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Inside View: Big Machine

Steve Petersen
Co-founder/Creative Director – Big Machine Design  •  Burbank, Calif.

By Christine Bunish

Markee: Since you and Ken Carlson opened Big Machine Design in 2003 you’ve produced visuals for film titles, advertising, TV shows, games, multi-screen experiences and mobile devices. You recently got Halloween off to a scary start with “Living Nightmares” for AMC’s FearFest, one of your biggest projects to date.

Mr. Petersen: “We did AMC’s MobWeek package for the past two years talking to real mobsters, hit men and people out of witness protection and having hosts Anthony Bourdain and Rudy Giuiliani provide wrap up. AMC has done FearFest for years by scheduling horror movies in the run up to Halloween. Then they got George Romero to talk about his work. This year, they wanted something new and different, so we pitched a bunch of ideas, including ‘Living Nightmares.’ ‘Mockumentaries’ are almost the wrong word for them: They’re scripted but not totally factual with actors and a few legitimate people peppered in.”

Markee: You created, from script to screen, 10 four-minute shorts for “Living Nightmares,” which was hosted by Kevin Smith. Topics ranging from cannibals and alien abduction to evil spirits and death by drowning were paired with appropriately themed movies on the AMC schedule; they also ran on the cablenet’s website and YouTube channel. What was the production process like?

Mr. Petersen: “The timeline was really tight: from being awarded the project to delivery was just six or seven weeks. I directed all of the shorts; we shot in Southern California with RED and Canon 5D cameras, built the sets and cast the pieces. While we were shooting, our research team found stock footage to intercut with the vignettes – but we created all the UFO footage. We couldn’t get the rights to footage on YouTube, so we made our own – super-shaky cam, grainy, out of focus. It had all the right ingredients!

“Three editors cut the shorts in-house, and we did all the design and motion graphics. One of the best compliments we got for ‘Living Nightmares’ was from AMC’s head of scripted programming who said they looked better than some of the shows they were greenlighting for next season.”

Markee: Does the role of content provider mark an evolution for Big Machine Design?

Mr. Petersen: “It’s been a gradual evolution for us. We started writing, producing and designing on-air promos then moved into commercial production and video game user interface design, promos and commercials. Then we got opportunities to do longer-form content and branded films running production internally. So we built great relationships with producers and crews.

“Last year, we made 11 hours of content: six episodes of Hostage Do or Die and three episodes of Real Vice Miami for Discovery ID; a show about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre for National Geographic Channel, which was very cinematic with tons of graphics and animation; and Hell’s Highway about U.S./Mexico border issues, for Current TV.

“We pitched and scripted all the shows, tailoring them to fit the personality of the network. But we do have our own documentary style. Our generation is from Short Attention Span Theater – we don’t do Ken Burns’s slow zoom ins on photos. Our shows are really cinematic with a lot of graphics and animation cut in. It’s a way to tell stories that speaks to us.”

Markee: What’s next?

Mr. Petersen: “We’re trying to get ‘Living Nightmares’ sold as a scripted series. They were designed to work as four-minute fun pieces, so we’re reformatting the concept to sustain a series of one-hour programs. They wouldn’t be an anthology but would have a through-line and recurring characters. AMC will be our first go-to channel.

“We’re one of the companies pitching the main titles for Iron Man 3 and some other big films. We’ve done an insane number of graphics deliverables, including realtime graphics engine-based animations, for Howie Mandel’s new game show, Take It All, and we did the launch spot and holiday-themed spot for the video game, Just Dance 4.”

Markee: With Big Machine Design poised to celebrate its 10th anniversary next year are you surprised how far you’ve come in a decade?

Mr. Petersen: “I’m surprised, but we’re proud of all we’ve accomplished. My passion has always been feature films, so this has been a great road to get us there. It’s my personal long-term goal to create films with strong visuals that are fun to watch and which leverage all the talents of our design team.”

January 17, 2013