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No strangers to controversy and never shy of an opinion, Andrew (Atom) and Ben (ben3308) Adams have been regular contributors to FXhome.com for the last four years. We thought it was about time we sat down for a chat to find out more about their particular brand of filmmaking.
Under the banner of ‘Atomic Productions’, the Adams family have created the tense melodrama of Marathon and the comedy music videos of Barbie Girl and Afternoon Delight, while courting controversy with the ill-fated and much-hyped Splinter Cell non-production. Specialising in 24-hour film contests, Ben and Andrew have been carefully cultivating a winning formula during their time at FXhome.com, culminating in a recent homage to their past efforts by Nightfall Studios – perhaps the first time in FXhome history that a team has succeeded in crafting a style recognisable enough to be effectively parodied.
Twins born in 1989, Andrew and Ben grew up alongside video cameras, with technology evolving conveniently with their own interests and skills. Catching the trailing days of gigantic VHS cameras, they started dabbling with filmmaking before they even hit their tenth birthdays. “We started pretty early, about age 8 or 9,” says Andrew. On these early projects, Ben would concentrate on creating sets and props, recalling that “Even back then we wanted to pay attention to mostly superfluous details!”
After the VHS camera suffered an untimely death the brothers’ next opportunity would come with a decidedly low-tech LEGO webcam. “My brother and I had always tried to figure out what made real movies look so different from our own, so we started watching movies like crazy,” says Ben. This led to an absorption of basic filmmaking techniques, which then had to be adapted to work with the limitations of a webcam. “It wasn't uncommon for us to be running around the streets, laptop in hand, shooting a movie with our tethered camera.”
The following years introduced sibling rivalry to the mix, with the early-teens now competing against each other rather than working as a team, despite now having access to a proper camcorder. “We would both get various friends and such and shoot our own movies and then compare,” says Andrew. “Mine, of course, with my leet editing, were superior.” Despite this, Andrew noticed that Ben was frequently displaying the better understanding of cinematography. The subsequent realisation that they “were better together than apart” led to the creation of Atomic Productions.
The brothers had reached their mid-teens, it was 2004 and they had discovered a new filmmaking tool – AlamDV, a software package created by a company called CSB-Digital; a company that would soon be renamed ‘FXhome’. “Actually, what brought us all together,” Ben insists, “and you'll never believe this, was our use of AlamDV, which impressed Brian and Chase and started that friendship.”
Atomic Productions soon comprised six regulars – Ben, Andrew, Chase, Brian, Reese and Ben H. “You'll notice that we've never listed a director,” notes Andrew, referring to their resistance to assign specific roles. “It's just something we don't get into because it's always caused conflict. We all like each other so much and all pull our own part that we just like to leave it ambiguous.” There’s nevertheless certain areas that each member gravitates towards, with the Bens focusing on cinematography and Andrew on editing while Chase, Brian and Reese perform in front of the camera. “We collaborate really well on what to shoot and how to shoot it,” confirms Ben. “Our combined styles come through strong.”
The identifiable Atomic style was fully established with Cover’s Story, an entry to the Dallas 24-hour Video Race in 2006. “The 24-hour contests were the first thing we heard about once we got a GL2 in our hands,” says Ben of their regular involvement with the events. “The contests cut out all the crap of scheduling and parent approval and driving to people's houses and whatnot: we all get together for one day, that's it.”
“It's a good, subjective way to test yourself against those like you,” says Andrew. “You meet so many people. Greg Cotten and John Redlinger have been our rivals throughout all the years that we've done it, and I can't see meeting them, let alone being friends with them, without the contest.” With Cotton and Redlinger now working directly alongside the Atomic team on the Madison Street Boys production, the networking opportunities have clearly paid off.
Cover’s Story went on to win the contest and receive glowing reviews from Internet audiences and local press. “Ben and I laugh about Cover's Story these days,” says Andrew, “not because we're embarrassed by it, but because we're amazed by the sheer amount of coverage, comments, controversy, and views it got so quickly.” Central to the film’s success was Brian Hunt’s emotive portrayal of the lead character, delivering a quality of performance not always seen in such productions. “He just blew us all away with the robbery scene,” recalls Ben admiringly. “While filming it, Brian was so in character that we thought he might actually need some type of medical attention. He seemed so naturally distraught that it's hard to believe it was just part of his character.”
The difficulties of a rapid 24-hour turnaround are still apparent, with Ben identifying some technical deficiencies. Now free from the constraints of the contest, Andrew has been working on a refined version of the film with most of the major grumbles fixed (“A few wonky shots got accidentally cut into the final piece,” explains Ben. “The diner scene, while lit and shot pretty well, had horrible audio.”). Apparently the special edition will be arriving in the FXhome.com cinema in the coming weeks.
“Many people fail to see that we have in fact done many more comedies than dramas,” laments Andrew, though he admits that they’re not Atomic’s forte. “We laugh and goof around at jokes in the middle of takes and it makes things take longer and longer to do, for less and less of a quality movie.” Ben concurs, citing strong and clear inspiration from the likes of Tony Scott, Ron Howard and Michael Bay for their serious dramas, while “comedy is so original and subjective that it's harder to take notes from.”
Despite the mixed reception to their comedy, it’s still an area they wish to explore. “We're having plenty of fun and success in other genres,” says Andrew, “but that doesn't mean we don't want to do comedy at all, just not now.” Another reason for focusing on serious dramas is to give their work an edge, according to Ben: “I think that, in the student film world at least, amongst all the other teens on YouTube trying to do quick jokes our dramas not only stand out as unique, but I hope as being of a certain quality.”
After discovering the true potential of grading on the short film Found (“We initially added high contrast to our work because it was literally the only grading that our camera allowed!”), it soon became an essential part of the Atomic oeuvre, nowhere more evident than in the infamous Splinter Cell trailer. Teasing for a movie that would never be completed, the hype and subsequent disappointment surrounding the Splinter Cell project threatened to overwhelm their future endeavours.
“In all honesty, I just can't get into it because it kills me inside,” says Andrew. “I loved Splinter Cell.” As expectations for the movie grew wildly out of proportion with reality and the release date slipped ever further into the void, to eventually disappear entirely, there was increasing confusion in the FXhome.com community as to what had actually happened, and whether the film had ever been a genuine project. “I'm all about promotion without getting too obtrusive with it,” continues Andrew. “People should remember I didn't get into talking about Splinter Cell until the thread was well underway by Ben. But things are things and what's done is done. I loved the excitement, the hype, the unity and the fun of the promotion stuff – and I think the community really did as well; however bitter they want to be about it now.”
Ben is more determined to set the record straight, having directed the project from the beginning (the only time that an Atomic movie has had a credited director). The unfortunate truth lies in the actions of his parents, who provided an early taste of what it’s like to work with real studio executives by intervening and shutting down the production. “Yeah, I know, my parents shouldn't do that, they can't do that,” he says, “but this is Texas, man. What parents say, goes. They were worried that I was spending too much time making a 'dark' film, revoked my camera and said I could not work on the project anymore.”
Three years on, Atomic have moved far beyond the Splinter Cell controversy and are now better known for their video race work. Nevertheless, Ben doesn’t want to leave matters unfinished. “The Splinter Cell project is one very close to my heart,” he says, unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie. “We are not done with the project just yet. You might be surprised how soon we might update things...”
The Boys from Madison Street
Andrew, for his part, is being more cautious over the promotion for their forthcoming film, Madison Street Boys. “I've been very guarded about the production and not revealing too many details and dates before everything is completely sorted out.”
“There is a lot of pressure on us right now to get the project in the can,” admits Ben of the boxing epic, a story of two estranged brothers that are reunited at a funeral. Brian Hunt and John Redlinger play the Madison Street boys, one of whom is involved with a criminal underworld that will stretch family ties to the limit.
“After hiatus and other conflicts,” says Andrew, “we seem to be reuniting and pulling it together again, finally.” After personal issues once again interfered, everything seems to be falling back into place. “Brian had some stuff he had to sort out with his life, and we all respected that,” explains Ben. “Now that Brian's back, I have been in contact with Greg and we are trimming down and finishing off the parts of the project that need to be done.”
Although the project has hit a few bumps in the road (and which amateur, no-budget production hasn’t?), the brothers are absolutely determined to see it through. “This project will continue,” insists Andrew, “and we hope to show it as soon as possible. It's still very much in production, and we won't stop until we're sure it's ready.”
Parody or homage?
One of the more controversial moments in FXhome.com history was the unveiling of Cover’s Redempthiathon, Nightfall Productions’ cheeky deconstruction of Atomic’s back catalogue. Debate has been raised over the implications of this kind of analysis and whether it represents an unfair criticism of Atomic’s work or a loving homage.
“[The director] Darth Penguin is a great guy and I talked to him back and forth during the creation of the parody,” says Andrew. “He highlighted to me the points he would be parodying, and I was fine about it. But, obviously it's still hard to see something you worked on openly mocked and see others praise it completely as hilariously on-point.” So is it the parody itself or the audience’s amused reaction that causes the most discomfort? “People are entertained,” he says, “that's the important part. That isn't to say your feelings aren't a little bruised by someone laughing at your expense, but I get it and I was okay with it from the get-go.”
“It's funny, because I am both flattered and frustrated,” continues Ben. “If anything, I'm mad that we're now forced to get better at what we're doing! Because someone has parodied my crew at such a young age – in that we're not professionals or anything – we have effectively been called to action to rise above some of our slightly overbearing 'style'.” While Ben is determined to raise the stakes and offer a definitive response to Cover’s Redempthiathon, Andrew is a little more philosophical about the situation. “Too much fun with it, you risk your own integrity; too little toleration, you look like an arrogant jackass,” he muses. “All I can do with it is appreciate my fans and friends in Jabooza and Darth Penguin and...I dunno...laugh nervously?”
One thing Andrew is ready and willing to defend is the Atomic ‘style’ itself. “Recognizable elements to me are what make the great directors great. Hitchcock had clear commonalities in almost every single one of his works. This isn't to say we haven't or won't do something different, but I hardly think we've hit the ‘it's time to change!’ right now.” Ben thinks along similar lines, but is also eager to expand into new territory. “I do think we need to transcend some of the caveats of our style,” he concedes. “This does not mean we will completely abandon it – after all, people recognize it as ours and usually like it – but it does mean we need to make a few changes.”
With the end of high school approaching the brothers are turning their eyes to the future, with the film school at the University of Texas a top priority. “Andrew and I are looking to start careers in the industry, and we're very intent upon making contacts and getting better at what we do.” The university’s location in the city of Austin is not lacking opportunities for aspiring creative types, being the home of Troublemaker Studios and computer game developers Bioware, and has cultivated an intense filmmaking scene that gave birth to the Ain’t It Cool website.
“I hope to work a little for Robert Rodriguez for however long I'm living in Austin,” says Andrew. “We've talked about meeting up with fellow FXhomers in the future and doing some work. Heck, I might even hang out with Cantaclaro, who knows?” Although graduation is a good few years away, Andrew’s already got his eyes on the prize: “The only one certainty I know is that I've dedicated myself to film: I want to go into the industry. I want to make it big. I want to do what everyone else wants to do and be the next big, best thing in Hollywood. I just hope I have the talent to make it.”
“We've all got big plans ahead of us,” Ben agrees, “but we've all agreed that we will never disband. Atomic Productions will live on, and we will continue to reunite and make films.” In that spirit, the next project on the Atomic slate is Bruno, a spoof of a certain indie drama of 2007 that starred Ellen Page. Andrew hopes to have it edited and finished any day now. “But really,” he says with a wink, “you never know.”