Cinematic couple putting 'boundless' energy into the art of film
When the husband-wife team of Chris and Anne Lukeman speak in public, Chris joked, it's usually because they're arguing on a movie set.
On this occasion, though, the young couple made nice as they spoke to 40 or so people as part of the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization's "Meet the Pros" series.
The two talked about how they arrived where they are today — award-winning filmmakers — from their start as "little undergraduates at the University of Illinois," where Chris majored in advertising and Anne, history.
The Lukemans, who live in Champaign, enjoy a certain celebrity among C-U's growing film community for their two feature films, shorts, award-winning commercials and sci-fi Web series set in the 1970s.
And their personalities.
"They are both down-to-earth people with infectiously positive attitudes who are gung-ho in spirit when it comes to making worthwhile projects happen," said Jason Pankoke, a writer-editor who for years has followed regional filmmaking in his publication C-U Confidential.
"It's very apparent they love learning and experimenting with the technology of media production and also using those tools to tell stories with a sense of energy and whimsy."
"Our philosophy," Chris said at the CUDO talk, "is if you would like to be a filmmaker, there's never been a more exciting time to be in digital media.
"In the past five to 10 years you can make a professional looking movie in the middle of a cornfield with several hundreds dollars' worth of equipment. It's really democratized filmmaking. There's nothing holding you back except your own imagination."
And they have shown theirs in projects like "The University of Illinois vs. a Mummy" and "The Transient," both comic-horror feature-length films, and their commercials done on spec, including two picked up by Dell and CVS.
For those, they were paid New York-Los Angeles rates.
Their first project
The first time they worked together was soon after they met, on "The University of Illinois vs. a Mummy," shot on campus and released in 2006.
Chris, who was president at the time of the Illini Film and Video Club, directed. He described it online as an "instant classic that will provide you with literally GUT-BUSTING laughter!"
The two also worked together in 2007 on "The Transient," released in 2008. The movie turned out to be prescient, or at least ahead of the zeitgeist.
In it, Michael Krebs, a professional Abraham Lincoln interpreter, portrays the 16th president as a vampire. A homeless man — the transient of the title — tracks down Lincoln to save society.
"We were angering Lincoln scholars," Anne said.
Ditto for Lincoln interpreters.
The couple asked 40 of them to portray Lincoln as a vampire. Some hesitated before saying no. And one told the filmmakers he could think of no Lincoln interpreter who would stoop so low.
Only Krebs said yes.
As fate would have it: "Our Abraham Lincoln interpreter had played a vampire on stage," Anne said. "He had his own custom set of $300 fangs."
"The Transient" was released before director Timur Bekmambetov's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" came out in 2012. It was based on the 2010 novel of the same title by Seth Grahame-Smith.
"The Transient" was shown at film festivals before Grahame-Smith's book was published; on the last page, Lincoln turns into a vampire.
Chris said he and Anne didn't know about the book while working on "The Transient." Besides showing it at film festivals, the Lukemans distributed "The Transient" at comics and gaming conventions.
"With this crowd, it was hilarious to see the switch from 'This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen' to 'I just have to have one,'" Chris said.
The two continue to sell their movies and shorts at comics and gaming conventions. Other indie filmmakers are doing the same, they said.
How they met
So how did the Lukemans first meet?
It was during Quad Day in 2005. Then a freshman, Anne Shivers met UI senior Chris Lukeman as he manned the Illini Film and Video Club booth on the Quad.
They chatted, but it wasn't love at first sight.
Anne, who had always been interested in movies, became a member of the club. As the two became acquainted, they realized they shared common interests.
They began dating in spring 2006.
In November 2008, Chris proposed at — where else? — a movie theater.
He arranged to have his pre-recorded proposal shown on a DVD before the screening of the James Bond movie "Quantum of Solace."
They married in July 2009 while Chris was attending the Southern Illinois University School of Law. He had decided to go to law school for several reasons:
— he received a really good scholarship;
— he likes the study of law; and
— "There are not a lot of creative people out there with law degrees. It's helped a lot with the business side of making films."
While in Carbondale, Chris never stopping working in video. He was part of a student team that won a regional Emmy for the student-run TV variety show alt.news 26:46.
After he graduated — he later passed the bar exam but does not practice law — the couple moved back to Champaign-Urbana.
C-U a "neat bubble"
They believe C-U is a more supportive and less competitive place to work as filmmakers than a big city.
"This community is a really neat bubble that you don't see everywhere," Chris said. "We know plenty of people who moved to Los Angeles to be filmmakers, and they're not making things."
Said Anne: "They have a different mind-set there. You have to make other people's movies, and then you make your own. That's why you see a lot of Web series and indie films."
One reason filmmaking is easier here is that filmmakers don't have to jump through a lot of hoops to shoot on public property, Anne said.
"They're really supportive and willing to work with you," she said.
And there are plenty of good actors, including ones willing to work for free as extras.
The Lukemans also said the demand for video commercials and promotions has increased exponentially, even here. They help supply the demand through their video production company Railsplitter Media.
However, they don't have much time for Railsplitter or personal filmmaking. Both work full-time for the university — Chris as manager of the UI-7 Cable Television Channel, a College of Media service, and Anne as coordinator of video production for the Office of Public Affairs.
Balancing work, art
Still, they somehow balance their university jobs with making their own short films and helping on the sets of other filmmakers' shorts and features.
Most recently, Anne produced the Andrew Stengele-directed "The Thinking Molecules of Titan," based an unfinished short story by Roger Ebert. Chris was the first assistant director for the shoot.
The Lukemans also find time for the community. They co-founded the Champaign-Urbana Film Society and co-organize its annual Pens to Lens competition.
In that, short scripts written by K-12 students are adapted into movies made by local filmmakers, including the Lukemans.
Pankoke said he honestly believes the couple's energy has no bounds.
"Certainly, their personal storytelling has improved greatly since the days of the infamous 'The University of Illinois vs. a Mummy' from nearly 10 years ago," Pankoke said. "Their current project, the 'Once Upon a Time in the 1970s' Web series, shows they pay attention to the details of low-budget film craft and have refined their handling of script writing, actors and settings, which tend to be stylized in their films for the sake of humor."
And, Pankoke said, the couple's commercial and academic pieces-for-hire are well done, too.
The Lukemans have shown "Once Upon a Time in the '70s" at film festivals nationwide in addition to online. They keep some of the props they built for it in a glass cabinet in the living room of their Champaign home.
The items resemble ray guns and other things you might see in mid-20th century sci-fi movies and TV shows.
"We love the '70s aesthetic so we sell the DVD in old floppy-disc packages," Chris said.
The Lukemans weren't even alive in the '70s. Chris is 29; Anne is 27. They both grew up loving movies but thought they couldn't make a living at making movies.
So they decided on other college majors. Chris chose advertising and then law. A Phi Beta Kappa and Bronze Tablet graduate, Anne majored in history. In hindsight, she believes that helped when she competed in a 2005 teen "Jeopardy" tournament.
She placed third and won $18,000.
"I think a solid liberal-arts education is critical for anyone," she said. "With video production, it helps you put together your primary sources."
Career parallels the history of video cameras
The Lukemans offer descriptions of the recording devices they've used in the past decade or so:
Handicam. We both started on cheap, consumer-grade Hi8 and Digital8 camcorders.
Sony PD-150. This was the workhorse camera for the Illini Film and Video Club and for us for several years. It's what Chris shot 90 percent of the "Mummy" movie on.
Panasonic DVX 100b. This camera really jump-started the digital revolution. It's great in low light and started to allow in low-budget recordings a more film-like look. We shot "The Transient" and a bunch of short films on this.
Panasonic HVX. The first HD camera we worked with! Like its baby brother — the DVX above — it had a great form factor and a nice look and allowed for HD filming. Also the first camera we worked with that didn't have to shoot on tape — it used P2 cards.
Canon 5dmk2. THE camera of the digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) revolution and the first affordable camera that was used as an alternative to film for movies and television. The final image looks just like a real cinema camera!
Canon Rebel t2i. The cheaper DSLR camera that still had great high-definition quality video; we picked one up when we moved up to Champaign and started our video business.
Sony FS-100. More recent DSLR hybrid cameras match interchangeable lenses and cinematic picture quality of DLSR with the traditional form factor of regular camcorders. The Sony FS-100 has amazing picture quality, is great in low light and can even shoot at high speed (60fps) in full high-def. This camera was used for the majority of "Once Upon a Time in the 1970s."
Blackmagic Cinema Camera. This is the newest camera we work with. It has an incredibly high data rate, an incredibly large dynamic range and shoots with a "flatter" color look. Basically this allows the editor and/or colorist to have a much greater ability in post-production to "push" the exposure and colors in more interesting ways. The footage looks beautiful. Plus, our $4,000 version of this camera is on order now!