Katie Hall Goes Behind the Scenes with SAFTA Films & Atomic Oasis


SAFTA Films, alongside Atomic Oasis Productions, participated in the 7-Day Shootout for the recent Knoxville Film Festival. Filmmakers who participated had exactly seven days to film, edit, and produce a seven-minute movie. Here is a link to the Knoxville Film Festival 7-Day Shootout page. I was excited to work with a team of creative filmmakers who were willing to take on making a short-film in just one week! I am taking several film courses this semester at The University of Tennessee, but most of my previous experience with any film production is from my time as a news anchor for my high school. I knew I would be working with group of people who are in a more advanced level of filmmaking, and was eager to learn.

I served as a Production Assistant on set during the making of Atomic Oasis Productions’ short film entitled Freckles. There were talented actors/actresses, these great sound guys, and even a crucial person behind the scenes who handled the scripts, shot order, and schedule for the day (Kristi Larkin Havens). I performed the usual PA tasks such as getting coffee for the film crew, making sure the contest documentation was signed by participants, watched for continuity of the props on set (making sure props are in the same spot for each shot), and was responsible for “clapping.” My PA experience on the set of Freckles was highly informative and often hilarious (I’ll get to the funny moments in a bit).


Everyone met around 9:00 a.m. at the local Curiosities Metaphysical Shop to begin filming for the day. The day began with coffee, as everyday does for me. My first duty as a PA was to make the essential coffee run for the crew. This shop has everything from tapestries to unique gemstones, which provided the mystical feel that was necessary for the film. The director, Gabe Crutchfield from Atomic Oasis Productions, was welcoming and informative when it came to introducing me to their production team. His cameras were of interest to me, as I immediately noticed the compact size of them. They were newer, high definition cameras, which ended up being easier to move around and yielded more dynamic shots. In my previous experience with film sets, I am used to seeing larger cameras like they would use for a news broadcast. The new, smaller cameras showed me just how far cameras have come since my days as a high school news anchor. (If we had these smaller cameras back in the day, we could’ve done more things outside of the studio!)


Gabe assigned me the role of “clapper.” Before every shot I stood in front of the camera and verbally marked the scene and take numbers. I stood just outside the frame of each take in the film and used the clapperboard to keep track of each take. My role as “clapper” was the most involved of my jobs on set, and spanned through two days of filming. On the second day of filming, the cast and crew met at the home of a member of SAFTA, Vania Smkovski. It was on this day that I began to wonder if the clapping role was actually helpful. Gabe informed me that it provides a clear stopping point for editing purposes. He also mentioned that I was the first clapper he has ever used while making a film, so I was pleased to know that I was truly able to help the team!


The artistic and talented people I met from SAFTA Films and Atomic Oasis Productions all worked so well together to produce Freckles for the 7-Day Shootout. Working with a creative team was amusing, insightful, and full of detail oriented tasks. Some of the more intricate details included squeezing the crew into corners to avoid getting the “boom” (sound stick) in the frame. Often times, cameras and people were shifted around to make the shot work. During one of these moments on the first day of filming, one of the cameramen bent over to adjust his camera, and it was then that everyone in the room heard a shatter. His rear-end hit against the window and cracked it. Luckily the window was already broken! The day ended on that note and everyone laughed. I expected the process to be fun, but the people were the best part!

You can watch the finished film here:


Katie Hall is a student at the University of Tennessee but is originally from Chattanooga. She is majoring in English with a concentration in Technical Communications. Katie aspires to be an editor or technical writer subsequent to her graduation from UTK. As the Online Development Intern, she is eager to help increase SAFTA’s online presence by assisting in social media and web design.

SAFTA Films and Birdhouse Theater Present…

Open Screen Night Featuring Locally Shot Film, Macbeth!



On Monday, November 24th, the Birdhouse Walk-In Theater and SAFTA Films will be proudly showing the film Macbeth, directed by Rob Simpson, as a part of their monthly Open Screen Nights. In support of local and regional filmmakers, The Birdhouse and SAFTA Films curate these screenings to provide a space for Knoxville artists to showcase their work for free to an audience. The screenings take place on the last Monday of every month at 7:45PM.

In this post-apocalyptic iteration of Shakespeare’s tragedy, shot completely in Knoxville and the surrounding areas, Macbeth is a powerful general in the king’s army who receives a vision that he will be king from a trio of witches. Taking destiny into his own hands he and his vicious wife, Lady Macbeth, plot the murder of their king. In the murders wake Macbeth and Lady Macbeth scramble to maintain a hold of their newfound throne. Facing rebellion on all sides, the tyrant Macbeth stops at nothing to silence all those who oppose his rule.

Director Rob Simpson majored in English literature at the University of Tennessee before going on to attend the New York Film Academy. After producing a number of short films in New York City, he moved back to Knoxville to work in film and television. Before Macbeth, he had produced and directed two other original versions of Shakespeare’s plays: Hamlet and Twelfth Night.

This screening will also showcase short films by Knoxville filmmakers John Fairstein, Mitch Moore, Cary Wolfe, Jacob Boyd, and Clinton Elmore.

Open Screen Nights take place at the Birdhouse Community Center in the Fourth and Gill Neighborhood in North Knoxville. The Walk-In Theater also holds screenings of popular movies every Monday night beginning at 8PM. All screenings are free and open to the public, though donations are always accepted. Free popcorn is provided.

If you are a filmmaker and would like to have your work featured at an Open Screen Night, the Birdhouse and SAFTA Films are accepting submissions for the 2015 season. Contact Blake Wahlert at blakejwahlert@gmail.com and Vania Smrkovski at vania@sundresspublications.com for more information on how to submit.

Tiffany Stalsworth on the 2013 Grindhouse Grind-Off Shoot

Another autumn is upon us and for film makers in East Tennessee that means another festive season of bonfires, haunted houses, and, of course, our beloved Knoxville Horror Film Festival.

Offered in this film festival is a competition section known as the Grind House Grind Out, where thrill seeking artisans have the opportunity to make a genuine 1970’s horror film trailer for a movie that only exists in our minds, and is unique in how the thought process behind the trailer has to be planned out. Twenty to thirty teams participate in the competition each year, choosing from horror genres for anything from slasher movie to women in prison.

My husband, Jamison Stalsworth, and I have been participating in the grind house competition since it first started in 2011, winning best team the first year and best retro page, best overall trailer, and audience choice in 2012 for “Cannibal Santa.” The last two years have been challenging considering our team consisted of only Jamison, his best friend Austin Webb, our composer Cory Mollenhour, myself, and then a few last minute actor volunteers.

This year we were fortunate to have a good friend, Vania Smrkovski, introduce us to the SAFTA establishment. Right away, we fed off of the energy of this enthusiastic group. Joining up with them has been an amazing experience that we are very grateful for, and has made this film festival an enjoyable journey filled with laughter and new friendships. Jamison and I have worked with many different filming teams in the Knoxville area, and this has by far been the most positive group of people we have ever filmed with.

Have it be in front of the camera or behind the scenes, everyone was willing to jump in and do what was needed to be done, and everyone kept a wonderful attitude during the entire process. Erin Smith opened up her farm for filming, fed us, and let me cover her in blood; a team leader can’t ask for much more! Working with the amazing people of SAFTA again is not only something I look forward to, but something I yearn for.

And now you can watch our award-winning trailer, “The Curse of the Wereclown”!


Tiffany Stalsworth is part of the Dr. Moon Rat film making team. She specializes are co-directing and producing while working with her husband, Jamison, who runs the team.

“Surviving Editing: A Tale of Woe & Inspiration to Aspiring Screenwriters” (Part 2/2 from Courtney Vastine)

I had met this band of writers one week prior at an impromptu party. I fell in love with all of them immediately. While in college, my performance activities and on and off-campus jobs kept me from really getting to know many of my fellow creative writing majors outside of class.

So a chance to hang with literary brainiacs excited me. When the evening finished with a viewing of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, I knew I’d be their stage five clinger. They were smart; they were funny. They were off-beat and the conversations were varied had weight and thoughtfulness. Finding you are home among a brand-new group of people is quite liberating.

So at Greens, I peered through the smoke (almost all these people smoke, and this should tell you how much I love them that I gladly risk my lungs and extra-dry hair from needing to wash that smell out just to be around them as often as possible) and I sat down beside Erin Elizabeth Smith, my new hero who is the creator of SAFTA and basically one of the most talented, proactive, helpful, learned women I’ve ever met. And I need to mention her infectious laughter and positive excitement about new ventures mean that you can’t help but find her endearing.

The group had already been discussing story for about a half an hour and the original idea that Vania Smrkovski had come up with was slowly being eradicated. I recognized that look of “Okay, I’m going to be a team player, but I really liked my idea and I’m trying hard not to show my disappointment,” etched on his face and felt pity.

We’ve all been there (this is what you call foreshadowing, don’t miss it) with our perfect ideas that someone shoots down because they don’t share our vision. It’s always worse to have someone you really like reject your idea. You lose your place in the universe for awhile and question the meaning of life. Yes, it’s really that bad. Depending on how socially aware you are determines if you will throw a tantrum, find a hole to hide in or pretend not to be devastated promising yourself a good hard cry and a bottle of wine later.

So, we round robin. I skip my first turn because I want to see the train of thought. These writers are new to film and they have their own agendas. “Let’s not be cliche,’” “No stereotypes,” “How can we entertain, dazzle and simultaneously create something that enhances humanity?”


We writers have such high aspirations, and again, I see Vania’s face and I realize while these are noble things and what makes me love these people for wanting to create something fantastic, our film has to be done in one week and can only be seven minutes long. We have a lot to do, and affecting humanity and movie short history might not be able to be achieved in only a week by film making novices.

So, on the final round many sound disagreements are had. Great ideas are dismissed. There is a lot riding on this film. It’s the first showing for SAFTA, and for the same reason I held off being on a team because I wanted to make sure I would be great, this film also must be great. So I do it. I bravely tell this new group of friends the idea I came up with in February while visiting a friend.

My ego does backflips as they all begin laughing. They love it. I’m a hit! I’ve proven I’m capable of having a good idea. My ego is almost too large to fit through the door as we agree to bring our thoughts and story lines to the meeting the following night. I’ve had an idea for a short film that people whom I admire think is worthy. It’s a good night. (Lightening and thunder clap).

The next morning I get up and to my own amazement, I type out a screenplay in three hours. The girl who hasn’t written creatively for herself since Senior Seminar just wrote a seven minute film. I set up each scene. Create locations. Suggest film angles. The language was believable and I’m beyond pleased with myself because I’ve not only produced something I’m excited about, I’ve put down a concept that’s been circling my brain for months.

I truly believe I’ve just saved the team hours of story writing and we can just fine tune my script (see, I can admit I’m not perfect) and decide on locations, gather props, contact the actors, set up the shots and we’ll be editing by Monday ahead of schedule! I throw on my dance clothes, pick up my son from school, deliver him to his father’s house, teach my classes and head to North Knoxville.

This, is a successful woman, ladies and gentleman. Today I have it all going on. Two snaps in a circle. If he was available, Moses would part the Tennessee River and allow me to drive through. I’m awesomeness with curves. Life is good. Hindsight: If this were Dr. Horrible, I’m Captain Hammer. (Heavy downpour).

Several people arrived with script ideas. Wasn’t that cute? I generously sit quietly as we listen to the reads. Others just have some story ideas. And while this is all great, this is MY idea. How could these people possibly see inside my brain? It’s all very charming.

I sit like the preverbal cat that swallowed the canary and nod like a queen, generously. My script generates laughter. There is no stopping me now. The group takes a smoke break out on the porch. One other non-smoker and I stay inside and chat while the clan is outside.

They come back and announce that they’ve decided to use Rhonda Lott’s script. What? Suddenly I’m Rachel Green on Friends who just got cut out of a trip to Milan and input on the fall line because she didn’t go outside to smoke. As Chandler might say, “Could I BE anymore insulted?”

I can tell you about this next part now because I have to explain that I didn’t know Rhonda then, and, quite frankly, when you have your heart ripped out you could be standing next to Mother Theresa and you’d still want to scream and kick her.

Rhonda’s script? I can only imagine what my non-humble face looked like. This must have been the reason Vania (remember, the one who had his heart ripped out the day before?) quickly said, we’ll take the best of all these ideas and put them together.

He threw me a bone saying, Courtney’s montage idea is great. We definitely want to include that.” I can’t look at Rhonda (who by the way, I need to explain is, much like Erin, another awesome lady to whom I’m thrilled to cling). I recently got to hear her read her poetry and she knocked me on my rump with her ability to paint pictures in my head and have me laughing and crying almost simultaneously.

She also happens to paint (not bedrooms like me, but actual pictures) and just made a mural of Sylvia Plath for the SAFTA house–yeah, a whole freaking mural. Two words: she rocks.  She’s hypertalented, but at this moment I’m not able to see Rhonda’s talent; only my own field of red that once Vania’s living room and a bunch of people who I thought adored me and my fabulous idea. They’ve murdered my screenplay baby. The Tennessee River just unparted, my emotions are a bloodbath; my rational brain is drowning in obscenities.

I shoot a look at Chauncy Gardner, Vania’s Yorkie and innocent bystander, and he runs into the other room for cover. Fortunately, this slaps me into save face mode. I have it together enough to remember, I’m part of a team.

Already, rational Courtney is doing damage control. “They are writers, too! And good ones! They liked your story, and Rhonda had a lot of good stuff in hers. This is your first attempt at team writing. These are good people, sure it’s a little disappointing, but it will be okay.”


I was moving quickly through the stages of loss and grief. Stage One: Denial: Surely I didn’t hear that correctly. Rhonda’s script? Stage Two: Anger: Did I mention the blood and obscenities? Stage Three: Bargaining–ah, here we go.

Because I’ve been asked to be a production assistant on this film, I pull out my computer and crouch behind the screen, bitter and crumpled. We need to start piecing the story together. I watch as poor Rhonda’s script gets decimated by the group, including me. Some of my original stuff gets put back in which eases some of my pain.

And then, the scene I loved best in Rhonda’s story (because I actually through veiled jealousy can see talent) gets cut and I can finally look at her and feel some solidarity. Her best scene just got chopped by the group.

Who am I kidding? This process is hell on all of us. We’re all strong willed but not disagreeable. We all have learned how to play nice in a group (I have a feeling we were all those kids in college when assigned to a group ended up doing 90% of the work on our own while the others were busy partying).

And quite frankly, this is one of the best groups of participators I’ve ever seen. Everyone is putting fourth effort and is excited about the project. Once the script is hashed out, we all go home and prepare for the three days of filming ahead of us.

At home in my bed I hit the depression stage of grieving. Only a mere eight hours before I had been happily typing out a script and now I’ve seen my original idea transform into something I barely recognize.

Once you’ve watched your own baby grow into a walking toddler, you’re really not that interested in someone else’s baby, especially when they’ve Frankensteined your baby. I pull out my phone and type three messages to three friends who are also writers and working with different film teams and whine about my predicament, fully acknowledging that I’m being a diva.

They all three respond kindly, two in particular give me the “been there done that” virtual hug of friendship and reassure me that I’ll have plenty more screenplay babies in the future and also not to be afraid to defend my idea.

I feel better, shed a few tears and go to sleep. (Yes, it’s a seven minute film. I shed tears. This is the artistic process. We’re passionate. That’s how this stuff gets created. We care about the smallest detail and can easily lose sight of the bigger picture when the red pen of change heartlessly crosses out our self-perceived brilliance).

The next three days cement my love of SAFTA. I’ve never been around a better group of doers. People offer their houses and work places for locations, costumes are gathered, delicious home cooked food is provided.

By Sunday, we’re rapping filming early and enjoying lunch together at Aubrey’s when there are other teams who are just starting and will be up all night. Our camera man and editor has stayed up late and gives us a sneak peak of some of the scenes and we all laugh and are pleased. This film has truly been a group effort from a group of newbies (with the exception of our editor, thank God because we all know that editing room is where the real film is made.)

I look around during our relaxed lunch and realize that I’ve been a part of something special and couldn’t have asked for a better way to learn a hard lesson. Don’t go into a room full of writers and not expect to be rewritten. It’s their job, it’s what they do.


And ironically, as a choreographer, I already knew this. Why it took this experience to get me to understand this lesson for writing is one I’ll need to ask a shrink someday. And never take criticism personally. It’s perspective from everyone’s own point of view that makes us who we are with our own flair and specialness. It’s that individual take that allows interesting things to happen.

In the film editing process quite a few scenes must be sacrificed. Actors who shared their skills for free will not be a part of the final film because there is simply not enough time to get in all these brilliant moments. Everyone has experienced cuts, to the story to their scene, to their ideas, to their jokes.

We’ve all felt the rush of needing to hurry to get everything filmed in time for the deadline. Welcome to Stage Five, Acceptance. What we see is that we have by no means a perfect film, but even better, a really good one created collaboratively, filled with planned moments, improvisation, and serendipitous events: mixed drinks that came with little swords that Erin realized could be a sword fight, Kara’s adorable golden retriever that Vania suggested become our pirate’s first mate, a talented cast of actors featuring our fearless leading man who completely immersed himself in the character and sacrificed blood flow to his leg to create a peg leg site gag, Bob and Erin who had great ideas about our landmark and how to make the most of the scene and further our story that ended up winning us an award, “Effective Use of Landmark,” a Market Square passerby that happened to be taking a walk with her cockatiel and allowed us to use him for filming and a host of other magic film making moments that went so smoothly we could barely believe it. And countless more ideas that I’m forgetting.

We discover talents some of our writers have that we definitely want to plan more films for because they have lovely ideas that won’t work for this project but would make a kick ass movie at a later date. We happily left the awards feeling very proud of our little pirate movie.

In retrospect, I can’t tell you that I don’t have a secret desire to still paste my original script at the end of this blog and beg you to confirm that it was great, but that’s what makes me a writer and someone who will definitely try again to do many more screenplays. Because I learned that I can.

I can create a concept and bring it through to the page. I didn’t know if I had it in me prior to this project. It was a gut wrenching experience that gave me courage, strength and perseverance and I’m thankful I had it with the best group of new friends I could ask for, smoke and all. Next up: Grindhouse Trailer.


Courtney Vastine first became involved with SAFTA as a writer with the group’s 2013 Seven Day Shoot Out team for the Knoxville Film Festival. Vastine has degrees in both English with Creative Writing emphasis and Dance from Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. She’s been working as a choreographer and dance teacher for over a decade and recently began acting and has appeared in several television shows, independent films and community theatre. Before dancing full time, Vastine gained skills in marketing and creative services at a successful firm in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“Surviving Editing: A Tale of Woe and Inspiration to Every Aspiring Screenwriter” (Part 1/2 from Courtney Vastine)

This past September I participated in a film competition with my new favorite group of people, Sundress Academy of the Arts, or SAFTA for short. This new association is my first exploration into this world of artists addicted to capturing story on film the way I’m addicted to setting movement to music as a choreographer and sculpting sentences to evoke feeling and thought through creative writing. It’s a subject I don’t know a whole lot about, but have been eager to study since I became aware of the fierce independent filmmaker community in Knoxville back in 2011.

I was invited to participate in an opener for the 7-day Shootout film competition for the Knoxville Film Festival. I had recently choreographed the play Annie Get Your Gun, and the talented actor who played Buffalo Bill invited the cast and crew to be extras. I pieced together a cowgirl outfit and spent a very fun day on set and marveled at the level of talent we have in our small area.

When I attended the shootout, I discovered that Buffalo Bill, aka Keith McDaniel, was kind of a big deal in that he was the creator and producer of this large and successful film festival that brought in talent from across the U.S. 

I was hooked and after receiving a call from an agent who saw my fifteen seconds on screen, my dabbling into acting became official. I’ve participated in quite a few reenactment shows shot locally and learned a lot (mainly by messing up) about being a film actor. Sometimes by receiving help from the director and other times seeing myself on TV and thinking, “Oh my God!  Why didn’t anyone tell me I was doing that!??”


Mortification is a great learning tool. I liken how much I know about this genre to someone in my dance world taking beginner tap. But I continue to take acting classes and am gaining confidence to swim a little deeper into the pool with each project. I’d say I’m up to about three feet and I’ve taken off the floaty wings.

I had attended the festival as a patron for two years before I finally had the nerve to try to get myself on a team. I’m a perfectionist and I wanted to do a job worthy of being asked to participate again (Biggest fear: Oh no, not that dancing girl and some horrible comment about not being able to act her way out of a paper bag).

During a writing workshop, a mutual friend introduced me to a friend of hers, Vania Smrkovski, also a stage actor who was exploring film. We ran into each other at random plays, acting events and on set and became jolly acquaintances.

When I found out he was putting a team together for the shootout and all the regular stuff wasn’t working like pathetically posting on the Film Festival page, “If anyone needs an actor or a little song and dance, I’d love to help! I also have a writing degree and have been known to spin a yarn or two.

Bless Buffalo Bill’s heart.  He at least responded about loving song and dance and liked my status, I pushed the boundaries of that cursory friendship with Vania by brazenly typing in a Facebook message along the lines of, “Hey, if you need someone to hold a light, I’m available!”

So we bantered back and forth about story lines and he offered to bring me on as a writer. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. I needed stuff for my acting reel, dammit, but, yeah, okay, great. I do enjoy writing and had been wanting to get back to it, but screenwriting was something I knew very little about.

I wax poetic through prose–and hadn’t waxed anything other than floors since 1999 when I turned in my senior writing project and decided I needed a dance break–literally. But I did offer to, “hold a light or whatever,” so after my last dance class was over, I headed over to Green’s Tavern on a Wednesday night to help brainstorm our storyline. We now had our genre and task assignments: comedy and the use of an East Tennessee landmark.

To Be Continued…

Vania Smrkovski on SAFTA’s First Film (Part 6/6 “It’s a Wrap, or Making the Most of What You Have”)

If a film is making a baby, it’s making a baby with about fifteen thumbs, twenty five pinkies, a few abdomens, three heads, twelve livers of varying size and color, a couple of spleens and seven eyes and then passing it on to someone to say “Here, it’s a boy. Or a girl. Or… something. Make something out of it and let us know how it turns out.” You have a good idea of what you started to create. But in the end, you have very little idea what you actually have.

There is no possible way to overstate the importance of a good film editor.

Initially, when our final script ended up ringing in a hefty 12 pages, I made the decision to cut, cut, cut!!! I was pretty merciless. It was an interesting exercise, for this still-inexperienced writer, in making decisions that every writer makes. What is this scene adding to the story? How is this advancing the story arc? What is this line really adding? This is funny, but is it taking precious seconds away that we need to keep our film under 7 minutes?

The end result of this slaughter house madness of editing was an 8 ½ page story that was tight, funny, well-paced, and a minute and a half too long, if the page-per-minute rule was any guide. I made the decision at the time to cut even more, but found myself unsatisfied with the story that remained. The transitions toward the ending were clumsy and sudden. But coming in at just under 7 pages, I didn’t think I had any better script. I shared each revision with my co-writers, and then began shooting.

Well, there is a judgment call in filmmaking that every director and his team needs to make: do you make the cuts from the script in advance, as I did; or do you make the film the script as-written and leave it to the editor to use the extra material to create something useful in the allotted time?

I made my call based on a simple need to make this, my first time as team lead, first time actually directing a short film, as simple a process as possible. But after a few discussions with my team, knowing that my shortened script was not something I was happy with, we decided that maybe a happy middle ground might be the better route.

So we re-added some of the scenes I had cut, spent the next three days getting all of the scenes shot. We still ended up cutting most of the same material. But I have to say it was the right call. Rob, our editor, was able to pull together more than a few bits from the scenes we’d shot. If we’d left it the way I had it, I’m certain — while we would have found solutions to the clumsy bits I knew were still there — we wouldn’t have had as much material for editing, and the end result could easily have been lacking.

Showing The Films


Film submitted, our fair share of adult beverages consumed in relief and celebration, and a lot of meditation and sleep to catch up on the madness of a week’s hard work, the time came for….

…for a long, long wait. The festival, itself, was a month after the 7 Day Shootout submissions.

This builds more than a little anticipation.

But at last we had our chance to show off SAFTA’s inaugural film. Presented in the company of 24 teams, the largest in the history of the Secret City/Knoxville Film Festival, our film, “Man Overboard”, was the second one to be shown.

We got our laughs.

We got more than a few laughs.

For that alone, we were all proud.

And we were in good company. There were many great films shown, some technically outstanding, some strong in story, some in pacing, some in dialog. I had friends acting in or otherwise involved in most of the other submissions. Even if we didn’t get any awards, it was great to be able to attend a festival showing as an actual contributor this time.

The awards ceremony, though, was an event unto itself. Given that the film festival covers not only the 7 Day Shootout submissions, but also a wide variety of general submissions for short films, features and documentaries, the theater was filled nearly to capacity.

Awards were presented in two tranches: general submissions first, and then the 7 Day submissions. Categories for the general films were generally limited to Best-Of types, broken down into documentary, short, feature, and so forth. The 7 Day awards, though, were much more complete. Best acting (male/female), best supporting (male/female), best example of each genre, best use of element (that is, best use of an East Tennessee landmark), best story and three places for best film.


We hoped for at least Best Actor, as our lead was really outstanding. But then, there were other terrific actors, too.

In the end, we didn’t get Best Actor. But we did get Best Use of Element! (We used a very visible statue on Gay Street of a man in a boat to set off our character’s love of fishing, and to heighten his transformation into a pirate, and there was a terrific shot where our pirate removes his peg leg — yes, our pirate had a peg leg by the end of the film — and the boatman’s arm offered us a terrific reveal!)

 What We Learned

What did we learn?  SAFTA is, after all, primarily an environment that allows you to look at what you do objectively and critically, to learn how to look at what you create to find ways to grow as a creative. It only makes sense that we “eat our own dog food”, as it were, and use this project as a teaching moment.

First and foremost, our takeaway is that we are two mindsets in one organization. Prior to joining SAFTA, there were already well-established processes and expectations. The whole point of doing a light-touch film project was to flush out how these processes would work in the context of filmmaking. And it’s not so much a matter of “Do poets work differently than screenwriters?”. It’s an organizational issue. How do we, as people in that organization, work together? How well do we communicate? Are our objectives and expectations in sync?

We found ourselves with a grand total of one tense moment among the core team, an issue centered on my decision to cut material from the script rather than allow the 12 minute script to be filmed and then cut in post. The tension, we decided, was partly a matter of my efforts to inform my co-writers of my changes not being sent with enough urgency to get their attention. Everyone on the team has day jobs, and everyone put in a lot of time in the story planning and writing. Having my mail bombs of script adjustments pile up in their email inboxes, from their perspective, didn’t adequately convey the extreme measures I was taking on the script.

Once they did begin to appreciate how much the script had been altered — and more to the point, how much the story suffered due to the extreme cuts — the flip side of the tensions made themselves apparent. Out of their very real anxiety over how poorly our first SAFTA production could potentially be received, we had a discussion about reintroducing the missing story elements. However, as we discovered in later discussions, I was in director-mode, and was unprepared for how to process in changes to the story on my first effort as team leader and director. The story I had hacked out of our first draft, such as it was, was a story I owned in my mind. I had complete mastery of it. I knew how I wanted it shot, I had ideas of how I might approach the gaps I had left behind. The sudden introduction of new elements by the writing team, members of whom I held (and hold) enormous respect (and who secretly intimidated me just a bit) put me in in a state of anxiety. I no longer had mastery of what I was filming. My ADD-addled brain lost its ability to hold any thought longer than a few minutes. And every time we moved to a new scene, now that the writers were there, I was finding that every decision I was making was not the decision we had previously agreed upon, so I was, naturally, getting reminders — read that from the perspective of my increasing anxiety as “I was getting corrected” — and my stress levels started to climb.

Now, from the perspective of film and stage performance, there is an understood gospel that one never undercuts the director’s decisions. Especially in front of other people. Ask most actors, and they’ll tell you that even if the director is doing a questionable job, continuing in the production as-is is preferable to having any single actor defy the director and challenge her or his decisions in front of the cast and crew. It’s considered unprofessional, arrogant, and it creates an atmosphere of tension among the cast that affects the way they work together.


As an actor, I will go to great efforts to turn my frustrations with disorganized or misguided director decisions into deeper focus on my own performance, or strategy sessions with other cast members. If I feel the problems with the director are dire, I may consider approaching the director privately to see if I can somehow bring up my concerns and give the director a chance to consider new options.

Here, we were dealing with a group of writers, some of whom were core SAFTA leadership. I was unprepared with new story elements I had no mastery over. I was anxious. And they were — as senior team members — providing me helpful reminders when I was misremembering our plans.

Well…. put simply, we discovered that we needed to take a close look at how we communicate, and how each member of the team is prepared and supported in their role of the process. Erin and I call it our “first marital spat” (we have been friends far longer than we’ve been co-board members on SAFTA and have always enjoyed frank and intense conversations on pretty much any topic, so the tensions we both felt were of extra importance to us). In future project, we decided, we plan to spend more time exploring the process in a way that ensures we have a strong story going in, that we have a story that will be flexible enough to allow the editor options should scenes be dropped or altered, we plan to find ways to appreciate the role of the director — whoever that person may be — and support her or him in ways that minimize tension and conflict.

I learned first-hand new ways that my stresses can undercut how I work — and that’s always a good thing. It ‘s the only way you learn to find new solutions.

And SAFTA learned that we had talented team capable of winning awards!

 Final Cut

We’ve already begun work on another film project, a collaboration with Jamison and Tiffany Stalsworth on a Knoxville Horror Film Festival Grindhouse Grindout competition. With them in the lead, SAFTA provided actors, the space of the farm and a bar, costuming and props and our time. Each time we work with new people, we learn more about the local community and how we can serve it most effectively, and we learn more about the process of making movies in the 21st century.

We plan to shoot a short film every quarter — a short film is planned for late December — and are currently in planning stages for our first feature length film. Workshops on various aspects of filmmaking are also gearing up, with assistance from the many filmmakers we have in our network.

And we’d like your involvement, too. To find out more about SAFTA and our programs and services, please visit our Facebook page or our website. As we continue our work, we’ll be posting our videos online.

If you’d like to take part in a workshop on screenwriting, acting or any technical aspect of filmmaking like cinematography, editing, lighting or sound, let us know. Or if you feel you’re ready, submit a screenplay or story idea, or just come and volunteer your time! Our entire Performing Arts group has lots of room for growth, and we would love anybody with vision and dedication.

Besides, where else can you get writing, firearms, cooking, cinematography and painting assistance all in one place?

No place else but at Sundress Academy for the Arts!

Vania Smrkovski on SAFTA’s First Film (Part 5/6 “The Shoot”)

Part of the problem with no-budget, time-limited film competitions is you have to find actors, props, locations, crew and equipment, and you have to have it all and impose on people you actually like, and then force them to endure what is generally a big inconvenience.

 And in no area of filmmaking is this more true than with locations.

 A couple of years ago, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition chose Knoxville as the area for their final episode of the series. I happened to have a condo right off the street. I was excited. I was proud. Everyone else I knew was really, really fucking irritated.

 Traffic was a nightmare. Local homeowners had to deal with terrible traffic jams and tell people “no, I really live here, I need to fucking get home!”

 In spite of the fact that SAFTA is made up of people that not only respect each other, but also kind of think everyone else is pretty cool and fun company, the fact is, making a movie is a disruption on the lives of people that, at best, find what you’re doing kind of cool, but aren’t prepared for what is actually being asked of them.

 Put simply, we needed a home and a doctor’s office for our shoot. We had people willing to provide them.

 Tensions were high.

 Yep. You read that right. People were willing to help. Tensions were high.


 A seven minute movie. Get that into your head, for starters. And within that, a scene in a home that will last — okay, let’s think now — less than 7 minutes. In fact something along the lines of 2 or maybe three minutes. Or two doctor’s office scenes, that will, in total, make up a matter of a minute and a half in the final film.

Should be a matter of an hour or two tops, right?

Cue massive, insanely maniacal laughter rolling on and on and on and on and….

I mean, this is an aspect of filmmaking that never ceases to fascinate me.

You can put it all on paper — everything that is required for a shoot. You can itemize that a single scene will:

  • end up lasting maybe a minute in the final product,
  • any single shot, which in itself may represent a few seconds, will require something on the order of ten or twenty different shots from different angles, with different lighting, different acting interpretations
  • each shot will potentially require the moving, checking, retesting, relocating, retesting and relocating (please recurse the previous clauses a few more times) of lighting until the particular 1 second segment of film is something that will be potentially useful for a shot
  • each shot will have a microphone that, when done well, is sensitive enough to hear a firefly fart in the neighbor’s yard, and thus requires silence. Absolute silence. Silence of the very people who are excited that they are taking part in a terrific movie project, and want to celebrate with a gin and tonic, in the company of their friends, while they pass the time, whispering, or maybe not whispering, or maybe laughing hysterically at some joke — or the very people who are running an active medical practice and need to maintain a professional veneer among their clients, and therefore run a business, and therefore…
  • not only does a film shoot require the unloading and loading of lighting equipment, cameras, tripods, boxes of props and costumes, the arrival of actors that think a one o’clock start time is a good indication of when it’s time to take a shower and get dressed, but that each individual shoot will, by microcosmic extension, require most of the props, costume elements, lighting, cameras, microphones, cables and actors — actors in the bathroom, actors taking a smoke break while the lighting was set up, actors lost in the yard going over the lines or taking a phone call, take several minutes on average just getting set up, in spite of the fifteen seconds that will actually be filmed
  • each shot is on a set of an imaginary character that will likely not have your grandmother’s urn on the mantel, or the prized bible on your shelf, or a bed next to the window with the sun shining through that is making the camera useless because the shot is impossible to take, or be as orderly and clean as you had it because — of course — you wanted to make the place look good for guests oh my god what have you done with my are you going to pick up there are dirty dishes on the fucking floor is that red fake blood going to wash out okay that was my favorite childhood blankie for christ’s sake get the hell out of my house and never speak to me again!!!



You could itemize all of this to your happily willing victims who are contributing their homes, and yet when it all actually happens, there simply is no preparation for the fact that even the most “easy, in and out, quick, no problem” shoot could easily stretch into several hours and well into the evening.

So, yes.

Tensions were high.

Our own SAFTA chair loves her home. Loves entertaining, having parties, feeding, sharing alcohol, entertaining at the wonderful home she and her boyfriend have. But they love their home because it’s their domain.

And a film crew, god love us all, is going to uproot you for a while and ask you to love every minute even as you grit your teeth and say “No problem. No problem at all.”

Which is exactly what happened at their home. And at the vet clinic we used the next day in lieu of an actual human-doctor’s office. And at the local university office space we used for a shoot that didn’t even end up in our final submission.

And I love them for every bit they endured.


We did our shoots. We tried our best to minimize the pain we inflicted on the friends who were so generous with their space and time. We tried our best to put Grandma’s urn back in place, then move the bed where we found it, to feed people, to thank people, and to get out of their hair as quickly as we could possibly manage.

And after a very respectable three days of shooting, we had everything that we were going to have. A follow-up conversation with local musician Laith Keilaney to make arrangements for our soundtrack, and now it was up to Rob Simpson, our cinematographer and film editor, to see if we provided him enough grist to make something good.

Vania Smrkovski on SAFTA’s First Film (Part 3/6 “The Kickoff – or ‘What does Agley Actually Mean?'”

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”

So goes the old trope, and I’ve lived by it in my many years in the corporate world. Another related one is an old military principle passed on to me as “The 70% Rule”: when beginning an ambitious project, lay out your plans until you are 70% there, and then get moving. After a while, you’ll figure out the remaining 30%, and much of what you planned changes.

These principles quickly proved to be useful.


We had our Kickoff event among the largest number of teams in the history of the Secret City/Knoxville Film Festival. Twenty-four teams met up at Pelancho’s, drank margaritas, ate deep fried avocado, and thus prepared, we listened as Keith McDaniel welcomed everyone and announced the required elements for this year’s competition. Each team would, in turn, draw their genre from a small pool of cards labeled with such options as “drama”, “comedy”, “action/thriller”, “horror” and “inspirational”. The only other required element was that each film must include some East Tennessee landmark.

Our genre was comedy. Our favored story idea would be perfect. We had this in the bag.

To handle the large number of writers, the plan was to have our writers meet the evening of the kick-off and discuss our story ideas in the light of the elements we were given. Then, everyone would be sent home with instructions to write up their own version of a screenplay for this story. On night number two, we would discuss the screenplays and decide which one was the strongest story, borrowing the elements from the other scripts as needed.


Seeing as we had already had our favored story ready — a story of two generations of women meeting for a family reunion suddenly confronted by an injured man in their yard, and of the ensuing conversation of values, love, expectations, sexuality and adventure while they transported the injured man to a car so he could get to the emergency room — I figured we’d have most of the work done by nightfall. The story had lots of potential for drama, comedy, adventure and was sure to have some real impact.

Quickly, it became clear that I was in the minority in this view. I think there was a sense that if a story was not outright comedic, it might be rejected. In my experience, the film festivals have a wide latitude in how strictly submissions are held to the required elements. In a recent festival, a requirement of a “bounty hunter” in the films resulted in characters who were, in fact, bounty hunters, characters who were supernatural, but simply referred to themselves as bounty hunters, hired thugs — a number of films had characters who simply searched for Bounty paper towels! I felt pretty confident that a comedy/drama would very easily work for the genre of comedy.

After consulting with the team, it soon became clear that the notion of our story as a comedy might not be a perfect fit. I opened the table to a round robin of alternative suggestions.

And the night wore on and on, seemingly forever.

I love creatives of all stripes. Especially writers. There are no right or wrong answers, but there are always strong opinions. SAFTA‘s group is filled with a wide variety of writers. Many are academics, PhDs, teaching classes, already published. Some are in the final year toward a bachelors program. Many are poets, some do fiction, some blogs. Most have interests in more than one or two creative areas. We have painters and photographers. We have performers. We have mixologists, cooks, home-brewers. Everyone has already learned that they are expected to offer their unvarnished critique, and everyone knows to accept critique without taking things personally. No one at a SAFTA workshop is telling you that you suck as a writer. You’ll have to figure that out on your own. Whether you’ve never published a single fortune cookie or poem in your life, or you’ve been a bestseller on the New York Times book review, you can guarantee that every person at a SAFTA workshop will point out the aspects of your draft that aren’t working well, or should be dropped outright. You’ll know the honest opinion of everyone there, and it’s up to you to decide how to use it.

And these were the people I had as my writing team.


In the end, what began as a brainstorming session ended up being a night of thorough debate and prodding of every idea that had been pitched (my own favorite ideas had been rejected in the first fifteen minutes).

I began to despair. Not because this wasn’t constructive, quite the opposite. This was a very exciting way to get our first movie project off to a great start.

Perhaps we could take a classic Grimm’s Fairy Tale/Mother Goose/Disney story and twist it somehow. Have the vulnerable princess played by a dude. Have the knight in shining armor played by a woman. Cool! How would that work, then? These pitches were exciting, and every story had its advocate. But in the end, each one died for the same reason….

The last required element of the 7 Day Shootout is that each film MUST BE LESS THAN SEVEN MINUTES.

And so far, no one had come up with a story that could reasonably be told in that time.

And it was starting to get dark outside.

The room suddenly got quiet. Everyone seemed a bit winded. This should all have been a lot easier, shouldn’t it?

And then one of our team, Courtney Vastine, piped up with a thought she’d brought up a month earlier, an idea that everyone loved, but one that got lost in the maelstrom of ideas and enthusiasm.

“I had this one idea…” she said. “I had this idea I thought would be fun. If a guy sat home with his family and had an accident where he injured his eye and he had to go to a doctor. He gets an eye patch, and starts to jokingly talk like a pirate, and everyone starts paying him attention — “

Vania Smrkovski on the First Project from SAFTA Films (Part 1/6)

It’s August 24th, 2013, and I’m standing in downtown Knoxville’s Krutch Park. Behind me on a park bench are several armloads of camera equipment, a Rubbermaid tub filled with plastic swords, forty dollars in gold coins and a dog dressed up in a fetching pirate-style shirt with a bandanna tied around her neck. I meet up with a six-and-a-half foot man in a t-shirt, his face made up in clown-white makeup, eyebrows drawn in dramatic curves, and lips red as a rose.

And I am waiting on a man in full pirate regalia, as he adjusts his peg leg and picks up his bottle of rum.

Actually, the bottle is filled with iced tea.

As we stand there, the man in white face (looking like Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show, sans the corset), turns to me and conspiratorially says “You didn’t see me, and I didn’t see you.” With that he leaves, his own camera and entourage in tow.


It’s that time of year in Knoxville when a load of crazy people are out making movies. We at the Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) have decided to step up and contribute one of our own. As Director of Performing Arts, I have the honor and the privilege of leading the first effort with our entry in the Knoxville Film Festival’s 7-Day Shootout.

SAFTA has, until now, been largely focused on providing creative support in the form of workshops and other services for the written word. That is how I got involved. With a robust variety of activities, each workshop tackles some aspect of writing — poetry, revisions, page layout and performance pieces have been among the topics covered so far — but SAFTA’s mission is not just about writing. It’s about all of the creative arts.

In June, I was invited to join the board to head up the focus on performing arts, to bring my world of stage and film into the SAFTA fold and help the organization expand.

And my first task: enter a film competition.


Knoxville and the surrounding community have an unusual number of film festivals for a city its size. According to 2011 reports, the population of Knoxville is just over 180,000. Include the surrounding suburbs and the neighboring cities of Maryville and Oak Ridge, and you get closer to 200,000. Locals like to refer to this scruffy little city as a “big small town.” It has a thriving downtown life with a mix of older and newer buildings, great restaurants, bars and an energetic music scene — but nothing about the city cries out film.

Sure, we have the headquarters for the massive theater chain Regal Cinemas. And yes, Scripps Networks is based here, too. However, neither of these organizations actually do much film production here. Except for a few Investigation Discovery crime reenactment shows and the occasional Heartland Series episode, Knoxville’s presence on the world or national stage of film simply doesn’t exist.

And yet in the past ten years, there have been film festivals in Gatlinburg (the Gateway to the Smokies), Maryville, Oak Ridge and several in Knoxville.

Currently, active film competitions include the 54 Hour Film Festival, the Knoxville Horror Festival (currently hosting the annual Grindhouse festival), and Knoxville Films, which has hosted the 24 Hour Film Festival since 2006 and, until recently, was well known as the Secret City Film Festival, active for over ten years.

To be continued…