Category Archives: Reporting

Weak projection bulbs dim movie experience

Watts up!: A bunch of dim bulbs and projection problems are muddying movies at some Austin cinemas

Jan. 2, 2004, Austin American-Statesman  

Last summer at Cinemark Tinseltown in Pflugerville, director Tim McCanlies held a special sneak screening of his family dramedy “Secondhand Lions,” which was filmed in rural areas around Austin. Friends, family and owners of many of the movie’s key locations were there to see a heartwarming story set amid the bright, sprawling beauty of Central Texas.

But the screen never quite glowed; skies were dull and blotchy, the golden hues tarnished.

“The projection was so incredibly dim, people came up to me afterwards saying, ‘I had no idea the whole film was shot at dawn and dusk!,’ which of course it wasn’t,” recalls Paul Alvarado-Dykstra, McCanlies’ assistant on the film.

Inadequate movie projection in Austin theaters — a genuine plague — also made tough work of finding Nemo, let alone any other fish, during the incandescently vivid “Finding Nemo.”

“I knew something was wrong,” says avid Austin moviegoer Kirby McDaniel, who caught “Nemo” at Cinemark Barton Creek. “There was no way the film was supposed to look that dark, especially in a Pixar animated feature for kids. They are supposed to be candy colors!”

Alvarado-Dykstra had the same problem with the same movie at the same theater. “I was horrified by projection so dim it was like watching the movie through sunglasses. Literally. Here’s one of the most visually striking movies of the year, and it was being grossly misrepresented to the audience,” he says.

Cinemark Barton Creek is not the only theater showing movies in a gauze of murk, fuzz, goop. For at least 10 years, I have ground my teeth at dreadful projection quality at chain theaters from California to Texas. In the Bay Area, I walked out of many movies with a refund because the picture was so cloudy.

A recent showing of “Lost in Translation” at the Regal Metropolitan in South Austin was marred by a gray haze over the images, making a perfectly sunny day appear overcast. And I would be hard-pressed to see anything at the Regal Westgate in South Austin after a spate of subpar experiences in projection vibrance. Even the Regal Gateway in North Austin, generally regarded to have the best presentation — sound and picture — in the city, let me down during a mucky screening of “Paycheck” last week.

Not the brightest bulbs

Most say the culprit of these foggy, depressed images is insufficient wattage of projector bulbs, often compounded by the ineptitude of inexperienced employees at chain theaters. Professional projectionists say screen size dictates proper bulb wattage, so the smaller the screen, the less bulb power is required to provide an adequately lit picture.

Problem is, most of the chain theaters — those operated by Regal, Cinemark and AMC in Austin — use extremely large screens in their multiplexes, possibly without proper bulb size or bulb output. Generally, larger multiplex screens demand at least a 3,000-watt bulb but should have a 4,000-watt bulb for an optimal picture.

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Home funeral services grow

Home at last: As tradition of loved ones performing funeral services grows, Austin workshop teaches them how to do it

July 26, 2009, Austin American-Statesman

No one wants to die, but Fleur Hedden goes ahead and volunteers anyway.

A tall woman, she clambers atop a long country-kitchen table in an Austin home, lies supine, closes her eyes and dies. Like that.

Becalmed onlookers place a rose-patterned sheet over Hedden’s body, leaving her face exposed. Her feet dangle off the end of the table, but she doesn’t mind. Death will do that – expose trivialities for what they are.

Hedden, still and at peace, is surrounded by caretakers who gently lift her arms and rub them with damp cloths. A mood of elegiac serenity fills the room. The air conditioner blows at a low hum, and a stately grandfather clock ticks and tocks.

And then the quiet is rent. The corpse opens her mouth and asks a question.

“Oh, my God, it’s a miracle!” Donna Belk exclaims.

“She speaks!” says someone else in the room.

The dead laughs. Everyone else does, too.

We are in Belk’s rustic home, where a workshop on home funerals is being taught on a hot June day. Home funeral advocates Belk and Sandy Booth lead the class of six, which includes Hedden, today’s volunteer dead person. Every workshop requires someone to play possum for a few hours, and the challenge for that person is to sustain a state of almost Zen-like immobility.

“It’s an active role, but that active role is to be as still as possible,” Hedden says after the class.

The Austin workshop is testimony to the small but growing popularity of the self-done, homemade funeral service, in which loved ones take funeral rites into their own hands, bestowing their own meaning on them, while rejecting the costly and more impersonal funeral home tradition that many people still believe is the only option. Though official figures aren’t available, groups such as Belk and Booth’s have sprouted in at least 20 states, according to Booth, who, with Belk, runs the home funeral sites crossingscircle.org and homefuneral.info and has helped dozens of local families put together home funerals.

With a surge in interest in so-called green burials, which dispense with toxic embalming fluids and often opt for cremation over casket burial, home funerals, also known as family-directed funerals, are being recognized as a cheaper and eco-friendly way of putting the dead to rest.

But it’s not only about saving money and helping the environment. Many deem home funerals a more emotionally and spiritually rich experience, a way of staying close to a loved one and saying goodbye through the process of preparing the body for burial or cremation. Friends, family members or hired helpers clean and dress the deceased and place the body on dry ice for wakes that can last three days in the home. They often build their own casket or buy an inexpensive model, such as cardboard or pine, and decorate it with personal flourishes reflecting the dead’s interests and style. A musician’s casket, for instance, might be embossed with an instrument, musical notes and song lyrics.

“I call it final gifting, because it’s a last gift, the last thing that you can give to the loved one,” says Rodger Ericson, president of the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society and a retired Lutheran pastor.

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‘September 11: A Nation Redefined’

Seared into memory:  Our minds still burn with images of unrivaled horror

Sept. 11, 2002, Austin American-Statesman

How does a skyscraper fall?

To start, it doesn’t fall. It sinks. The building gently buckles, relaxes in the middle, then all at once surrenders in a raging cascade of muddy clouds and billowing debris, sinking with vertical velocity into the earth.

Cartoons lie. Skyscrapers don’t topple over. They are not sheared in half or snapped like a pencil.

A skyscraper plunges, furiously telescoping to the ground, and when it is done, it evaporates into nothingness. Where it once stood is blank and serene, clear bright sky.

Down below, horror is unleashed.

On Sept. 11, we learned how a skyscraper falls. We watched the fifth and sixth tallest buildings in the world melt away, the twins’ shared 220 floors and 43,600 glass windows smashed into 3 billion pounds of smoldering grief on the floor of Lower Manhattan.

In the age of personal gizmos, even children tote video cameras, capturing all, from birthday revels to a jet piercing a 110-story building. And so we saw it all, every crumbling detail. The tragedy of Sept. 11 is the most recorded event in history. Thirty-two million tourists crowd New York City each year, most with cameras. Twenty-six thousand visitors daily drank in the view from the top-floor observation deck of the World Trade Center, where one could see for 45 miles on a clear day.

It was a clear day. That early September morning unfurled the shiniest blue sky imaginable. We saw it, in photos and on incessant video. Most of the roughly 230 million televisions in America were flickering with the instantly iconic images, which came swollen with meaning of all shades.

Sept. 11 spontaneously joined — and crowned — history’s loop of visually enshrined moments: the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion. It’s been installed in the collective memory.

“We have our standard continuum of images that we journey through, refine and collect,” says Deborah Morrison, associate professor in the department of advertising at the University of Texas. “I can see Martin Luther King speaking on the Mall. I can see John F. Kennedy in the motorcade. I can see the first man walking on the moon. Those images became powerful emotional connectors for us.”

For many days, the pictures of the attacks and the aftermath bound a wounded nation. They dominated the media, which issued around-the-clock scrolls of live footage and replay. And we were mesmerized, with shock, horror, fear.

We watched because we had to. It was history writ large, live. The sheer scale of the event tapped into the darkest primal fantasies of the unimaginable, and the information was beamed out in the most pervasive source of entertainment, television. We were in thrall to the visceral power of the explosions, the destruction, the notion that the unthinkable was happening in the here, the now.

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A call to arms

‘Alamo’ filmmakers need a bigger Mexican armyof smaller guys

Jan. 11, 2003, Austin American-Statesman

The Mexican army needs a few good men.

Make that a few thin men.

Too many potential soldiers are waddling instead of marching. They boast chins, not chivalry. The proudly authentic uniforms will never button over their bellies. These ragtag warriors are fighting the battle of the bulge.

It’s their ranks that are thin. There are not enough Mexican soldiers to fight the battles at the Alamo and San Jacinto for the big-budget Disney film “Alamo,” which begins a five-month shoot Jan. 20 near Dripping Springs.

Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie”), the long-planned, $75 million epic stars Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett, Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston and Jason Patric as James Bowie. They will be on the set beginning Monday to train in the ways of war and weaponry.

Historical accuracy is paramount to the filmmakers. Problem is, Santa Anna led an army of roughly 6,000 men to the Alamo, and the movie’s producers can barely scratch up 500.

Getting enough Hispanic men who fit the part has been its own battle. Bulk is being blamed.

“A lot of guys who come out are huge,” says Billy Dowd, the movie’s extras casting coordinator. “What am I going to do? Have them lose 200 pounds and call me in a couple weeks? They’re either right or they’re not. You can’t work with huge people when you do a period film.”

On this warm, windy day in the hills north of Dripping Springs, about 350 men are training to play Santa Anna’s army. Cameras aren’t rolling yet; this is just rehearsal. The movie has 500 uniforms to fill — the remaining numbers will be faked with movie magic — but the dropout and expulsion rates of the extras are so drastic that the film direly needs more men.

Not for want of trying. Since October, Dowd has papered Austin with fliers (“Hispanic Men Wanted . . . $$”) and hit media outlets across the state.

“I’ve scoured the whole area,” Dowd says. “I’ve done the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Texas Work Force Commission, Spanish television, Spanish radio. I took ads in all the Spanish newspapers. I went to the Dia de los Muertos festival. I went to the east side to bodegas and all the Spanish churches.”

Hundreds of men have applied, but they don’t always know what they’re in for. For each eight-hour day of training, extras make $15 —basically gas money — and they are fed. If they make the cut or don’t quit first, they will make $100 a day during filming and must be on call for the entire shoot. The days will be long, up to 15 hours, and can run all night.

There are strict criteria for would-be extras, says Dowd. “You have to be legal. You have to be 18 or older. You have to be local. You have to be available whenever we need you from now until the end of June. And you have to fit the uniform.”

That last one has become a weighty sticking point.

First assistant director K.C. Hodenfield is evaluating a line of wannabe soldiers, who shoulder muskets and wear supremely casual civilian clothes slathered in name brands. Hodenfield sounds slightly exasperated as he lectures the troops.

“OK, we’re not going to see you on camera for three weeks. In that time, you need to stop eating desserts, stop eating bread and potatoes and rice. That’s starch. If you can try that I would greatly appreciate it,” Hodenfield says. “I don’t want to have anybody in the back of the crowd the whole time. You’ve worked hard, and I want to be able to see you throughout the movie. Think about it. Don’t eat those french fries. Say no to that super size.”

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