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Interview: Filmmaker Doug Gritzmacher of ‘Soldiers of Paint’

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SoldiersofPaintThe paintball documentary film Soldiers of Paint is a 97-minute paintball documentary re-enacts the historic World War II Normandy Invasion, but instead of bullets, it’s paintball, and instead of the French coast, it’s Oklahoma.

Staged on a 700-acre battlefield, the organizers and managers always treat this competitive paintball event as a tribute to all veterans (even the Axis side), concentrating on the strategy and military tactics rather than the geopolitics of the war.

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Director/writers Michael DeChant and Doug Gritzmacher also produced the film, released by Double Six Productions.

Gritzmacher shared his insights about his film and creating the home video version, which includes commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, and other special features:

Describe the director’s commentary process.

There are naturally many stories—some maybe as good as the film itself—that go on behind the scenes in the making of any film and that certainly was true for us. Doing a director’s commentary was an opportunity to have a chance to relay those stories before they were forgotten. At that same time, it gives viewers an opportunity to get to know us on a more personal level and share in the making of the film. As a filmmaker and viewer, I am always curious to know some of the decision making that went on through the making of the film and I wanted to provide that for our viewers and other potential filmmakers.

How did you choose which scenes to include in the original film and what extra footage to include in the home video version?

Have you heard the editing adage that sometimes you have to “kill your babies”? Sounds extreme, but in some ways it almost feels that way. As the filmmaker you are prone to falling in love with scenes in your own film. One of the characters in the film, Juan “Beatle” Parke, was a Katrina hero. He stayed behind during the hurricane in 2005 and saved several lives. His heroic efforts earned him a GQ “Man of the Year” award. We went down to New Orleans to shoot him telling us about his efforts during the hurricane as he took on a tour of the sites where he helped saved lives. Great story, right? That’s what we thought and so we were head over heals in love with the scene we cut telling his story. This scene survived all way to the final edit, when we finally came to grips with the need to cut it. While a great story, it was detracting from the main story in our film and felt too out of place. That was the biggest baby we had to kill.

Thanks to DVD extras, we don’t have to bury our dead babies. They can live on in the extras! So most of the scenes found in the extras are our dead babies. In truth, Oklahoma D-Day is such a massive event that touches so many lives in so many ways, there was no way to fit it all into one film. With the DVD extras we had a chance to flesh out some of those additional stories for those who care to know more.

How many cameras/camera people did you bring to the main filming at the 2008 D-Day event?

I think we had 14 cameramen all told. One for each command center, one following game founder Dewayne Convirs, and the other 11 embedded in the battle with specific characters. We also had an associate producer, Carey Murphy, with us. She deftly handled logistics. We also had a radio operator.

Describe the editing process. How did you get 136 hours of footage to 97 minutes?

Uh, not easily! First, it took a year and half just to digitize, organize, and write a script for our 150 hours of footage. Phew! Since we had multiple cameras shooting simultaneously during a linear event, the biggest challenge was lining up events between the footage each camera shot (lesson learned, make sure to put all cameras in time of day time code!). After that it was a matter of pulling out the story lines.

Being so close to the footage, and wanting to include everything, we felt simply overwhelmed at this point. This is when we brought in outside help and hired a story editor, Becky Beamer. She was instrumental in helping us develop a story out of that giant heap of footage. It took another year and half from there to finish the edit. That time was spent focusing down the film to the most essential story elements. We had additional help from a seasoned documentary filmmaker, Nina Seavey, and our friends who lent their eyeballs and opinions. Kendra Pasker, a very talented editor in Los Angeles, edited the first cut and did a remarkable job especially on constructing the film’s intense visually rich battle sequences.

Describe the logistics in chronicling events that reflect the historical connections and the two sides – Allies (United States, Britain, Canada, and France) and Axis (German).

Certainly a big appeal to this game is that it is based on actual historical events. And the players take that very seriously, often consulting the strategies used by Eisenhower and Rommel when planning their own battle tactics. They are also keen to keep the event as faithful to the history as possible so as to approach as close as they can what it might have felt like being a soldier on one of those boats that stormed the beaches of Normandy. This has a particular impression on the kids who play and many often seek out to learn more about the battle and those who sacrificed after going through Oklahoma D-Day. For purposes of our film, we wanted to include some history but we were also very aware there are oodles of documentaries on WWII. Any information we covered about history we wanted to do from a fresh perspective and conveying only that which mattered most to our characters allowed us to do that.

Describe your approach in creating such memorable personal storylines within the film including event organizer Dewayne Convirs, the grandson of a veteran of Omaha Beach, and World War II veteran, Jake McNiece, who served in the “Filthy Thirteen,” the 101st Airborne unit that fought during D-Day and whose stories inspired the movie The Dirty Dozen.

First and foremost “Soldiers of Paint” is a personal story about Dewayne Convirs, founder of Oklahoma D-Day. Dewayne’s grandfather landed on Omaha Beach as part of the 238th Engineer Combat Battalion, which meant he was one of the first waves to hit the beach. Dewayne holds his grandfather in high regard and rightly so. He founded the game as a way of honoring his grandfather.

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Dewayne, a veteran himself, is a pretty tough dude—he has to be considering everything he goes through to make this event happen every year. But when he talks about his grandfather in the film he shows an emotional side that few people get to see and only makes us feel closer to him. This is what makes for a powerful and moving viewing experience. So the focus of our film is on him. The world he has created is what provides for all the compelling action and additional personal stories that unfold within that world.

One of those stories is about Jake McNiece. Andy Van Der Plaats, a character in our film, sought out Jake to come speak at the event about his life and experience in WWII. As you will see in our DVD extras, the faces on those listening to his tales are priceless.

This world’s largest paintball event also became the closest scored contest in the history of the event. How did you create the helpful color schemes, map animations, specialized paintball gun explanations, slow motion and text captions for audiences so this historic score would have a lasting impact on the film?

Filmmaking is mostly about problem solving. And we had a lot of problems with Soldiers of Paint. How are points scored? What are the rules? We had to be cognizant that most of our viewers would not be familiar with paintball. We needed to find a way to have them understand what was taking place so they could become invested in the outcome, but not bog them down with too much minutiae.

Filmmaking is a visual medium so we solved these issues visually with the help of some really cool map graphics (designed by Matt Nagy), title cards that froze action to relate a game rule when appropriate, and subtitles so viewers would not miss what was said. In most films the viewers is able to see mouths move when people speak, which helps for understanding words that can sometimes be hard to hear. Our characters wore masks through most of the film, so subtitles simply became a necessity.

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The color scheme device (in which all Allied footage is toned blue and all German footage is toned red) was borne out of a need to distinguish the two sides visually. In dramatic war films, as in life, two opposing sides wear different uniforms. The players at Oklahoma D-Day do not, so there is no way to tell on side from the other. So the red and blue toning helps with that but also ended up looking really cool! We’ve gotten a lot of great response to it.

How did you plan to cover the exterior elements amid the sweltering heat, Axis/Ally command centers, and playing fields while providing enough support for your filming crew?

Good question! Summer conditions in rural northeastern Oklahoma can be brutal. This was great for us for purposes of the story and seeing how our characters dealt with and overcame the heat and rocky and buggy terrain, but also presented a challenge for us to shoot in. We made sure all our camera operators were outfitted with adequate clothing and shoes as well as Camelbacks for hydration. As one of the German characters says in the film, you would not survive out there without one. Our associate producer and production manager Carey Murphy made packable lunches for everyone in our crew. For communication we had two players on the German side help us set up our radio communication system (which required securing an FCC license!). Carey and a radio operator communicated with our battle embedded cameramen while I directed our crew from a walkie from my position in the German command center, where I was shooting.

We did not go without our share of close calls. Shortly into the game several cameraman reported that their batteries were dying quickly. Carey solved the problem. I never asked her how, just glad she did! We also had some walkies go down but we had trust in our cameramen to function as their own directors so they were able to continue by relying their own filmmaking instincts. We used rain jackets and clear filters for camera protection. Fortunately, all our cameras survived without so much as a scratch!

Your camera operators were right in the thick of the battle with some great tracking shots and handheld shots. Did you ever consider using “helmet cam” shots on the participants?

We did not consider using helmet cams, nor Go Pros. Helmet cam and Go Pro videos are a dime a dozen on Youtube. They have their place and the look can be cool, but the perspective does not lend much intimacy. Compelling films are made so when viewers feel like they have a connection with the people in the film. This intimate connection is what I think separates films from TV and Youtube videos. We wanted to shoot in a way that made the viewer feel close to the character so they could experience the event through their reactions, voice, and body movement. So we focused our efforts and resources on human-maned cameras that could react with and be side by side with our characters.

The action shots and personal account added so passion and perspective on the paintball escapism experience. Where most people eager to participate in the filming?

Absolutely! As we found, paintball players are very passionate about their sport and they were a fan of anything that helps promote it and increase its exposure. Additionally, both sides go to great lengths to one up each other year. Some of those lengths are so extreme and amusing (such as spying on each other with fake identities) it would be criminal to not be able to hear the backstory and how they came to be, so our film gave them a chance to tell these stories.

Describe the fundraising support results from your various sponsors, donors, and investors (did you get your credit cards paid back?).

Investing in a film is a highly risky proposition. Those who have money to invest have it because they have been smart about their money. So trying to persuade them to invest in your film is a tough go. In the absence of significant outside investment, we had to make do with the help of Visa and MasterCard and begging and borrowing. Many friends and members of the paintball community stepped in to help. While their contributions were modest in the scheme of things, every little bit helped and knowing we had their support provided us with the means to move forward. But to answer your question, no we have not yet been able to pay our credit cards back.

Soliders of Paint was filmed in high definition video and Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound audio option. How did balance the need for quality with expense?

Our day jobs are spent working on other people’s films, many of which appear on high profile television or the big screen. So we come from a background where high production value is always a priority and we wanted to make our film with same degree of care. We were able to utilize our relationships within the industry to secure equipment and services at discounted rates. We also wore many hats between the two of us, which helped us save us on the costs by being able to hire additional personnel only when we absolutely needed them.

What were some of your lasting lessons in making this film?

As we have learned throughout the making of this film, filmmaking is multi-step process. The final step of which is marketing and promotion. So to be honest we are still making this film and haven’t had a chance to think about making another one. We had the option of releasing this film theatrically but decided against it. With rare exception, independent films usually lose money with a theatrical release. Additionally, a theatrical release would have limited the film’s availability to a few select North American cities. We wanted to make the film available for all of our fans as soon as possible and going straight to DVD and digital download enabled us to do that.

Soldiers of Paint is available on through most home video platforms, including First Run FeaturesAmazon, iTunes, video on-demand, and Netflix.

Visit Soldiers of Paint or Double Six Productions on the web for more information. The next “D-Day” paintball event in Wyandotte, Oklahoma will be from June 9-14, 2014. For more information, visit D-Day Adventure Park or call 918-666-3411.

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  • Jim L

    awesome feature! Want to see this one