On Film: Sundae Girl

7 03 2011

Sundae Girl: Studio Happy Chicken Pink's First DVD

I figured I’d start talking about film by looking at my first commercially release, Sundae Girl starring Natsuki Kojima.

My film experience before Sundae Girl was limited to my work as a broadcast journalist in the U.S. Army.  There I would put together news stories ranging in length from 1:00 to 3:00, depending on the subject.  I also helped host and assemble a television show called Cav Country; but doing that a doing a commercial film is night and day… something that would occur to me as we shot Sundae Girl.

I began by creating a shot sheet of sorts… it wasn’t in fine detail, but it outlined every scene, what Natsuki would be doing, and what she would be wearing.  Maya and I went to Akihabara to pick out the outfits, all except for the dress from the main scene which was purchased in Shinjuku at a trendy fashion store (I’m too lazy to look up the name, although I have it somewhere).  The dress was later tailored to fit Natsuki perfectly.

Natsuki and Maya practice the bubble bath scene in my home bathroom.

Natsuki had been practicing for some time… maybe a month or more.  She had no previous modeling experience and was suggested to us by a friend Maya had who frequented a Philippine Pub that she worked in.  Before we shot, Maya and I went to Shin Okubo to scout love hotels where we could make our film.  The first few we went into turned us away because they did not want non-Japanese people filming there.  After that I stayed outside while Maya went in and we quickly found a hotel that would allow us to shoot for 7 hours for a price of $600.  Normally you can stay 3 hours in a love hotel for around $50.00, so the fact that they were charging us more simply because we wanted to film really cheesed me off.

Film day everyone woke up bright and early.  They guy who introduced us to Natsuki, who we called Ya-san, picked us up in his minivan, we loaded up with equipment, and headed out to make our film.  The first stop was hair and make-up.  The place we went really did a bang-up job on Natsuki, but it took 3 hours from start to finish.  That put us an hour behind schedule, so we showed up to the hotel an hour late.  We hauled all our stuff into the room and gave it a look over.  It had everything we needed.  The shot sheet called for a bed scene, a bath scene, a shower scene, and then a scene with Natsuki between the sheets illuminated in such a way that you could see the outline of her body without seeing any actual nudity.  We started setting up lights for the bed scene, and it became apparent very quickly that while the room had dim lighting appropriate for love, it had lousy lighting for filming and our lights were too weak to make much of a difference.  Eventually, Jarod got on my shoulders and we duct taped a light to one of the beams on the ceiling so we could light the bed properly.  This was the first time either Jarod or I had set up anything other than interview lighting, so we were learning on the go.  It took us somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour to set up lights.

Natsuki texts someone while I set the camera.

The first thing I filmed was Natsuki peeking in the room, coming in, spinning around, and then throwing herself on the bed.  The problem was, the only thing in the room that was lit was the bed!  It was so dark that I had to boost my gain to the max to get any sort of useable picture at all (and calling it “useable” is being kind).  Originally, this sequence was how the bed scene was suppose to start; but because of the gain boost the footage during this scene and the bed scene didn’t work together at all (boosting your gain makes your picture lighter, but also more grainy).  Eventually I would use this for the opening titles.

Now, one of the big differences between shooting news and shooting a film is that in news, everything happens around you and you are there to catch the action as it happens and film people’s reaction to that action.  In film, the director actually tells everyone what to do… there is no action that is unplanned.  So there I was, Mr. I’ve-shot-news-for-seven-years with Natsuki laying on the bed and me suddenly realizing that I had no idea what I was doing.  It seemed like time slowed to a crawl, and I could feel little beads of sweat forming on my forehead.  It’s been said that genius comes from extraordinary pressure, but I doubt this moment will ever appear in any story every associated with the word genius.  What I came up with was “roll around on the bed.”; so she did, and I filmed it.  The more I filmed, the less awkward I felt, and after about 45 minutes of filming, I felt pretty confident.  After that scene wrapped, Jarod shot photos and I started setting up the next scene, the bathtub.

The first thing that went wrong with the bath was that I put way too much bubble bath in and then turned the jacuzzi on.  Too many bubbles.  This scene required Natsuki be naked in the tub surrounded in a “bubble bikini”.  I spent less time filming the bubble bath scene because I really didn’t know what to do with it.  In normal Japanese films of this sort, scenes come and go without much of a structure; but the scenes in my films always have a beginning, middle, and an end… they’re always going somewhere; there’s some momentum fulling them forward.  That can make certain things difficult to film (a subject I’ll discuss more in detail when I get around to talking about Symphony of Youth).  Once again after I finished shooting video, Jarod stepped in to do stills.  By now, we were running short on time so I suggested for the shower scene Jarod shoot stills first and I’d follow up with video.  This is where Jarod would take the picture that wound up being Sundae Girl’s cover.

Shooting Natsuki in the bath

In order to shoot the shower scene, both Natsuki and I had to be in the shower together. If I had shot it outside with the door open, I would have been electrocuted.  So while I was shut in the shower with Natsuki, who by now was very tired, Maya and Jarod played in the jacuzzi.  We spent the least amount of time shooting the shower scene because everyone was just beat.  But before we could finish, Ya-san and Marka, Natsuki’s friend who almost ended up becoming an idol, came by to pick her up!  We weren’t even done shooting yet!  So we relegated the two party crashers to the bedroom where they proceeded to impatiently wait, loudly making their dissatisfaction known.  After the shower scene finished, Natsuki was rushed out the door by her friends… we hardly had time to say goodbye.  We had spent 6 hours and only filmed 3 scenes… but everyone had a sense of tired accomplishment about them.  We went a little over on time, so there was an extra charge for the room… I think it was $75.  Maya, Jarod, and I packed my little car to almost overflowing (it was a Toyota Vitz) and we drove back.  We were all exhausted.

Ya-san (left), Natsuki (middle), and Maya eat shabu-shabu

Cutting the film together was a different beast.  I used Final Cut and for some reason when I logged the video, it was cutting sometimes as much as 30 seconds from each clip… in fact, it was skipping over some clips entirely!  I tried several times to import my video, and I had to finally settle using a Prores codec, but I still lost a few seconds of take on the ins and outs.  I first edited the bed scene, which consists of three parts:  Natsuki in her dress, Natsuki with her dress of, and Natsuki playing around with a pillow.  If I remember correctly, the bed scene added up to around ten minutes… it was becoming clear that we’d have to shoot more to fill our target time of 1 hour.  After editing together the bath and shower scenes, the video weighed in at around 20 minutes, or so.  This meant contacting Natsuki and scheduling another shooting day; but Natsuki had her own plans.  She met Maya and myself at a local family resturant.  In tow were her boyfriend and Marika, who if you’ll remember had shown up at the hotel.  Natsuki informed us that Marika was now her manager and that she had demands.  First, she charged that we had acted inappropriately toward her by “forcing” her to be in the bubble bath naked.  We pointed out that not only was that scene listed in the shot sheet that she had previously agreed to; but she had also practiced the scene with Maya prior to filming.  She had no problem with it then, why now?  Then the truth came out… Natsuki wanted more money.  After some negotiating, Natsuki’s new “manager” and the studio agreed on a new dollar amount and I looked forward to coming up with more scenes to fill out the video.  Little did I know that was the last time I would see Natsuki.  After that she vanished, but not before borrowing $50 from the studio.

The original "mini" concept reverse.

So there we were with a 20 minute cut of our first film… and no way to do any more filming.  I went back and was able to cull 5 more minutes of footage (mostly added to the bed scene) to round it out at 25 minutes.  Add a 5 minute making of video and we had a 30 minute releasable product; only I knew it would be almost impossible to sell a 30 minute DVD.  It was too short.  That’s when I had the idea that is the content couldn’t sell the DVD, the packaging would have to.  I came up with the idea of a “mini release”, a shortened video with a budget price.  I think the slogan I came up with was something like “Big Sexy… Little Price.”  (we never used it, by the way).  In Asia, there use to be these CD singles that came on little 5mm CDs.  I did some research and a 5mm DVD would hold exactly 30 minutes of video… perfect for Sundae Girl.  Unfortunately, while the 5mm CD/ DVD manufacturing business had been booming in the early 2000’s, by 2009 it was dead and no one manufactured them any more.  That lead me to the idea of combining the DVD with a photo book and releasing it as a limited edition.  That’s why the cover says “Limited Mini Release”.

Jarod and I put a lot of time and effort in getting the packaging and book right for Sundae Girl, and I can still remember the feeling of satisfaction when copies finally arrived from our manufacturer in Taiwan.  It really seemed that we had overcome all obstacles and achieved our goal.  Soon we would be rich… no thanks to Natsuki.  That’s when we ran into our biggest snag: no one in Japan wanted to release a DVD made by foreigners, especially when that DVD was only 30 minutes long.  On the upside, our packaging received universal praise.  It would take almost a year of trying before we could get Sundae Girl released in Japan; it actually released first in America.

There’s a lot more to this story… I could go on and on.  There’s a really interesting part about illegally selling copies of Sundae Girl on the streets of Akihabara in an effort to rouse the public’s interest.  Maya got hauled to the Akiba police station for that.  I showed my true colors and split the moment I saw the cops coming.  A Japanese gravure magazine did write a little blurb about us and ran a couple of pictures of Natsuki; but they identified us as a Chinese company.  You win some, you loose some.

Eventually, Sundae Girl would become our biggest failure.  The amount of time, effort, and money put into it has nowhere near come close to the revenue it’s brought in.  It cost us a total of $3,576.97 to make Sundae girl and to date we’ve only sold 175 copies in the US, brining in a little over one thousand dollars.  I’m convinced that someday it’s going to be a collector’s item, something people will reference and say “it started here”.  And I hope someday there’s more on an interest in the title in the historical context as the first gravure film released by Americans in Japan and the first Japanese gravure film released in America.  Maybe then I can get rid of the 300 copies sitting in my tatami room.


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