Filmmaker's path: From still pictures to time-lapse to IMAX

A film still from "Watermelon Magic" - the girl (Sylvia Green Hoffman) discovers a new watermelon in her patch.
A film still from "Watermelon Magic" - the girl (Sylvia Green Hoffman) discovers a new watermelon in her patch. (CHASE BOWMAN)
Posted: April 11, 2014

Richard Power Hoffmann's lightbulb moment - a beautifully simple, why-hasn't-anyone-thought-of-this idea - is now being projected through the twin 15-kilowatt xenon short-arc lamps of IMAX theaters.

"Watermelon Magic," the charming, 30-minute tale of a little girl (Sylvia Green Hoffmann, the director's daughter) and a patch of watermelons, was shot with his Canon 5D still camera. Hoffmann employed the technique in his 2007 shorts "Fridays At the Farm" and "Prayer For Philadelphia," winner of that year's Great Expectations: Citizen Voices on Philadelphia's Future competition (cosponsored by The Inquirer).

Moving pictures, after all, are just that: still pictures that appear to move. Why not take the term literally?

"I thought maybe I can buy one of these cameras and learn how to do time-lapse, and maybe I can make a whole movie with pictures," the 39-year-old director explains.

A friend working in the IMAX/science museum/planetarium world told him that what he was doing with his camera had the image resolution to go to IMAX.

"And I thought, there's a built-in marketplace for theaters all over the world that have these amazing screens and amazing sound systems," Hoffmann says. "What if there's some way that I can make a film that can be educational, but also be fun, and I can get into these venues?"


"Watermelon Magic" is a grade school-aimed romp with a farm-to-table focus shot on Hoffmann's home turf around Media. It's about a little girl who lives on a family farm (actually the Hillside Farm at Elwyn in Media and the Longview Center for Agriculture in Collegeville) and tends to her watermelons, watching them grow from seed to flower to fruit. The still-frame photography gives the movie an animated feel, the people caught in comic, staccato movement. But the time-lapse sequences capture the life cycle of a plant with wondrous, eye-popping scrutiny.

"I thought maybe I can make something that gets kids excited about these issues," Hoffmann says. "And something that showcases this time-lapse of a plant growing, so they can get connected to their own food sources and become more aware about what they're putting in their bodies."

To date, "Watermelon Magic" has played at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, the Kentucky Science Center in Louisville, the Wells Fargo CineDome in Sioux Falls, S.D., with other science museums likely in the coming months. Starting Saturday - with free opening-day events - Hoffmann's homegrown featurette begins its run, in all its rainbow-hued, 3-D splendor, at the Franklin Institute's Franklin Theater.

That's right: the smaller theater, not the Institute's domed Tuttelman IMAX. The reason comes down to technology and economics. Many giant-screen venues, including the Franklin Institute's, haven't transitioned to digital; they still are projecting film. And the costs of making an IMAX-ready film print can be as high as $200,000.

"We're still fund-raising for the movie to be able to have a film version, because there has been significant interest from film-based science museums," says Hoffman, who set up a nonprofit, Spring Garden Pictures, to fund his project. In addition to his daughter, the film also stars his wife, Holly, a science teacher at Media-Providence Friends School. She plays Sylvia's farmer mom.

Hoffmann, 39, grew up in Powelton Village and Narbeth, attended the Haverford School, and studied film at New York University. After graduation in 1996, he went to work for a stock footage company in New York, and fell in love with time-lapse photography. All this footage - filmed at super-slow frame frequency and then played back at normal speeds, making flowers blossom before your eyes, or the sun arc from horizon to horizon in seconds.

"I'd been shooting everything with digital video," Hoffmann says. "Which was great, because it's cheap. But having shot at least some of my student projects on film, and just loving the latitude that film gives you, and the resolution that film gives you, I had been yearning to do something that looked better than digital video."

"Watermelon Magic" cost about $350,000 to produce. The typical 30-to-40 minute large-format title costs $15 million to $20 million.

"It's been a very big leap of faith, trying to do this and get into this market," says the filmmaker, who plans to keep Media as his home.

"My stories are here, the people who I'm connected to are here," he says. "This is where I want to make movies."


"Watermelon Magic"

Public event on the front steps of the Franklin Institute on Saturday, noon to 2 p.m. Screenings at 2:30, 3:15, and 4 p.m., Franklin Theater, Franklin Institute, 20th Street and the Parkway.



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