What happens when a chimpanzee accidentally launches some 1960’s British pop rockers into space, forcing the group to become intergalactic diplomats on a planet full of women?
Tonight, at 7 p.m. during the College Town Film Festival at the State Theatre, the answer will become abundantly clear.
“Ripped!”, the first ever full-length feature film created by a husband-and-wife film making team of Penn State professors, tells the zany story of the Norman’s Normans — a music-making quartet from the British Space Agency who blast off on a journey that’s out of this wacky world.
Rob Bingaman and Maura Shea, both senior film production instructors in Penn State’s College of Communications, started filming the comedy sci-fi musical in 2011 with help from students, alumni, and professional actors they met from their years spent in New York City. The entire cast and crew was comprised of solely Penn Staters, past and present.
Inspired by childhood influences like the Beatles, Elvis, the Monkees, and a space-themed music video by the Herman’s Hermans (which, as you can probably guess, is the inspiration behind Norman’s Normans), the married duo set out to create their fourth film, produced by their 14-year-old film company, Ma & Pa Productions.
“It’s what they used to call a jukebox movie,” says Bingaman, lead writer and director. “Jukebox movies were kind of VH1 before there was VH1, so to make a movie around a singer like Elvis or the Beatles. The movie was basically designed to be able to perform a certain number of songs, and in order to bring in a broader demographic, there’d be light comedy constructed around it.”
One of the challenges of creating the film was capturing the look and feel of the 1960s. The “flower power generation”, as Bingaman calls it, is a tough one to portray through film, especially when you add the challenge of an out-of-this-world setting.
“Period films always have their own challenges,” says Shea, producer. “Part of what made this film interesting is we were both alive in ’67, but we were kids. And so when you go back and look and have to make things look like during a period, I think sometimes you find that stereotypical ’60s isn’t always right, so I was trying to find a blend of that. We wanted it to look like space if it was done in the 1960s.”
While putting the film together seemed like a daunting task at first, Bingaman and Shea quickly discovered that they could split up the shooting, filming all the scenes on Earth the first summer, and all the space scenes the next. This way, the crew could be kept to a smaller, more manageable group of no more than 12 members.
This cozy environment led to great camaraderie, which is reflected on the big screen.
“Part of getting the spirit of the thing was Maura’s idea to house all the Norman’s Normans together, and put all the women in another house together, and it kind of became a Monkee’s type environment,” says Bingaman. “The Norman’s house kind became party central for the cast and crew. I think that all got to the screen. Everybody had great fun.”
After meeting while studying film production at Boston University, Bingaman and Shea worked various odd jobs in the film industry for many years. Feature films, broadcast television, commercials, independent films, documentaries — anything that involved writing, editing, or shooting.
Eventually, the two found jobs at Penn State teaching film and settled down. Today, they live in State College with two teenage daughters, both of whom attend State College Area High School.
After all these years behind the camera, they say it’s the students that keep them on their toes, and inspire them to continue to make films like “Ripped!”.
“I think there’s a healthy dose of competitive feeling between students and faculty, and so on some level they think, ‘oh, I can do that well,'” says Bingaman. “And that’s not a bad thing necessarily because it makes a drive for somebody to make sure they’re getting at least up to that level, if not more so.”
In fact, many times the industry professionals with more than 40 years combined experience in the film industry find themselves learning something new from one of their students.
“Occasionally, a student will do something really cool with effects, and I’ll say, ‘show me how you did that,’ because it might be something I want to work with later,” says Bingaman. “There’s some really impressive work that comes out of here.”
“I teach a class in post-production,” added Shea, “and there’s no point in me trying to pretend I know more than some of the students sitting in my class, because they are ahead of me.”
Over the course of the last few years, with the proliferation of new technology, improved editing software, and smaller, more accessible cameras, they’ve seen students entering college with more experience and skill than ever before.
“When I first started teaching, you really had to start at square one and teach a person how the camera works,” says Bingaman. “That’s not an obstacle for anybody anymore. Most people grow up with some sort of camera, at least on their phone, so it’s kind of ubiquitous in our culture. That’s a luxury actually. You can start later and work on developing people’s style and whatever their particular content interest is.”
To further put that idea into perspective, Bingaman says high school students who attend their youth filmmaking camp are on par, if not ahead of, sophomores in college from just a few years ago. The responsibility falls on them, as educators, to challenge students and make sure each one leaves their class with the skills needed to succeed.
Recently, a Penn State alumnus who works as the head of content and production for MTV came and spoke to students in Shea’s class. Bingaman estimates that “95 percent” of what you see on television or the internet is made by filmmakers. He says it’s important that students have a well-rounded background in all areas of film production.
“I think having a focus is great,” says Shea, “But it’s the well rounded, ‘do a little bit of everything’ that’s important because it’s not so clearly delineated because there’s so many types of media that can go so many places.”
“Film has been a learning experience for us,” she adds, “and I hope to translate it into their teaching, giving them a more broad experience.”