'Freeplay' scores spot in film, music and photo portions of Thin Line
A University of North Texas film student and teaching fellow Michael B. Mullins has achieved a first in the 10 years of the Thin Line Fest.
His documentary short, "Project Freeplay," made it into the festival. Then, the band featured in his film scored a slot at one of the festival music venues. At least one photograph from a live set where Mullins and a crew shot documentary footage will be on exhibit at the Patterson-Appleton Arts Center for the photography arm of the festival.
"Project Freeplay" features a Denton band that doesn't really have a name. The double-drum quintet does something many a Denton ensemble does: The musicians hit the stage with a wing and a prayer and spend their entire set just jamming. Jazz, rock and a few other styles go in the shaker and come out a fusion of flavor and groove.
"I used to see this band playing at the Greenhouse [Restaurant]," said Mullins, a self-professed music fan who is in his third year working toward a master's degree in documentary filmmaking at UNT. "They had music on Monday nights, and I caught a show there.
"The band would play, and it sounded like music that had been charted," Mullins said. "Their musicianship and their music was such that even though it sounded like their music was charted, it was all improvised. I was drawn to that."
Mullins said he followed the band, became friends with several members and started shooting footage for them. Eventually, Mullins started thinking about a short film. He's worked in film for years, with five years on the television series Monk.
The resulting film, "Project Freeplay," revolves mostly around a February 2016 show at Dan's Silverleaf. A crew of 18 to 20 people were on hand to work a nine-camera shoot.
"Me being a professional camera person, you have to approach a shot with a certain amount of flexibility," Mullins said. "When you do a live shot, like at a game it, has to be edited on the fly. The same principles were at work for this project. We had a preproduction meeting where I tell then two or three things that I want."
Mullins said his top priority at the show was to get "beautiful images."
"I tell the camera operators, 'I want you to use your skills to find me gold. I don't want to tell you too many directions and have me directing too many shots,'" he said.
The crew did just that, he said.
"Toward the end of the film, there's a shot of the guitar player's hands I could not have preconceived," he said.
Mullins weaves musician interviews into the film. UNT alumnus Michael League, of two-time Grammy-winning band Snarky Puppy, makes an appearance as an early member of the group. Current members of the quintet talk about their idiosyncrasies and their approach to improvisation.
The band's two drummers came about by accident, when keyboardist Clark Erickson booked two drummers for one gig. They stuck with it, and now drummers Connor Kent and Matt Young drive the rhythm with another duo in the rhythm section -- bassist Jacob Smith. Pete Weise plays guitar. Bassist Mike Luzecky occasionally chips in, too.
Mullins said he didn't get behind the camera at the Dan's Silverleaf shoot. He set up and managed the shoot, and then got an 18-channel audio mix from the board from Jimmy Smith, the much-revered sound engineer at the venue.
"He gave me a board mix from that night," Mullins said. "It was amazing to me how the tracks were so enjoyable and musically amazing. When I started listening to these tracks, the textures kind of blew me away. This quintet has two full double drum sets, and they don't overplay each other."
When Mullins reviewed the footage, he was just as pleased with the images.
"That was one of the most surprising things — how much texture and subtlety there is," Mullins said. "This idea I was going for, it looked more slick and more professional. Just seeing how the camera operators ... were operating and watching what was happening. They just got gold."
Young, the drummer, said the group at the center of "Project Freeplay" isn't making pure jazz, pure rock or pure anything, really.
"I think that's kind of a tricky thing," said Young, an alumnus of UNT's One O'clock Lab Band. "Even jazz scholars and people who work on the academic side of things, we're all kind of yelling through this thing of what jazz really means. I think because [all the musicians] went to jazz school, right off the bat we're coming with the same influences and the same language. It's an amalgamation of all our influences — rock, fusion and all that, and all of our understanding of our influences and experiences."
Much of the film dissects the musicians' ideas about improvisation. On camera, League explains that musical improv is a lot like conversation. Everyone involves speaks the same language, but words and expressions come up on the spot. Everything from idiom to the tone of voice can steer a conversation in a new direction, and musical improvisation isn't much different.
Young said the best conversations happen when everyone listens.
"What Connor and I do -- because we share a lot of the same influences and we're friends -- we share a goal of what we want to accomplish," he said. "Mostly what we do is get up there and kind of listen. That's really what you you do as improvisers."
The band plays infrequently, but when it does, Young said they mount the stage with an unspoken agreement to listen and be open to what any of the musicians might have to say through their instruments.
"There's no set list," Young said. "Everything is dictated by whether we have said everything we need to say."
Mullins recruited a former student, Rudy Cervantez, to come to the 2016 show at Dan's to shoot still photographs. Cervantes said he can't remember how many photos he submitted to Thin Line.
"I don't know how many of my photos are in the fest," he said. "It could be one, or it could be four. When you hear back from Thin Line, they tell you one or more got selected to be in the festival."
Cervantez, who works as a freelance photographer and filmmaker, said he approached his task that night with an understanding of what the musicians were up to.
"Well, I think it's easier for me. For one, I'm a musician myself," Cervantez said. "I grew up onstage from the time I was 12 years old. When I got into the film program [at UNT] I put the music thing on hold. But I know what it's like to be onstage, so I know where to be and where not to be. "
His musical background also gave Cervantez a sort of "tell" for when something interesting might happen.
"If you played in a band and you've been onstage — you kind of know what beat they're going to hit. So I was trying to get that shot," he said. "Mike Luzecky, I've known him since he was 19 years old, so I know his style. There were a couple of moments where I could tell 'yeah he's about to do something' so I got my camera up there and shot."
Cervantez said Young also cued him to fast-approaching bursts of energy.
"Matt Young is definitely one of the best drummers I've ever heard in my life," he said. "You definitely know when Matt's about to do something cool. When you feel that crescendo coming, you got to move yourself and move your camera."
Mullins brought in additional lighting to Dan's for the show, which adds dimension and mood to the film. Cervantez said he used the lighting in the bar, without any strobe lights of his own.
"I try not to add anything," Cervantez said. "You definitely don't want to throw flashes. You don't want to bother the audience or blind any musicians. I'm always trying to avoid what I wouldn't want on the other end."
"Project Freeplay" is both the story of this quintet and a concert video. In fact, Mullins said at some point, the project will include the film, a CD and a concert DVD. Mullins is a big fan of concert films.
"The main key to that is being photographed and edited in the way that the viewer gets the feeling they are part of the venue than they are at their house," he said.
Mullins has other projects in the pipeline. He is the director of photography for three projects: Circus City, USA, which has been in more than 20 festivals to date; an untitled documentary filmed in Cuba by UNT documentary film program chairwoman Melinda Levin, and Technically Crazy, a feature to be released this summer. He is directing a documentary about fossil hunting titled Paleonatic.
The band will play the festival at 11 p.m. April 21 at Backyard on Bell, 410 N. Bell Ave.
The film screens during the "Our Town" block at 11 a.m. April 22 at the Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St. The film will screen with other documentary shorts that feature Denton in some way.
Thin Line Photography Experience will be on view April 20-23 at the Patterson-Appleton Arts Center, 400 E. Hickory St.
Admission is free, but VIP passes are available for $150 per person. Registration is required for all admission. To register and to see a full scedule, visit http://thinline.us.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.