Each week, staff writer Paul Wood interviews a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet LUKE BOYCE, co-owner of Champaign’s Shatterglass Studios and its technical genius. He’s been working in the industry since he was 14.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker for as long as I can remember. The first thing I remember telling my parents I wanted to be was a Disney animator when I was very little, and then I started acting in local productions while filming everything I could with our family camcorder. Pretty much my entire life has been an obsession with the movies and television in some sort of capacity and I’ve been pursuing it for that long.
When you were 14, you were working on a Roger Corman film in Los Angeles. What was your job?
A couple of years before, my parents had arranged a meeting with a gentleman who was getting his start in the industry to sort of act as a mentor for me, knowing how passionate I was about making movies. He had gone out to L.A. and started working for New World Entertainment, Roger Corman’s studio that had come of age in the ’80s during the VHS boom. While he was working as location manager for a film called “Watchers Reborn” with Mark Hamill, he asked if I’d be interested in shadowing him for a couple weeks on the set. It was my first real experience working on a movie, and it pretty much changed my life. It was a huge education as I learned what all of the crew did while I working odd jobs in locations with Kyle (my mentor), as well as helping out in security and even as an extra in a couple scenes. The coolest part was that I got to meet Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, who was just so incredibly nice and friendly.
Corman is considered the king of the cheap horror film, revered even. What did you learn from him?
Roger wasn’t directly involved in the film itself, just as an executive producer as the head of the studio. But the person I did learn a lot from was John Carl Buechler, the director. John was a legendary special-effects guy who had done tons of the greatest horror movies of the ’80s and eventually became a director. He was a really sweet guy and I got to study how he worked with actors, how he communicated with the crew and the producers and everything that goes into making a film. I especially got to see how a film is made on a small, tight budget, and at 14 it was completely eye-opening.
What brought you to Champaign?
I grew up just 45 minutes north in Cissna Park. I moved to Champaign in 2001 to attend Parkland College. I got married in 2002 and have lived here ever since. My mom and dad commuted to work in Champaign growing up, and we came often, so I feel like I’ve sort of lived here my whole life in one way or another.
Did you have any classes in college, or did you learn everything on the job?
I took graphic design in Parkland, but didn’t finish. Having had the passion for film growing up, I had actually started my own video-production business in high school. I would film proms and homecomings and made video slideshows for people using an old Video Toaster (an editing suite) and the family camcorder. I had looked into going to film school somewhere, but I remembered reading Kevin Smith, the director of “Clerks,” talk about how if you’re wanting to be a director, you’re better off spending the money you’d spend at school on just making your own stuff. So I chose that route. I decided to start my own production company to hone my craft and start to work at doing something I loved and was passionate about, and that’s where Shatterglass came from.
What has the transition from film to video to digital been like for you?
Growing up, we shot everything on VHS or MiniDV. Camcorders in the ’80s and ’90s looked like crap, so I would shoot all my movies with the on-board black-and-white filter and then edit either in-camera or when transferring to VHS. So digital was a godsend. But one of the things that made my transition into professional video so important was that it was right around the time that digital video was coming of age. This is right around maybe 2004 or so, and the Panasonic DVX100 was this revolutionary prosumer video camera that actually shot at 24 frames per second, which is the same as 35mm film. So you could, for the first time, start to “emulate” the look of film on video. There were still lots of technical barriers to getting stuff to look fully cinematic, but it helped jump-start a major trend in video cameras starting to emulate film. Meanwhile, George Lucas was developing digital cameras to shoot the “Star Wars” prequels, and I was obsessed with the technology, knowing that it wouldn’t be long until we’d be able to shoot digital images that truly emulated the look of cinematic film. And that’s what led me to the Red One Camera in 2007, a camera that would go on to completely revolutionize the entire film industry.
Who else is on your team?
My partner in crime is Brett Hays. Brett is the co-owner of Shatterglass and my producing partner. Brett joined me in 2006, and we share a strong vision for Shatterglass. Brett is practically like a brother to me, and we’ve always had very big dreams for our little studio. Brett now focuses almost full-time on feature-film producing and has actually helped build an amazing reputation for production management in the entire Chicagoland area. Because of Brett, our name is associated with some incredible films like “Slice,” starring Chance the Rapper and Zazie Beetz, and “An Acceptable Loss,” starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Tika Sumpter. About four years ago, Brett and I started a narrative-film sister company called Shatterglass Films with Jennifer Shelby, and we are developing our first major film together that is an adaptation of the hit comic-book series “Revival” from Image Comics.
Shatterglass was one of the very first beta testers of the original Red One camera in 2008. Did having a small but very-high-resolution camera change the way you shot scenes?
It did. It had quite a profound effect on my progression as both an image-maker and director. The Red One was designed with the major-motion-picture industry in mind, so it functioned, as much as it could, as a 35mm film camera, but instead of magazines of film, you would connect a large spinning hard drive to it. But when completely put together, the thing weighed about 60 pounds and required very large, very expensive cinema lenses and accessories, so it was a big change to learn how to lug it around and capture images in a much more advanced way than I was used to. But it also introduced a whole new world to us. Because we were one of the first people to get the camera in 2007, we were invited by other filmmakers in the Midwest to try it out, and I began doing a lot of traveling with the camera and meeting lots of new industry people through it. I honestly credit that camera to really helping us get a foot inside the real industry, at least within the Midwest.
What’s the most important thing to know about how a movie should look? Has it varied widely in the work you have done?
That’s a tough question. The funny thing is, as I spent a good portion of my early career chasing the ability to capture images that emulated the look of cinematic 35mm, I also slowly learned that the things I was looking for, like shallow depth of field or 24-frames-per-second filming, weren’t what was truly important to the craft of cinema. Cinematography is really mostly about composition and lighting. How you “frame” an image and how you light it is what makes something feel cinematic. And you can do that and shoot it on an iPhone if you want, and it can be cinematic. Movies have a visual language to them that one must learn to be able to convey, and that comes out of studying and learning how to compose shots and light in ways that provide mood and information. As Martin Scorsese famously said, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.”
What’s it like to direct more than 100 Shatterglass productions?
Exhilarating and exhausting! Seriously, I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career so far. When Shatterglass started, it was just me and Brett doing everything on set, and I would edit out of a room in my apartment. Over the course of several years, we worked to provide a standard of quality that we weren’t really seeing in the region, and that dedication really helped us build something that I’m incredibly proud of. I can’t say that every production has been as equally rewarding or that all of them have been equally as creatively stimulating, but we’ve learned quite a lot through each and every one of them, and we’ve built up a body of commercial work that we are insanely proud of, and we continue to strive to get better and better all the time.
Films, commercials, documentaries — do you have a favorite genre?
Narrative film will always be my first love, and within that, it’s a bit hard to choose. I worship horror and sci-fi, but I am a passionate cinephile, and it’s hard to really choose one thing over another. There are many days I prefer silent film, some days it’s pre-code Hollywood (films made before the 1934 adoption of censorship guidelines also known as the “Hays Code”), or I might binge film noir exclusively for a couple months. Lately, I’ve been really working through a lot of ’70s gritty crime films like “Night Moves” (1975) or “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973).
Shatterglass Studios won a regional Emmy Award for its 'Ebertfest 2012' documentary. What makes you proudest about that?
When we were first asked to start filming Ebertfest in 2011, it was really important to me to be able to craft something that was a lot more than just a sort of video yearbook. I really wanted to capture a deeper emotional element behind the festival, because as a local and a film-lover, the festival, and especially Roger Ebert, just meant so much to me, so we worked really hard to create these pieces that worked just as much as meaningful documentaries about Roger’s legacy and the importance of the energy he had created in this festival as they did as promotional pieces. When Roger died a couple weeks before the 2013 festival, we understood that that directive was even more important than ever, and it was just incredibly validating to get that recognition. The films we do about Ebertfest are amongst the best work we’ve ever produced, and I am beyond proud of all of them, but that one in particular had so much riding on it as a memorial to this incredible human being, and I’m just so grateful that we were able to capture that and that it was recognized in that way.
What’s another film you’re proud of?
I directed a film called “The Pooka” (2017), starring Chris Sullivan, who is best known as Toby from the hit NBC show “This Is Us.” That film actually showed at Palm Springs International Film Festival and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sherman Oaks Film Festival and last year was named one of the Top 10 Best Shorts of the Year for FilmShortage.com. I am incredibly proud of that film, and Chris and I are working on future projects as well.
What’s your best advice for someone who’s starting up?
My best advice for anybody starting up is to just start doing stuff. If you’re in high school, start shooting stuff, start looking for local productions or find friends who will do stuff with you and just start shooting. You can get some cheap lights from Home Depot and a tripod for your iPhone and start shooting right now. Just do it. It’s never too early. And if you’re older and trying to get into the industry, I would say start meeting people and getting on set. It’s actually not all that difficult, but get ready to devote everything to it. Movie sets are generally 13-hour days, and they don’t necessarily always start at 8 a.m. There’s a lot of waiting, and then suddenly you’re super busy, but the people who rise up quick are ready to do anything at a moment’s notice. It’s a grind, but there’s nothing else quite like it in the world. And most importantly, if you are interested and need help, please give us a call. I got my start because someone was kind enough to mentor me and take my dream seriously, and so I am committed to doing the same for others. Shatterglass regularly takes interns who very often get to work on set and at the very least get to hang out and talk movies. So don’t be afraid to give us a call or a visit, even if it’s just to get some advice.
Have you ever made any mistakes you’ve been able to learn from?
Constantly. Every week. Every day. This industry is fluid and constantly changing, and no production is the same and no set is the same, and you never stop learning. As soon as I feel like I know something, something happens to make me realize that I don’t know jack, and you learn it all over again. Working in movies is never-ending education, but it’s exhilarating, and a little humility goes a long way.
TECH TIDBITS ... from LUKE BOYCE
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? I really strongly prefer a physical product in my hands, but I admittedly read mostly on my iPad. Though it’s primarily comic books. I’m currently really loving a series that my close friend Tim Seeley is writing called “Dark Red” about vampire neo-Nazis in the South. In terms of books, I am reading the most recent title from one of my all-time favorite authors, Bart D. Ehrman, called “The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World.” Ehrman is a brilliant scholar focusing on the textual criticism of the New Testament and the historical Jesus, and I’ve consistently devoured most of his writings over the years.
Do you have any wearable electronics? I am actually a virtual-reality evangelist. I own both an Oculus Rift S and the new Oculus Quest, and I spend every single night within virtual worlds. Most often, it’s watching movies in virtual movie theaters on giant screens. I am patiently waiting for the world to fully discover the incredible possibilities that exist within this new medium and specifically, in the film world, I am beyond excited about the possibilities. Recently, I’ve begun storyboarding in virtual reality, where on a computer, I can place models in a space and then virtually step into that space and pose the models and use a virtual camera with different lenses to set my shots. In fact, Jon Favreau used VR to “virtually shoot” most of the new “Lion King” movie, where he and his crew visited a virtual set and placed cameras within it to essentially shoot the movie as they would in real life — only in this instance, everything was digital and they were on a virtual set. I honestly believe this technology is the future, and at the moment, if you have a headset of your own, I frequently host movie showings in a virtual theater where people can join me to watch movies together. It’s an absolute blast.
Do you have an entrepreneur hero? Maybe Walt Disney? I’ve read three Disney biographies because his story is so incredibly unique and riveting. Because people like him, while undeniably brilliant, were also not always great human beings, and I like to read stories about famous individuals’ journeys both as trailblazers as well as flawed individuals, and in doing so I quite often find myself learning what not to do when it comes to how you generally treat people and leave a legacy of not just your work but also of goodness and humanism.