Adventures in Extreme Concept Filmmaking
Posted Aug 30, 2009

One of the most common refrains we hear in the wedding film world when we see, say, a model-like Vantage Point bride luxuriating on a white-sand beach, Jeff Wright shooting from a helicopter, David Robin unveiling a mind-bending 3D photomontage, or Kevin Shahinian premiering a Bollywood mini-epic, is "You couldn't do that in my market," "You could only do that in California," or, in the case of a jaw-dropping same-day edit shot at a wedding venue that's lit like a Hollywood set, "Only in the Philippines."

After this article hits, I suspect we'll have to add "Only in Cincinnati" to that list. Say what? Cincinnati?

If you don't think extreme, high-end, genre-bending wedding concepts will sell in mid-level, middle-America markets, consider what Steve Zugelter of Studio+Z Films (formerly Glass Eye Video) has been up to lately. A year or so ago he did a combined same-day edit/trash the dress that conveyed the illusion that the bride and groom were trashing their wedding finery en route to the reception before pulling back the curtain and revealing them (in their first post-ceremony appearance) in all their wedding-day splendor.

This summer, he's been involved in an extreme wedding concept that ratcheted up the "X" factor several more notches. Allow me to set the scene:

The bride and groom imagine a surprise wedding. They explain to their invitees that they're really getting married in a private, family-only ceremony at a destination locale, and what the guests are really being invited to is a prewedding celebration. But said reception will, in fact, become the real wedding.

These surprise weddings seem to be an emerging fad these days, so no big, uh, surprise there. Where they veered off course was their next step: Having no clue how to pull off the surprise wedding or how to embellish the idea in any way, to whom did they turn? Their wedding planner? The venue staff? No, they asked their videographer. They found him on Google, called him up, told him what they were doing, and asked him for input. Zugelter took a deep breath and said, "If we're gonna surprise them, let's go beyond turning on the lights and yelling surprise. Let's create something that will change your night from a surprise wedding to something bigger," with a full-fledged concept video that would tell a story that would culminate in the surprise.

Then his wheels started turning and the idea started coming together. "I never thought she'd go for it. But then she came in with check in hand."

photo by Kortnee Kate

Surprise, Surprise
When Zugelter started Glass Eye Video in 2004, he never expected to shoot weddings. He had his sights set on corporate and commercial work. His wife, Reagan, who was shooting with him, said, "You're going to have to do weddings," with the inference that weddings would be a necessary building block for the business he wanted to develop. "But I don't want to be that guy," Zugelter said.

Photo by Kortnee Kate

He took her advice nonetheless and quickly became exactly what he didn't want to be. "I shot weddings for a year and a half, looked at my work, and it was the same as everyone else: slo-mo, black and white. Then I Googled ‘award-winning wedding videography' and Josh Smith [of CINEMATICBRIDE] came up. I showed his work to my wife and said, ‘I'm going to do this as well.'"

Shortly thereafter, Zugelter saw what Patrick Moreau and StillMotion were doing, and he concluded that there were opportunities to do original, imaginative things in wedding production that he hadn't before imagined-the type of opportunities that he hadn't found enough of in his corporate and commercial work. "Corporate and commercial pay well, but you have no creative freedom, especially if you're dealing with an ad agency," Zugelter says. "With weddings you've got all the creative freedom."

As Zugelter began to develop his own style, his wedding video business began to take off, and he went full time in 2007. "Since I got to where I could create the kind of films I want for great people who are excited to have me there and love my style, I've never looked back."

Becoming ‘That Guy'
Five years after Zugelter confessed his fears of becoming "that guy"-that is, not so much the old wedding videographer stereotype with the bulky equipment and awkward presence as the newer videographer stereotype, whose formulaic, romantic, cinematic work is indistinguishable from everyone else's-he found himself becoming "that guy" for brides looking for something different and out-of-box.

Little did he know, however, that he would find a bride willing to entrust all the drama and theatricality of her surprise wedding to him. But entrust it to him she did, and he determined to make the most of it.

Water Tower Cinematography
First, he came up with the concept: The film (Daphne + Jason: The Concept & Secret Wedding, which you can see on the Studio+Z blog, www.studiozfilms.com/blog) would construct a simple proposal storyline incorporating some key props-the groom's mint '69 little red Corvette and his jet ski-and some daring locations: a silolike building in downtown Cincinnati with a water tower on top called Longworth Hall, and a quarry owned by the groom's family.

In building the concept, Zugelter followed the first rule in the guerilla filmmaker's handbook: "Let's utilize all our resources." Because the groom's family "owned this aggregate company where they mine and crush rocks," the Studio+Z crew could make dramatic use of the quarry and the heavy machinery there. Because the groom wanted to see his car and jet ski in the film, there was no reason not to use them to great effect. Because the bride's family owned an airport, they had access to helicopters, and they could do some aerial shooting around the water tower. Zugelter says he did the helicopter shots with a rented handheld gyro.

Photo by Kortnee Kate

But things didn't go all as planned with the "rogue-style" shoots, particularly with the key downtown building location. "I showed up there the Sunday before Memorial Day to scout it," Zugelter recalls. "The place is condemned. We're one stairwell from the top, and we met a guy who told us, ‘We're tearing this building down in a week. Get out or we're calling the cops." Fortunately, Cincinnati seems to have more than one building with a water tower on top-on the same block no less. The Studio+Z crew signed a waiver, and they were in. Now all they had to do was convince the bride to climb up the water tower (which, again, is on top of a five-story building) with no harness.

The Film
The film begins with shots of the groom romantically arranging rose petals a bed and leaving a note. The bride finds the note, which says, "Meet me at the Hall"; she also finds a wedding gown hanging in front of her closet. After some fairly familiar bridal prep shots (earrings, dress, shoes, etc.), we see the bride and groom in separate cars (the groom in his mint red '69 Corvette) driving (presumably) to "the Hall." The groom then enters the building. In the next shot, we see him climbing up a rusty, white ladder in his tux. There, at the top of a water tower on top of the building he meets the bride, in her wedding dress, and aerial shots follow.

Studio+Z Films Daphne + Jason

Then, we're back out on the road, in the red Corvette. Next, we see the couple staging a romantic dinner at the quarry. The bride uncovers her dinner dish and sees another note: "Will you marry me ... tonight?" They climb up the rocks together, and after a few more great gyro shots and a little celebratory wave-runner jaunt in the lake in the quarry, they're off to the church for an intimate ceremony with immediate family only.
The film ends as the couple steps to the altar in front of the officiant and faces each other. But naturally, that's just when the "magic" begins. "Just when you think you've seen it all," Zugelter says, you see the bride and groom in silhouette behind the screen. Then, the curtain rises to reveal the bride and groom-live and in person-in wedding gown and tuxedo, with a real officiant, ready to perform their real wedding. And this is when the excitement happens for Zugelter too: "For me, it's not so much about the production itself as the guests' reaction."

The Premiere
"The whole event was designed by Joe Rigotti, an event design rock star here in Cincinnati," Zugelter says. "He made the place look like a South Beach lounge; it was beautiful. For the first hour of the event, Daphne and Jason were greeting their guests and playing into the story of their wedding being the following weekend. She was wearing the first dress you see in the film during this time. The guests were excited, but [they] also had no clue what was about to happen. About 45 minutes into the event, Daphne and Jason left the room separately to avoid suspicion, and headed to their room in the hotel to change. At this point, Daphne's brother took the stage, welcomed the guests, and continued with the story of the wedding being the following weekend. Her dad then took the microphone and also welcomed the guests, and introduced the film. At this point, Daphne and Jason had already taken their places behind the screen and the film started to play. You could feel the energy in the room escalate as the story in the film was building. At the moment the film faded to black, a backlight came on, silhouetting Jason, Daphne, and the priest on the screen. Simultaneously, the screen began to rise. At that point the guests went nuts as she was there in her wedding dress, he in a tuxedo, along with a priest," Zugelter recalls.

photo by Cindy Wagner

"The funny thing," he adds, "is that I don't think they understood what was happening until the priest introduced himself and said that he had the honor of marrying Daphne and Jason that night. It was at that point the energy went through the roof and the guests erupted into thunderous applause. They went forward with the ceremony, and at the end, her brother said a couple more words and then there were a couple more toasts given by people that were totally oblivious to this whole production. At the end of the toasts, Daphne and Jason took the microphone and gave me the greatest ‘thank you' I've ever received. She mentioned how she had a simple idea and I created this elaborate production and how they couldn't be happier with it all!"

What's Next?
"I would love to do more of these," Zugelter says, as he looks ahead to a future with a new studio name, better branding, and some solid concept film credits to help him move forward. "One thing I really miss about my commercial background is the directing aspect, the chance to bring my vision to life. Weddings are so structured, we all try to do this, but we can't. Calling the shots, getting them set up-I really love it."
That said, part of Zugelter's message is that it can be done, by booking concept-type productions that occur outside the business of the day-or, better yet, integrate with it, and extend the magic and theatricality of it. After all, apart from its spiritual elements, what is a wedding but an event designed to dramatize a couple's commitment and staged for the people who matter to them most? And who better to capture and enhance that drama than "that guy" with the camera, the filmmaker with a knack for visual storytelling?

Maybe you aren't plying your trade in the high-end wedding haven of The O.C., and you don't get to work seven-figure events on white-sand beaches. But if your market is better-known for its derelict downtown buildings with rusty water towers on top, who knows--you just might become that guy.

Click here to watch Daphne + Jason on Exposure Room.

Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and program director of EventDV-TV.