Suzee Corbell is an artist, producer, writer and director with over 20 years of experience in the entertainment industry. She has worked her way through the ranks to learn every aspect of the filmmaking process, with behind-the-scenes experience on movies such as Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “G-Force.”
Suzee is now President of her own movie studio, Vivid Light Pictures, LLC, which currently has several projects in various stages of production. Visit VividLightPictures.com for more information.
Q. You’ve done so many different things in the film industry, from being a prop builder and casting assistant to now having your own movie studio.
A. I did many things because I wanted to train myself. I sort of did it on purpose. I wanted to learn as much about every aspect behind the camera as I could without taking the classes, because I thought it made it easier to talk to people when I was directing and I could talk to the crew. I think I learned a lot by starting at the level of what they call Craft Services, and Production Assistant. I ended up working with many of the departments instead of just being in one area.
In Craft Services, you’re providing food and drinks for the cast and crew all day, so you get to talk to everyone. If somebody needs help, you say, “Hey, I’ll come and help you,” and you go and you learn. As a Production Assistant, you’re pretty much everybody’s ‘gofer,’ so you end up learning that way, too. They’re considered some of the lowest paying jobs on a movie, but some of the best learning experiences. I occasionally even go back and do that now, if there’s somebody I can work with and learn from.
Then, I moved into some other areas. I’ve done some casting. IMDb [Internet Movie Database] doesn’t list a lot of my credits, even though they do list some uncredited ones. A great many of them that I did were uncredited because you don’t get a credit if you’re not in the union for that department. I would be helping them do projects, but I didn’t join that particular union because that wasn’t the field I was going in permanently.
The main thing I learned from doing all those jobs on movies was that there’s always something more to learn, and it will frequently come from a place that you don’t expect.
Q. When you first got started, was the goal always to do what you’re doing now, which is making movies? What brought you to the film industry to begin with? Did you ever want to be an actress?
A. When I was a little kid, I loved watching TV and going to movies and just getting lost in that world. Some of my favorite things to watch were sci fi, space and science, and, yes, I was a trekkie. It was actually the character of Scotty who made me want to be in spaceships and fly fast and do wonderful things like that.
It eventually turned into wanting to be an astronaut and I was on that career track. Then, the Air Force discovered that my ear canals were too small and they couldn’t handle rapid pressure changes, so I wouldn’t be able to go in a space shuttle or anything. It kind of broke my heart, but, after a while, I got to thinking about it and I said, well, I can still inspire other people to do that by the things that inspired me to want to do it. I decided I was going to make movies about space and I could make them so they were accurate.
I had majored in physics with minors in astronomy and geology, but then I switched over to filmmaking. I lucked out because I moved to Northern California and got to meet a lot of people at Lucasfilm and do some work with them. It was a very rare opportunity. Lucasfilm inspired me even more, but I wanted to do a lot of things on my own, so that’s when I moved to Southern California and started working on every single project I could get my hands on. I wanted to direct and write my own work.
I did take acting classes, but not to become an actress. I took them to be able to talk to my actors better. I wanted to know what ‘language’ they were being taught. I wanted to know how to talk to them and get the emotions or the line delivery that I wanted for my scripts. I think that was an invaluable step. It helped me not only in being able to talk to them, but made it easier for me to talk to other people. It made me more confident.
I recommend that everybody take an acting class. It’s great, especially if you get a really good teacher. I took a class called Scene Study. We would take a scene and work with our little group that was doing the scene, and the next week we would deliver that scene for the class. You got to change every week and be a different character and get critiqued by your classmates. That was valuable because you not only learned how to accept criticism, but how to properly give it.
Q. A few of the movie titles that you’ve been associated with really jumped out at me as pretty well-known films, like “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” and two of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. In those, you’re credited as a Specialty Prop Builder. Tell me about that job.
A. That was a lot of fun. I was working with my friend Jules Kmetzko. She’s a brilliant artist in Hollywood and she’s been doing specialty props for decades and I’m very privileged to be able to work with her a lot.
A prop, first of all, is something that’s handled by an actor in a scene. If they answer the phone, the phone is a prop. If they’re holding keys, that’s a prop. If they have to interact with it, it becomes a prop. A specialty prop is something that you can’t just go to the props warehouse and pick up. A specialty prop needs to be specifically designed for that project. For instance, in the “Pirate” films, we did tons of maps, lots of calligraphy, the letters and signs. I had to study things like dragons that would be on maps and two-headed mermaids and krakens. We did a lot of drawing, writing, sketching, and all kinds of things.
For “Chipmunks,” (Jules) had worked on the other “Chipmunks” movies and I worked on “Chipwrecked.” That one was actually doing the chipmunks. We built four sets of chipmunks and those were the ones that they would scan into the computer to make the 3D images of them. The actors also interacted with our little guys. They were life-sized stuffed versions of the chipmunks. We called them stuffy stand-ins (laughs). You’ve probably seen it on screen when an actor was holding one of the characters. We did the guinea pigs and the star-nosed mole in “G-Force,” and we did the Chipmunks and the Chippettes. They sent us pictures when they were shooting in Hawaii and they had taken our guys and gotten Hawaiian shirts for them. I was told – but I haven’t seen this – that our “G-Force” characters are in a glass case in the Disney Studios lobby. I would like to see that.
Q. After all your time in California, you’re now in New Mexico and you’re President of your own studio, Vivid Light Pictures. How did that come about and how did you end up making movies in New Mexico?
A. I grew up here and my grandparents were getting a little older and needed some extra help. I elected to come back here and thought I would just be working around here, maybe doing some local commercials for people, and it turned out they were starting up a TV station here. I ran the TV station for several years until the cable company decided they were going to do their own thing with that channel, and then I got to thinking now might be a good time to just go ahead and do my own thing. Why wait until I get back to California when I can do it right here? There are local universities that are training students and I’ve been training quite a few students here in town the last several years. We’re building up a pool here in this part of the state (Artesia). I decided to go for it. No time like the present.
Q. I know you’ve got more than one project in the works, but let’s talk about “Unfinished Business.” How hard is it to create a feature film when you’re the one doing everything – including finding the funding – especially in this economy?
A. It is very challenging. It would probably be much easier to do if I were back in California, I admit that. There’s a larger pool of people to pull from. I think it all boils down to, how badly do you want to reach that dream? How much does it really mean to you? How much are you willing to fight for it? And I’m kind of willing to fight for it a lot. I have been working really hard trying to network and make the contacts I need, both industry-wise and backing-wise.
Crowdfunding is a wonderful tool for people, but I admit I’m really learning how to use that. It’s a wonderful opportunity for lots of people to use crowdfunding, but filmmakers in particular, because you get to tell people what your dream is and how you want to do it, and then find other people that are willing to help you get there. You don’t have to go to somebody and say, “Hey, write me a check for $50,000,” or $5 million, or whatever.
You’re talking to people that put in $25 or $50 and, in return, you’re giving them DVDs and fun things having to do with the movie, like the wonderful opportunity to go meteorite hunting with Geoffrey Notkin of “Meteorite Men.” Maybe you can even be in the movie for putting in an amount of money. It’s a win-win for everybody. People get the chance to participate in filmmaking at some level, and you get the opportunity to make your dream come true and maybe somebody else’s at the same time. It’s a much better feeling to make a movie that way.
Q. I’ve followed along as you’re working on this project and there are so many details involved. You’re doing the casting and you’re out scouting locations and you’re looking for props. I think people who aspire to be in the film industry might not realize how much planning and preparation goes into making sure that every one of those items is put together properly.
A. Oh, there’s a lot you have to do before you ever get to roll the camera the first time. The director has the privilege of overseeing so much of it, but they’re trying to find things to integrate that provide the viewer with the vision of the director. That’s why you need to make sure that you take the time to go and find the correct location and the right actor and, literally, the best prop – you have to find the things that are going to be right there in front of people. And music – I’ve gotten some people behind the scenes that I can’t announce yet, but they’re going to be fantastic. In the next week or so, we get to announce a couple of names and they’re going to be terrific.
It all comes together to make what you see on the screen. You’re watching for, maybe, two hours, but it might take a year or more to make something. Sometimes it’s not easy to find the ingredients you need. It doesn’t mean the things that you find aren’t great, but they have to work together. Right now, I’m trying to decide between three different lakes for a couple of things in the movie. Which one is going to give us the best look and the best camera angles to work with for the crew and the cast?
Q. Tell me more about “Unfinished Business” and how can people get involved.
A. Getting involved is pretty easy. We’re getting ready to launch a crowdfunding campaign and that will give people a hands-on opportunity right there. They can check out what are called ‘perks’ and see what they can get and how they can participate or be in the movie or get something from the movie – there are all levels of things. It’s not posted yet, but they can find out when it will be posted by going to our website, VividLightPictures.com. If they go there and click on “Unfinished Business,” we’ll have the announcement of when the campaign goes live.
On the website, I feature a lot of artists, designers, collectors and products that individuals do – I try, at least at this point, not to do big companies, but individuals that are trying to get started themselves. We have some beautiful steampunk, goth, Bohemian – all kinds of looks that we’re going for in the movie that artists around the internet are doing. You can see our cast and our crew and everybody that we’re adding.
The film itself is about a secret agent who is killed in the line of duty and his ghost comes back to work with a live female agent to finish the job and catch the bad guys. In the end, you’re left wondering whether his ‘unfinished business’ was finishing the job, or whether he was supposed to meet this woman before he died and they would’ve had a relationship, before he was killed too soon.
Q. Did you write the screenplay?
A. Yes, I did.
Q. So it really is your dream – as you mentioned earlier – that people are going to see when they watch the finished product.
A. That’s right.
Q. That’s very exciting. I wanted to circle back to your disappointment with the Air Force and how you coped with that. How were you able to regroup and get onto a career path that, apparently, is the one you were meant to be on?
A. It was very, very hard when I was first told that my ears were not only going to keep me out of the space shuttle, but they would keep me out of unpressurized planes like fighter jets and things like that, and I wouldn’t be able to fly those things. I love flying. I took flying lessons when I was in high school and I love it, but I was told that I wouldn’t be able to do some of the things that I dreamed about when I was a kid. It was very difficult. I sat and thought about it for a while and I’ve had this thing since I was a kid of liking to review situations from different angles. It wasn’t within five minutes – it took me about a week of hard thinking. I went through the phases of, well, I can get my degree and become a scientist and work on astronomy and use telescopes, or I could sit in the control room and help other astronauts when they’re in space and doing things. I didn’t have a problem doing any of that. I thought all of it would be wonderful and fun.
But, there was a part of me that kept going back to how I felt – that the movies and the TV shows were really there for me when I was little. And I thought, maybe I can be there for somebody else. Maybe I can go and help these astronauts, or maybe I could go and help other people want to be an astronaut. So, I decided on the route to go and get some kids inspired. Someday, I kind of hope to make a movie in outer space, and I could direct it from the ground.
Q. That would be the ultimate.
Susan Corbell has worked in literally every cinema department you ever heard of; she has worked in the Art, Sound, Camera and Electronics, Composing, Casting, Editing, Writing, and Special Effects departments. She did all this to gain knowledge and experience in the field of cinema. She finished college with physics as major; back then, she wanted to become an astronaut. She got fond of Science after watching numerous movies and TV-shows. She loved Star Trek. The imaginative world of Sci-Fi was one of her favorite genre for movies and TV shows. Flying on spaceships that can go faster than the speed of light is speculative fiction, so becoming an astronaut and flying on rocket to space is the closest thing to a spaceship that you can find in reality. Space travel inspired her to be an astronaut and go to space, but unfortunately, it was a dream that never came true. A medical complication with her ears ruined her space career. It has a big blow to her, mentally, but she didn’t give-up on her dreams and decided to do something to tell other people how beautiful space-travel and other science-subjects are. Suzee made a change to his career and chose to join the film-industry. She believes that by making films, she can make people fall in love with science just like she did.
She considers herself lucky to have worked at Lucasfilm Ltd, the company who created movies like Star Wars (1977,) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015,) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989,) and many other memorable master pieces. Suzee took acting classes to gain knowledge and experience; she didn’t do it to become an actress, instead she wanted to learn everything she could that can enable her to guide the people who would work for her when she starts making films. Directing a film is a hard nut to crack. Suzee understood the challenges she would have to face, so that is why she worked for years behind the scenes doing small things. Her income from this work was little, but she was doing all that to gain every skill and knowledge that she can. She worked with the camera, sound, costume, lighting, and other crews to understand how they talk and work. All this knowledge she gained to make her a better filmmaker. She went through a lot to make herself what she is today.
She now has more than twenty years of experience in cinema. IMDB shows her work on different projects as Uncredited; she explained the reason for this in the interview. Some of the projects she worked on include Pirates of the Caribbean (At World’s End & Dead Man’s Chest,) G-Force (the animation movie,) and Contagious. She is now the president of Vivid Light Pictures, LLC, a film production house/company.