Local filmmaker Andrew Froening has been chasing after stories — both real and imagined — for the last decade.
“My best memories as a child,” Froening says, “were of my mother reading me ‘Treasure Island.’ I think that’s where my love of story was formulated.”
The East Windsor resident spent his formative years fostering a love of all things DC and Marvel, graphic novels that inspired an imagination for both engaging stories and elaborate visuals.
After studying television and digital media production at Mercer County Community College, he began working as a video editor for an environmental sciences company in the Flemington area. He calls it steady, reliable work, the kind of thing for which he can apply his knowledge of the film industry while providing for his wife, Angelina, and their two young boys. It also allows him the time and freedom to dream up fanciful story ideas like the ones that captivated him as a child.
His latest, “The Connection,” a six-part short-form web series for which Froening wears the hats of writer, director, and producer, centers on Max, a detective with the gift of sight — as in tapping into the emotions of his clients after their traumatic experiences so he can search for clues among their blocked memories to solve some mystery.
Froening calls the series a mix of superheroes and film noir, a seemingly unlikely mash-up of themes on its surface.
“I was keen to explore a story rooted in science fiction rather than science fantasy, more ‘Blade Runner’ than ‘Star Wars,’” he says.
The Trenton Film Festival scheduled the web series to play in full as part of its March 2020 slate, until the recent coronavirus crises triggered widespread cancellations in sports and entertainment. Regardless of the TFF postponement, Froening calls the recognition a delight since both series leads and all the day players hail from the area. And while it’s fairly common for film festivals to showcase only an episode or two from a whole series, according to the filmmaker, “it’s encouraging that the Trenton Film Festival was willing to show the entire series for ‘The Connection.’”
Froening, now 33, says he is drawn to narratives that delve into serious issues and loftier ideas. So his superhero film noir series explores a grounded detective, people with powers — limited though they may be — and the concept of not exactly being thrilled with possessing such gifts.
Get Froening started and he speaks passionately about influences and trends in entertainment, crediting the advent of a new “golden age” of television with affecting his creative pursuits. The post-Sopranos era, if you will, favors developing more character-driven story arcs over the more formulaic scripts that populated the television landscape prior to that. “Modern characters are allowed to be a little more gray and flawed,” he says. “That resonates with me. People identify with them. And they’re a throwback to the graphic novels I responded to most as a kid.”
But rather than creating a feature-length film, the filmmaker elected to adhere to heavily researched industry trends. And, like so many others, Froening recognizes the current entertainment landscape is virtually bursting at the seams with streaming platforms and far too many options from which to choose. “You can’t watch everything,” he says, “but there is evidence to suggest online audiences want shorter offerings.”
And Froening did his homework on the subject, immersing himself in web analytics while shooting a YouTube series of improvisational comedy sketches in 2016. He notes that shorter pieces in 3 to 5-minute segments markedly outperform longer videos in the number of views, hits, and comments.
New media trends also suggest the filmmaker is right, with Quibi, a short-form mobile video platform founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, set to launch in the next month or so with several high-profile stars and projects attached, a potential game-changer looking to revolutionize the industry.
Froening says that kind of uber-concise approach is more conducive for the kind of storytelling he envisions. Each of “The Connection’s” episodes time out at anywhere between just under 5 minutes to the 13.5-minute series finale. Viewers can watch the entire first season in just under 45 minutes, or roughly the length of one prime-time scripted series episode.
Season 1 of “The Connection” earned accolades for Best Web Series at the Atlantic City Cinefest, Best Actor in a Sci-Fi Web Series at the 2019 New Jersey Web Fest for lead Damian Gaeta, as well as a Best Visual Effects award at Manhattan’s Maverick Movie Awards celebration.
Froening is particularly proud of that last award. “There’s a key scene in the series in which there’s a shot of glass freezing in mid-air, and the lead character, Max, walks among the shattered pieces,” he says. Froening and visual effects supervisor Robin Hunt motion tracked the sequence by hand to stretch the boundaries of what they could show, then added effects to create a marvel of scene that is both professional in its look and eerie in its vibe.
Froening says film noir not only offers “a very specific atmosphere creatively speaking, which I find appealing, but it also is very cheap to do.”
But with a budget of roughly $6,000 and a six-day shoot, even the slightest hiccup throws off scheduling. And Froening’s shoot was no different, experiencing its own unique hurdles and challenges and testing the patience of the filmmaker and his crew.
Like any low-budget production, he points out “The Connection” leans heavily on the strength of the story and the ability to find alternate ways to solve real-time problems. As an example, he recalls one particular shooting day when the cast was performing in extreme cold and the actors’ breath could visibly be seen, inconsistent with the rest of the piece. While a larger production company would correct the problem in post-production via advanced special effects, Froening describes team members “hauling in heaters to keep the cast warm and hoping for the best.”
He also recognized early on that having better lighting sources would enhance the series. So with the help of key investors, he secured some used lights that made an immediate impact in one scene, in particular. “The scene shot inside the diner would have looked drastically different had we not secured those lighting sources. They allowed the team to light the piece in a way that you could actually see outside the diner windows, which may seem like an obvious or minor thing to the casual viewer, but it really does make a difference in lending the look of the scene an authenticity that makes it just pop on the screen, clear and wonderful. I’m really proud of that,” he says.
Interestingly enough, for all his writing duties and problem-solving prowess, Froening is most at home behind the camera, serving as a director of photography not only for his own projects but for those of colleagues and associates in the local film world. So one week he might be filming a charity concert for a local school; the next creating promotional videos for something like Trenton’s annual Art All Night.
This flexibility translates beyond both his practical and film careers to everyday life as well, where he runs his own design company, shooting wedding footage and music videos, where, not surprisingly, his keen eye for story and beautiful imagery often result in something magical.
Owing to a willingness to tinker with his craft, on an average afternoon, Froening plays with a new anamorphic lens, a device that distorts wide aspect images rendering them more cinematic in appearance, ideal for shooting in low light and generating what he calls soft flaring. Part of the fun, he happily asserts, is in testing the new camera lens on his family, willing participants in his quest for greater storytelling techniques.
And that last part is not to be taken lightly. Froening saves money by using mostly his own cameras and gear. But he recognizes that projects like “The Connection” do not fully come to fruition without a great deal of support from friends, family, and collaborators, something for which he has been grateful since his early professional days. “I can distinctly remember my dad driving me to my first job interview,” he says, adding his late father, a pediatric nurse, is the one who first introduced him to movies.
“Having backers that believe in me, in the production, makes all the difference,” he says, singling out Rob Simpson and Michael R. Bollentin as well as his mother, Nancy Layng-Froening, a former medical transcriber, for all coming on board as producers and key contributors. In a pinch, lead actor Damian Gaeta signed on as an executive producer also, kicking in some money to cover the audio and music.
On the horizon, Froening points ahead to “Into Gray,” a drug war crime drama set in Trenton, developed with Terrence Glenn Thomas and currently looking for a home, as well as “Paradox,” a time travel short he and Hunt are currently filming in the area. He is also developing an “informal talk show” in partnership with Ultra Entertainment Media Productions, focusing on interviews with independent filmmakers and the passion they have for that art form.
And for fans of “The Connection,” fear not. Froening promises a “Season 2 is in the works,” wrapping up a first season cliffhanger while challenging himself to continue the story on a larger scale.
“I’ve been blessed to have my parents support,” Froening says, and with the continued encouragement and collaboration from friends and colleagues, he plans on continuing to develop and help tell stories that will make him feel like that kid nestled next to his mom during readings of “Treasure Island.”
He adds, “If you love something and have the patience to stick with it and find out what works, you can carve out your own creative niche in any industry.”
And that’s a connection worth making.
Viewers interested in Froening’s work can wait for the new dates of the Trenton Film Festival (www.trentonfilmsociety.org) or view “The Connection” series in its entirety at www.connectionwebseries.com/episodes.