How Everything Began: Prodigium Pictures

How we met

The SMC Film Festival '09, where we first met.

The SMC Film Festival '09, where we first met.

Hiroki and me used to live in the same building, for nearly two years; all through our time studying at Santa Monica College, our apartments were so close to each other, you could nearly spit from the one to the other. Since they were on opposite sides of the courtyard, we could even give each other hand signs through the window.

We met each other during the first few weeks of living there, but it wasn’t until the first SMC film festival (where we each exhibited one of our early films) that we got interested in working together – we met a few days later at my apartment, drank some sprite and ate some rice; that was the beginning of a long story. Since then, we worked on more than two dozen projects together in all sorts of capabilities, and took turns in making our own projects; the one with the idea directed it, the other one would do the cinematography.

So, we lived there, made films together, hung out with our girlfriends, studied (sometimes) and edited. Editing, not in the sense of cutting a movie, but in the sense of bringing our bodies and stamina to the borderline of physical possibility. When I was finishing the edit of my short film Terminated and Hiroki was working on editing his short The Chase, we met with three other filmmakers at my apartment in the living room, took over the big dining table and didn’t even remotely think about the fact that it was finals week. Editing started at 8PM – after we got back from class and our other day’s activities – and went until 5AM or so, sometimes even until 7AM, and one time we didn’t even really sleep. That was not a one-time thing though, but a daily activity for about a week. And for some reason we managed to get up three hours later and write A’s on our finals (for the most part). Our only weapons were Caffeine and tons of home-made popcorn, still warm from being tormented in the popcorn machine. Unsalted, unbuttered.

Our other weapon was the presence of each other – five film students in one room, editing all night on our respective projects, making jokes without looking up from our screens, grimacing to each other when we fought the tiredness – that gave us supreme concentration power.

It’s good to be a hippie

It was then that I realized it would be the coolest thing to set up something like a commune in the 1960s where all the hippies lived together in a place – but instead of trying out drugs and make free love, we would make films. I introduced the idea of moving in with a bunch of other filmmakers to Hiroki, and he was fire and flame for it from the get-go. Time passed by quickly, and sooner than later we were done with SMC. In the last few weeks of studying there, a professor at SMC, Salvador Carrasco, had suggested that we should found our own film production company during the period of OPT (optional practical training), and then grow the company successful enough to sponsor ourselves a visa through it. It’s the modern foreigner’s tale: How am I going to get a Visa? If you’ve ever tried to figure out the myriad of Visas A-Z, you will have gotten the same headache we got.

Hiroki and me both had conducted research about our chances of staying in the U.S. and building a film career as foreigners before, but this seemed like a real chance. The summer months followed, we both went back home, I got my dad (Max Deml) on board – he always told me that I should found a company to use my skills on bigger projects -, and Hiroki cleared a lot of hurdles in Japan. Many Skype sessions followed; about the type of business, LLC stipulations, business plans, our corporate identity, company philosophy, logo design and company colors (I could use my extensive graphic design knowledge for that), market research and other business essentials. Max taught me a lot of basics about creating a business plan, finding a company image and having realistic funding and revenue expectations. Now we were three in the founder gang, which opened up our possibilities and added Max’ extensive business founding and management experience to our skillset pool. After a long period of hoping that things would come together, that we would be able to fund ourselves and most importantly, that we had no regrets (this was a big decision), things finally did come together – we were ready to make the move, a bold move; in our case investing most of what we had saved up over the past decade, dedicating our valuable OPT / work experience year to an entity bigger than ourselves: Our own company.

Naming – from Japstria to Prodigium

Now, the last question is: Where does that name come from, Prodigium Pictures? We all know “Pictures” as an indicator for a film production company [e.g. “Legendary Pictures”; other indicators are “Films” (Lucas Films), “Entertainment” (Spyglass Entertainment), “Studios” (Universal Studios), or “Productions” () ]. But what about the first word in the name?

Prōdĭgĭum [prɒdɪdɪəm]: Latin. “Beast”, “Monster”, “Omen”, “Prodigy” or “Wonder”.

The first project Hiroki and me ever worked on was a fake Pontiac Firebird Commercial; our style of working – building our own crane, going into the most remote place in the desert, battling a lack of equipment with creativity and taking pretty decent risks like swinging $2000 worth of camera equipment on a wooden pole 6ft away from our car while driving 60 miles an hour – defined our future way of working. Then, when we got into our editing nights, Hiroki started to get obsessed with this energy drink “Monster” (quite popular in the U.S., lesser known in Europe where the Austrian Red Bull is the undefeated monopoly). He would start collecting the cans and fuel himself with the energy drink to meet deadlines of our school’s film festivals.

Toby and Hiroki on their first project ever - "Fake Pontiac Firebird Commercial"

Toby and Hiroki on their first project ever - "Fake Pontiac Firebird Commercial"

When we started thinking about a name for our company, we wanted to use something that had a history – which we could then write a blog post about – and most imporantly, would really define us. We had silly ideas like “Japstria” (Japan-Austria) or “Hitokade” (Hiroki-Tobias-Kamada-Deml), some better ones like “Yellow Monster” (named after my Firebird) or “Pergula” (we had to use a walkway on the second floor of our courtyard to get to each other’s apartments; Pergula is Latin for “balcony”). Hiroki came up with a ton of japanese words, but they were so difficult to pronounce and learn that there was no way we could make anyone remember tongue twisters it after initially meeting us. In the end, we probably had about 20 ideas that didn’t sound totally ridiculous; I went back and started translating everything into Latin because when we looked on mandy.com (a site which features production companies and jobs), most production companies had boring names that were simply English words; we wanted something that would be easy to pronounce with an American English background and sounded fairly familiar but not exactly known.

When I looked back at “Yellow Monster”, it seemed like a name we could use for a feature film production company, but we wouldn’t sound good making commercials for Toys R’ Us or similar children-oriented companies if we had a scary name and a similary scary logo (I already had a yellow, edgy bull with red glowing eyes in mind). It happend to be that Monster translated into Prodigium, which sounded familiar (very close to “Prodigy”, which comes from latin as well), sounded neutral but cool (we could work for Toys R’ Us and Pampers again as well as make a film like the Dark Knight with that name)… and after a lot of pondering and discussing, we set the name to Prodigium. This name will stay for a long time, because we plan to use our freshly founded production company eventually to produce all of our future feature films.

Moving In

After graduating from SMC, moving in together was inevitable [quoting the Jim Kong Il character from “Team America” here]. Many of our possible candidates for our filmmaker commune had prior commitments or weren’t as flexible with choosing their location throughout the vast urban jungle of Los Angeles, so we decided – as a temporary solution – to move into a two bedroom apartment in Long Beach. That was a good decision anyway, because the first two months of our company would consist mostly of building our website, editing our reel and developing our company image. I asked Hiroki to rent a small U-Haul, and he returned to our house with this completely oversized truck that you’d usually only see on film sets where they have multi-ton grip equipment to transport. “This is way too big for us, man … it’s going to be half empty!” was my initial reaction – I had no idea how wrong I was.

Our moving truck - much bigger than expected, crammed with our furniture and - this took most of the volume - our equipment, books about film and an endless collection of DVDs. We wish.

Our moving truck - much bigger than expected, crammed with our furniture and - this took most of the volume - our equipment, books about film and an endless collection of DVDs. We wish.

What happened during the move and how we spent our first few weeks as a freshly born company will be subject of the next blog post…

About the Author

Tobias Deml is an Austrian Filmmaker and Visual Artist. 2012 Cinematography Reel: http://vimeo.com/53973421 Tobias Deml ist ein österreichischer Filmstudent und Möchtegernregisseur in Los Angeles. Er arbeitet derzeit als Kameramann in Los Angeles und popelt in seiner Nase.