Princeton gets a chance to flirt with Hollywood every couple of years, it seems. In 1994 we greeted Walter Matthau (aka Einstein) and Meg Ryan for the movie IQ. Just six years ago the crew of “A Beautiful Mind,” celebrating John Nash and starring Russell Crowe, came to town. Princeton’s latest brush with cinematic fame attends the premiere of “Gracie,” the brainchild of a sister and brother, Elizabeth and Andrew Shue, who are the subjects of this week’s cover story. And next fall the cameras are scheduled to come to town once more, to make another Einstein movie.
Hollywood is indeed the movie-making capital of the United States, if not the world, but Princeton has a cadre of videographers and multimedia artists who are telling stories and making a living, albeit with less glitz. While they eke out their payrolls with commercial work, they dream about their next blockbuster success or artistic coup.
Hugh & Suzanne Johnston
Documentaries can make a contribution to the world, as well as being exciting to watch, say Hugh and Suzanne Johnston. Work they did 35 years ago — taking a documentary film crew into the wilds of southern Yucatan to discover a lost Mayan temple — bears fruit today. “Few people thought we could do it,” says Suzanne Johnston. The action of the documentary was the moment of discovery, and it resulted in “Mystery of the Maya.”
Though treasures from their adventures fill their shelves, and though the color photo over the fireplace — a mural of the temple ruins — commands instant attention, the heart of their home is the studio where the broadcast quality editing is done. Instead of rearranging their laurels the Johnstons are busy with their latest documentary, “Animal Lives.” They don’t give out many details about this current project, except to say that it involves horseshoe crabs from the Jersey shore.
Hugh Johnston (Dartmouth, Class of 1951) met his future wife (University of Chicago, University of Pittsburgh, and Radcliffe) in New York. She had grown up on the campus of Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) where her father was on the staff. His family also lived in Pittsburgh. But they didn’t get to know each other until they left Pittsburgh to work for magazine publishers in Manhattan.
Both were hired by a film company, On Film Inc., which had offices in Manhattan and on Spring Street in Princeton. They moved here, and raised three daughters while making a comfortable living as freelancers in a business not known for security.
The New Jersey Department of Economic Development gave them their start. They were hired to cover a trade mission, to accompany a van with exhibits of medical innovations that went to the capital cities of Mexico and Central America all the way to Panama. The resulting kaleidoscope of fiestas and folk arts, “When New Jersey Went to Market,” led to the next project, “Viva Mexico,” a half-hour tourist film funded by Eastern Airlines.
They followed festival processions during Holy Week, visited a family reunion of an Indian tribe, and showed helicopter views of ancient pyramids, and revealed contemporary Maya fire walking ceremonies. “It was unusual for the time, and we got interested in the Maya civilization,” says Johnston.
They were particularly intrigued by the mystery of Temple B, Rio Bec, in southern Yucatan, a 1,200-year-old masterpiece that was discovered in 1912 and then lost. “We found the temple was unexplored, and before we knew it we were out on a tropical limb,” says Johnston. No one else had been able to find the temple. “We couldn’t help but have our imagination kindled.”
To film “Mystery of the Maya” they landed foundation grants and hired a guide, who led them to a ruins, but they knew it was not the right location. So they researched documents at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, and met frequently with Princeton’s resident Mayan scholar, Gillett Griffin.
They sallied forth again, this time in a microbus with Griffin, guide Juan Briceno, four natives, and, Andrea Seuffert, a representative from the Mexican archaeology museum. “Rio Bec is a wilderness in which even local people have become confused and lost, and have died of thirst,” wrote Johnson in her journal then. “But we can rely on Juan. Juan is an intuitive person, sensing our fears. He shows us deer dung and tracks of wild cats and assures us that this particular area does not have many snakes.”
After many wrong twists and turns, “we all sense that nearby is a building. Hugh tells Gillett and Juan to turn on microphones clipped to their shirts. It is as though we have been floating on the ocean in a raft, and a big liner comes suddenly near. Then Gillett calls out ‘Edificio’ — a building. I feel that something is near, but through the veil of vegetation, I cannot find it. Then Juan and Gillett are plunging ahead and Gillett is calling out exultantly, `I know it’s Temple B!’ Juan says ‘No.’ For a moment, Gillett’s intuition is shaken, but he insists. And then I see the shape of the towers. ‘It’s beautiful!’ Hugh shouts. ‘We’ve found it! After 61 years!’ We all examine the 1912 photographs. No doubt about it.”
Narrated by Ricardo Montalban, the film was made for public television, but the Johnstons have had corporate clients like McGraw-Hill, institutional clients (New Jersey Education Association and the Gallup institute), and nonprofits (the Robert Wood Johnson and Geraldine R. Dodge foundations).
Their topics have ranged from issues in public health and Native American health to celebrating the art of teaching. A live-action feature about where milk comes from, “Hey Cow,” was selected to be the first six minutes of the first Sesame Street program, and it helped to define the format of that program’s reality segments.
Nevertheless, the 1974 temple documentary is still their “magnum opus,” and they are thrilled that it is getting renewed attention. Partly as a result of their work, the fabled ruins will be restored. A archaeologist, Eric Taladoire, has pledged to restore and reconstruct Temple B Rio Bec over the next five years. “It will end up being a terrific attraction that is important and beautiful,” says Suzanne Johnston. “We were the ones who brought it out to the world.”
Hugh and Suzanne Johnston Inc., 16 Valley Road, Princeton 08540-3452; 609-924-7505.
‘Doing documentaries, you can make a living, but you don’t get rich,” says Jill Hargrave. “You do it because you want to get your vision across.”
Hargrave makes her living as a grant-writer for New Jersey Networks but she has also joined the ranks of video producers in the Princeton area. Her Lambertville-based documentary production firm, Eagle Vision Productions, is based on a somewhat unusual business model. It is a not-for-profit company that can be a conduit for other documentary firms that get funding.
Hargrave is trying to raise funds for a feature-length documentary on the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas. Entitled Agassi’s Vision, it will chronicle the day-to-day operations of this charter school as it prepares students for a college education.
“I was working at NJN on the history of New Jersey’s public school system, a 90-minute special aired in 2003, and I was really absorbed by education,” says Hargrave. “To give myself a break, I went to the tennis master’s championships and met Agassiz, and got this idea. The school has had teething problems, but is willing to let me tell the story warts and all.”
She has no funding yet. “I am a successful grants developer at NJN but I have discovered that when you don’t have a financial track record, foundations won’t give to you at all. So we need to attract individual funders.” Someone who comes in with seed money could be the co-executive producer.
Says Hargrave: “We consider ourselves new until we get one project under our belt.”
Eagle Vision Productions Inc., 240A Swan Street, Box 448, Lambertville 08530; 609-397-3609; fax, 609-397-7278. Jill A. Hargrave, president/producer. Home page: www.eaglevisionproductions.org
APB: The Paleys
Alan J. Paley, president of APB Communications, features “real people” in his documentary-style videos for hospitals that want to reach out to donors and recruits. His DVDs are an important part of recruitment packages, and donors see his work at fund-raisers.
APB uses the “real people” stories to get the hospital’s message across. “They’ll bring us a dozen stories, and we pick five of them. We wind up using one to three of the ones we shot, but we might take a clip from the others and use it on the Internet.” For instance, a cardiac center in Florida wanted to announce that it had affiliated with Duke University Hospital, so it staged a fundraiser with the Boston Pops and showed APB’s six-minute program at that concert.
“We don’t start with a script; we let what people are telling us guide the script,” Paley explains. He won a prestigious Telly award for his 12-minute documentary on the North Brunswick Transit Village, which is in the works at the former Johnson & Johnson property.
Paley grew up on Long Island, where his father was a manufacturer’s representative. He majored in economics at the University of Maryland, Class of 1982, and worked in sales. But he also learned video at the New School and worked for a production company. His wife, Bunny, is a make up artist who plies her trade for the firm and they have a school-aged son and daughter. They launched the firm, named after their initials, in 1987 at home. Now Paley works with four full-time staffers and taps freelancers.
APB had been doing political work but has given that up in favor of healthcare and nonprofits, and the New Jersey Hospital Association’s HRET educational department is an important client. “With most of our clients, and we have gotten to a point where we are not bidding on projects. We tell them what we can do creatively in their budget.”
Paley is moving into a new phase, to own the programs he produces. He plans a two-hour educational documentary DVD on women’s health, to be distributed statewide and possibly aired on public television. Like Hargrave, he is in the position of needing to raise money. “I have a very credible partner,” Paley says, remaining close-mouthed about his major donor, “but we are looking for more sponsors.”
APB Communications, 88 Lakedale Drive, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-396-1975; fax, 609-396-3299. Alan J. Paley, president. Home page: www.apbcommunications.com
Burkewood Communications does visual production, but it is also moving into educational programming. It had teamed up with Maura White (founder of Go Babies) for its first venture in that territory, Alphabet Road, a DVD that is available on Amazon.
Aiming at the age group of one to five, Alphabet Road featured Go Babies as puppets going on real adventures, such as a trip to a dairy or a firehouse. “We wanted these shows to be grounded in reality, not animation, says Burke Wood, the managing director. “We learned a lot from Alphabet Road and are working on some pilots.
Burkewood Communications was founded in 1986 by Kate Burke Wood, Burke’s mother, a graduate of Wellesley who in 1979 had founded and the Educational Consortium for Cable, producing award-winning programs on family issues. Burke majored in political science at Skidmore College and joined Burkewood in 1987, when the company also relocated from Summit to Princeton.
In 1994 the Woods decided to focus more on higher end commercial projects. In 2005 Burkewood opened a video post-production editing and finishing “boutique,” called Deep Post. The firm has high-end political and corporate clients, and it also works for IMAX films (U.S. 1, May 4, 2005). Since 2005 Burkewood has grown from five to seven employees and it has expanded to 3,000 square feet.
Burkewood Communications Corp., 5 Mapleton Road, Suite 201, Princeton 08540; 609-520-0090; fax, 609-924-9076. Burke Wood, managing director. Home page: www.burkewood. com
Ken Blando opened his video, audio, film, and multimedia production company in 1993, and has added a high-definition screening room and a voice-over booth.
Blando grew up in Hamilton, where his parents worked for AT&T. As a student at the College of New Jersey (Class of 1990), he assembled a portfolio, 30-minute documentaries. “That was my foot in the door.”
A recent project for Secure the Future, funded by pharmaceutical companies including Bristol-Myers Squibb, documented an effort to get drugs to third-world countries, especially in Africa. The five-minute piece, on children orphaned due to AIDS, is use as a multi-media display for gallery exhibits around the country.
Last week his 30-second spot for Campbell’s Soup, featuring the Harlem Globetrotters promoting the post office’s Stamp Out Hunger food collection campaign, aired nationwide. “We shot during the day at a college in south Jersey and also during the game/performance that night. I did some of the scripting, directed the shoot in HD, converted it to analog, and did the editing,” Blando says.
Even more recently, for GE Healthcare, he took a crew of seven to a hospital in Newark to shoot a product piece on a new polymer-type bottle.
He describes his previous work on full-length features as “providing my skills for rent for a short period of time to a studio that may or may not come back to the area to work.” He prefers working in multiple genres, being in charge of projects, developing lasting client relationships, and working with smaller, more intimate crews who don’t mind taking on multiple responsibilities. “We take a great deal of pride in making the end product look like we had a big Feature Film budget.”
Pulse Productions Inc., Box 545, Plainsboro 08536; 609-208-9848. Ken Blando, owner. Home page: www.pulseproductionsinc.com
Nick Sferra, a rower himself, made a 43-minute training DVD for the Carnegie Lake Rowing Club. A graduate of Princeton High School and the University of Rhode Island, Class of 1999, he opened his firm, Reelist Multimedia Productions, in 2005. He does film and video production for events, corporations, training, and legal work.
Reelist Multimedia Productions Inc., 103.5 Linden Lane, Princeton 08540; 609-921-6108. Nick Sferra. www.reelistmedia.com
Mel Obst, a veteran of New Jersey Network, founded his video and multimedia production firm in 1979, and has been joined by Bill Braun, a communications major at Trenton State, Class of 1984.
The company does single and multi-camera videotaping, editing, CD and DVD authoring and creation, CD/DVD/video duplication, graphic creation, and 2-D and 3-D animation.
Their current project, a 60-minute training DVD for Turnasure LLC, shows how to work with tension indicators, bolts on high rise buildings or bridges.
A previous project, for Veterinary Learning Systems, demonstrated the use of lasers, rather than scalpels, for bloodless surgery on animals.
Melovision Productions Inc., 190 Cold Soil Road, Princeton 08540; 609-895-1030; fax, 609-895-0666. Mel Obst, president. Home page: www.melovision.com
Royal Stewart Entertainment, 4390 Route 1 North, Suite 210, Princeton 08540; 609-520-1927; fax, 609-520-1928. J. Boyd, executive producer. Home page: www.rsetv.com
This full-service film and television production studio was founded in 1995 and moved to Princeton last year. Its signature product is its Profile of a Performing Artist series, 15 to 30 minute segments aired “in the air” as part of inflight entertainment. It works with every major record label to profile anyone from Eric Clapton and Loretta Lynn to Luciano Pavarotti and B.B. King.
Shooting in digital and HD formats, it also does electronic press kits and television specials on such subjects as wine, weight management, and golf.
Fleas are the stars in a recent video project for Peter Antonuccio, fleas filmed as they dine. “We were so close you can see the hairs on the fleas’ legs,” he says. The video illustrates a treatment for dogs being developed by a Princeton-area firm.
But he has also filmed other small wonders, such as dancing seahorses, 4 millimeters in size. At dawn, off the coast of Indonesia, the light strikes the water in a certain way so that the seahorses dance. That project was for Singapore Airlines.
Antonuccio has a 15-worker full service video production facility on Franklin Corner Road. For its clients, individuals and Fortune 500 companies, Certified Video Productions does anything from concept to duplication.
Antonuccio grew up in Hamilton, where his mother was a sewing machine operator. His father had a medical clinic in Arizona. After graduating with an accounting degree from Rider College in 1966, he worked for Johnson & Johnson, managed a stereo store, bought a liquor store, and, as he puts it, “started messing in video” in 1976. One important project involved helping to launch a broad spectrum antibiotic for J&J.
He has also moved into filming biographies. Subjects include attorneys (such as Albert Stark) and executives of corporations (Meta Griffith of Griffith Electric Supply). Prices range from $10,000 to $25,000. “Executives want to leave a legacy, and they realize their great great grandchildren won’t know what they did. So we interview them and interview their friends.”
Much of his work involves litigation — medical malpractice, personal injury, and construction defects, and for 75 percent of those cases he is working for the plaintiff’s attorney. His current case involves an alleged childbirth problem. “We are going to put the fetal monitoring strip chart into a flash program, take the notes from the doctors and nurses, and have them available to pop up, at the appropriate times, with hyperlinks.”
Certified Video Productions, 132 Franklin Corner Road, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-895-1020; fax, 609-895-0745. Peter Antonuccio, president. Home page: www.certifiedvideo.com