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BUSINESS MONDAY: Spotlight on Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative

With its proposed Kemble Street Studios and other initiatives, BFMC is setting the stage for innovation and inclusion in the Berkshires.

“We create educational, workforce and production opportunities in the film and media industry as an economic initiative for the western Massachusetts region.” — Berkshire Film & Media Collaborative website

“I’ve always liked doing many different types of projects,” admits Diane Pearlman, executive director of Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative (BFMC). “I’ve also learned that you need support to make the bigger initiatives happen.” Her most recent (and ambitious) project is creating a film and media production and education center in leased space on Shakespeare & Company‘s Lenox campus. The proposed 20,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility represents a significant creative and economic initiative for the Berkshires and its residents.

Early inspiration

“Looking back, I had a great role model in my mom,” Pearlman acknowledges. “I was lucky in that way. Given opportunities, women tend to think they’re underqualified. I didn’t always have the confidence, but with my mom’s support, I always took the chance. ‘You’ll figure it out,’ she would say.”

After graduating from Vassar College, Pearlman worked for a lawyer who wanted to be a Broadway producer; together, they developed a show about W.C. Fields that opened regionally. She then worked for an ad agency and, through a friend’s sister, landed a job at a company that created movie trailers. “That prompted me to return to NYU for film classes,” she explains.

She eventually went to work for R/Greenberg Associates (R/GA), the only visual effects company in New York City at the time. “It was there I truly fell in love with film and the possibility of creating imagery that had never been seen before,” Pearlman shares. She credits R/GA as where she learned the craft of visual effects (motion control, opticals) and animation, noting, “We used to have projected ‘dailies’ every morning at 9 a.m. That’s where I developed my eye.”

Berkshire Film and Media Collaborate executive director Diane Pearlman, in a rare still moment. Photo courtesy BFMC

Early collaborations in special visual effects

Pearlman came to the Berkshires in 1992 to work with visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull at his studio in Housatonic. She recalls, “Doug had just finished working on ‘Back to the Future: The Ride’ with Steven Spielberg and was given a lucrative contract to create three attractions for Circus Circus’s new property, the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas—a motion-based ride, a 3D movie, and a Vista Vision theater with a screen 40 feet high.” Altogether, it was a $50 million project. “I was young and had never seen (much less managed) a budget that size,” she confides, “but at the end of the day, it was just more zeros. All the elements were the same.” Part of her confidence came from her friend, Joel Hynek (from R/Greenberg Associates), being the visual effects supervisor. “I knew if I produced for the client and Joel supervised for Doug, we could deliver the project.”

That they did. Then, Hynek and Pearlman started a new effects company for Cinergi Pictures, Inc. called Mass.Illusions—the East Coast’s only full-service effects house at that time, “offering services including art and design, computer graphics, character animation, digital compositing, motion control and live-action photography, physical effects, and model/miniature fabrication” (per its website). “I was executive director and general manager,” Pearlman states. “We brought 200 people from New York City, Los Angeles, London, and elsewhere to our 18,000-square-foot Lenox warehouse.”

Doug Trumbull at work inside the MAGI theater at the former Trumbull Studios in New Marlborough. Photo courtesy BFMC

She continues: “We learned from Doug how to think outside the box.” To illustrate, she describes a sequence with Sly Stallone for the movie “Judge Dredd “that required him to fly through a city on a motorcycle—a big leap for a studio in the Berkshires at that time. The solution? “Our mechanical effects department (who had worked on ‘Back to the Future: The Ride’ with Trumbull) went for a four-hour hike to figure it out and decided to put the motorcycle on a motion base that Sly and Rob Schneider could ride on,” says Pearlman. “It was brilliant!”

Although it was a subsidiary of Cinergi Pictures, Mass.Illusions also reached out to other companies for projects— including 20th Century Fox (“Die Hard with a Vengeance”), Sony Pictures (“Starship Troopers”), and Warner Bros (“Eraser”). But filming  “What Dreams May Come” with Robin Williams in 1997 proved to be a turning point. “We were asked to develop ‘the painted world,’” she explains, “which involved using brushstrokes [provided by Williamstown painter Stephen Hannock] and a surveying tool [called Lidar], which took thousands of measurement points from the set and allowed us to reconstruct a scene in the computer perfectly. We then developed a process called ‘texture mapping,’ allowing us to seamlessly add the brushstrokes onto the set surfaces in a completely controlled environment.”

Joel Hynek and John Gaeta on the “bullet time” rig set designed for “The Matrix.” Photo courtesy BFMC

Hynek and VFX (visual effects) supervisor Nick Brooks won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. From there, Mass.Illusions was asked to bid on “The Matrix,” which they started filming in 1998. Pearlman continues, “I got the binder from the Wachowskis (directors) with every single shot in the movie in storyboard form. We invented the ‘bullet-time effect,’ using 200 still cameras mounted on a flexible rig around the actor. We then wrote interpolation software between all the cameras to create a perfect arc.” This breakthrough technology won Mass.Illusion VFX supervisor John Gaeta an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 2000—and is still used in filmmaking today.

“I’ve had the privilege of being part of three innovative tech companies,” Pearlman summarizes. “The Berkshires became a think tank for what was next in film. Previsualization—a technique Doug [Trumbull] pioneered that we continued at Mass.Illusions—allowed us to create a moving storyboard that saved time before investing big money in complex visual effects shots,” she points out.

On the set of “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” (shot in Sandisfield, 2016) with director Karen Allen, art director Kristi Zea, and fellow producer Brian Long. Photo by Peter Baiamonte

A tilt in a new direction

“Over the years, I’ve seen firsthand how filmmaking boosts the local economy, from booking hotel rooms to hiring caterers and local professionals,” Pearlman states. After the Massachusetts legislature instituted a generous tax incentive program in 2005, 14 films came to the state (mainly to the Boston region), generating $350 million in tax revenues. People in the Berkshires asked, “Why can’t we get some of those films to come west?”

In 2009, Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative was launched as a fund of Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation to “bring more media productions and revenue to Western Massachusetts, support local film industry professionals, and provide educational opportunities to grow and maintain local talent.” Several years later it became its own 501(c)(3).

Pearlman was initially asked to be on the board. “But during one of the board meetings,” she recalls, “I left the room for a moment, and when I came back, I was the acting executive director.” Partnering with Berkshire Community College (BCC), Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), and area middle and high school students, the collaborative has launched film initiatives, as well as a youth film challenge and youth film lab. “We are developing film curriculum to take into every school in Berkshire County,” Pearlman notes. “Not every student is a rote learner, but they have stories they want to express. We want to give them the tools to do so through film.”

More recent developments—space for lease and new need for video

Pearlman’s latest project began in 2019 when she and Tina Packer (Shakespeare & Company founder/executive director) taught a class together at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington. Shortly after, they met for lunch. “Shakespeare & Company had completed a new strategic plan and put forth an RFP [request for proposal] looking for organizations to create something on their grounds to help build revenue for the company,” she says.

Pearlman assembled a steering committee and presented the idea of Kemble Street Studios, an international film education center, to the Shakespeare & Company board in January 2020. “We found out we won the RFP on March 1, 2020—at the beginning of the pandemic.”

While that timing may seem unpropitious, there was a silver lining. “During COVID, nonprofits, unable to hold in-person fundraising events, started to realize that video could reach their constituents,” Pearlman explains. “Organizations thought they wanted to live-stream, but that’s very difficult. We suggested that local filmmakers make 30- to 45-minute videos instead. Then, they could just press a button to start a finished and targeted piece. They found that instead of reaching 300 people, they were able to reach 3,000!” she exclaims, smiling. “They realized the power of video.”

Luckily, the BFMC board had the foresight to apply for a feasibility study grant through the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Mass Development and was awarded $30,000—but had to match it. By late spring 2021, the board had raised the necessary $30,000 through local individuals, family foundations, and grants.

The next step was conducting the feasibility study, completed in spring 2022, and creating a $450,000 budget for Phase 2, which included engineering studies, architectural renderings, and legal and holding fees for the space. Soon after, they hired Clark Green + Bek Architecture Design. “We liked Jacob Bek and Glenn Goble’s approach very much,” Pearlman says, noting their contemporary flair. BFMC now has a rendering of what the completed space will look like and has raised 75 percent of the funds needed for Phase 2 (looking to be completed by this April).

Early rendering of the Kemble Sreet Studio space by Robert U. Taylor. Photo courtesy BFMC

Three programs, one overall mission

Dubbed Kemble Street Studios (KSS), the new space will establish the Berkshire region of western Massachusetts as an “inclusive, diverse, and globally recognized destination for education, innovation, and production in film and media.” Pearlman believes emerging filmmakers from the area and around the globe have important stories to tell but recognizes that many are unable to access or afford “film school, hands-on technical training, and outstanding business education.” She and her team are committed to changing that. “Like a teaching hospital, but for film—we envision young people in every room! It will also be a resource for local organizations who need to tell impactful stories for their branding, marketing, and social media,” she adds.

The comprehensive, cutting-edge facility will also anchor the production industry between Boston and New York, staffed and overseen by the many highly regarded and established industry professionals who have relocated to the Berkshires over the years. The 20,000-square-foot facility will include a 12,000-square-foot sound stage and feature live, virtual, and augmented reality production, as well as next-generation post-production capabilities (including editing and sound mixing). KSS will also operate as a hub for streaming media technology from the region (a Berkshire channel), delivering internet-based distribution of original content from local filmmakers, innovation centers, educational programs, and the many cultural organizations thriving in the Berkshires.

Grip class held at Shakespeare & Company with union grip Dave LaRue and BFMC board member Bill Beautyman of Limelight Productions. Photo courtesy BFMC

BFMC has already launched its second initiative, The Community Film Fund (CFF)—a matching fund to help smaller nonprofits make impactful videos for their branding, marketing, and fundraising by “matching” up to $5,000 per organization. “The Community Film Fund is giving local organizations a voice through video, as well as creating jobs for local filmmakers,” Pearlman states. To date, CFF has awarded over $40,000 to small nonprofits in our region.

The third initiative, the Youth Film Lab, began in 2022 to 2023, when BFMC again partnered with the Civic Life Project to present the Bridging Divides, Healing Communities Youth Film Lab. Funded by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, this initiative allowed regional students to address critical social issues and make their voices heard through film.

Youth Film Lab panel discussion at Simon’s Rock, 2023. Photo courtesy BFMC

“Working within local schools, we’ve supported teachers in guiding students to select social issues that are important to them and present a way for them to share their opinions in a short film,” Pearlman explains. The resulting films touched on “the resettlement of refugees, the disengagement of young people from politics, housing inequities, food scarcity,” and other current concerns.

Ongoing education through workshops, courses, and curricula

As part of its ongoing mission to “develop courses, lectures, and seminars at our local colleges and high schools,” BFMC is involved with a new educational initiative, Berk 12, which focuses on helping students be successful once they graduate from Berkshire K-12 schools. Within Berk 12, the Berkshire Portrait of a Graduate identifies essential skills (namely, being a good communicator, global citizen, lifelong learner, responsible citizen, prepared individual, and critical thinker) students need to develop during their school career.

“We are thrilled to be working as part of this initiative with Dr. Lisa Donovan of MCLA and BCAN [Berkshire Cultural Assets Network],” Pearlman states. Two art forms, film and dance, were listed among the ways to teach these competencies to the students. “We’re now developing a film curriculum to take into the schools, creating a template that matches the portrait skills and Massachusetts media protocols,” she explains.

Summer Production class for middle school students. Photo courtesy BFMC

Last November, BFMC participated in a Teachers Professional Development Day focusing on the arts, holding a workshop for elementary, middle, and high school teachers. More than 100 teachers attended, from arts to physics and math. Twenty-two of them participated in creating a film in a single hour. “It was so exhilarating for the teachers,” Pearlman raves. BFMC plans to debut its film curriculum in a Pittsfield high school in the fall of 2024. “Kids make videos all the time,” Pearlman points out. “Our mission is to teach the craft of filmmaking and responsible media messaging. It’s important for them to know that their voices matter.”

Next steps

“It’s all going to come together when we have this new space,” Pearlman beams. Her plans are ambitious in scope—she envisions an impactful film center (similar to the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y.) that launches on an international scope (like Tanglewood). “We are already in discussions to collaborate with film schools in Italy and Germany,” she states.

“The Berkshires are steeped in a tremendous history of visual effects, and it’s continuing with Cadence in Pittsfield and DisruptAR in Great Barrington,” Pearlman notes. The location at Shakespeare & Company is part fiscal but much more than that—with 50,000 costumes, rehearsal space, set-building capabilities, and props, the partnership benefits and “exploits the resources” of both organizations. “The biggest challenge right now is figuring out what revenue streams to focus on first to make this a successful, ongoing operation,” she admits.

Does Pearlman doubt they will get to the finish line? Not for a minute. “I made a lot of friends for life in those early days of filmmaking. Those connections are still valuable,” she asserts. BFMC is planning to raise $15 million to cover the studio build, an endowment, a housing solution, and two years of operating costs—with a projected opening of late 2026/early 2027.

Noting the impact films have had on tourism—including “Blood Knot” with Michael Douglas (soon to be released, shot partly in Pittsfield), the Bradley Cooper film “Maestro” (2023, shot partly at Tanglewood), and “Cider House Rules “(1999, shot partly at Ventfort Hall in Lenox)—she affirms, “People want to go where films are made.”

More than boosting the local economy, however, BFMC wants to create opportunities for our underserved populations and youth. “If we train them, with skills that carry over into marketing, nonprofit, and business management, it may give our young people a reason to stay here—or go away and come back. That would be an economic boon,” she smiles.

For more information about BFMC and Kemble Street Studios, visit berkshirefilm.org.

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