Gorilla filmmaking

Albert Birney's career has Rochester origins

Rocco Hagen

Rochester is the home of George Eastman and Kodak and has a very active filmgoing community, but it hasn’t always been regarded as a place where one might launch their filmmaking career. For Director Albert Birney, however, that proved otherwise. From 2006 to 2011, Birney lived in Rochester. Three-and-a-half of those years spent making his first feature film, The Beast Pageant, shot in and around Rochester on a shoestring budget. His second feature, Sylvio, had its origins as a Vine account that eventually acquired half a million followers before Vine shut down in 2016. Sylvio debuted at the prestigious South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, in March 2017, and was recently released on ITunes and Amazon Prime.

For Birney, art as a career was never out of reach. His mother is a weaver and his father is a musician. His uncle, Reed Birney, is an accomplished actor with numerous stage and screen credits. His aunt, Constance Schulman, plays Erica “Yoga” Jones on Orange is the New Black and voiced the character of Patti Mayonnaise on the Nickelodeon animated series Doug in the 1990s. Growing up in Baltimore, Birney and his siblings would write and record music in a makeshift recording studio in their basement, and he made movies with his friends on his Dad’s camcorder. Later, while studying film at Syracuse University, he befriended members of what eventually became the band Ra Ra Riot. The band’s guitarist, Geneva native Milo Bonacci, scored Birney’s senior thesis film, and Birney directed several of the band’s early videos.

After graduation, Birney followed a friend to Rochester and took a job at the Dryden Theatre. He worked the box office and managed the theater twice a week. Birney soaked up the Dryden’s heterogeneous programming, in particular, the work of Eastern European surrealists like Jan Švankmajer and Sergei Parajanov, and became inspired to make his own movie. With Jon Moses, another Syracuse grad who was working at the Dryden, he set about making The Beast Pageant. The film was shot on a 16mm Bolex camera with Kodak Black and White Tri-X film on “weekends, nights, whenever we could find the time.” The cast was made up of “Mostly people living in the community,” and the film was later edited at the Dryden Theatre. Birney credits Rochester’s affordable cost of living to being able to make the film. “The cost of living is so much lower than other big cities,” he says. The Beast Pageant was shown at several small Independent Film Festivals throughout the United States. During this time he met Kentucker Audley, a veteran director of Ultra-Low-Budget films and the co-director of his next feature, Sylvio.

The extensive, laborious shoot of The Beast Pageant left Birney burnt out, and he found himself hesitant to venture back into moviemaking after the movie’s completion. But when Vine was launched in 2013, he found a new opportunity for himself. While touring with his band, he established a Vine account titled Simply Sylvio. “I was already out on the road. I had these long drives, and there’s this beautiful, endless, American landscape as you get further and further west,” he recalls. “I wanted to capture the road trip and had the gorilla suit already in the car, so it was a no-brainer. Instead of just taking photos along the way, I thought I would make these six-second videos instead.” When Vine’s editors made the Simply Sylvio Vine account their Vine of the month, the number of subscribers shot to 100,000. Eventually, the number of subscribers reached 500,000 before Vine shut down. As the Simply Sylvio account began to accrue a following, Birney worked as a boom operator on a feature film shot outside of Philadelphia. While on the set, he reconnected with Audley, who was acting on the film. “Being on a film set is a good time to either bond with somebody, or be repelled,” says Audley. “It’s very close quarters, and it can go either way. With Al, we immediately had this kind of kinship. He’s really likeable, and just a warm and friendly person.” According to Birney, it was Audley who suggested that he make a movie from the Sylvio character.  Being a fan of The Beast Pageant and Birney’s music videos, Audley wanted to learn Birney’s visual approach to filmmaking, and thought that collaborating on a movie was the best way to learn about his process.

“I had made these experimental, talky movies with my friends, and had been interested in making a movie with a more cinematic style,” says Audley, who also runs NoBudge.com, a website that showcases Ultra-Low-Budget films (The Beast Pageant was shown at NoBudge in 2014). “I was excited to learn from him and learn how he constructs his shots and injects style into his music videos and movies.”

When the film they were working on wrapped, Audley wrote a rough draft of a script, then sat on it for a year until Meghan Doherty, the film’s producer and co-writer, was accepted into Dogfish Accelerator, a program that was devoted to turning successful Vine accounts into longer projects. Sylvio finds the eponymous anthropomorphic gorilla—played by Birney himself—stumbling onto overnight fame after appearing on a local drive-time talk show. Sylvio’s gentle nature and desire to perform quiet puppet shows is at odds with the audience’s interest and demand for violent schtick. For Birney and Audley, it’s art imitating life, albeit in a circuitous way.

“The vines that I enjoyed making were these quiet moments of Sylvio walking in a field or watering his basil plants,” Birney reminisces. “The ones that would get the most comments and likes would be the ones where he was dancing or breaking something, or doing something very outlandish.”

Sylvio was shot in Baltimore over the course of three weeks in February and March of 2016. Since its debut at SXSW, Sylvio has been shown at film festivals in Atlanta, Maryland, Boston, and Syracuse. In addition to a release on ITunes and Amazon Prime, a very limited edition of the film was released and sold out on VHS. Yes, you read that right—VHS. Having lived outside of Philadelphia and Brooklyn after leaving Rochester, Birney decided to stay in Baltimore after Sylvio wrapped. Recently, he has shot a few music videos. He is working on another short film, and has another project with Audley in the pipeline. In the meantime, he does editing work in NYC and Baltimore, and is currently teaching a filmmaking class at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Birney still has many friends in the Rochester area, and considers Rochester a second hometown. This past November, Birney returned to Rochester for a screening of Sylvio at The Little Theatre, and participated in a Q&A session. “I only lived in Rochester for five years, but it was a very formative five years. It made me realize that you can live in other cities besides New York or Los Angeles, and still do your own thing. Rochester made it easy for me to live and make films.

From 2008 to 2013, Erin Scherer contributed to the blog The Film Panel Notetaker, whose posts are now available at The Indigenity Archives: indigenity.wordpress.com. She lives in Geneva.

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