||A sign which reads, “Welcome to Troublemaker Studios, Where Work is Play,” would not be out of place at the entrance to Shorts director Robert Rodriguez’s studio facility in Austin Texas. In reality there is no such sign but the facility’s unique character is a direct tribute to Rodriguez’s creativity and vision.
Set in rolling hills on the edge of Austin, the facility was once a municipal airport. Decommissioned aircraft hangars have been spruced up and converted into sound stages, craft workshops and art studios. The airport setting has other, less obvious, advantages too: under state jurisdiction, the filmmakers are allowed to set off explosions without a permit. This has been useful for Rodriguez, who is famous for blowing up any number of objects in his films, from imaginary devices like the transmooker in Spy Kids 2, to trucks, buildings and just about anything else he can think of.
Troublemaker Films has been based at the airfield since 2002 and every aspect of Rodriguez’s movies can be completed using the facilities both here and in a converted garage adjoining the Rodriguez family home a few miles away.
Rodriguez explains why he chooses this unconventional approach to filmmaking: “I believe home is where the dreams are, so that’s why I like to work at home. People ask, ‘Why do you do so many jobs?’ Well, you can see how fun much it is. I started that way and I want to finish that way.”
Robert Rodriguez’s films have always been family affairs, from his first short films, which featured his brothers and sisters, to his more recent features, the latest of which, Shorts, premieres around the world this summer.
Elizabeth Avellan, who produced the movie and is the mother of Rodriguez’s children, explains that she too finds a creative source in domestic life,
“ The inspiration, for me, has always been about family, about kids, about something our children enjoy.”
One of Avellan’s central roles during production is ensuring, not only that the child actors are present when they need to be, but also that they are happy. This takes more than a little creative thinking,
“Working with kids is unique,” she explains, “You always have to understand that they are children. Whenever I do a kids’ movie, I try to make sure we do tons of activities, like shaving cream fights, water balloon fights, going to movies together, making pizza.”
Entering Troublemaker Studios, the visitor is immediately aware that this is a powerhouse of creative activity. The walls are festooned with movie posters and art works; even the occasional musical instrument hangs on display in the high ceilinged room.
The sound stages themselves are home to an array of impressive equipment, including the largest green screen in Texas, as well as mementoes from past films, like half a model helicopter from Planet Terror.
Nearby is an art studio where members of Rodriguez’s creative team make sets and props alongside anyone else who feels that they would like to join in. The studio is not restricted to those who work here. In keeping with Rodriguez’s philosophy, everyone is invited to be as creative as possible and it is not unusual to see actors in the studio between scenes, giving free rein to their imagination.
This is one of the many unique aspects of filmmaking the Troublemaker way. Robert Rodriguez believes that everybody is as creative and multi-talented as he is himself. He encourages the people who work for him to learn as many skills as possible.
“I’ve built up a great team over the years, of people who all do multiple tasks,” he explains. “My prop guy started with me on From Dusk ‘til Dawn and by the time I did Planet Terror, he had just gotten way too good, so I said, ‘Okay, you’re now the production designer.’ Everybody is just so eager to work and do more because they know their potential is greater.”
Another advantage of this style of filmmaking is that several stages of the movie making process can happen simultaneously. According to Eleonora Avellan, an executive at Troublemaker Studios,
“Sometimes we are editing on-site as Robert is filming. He already has some music he wrote the night before and he’s putting it together at the scene and seeing if it works.”
This continual and all-inclusive style of filmmaking is not limited to adults. From their births, Robert Rodriguez has been filming his children, Rocket, Racer, Rebel, Rogue and Rhiannon. Starting with home videos of domestic events like the kids eating cereal, to which Rodriguez adds special effects (aliens flying past and loud crunching noises), the Rodriguez clan is being raised to see making movies as play.
It was this encouragement that gave Racer the confidence to think up the story of The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D. Then, as in all families, a little bit of brotherly one-upmanship crept into the process, as Robert explains:
“Rebel noticed Racer and I doing a lot of press together because Racer had come up with Shark Boy and Lava Girl, and he said, ‘I want to come up with the next idea, so I can talk about it.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you come up with a movie now?’ Straight away he said, ‘The Little Rascals.’ And I said, ‘That’s a really great idea.’”
The Little Rascals was a series of comedy short films for children, produced between 1922 and 1944. Rodriguez was excited by the prospect of doing a feature which incorporated this kind of episodic storytelling and linked back to his own early work as a maker of short films.
“I was pretty used to that format and liked it because short films are quick, self-contained units for short attention spans,” he notes. “So, I thought, ‘We should do a feature that way, where you’ve got four or five little stories but have them intersect.’ I liked Rebel’s idea and we just kind of ran with it.”
The central idea of Shorts — a wishing rock that falls to earth in the town of Black Falls and wreaks havoc among the kids and adults — also came from Rebel, who is the nature-lover in the family and enjoys exploring, hiking and fishing on the family’s property.
“I was just thinking of all these cool rocks I kept on seeing and I started to think, ‘Imagine if one of them could grant wishes and it was on our property,’” Rebel Rodriguez remembers. “Then I thought it should be rainbow-colored.”
His father adds, “The Wishing Rock was going to be its own separate story. They weren’t related, but I decided, ‘While all these fantastical events are happening, let’s link it to something.’ So we ended up linking it to the rock and that really tied everything together.”
The result is a magical fantasy adventure set in Black Falls, a suburban community where all the adults work for a corporation that manufactures a modern, do-it-all gadget called the Black Box. Life in the town is predictably dull until a mysterious rainbow rock falls from the sky in a storm. The rock grants a wish to anyone who finds it and very soon the town is overtaken by aliens, crocodiles and giant dung beetles. Eleven-year-old Toe Thompson, the longsuffering punch-bag for any Black Falls bully, grabs the rock when it is thrown at his head.
Toe quickly makes a wish, but like all the wishes in Shorts, Toe’s request - for a group of cool, interesting friends – does not turn out quite as he planned. Within the blink of an eye, he is surrounded by a group of diminutive extraterrestrials, whose attempts to help him cause mayhem.
Robert Rodriguez takes up the story,
“The rock gets passed from family to family until Mr Black, the guy who owns the entire neighborhood, gets a hold of it and tries to use it for his business and to take over the world. And it just shows that sometimes wishing for what you want isn’t a good idea.”
When Rodriguez began to think about Shorts and to discuss it with his kids, he realized that children have a particular way of telling stories and he aimed to transfer that onto the screen. “There’s a lot to learn from the simplicity of storytelling that a child can have, because they will retell a story in its simplest terms. And that’s always the best way.”
As befits a collaborative medium like filmmaking, the learning process between father and sons was not a one-way street, with the children learning some important life lessons as well, particularly when it came to the Wishing Rock itself.
When the idea of a magical rock first came up, Rodriguez asked Racer and Rebel what they would wish for. Rebel wished he had a butt for a head and Rocket said he’d like to be a potato. Robert trumped both boys by saying he’d wish for a million more wishes. He laughs, “And you could see their faces go, ‘Oh, we just wasted our wish.’ You could tell they hadn’t thought that big. So I thought, this is a perfect idea for a story.”
Now, when the brothers are asked what they would wish for, their answers are illuminating. Racer, like his father, says, “A million wishes. Then I’d wish for another rock, just in case one got lost.”
Rebel is content to settle for a little less, “I’d wish for ten more wishes so I can keep track of my wishes. Then the first wish I would make is that I had gills so I could swim in my pool all I want.”
The imaginative games did not end when production began on the movie, which had by now been given the title Shorts by Rebel, “Because the stories are short, the kids are short and they wear shorts.”
Eleonora Avellan remembers the shoot with affection, “Shorts was special. It was such an amazing movie experience. Everything clicked so well. It just went so smoothly.”
By all accounts there was a lot of laughter and fun on the set. Rebel, who won the part of Lug, one of the Shorts brothers in the movie, says, “The most fun thing on the movie was to have fun with the other kids. When we were not working, we sometimes played outside; we played ultimate hide-and-go-seek. We were behind the trailers a lot of times, under them. It was funny.”
While the children were hiding out under the trailers, visual special effects supervisor Jabbar Raisani was bouncing off the walls, literally, pretending to be a giant, out-of-control booger.
Playing back a scene in the film in which a giant Booger Monster—created with the help of the Wishing Rock—chases the characters of the film through a house, Raisani himself stood in for the monstrosity within a special effects suite on-site. “I had to wear a green suit,” he explains. “That’s me in there, with a stick, hitting all the stuff off the shelf and then running off the set. Digitally, we then added the Booger Monster where I was, so that way we get all this stuff getting knocked off the shelf.”
Meanwhile, digital effects artist Rodney Brunet was coming up with a model of a giant dust mite so that Rodriguez could get the shot he wanted of the character of Stacey Thompson walking into a decontaminator. “There was a dust mite shot in Shorts where Robert wanted to zoom into the eyelashes,” Brunet describes. “And so he picked an image he liked of a dust mite and we built it in 3-D. And then we basically rigged everything to be like a puppet, so that wherever I moved this thing, in time I could have the computer remember where it was.” The result? “It’s as if you were looking through an electron microscope.”
In the movie, all of these strange creatures come to life in a color-coordinated neighborhood, which art Director Caylah Eddleblute lent a hand in creating. As soon as she read the script, she came up with the idea of making very clear choices about color, “I think one of the first lines in the script describes a McMansion neighborhood, which gives you so many cues immediately. I came up with the color palette idea, which was all the grown-ups are in beiges, because basically when you grow up you become beige and when you’re a kid, you’re in color.”
No corners were cut to achieve this vision, with art department assistant Brian Gannon standing watch on set each day to make sure that even the appropriate colored cars were passing by when they should.
The set became a great backdrop for the unfolding of the story, which reveals the chaos that takes over a neighborhood when everyone can wish for what they want. Arms grow long enough to reach the ceiling, chocolate bars fly around, parents become conjoined twins and everyone is finally forced to decide what they really want out of life. The result is a movie that appeals to the whole family, as production designer Steve Joyner, explains, “Shorts is great because it’s a fun movie for both parents and children. I think everyone will get a kick out of the parent-child relationships and all the things that parents go through that drive them crazy, and all the ways children are driven crazy by their parents.”
For Robert Rodriguez, the movie was a chance to share some family fun with the audience. A favorite Rodriguez game is the blinking contest, which found its way into the script in the shape of a brother and sister called the Blinkers, who are having a permanent blinking competition throughout the film.
Although based in his daily life, Rodriguez’s films are, in his own words, “All fantasies, all made up worlds. Everything is a sort of dream”
The director often works all night in the family’s converted garage, which houses an editing facility and a music-recording studio. He finds the quiet hours after midnight are best suited to delving deep into his imagination and creating new worlds for his audience to enjoy. He adds,
“I like living in another world, even with the most mundane scene. I used to be a cartoonist and I guess it’s more of a cartoonist’s touch where you do a little twist on it or change it up in some way. But with these kinds of films, you just want to have that child-like exuberance. You try to free yourself up, and I find that easy to do. I’m just like that all the time.”