being homeys.
It turns out that political campaigns aren’t the only things that are grass roots.